Monday, February 28, 2005

Digital Education At Work

In Kenya, according to this story.

So if Kenya, with a per capita GDP of $1,000 can do this, why can't Canada, with a per capita GDP of almost $30,000? I especially like this quote:
"All books in the public domain, something like 15 million, could be put on the base stations as we manufacture them. Then every rural school in Africa would have access to the same libraries as the students in Oxford and Harvard"

Now all we need is a rational copyright law.

Holy Crap

BMD actually worked, for only the second time in it's existence. In this case, it was the sea-launched version, not the land-based one.

Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

God Help Us, Bush Wasn't Right. But Then, Neither Were We

"Armed gangs roam the slums, former soldiers control small towns and bystanders die in street gunfights... police opened fire on Monday on thousands of demonstrators... Three soldiers from a U.N. peacekeeping force were wounded by gunfire last week... Many of the ex-soldiers who killed police and civilians during the revolt have not been prosecuted. Some have even been named to the new administration..."

Iraq? Afghanistan? Nope. All done? Need some more time?

Haiti. You'd forgotten about it, hadn't you? You know, that tiny carribean nation whose democratically elected government was pushed out of power by a US- and Canadian-backed coup? Not like they've got a history of that kind of thing, though...

God Help Us, What If Bush Was Right?

Let's see...
-Lebanon's pro-Syrian government has fallen.
-Egypt's President has announced a loosening of restraints on elections.
-And the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is nearer to peace than it's been in five years.

Now, the partisan in me thinks all of these things are likely to see reversals in the near future. On the other hand, what if future historians come to see the invasion of Iraq as the pebble that started an avalance of democracies sprouting across the middle east?

Wouldn't my face be red!

Movie Review Time!

Just watched Supersize Me. Really quite good. Ah, but as a bookseller, I should ask: How does it stack up against Fast Food Nation, the book by Eric Schlosser?

Schlosser, in writing his book, takes a far more complete look at the food industry. These are the things you can do with a book and not a movie, after all. Schlosser literally goes to farms and ranches to see how people are growing food today - agribusiness - and how it is different from how food was grown back in the day - agriculture.

However, it's worth nothing that Supersize Me has probably already has a larger impact than Fast Food Nation did. Not because the documentary market is bigger than the non-fiction book market (I have no idea), but because Morgan Spurlock's deterioration after (only!) one month on nothing but McDonalds is really stunning.

I have to resist the temptation to compare it to Black Like Me, the famous account of how John Griffin darkened his skin (and later died of skin cancer because of it) to experience racism in the deep south. Spurlock isn't that important, but damn if the method isn't the same.

In any case, you should all watch the movie. And the DVD extras, if you can - there's an interview with Schlosser on the disc.

BTW everybody, The Corporation comes out on DVD in March. Save your pennies!

Seriously, save your pennies. I keep finding I have like, twenty bucks every time I roll them.

Bush Isn't Hitler

Now, I tried to have a more reasoned view on why Bush=Nazi comparisons were unfounded. Or, you could just read Ted Rall. He's a lot more satisfying.

Spoiler: The line "Hitler won most of his military campaigns" is kind of like saying "I'll live forever." Yeah, Hitler won most of them - until he stopped winning. I'll live forever, until I die.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Non-Deceptive China Title

China will begin loosening capital controls, reports CNN.

This is probably a win-win-lose for the US. Chinese-made imports will become less competitive in US markets, US-made exports will be more competitve in China, but consumer prices are bound to increase.

One of the bigger mysteries for economists has been why the US's trade deficits haven't declined as the dollar's value has fallen. I'm no economist, but this doesn't sound like such a mystery to me - oil and Chinese imports are both effectively linked to the dollar, so a large portion of the US's imports are unaffected by currency fluctuation. Again, not an economist - I may be missing something.

I Wish I Were An Oscar Meyer Weiner...

So, apparently, when one has a blog, the thing to do is make Oscar predictions. Well, seeing as I don't care much, I've already blown my opportunity - we're already well in to it.

Two things: Chris Rock had a decent intro. Of course, now I have to read all the right-wingers complaining about his Bush Hatred.

Also, is Beyonce Knowles the only woman left in SAG who can sing? I mean, if Buffy was able to put together a musical episode, surely we can let poor Beyonce rest a little.

Very well - one prediction. Leo DiCaprio will not win best actor. Because he's Leonardo friggin DiCaprio, people. I could be nominated for the presentation on Communications I'm giving wednesday, and I'd get more votes at the Oscars than Leo will get.

China Syndrome

No, not another post about China (yet.)

Instead, I feel an overpowering need to share this:
[Halle] Berry was named worst actress of 2004 by the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation for her performance in "Catwoman" and she showed up to accept her "Razzie" carrying the Oscar she won in 2002 for "Monster's Ball." ... "I want to thank Warner Brothers for casting me in this piece of shit," she said as she dragged her agent on stage and warned him "next time read the script first."
My love for Halle Berry, already at critical mass, has now vaporized the reactor walls of my pants, melted through the floor, and is a glowing mass in the living room of the people below me.
(Most Disturbing Post Ever.)

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Paul Cellucci: Assclown

Ahem. Could you repeat that, Mr. Hack Blowhard Crony Cellucci?
"We don't get it," Paul Cellucci said in Toronto. "If there's a missile incoming, and it's heading toward Canada, you are going to leave it up to the United States to determine what to do about that missile. We don't think that is in Canada's sovereign interest."
First off, you don't get a say on Canada's sovereign interest.
  • Number of votes the Liberals got in the last election: 4,951,107.
  • Number of votes George Bush got in Canada: 0.
  • Number of votes Paul Cellucci got anywhere outside of Massachussetts: 0.
  • Number of open, fair elections Paul Martin has won: 1. Same number, for Bush: 0.
With that cleared up, let's move on to matters of more substance: Currently, the US has no means to determine what to do about Cellucci's entirely fictional missile, either. This new system changes that fact not one whit. Say it with me everybody: THE SYSTEM DOESN'T WORK.

Now, for those who've been paying attention, this isn't the first time Cellucci's gotten the vapours at Canada's sheer, unmitigated gall. Back when we decided not to take a giant crap on sixty years of post-WWII international law (also known as Canada not invading Iraq), Cellucci said:
“There is no security threat to Canada that the United States would not be ready, willing and able to help with. There would be no debate. There would be no hesitation. We would be there for Canada — part of our family.”
Well, Paul, this is one of the most dysfunctional families in creation then. Americans have attacked Canada three or four times in our history. You ARE a security threat to Canada. Until 1914, the only foreign power to have taken Canadian lives was your country. I'd have to check, but I'd bet no one's taken as many Canadian lives as the US has.

Outside of the US, we can see that Cellucci's claim that is verifiably untrue. Where was the US while Canadians were dying in Europe, protecting the world from Nazi predation?

Where was the US when Canadians were dying in Afghanistan? Oh yeah, killing them.

Gah. Rage tires me. In short: Paul Cellucci = Assclown.

These Are Not Mere Mortals

The Super Friends meets Office Space.

Oddly, it works.

Double-digit growth...

... in suicide rates for the US Marine Corps. Love the headline: "Fast pace of operations believed to contribute"

Gee, ya think? How many grunts blew their brains out back on the base in Virginia?

Collapse, cont.

Well, I'm out of the strictly-archaeological part of Collapse, and I can only reiterate: I am Jared Diamond's biggest fan. As interesting as the stuff about Polynesia is, his account of the collapse of Greenland is an absolute must-read. In more detail than I can relate here, he goes through so many aspects of Greenland Norse society, Greenland's climate, and what passed for international trade (mainly tithes going back to Norway) to show how the Norse society on Greenland collapsed.

His most interesting comment is that Norse social mores contributed to the collapse - despite having the good example of the Inuit, the Norse either refused or were unable to make certain adaptations to their lifestyles that would have allowed them to survive. As Diamond says: (p. 239-240)
Over the centuries, there was little change in the styles of tools and carvings. Fishing was abandoned in the earliest years of the colony, and Greenlanders did not reconsider that decision during the four-and-a-half centuries of their society's existence. They did not learn from the Inuit how to hunt ringed seals or whales, even though that meant not eating locally common foods, and starving as a result. [emphasis mine]
Of course, the Greenlanders had to know, at least to a certain extent, that they were doomed. While these things can of course come suddenly (that's kind of the point of Diamond's book, after all) there are also warning signs, for those who are looking. The point is to recognize the impending change, and to accept it.

Or, you can simply say "Our way of life is non-negotiable", like a certain vice-president. Guess which choice will lead to success, in the end?

(On further Googling, it looks like this quote is variously attributed to Cheney, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. This makes me seriously doubt that it was, in fact, ever said by any of these men. On the other hand, these aren't deep thinkers, so maybe they're all reading off the same cards. In any case, I think we can all agree that the sentiment is well represented by their actions.)

He also has an interesting account of societies that have actually managed to survive (in some cases, for literally thousands of years) despite having climates that are, in their own way, as hostile as Greenland. So there's always cause for hope!

With that, I'm going to read his account of the Rwandan genocide... and hide the sharp instruments in my apartment, probably.

Somedays, These Things Work

I've occasionally mentioned the African Union as one of the many examples of regional blocs forming around the world, in most cases as a response to globalization or American unipolarity. ASEAN in particular is almost explicitly anti-American in it's formation, and in the intentions of it's members. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

But back to the African Union. Founded in 2002, it's probably the most improbable regional organization imaginable, simply because of Africa's numerable and apparently insurmountable problems. But today the AU won a fight outright - a small one, but these things all start small. AU pressure has led a military coup in Togo to surrender and allow elections to occur. Now, obviously, there's a long way to go, but this is hopefully a harbinger of things to come. Zimbabwe has elections coming up in the next few months, where the AU will undoubtedly make itself felt once again.

Some commentators I've read are speaking about 2005 as a turning point for Africa. Well, put this fact under the column marked "yes".

The Second Age of Sail?

How will we move transoceanic cargo when the oil runs out? Possible answer here.

Crazy Ann's Gone Off Her Meds. Again.

For those not paying attention to l'affaire Gannon/Guckert in the US, a summary:
  • White House accredits reporter, despite no history of this man actually, you know, reporting.
  • "Reporter" Jeff Gannon turns out to be "Reporter" James Guckert.
  • White House reporters are not supposed to be allowed to use pseudonyms. Guckert did.
  • Guckert was notable for tossing softballs towards McLellan and Bush during press conferences. This eventually got the notice of the left blogosphere, where it was discovered the Guckert might in fact have been a gay prostitute.


So anyway, that's all as a background to this lovely gem, courtesy of Ann "Blame Canada, Arabs, and anyone else I think I can get away with" Coulter:

Press passes can't be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas to sit within yards of the president. Still, it would be suspicious if [Maureen] Dowd were denied a press pass while someone from "Talon News" got one, even if he is a better reporter. [emphasis mine]

Ahem. Where to begin?

I used to spend a lot of energy trying to get people to take Ann Coulter seriously (as a threat, not a commentator) but that required the enormous effort on my part to take her seriously first. But let's just state the obvious here: If Ann had written "jew" and "Wolf Blitzer" instead of "arab" and "Helen Thomas", people would notice. Instead, this is just crazy Ann being, well, crazy. Unfortunately, I think that's her game - she lowers the bar so much, that when the President of the United States proposes gulags in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, people say "Well, at least it's not as bad as Coulter!"

Having written this much about Crazy Ann, I feel the need for a shower. And maybe a drink.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Further Missile Defense

This was never going to happen for Bush. Three simple reasons:
  • We don't have the money. The US would have to spend it all.
  • We'd want control. The US wouldn't want to spend all the money and not have control, while we wouldn't (or shouldn't) leave control of critical military technology in the hands of another government. Inherent contradiction.
  • Paul Martin wants to be reelected. If he had a majority, he could afford to play loose with this issue. He doesn't, but wants one.

More broadly, the US doesn't even want our help because it would make the system work better. They want our help to be able to say that it isn't simply a Republican pipe-dream. Bush faces a similar problem in selling his Social Security mess - he wants to label it "bipartisan" but can't find a single treacherous democrat to side with him. When they want your help more for PR than for practicality, your best bet is to run in the opposite direction. How many black Republicans are there in the Federal government?

(crickets chirping)


I've seen the single true sign of the impending apocalypse.

This... evidence has me profoundly disturbed. Dare I say it, even frightened.

Has anyone else seen this show Cheaters? Seriously, that's screwed up. Yet incredibly captivating. They ambush people who they've recorded cheating on their suspicious others, and we get to watch the results.

What an age we live in.

On even less meaningful news, if your parents ever try and pull a "when I was your age, I didn't have a discman", just ask them to talk to Vicki's dad. Growing up in Hong Kong, they used petrified dog crap as road chalk. You might ask, surely that wouldn't work? Well, I don't know, and don't intend to test the theory, so I'm gonna let that stand.

Bitchy bitchy

So, let me get this straight...

Jack Layton gets what he wanted - no Canadian participation in the Missile Defense plan.
But because he didn't get asked, he's pissed off?

I suppose I understand, but could we at least say Martin got this one right?

(Light blogging for the next week - early essay due. I'll try to put something more up later tonight.)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

More China

One of the issues that the US and EU have been arguing over is whether or not to lift the arms embargo on China, in place since the Tiananmen crackdown. The Americans oppose lifting the ban, for a number of reasons. The US government says that lifting the ban endangers Taiwan. This doesn't hold a lot of water - China is still buying tons of weaponry from Russia and Israel, including the Su-27 and Su-30, which have already outflown the F-15 in Indian-US war games. So protecting Taiwan is already impossible, unless the US brings Taiwan into the Joint Strike Fighter program, as Taipei has requested.

I don't think you have to be a scholar to guess that the US is more concerned about the long-term position of the Chinese military. But the problem here is what the US can actually do to prevent this - even if the arms embargo isn't lifted, China will still be able to buy some pretty decent gear from the Israelis and Russia, so overall China's stature is going to grow, no matter what.

Anyway, China is still a few years away from realistically able to "take" Taiwan, but even once they have the capability, they're unlikely to pull that trigger. There's so much that can go wrong in that scenario, and Beijing has to know that.

Chinese Reunification?

Not as far-fetched as many have assumed - Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian today signed a joint declaration with the leader of the opposition today, stepping back from some of the more extreme rhetoric of the pro-independence camp, of which Chen is the leader.

Beijing-Taipei relations have been decidedly less stable in the last decade then they were when both countries were dictatoships, for a reason it won't take a second to grasp: there's a large political payoff for candidates in Taiwan to position themselves as the anti-Beijing candidate. Fortunately, it's not that large - the "pro-Beijing" camp (actually, "anti-pissing off Beijing" would be most accurate) would still have won the last two elections if it hadn't been for division in their ranks.

The problem for people trying to keep a lid on extremists in Taiwan is that, historically, China hasn't ruled Taiwan since 1895. That's when China lost a war with Japan, and Taiwan became a Japanese colony. (You can see on this map that Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands lead more or less directly to the island of Formosa.) This more than a century of separation has led to a number of important differences between the two Chinas. In a very real sense, There really is only one China, but Taiwan isn't part of it. "One China" was a cold-war myth that the US adopted so as not to completely abandon Taiwan, but it's not a realistic statement of fact.

(This latest news should only be seen as a baby-step towards eventual reunification. It's not going to happen peacefully so long as the CCP runs the mainland.)

Max Replies, I Post

Max Replies, and I don't know if you all read the comments, so I'm bumping this to the front.

I think I can partially answer your question.

The 'dark ages' view is a leftover of 19th century historical thinking. Its wrong, and dismissed by modern scholarship.

First, let me define the medieval period from 800-1400CE, and the Renaissance as the long 16th century, late 1400s to mid 1600s. Most of the things I know about the shift are related to the overseas expansion. As a facet of the renaissance, there are diverging scholastic views on why the overseas expansion occurred. It seems to me as though there is sufficient evidence to point to some of the factors which caused it were from the midieval era.

Most of the scholars generally agree there is some causal relationship between historical epochs. It would be difficult to imagine the medieval era not in some way shape what would be the future. There are several modern interpretations, but no single view has emerged as dominant. Read Braudel & Wallerstein (world systems theory), Webb & Jones (frontier american crap), Mann & Hall (for a rejection of Wallerstein and Braudel) for more. There's also a Marxist interpretation that has to do with feudalism.

I'll give you one concrete economic example of a linkage between the epochs. Italian banking which emerged in the 14th-15th centuries had its roots in medieval monetary systems.

Or, the reformation, a definative portion of the Renaissance, was the result of a multitude of issues facing Catholocism in the medieval period.

Now back to Me:
This whole debate reminds me of an issue I learned about first-year relating to the new world and the slave trade: Up until roughly the 1400s, Europe, Asia, and Africa were still unequally developed, but were still largely of the same kind, differing only in degress. Indeed, China would really stay ahead of Europe in many ways until the 1700s. (China was still beating Russia in land wars up until then.)

Then comes the discovery of the New World, which was quickly vacated by western imperialism and more thoroughly by western diseases. This left a huge amount of useful land, but little labor to use it with. Enter the slave trade - the Carribean and Southern US quickly become sources of primary agricultural products to send back to Europe. More importantly, the profits from both the slave trade and the plantation colonies both accrue to Europe, while Africa's youngest and strongest are being shipped to the new world. It's not the absolute or relative numbers of Africans shipped that was important, in this reading. Rather, because it was primarily the youngest and strongest being taken, the tribal societies were destroyed.

To pull back, what you see then is a very direct influx of financial capital in to Europe, based on the exploitation (in both senses of the word) of human capital in the New World and Africa. Think of a bar graph starting (roughly) in 1400, with African, Europe, and Asian "society" represented, and all on more or less the same plane. After 1492, Asia stays still, but Africa starts to go way down while Europe's goes correspondingly higher. Actually, I'd wager this process only really takes off in the mid-1600s, but that's an uninformed opinion on my part.

Given that European immigration to the new world was relatively limited before the 1800s, it's an interesting question to speculate on: could the US have ever been built without the slave trade?

(Pet peeve Rant: Why do historians bother with "Common Era" instead of the old AD? It's still referring to the same point zero - the Christian calendar, with all it's mistakes - so why bother? Does anyone really think that using the initials AD really offends non-christians? Is this one of those near-mythical "political correctness" things my history professors always whine about?)

I sure like having comments on this blog, by the way.


Hydroelectric power might in fact be more damaging to the environment, Kyoto-wise, than an oil-fired power plant. That's the gist of this article from New Scientist.

To summarize, the construction of these dams requires the release of lots of CO2, and the reservoirs that these dams require provide a perfect place for vegetation to decompose anaerobically in to methane instead of CO2, which is problematic because while decomposed CO2 can be fixed again as part of the natural carbon cycle, methane can't. (This is my understanding, at least.) The results can be dramatic:
In a study to be published in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Fearnside estimates that in 1990 the greenhouse effect of emissions from the Curuá-Una dam in Pará, Brazil, was more than three-and-a-half times what would have been produced by generating the same amount of electricity from oil. [emphasis mine]

Jesus. This changes the landscape quite a bit. I had always assumed that we would keep hydro around as a foundation for what solar and wind couldn't meet. That might not be the case. Three and a half times! Damn.

More Peak Oil Evidence

This story on Al-Jazeera (so weigh it accordingly) quotes an analyst saying the Saudis have irreparably damaged their fields, meaning their capacity can't be realistically expanded from it's current level (a hair under 10 million barrels a day.)

Gee, maybe I should have put money against Morgan Stanley.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

How Much Do You Bastards Make?

This report from Morgan Stanley makes for fascinating reading. The geniuses at this major investment firm have concluded that the price of oil is likely to stay high, because of tight supply and high demand.

Wow. How many figures do you guys pull down for that kind of analysis?

They also make a prediction of oil prices of $36/barrel by the end of the year. We'll see. Given my support of the Peak Oil hypothesis, I think we better get used to the idea of oil in range of $50, at least.

So I'll put this in writing. I predict that as of December 31st 2005, that the price of oil will not have stayed below $40 per barrel for more than one week. Let's see who's right - me or the boys at Morgan Stanley.

(Note - no financial wager is placed on this prediction. I just think it would just be really funny if an untrained student outguessed Morgan Stanley. Here's hoping!)

The Middle Ages Has Its Defenders

Max objects to my gratuitous slam against the middle ages. Fair enough. My point earlier was simply to emphasize how impressive the Polynesian expansion was. This is especially the case when we compare where European navigation and seagoing was.

Sadly, my knowledge of middle-age history is lacking. I wonder, however, if there's a resonance with the Archaic Age of Greek history, which I know something about. Archaic Greece was the period of roughly 700-500 BC, as the Greek mainland emerged from the collapse of the Mycenean civilization and expanded throughout the Mediterranean. Largely ignored in favour of studying the Classical Age (roughly, the period of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars) the Archaic age really laid the foundation for future Greek greatness.

Max, I don't know if you'd care to comment, but I wonder if the Middle Ages are seen in more recent scholarship as a foundation for the later Renaissance.

Anyone who has any knowledge of the period in question would be welcome. Yay for comments!
(Edit: Max gets 10 Dymaxion points for using a word I had to look up to be sure of the meaning - nescience.)

Collapse thus far

I've finished the first three chapters, mainly dealing with Polynesia, and I have to say this book is even better than Guns, Germs and Steel thus far. That could be because the story of the Polynesians is so appealing to me: While medieval Europe festered in a dark age, the Polynesians were busy colonizing the south Pacific, using canoes that many people today (like Jared Diamond) would be afraid to put one foot in, much less engage in month-long voyages of discovery. While the Vatican was busy insisting that stars didn't exist, the Polynesians were using stellar navigation, all possibly without a written language.

By the peak of their civilization, the Polynesians had created a complex trading network scattered across an area at least as long (east-west) as Canada. Then, of course, came the collapse of major hubs in the trading network, which sparked a domino-like collapse of the civlization. It's this collapse, unsurprisingly, that Diamond deals with. In the case of Easter Island and Mangareva, the collapse came from overuse of the land, deforestation and soil erosion. An additional wrinkle in the case of Mangareva was the nearby islands of Pitcairn and Henderson, who were dependent on Mangareva for imports. When Mangareva collapsed, Pitcairn and Henderson both collapsed as well, though local conditions were unchanged.

Really fascinating stuff.

Jared Diamond Gets Funny

Collapse, p. 129-130
The journey from Mangareva to Henderson [Island] would take four or five days by Polynesian sailing canoes; from Pitcairn to Henderson, about one day. My own perspective on sea journeys in native canoes is based on much briefer voyages, which left me constantly terrified of the canoe's capsizing or breaking up and in one case nearly cost me my life. That makes the thought of a several-day canoe voyage across open ocean intolerable to me, something that only a desperate need to save my life could induce me to undertake. But to modern Pacific seafaring peoples, who sail their canoes five days just to buy cigarettes, the journeys are part of normal life.
And you thought going to the corner store for milk was a chore...


via Vicki:
Superman is a dick.

Don't know if those covers are un-retouched or not, but they're damn funny.

Jared Diamond Gets Catty

Collapse, p. 109:
Easter [Island's] chiefs and priests had previously justified their elite status by claiming relationship to the gods, and by promising to deliver prosperity and bountiful harvests. They buttressed that ideology by monumental architecture and cermonies designed to impress the masses, and made possible by food surpluses extracted from the masses. As their promises were being proved increasingly hollow, the power of the chiefs and priests was overthrown around 1680 by military leaders... [emphasis mine]
Is it just me, or does that sound like the party platform of the modern Republican Party? God loves us, and so does business! Vote, mortals!

The next passage is explicit: p. 114:
I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We don't have proof that there aren't palms somehwere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering"?
Amazing! Such a brief flowering of civilization, yet Easter Island had a conservative think-tank!

Canadian Politics Roundup

  • It's budget day, and it looks like an interesting one - for once. Apparently, $2.5 billion in new money is going towards carbon reduction this year. As much as I would've preferred to see a more active government plan, I have to say, $2.5 bil isn't bad at all. If we can keep that level of funding for the next few years - and spend it intelligently - we might actually be able to do some good. We probably won't meet our Kyoto targets, however.
  • Paul Martin has apparently closed the door on Canadian participation in Star Wars. Good for him. At the same time, the existing infrastructure of NORAD will still be used for missile defense, which makes sense. Really, Bush should've known this was never gonna happen - Canadian skepticism is to high, the Canadian military would've wanted control over any facilities, but the US would have had to foot the entire bill. A number of Canadian interests prevented this from happening.
  • Ontario is bringing in it's gay marriage law. There is no opposition expected from the opposition parties. The bill is expected to pass within a week. Holy crap. I love Ontario Conservatives.

One of the funnier traditions in Canadian budgeting has to be the press lockup. The press corps for the particular legislature literally gets locked up in a room and has their cell phones and blackberries confiscated, as punishment for being journalists.

Actually, it's to make sure that nobody get's to steal the government's thunder. Still, journalists deserve it, and worse. Of course, there are stories of particularly attractive young reporters making it our of the lockup with a bat of their eyelashes...

Imminent Tensions

Yet another article that makes me suspect that there's reason to be optimistic about the future:
Pipeline diplomacy creates peace in region: Pakistan PM
The increasing importance of Central and South Asia has given many the impression that the region is where the next wars will be. Certainly, that's a possibility. But we might also want to keep in mind that as we increasingly approach a Matlhusian state of world affairs, it will be far more profitable for countries to cooperate in this kind of manner. Not out of some mutual concern for each other's welfare, but for simple self-interest. I'm certain that neither India nor Pakistan care greatly what the pipelines from Iran do to each other's economy. What they do care about is what these projects will do to their own economies. Similarly, I wonder if most of our coming resource shortages might not be mitigated or solved outright by the coinciding of self-interest and the realization that we aren't going to be able to kill our way to prosperity.

I'm no starry-eyed liberal, but there's always hope that we might learn the lesson that World War One taught us quite clearly: In modern war, even the winners lose.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Jared Diamond's Collapse

My father got me a copy of Collapse for my birthday, and it being reading week I've finally gotten the chance to start it. It's surprisingly poignant, for a scientific book about natural history. That's because the first chapter deals with the poetically-named Bitteroot Valley in Montana, a county of 35,000 people that once subsided on timber and agriculture, whose way of life is slowly being destroyed by a combination of environmental and economic factors - namely, the colonization of agricultural areas by near-tourists immigrating from the wealthier, urban areas of the US. In the context of Bitteroot, this means middle-class and above emigres from Los Angeles. Because of the more general problems with agriculture in Montana, farmers in Bitteroot are faced with a dramatic problem: Sell the family farm and maybe make a profit by turning over their heritage to suburban developers, or wait for the farm to fail anyway and leave with nothing. This is a deeply painful choice for many farmers across the US - leading many to commit suicide.

This isn't apropos of anything in particular. I just finished the first chapter, and was surprised by how much it bummed me out. So I decided to share.

More Currency Issues

Surprisingly, the Loonie didn't do as well as one might expect, given the twin news today that inflation fell to just 2% - below market predictions - and the already-mentioned Korean news.

On the other hand, with low inflation there's no reason for the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates, so the market probably isn't too enthused.

However, there's one thing that I heard this morning on CBC and read again in this article that bothers me:
Canada's annual inflation rate dipped to 2.0 percent in January from 2.1 percent in December as cheaper computer equipment and clothing moderated an increase in gasoline prices, Statistics Canada said on Tuesday.

Okay, I understand that StatsCan shouldn't be in the job of advocacy, but can we have at least one journalist explain that this might not be a great thing for actual human beings? People don't spend money on things like computers with a lot of thought towards annual prices. On the other hand, gasoline is a commodity that many commuters "need" to buy, almost regardless of the price. Assuming that the previous gas bill was $100/month, an 8% increase this year means an extra $100 every year. Meanwhile, assuming a family only buys a computer once every three years, that decline in computer prices is going to mean a lot less - on the order of $30 each year.

Too bad for us, journalists don't seem to deal with issues of economic inequality much. One of my bigger grudges is the measurement of "Core" Inflation as opposed to regular inflation. The Bank of Canada uses Core CPI as it's benchmark, which totally ignores increases in energy and food prices - i.e., huge parts of a working-class family's budget.

There are a number of good reasons to use Core CPI for a benchmark - it's more stable, mainly. However, it's just another way of writing out the poor from Canadian policy. It grates on my nerves.

(The Bank of Canada should ABSOLUTELY be using Core CPI, btw. The Parliament, however, should be paying more attention to the non-core sector, and finding policies that reduce the cost and volatility of food and energy prices. But that would presume a party that cared making it to government...)

South Korea Roshambos the Dollar

I have no idea if I spelled "Roshambo" properly, but let's move on...

South Korea announced today that it's moving away from the US dollar as a reserve currency, relying more on other currencies including our dollar.

There's certainly no malice in this act, but the dollar had just begun to stabilize again after a long slide. This isn't going to help things. Meanwhile, you've got George Soros out there talking about how the dollar is inching up to a "tipping point" where it will go from depreciation to chaos. Now, agree with him or not, he's got a lot of influence on the markets.

Meanwhile, oil is back up to $51 a barrel. Not coincidentally, OPEC is saying there's no need to further cut production. Gee, really? You're just swell! I'd just like to reiterate what I said yesterday - OPEC is essentially neutered at the moment. They no longer set prices - The Chinese and Indians do.

There's an interesting quirk with oil prices, though - because they're denominated in US dollars, domestic US oil prices are unaffected by a decline in the US dollar, essentially treating all world oil production as if it came out of Texas or Alaska. On the flip side, as the greenback falls in value, oil gets relatively cheaper for the other 95% of the world... or it would, if demand weren't outstripping supply.

So a question, for the audience: When OPEC realizes that they will be at full production from now until judgement day, what incentive can the US give them to not switch to another currency scheme? OPEC won't necessarily be able to constrict supply without risking a backlash from the industrialized world, so the only way to keep the price rising would be to phase out the use of the underperforming dollar. Some articles say that major oil-exporters are already doing this, but I haven't seen a clear summary of what's going on.

Anyone have something to add? I can't say I understand where all this is heading, but there seems to be enough reason to worry about the economy in the future.

My Beef With Environmentalists, II

Just to add on to my last post, I generally stop listening to anyone who thinks that the end of oil is going to cause the "collapse of the capitalist economic system" or whatever.

We all lived through Y2K.

There are technical solutions to almost all of our problems, as far as energy goes. Where technical solutions won't do, policy and lifestyle solutions will. None of this has to be dramatic, either. It just bothers me to see apocalyptic survivalists in my camp. They're supposed to be in the crazy camp, not here!

My Beef With Environmentalists

Alright, I don't have a lot of time for people who construct strawmen of the "environmentalist" movement that portray us all as granola-crunching, commune-living, winter cyclists. So I'd like to say from the outset that what follows is meant to apply only to the examples cited, and not the environmental movement at large.

What the hell is wrong with us, though? I picked up the most recent Adbusters, and in between a passionate defense of Yasser Arafat and a condemnation of Wal-Mart (surprise!), there was this short piece about this couple living in Germany (I think) who owned their own farm, tilled their own land, grew their own food, etc etc, essentially holding this up as the model of sustainable living.

I can't think of a worse message for us to send, really. First off, there's nothing positive to this vision - it's all regressive. Never mind that most people would never want to have a farmer's life, given the choice - look at the depopulation of rural North America, for example. This vision is eminently impractical - for every person to be given their own organic farm, tilled by horse or oxen - like this farm in Adbusters was - would mean either several more planet Earths or several billion dead. The ironic thing is that this is exactly the critique of the current economic system usually levelled by environmentalists. Well, that cuts both ways.

Similarly, around Christmas I was walking through Chapters when I picked up this book Powerdown, in which the author advocates a number of policies for dealing with the coming oil shortages. Which country does the author suggest is worth of emulation? That bastion of civlization, Cuba. The author's example of a sustainable lifestyle? The Quakers.

Now, more than anything else these are PR mistakes. That doesn't make them unimportant. We need positive, progressive views of the future that we can sell the public on, not half-baked ideas about everyone living on organic communes. That mean not tying environmentalism to whacked-out social movements or unnecessary political debates. Could someone please tell me what sustainable development and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle have in common?

In previous posts, I've tried to explore what a positive, technological future would look like. I recently discovered that I seem to be channelling Freeman Dyson, who has called for a return to village culture. It's a nice vision - which I share - but it's important that these dreams be goals, not mandates from on high. If we in the environmental movement come off as Moses on Sinai, people will either ignore us entirely, or listen to us until we end up being wrong (which, inevitably, we will be) and then ignore us entirely.

Fortunately, neither Adbusters nor Powerdown have nearly the clout that a more reasonable group like the Rocky Mountain Institute has. If you haven't read Natural Capitalism, you really should.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Orson Scott Card Is A Tool

While I was writing the last post, I had to find the links to OSC's rants about gays and peace protesters. In doing so, I also stumbled upon OSC's latest ramblings. To go over more than one of his columns would be time-consuming and unpleasant to boot, but I had to respond to one of his latest turds. So cover me Red-3, I'm going in:
When Condoleezza Rice's confirmation as secretary of state was opposed by 13 Democratic Senators, it did not imply that she was singularly unsuited to serve in the President's cabinet. It meant that the Democrats in Congress were determined to be brutally partisan ... at a time when our country is at war, and we need to show our enemies a unified and relentless determination to defeat them.
And Condi had done so much to defeat the terrorists. I remember well that wondrous day when Bin Laden and Zawahiri were brought back from Afghanistan, caged and beaten, pelted with rotten fruit through the streets of DC.

Wait a minute... that didn't happen.

Instead, the mastermind of 9/11 is still at large. Furthermore, Rice's lies paved the way for the Iraq war, which has created and continues to create more terrorists than the US Army can ever kill. Rice has served Bin Laden better than any Manchurian Candidate could ever be forced to. And she's done it not because she's evil, but because she's stupid. Personally, I think that's worse. Card continues:
Once the decision to go to war is made, then the actions of members of Congress must be undertaken with consideration of how our enemies will interpret them. Congress has a responsibility to make sure that the war is waged properly; but meaningless opposition just to show off, when it will certainly prolong the war, is astonishingly selfish. Even if you think a war is wrong, when American lives are on the line, decent leaders do nothing to signal our enemies that we do not have the unity or resolution to win. Only thirteen Democrats voted against Condoleezza Rice's confirmation. But these weren't thirteen obscure senators. They included some of the most influential or at least well-known: Kennedy, Kerry, Jeffords, and the ever entertaining Barbara Boxer. (Won't someone please tell Senator Kerry that most Americans voted for somebody else for President? He doesn't get to choose the Secretary of State.)
First off, Jeffords isn't a Democrat - until 2001, he was a Republican, now he's an independent. Secondly, won't someone please tell Mr. Card that most Americans voted for Al Gore, and that Bush doesn't get to go to war? More recently, plenty of people voted for John Kerry as Senator. Hmm... what roles do senators play? Oh yeah, they get to choose the Secretary of State!
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
Card goes on, and on, and on:
The Democratic Party isn't the private property of the lunatic Left.
HOLY SHIT. Thirteen Senators vote against the most criminally inept NSA since the creation of that post, and they're called lunatics? Wow. What would Card call it if almost all the Republican party voted to impeach a President who comitted no crime? No, wait, I don't want to know. What he actually does write is feculent enough:
Not that Syria has been helping us -- indeed, they are the most active Arab nation in the support of terrorism, and there is no question that both Israel and Iraq would be much safer places if Syria had a change of government. But, keenly aware of how easily American troops could defeat their military and topple their government, Syria has been keeping a low profile, behaving themselves ... sort of. Saudi Arabia, however, has been a key support for American action in the Middle East. Their cooperation has made military actions far more likely to succeed. And, indirectly, their oil policies have kept the world economy in equilibrium, more or less, allowing us the prosperity to be able to afford this war.
It gets worse and worse, doesn't it? Syria - not that long ago counted as an ally against Al-Qaeda - supported anti-Israeli terrorism during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Sure, it's terrorism, but Syria has no history of supporting terrorism of the Al-Qaeda stripe.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia hasn't done squat to keep the world economy in equilibrium. Oil prices are no longer determined by the supply, but by the demand - OPEC, and therefore Saudi Arabia, hasn't been able to control prices since the current spike began in 2002. And besides, any six-year old could grasp that, far from an ally, Saudi Arabia has been crucial to incubating, funding and disseminating terrorists. Card goes on to actually discuss this reality at some length, which just adds to the cognitive dissonance. What the hell is wrong with this man's brain? Before we can even think of an answer, he goes totally off the deep end:
It's time for anyone -- a church or a group or an individual -- receiving funding from the Saudi government or from Wahhabist sources to be registered as agents of a foreign nation ... and publically listed. Any imam who allows this hate literature from Saudi Arabia to be available in his mosque should be listed as a foreign agent.
This proposal is absolutely brilliant. Really. I think we should adopt it here in Canada - every group that takes money from foreign sources to advocate in domestic politics should be publicly branded as a foreign agents. The plus side is the BQ gets to be the Loyal Opposition again!
But if the American Muslim community insists on their right to distribute that literature secretly, we'll know something important and surprising about their intentions.
Ah yes, the "you have nothing to fear if you've got nothing to hide" tactic. That doesn't have a bad history at all. Next step: We'll make all Muslims register with the government, and maybe wear yellow stars of david green crescent moons. For their own defense, of course. The final piece of evidence that Card is an incipient fascist:
But this is a war we're in - a war that Muslim fanatics brought to our soil, where they murdered thousands of Americans in an unprovoked attack on civilians.
We've gone from the "nothing to fear" tactic to the "ends justify the means" strategy. Let's be clear - Bin Laden's recruiting pitch is very simple: Muslims are under attack by the west. Israel, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq - for Bin Laden, they're all pieces of evidence, pointing to one undeniable conclusion: Muslims are not safe. Therefore, they need to strike back against the aggressors, hitting them where they live. Any Muslim who doubts this simple fact is a traitor to God.

Card, meanwhile, argues that Americans are under attack by Muslims. Kenya, Tanzania, the USS Cole, 9/11 - for Card, they're all pieces of evidence, pointing to one undeniable conclusion: American are not safe. Therefore, they need to strike back against the aggressors, hitting them where they live. Any American who doubts this simple fact is a "lunatic".

Not that I'm making a point, or anything. But I won't be re-reading Ender's Game anytime soon.