Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Memo to Buzz

Boy, it turns out a vote for the Conservatives isn't a vote for the separatists after all.
Montreal — Support for sovereignty dropped in Quebec in the immediate aftermath of the Conservative election victory that included a breakthrough in the province, according to a new poll.

The poll by the Montreal-based CROP firm for Montreal La Presse newspaper suggested the number of Quebeckers who supported an independent Quebec dropped to 34 per cent after the federal election from 43 per cent prior to the Jan. 23 federal election.
So here's a question. Buzz Hargrove said something ridiculous in public. He was not just ridiculous, but provably false. So who will be the first news network to announce that they will no longer solicit his opinion?

He has after all shown that his opinion isn't worth much anyway.

Any day in which only 1/3 of Quebeckers want to leave the country is a good day. And now, re-reading that sentence, I might just shoot myself in the head.

Shut Yer Piehole, We're Right

Robert is on to something here:
When the idea of arming our border guards was first pushed into mainstream discussion, I was against the idea for one simple reason. It’s an unjustifiable expense. Arming our border guards will require that they undergo a whole new level of training to be able to properly handle the firearm as well as to be able to identify when it’s appropriate to unholster and possibly use it....

Now however, I’ve changed my position soley on the basis that the border guards themselves are asking that they be armed. I worked as a carpenter for many years and one thing that always made my tasks easier was recognition of the fact that you can’t do a proper job if you don’t have the proper tools....

And this is what distinguishes the left from the right when it comes to issues like this. The left recognizes that they don’t know everything and will defer to those who actually do.... The head of Canada’s police chiefs, Jack Ewatski has once again called for the Conservatives to not scrap the federal gun registry. He asserts that it is frequently used by law enforcement officials across the country and has now become one more tool they can use to do a proper job. And true to form, the conservative pundits are claiming they possess superior knowledge when it comes to knowing whether a particular tool of the trade is of any value to our law enforcement officials.
This is hardly new, but it's worth repeating: There's a faith-based community, and a reality-based one. Pick a side.

Of course, if we asked conservatives to justify all their beliefs with something as esoteric as facts, all they'd be left with is homophobia, justified by the fact that they think it's icky.

Hooray for Google

By now everyone's heard of Google's decision to open a Chinese variant of it's own search engine. Some cry foul, saying that Google is aiding and abetting the Party by giving in to pressure. I think Atrios is on to something when he asks - what about Murdoch? In any case, it's far, far too late for us to expect capitalists to restrain themselves when dealing with China. Hell, governments are falling over themselves to deal with China, and there's no profit motive there. I'm not wild about Google doing this, but this is hardly the worst abuse the Chinese people have to put up with on a daily basis.

This, on the other hand, may turn out to be great news - Google is working on a distribution of Ubuntu Linux.
Google is preparing its own distribution of Linux for the desktop, in a possible bid to take on Microsoft in its core business - desktop software.

A version of the increasingly popular Ubuntu desktop Linux distribution, based on Debian and the Gnome desktop, it is known internally as 'Goobuntu'.

Google has confirmed it is working on a desktop linux project called Goobuntu, but declined to supply further details, including what the project is for.
If there's any company that can pull off the open-source attack on Microsoft, I think Google is it. It already has fantastic brand loyalty, and can even afford to offer limited service guarantees. More importantly, Google is big enough to force a certain amount of compliance among hardware vendors.

The funny thing is, if Google were to succeed in pushing Ubuntu as an alternative to Windows, the entire PC market would have converged around the same basic hardware and software. Mac OSX is Unix-based (BSD) and so is Ubuntu (linux), and the Macintosh has now moved to Intel chips.

I have no idea what this would mean in terms of wider software, but it occurs to me that this would mean that Mac users could finally get all the coolest games at the same time as their Wintel brethren. Just a thought.

The Silver Bullet?

I've been saying for a while now that when it comes to energy issues, there's no silver bullet. That is, no single solution will present itself and say, "ta-daa! Everything's better!" We need to re-evaluate everything we do in terms of energy consumption. Land use, building codes, even how we dress needs to be thought of in terms of energy use. These are not problems that lend themselves to technical solutions.

Having said all that, if this is true it may just be the silver bullet I've long denied existed. Apparently (and there's very little information out there to substantiate this, so HUGE grains of salt are warranted) a Texas company called EEStor has designed and is near production of an ultracapacitor with incredibly high energy and power densities, and very low cost. From Clean Break:
EEStor's technology could be used in more than low-speed electric vehicles. The company envisions using it for full-speed pure electric vehicles, hybrid-electrics (including plug-ins), military applications, backup power and even large-scale utility storage for intermittent renewable power sources such as wind and solar.
It's that last one that is most promising, I think. The biggest problem with electricity to date has been the difficulty in storage. With a cheap, clean, long-lived way to store energy, these ultracapacitors may very well be the key to making solar and wind a critical part of the grid.

For those who don't know, ultracapacitors are analogous to batteries in that they store electricity. Probably every piece of electronics you own has capacitors in them, so this isn't some far-out technology. Where capacitors differ from batteries is that they are a solid-state electronic component as opposed to an electrochemical reaction. This means that capacitors can charge and discharge very quickly, relative to batteries.

(For a simple analogy, capacitors are to batteries, as the transistor is to the vacuum tube.)

However, until recently the amount of energy a capacitor could hold was far less than the best batteries. If EEStor is legit, than that's about to change. How big a change? According to the Energy Blog, the "product" that EEStor is producing weighs 400 lbs and holds 56kwh. 56kwh is enough - even with some pessimistic estimates - to power an electric car for more than 150 miles. More importantly for electric vehicle purposes, the power the product can deliver is astonishing - something like 400 horsepower, according to one estimate. The limiting technology for electric cars thus far has been the batteries. After EEStor, it might be the motors. My mother and her lead foot might even enjoy driving a car with one of these in it.

Now, 150 miles is still a bit short for a standard car, so the first application is liable to be plug-in hybrids. But even this 56kwh module could serve another purpose - install it in homes, and consumers would never have to pay peak electricity rates again. The module could charge at night, in offpeak hours, and run the home during the day without drawing off the grid. Alternately, a green-minded homeowner could combine this module with a solar rooftop and live entirely off the grid, as far as electricity is concerned. Even with an early cost of $3,000 that would be a minor expense compared to the solar panels, or with the home itself.

If homeowners don't go wild for these (and there's no reason to expect them to) the utility operators should consider a program of building decentralized "water towers" for electricity. By charging them at night, and draining during the day, utility generators could level out the load, allowing them to sell more electricity overall without building new capacity. These kinds of structures would have been impossible with even the best batteries - the life cycles are too short. Capacitors regularly perform for hundreds of thousands of charge-discharge cycles.

A little math. Assume a capacitor is charged at off peak prices - say, $0.04-$0.06/kwh here in Ontario. The peak price for a kilowatt-hour has been anywhere between $0.10 in the winter to $0.24 during the summmer, when we had to import electricity. (Thank you Manitoba - you kept our AC running!) These capacitors hold 56kwh. So if they fill up at the highest off-peak time (0.06) and sell the energy back during the lowest peak prices (0.10), we get this:
(56 * 0.1) - (56 * 0.06) = 2.24, or $2.24 profit per cycle.

If we pessimistically assume that these ultracapacitors are only good for 100,000 cycles (not the conventional meaning of "hundreds of thousands") then each $3,000 module could repay its investment almost 75 times. There's real potential here, technologically and economically.

Note that I actually suspect the profit potential here is overstated - the whole point is to allow a market to arbitrage the peak price of electricity down, by consuming more during off-peak hours. A cheap, long-lasting ultracapacitor makes this much more than a fantasy.

I should note that, thus far, EEStor doesn't have so much as a webpage. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - a lot of investors are still gun-shy from the dot-coms. And serious people are investing in EEStor, but that's actually beside the point. EEStor isn't the only company investing in ultracapacitors - some companies already have similar (though not as impressive, yet) products on the market.

I wasn't aware that ultracapacitors had come so far. It's nice to be surprised by good news these days.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Call Me A Dryden Liberal

Dryden for Leader! Via Paul Wells, this speech at Ken Dryden's website almost made me sad they'd lost. But then I thought, "If Dryden had been leader, maybe they wouldn't have..."
That's what really bothered me about the Conservatives' announcements. Put money into parents pockets fine. Be proud of that if that's what makes you proud. Just don't call it early learning and child care. So limited. So limiting. Same words completely different story.

What does this have to do with me "talking about Canada"? Just a few weeks ago the Prime Minister talked about building a system of early learning and child care across the country and described it as a "great national endeavour." Like Medicare.

But to take on a "great national endeavour," you have to think in those big terms. It has to be in you. In your bones. It has to be part of your understanding of this country, what it is, how it works, what it can be and should be. The railroad, Medicare, the education system Canada was built on "great national endeavours." In which Quebec was an immense part; in which Alberta and B.C. and Nova Scotia and Ontario were immense parts. Great national endeavours that made Quebec better, that made Quebec more "Quebec." That made Alberta more "Alberta."

Two founding languages and cultures, multicultural transformation it's not that Macdonald or Pearson or Trudeau or even Mulroney always succeeded, but they had big dreams, that made us dream bigger, that made "great national endeavours" possible.
What bugs me about American-style Conservatism here in Canada is not that it's American, but that it's a worldview that's imported from totally different circumstances. The American economy has a totally different nature than the Canadian one, but the way Conservatives talk (or used to) you'd think we could both run the same way. We can't, and trying to will only hurt us in the end.

Specifically, Canada's economy is far smaller, and far more dispersed than the American one. It has historically required the government to step in and make the country whole - the railroad, the CBC, Health Care, etc. All are elements of national unity. A national day care program may not be sexy, but it's the next obvious step.

Which is part of my problem with it - it's obvious, and it's going to happen one way or another at this point. Who's advocating for the not-obvious idea? What Great National EndeavourTM is waiting in the shadows of the future, that we haven't thought of yet? My bet is, once the Liberals answer that question, we won't need to bother with polls or election markets - the winner of the election will be obvious.

Canada doesn't just welcome Great National EndeavoursTM. It demands them. This country cannot be governed along the lines of a laissez-faire, neoliberal model. The only way to keep it together is to have a strong, active role in the economy. The option is to look at what happened for the last 20 years, as our economy has increasingly become a North-South branch of the US Tree. This has some undeniable benefits, but it leaves us without much in the way of national dreams.

Pleasant Surprises

Apparently, pro-lifer McKenna isn't running.

Dare I say Woo? And might I add, Hoo?

More seriously, this is great news for the Liberals. Instead of a coronation, they'll have an actual leadership contest (hopefully.) I'm not looking forward to an Ignatieff win, but if he at least won honestly in a real contest I'd be grateful for that.

But for now, the field is wide open. I can't think of the last time that's been true for a major Canadian party.

Oil, Ethanol, PHEVs

Boy, I used to write about oil and energy issues a lot more than I have since the election started.

One of the more interesting recent hits has been this piece by Jerome-a-Paris, a diarist at DailyKos, by whose accounting the 4 largest oil fields ever discovered are in decline:
The 4 biggest fields on the planet are now in decline, 3 officially....

Pemex now expects production to reach 1.9mb/d in the coming years, and to decline to 1.4 mb/d by 2010. With Cantarell providing close to two thirds of Mexico's production, Pemex needs to replace this ultra cheap oil...

Next, we can talk about Samotlor, the largest Russia oil field, and the second largest ever found. From a peak of close to 2mb/d, its production is now down to less than 0.5mb/d....

KUWAIT: It was an incredible revelation last week that the second largest oil field in the world is exhausted and past its peak output.

Yet that is what the Kuwait Oil Company revealed about its Burgan field. The peak output of the Burgan oil field will now be around 1.7 million barrels per day, and not the two million barrels per day forecast for the rest of the field's 30 to 40 years of life, Chairman Farouk Al-Zanki told Bloomberg....

(Note that all these fields were n°2 at some point, whether in production or reserves. They are each super giant, no such large fields will ever be found again, and they are all in decline.

Which brings us, of course, to the uncontested largest field on the planet, Saudi Arabia's Ghawar. This is the only one (yet) for which there has been no official announcement of decline, but there are lots of people that are talking about it.
The combined output of Ghawar, Cantarell, and Burgan is something on the order of 9 million barrels per day, making the combined total of just those three fields greater than the oil output of the United States. Put another way, if the three biggest super-giants were all one producer, they'd be the third-largest producer in the world, after Saudia Arabia and Russia. Throw in the .5 mbd from Samotior and they'd be the largest producer, period.

And two of the big three are unquestionably in decline, with Ghawar coming on fast. This is depressing, to say the least. One of the nastier things about the oil industry is how concentrated the resource is - the vast majority of the oil that has ever been discovered (90%+) has been found in a tiny fraction of the number of oil fields discovered, essentially the top 100. For example, Ghawar on it's own probably contained about 10% of all the oil on Earth in the 20th century. When the largest fields go into decline, we're seeing a very, very worrying trend.

The good news is that it appears the case for ethanol is stronger than even I'd thought. An article published in Science last week went over the most important studies of ethanol's net energy balance (is there a surplus or deficit of energy when we make it?) and found that, even with conventional methods there is a small net benefit. If we use cellulosic ethanol, the surplus is huge - 2-3 times conventional methods.

The main contribution of the recent science article wasn't original research, but rather re-jigging old studies so that they all (more or less) agreed on the same parameters and assumptions, and running the simulations again. The biggest difference was that this study counted the products that are left over after the ethanol is produced which also have a market value. The most pessimistic models had ignored these products and had thus underestimated the potential energy surplus. It's like paying for everything in $20 bills, but forgetting to take your change. Everything looks a lot more expensive than it is.

The good news with ethanol is that existing cars can be retrofitted to take E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) quickly and cheaply, meaning that we don't have to replace the entire car stock in North America to start seeing results. If we can produce large volumes of ethanol cheaply, a lot of people will start refitting their cars with or without government help.

The one last problem with ethanol is that even if we can produce it cheaply and energy-efficiently, we probably can't make enough of it to fuel all conventional cars. Which is why it's good to see that the push for plug-in hybrids continues to gather steam. I feel kind of dirty agreeing with James Woolsey, but he's right when he says:
If I were to leave you with six words to remember from what I’m saying here...[they would be] forget hydrogen, forget hydrogen, forget hydrogen.

Massive changes in the energy infrastructure and in the transportation vehicle infrastructure would be necessary, whereas for a plug-in hybrid, we need a bigger battery, and yes, there is an infrastructure investment: an extension cord. Each family would need an extension cord.
(For background on plug-in hybrids, see here.)

A quick turnover in the US and Europe to E85 vehicles - andespecially E85 plugins - could potentially save oil faster than production could decline, bringing some much-needed slack to the global economy, until Chinese and Indian demand catches up again. We're not there yet, but there's reason to hope.

Challenger +20

It's profoundly depressing to think that, 20 years after Challenger and even longer since the Shuttle was promised to be the next great leap in space exploration, we've effectively gone nowhere in Space Exploration. If anything, we've regressed. Launching one space shuttle in the last three years isn't exactly inspiring.

And that's kind of the point - inspiration. I'm just as wowed by SpaceShipOne and the potential for space tourism as any nerd, but none of the commercial plans thus far call for anything really exploratory. Bush's plan for a new plan of exploration is about as bad as his father's was, and is just as doomed.

Almost 40 years after Apollo 11, and almost 35 years after Apollo 17 (the first and last lunar landings, respectively) there is no serious manned exploration program.

Anyway, my personal Challenger story is kind of an odd one. I was all of 4 years old when the first Space Shuttle disaster happened, and was attending kindergarten at a Catholic School in Ottawa. Bizarrely, the day after the shuttle blew up the teacher (an honest to God habit-wearing nun) decided to teach us all about God's majesty and power. She asked us all to name things that happened in the world, to which she responded "God made that happen." Whatever we named, God made it happen.

(I've never understood how this would be effective at teaching Christianity, but whatever...)

When it came to be my turn, I asked if God made the spaceship blow up. The nun immediately said "yes, of course."

I'm not sure many people can trace the exact moment when they started down the road to atheism, but I can. That answer made no sense to me as a four-year old, and it hasn't gotten clearer since.

If you're interested, James Oberg (an excellent author of space exploration, with unfortunate wingnut tendencies on other matters) has a piece talking about the 7 big myths of the Challenger explosion. Aside from the creepy fact that the explosion didn't kill the crew (they lived almost another three minutes until the crew cabin hit the Atlantic ocean) this myth is probably the most obnoxious form of ass-covering from NASA, an organization that excels at ass-covering:
Myth #7: An unavoidable price for progress
Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management — the disaster should have been avoidable. NASA managers made a bad call for the launch decision, and engineers who had qualms about the O-rings were bullied or bamboozled into acquiescence. The skeptics’ argument that launching with record cold temperatures is valid, but it probably was not argued as persuasively as it might have been, in hindsight. If launched on a warmer day, with gentler high-altitude winds, there’s every reason to suppose the flight would have been successful and the troublesome seal design (which already had the attention of designers) would have been modified at a pace that turned out to have been far too leisurely. The disaster need never have happened if managers and workers had clung to known principles of safely operating on the edge of extreme hazards — nothing was learned by the disaster that hadn’t already been learned, and then forgotten.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Because It Will Make You Better People

Pertaining to the last post...

Any Canadians reading this blog (most, but not all of my readers) should read a few of the citations for the Canadians who have earned (somehow, the word "won" seems crass) the Victoria Cross.

Non-Canadians are invited, but not commanded to follow suit.

The full list of Canadian VC recipients is here. Just one example of 94:

"At Dieppe on 19th August 1942, Honourary Captain Foote, Canadian Chaplain Services, was Regimental Chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.

Upon landing on the beach under heavy fire he attached himself to the Regimental Aid Post which had been set up in a slight depression on the beach, but which was only sufficient to give cover to men lying down. During the subsequent period of approximately eight hours, while the action continued, this officer not only assisted the Regimental Medical Officer in ministering to the wounded in the Regimental Aid Post, but time and again left this shelter to inject morphine, give first-aid and carry wounded personnel from the open beach to the Regimental Aid Post. On these occasions, with utter disregard for his personal safety, Honourary Captain Foote exposed himself to an inferno of fire and saved many lives by his gallant efforts. During the action, as the tide went out, the Regimental Aid Post was moved to the shelter of a stranded landing craft. Honourary Captain Foote continued tirelessly and courageously to carry wounded men from the exposed beach to the cover of the landing craft. He also removed wounded from inside the landing craft when ammunition had been set on fire by enemy shells. When landing craft appeared he carried wounded from the Regimental Aid Post to the landing craft through heavy fire. On several occasions this officer had the opportunity to embark but returned to the beach as his chief concern was the care and evacuation of the wounded. He refused a final opportunity to leave the shore, choosing to suffer the fate of the men he had ministered to for over three years.

Honourary Captain Foote personally saved many lives by his efforts and his example inspired all around him. Those who observed him state that the calmness of this heroic officer as he walked about, collecting the wounded on the fire-swept beach will never be forgotten.'"

Motion Seconded

I'm with Skippy on this one.

That is all.

Getting Better

Here's hoping CalgaryGrit is right about this:
I think Liberals everywhere should take a long, hard look at Gerard Kennedy. I'm not endorsing him or anything, but at first glance he seems like the perfect candidate...
If the Liberals run Kennedy against Harper, I'd support strategic voting. (I might even apologize to Buzz. But probably not.) Sorry Jack, but if it means defeating the right with an actual lefty, then I'm willing to go there.

C'mon Liberals, come back home to the left...


The Conservative policy proposal on electoral reform, c/o Idealistic Pragmatist:
i) A Conservative Government will consider changes to electoral systems, including proportional representation, the single transferable ballot, fixed election dates, and the use of referendums.
So what's upsetting about that? Read it again...

The plural of referendum is referenda.

This would be less aggravating to me if, as a fourth-year student of mass communications, I didn't still have to listen to students use the word "mediums".

Tomorrow's News Today

I didn't think I'd be right so quickly. Via Tilting at Windmills:
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Governments have no reason to interfere in foreign exchange markets, and should use taxes not currency intervention to help firms compete, a top contender to be Canada's next finance minister said on Tuesday.

Monte Solberg, the finance critic of the Conservatives, told Reuters in an interview that there were "lots of good reasons" that Canada should not run a budget deficit, reinforcing the position taken by his party during an eight-week election campaign....

Industrial subsidies, long a point of contention for Canadian right-of-center parties, may be a necessary evil, he added, admitting that the Conservatives were coming round to the idea that firms sometimes needed subsidies.

"It would be better to have a worldwide agreement (against industrial subsidies). But because some people subsidize, we have to match that," he said.
Asked if plane and train manufacturer Bombardier Inc., a particular target of subsidy critics, could continue to benefit from federal government largesse, he said: "We're reluctant converts."
oh god its too funny the laughter hurts please make it stop

Now, when I predicted that the Conservatives would begin pandering to Ontario and Quebec in order to win votes, I was thinking it might take more than a whole week for the pandering to start. I had irrationally assumed that Harper might actually convene a cabinet before his ministers-to-be started wooing Ontario and Quebec votes with tax dollars.

The Conservatives: More craven than you can imagine, even after you take in to account that they're more craven than you can imagine. Dare we say: As craven as the Liberals? (With apologies to Brad Delong.)

Congratulations Everyone

We're "too hedonistic" for the Conservatives to get their wishes:
TORONTO (CP) - Canadians are far too "liberal and hedonistic" to change their politics overnight despite their election of Stephen Harper's Tory government, says a far-right-wing American commentator.

Paul Weyrich examines the result of Monday's election in an essay posted to the website of the Free Congress Foundation, the Washinton-based think tank that he heads. "The people of Canada have become so liberal and hedonistic that the public ethic in the country immediately could not reversed," Weyrich writes....

He says Harper may have a chance of repealing legal same-sex marriage in Canada's current political climate, but he would have to bide his time to build support to ban abortion.

Weyrich says one route to a small-c conservative victory on such issues would be to slowly appoint more conservative members to Canada's courts.

"As has been the case in the United States, cultural Marxism largely has been foisted upon Canada by the courts," he writes. "If judges who respect the Constitution were to be appointed, they would confirm that such rights are not to be found in that document."
I've talked about this before - conservatives claim to want to protect the Constitution, but they don't actually seem to have read the thing. For example, the court decision which allowed gay marriage is part of a long precedent in Canada of slowly expanding gay rights through the Charter. These decisions go back to the 1980s, and they're all based around a commonsense interpretation of the Charter.

Sec. 15 (1) guarantees all Canadians equal protection and "equal benefit" from the law, regardless of a number of factors (race, religion, etc.) Marriage is an obvious example of citizens benefiting from the law, and the Charter says all Canadians are entitled to it. Sexual orientation is not mentioned in 15 (1), but the Supreme Court has wisely decided that sexual orientation is "analogous" to the grounds protected by the Charter. Conservatives argue that this makes the decision invalid - because sexual orientation isn't explicitly protected by the Charter, protecting gay rights through the courts is unconstitutional.

(For a surprisingly readable summary of the legal and constitutional questions surrounding same sex marriage in Canada, read the Ontario Appeals Court's decision in Halpern v. Canada.)

Not only have Conservatives argued that the court decisions backing gay rights are illegitimate, but they've gone so far as to argue that the word "marriage" is a constitutionally entrenched word, meaning that changing the definition of marriage would require ammending the constitution. Obviously, the courts have rejected this frankly idiotic notion.

Guess what else the Charter doesn't protect? That's right, Property Rights. How many Conservatives think that the court's repeated decisions protecting implicit property rights are invalid? How about the court's anti-union decisions throughout the past twenty years - which obviously run counter to the freedom of assembly portions of the charter?

Jurisprudence in Canada has always been rooted in a progressive interpretation of the constitution and the law. For conservatives to argue that these decisions are illegitimate isn't just them being loony - it's a radical attack on the whole balance of Canadian government.

So far, Harper and the Conservative leadership have rejected this kind of extremism. I hope they don't spend too much time listening to loonies like Weyrich.

Final Note: Even if the Supreme Court had never touched the issue of SSM in Canada, we'd still have married gays and lesbians. The Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto began marrying couples in January 2001, using an ancient Christian tradition called publishing Banns. The Harris government petulantly instructed bureaucrats to refuse these applications, but there is literally no way this would have been upheld by the court. The MCCT would have won their lawsuit, and they'd have been backed by... the Catholic Church. No question about it - the Church protects it's traditions and privileges. It wouldn't have been nationwide, but they would have been unquestionably legal marriages in Ontario.

In Defense of Robots

Okay, this had me laughing:
OTTAWA (CP) - He hasn't even been sworn in yet, but in a 22-minute heartbeat Thursday, Stephen Harper placed his stamp on the country's highest elected office.

The title of prime minister "sounds good," Harper corrected a media questioner in his first news conference since being elected Monday....

Harper's stiff aura of power is more suited to high office than opposition glad-handing. This, after all, is a man who shakes the hand of his seven-year-old daughter for the news cameras when dropping the young sprite off at school.
The hell? He shook her hand?

He shook her hand???

Now, I know, some of you are already thinking we elected Prime Minister Lt. Commander Data. But in fairness to Stephen Harper, I can present evidence that Harper is in fact capable of showing emotion:

When I saw this picture a few weeks ago, I have to say I was really impressed. It was the first time that Harper came across at all as a human being to me. It surprised me that I hadn't seen the picture before, for that reason.

(Note also that I continue to build my case that more politicians should wear glasses. Not that I'm trying to push a self-serving agenda. Ahem.)

So here's the question: Was Harper-bot's emotion chip on the fritz, or does he have a hug-double for the photographers?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

More Than You Wanted To Know...

... About extrasolar planets.

Reading various news sources about the newest small planet found near the center of the galaxy reminded me of something. In spiral galaxies like our own, there is a "habitable zone" around the centre of the galaxy in which life-supporting planets can form. Further towards the centre of the galaxy, and the gravitational tug of war plays havoc with planetary formation and probably ruins the chance for life. Further out, however, and stars are too poor in heavier elements for planets to form.

It's analogous to the habitable zone around the sun, which Earth is privliged to sit nicely in the middle.

Anyway, this most recently discovered star is pretty much on the inner limit of the habitable zone. So far, the most recent theories predict that about 5-10% of stars lie in the habitable zone, meaning approximately 10-20 billion stars are potential homes for other life.

Or, to state it more cynically, 180-190 billion stars are inimically hostile to life as we know it.

As for the question of actual life out there somewhere, I'm more or less agnostic. Gerard K O'Neill summed up our situation pretty well. At the end of his book 2084, he wrote that destroying human civlization would be ridiculously easy for any race capable of interstellar flight. The mere fact that we exist therefore means that either a) The aliens are there, but they're benign, or b) they aren't there at all.

Either way, it looks good for us.

McKenna: Best Grit Leader the NDP Could Ask For

This is not a great start. From Simon Pole:
In 1994, Frank McKenna promised Henry Morgentaler the "Fight of His Life" if he tried to open an abortion clinic in New Brunswick. That's right, the front-runner for the Liberal leadership is a pro-lifer who denies women the right to choose.
Boy, it's a good thing the Liberal leadership didn't spend the last two months posing as the defenders of a woman's right to choose, huh?

Before reading the following, I'll say this: A clear, unambiguous statement on behalf of a woman's right to choose - despite his previous acts and beliefs - might make McKenna more palatable to me. Otherwise, the following applies:

Not that I really care if the Liberals succeed or not, but if the Liberals think they can win by moving right, they're screwed. It's like they learned exactly the wrong lesson from Monday night.

On the other hand, I expect any Liberals who consider themselves truly progressive to vote against McKenna. Either that, or be prepared to buy a plane ticket to somewhere when your wife/girlfriend/lover/self gets pregnant. Because don't count on abortion being available down south for long. If you're a Liberal who's willing to support McKenna, then just shut up and start voting for Harper already.

Yes, abortion should be a make or break issue for any progressive. Either women have the right to their own bodies, or they don't. Simple as that. This argument is over, and it has been in Canada for fifteen merciful years. We cannot let the conservatives of any party reopen this debate.

On the other hand, maybe the Liberals can run as the anti-woman, anti-queer party, and the NDP can sweep the entire left end of the spectrum. Yay for us!

Sound Familiar?

RAMALLAH, West Bank Jan 26, 2006 — Hamas won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections as Palestinian voters rejected the longtime rule of the corruption-ridden Fatah Party, according to nearly complete official returns Thursday. The triumph by the Islamic militant group plunged the future of Mideast peacemaking into turmoil.
I won't be the first to say that this could get ugly, but I think there's reason to believe this won't turn in to the firestorm that everyone fears. Look at the Irish experience - Sinn Fein and the IRA have entered in to legitmate debate, and did so years before they disarmed.

The question for Israel is how much are you willing to deal with a political organization whose charter is explicitly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic? Pretty awful choices all around.

And let's not have any illusions about Hamas - any organization that quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in its charter doesn't deserve a progressive's defense. What is worth investigating is what the Palestinians meant when they voted for these people.

Lots of that going around lately.

One final note - it is somehow fitting that Hamas take the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. After all, it was Israel who helped nurture Hamas to try and split the Palestinians away from Arafat in the 1970s.
Israel and Hamas may currently be locked in deadly combat, but, according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.

Israel "aided Hamas directly -- the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization)," said Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies.

Israel's support for Hamas "was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative," said a former senior CIA official.
This will probably go down in history as the most successful subterfuge since the Czar aided the Bolsheviks to split the Socialist movement in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Haw, Haw!

Told y'all:
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Author James Frey confessed to Oprah Winfrey on Thursday that he made up details about every character in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces" and the talk show host apologised to her viewers, saying she felt "duped."

In 19 years in television "I've never been in this position before," said Winfrey, whose praise for Frey's book in September helped make it the top-selling book on non-fiction lists in the United States last year.

"I really feel duped," Winfrey told Frey on her television show. She said he had betrayed millions of viewers....

Asked if The Smoking Gun Web site which first questioned the book had accurately characterised the discrepancies, Frey said "I think most of what they wrote was pretty accurate," adding they did "a good job."
The most aggravating thing about this whole affair was that people who'd read the book and enjoyed it got all defensive when I told them he was full of crap. The most common response was: "Yeah, but how reliable is that website, The Smoking Gun?"

Seeing as TSG presented actual, you know, evidence for their claims, whereas Frey had none whatsoever, you'd think this would be an easy choice. But no. In our society, we've elevated opinion to be coequal with fact. Thank you, media!

I actually don't think that L'affaire Frey is that important, with two exceptions: 1) Frey is an addict who not only didn't stop lying (addict recovery step #1) but profited from publicly slamming the definition of addiction as a mental illness. Long before he was exposed as a liar, he was doing harm to the world. 2) I've run this quote before, but it's too good to only use once:
"Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost. It's a fitting literary metonymy for the Bush era: The rich have decided to steal it all, even the tears of the losers."
Pampered white boy douchebag.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Smallest rocky planet found outside our solar system. It's a balmy 50 degrees.... above absolute zero. That's -220 celcius.

The more places we look, the more planets we find. Good news for believers in extraterrestrial life.

Let Me Rephrase That

I asked here what people thought should happen in a PR situation. I'm less interested in the Constitutional mechanisms, and more interested in the political ones.

What I mean to say is this: If the Conservatives win the most seats in the house, but not a majority, how acceptable would it be to have the Liberals form the government without another election?

The last time this kind of thing came up in Canada was the 1920s, if I remember history class. The essential question is this: Do we think the Conservatives would react well to being displaced, despite "winning" the election? How acceptable would this be in Canada today?

Hypothetical Question

Suppose we'd had PR in this last election. A Lib-NDP-Green Coalition (a questionable proposition, I grant) would have a majority in Parliament, though none of those parties would have the largest single block - that would still be the Conservatives.

What should (not would) happen in that scenario? A government by the smallest parties in Parliament? Or a Conservative minority? I'm asking more a question of principle than a question of politics, I guess.

People with a historical knowledge of other PR systems are welcome to speculate. Of course, people without historical knowledge don't ask for my permission anyway...

We Are Not American - Nous Sommes Pas Americain

As if we needed more evidence, Monday night pointed out the divergent values between the US and Canada.

Consider again the results from the election:
Conservatives: 36.2%
Liberals: 30.2%
NDP: 17.5%
BQ: 10.5%
Green: 4.5%
Imagine, for a moment, if the Republicans only got 36.2% of the Congressional vote in the US. Almost 63% of Canadians voted for Liberal, NDP, Bloc, or Green candidates. The one unambiguously conservative party in Parliament was outvoted by Canadians by almost 2 to 1.

The Conservatives like to scream about how "liberal" or "socialist" the media, the government, etc are. I would dispute the premise - I don't think the CBC was biased against the Cons in this election at all - but even if we accept that argument, there's a perfectly good reason for it: This is not a Conservative (or conservative) country. In this country, thankfully, the inmates stay in their cells, they aren't running the asylum.

If only the Americans had our problems!

"Out of Touch"

Reading the comments at Antonia Zerbisias' blog, I come across this gem:
The change of government will show once and for all the bias of the Toronto media elites and will indicate once and for all that Toronto is out of touch — truly out of touch — with Canada. You don't speak for Canadians.
Poor, deluded moron.

Population of the Greater Toronto Area, according to statscan: 5.3 Million.
Population of the entire province of Alberta, according to same: 3.2 Million.

The GTA has more people than any other province except Ontario or Quebec, almost as much people as either Quebec or all the western provinces combined.

Out of touch with Canada? We are Canada, asswipe.

Pity the Conservatives

Apparently, the only way to be a "westerner" these days is to be a western social Conservative. I know this because yesterday Lowell Green, Ottawa's resident blowhard, said that Canada had finally elected it's first "western" Prime Minister. He then went on to say quite carefully that neither Clark nor Diefenbaker counted as "westerners."

Let's put aside for a moment that Harper was born and raised in Toronto, while Clark was actually born in Alberta. Does this scare anyone else - that Conservatives are now laying claim to all of Canada west of Churchill, Manitoba based solely on ideological purity?

If it does scare you, it shouldn't. The western Conservatives may think their day has come, but in reality the worst possible thing has happened to them - a Conservative government led by Stephen Harper.

Let me explain.

So long as the government was led by Quebec Liberals, the Cons could say that the west doesn't have a voice. So, superficially, some would now say that Harper will lead a "western" government in Ottawa. Don't count on it. Look at the seat count: 59 of the Cons' 124 seats come from Ontario, Quebec, or the Maritimes. Harper won 10 seats in Quebec, despite the fact that three quarters of that province voted against him. Meanwhile, two thirds of Alberta went Conservative, but they "only" won 28 seats there. After this election, the Conservative party is no longer "western" based: there are 30% more Ontario Conservatives in Harper's caucus then there are Albertans.

A self-aware Conservative would be weeping right about now. To win a majority in Canada, you still need to win Quebec and Ontario, preferably with some inroads in to the major cities (where the Conservatives have been shut out.) What do you think is more likely - that we'll see a bunch of western radicals take over, or that Harper will govern like any other politician - concerned for his own reelection, and pandering to Ontario and Quebec?

I don't deny that some crazy Conservativeness is bound to happen. But here's the thing - Harper needs to win more votes in Quebec and Ontario, period. The west is barren ground for the Conservatives, electorally speaking. They've won all they can there. So Harper (despite leading a nominally "western" government) is going to pander to the centre of the country as much as any leader. Either that or he'll lose the next election.

Over the next two years, western Conservatives are going to watch this happen, and weep. This was supposed to be their moment, and it's going to turn to crap on them.

Sorry Alberta, we win again!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Dangers of FanFic

Warning - don't let your loved ones start writing fan fiction, or you may have the following conversation: (I swear I'm not making this up.)

Vicki: What's another word for nut sack?

Me: Scrotum?

V: Something else?

Me: Balls?

V: Sexier!

Me: The nut sack isn't sexy!

V: I don't have a thesaurus for this kind of thing!

For Those Who Have Asked

My earlier post about disallowance was in reference to a little-used portion of the Constitution - indeed, no bill has been disallowed since before World War II. Effectively, the Prime Minister has the power to anull any bill passed by Parliament by instructing the Provincial Lieutenant-Governors to withold royal assent. The PM has similar powers federally, though for obvious reasons the PM doesn't go around telling the GG to annul his own legislation.

So in theory, if Ralph Klein (for example) introduced a bill discriminating against gays, the PM could simply order the LG of Alberta to withold royal assent, and thus "reserve" the bill. The PM also has the power to undo bills already passed, for a year after the passage of said law.

The relevant portions of the Constitution Act, 1867 are Sec. 55-57, 90:
55: Where a Bill passed by the Houses of the Parliament is presented to the Governor General for the Queen's Assent, he shall declare, according to his Discretion, but subject to the Provisions of this Act and to Her Majesty's Instructions, either that he assents thereto in the Queen's Name, or that he withholds the Queen's Assent, or that he reserves the Bill for the Signification of the Queen's Pleasure.

56: Where the Governor General assents to a Bill in the Queen's Name, he shall by the first convenient Opportunity send an authentic Copy of the Act to One of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, and if the Queen in Council within Two Years after Receipt thereof by the Secretary of State thinks fit to disallow the Act, such Disallowance (with a Certificate of the Secretary of State of the Day on which the Act was received by him) being signified by the Governor General, by Speech or Message to each of the Houses of the Parliament or by Proclamation, shall annul the Act from and after the Day of such Signification.

57: A Bill reserved for the Signification of the Queen's Pleasure shall not have any Force unless and until, within Two Years from the Day on which it was presented to the Governor General for the Queen's Assent, the Governor General signifies, by Speech or Message to each of the Houses of the Parliament or by Proclamation, that it has received the Assent of the Queen in Council.

90: The following Provisions of this Act respecting the Parliament of Canada, namely, — the Provisions relating to Appropriation and Tax Bills, the Recommendation of Money Votes, the Assent to Bills, the Disallowance of Acts, and the Signification of Pleasure on Bills reserved, — shall extend and apply to the Legislatures of the several Provinces as if those Provisions were here re-enacted and made applicable in Terms to the respective Provinces and the Legislatures thereof, with the Substitution of the Lieutenant Governor of the Province for the Governor General, of the Governor General for the Queen and for a Secretary of State, of One Year for Two Years, and of the Province for Canada.
John A. MacDonald, our drunken first PM, was probably the champ when it came to annulling and reserving bills. But after his passage from the political scene, the power fell in to disuse. Like the notwithstanding clause, there's little chance it will ever see the light of day federally.

To my knowledge, none of these sections of CA1867 have ever been ammended.

(Whew! That Political Science degree pays off!)

Original Intent

Deb Grey just said on CBC that she hoped to see a return to the original provincial powers. Does Deb Grey want to see the return of the federal government disallowing provinical law?

Didn't think so. Conservatives keep talking about the Constitution and how we should look at the original meaning of the Constitution, but they don't seem to have actually read it,

Canada Continues to Need PR

Last night's vote count, and the number of seats that would entitle the parties to if all votes mattered: (Difference between theory and reality in brackets.)

Conservatives: 36.2% = 112 (-12)
Liberals: 30.2% = 94 (-9)
NDP: 17.5% = 55 (+16)
BQ = 10.5% = 33 (-18)
Green = 4.5% = 14 (+14)

Note that with PR the NDP would have the balance of power, but the Bloc wouldn't.

Some random election thoughts, in no particular order:

-Glad to see Paul Martin go. His fans may say his concession speech last night was "classy." If true, it would be the first classy thing Martin's done in years.

-Very, very glad to see Sam Bulte defeated. Sad to see Ignatieff elected.

-Gilles Duceppe should have to answer some questions in the future. For an election that started off with talk of the BQ sweeping all 75 seats in Quebec, last night's results are dismal.

-On that note, this country owes Harper's Conservatives a (small) thanks for making federalism a national, not a partisan issue.

-I don't want to piss all over Jack Layton's real success last night (Go Olivia!) but we need some serious questioning too. The NDP seems to be unable to get even 20% of the vote, despite a largely discredited Liberal party. Serious NDPers need to think hard about what that means, and how we can address that in the next election.

-Which brings me to the last point: I'm not afraid of what this means for this Parliament. The Conservatives have a government, but not a mandate for their most extreme policies. What worries me is the possibiliity that the next year or two will make the Conservatives look more reasonable than they really are, setting us up for a Conservative majority in 2008.

-Psst: Green Party - I hope you enjoyed your 18 months of relevance. Nice knowin' ya.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Busy Morning

So far today I've voted, interviewed two people for the school paper, written an article for said paper, and finished up a 12-page presentation for class later today.

I really get a kick out of voting. Every time. It was blissfully quick this time around, because I'm actually registered (last time I wasn't.)

You've still got 9 hours to vote in Ontario - please do it. You can go to Elections Canada, punch in your Postal Code, and find where your local poll is. Show up with ID and a pulse, and you're in.

We're very fortunate in this country that the law says, and the courts have reinforced this, that the right to vote should be made as widely available as possible. That, combined with competent election-management and a fair system of deciding the boundaries of ridings, have given us a half-decent voting system. Certainly, when you compare our House of Commons to the abomination that is the US House of Representatives, we look great.

None of the above should be taken as an argument against further reforms - far from it. But today I feel really good to be a Canadian.

For Those Who Have Asked

With my recent post on the wonders of bittorrent, I got an email from a friend asking which bittorrent client I use. In fact, I just use the regular Bittorrent client. But if you'd like more choice, here's a PC World review of your options. They seem to reccomend uTorrent.

Election Day Is Here

The polls open in nine and a half hours, and I will be up voting early by necessity.

I won't be able to post much tomorrow, if at all, due to schedule constraints. I would only say that as much as Paul Martin doesn't deserve the next government, neither does Stephen Harper. I don't trust Harper and the Conservatives, and I think (as I've said before) Canada will be worse off with them in government.

I haven't made any predictions, but at this point a Conservative minority looks inevitable. I personally hope that the NDP make a strong showing, because I believe that a serious progressive presence in Parliament will keep the Cons in line.

Fortunately, it looks like we're being spared a Con majority for now. Most people seem to be predicting about 120-125 seats for the Cons, leaving them well short of a majority. The question is whether Harper has the humility that Paul Martin lacked going in to his own minority.

If I find the time, I'll be posting tomorrow. And in case it isn't obvious, I'll be voting for the NDP candidate in my riding, Paul Dewar.

In Case You Missed It

West Wing cancelled.

This nicely averts the problem of which president to choose - do you try and make a Republican drama, or do you go with a stale Democratic plotline.

I personally don't think a Republican drama could ever work in fiction, for much the same reason as Kim Stanley Robinson says you can't have a Right-wing utopia - Utopias are by definition about progress, while right-wingers are at best wedded to the status quo, and at worst about turning the clock back.

A Republican "West Wing" would bomb, and deservedly so. Somehow, I can't seen an exciting drama built around tax cuts and illegal wars.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Funny, Funny, Funny

And all too true.

Just watch.

(via Vicki.)

It Explains So Much

Just go read this post by Paul Wells. It explains a lot about how Canada got to this point in the election. And why Paul Martin deserves to lose.

The Miracle of Bittorrent

Thanks to bittorrent, I've managed to catch up with all of Battlestar Galactica in a matter of days.

I'm definitely going to be buying the series on DVD - or letting family buy it for me with my upcoming birthday. But I'll just say this for now - it's a really astonishing show, just for what they manage to get on the air. Surprisingly complex plots and above-par acting, combined with excellent CGI effects.

The moment that really stood out for me came in a recent episode, but I'll try to avoid spoilers so I'll just say I was impressed at how the show managed to get across the whole range of emotions that are associated with direct, nasty violence - not just fear and panic, but a real ugliness behind it. I really don't remember getting the full spectrum from television before.

I'll try not to bore the rest of you too much. If you'd like to read some really good posts about BSG, read these at Lawyers, Guns and Money: 1, 2, 3, 4. (with a nod to Angelica at Battlepanda for the tip.) They're relatively spoiler-free (though not completely) and an interesting exploration of some of the issues the series raises. But I'd just like to add my voice to this sentiment:
On the question of whether television has improved over the past ten years or so, you can put me squarely in the camp of Steven Johnson. Dana Stevens is right that comparing The Sopranos and Starsky and Hutch is inappropriate, but this doesn't get us very far. There simply is no analogue for The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Buffy, or a handful of other late 1990s and early 2000s television programs in the 1960s and the 1970s. ... Nor are the reasons for this improvement very hard to find. HBO alone has made a huge difference in allowing television writers and producers to explore new areas and more complex story lines.... Moreover, I’m convinced that the improvement isn't just in the upper echelon of shows. Say what you want about ER, but it is much better acted, written, and produced than you would expect from a similar program twenty-five years ago. This isn't to say that older television doesn’t have something to offer, but I do think that we’re still in the midst of a golden age of TV.
We're in a moment where it looks like TV is an ascendant medium, while film is fighting to stay relevant. We've been here before, though - the 1960s were devastating to the film industry. Film found a way to revive itself and thrive. It will again. By the 1980s, the ascent of cable television was undermining all the previous structures in television, and people were worried how TV would survive. We see that TV, like film before it, found a way to survive too. Media are in constant competition, and we use them for different experiences. The process of redefinition and rebuilding that each medium goes through is fascinating to watch and learn about.

I'm looking forward to it.

I No Longer Believe in Evolution

From Boingboing:
I've been opening my bananas stem-side first all my life. On Friday, David showed me how monkeys open bananas. They pinch them on the other end. Boy, it's a lot easier. I'll never open a banana the dumb way again.
I'm going to have to try this with the next banana I eat, but surely this disproves Darwin, right? I mean, if we came from monkeys then surely we'd remember the right way to eat a banana? In other Darwin-related news, apparently scientists have figured out how the ear evolved, via Gene at Battlepanda:
STOCKHOLM (AFP) - A Swedish study of 370-million-year-old fossil fish has shown that ears probably first developed as respiratory organs, one of the researchers on the project said.

The fossils "show how the ear developed in detail as a complex process of steps ... and that the (first development) had to do with breathing," Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University, north of Stockholm, told AFP.
As Gene notes, this is another blow to the one of the arguments behind the modern creationist movement - that complex systems like eyes and ears cannot evolve from lesser parts (or something, I don't care.)

At this point, a victory against the creationists feels oddly disappointing. Not only is it about as challenging as beating up a three year old, but you feel dirty that it's even necessary.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

On the Peacefulness of Democracies

Over at Arms Control Wonk, a decent piece arguing for the merits of the "Democratic Peace" hypothesis
which Jack Levy called “as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”

The law in question is not that democracies are more peaceful (by any measure, they most certainly are not), but rather that democracies do not fight each other.
I've written before about my skepticism about the whole notion that democracies will never fight each other. And that's what liberals are saying with this - if Jack Levy is correct, and it is close to an empirical law, then democracies should almost never fight each other, for the rest of time.

I should concede that, in the 20th century, the evidence does suggest a fact of a democratic peace: There isn't an example of two democracies going to war in the 20th century. However...

There's a number of problems with this theory, but first I'd like to break it down a bit. The modern DP theory says that liberal and democractic states will not attack each other because a) a separation of political powers will prevent one ruler from making all foreign policy, b) "the marketplace of ideas" will prevent false of misleading information from being used as propaganda, and c) liberal states can implicitly trust one another's decision-making, thus making misperceptions less frightening.

All of these rules were disproven by the Iraq War, despite the fact that the victim country in this case was not itself a democracy. We can see that A is not true. The President of the United States, despite a nominal separation of powers, publicly stated that he would go to war without an explicit endorsement from Congress. Instead, Bush preferred to use the post-9/11 resolution. This was never tested, but it is difficult to see how the Congress would have seriously opposed Bush if he had chosen to go down that road. More broadly, we can see that in most democracies the head of government has immense power to direct foreign policy. Kosovo showed that the President, even with an opposition Congress, could mount a foreign military expedition.

B is also false. The "marketplace of ideas" failed, and badly. Every single claim used to justify this war was disproven before the war began. Period. Often, claims were disproven only hours after they were made. For the best summary of how badly the press failed in this regard, read Chaim Kaufmann's "Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas." (warning-PDF)

Finally, C was shown to be questionable at best. There is little evidence to show that France or Germany were reassured by the Bush decision-making process. Again, parts of James Risen's State of War make this very clear. Democracies are just as prone to misperception as autocracies. For further evidence of this fact, see Vietnam War, 1964-72.

There are more fundamental problems with DP as a theory. They go deeper than the parts. The first problem is that it deals exclusively with war. This makes the theory nearly useless, because modern democratic states have numerous hostile options they can use in foreign policy short of war. Assassination, coups, embargoes, etc. For example, where do we put US actions against democratically elected leaders in Latin America? Allende was removed and US interests were served well short of a war, but it doesn't exactly reinforce any democratic peace.

The other problem is what I call the "War of 1812" problem. That is, how do we classify a democracy? The United Kingdom and United States of the era were hardly democracies by modern standards, but they still had all the elements that should have kept the peace (separation of powers, free press, similar decision making process.) It failed. We can either say a) that one or both countries was undemocratic, or b) the DP hypothesis is not, in fact, an empirical law. There are other examples of democracies going to war, notably from the Peloponnesian War. (Don't believe your crappy history books - Sparta had just as much democratic credibility as Athens, if not more so.)

We can only overcome this weakness to the theory is we say that countries need to be both liberal and democratic, but all this means is that countries who agree on the basic operating principles of the world are likely to get along. We could just as easily note that countries that are Communist and totalitarian (Mao and Stalin) get along, but not simply Communist (Mao and Khruschev.)

Finally, one other accepted rule to the democratic peace hypothesis is that a new or fragile democracy is actually more likely to be attacked. Ironically, this is meant to support the DP hypothesis, but it's actually the straw that breaks the academic's back. Where do we find new and fragile democracies, historically speaking? Generally in post-colonial or post-autocratic states. In post-colonial situations especially, there are powerful reasons for the old colonial power to try to intervene and reassert control. In post-autocratic states, a fragile government can be seen as an invitation by other states to intervene to either protect their own interests or expand their territory. We can see that the UK, the US, France, and Belgium have all intervened in post-colonial conflicts against democratic or popularly-supported governments. See Iran, Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, Congo, etc.

So basically the "new democracy" exception really just justifies imperialism and colonialism. That is to say, rather than reinforcing the DP hypothesis, we've simply brought it back to realpolitik - the powerful will do what they want, and the weak endure the consequences.

I don't like the "realist" school of though, mainly because it's what has led to so much blood and pain in the post-WWII period. But blind liberalism in the Internation Relations sphere is dangerous too. We can't be reassured by blindly accepting that democratic states will agree with us, just because all the states that already agreed with us before happened to be democratic.

Fun Things To Do With Thermite

Which, as if you didn't already know, burns at 2500 degrees. Celsius, fahrenheit, who cares?

Check out this video. See thermite attack a) liquid nitrogen, b) the engine of a french car, and c) the fuel tank (!) of same french car.

As far as I'm concerned, Google Video has already repaid it's investment.

More on Iran

I despair of what to do about Iran getting the bomb. Brad Plumer has some interesting posts, but there's a quote from this post that confuses me:
Moreover, the Iranian national oil company estimates that it will need $70 billion over the next five to ten years to refurbish Iran’s decrepit oil infrastructure if the country is to continue to produce at current levels. Unfortunately for the mullahs, the only places that Iran can find these levels of investment are in Europe, Japan, and the United States. (Although some claim that rising oil prices, coupled with investment from Russia and China will suffice, none of Iran’s own economists believe it.)
Why isn't this a rational belief? Those costs - $70 billion over 5-10 years - break down to an annual maximium cost of $14 billion, but possibly as little as $7/yr. In 2004, Iran exported 2.5 million barrels a day (slightly more than Canada, as it turns out.) If we assume that production stays flat and prices increase to an average of $65 barrel this year (I think this is optimistically low, frankly) then Iran will sell almost $60 billion worth of oil this year alone. That's more than enough to meet the needs of the refurbishment - indeed, it's almost enough to finance the entire thing in one year. Unless the author Brad Plumer is quoting meant $70 billion a year over 5-10 years, in which case the situation is much stickier.

None of this addresses the funamental economic problems within Iran, of course. But I don't think Iran will be suffering for a lack of money for the next little while. On the other hand, I don't know when Iran's oil production is expected to peak.

Why The Movie Business May Not Be Doomed

via Atrios, an excellent post by Mark Cuban on why the movie theatres should not fear closing the window between theatre and DVD release:
With the release of Bubble on January 27th in theaters, on DVD and for 2 showings on HDNet Movies, there has been a ton of press and discussion about the future of the movie industry.

THe most extreme has come from John Fithian, who wins the award for the best ever imitation of Jack Valenti’s famous comparison of the VCR to the Boston Strangler when he was quoted in FastCompany as saying: "John Fithian, the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade group based in Washington, DC, called Iger’s suggestion this summer a “death threat” against his members."...

Guess what John, I can whip up a mean steak, but I still like to go to restaurants. Because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting out of the house with family, friends, who ever....

Going to a restaurant. Going to a sporting event. Going shopping. Cabin Fever is alive and well. Wanting to get away from your parents, your kids, your job, your apartment, your house, your problems will never, ever go out of style. For the next thousand years the question will be asked…

What do you want to do tonight ? For the next thousand years, people will want to get the heck out of the house. The question is where to and why.

It didnt take me long to realize that the business of the Mavericks was not selling basketball, it was selling a fun night out and creating a favorable brand identification with our team and our players, with the hope that people would be excited to buy merchandise , products and services from us.

It didnt take me long to realize that the business of Landmark Theaters was very similar. At Landmark, our business is not showing the biggest movies from the biggest studios....Our job at Landmark is to go out and find those movies and to make the experience of watching those movies as unique and enjoyable as possible. It can be the decor of the theater. It might be offering adult beverages before, during and after the film. It may be offering the a DVD selection of the movies director so you dont have to scour the aisles of a huge retailer looking for a title they may not have. It may be offering the soundtrack of the movie, or the book the movie was based on. And starting with Bubble, it will include selling the DVD of the movie you just saw.
There's much more there, but that's the highlights. I'm not sure what to think of Cuban. In every interview I've seen of him, he comes of as a bit of a buffoon. But this post on his blog makes me think otherwise. Of course, someone who refers to themselves as a Maverick (also the name of his basketball team, apparently) doesn't score any points with me.

Atrios mentions that there's a bit of an odd assumption around the idea of leisure - namely that people would ideally choose not to go out if they can get the same experience at home. This is probably true in some cases, but Cuban makes a nice rebuttal above. I'd only point out that the elements of a movie theatre (big screen, big sound) tend to favour blockbuster moviemaking over smaller films. The difference between Syriana on the big screen or the living room TV is much less than the difference between King Kong on the big screen vs. the living room. So we might see simultaneous releases for smaller movies while studios and theatres retain a staggered release for the King Kongs of the movie world.

The one thing that theatres could do that would make me really happy is to jam cellphones, blackberries et al. But the most important thing about moviegoing that has turned me off in the last few times I've gone to one of the larger chains is just how poorly run the theatres are. When I went to go see Harry Potter 4, I nearly attacked the theatre manager because there was zero crowd control and I felt like Vicki and I were about to be trampled. Not to mention that the people who were in line first ended up entering the theatre last. Jeez.

By contrast, most of the smaller theatres I've gone to are neat enough, the prices are more reasonable, and there's rarely a stampede for the seats. That's what endangers the big chains.

Only the US Gets To Play, cont.

Grrr. In an otherwise thoughtful piece on Iran, Ivo Daalder continues the whole "anyone who opposes the US = must be destroyed" meme:
Moreover, a nuclear-armed Iran would represent a major threat to regional and global security. It could deter the United States and others from responding to Iranian aggression or to Tehran's support for terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. And given the messianic streak of Tehran's current leaders, do we really want to run the risk of them passing nuclear materials or even a weapon on to al Qaeda?
I don't know any other way to put this except to say this: Wanting to deter the US is not an immoral or irrational act. Indeed, it is explicitly rational and moral for a national leader to protect the sovereignty of their country. Hell, if Paul Martin wanted to get the bomb, he'd have good reason to.

Secondly, American pundits really shouldn't be throwing stones at the glass house that is "messianic leadership". I'm just sayin'.

Thirdly, Iran will never give nuclear material to Al Qaede. This will never happen. At all. Ever. Why? Because Al Qaeda has vowed to destroy Shia Islam. Indeed, one of the earliest humanitarian abuses of the Taliban regime was a Rwanda-style genocide campaign against Afghan Shia. Any bomb Tehran gives to the radical Sunnis of Al Qaeda is likely to stay in Tehran. One of the least-reported aspects of Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech was that until he used those words, Iran had been cooperating with the US to an extent in helping destroy the Taliban. This included holding escaped Al Qaeda leaders in Iran for the Americans, and even guaranteeing US flyover rights for any rescue missions. The Iranians really, really wanted the Taliban destroyed. However, once Bush called Iran a member of the AoE, many of Al Qaeda's top leaders were released, and we've never found them again. Some are presumably back in Afghanistan, where they're contributing to the death of NATO soldiers.

(For a bit more on how cooperative Iran was being pre-"Axis of Evil", you should read Risen's "State of War.")

That said, Daalder makes an excellent point here:
Iran could, of course, retaliate by pulling its oil off the world market, which would cause a price spike. But if Americans and Europeans are unwilling to run the risk of a temporary rise in oil prices as part of what it takes to prevent an Iranian bomb, then they had better be prepared to live with the consequences as well.
If we aren't willing to endure economic hardship to defeat our enemies, then why the hell are we even bothering? If we aren't willing to endure a price of gasoline that the Europeans are already paying to deter an Iranian bomb, than we should really just shut the hell up.

The Broadcast Flag is Back

Gyah. After being killed by an EFF lawsuit early last year, the broadcast flag is back in the US, meaning it's bound to make it back here.

For those who don't know, a "broadcast flag" is a signal embedded in digital information that would supposedly prevent unauthorized copying. In fact, it would certainly be used by television networks to prevent what we normally think of as legal - for example, taping a show while you're out.

Why would networks want to keep you from taping Lost while you're out getting the groceries? Simple. Services like on-demand cable and the iTunes TV service make it possible for the networks to force you to pay for something you have, up till now, been able to get for free.

To be clear: There is little evidence that the BF will actually restrict piracy over the Internet. Bits are bits, and they're damn hard to control. What it will do is make a well-established practice of home users illegal.

But, it gets worse: The new BF legislation apparently will apply to everything. Via boingboing:
The Senate has introduced the "Digital Content Protection Act of 2006," a bill that will create "Broadcast Flags" for all digital radio and television, leading to FCC oversight of all new digital media technologies from iPods and PSPs to TVs and DVD recorders.
There are only two choices for the Internet in the 21st century. Either we open up, or shut it down. I'm not arguing for a moral right to piracy, but I think piracy is the price we have to pay for a free digital society. We tolerate pornography and hateful material (in Canada, a federal hate crime is a very limited and specific crime) in liberal societies. Surely building the great freeways of the 21st century is worth shaving the profit margins of massive corporations.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Because I'm in a Nerd Competition

Blogging has been slow because I've been assimilated in to the legions of Battlestar Galactica fans, among other things. Turns out, the show is actually very good, especially if you liked Babylon 5.

However, one of the stars irritated a pet peeve of mine, in an interview I read today. Katee Sackhoff, who plays Starbuck:
I'll meet people who haven't watched the show purely because it's on Sci Fi. I'm like, you've gotta be kidding me. It's not really science fiction.
And I'm like, you've gotta be kidding me. It really is science fiction. It has spaceships, robots, and a freaking mad scientist. If it isn't SF, than nothing is.

Not to mention that BSG runs on the Sci-fi network in the US, and the Space channel in Canada.

Nerds of the world! Stop hiding your shame!

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Does anyone else remember Suck.com?

(Anyone? Hello? Is this thing on?)

Anyway, I remember. Specifically, I remember a particular author, who wrote under the pseudonym of Ambrose Beers. Beers wrote about military affairs, mostly, and later signed up for the US Army. He turns out to be a man named Chris Bray, who blogs for the History News Network. And he's still as good a writer as I remember. One of his latest entries takes Victor Davis Hanson (coughcoughHACKcough) to the woodshed for his idiotic anti-Europeanism:
The essay, with the too-enjoyable subtitle "Cry the beloved continent," tries to rouse Europe from its slumber before it Slides Inexorably Over the Lip of the Abbatoir, and yadda yadda yadda. "Even in this era of crisis," he writes to the whole of Europe, "we cling to the notion that in the eleventh hour you, Europe, will yet reawake, rediscover your heritage, and join with us in defending the idea of the West from this latest illiberal scourge of Islamic fascism."...

Now, reality. There are almost too many places to begin, but a column by defense analyst David Smith in the October 12, 2005 issue of Jane's Defence Weekly seems like an especially good start. Smith notes that NATO members, who quickly realized after the Sept. 11 attacks that "Europe could be more vulnerable to terrorism than North America," began the immediate deployment of military assets to protect against al Qaeda attacks. Recognizing the vulnerability of international shipping to terrorists, NATO quickly launched a naval operation called Operation Active Endeavour, putting a joint force of German, Greek, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Turkish, British, and U.S. ships on patrol in the eastern Mediterranean. Elements of the force were in place in the first days of October, 2001....

On the ground, European land forces (and others) reacted to the attacks of Sept. 11 with equal speed and seriousness, moving troops to Afghanistan to aid in the fight against al Qaeda warriors and their Taliban sponsors. As the website globalsecurity.org reported: "France had 2,000 military personnel in the region as of early November 2001. Japan, Germany, Italy and New Zealand have pledged to deploy ships and troops if needed. Turkey and Australia have announced that special operations forces would be deployed. Italy announced in early November that ships and aircraft, and up to 3,000 military personnel, would be deployed. The 3,900 Germans planned on deployment would include some 100 special operations troops. Turkey has committed 90 special forces troops and is prepared to send a peacekeeping force numbering about 3,000 if needed. By January 2002 special operations forces from Australia, Britain, France, Denmark, Germany and Turkey were on the ground in Afghanistan."
When idiotic whingers whine about how Canada isn't "serious" about the war on Terrorism or whatever's got their panties in a bunch, remember that Canadians are dying in Afghanistan in the real war on terrorism.

The Unsurprising Insanity of the Bush Administration

I'd try to work up shock or surprise, but it's much too late. Via Bending the Third Rail:
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has given the Navy go ahead to develop a conventionally armed Trident missile. Two dozen existing nuclear-armed submarine-launched missiles will be converted to carry conventional warheads. The missiles will then be assigned "global strike" missions to allow quicker preemptive attacks....

Were the United States ever to use its new conventional Tridents, the firing would also flirt with accidental nuclear war. Ballistic missiles aimed at targets in North Korea, for example, might falsely signal to China or Russia that the United States was attacking them.
This is serious. There's no way for any nation to determine where a particular warhead is headed, except by watching the missile come. So if a boat is in the Sea of Japan and starts firing ballistic missiles at North Korea, the Russians and the Chinese would have every reason to assume the missiles were heading their way.

Never mind that the US has given every indication that it favours a military response to Chinese power. This is a serious danger, and the US is risking nuclear war.

And why? Cruise Missiles can deliver a warhead for more than a thousand miles at this point, and can be launched by submarine just as easily. So why this? My guess is the speed aspect - a ballistic missile is quite a bit faster than a Tomahawk missile.

But ask yourself why the speed would be critical. After all, the only reason you'd want to be able to respond that quickly is that you have immediate intelligence of a target that you want to hit. But given recent US mistakes when it comes to targeting (wedding parties, etc.) having the missile commanders cool their heels for a few minutes might not be a bad idea.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I Don't Get It

Okay, another blogger has written about the Straussians, the neoconservatives who have a profoundly disturbing view of society:
Strauss's philospohy is repugnant and deeply anti-democratic. Through the Straussian lens, citizens are seen as too ignorant and generally unfit to take part in governance. People, Strauss believed, were not qualified to pass judgment on how to govern, and therefore must be manipulated by a ruling elite in order to achieve government goals.
But here's what I don't get. Straussians believe:
a) Most people are idiots.

b) Straussians want power. In a democratic state, this means winning elections. Preferably with a majority of the vote.
Ergo, Straussian-ism is only fit for idiots?

No, It Must Be TERROR Sweat

So Paul Martin approves of this:
"(Harper's) view of the country is a separatist view that doesn't have a strong federal government. A strong federal government is what makes Canada the country it is."...

"I would urge them to stop Stephen Harper in any way they can," he said, adding that Canada will be a "meaner place for most Canadians" with Harper as leader....

"Mr. Hargrove, who's one of Mr. Martin's key campaign supporters, is now urging people to vote for the Bloc -- and I wonder what Mr. Martin thinks of that," said Harper.
Buzz Hargrove, today. With Paul Martin beside him.

We've gone from "a vote for the NDP is a vote for Stephen Harper" to "a vote for Stephen Harper is a vote for the Bloc" to "a vote for the Bloc is a vote for national unity." Morons.

We're through the looking glass here. And Hargrove is hurting the NDP and the labour movement, not to mention the country. ANY vote against the Bloc is a good thing for Quebec and for Canada, and Hargrove can only justify his statements through idiotic contortions.

To be clear: I disagree with Harper's views on federal power, but whatever he does in the next few years, this country will survive it. Harper - as he's recently admitted - will be too boxed in by the Courts and the Senate to do irreversible harm to this country. I think the country will be a worse place with PM Harper, but the country will endure.

One side note - the NDP should abandon it's formal ties with the labor movement. Unions are unable to deliver the votes for the NDP, and now the most prominent labor leader in the country is fluffing for the Liberals. The NDP has nothing left to gain from the special voting rights they give the labour unions.

A few weeks ago, Skippy wrote that "Paul Martin's carcass is so foul that even the vultures stay upwind." At the time I thought it was a bit harsh (albeit fun to read.) I'm less and less charitably inclined to these people every day.

It's Better Than Some

Your results:
You are Spider-Man
The Flash
Green Lantern
Iron Man
Wonder Woman
You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.
Click here to take the "Which Superhero are you?" quiz...

I'd appreciate it if we could all ignore that I'm apparently more Robin than Batman.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

This Is So Obvious I Feel Stupid

Gen. Glut asks a simple question about Iran: Why is the preferred metaphor for the pro-war crowd Munich, 1938 and not China, 1964?
In 1964 China was considered just as radical and unstable and irrational as Iran is today. In fact, probably more so. The Great Leap Forward had just ended, which consumed 25-60 million lives. The split with the USSR had come a few years previously as well because Khrushchev thought Stalin wasn't all that and a bag of chips, with Mao accusing the Soviets of "counter-revolution"...

And yet when the US had the chance to bomb Chinese nuclear facilities to forestall a nuclear China in 1964, it refused.
On that note, I open the floor to Gwynne Dyer:
In the ensuing media panic, we were repeatedly reminded that Iran's radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared just months ago that Israel should be "wiped off the map." How could such a lethally dangerous regime be allowed to proceed with its nuclear plans?

But talk is cheap and not to be confused with actions or even intentions....

Israel has held a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East since shortly after Ahmadinejad was born and now possesses enough of them to strike every Iranian and every Arab city of more than 100,000 people simultaneously.

Ahmadinejad's comment was as foolish, but also ultimately as meaningless, as Ronald Reagan's famous remark into a microphone that he didn't know was open: "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."...

Ahmadinejad was not joking about wanting Israel to vanish, but he was expressing a wish, not an intention, because Iran has been thoroughly deterred for all of his adult life by the knowledge of those hundreds of Israeli nuclear warheads.
We underestimate the deterrent capability of nuclear weapons, which is silly. The US and USSR were both deterred for most of the Cold War, and even today the US has effectively been deterred by the North Korean bomb - after the North Koreans have been deterred for decades by the US Nuclear Umbrella protecting South Korea. Why would we expect anything different from Iran?

Sometimes You Need To Beat The Market With A Stick

An excellent piece on the sorry state of broadband access in the US, at Washington Monthly:
The dispute over municipal broadband bears a striking similarity to the development of the electric power industry a century ago. As James Baller—an attorney who represents local governments and public utilities—first warned in a 1994 paper written for the American Public Power Association: “The history of the electric power industry casts substantial doubt on the notion that our nation can depend on competition among cable and telephone companies alone... to ensure not only prompt and affordable, but also universal, access to the benefits of the information superhighway.”...

But the expansion of electricity, Baller argued, showed that the presence—or even threat—of competition from the public sector is one of the surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises delivering critical public services. FDR, he notes, called municipal power systems “a birch rod in the cupboard, to be taken out and used only when the child gets beyond the point where more scolding does any good.”
There's a reason why American companies are trying their damnedest to undermine Canadian health care - they can't compete against it. Not because it's unfair, but because it's better, period. Same goes for the Internet, electricity, and any number of other public services. The government can provide them best, but we keep selling out to the private market.

Spectrum policy is one of those things I have a periodic interest in, and I really reccomend the New America Foundation for this stuff. They've been on the case for years now, advocating that we let unlicensed internet service on unoccupied areas of the radio spectrum. This would make cheap, fast broadband quickly available.

But it may never happen in Canada. Rogers and Bell together have more than enough power in politics and the market to kill any public wi-fi project. They've announced plans to build their own, but even if they do (and that's questionable) it'll likely cost us four times too much for less speed than we could have with a public system.

Monday, January 16, 2006

You Know You Want To

Paul Wells has a good catch - comparing the results of different polls in a seat projector. Turns out, more NDP votes gives the NDP more seats. Screwy, no? The way the Grits have written the script, a vote for the NDP is a vote for Harper. Turns out, a vote for the NDP is a vote for... the NDP. In fact, it seems like the only surefire way to keep Harper in minority territory at this point is to vote NDP. This actually makes sense - there's a bunch of seats (Ontario and BC, I'd imagine) where the NDP and the Tories are the only ones in the running, or where it's a tight three-way race. Voting Liberal won't tip the scales in the Tory/NDP races, and will only rescue a few of the tight 3-way races.

So, progressives: Vote NDP. It's the only choice.