Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Less with the haw-haw

This is really sad: Molly Ivins, having lost her battle with breast cancer, has died.

If you haven't picked up Shrub or Bushwhacked, you really should. The introduction to Bushwhacked is priceless. Paraphrasing from memory: "Our first book, "Shrub", was all about how Dubya ruined Texas. We published it well before the 2000 election. Now all we can say is, if you'd listened to us the first time, we wouldn't be here again!"

Haw. And might I add, Haw!

via Battlepanda:
They may be unlikely competitors, but McDonald's is giving Starbucks a run for its money when it comes to coffee.

According to a report published in Consumer Reports magazine, McDonald's serves up a better cup of joe than the mega coffee chain.

Testers compared a medium cup of black coffee from McDonald's, Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. They found the best cup of java under the golden arches.

The magazine said McDonald's coffee was "decent and moderately strong" while the coffee from Starbucks "was strong, but burnt."
Take that, former employer of mine!

It was a bizarre experience, working there. I'm not partial to coffee in general, and I loathe Starbucks in particular, but I worked there for over a year. Huh.

Slow posting day

No good reason. But I have to say, this sloppy thinking bugs me every time, even when (via Olaf) it's by Rick Mercer:
You end by saying you personally cannot envision that peace can ever be paved with military offensives. May I suggest to you that in many instances in history peace has been achieved exactly that way.

The gates of Auschwitz were not opened with peace talks. Holland was not liberated by peacekeepers and fascism was not defeated with a deft pen. Time and time again men and women in uniform have laid down their lives in just causes and in an effort to free others from oppression.
Ah, the gates of Auschwitz. Opened by the Red Army, and thenceforth the people of Poland lived happily in freedom and liberty forever. Oh, wait, they didn't. They lived under foreign occupation for 50 years.

Pity when a little detail ruins an already-bad line of reasoning.

My post about the President being "Commander in Chief" was about semantic differences, this is another one. Military offensives can achieve victory, sometimes. (Sometimes they get defeat, too.) But the way we achieved lasting peace in Western Europe and Japan was not simply by destroying the Nazis -- it was by putting the pieces of Europe back together again, deliberately, and competently. That is to say, yes, Mr. Mercer, fascism was destroyed in Europe, and hasn't returned, because of many deft pens working over decades. It's not like we killed every German to wear a swastika on their arms. And yes, it's a good thing we didn't.

Nobody who's read this blog regularly will doubt that I take great pride in Canada's role in World War II, and Mercer is absolutely correct earlier in this piece -- the prof he's excoriating deserves Mercer's scorn.

The military force of the Allies did a great thing by destroying our enemies, I truly believe that. But to say that our soldiers didn't win the peace that followed is also perfectly correct. And Mercer should have the sense to look up some of the soldiers-turned-politicians who made a lasting peace possible. Start with men like Marshall and Eisenhower.

I wonder why it is we're so quick to laud the military for things it didn't do. Probably because we can't seem to fathom that politicians can do things right.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ideological incoherence

Libertarians for forcible confiscation and redistribution of property. Who knew? Apparently, when the President excercises unconstitutional powers to seize people's property and engages in collective punishment, David Boaz of the CATO Institute is just peachy with it.

Seriously, to call the destruction of the slave trade (which, let's remember, took the world's largest and most destructive war until WWI) a "libertarian" triumph means that libertarianism is exactly what any serious person always thought it was -- a bad joke. "Liberal", maybe, but in no possible coherent fashion can the end of slavery be called "the most important libertarian accomplishment in history."

Just so we're clear, I'm totally cool with the unreasonable seizures and unconstitutional powers in the case of the Civil War. (See the Emancipation Proclamation.) But then I'm a dirty Commie.

Debate topic

Would Canadians be more concerned about climate change and global warming if they understood the likely results include much greater snowfall during the winter?

In other news, guess what I spent an hour doing today?

The end of an era

Floppy disks are finally going the way of the dodo.
After 36 years and billions of sales, the floppy disk is to join the video player, cassette deck and film camera on technology's scrapheap.

The 9cm piece of plastic will no longer be available from Britain's biggest computer retailer.

PC World announced last night it would stop selling the disks when stocks ran out.
The thing that finally killed them, I'd wager, is portable cheap flash drives. A CD-ROM is a ridiculous container for a Word document, but a flashdrive works just fine.

What's this?

I don't know, it seems kind of weird for Congress to be asking the Attorney General what powers the President believes Congress has when it comes to making war. Also, rough to type and re-read.

On the other hand, this is a nice antidote to the Unitary Executive Theory favoured by Cheney:
Of course, the Constitution reserves to the Congress the power to “declare war” in Article I, section 8. In addition to the so-called power of the purse, the Constitution provides a number of specific powers to Congress. In particular, the Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power to “provide for the common Defence,” “to define and punish . . . Offenses against the Law of Nations,” “to make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water,” “to raise and support Armies,” “to provide and maintain a Navy,” “to make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces,” “to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union . . . and repel Invasions,” “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States,” and “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

Contrast these extensive provisions and powers with that of the President, who is designated the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”
On a related note, it's worth pointing out that, per the Constitution, the United States has no "Commander in Chief." Look at it right there -- the President is Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. Hell, an ultra-literal reading of the Constitution would imply an Air Force officer has no CinC. (Somebody call Scalia!)

A semantic difference, but an important one. An American citizen -- one not wearing the uniform of the armed services -- has no commander. That's why we call them citizens, after all.

This kills me:
Dwight Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and as president he was not wearing one. An exchange of salutes was out of order.
You read that right: Eisenhower, aka "Supreme Allied Commander, European Theatre" refused to return salutes as a civilian leader. And rightly so.

Bremer on the stand

Paul Bremer will testify before Congress. Woot. After 'em, boys.

One question though. Why is he being invited instead of subpoenaed? And another question: will he be forced to testify under oath?

It shouldn't matter -- lying to Congress is illegal, under oath or not -- but we'll see.

What will Jack get?

CTV is reporting that:
The Conservatives appear ready to agree to short-term targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a cap on emissions from industrial polluters, tougher fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and possibly cuts in subsidies for the oil industry.

Layton has asked for changes in those areas of the bill, in exchange for the support of his party's 29-member caucus.
If the NDP can really bring a bill that contains substantial progress on those fronts, then not only should the NDP be supporting it on its merits alone, the Liberals and the BQ should be too.

I have to see the final product before I come down on this issue one way or another, but if the Cons are ready to agree to a hard cap on industrial emissions and tougher fuel-efficiency standards, that alone would be worth supporting.

Cantarell down 25%

Jeebus. Earlier this year, the Mexican government announced it's largest oil field, Cantarell, had peaked and was in decline. The worse news is that it's happening faster than expected, and may even accelerate:
The virtual collapse at Cantarell — the world's second-biggest oil field in terms of output at the start of last year — is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. Cantarell's daily output fell to 1.5 million barrels in December compared to 1.99 million barrels in January, according to figures from the Mexican Energy Ministry.
Cantarell's problems are not Cantarell's alone. The entire global oil industry is facing this problem: new technology is so good at extracting oil at high speed that the collapse comes quickly, and without warning. (The North Sea is another good example, or Burgan in Kuwait.) It's data like this that makes me pessimistic about Peak Oil -- I'm betting, like Ken Deffeyes, that we'll never see our May, 2005 production levels again.

A temporary seasonal decline in oil prices really shouldn't blind us to the problems we face.

Two scoops of Murder!!! -- part of a balanced breakfast

Well, killing at least.

You see, we have mice. And not the pet kind. And while we bought the humane traps, I'm left with a dilemma. The mouse can be released to the wild, thereby learning that he can get a meal left out for him at our place. Or he can be killed, which will if nothing else mean one less vermin in our house.

Better yet, the collective effect of killing mice is hoped to have a deterrent effect -- with luck, the mouse community will see our house as a kind of black hole, or maybe Guantanamo.

(Yes, I'm endorsing an argument about mice that I don't endorse about humans. Your point?)

So to me, the choice would be clear even if I didn't detest mice. Which I do. If you sell me a humane trap, you're selling me a bug, not a feature. I want these bastards dead.

Me: The Dick Cheney to the Global War on Mice.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Fun with the Internets

Some people are finding this blog by Googling the phrases "pissing" or "tentacle rape."

Which, when you consider the competition...

(Explanations here and here, I think.)

Please, please, please let my mother not be reading this.

Even better: Some are finding this blog with the phrase "bizarre headlines". There's some meta-bizarreness going on here.

When has an Asian textbook ever been controversial, after all?

Way to go, Taiwan. Japan had that whole "uselessly inflammatory school texts" market cornered, and you've managed to move in.
Taiwan has revised its high-school history textbooks to show that Taiwan is an independent country and not part of China, media reports said Monday.

The China Times said that on the education ministry's order, the title of the national history textbook for high-school - to be used after the winter vacation - has been changed from 'National History' to 'China History'.

In this textbook, terms like 'our country,' 'this country' and 'the mainland' have been changed to 'China' to indicate that Taiwan is not part of China, the daily said.
Now the difference between Japan and Taiwan I suppose is that while Japan's troublesome texts are basically apologist screeds for Japanese imperialism, there's an obvious and clear case to make that Taiwan is, de facto, a different country from China.

Still, inflammatory and unhelpful.

God help us

So Gen. Jack Keane had already abandoned the "surge" idea, and now Fred Kagan -- co-author of this plan -- is saying this:
This is not our plan. The White House is not briefing our plan.
Thus begins the Incompetence Dodge, pt. II: Because the surge wasn't executed in every detail that it's proponents demanded, they are therefore blameless.

Well, no. The Iron Law of the Bush Administration: any idea they touch turns to shit. If the idea is already a shitty one, well, it gets worse from here...

Anybody, anywhere, at any time who suggests a course of action for the Bush administration needs to take this in to account. If you don't, you're at fault as much as the Bush people are. Can we at least all agree on this in 2007, for the love of God?

ATMs, Continued

Olaf read my post about the whole ATM-surcharge dealy and cruelly pointed out that I didn't actually, y'know, say whether I supported the NDP proposal. Nice of Olaf to give me the benefit of the doubt and not assume I'm a monkey on a string. (I will, however, perform a dance for bananas.) The short version is, yes, I do.

First things first. Either you think what's happening now is a problem or you don't. People are being forced, for a lack of options in their area, to use third-party ATMs that charge additional fees on top of their own banks charges. Like I said, either you think this is a problem or you don't. A reasonable argument could be made that nobody's putting a gun to people's heads and forcing them to use these things, but an equally reasonable argument is that people can't always plan ahead and when you need cash, you need it. I come down on the "yes, this is a problem", and more than that I believe this problem (unlike sundry others) is actually worth the Feds stepping in on.

The biggest reason is that this is a problem the feds created, in part. The wave of bank mergers during the 1990s allowed the consolidation of the industry and the shutting of now-redundant branches. Even in Toronto, the distance I had to travel between my "home branch" went from being 10 minutes to almost an hour (both by foot, for reference sake) because my branch got shut down during this period. This consolidation was a result of the mergers the Feds encouraged, not just allowed. When I was living in Ottawa, there was simply no convenient access to my own banks' ATMs on campus. By fourth year, the ATM I was using regularly near home had also been switched to a third-party ATM.

Now, my situation was hardly dire, but I was also living in the two biggest cities in Ontario. I can only imagine what the process has been like across the country. People are being forced to pay more than they had before because of a policy the Federal government actively pursued. It may seem minor, but once again anything that's an annoyance to me is probably a cause of serious anxiety for someone closer to poverty's edge.

In the comments thread below, I mentioned that Bell (a government protected-monopoly) is forced to allow the non-discriminatory use of its lines to third parties, without charging their customers extra fees. Given that banks these days are more networks than vaults (if you get my meaning) that may be a useful analogy. But there's one that I think is better: cable television.

In Canada, and across the US, it's common practice for governments to demand certain performance guarantees from cable television companies. For example, you might allow a company to build a new network, but only on condition that they build in the middle- and lower-class areas of a city, not just the richest. Does this raise the overall cost of the service? Marginally. But it makes sure that companies cannot abandon the low-profit parts of the market.

(I frequently use Communications Policy analogies because it's what I know best.)

Could a similar principle work with banks? I think it certainly could. ATMs, after all, are dramatically less expensive than operating in-person bank branches. Insisting that banks spend a small portion of their Crown-chartered profits to maintain decent service networks for the working class is hardly unreasonable, especially since they were all making plenty of money before the mergers that caused this whole problem.

Another possibility would be to make debit transactions zero-cost for the consumer and the business owner, thus eliminating the need for ATMs in large part. Either way, the government has some leeway for solving this problem.

Death Cults

The chaos and violence in Iraq is so bad, it's literally apocalyptic -- Shias are bombing their own temples in an attempt to bring back the Hidden Imam. Via Ackerman, who writes:
Somehow I don't think this will come up in Admiral Fallon's nomination hearing tomorrow. We don't need Petraeus in Iraq, we need Buffy the motherfucking Vampire Slayer.
Somehow, I don't think even she'd be up for it.

Climate Change: The New Gold Rush

Now that all the ice up north is melting, we can get at more of the precious, precious oil. Which will cause the ice to melt faster, which will let us get at even more oil... Good work, everybody.

On a related note, I'm with the skeptics on that CTV poll that says Canadians are willing to sacrifice for the environment. If that were true we wouldn't be in this mess.

Or, let me take the optimistic outlook: Canadians are willing to sacrifice for the environment, but for most Canadians sacrifice isn't a viable option. A person who can only afford a used Civic as conveyance isn't able to spring for a Prius. A person who can't afford the rent in a major urban centre may reasonably choose to live in the 'burbs. (They're simply wrong on that count, btw. Factoring in car costs, it's almost always cheaper to live downtown. If you already need/want a car, then the calculus changes...)

That said, the poll does contain some good news for leftier types like me who support strong measures by the Feds to intervene in the economy. To take just one example, the government needs to take strong measures to a) stop sprawl, and b) densify the least-dense areas. You could continue to add condo towers to the downtown cores around Canada, but the marginal improvement in people per km2 isn't much. Add corner stores, and sidewalks for God's sake, to suburban developments and you'd be much better off.

Land use patterns are one of the least-covered but most important aspects of environmentalism. In Canada, I suspect many people assume that because this country is so friggin huge land isn't a problem. The fact is, there's Canada, and then there's "Canada", the place that people actually live. "Canada" is, what, 1/10 the size of Canada, and so land-use patterns are actually incredibly important.

Cue the freakout

"Taliban Ham" Karzai is proposing negotiating with the Taliban. Shocking, I know, that he would hate his own people so much, and wish death on Canadian soldiers like that.


So I see the Republicans are once again beating the drums about Iran, and this time they're resorting to that old standby:
I would say is that the Commander-in-Chief in the United States... has to understand the information that he is given, the the vast — that the vast majority of which the American public do not have
You see, "it's classified." You don't know what they know, so your beliefs that:
1) Iran doesn't have the bomb.
2) Iran isn't getting the bomb anytime soon.
3) Therefore, there's no reason to bomb Iran for having The Bomb.
simply don't count.

Here's the thing. This is never true. Ever. The vast, vast majority of intelligence gathering is open-source, as in available through public documents or media. If I had a staff of thousands, I could probably do at least as good a job as the CIA.

Ah, but you say, "what about the Cuban missile crisis?" It's true that I don't have access to U2 or SR71 spyplanes (if only...) and thus cannot match the capabilities of the US Government when it comes to reconnaissance. But note what JFK actually did: he gathered clear, unequivocal evidence of what the USSR was doing in Cuba, and shared it with the world at the famous UN meeting. Meanwhile, proving that the second time really is farce, Colin Powell's presentation at the UN pre-Iraq was debunked whole hours after he finished speaking. Debunked, I hasten to add, by open sources.

So, very slowly children: If the government says it knows something you don't, and refuses to tell you what it is, the government is lying. Here endeth the lesson.

When blinkered arguments attack

Olaf on Jack Layton's proposal for ATM fees:
Simply, it's a private business, and it's not up to Jack Layton to decide what is or isn't a fair price to charge for the service they provide. No one is forced to incur the catastrophic injustice of a $1.50 user fee; you can take money out at your own bank's machine, keep your money in a bank that doesn't charge user fees, or even in a box under your bed, for all I care. I know Jack would love to personally decide what is or isn't a fair price for all private goods and services, but, tragically, we can't send him back in time to the miraculous economic and social triumph of the Soviet Union...
1) Once, just fucking once, I'd looooooove to see a Conservative engage an NDP proposal without the bogeyman of the Soviet Union. I mean, I could spend a day educating the Blogging Tories about how Social Democrats were historically just as opposed to Lenin as the rest of society (mainly because we were first in front of the firing squads) but the reality is it doesn't matter -- we're "left", ergo we must all yearn for the days of GOSPLAN and the Gulag Archipelago. Clearly.

(Note to Olaf: I've never compared Stephen Harper to Hitler, because aside from anything else it's innacurate and offensive. Try returning the courtesy.)

The sad thing is, Olaf really isn't the worst offender. He's making a joke, but his brethren see that argument as holy writ.

2) For clear social and historical reasons, banking has always, always, always been heavily regulated. There's a little thing called "usury", not to mention margin calls, fractional reserve rules, and the entire edifice of central banking that keeps the economy going. Banks are simply not allowed to charge too little interest or too much. And here's the kicker -- bankers love it that way. They get unchallenged power over money and the economy in exchange for some rules that they should probably have come up with on their own.

Meanwhile, the whole idea that the government has no role in prices is absurd. The government keeps tinkering with things like taxes, investment rules, competition law, in order to keep prices low for consumers. (In theory.) Why? Because consumers are also voters, and they like low prices. Savvy politicians do this thing called "pandering", and it's no surprise that Flaherty says he's taking this ATM thing seriously.

So how about this, people: if you think a tiny, teeny-weeny, fraction-of-a-percent change in the way banks do business is going to cause the collapse of capitalism in Canada, make your case in detail. Otherwise, stop embarrassing yourselves.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Yet another book for the list

Dammit... I'm just finishing up on my Vietnam history binge, I've got friends demanding I read Vernor Vinge's books, and now I obviously have to read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. He has a fantastic essay on the western diet and the evils therein in the NYT Magazine this week. READ READ READ.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
I especially like this part at the end:
Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

HMCS Ottawa is heading home

It's been in the Persian Gulf for five months now, and it's heading back to the west coast. I'll be breathing a little easier. Whatever Bush is gonna pull with Iran, Canadian sailors won't be in (as much) danger.

Why Presidents should be precise

(Cross-posted at Ezra's)

Bush on Tuesday, about the Iranian menace:

Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah -- a group second only to al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.

Well, my first question is "what's a group?" Because I'm pretty sure Nazi Germany took more American lives than al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. The Viet Cong were regularly called terrorists for their tactics, and the Tet Offensive alone killed more US soldiers than Hezbollah ever has. Are we talking about Lebanese Hezbollah (believed responsible for the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing,) Saudi Hezbollah (responsible for Khobar Towers) or are we conflating the two?

Then of course there's the issue that the majority of the casualties from Hezbollah's two major attacks were uniformed personnel stationed overseas (the US Marines in Lebanon were in a war zone, no less) while the majority of the dead from al-Qaeda's attacks have been US civilians.

You may or may not think one or any of those details is relevant, much less important. But in one hyphenated sentence, Bush managed to gloss over more than two decades of history and deliberately obscured the reality of US and Middle East relations. To me, this particular case is more annoying than alarming, but the intent is clear -- to try and lasso Hezbollah, Iran and al-Qaeda together and pave the rhetorical way forward for attacks on Iran.

SOTU: Energy

(Cross-posted at Ezra's)

Shorter me: Meh. Nuthin new here.

This is the brief, relevant passage from Bush's address Tuesday. I've cut some out, but this is all the specifics:

It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply -- the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol -- (applause) -- using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we've done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks -- and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it's not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

Not really anything different from previous Bush speeches, but not a lot to object to here either -- aside from the fantasy of clean coal.

Plug-in hybrids: I'm a big, big fan. Probably the single most important change Americans could make to their transportation and electrical infrastructure, in terms of reducing oil use. A large, population-wide shift to mass transit would be better, but is unlikely in the near term.

Biofuels: As they currently stand, not really more sustainable than fossil fuels. Palm biodiesel and corn ethanol are extremely destructive, and don't really help as much with carbon emissions as some people think. The benefits on corn ethanol in particular are so marginal that it's impossible to say for sure that there's any benefit at all. That said, there are plenty of better options for producing ethanol and biodiesel (gasification and algae, respectively) that

Improving CAFE standards: A no-brainer. Fuel efficiency has, in fact, improved dramatically over the last 20 years, though most people wouldn't know it -- the advancements have all gone to making bigger trucks accelerate faster, not improving mileage. Even just halting the growth in the average weight of American cars, much less reversing the trend, would do wonders.

Expanding the SPR: I guess I'm agnostic on this count. If America manages to actually reduce petroleum consumption, there will be less need for the SPR, not more. So this seems to contradict Bush's previous statements (imagine that!) but I think people may be comforted by the ability of the US govt to flood the market when necessary.

As for the stuff I disliked in this speech, the heavy emphasis on coal in Bush's speeches and his policies continues to baffle me. Nobody's demonstrated that sequestration is safe or cheap. The "gold standard" of quote-unquote clean coal is the Integrated Gasification and Carbon Capture plant, where the coal is gasified, burned in a high-efficiency turbine, and the CO2 is stored underground. The problem with this is that sequestration of gaseous CO2 is a really, really iffy proposition. You don't know whether it will stay down there, and even if it does, it might poison groundwater.

And yes, I continue to believe that the high cost alone deserves to keep nuclear out of our plans for the foreseeable future.

Overall, it's gratifying to see the good ideas surrounding energy policy (plug-ins, biofuels, etc.) become so commonly-held that not even George W. Bush can deny them, but I'd prefer if he'd leave out the bad stuff.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Signs my Girlfriend has never been to a strip club

My Girlfriend: That must suck for strippers, if somebody tips them with loonies and toonies.

[Note to American readers: That's our quaint term for $1 and $2 coins.]

Me: If you're tipping with loonies and toonies, that doesn't suck for the strippers. You just suck, period.

Lessons Unlearned, cont.

Dafna Linzer in the WaPo today:
The Bush administration has authorized the U.S. military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of an aggressive new strategy to weaken Tehran's influence across the Middle East and compel it to give up its nuclear program, according to government and counterterrorism officials with direct knowledge of the effort....

Senior administration officials said the policy is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders.
The Rostow Thesis, 1964:
The first of several inquiries into the feasibility of going big in Vietnam began in January 1964. This was a high-level interagency, supersecret evaluation of a thesis championed by Walt Rostow, at the time head of State's Policy Planning Staff, that systematic US bombing of the DRV would "convince the North Vietnamese that it was in their economic self-interest to desist from aggression in South Vietnam."
The Rostow Thesis was, of course, wrong. The North was willing to endure a lot more punishment than the US could mete out. More importantly for our situation today, the North didn't simply back down from US escalation, it escalated in turn.

I wonder why this possibility seems to evade the Administration so. One theory is the experience of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. The inattentive observer could look at the use of force in Bosnia and Kosovo and say that the Serbs knuckled under to US force without escalating against the US in turn. But of course, the Serbs lacked the ability to escalate against the US in any real way -- ground forces weren't introduced in to either Bosnia or Kosovo until after the fighting stopped. Meanwhile, neither side in the Yugoslav wars showed any real hesitancy to fire on Blue Helmets.

Today, Iran has a number of possible avenues to escalate in turn against the United States -- Iraq and Afghanistan being just the two obvious possibilities. Even worse (from the US point of view) when the North Vietnamese escalated, the US Army had plenty of capacity to escalate, too -- which is why US combat troops went from 180,000 to almost 600,000 from 1965 to 1969. The Iranians have a major capacity to escalate on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the US Army and Marines have basically no slack manpower to match.

It's important not to make too much of the Iraq/Vietnam comparisons, but it is the most recent example of this kind of poor thinking I can think of.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Read it, punk. Dead or alive, you're learning with me.

If you're studying Roman history at UCLA, you can take a course with Peter Weller, aka Robocop.
It’s hard to imagine what freshmen think when they wander into Professor Banzai’s lecture hall. Weller reports that he loses a lot of students after the first class. “They thought they were going to get the easy A from old RoboCop,” he says with a laugh. The 450-page course reader tells them otherwise. Those who stay get a view into Weller’s two worlds. For example, his class at Syracuse on Hollywood and the Roman Empire requires watching toga-and-sandal epics (Ben Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ among them) and reading primary-source Roman authors in an attempt to reconcile big-screen Rome with the real thing.

Why it's dangerous for rulers to believe they're divinely inspired

via The Vanity Press, this is really the perfect summation of the Bush years:
Pelosi also said she was puzzled by what she considered the president's minimalist explanation for his confidence in the new surge of 21,500 U.S. troops that he has presented as the crux of a new "way forward" for U.S. forces in Iraq.

"He's tried this two times — it's failed twice," the California Democrat said. "I asked him at the White House, 'Mr. President, why do you think this time it's going to work?' And he said, 'Because I told them it had to.' "

Asked if the president had elaborated, she added that he simply said, " 'I told them that they had to.' That was the end of it. That's the way it is."
I don't know about you, but when I hear that I think of Czar Nicholas II. When the Kaiser (his cousin) asked if he understood the risks of war with Japan he responded that there would be no war, "because I do not yet wish it." Shortly thereafter, the Japanese attacked. Oops.

Run Al Run

Rolling Stone says Al Gore is the best-positioned to win the Dems nomination in 2008. It would probably help if he, y'know, announced sometime. But keep hope alive!

Prime Minister Harper fails high school chemistry

OTTAWA (CP) - Canada won't follow the Bush administration's lead in setting hard targets for reducing oil consumption, but will instead impose tougher emissions standards on the auto sector and other industries, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Just in case that isn't clear, Mr. Harper is indeed now more retrograde on the environment than President Bush:
Harper said he is considering imposing targets on industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
The PM would like to believe that it is possible to reduce CO2 emissions without actually oxidizing less carbon. This is simply not possible. (Sequestration, a much-touted option for reducing CO2 emissions, is thus far either vaporware or more expensive than solar or wind.) Any high school chemistry student could correct the error in this logic, but apparently such wisdom isn't available to the Conservative caucus.

Just so we're clear, no, there's no comparison between carbon (a fundamental part of hydrocarbon fuels) and something like sulphur, which we have succesfully reduced our emissions of. You burn a hyrdocarbon, you oxidize hydrogen to water and carbon to CO2. The only way to reduce fossil-carbon emissions is to reduce our use of fossil-carbon sources. This means either efficiency or conservation.

The other aspect of Harper's denialism is equally illogical:
"President Bush's speech . . . when he talked about these things was really talking about it in the context primarily of energy security and the United States shortage of energy and their dependence on foreign supplies of energy," Harper said perching forward as he sat in his sun-filled Parliament Hill office.

"That's not a problem here. Canada is an emerging world energy superpower. We have an abundance of all forms of energy. We're an exporter of virtually all forms of energy."
Okay. Let's say for argument's sake that Canada's oil exports are so profitable to Canadians that, even accounting for the environmental and social ills it causes, we should encourage further development for export to the US. Doesn't it therefore follow that Canadians could use less and export more?

Think of it this way: It's almost always cheaper to not use a barrel of oil, than to use one. This means not using a barrel of oil domestically, and exporting that barrel instead, pays off twice. So yes, even if you're only interest is in promoting Canada's economy growth (environment be damned!) it still makes perfect sense to pursue all reasonable means to reduce Canada's oil consumption.

And that's not even considering the very real problems and dangers associated with relying on diminishing natural gas supplies for the tar sands. Note to Albertans: you can either keep exporting oil, or maintain the province's ban on nuclear power. Not both. What happens when Albertans are forced to choose between nuclear reactors and less oil production? I dunno, but I suspect the Green Party will elect it's first MP in Alberta. Mark me down on that prediction, someone.

Worse than I thought

Regulars know that I'm no fan of airpower triumphalists. I'm a big sloppy geek for aircraft, sure. But since the dawn of powered flight various douchebags have been promising that airpower alone will win a war. It never happens.

Douchebag of the week, apparently, is now-former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. via Galloping Beaver, Haaretz reports:
A senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces General Staff said yesterday that during last summer's war, the option of a large-scale ground operation in southern Lebanon was not seriously discussed by the General Staff or by the political establishment until July 27, more than two weeks after the war broke out....
This isn't to say that ground troops weren't part of the early plan, but that Halutz seems to have believed -- along with the rest of the Israeli leadership -- that Hezbollah could be routed with airpower playing the lead role, and a small ground force basically mopping up. That didn't work out so well.

Ground forces aren't meant for every operation, sure, but when fighting a popular movement, they're essentially the smartest weapons you've got. To put it simply, the consequences when a rifleman misses are much, much less problematic than when an F-15 pilot does.


Jonah Goldberg:
Alas, in DC we are forced to sport "Taxation without Representation." Don't get me started on how this gets priorities exactly backward. DC Statehooders think it's horrible that we are taxed without a representative in Congress. Fair enough. But. come on, who among us wouldn't trade their congressman's vote in exchange for exemption from federal taxes?
Shorter Jonah Goldberg: I don't need democracy, I'm rich and white!

Lies are part of the package

The most recent Radio Open Source show dealt with the future of the all-volunteer Army in the United States. One interesting thing to note is the assertion by one guest that, even at the beginning of the professional armed forces in the 1970s, it was assumed that for any long-term fight the United States would bring back conscription. But the most common lament of all the guests was the divide between the armed forces -- which are engaged in one of the bloodiest fights of the last 60 years, easily -- and the broader American nation, which is barely engaged at all.

Or, as Ralph Peters quoted one General: "An army at war, a nation at Wal-Mart."

This is a really clear example of the unavoidable conflict between imperialism and democracy. However you want to gussy it up, Iraq II is pretty clearly an imperial war. Whether you, like Henry Kissinger, think the point was to control the precious, precious oil or whether it was really all about deterring Iran (how's that goin'?) or whether, again like Henry Kissinger, you simply think it was all about humiliating the darkies, it's clear that Iraq was part and parcel of the imperial project.

The problem is that America is a democracy, if a poorly-functioning one. And the American people are generally opposed to the kinds of wars that empires need to fight. This requires that Washington -- which really, really likes those same kinds of wars -- pursue one of two strategies: Hide or Lie. Hide is easy enough: keep the war out of the papers, as with US advisers in Vietnam for many years. That way, when the "enemy" finally attacks the US in some public way (Tonkin) the American people have no idea that they've been at war for years, and thus see this as an unprovoked attack. And yes, Bush had a plan like that on tap for Iraq.

But "Hide" doesn't always work, and couldn't possibly have worked with Iraq, so there's the flat-out lies. Such as, "Iraq will only cost a couple billion", calling Shinseki's troop estimates "wildly off the mark", and claiming that the troops would be coming home within months. The specific lies aren't really that important -- the lies are really always the same.

America isn't mobilized for war in any major fashion, and certainly not in the way the guests on Lydon's show would like to see. But no matter how clearly they advocate it, it's not going to happen. At this point, the American people want out of Iraq, and mobilizing the kind of force needed for Iraq would require taxes, lots of them, and possibly conscription if the Army can't raise it's numbers voluntarily.

Moreover, America was never going to mobilize for war properly. Why? Because to fight any major war effectively would have required substantial sacrifices, in terms of taxes or manpower. But these kinds of wars -- the preventive ones that don't involve direct threats to the country -- can only be sold to wealthy, democratic populations on the assumption of low-cost fighting. Hence the lying.

But those same lies make it impossible to win the war later, if you need to get the people to support escalating their involvement. (And escalation is no guarantee of success, anyway.) It's not just the Americans -- it's hard to imagine any population, gulled in to believing in a cheap war, would then support costly measures to win an unpopular war. And these wars inevitably become unpopular, not just in democracies. Nixon was only able escalate the air war in Vietnam because, at the same time, he was withdrawing the bulk of US ground forces.

The lesson for us here today? Don't hide or lie your way in to war. You can lie your way in, but generally you can't lie your way out of a war.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

If you've got a moment...

There's a sick child in Ottawa who could use a smile.

Children with cancer: the biggest single reason I'm an atheist.


via TPM, this interview with Dick Cheney is indeed, as Marshall puts it, a "doozy." There's a lot of boilerplate bullshit (it is Dick Cheney, after all) but let's single out some of the biggest nuggets of bovine excrement:
Q: How worried are you of this nightmare scenario, that the U.S. is building up this Shiite-dominated Iraqi government with an enormous amount of military equipment, sophisticated training, and then in the end, they're going to turn against the United States?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, that's not going to happen.
What, because history never repeats itself, ever? That's just an incredibly stupid statement. On the other hand, Cheney does seem to recognize there's a difference between Persian and Arab Shia, which is a level of insight I hadn't expected from the man. Later on:
out of Afghanistan, because we walked away and ignored it, we had the attack on the USS Cole, the attack on the embassies in East Africa, and 9/11, where the people trained and planned in Afghanistan for that attack and killed 3,000 Americans. That is what happens when we walk away from a situation like that in the Middle East.

Now you might have been able to do that before 9/11. But after 9/11, we learned that we have a vested interest in what happens on the ground in the Middle East.
You're kidding, right? The US didn't have interests "on the ground" in the Middle East before 9/11? Like US support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the rest of the Gulf states just sort of materialized out of the ether on September 12, 2001? Not only is this historically illiterate, it's dangerous: for Cheney to believe this is for him to ignore the fundamental nature of Islamic grievance. They hate the US because of the attention the US has paid to the region, not in spite of it.
Q: What was the biggest mistake you made?

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Oh, I think in terms of mistakes, I think we underestimated the extent to which 30 years of Saddam's rule had really hammered the population, especially the Shia population, into submissiveness. It was very hard for them to stand up and take responsibility in part because anybody who had done that in the past had had their heads chopped off.
How out of touch with reality can you be, really. The US is mired in an insurgency in Iraq, fueled by nationalism and Islamist rage. Iraqis are killing US soldiers on a daily basis. But to Cheney, the populace is too "submissive", they won't stand up against their enemies. Memo to the Vice-President: The Iraqis are standing up against their enemies. You're the enemy. Pray you never find yourself alone in the slums of Sadr City.

Wednesday Science Blogging

Scientists in Britain are reporting that Flora, a Komodo dragon, has given birth to five sons, without having been fertilized by a male Komodo. That's right, the Virgin Flora has given birth to five Messiahs!

The process is called Parthenogenesis (for "virgin birth") and can only produce male offspring in Komodos because of their chromosome structure. Because the mother only has one chromosome in her ova, the children can only be double-chromosomed, in this case "ZZ" offspring, or male. Were parthenogenesis possible in humans, it could only produce females for the same reasons -- XX results in girls, and YY will not produce offspring.

Which brings me to one of David Brin's better books, Glory Season. It's about a young woman born on a planet where women make up 75% of the population due to the genetic engineering of the founding colonists. Women reproduce almost exclusively parthenogenically, with the occasional sexual reproduction to keep the gene pool flowing. Men have, through similar genetic trickery, been bred to be much calmer and less violent. This is all context, though -- the story itself is well-written and makes it clear that Brin sees this kind of world as neither dystopia nor utopia, but just another place.

In other science news, physicists have finally devised a falsifiable test for string theory. One of the contenders for the "grand unified theory" of physics, string theory has fallen out of favour because it's been impossible to test in a lab. That may now be changing.
He added, "If the test does not find what the theory predicts about W boson scattering, it would be evidence that one of string theory’s key mathematical assumptions is violated. In other words, string theory—as articulated in its current form—would be proven impossible."

"If the bounds are satisfied, we would still not know that string theory is correct," said Distler. "But, if the bounds are violated, we would know that string theory, as it is currently understood, could not be correct. At the very least, the theory would have to be reshaped in a highly nontrivial way."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Perfect timing

Veronica Mars ends, I go to Robot Chicken on Teletoon. RC ends, and the Democratic response to Bush begins.

Ahh, Sen. Jim Webb eases my pain.

Not watching the State of the Union

Two reasons.

1) Reading the speech is infintely preferable to listening to the President mangle the English language.

2) Veronica Mars is on.

Global warming: Getting worse

The IPCC -- the gold standard for climate change science -- is getting gloomier.

Although the final wording of the report is still being worked on, the draft indicates that scientists now have their clearest idea so far about future climate changes, as well as about recent events. It points out that:

· 12 of the past 13 years were the warmest since records began;

· ocean temperatures have risen at least three kilometres beneath the surface;

· glaciers, snow cover and permafrost have decreased in both hemispheres;

· sea levels are rising at the rate of almost 2mm a year;

· cold days, nights and frost have become rarer while hot days, hot nights and heatwaves have become more frequent....

To date, these changes have caused global temperatures to rise by 0.6C. The most likely outcome of continuing rises in greenhouses gases will be to make the planet a further 3C hotter by 2100, although the report acknowledges that rises of 4.5C to 5C could be experienced. Ice-cap melting, rises in sea levels, flooding, cyclones and storms will be an inevitable consequence.

Past assessments by the IPCC have suggested such scenarios are 'likely' to occur this century. Its latest report... is far more robust and confident. Now the panel writes of changes as 'extremely likely' and 'almost certain'.

Good luck everyone.

Wonder what Canada's New Government will say?

Because insurgents are like bears, I guess

Joe emails in this video about a Canadian inventor who's built a new suit of body armor he's trying to sell to the US and Canada. Inspired -- in his own words -- by everything from Robocop to Halo, I'd be defrocked from the Nerd Conspiracy if I didn't let out a little squeal of glee. But, there's some obvious problems with this suit.

First, the mundane problems. Obviously, I haven't worn the helmet, but I'm suspicious that you could build a full-head helmet that doesn't also limit the soldiers' vision. On top of that, the helmet necessitates two cooling fans, which any modern computer user will tell you is noisy. Noise that close to the head, inside the helmet, is a recipe for a soldier who is at best distracted, at worst can't hear an approaching Toyota 4x4. Finally the suit has LED lights all over, and unless there's a lot of user control, it's destined to give away a soldiers position at night.

More importantly, it's basically the embodiment of the current US doctrine with its soldiers -- protect them so thoroughly that you lose the war. Counter-insurgency thought is that your soldiers need to know the populace, need to live with them, need to befriend them. How friendly does this look to you?

That's what I thought. He looks like a Cylon. And not one of the hot ones.

There are certain aspects to this suit that are neat and will probably be adapted to future equipment for the Army (the helmet-mounted laser designator is a great idea, for a number of reasons) but this build really, really needs to be re-thought.

You can see the video here, or read an article about it here.

Time to learn from mistakes

MJ Rosenberg has a great post on the probably-doomed peace talks between Israel and Syria:
Sadat was primarily interested in the formerly-Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and, particularly, in regaining the east bank of the Suez Canal so he could re-open the canal to international shipping. As for Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and the Palestinian issue, that was for negotiating about later.

Israel took note of Sadat's stated willingness to talk. Prime Minister Golda Meir acknowledged that Sadat was "the first Egyptian leader to say he was ready to make peace." But she was not interested in negotiating with Sadat over Sinai, not in 1971. As Meir said later: "We never had it so good." Israel had security and the territories. Who cared what Sadat offered or withheld?

So when Sadat said that in return for an Israeli pullback of 2-3 miles from the east bank of the canal he would begin negotiations toward a full peace, the Israeli government said "no."...

The war cost Israel 3,000 young lives - all of whom would likely have been spared if Israel had taken up Egypt 's offer. In the end, Israel got peace with Egypt but at the price of surrendering not a mere 2-3 miles of the Sinai, but every last inch of it. And thousands of lost sons, fathers, and brothers. (It is worth noting that the pro-Israel community’s backing of Israel’s resistance to Nixon’s “pressure” contributed to the worst disaster in Israel’s history–a demonstration that unthinking and uncritical “support” is, in fact, anything but).
It's difficult to overstate the importance of, bluntly, racism in Israeli thinking at this point in history. After the immense success of the 1967 war, Israeli military and civilian leaders regularly spoke of the Arab nations as having been so thoroughly humiliated that they wouldn't dare attack Israel for a generation or more.

So even when Arab spies flew in to Tel Aviv with the documents proving an attack was coming the government ignored it, simply believing the documents were forgeries. And Israel came as close as it's ever been to national destruction. This was totally avoidable, and even more tragic considering it was totally unnecessary, as Rosenberg notes.

So the short version is that if Syria is really offering peace, the Israeli government would be insane not to take the opportunity.

"There is no way to win a war that is not in your interests."

You read slactivist. You read it NOW.

The Secret Government

via A Tiny Revolution, this fantastic documentary by Bill Moyers dates from the end of the Reagan Administration. If you can spare 90 minutes, you'll get to see classic craziness from Ollie North, whose existence outside of a jail cell continues to mystify me. Also, John Kerry makes a guest appearance.

One thing I don't think Americans have really grappled with is that so long as America is a world power, with interests from pole to pole and from Ghana to Midway, it is inevitably going to have dictators-in-waiting like Reagan or Bush. If you've got overseas interests, you've got threats.

Or follow this link.

Cheers to Stéphane

So Socialist French Presidential candidate Ségolène Royale said she supports Quebec freedom and sovereignty. The leader of the oppposition has the right response, and it sounds an awful lot like the one Mike Pearson gave to a puffed-up Generalissimo 40 years ago:
"The problem with her declaration is that we are free. We have been free longer than the French because we had responsible government while they were still in the midst of debating empires and revolutions. So Canada is a pioneer of freedom and always will be."
via Popular Doctrine.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Shiny Shiny Shiny

I want one.

Read the article here.

Hear, hear

Matthew Yglesias on abortion:
That legal abortion encourages premarital sex is feature, not a bug.
Meanwhile, Lizardbreath writes about the abortion she had once:
I've mentioned here before that I've had an abortion; I don't know how clear it was that it wasn't a particularly sympathetic abortion. In spring 1995, I'd just started having sex with a new boyfriend. We were using condoms until I could get on the pill, and either one of us screwed something up, or there was a leak, or something happened, and I got pregnant. I had an abortion as early as I was able to schedule it, didn't find it a particularly upsetting experience... and haven't regretted it since then.
I'm sure someone will pop in and tell me why, exactly, LB is to be abominated. But until then, I really think this is key:
Continuing that pregnancy wouldn't have been an epic tragedy for me; any proposal for abortion rights that requires abortion to be permissible only when the only alternative would be starving on the streets would leave me right outside.

But man, did I not want to be pregnant. I did not want to be locked into a minimum eighteen-year relationship with someone I'd been dating for a couple of months. I did not want to be responsible forever for someone who didn't exist yet. I didn't want to be physically pregnant. I had no idea of where I was going professionally -- I was a temp receptionist, thinking about maybe taking the LSATs -- or of how I would support myself or a child, and had no idea of how I'd find my way into a career with a new baby. The only thing being able to get an abortion did for me was give me some control over the course of the entire rest of my life.
Forced pregnancy strips women of control, of their rights, and yes of their lives. (A woman is more likely to die in pregnancy than from an abortion.) I don't know why any man would want to do that to a woman he knows, much less women he loves.

And I'm absolutely baffled that some women continue to wish it on each other.

Actually, that's worse

Rob at LGM:
It's also important to note how politically convenient it is for the US government to blame instability on Iran. If Iranians are causing the mischief, then it's easier to a) manufacture a reason for hostile action, and b) explain away the utter failure of the United States to quell the insurgency or win the support of the populace.
I think Steve Gilliard was the first person I read who pointed out the flaw in this logic: the Iraqi-Arab tribal structure is notoriously suspicious of outsiders, and immensely conscious of who outsiders are.

So, if Syrians and Iranians are coming, in large numbers, to Iraq and starting shit (IEDs, decapitations, whatnot) that's a problem. But the fact that a) the Iraqis must know who they are, and b) are abetting their activities by silence or active participation, is much, much, much worse. If the Arab Shia in Iraq are willing to work with the Persian Shia of Iran, that's a sign of just how much the Americans are hated by the Iraqis not a sign of poor border control.

The situation in Afghanistan is a bit different, because the Pakistan/Afghan border runs straight through Pashtun lands -- the problems in the south are largely fueled by Pashtun solidarity, if I'm reading accurately.

We'll see about that!

I've been demoted! And stuck with latrine duty, no less.

General McClelland, probably drunk again, seems to have forgotten the first two rules of the army:

1) Never piss off your Sergeants.

2) When making an enemy, limit the amount of feces, urine, and other foul substances they have on hand, er, at their disposal.

Oh, and by the way, the NDP "Army"? As much as we'd all like to think we're these guys:

I think, deep down, we know we're really more like these guys:

At least, I know I am...

Sunday, January 21, 2007


So I finished reading Fiasco by Tom Ricks last night, and I really should take back some of the mean things I said about him over the summer. It really is an excellent book, and you should all read it.

But I was struck by the ending of Ricks' book -- he explores what the likely scenarios are in Iraq, and his "nightmare" scenario (the worst of the worst, presumably) is the establishment of a Muslim Caliphate in Iraq.

Funny. I really, really don't understand why I'm supposed to find this outcome terrifying.

The first thing to say is that re-establishing the Caliphate is something Bin Laden seems to want, so on those grounds alone it's probably a bad idea we should try to avoid. The second thing to say is that, in any likely combination of events, the re-establishment of the Caliphate is not going to happen. The existing governments of Muslim states are extremely well-armed and unimpressed with the idea of reviving a true, pan-Muslim Caliphate. (This hasn't stopped many national leaders from proclaiming themselves the new Caliph.)

What I really don't get is how a Caliphate is supposed to be big and scary in a way that, say, a nuclear-armed Pakistan, Iran, or possibly Saudi Arabia isn't. Threat of terrorism? Check and check. Nuclear proliferation? Big, big check.

There does seem to be this fantasy that a Caliph could emerge, unite the Arab/Muslim world, and suddenly we're fighting at the gates of Vienna all over again. This idea is so lunatic it really only deserves one answer: any nation stupid enough to engage NATO in a land war is going to get exactly the carnage it deserves.

Meanwhile, I've met a few (very moderate) Muslims who yearn wistfully for the era of Muslim unity that the Caliphate represents to them, so it's not like you have to be crazy to want it.

Moreover, Ricks himself quotes a soldier earlier in his book who points out the obvious: The US already has two wars on its hands. It would be nice if people would stop fantasizing about enemies in the future and start using the brainpower to fight the wars they've got.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The better half

via ThinkProgress:
Asked by Cherie Blair what Americans thought of her husband, McAuliffe responded that "most people think you're a lap-dog for President Bush." Cherie Blair then elbowed her husband and said "See, Tony, I told you so."

A shocking use of, y'know, data

MisterBryans' has some numbers:
Digital music sales increased a whopping 122% last year in Canada while overall music sales increased just under 10%.

On the other hand, overall album sales decreased by almost 5%.
Worthwhile knowing, because the CRIA claims we need to undo electronic fair use rights because music sales are slipping. In particular, they've claimed that the slow adoption of e-music services is directly attributable to Canada's "lax" copyright laws.

One wonders, with a double-digit increase in overall music sales and a triple-digit increase in online music sales, who we're really protecting, and from what.

I won't normally ask you to read Macleans

But there's two... noteworthy bits in today. First, Paul Wells points out the obvious: Our Prime Minister is a lying sack of something foul when it comes to his position on Iraq. Short version: He was for it before it polled badly.

Secondly: This is alarming. Apparently, I'm not a "good Canadian" in Washington, DC's eyes. But that's not really surprising...
"I was struck back in 2003 after doing a briefing with some people in the Administration. It had been a rough year. We were getting ready to go to Iraq. Canada-US relations were somewhat strained by that. At the end of the briefing -- which had been a little bit grim -- about how Canada and the US could work together better in this war on terror that we were facing, the person I was was briefing paused and said to me, 'Chris, where are all the good Canadians?' When he said that it broke a little bit of my heart, because I'm an American but I love the Canadians. I think what he meant by that was 'Where are the Canadians of World War I and World War II, that people understood to be... even when Europeans didn't, those allies we had come to count on.' Well, I have good news. Our speaker today is one of the good Canadians..."
The speaker today was Stockwell Day.

I guess Mr. Sands thinks that you're only a "good Canadian" if you obey. I wonder what he thinks of 70% of his fellow countrymen? Where are the good Americans?

Update: The Vanity Press points out the obvious: America was able to "count on" Canada during WWI and WWII because we were, uh, already fighting the war before the Americans got off their asses.

Still, the post-2003 cesspool that is American foreign policy does make you yearn for the days of American isolationism -- if you could get it without the anti-semitism, of course.

I heart Keith Olbermann, cont.

Adam sends this in, saying "it makes me wonder where the rest of
the media have been for the last four years."

No kidding.

China blows stuff up.... IN SPACE!

The New York Times has a good take on this:
In late August, President Bush authorized a new national space policy that ignored calls for a global prohibition on such tests. The policy said the United States would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space” and “dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so.” It declared the United States would “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”

The Chinese test “could be a shot across the bow,” said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group in Washington that tracks military programs. “For several years, the Russians and Chinese have been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons. The concept of exhibiting a hard-power capability to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic cold war technique.”
Of course it is. The Chinese are rapidly gaining the ability to, if not mirror, then deter certain US policies. The Americans claim the right to deny space to their adversaries, so the Chinese do the obvious -- show they can play rough, too.

A commenter at FPSpace says this was more impressive than some commentary realizes -- the ability to hit a satellite by a direct launch speaks to a much "smarter" missile than previously suspected.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Up next: Toads from the sky, rivers of blood

Bush: More unpopular than Cheney.

I didn't think that was possible.

"If we aren't guaranteed monopoly profits, we aren't interested."

Scott's got a pair of good posts about the totally-unsurprising fact that the pharmaceutical industry is totally uninterested in developing and testing a drug that they aren't guaranteed a patent on. Which, when you understand the industry that we've built, is totally understandable on their part -- aside from being soulless and evil, that is.

Here's a question for those better-informed than me. It's my understanding that human testing is, by far, the most time- and money-intensive part of drug development. We also know that the results of human trials are often fudged or hidden outright when they indicate problems with the drugs.

So why not simply have the government take over the human testing -- not the research or manufacturing, at least not initially (insert conspiratorial Marxist laugh here) -- for drug developers? You socialize the risk in the most expensive part of their operation, but in exchange you require the government be allowed to independently verify all of Big Pharma's claims about any drug. The public then has the chance to get early warnings on any problems.

It also lets you face situations like this: the government can, if it chooses, pursue the occasional drug that the private market won't.

Input, anyone?

Nerd moment

For my money, Star Trek VI is by far the best movie the series has produced, ever. Aside from being by far the superior script and directing of all the movies, I'm not sure how you can possibly top the multi-layered Cold War references. Most especially Christopher Plummer as a Klingon channeling Adlai Stevenson yelling to Kirk, "Don't wait for the translation, answer me now!"

You could put that movie on every Sunday on Space, and I'd watch it every Sunday.

Honorable mention: Chekov in Star Trek IV, asking in faux-Russian accent "where are the nuclear wessels" to passersby in Reagan-drenched America. Yes.

But remember everyone, Arabs Persians only understand force

"An Iranian offer to help the United States stabilize Iraq and end its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas was turned down by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003," Lawrence Wilkerson, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, told BBC last night. "We thought it was a very propitious moment to (strike the deal)," Wilkerson said, "But as soon as it got to the White House, and as soon as it got to the vice president’s office, the old mantra of ‘We don’t talk to evil’…reasserted itself."
Love this dynamic. Our enemies are always trying to negotiate with us, help us even, we tell them to go fuck themselves, and then we wonder why they view us with suspicion and hostility.

Just so everybody's clear: Cheney ensured Iran's continuing support for Hamas and Hezbollah, but Jimmy Carter's the anti-semite.

Asimov. Huh.

If you say so, Internet. I was never wild about the Foundation series though. Tragically, I think that picture is an accurate depiction of what I'll look like later in life.

(via The Vanity Press.)

I am:
Isaac Asimov
One of the most prolific writers in history, on any imaginable subject. Cared little for art but created lasting and memorable tales.

Which science fiction writer are you?

I read polls

Thanks to Wilson61 in comments for pointing this out:
Do you support Canada’s troops presently in Afghanistan?
Yes: 63 %
No: 37 %
And that's about as good as it gets for Afghanistan support. almost 4 out of 10 Canadians answer no to the question "do you support Canada's troops presently in Afghanistan?", which is roughly like answering that you dislike puppies, or ice cream. But it gets worse:
Do you support Parliament’s decision to extend the mission in Afghanistan until 2009?
Yes: 57 %
No: 43 %

Do you agree or disagree with NDP leader Jack Layton’s position that resources In Afghanistan should be reconstituted and redirected so that more resources are allocated for reconstruction and less on conflict?
Agree: 47 %
Disagree: 53 %
So at best we have a bare majority of support for this war, but the obvious conclusion is that Canada is profoundly divided over it. This question, howwever, is my favourite. Despite 6 months or so of every informed voice (and many more uninformed voices) clamoring for NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan, the Canadian people are unequivocal in their response:
The United States is considering more troops to Iraq, should Canada send more troops to Afghanistan?
Yes: 26 %
No: 74 %
So 3 out of 4 Canadians are opposed to sending more troops, which is convenient because I don't know where we'd find them anyway. Meanwhile, there's quite clearly some overlap of the people who believe that our troops should stay in Afghanistan, fighting this war, but should under no circumstances be offered Canadian reinforcements. Meanwhile, a sizeable chunk of Canadians continue to believe that this would all be won and over if our other NATO allies would ante up. I am, as always, unconvinced.

The very simple question remains for people who support this war: If we aren't willing to send more troops (and we clearly aren't), and our allies aren't (equally clear) but everyone agrees this is doomed to failure without said troops, what the hell are we doing there? Who will we blame when this goes balls-up on us?

I'm sure the Tories will say it was all the NDP's fault by simply raising the issue for debate, but think about that for a second: our Afghanistan policy drifted in obscure autopilot well after the last election. Prime Minister Harper pushed, hard, to make himself the "military" Prime Minister in a way that neither Chrétien or Martin ever did. And the moment he did that -- the moment the Prime Minister brought this issue in to the limelight, and the moment Canadians gave it serious thought -- the support started dropping. This was never a role our troops had broad, strong public support for, which is why it shouldn't have happened. But then, I'm a wild-eyed crazy person who believes in things like the will of the people.

The funny thing is, I think this poll is probably being very charitable for Conservatives. I haven't seen other polls ask the "sending more troops question", but the numbers in this poll may very well be as good as it gets.

Furrows in the water

David Bell on the world's first guerilla war:
The decision to escalate in Iraq reminds me of a series of letters I read a few years ago in the French military archives, from the French commanding general in Pamplona, Spain, in the years 1810-11. All right, it may not seem like an exactly obvious connection. But the war fought in Spain against Napoleon between 1808 and 1814 was a classic case of insurgency, seen by many historians as the first great modern example of the phenomenon. In fact, the word "guerrilla" was first popularized during the conflict (it comes from the Spanish for "little war")....

The letters from the French commander, Honoré-Charles Reille, are eloquent about the frustrations of fighting an insurgent force, and eerily reminiscent of our own current quagmire. Again and again, Reille complained of attacks from men his troops could not even see, who approached and fired, then quickly melted back into the countryside. He worried that the French could not move about except in large detachments, lest guerrilla bands pick them off (lacking "improvised explosive devices," a favorite tactic was attacks by hundreds of guerrillas at once on small and isolated French units). He blamed the insurgency on religious fanaticism, in this case of Catholic Spaniards who had missed out on Enlightenment and French Revolutionary anti-clericalism....

"Unfortunately," he wrote, "in this region as in many others of Spain, our influence extends only as far as the range of our cannon [...] The Spanish say quite rightly that our troops are plowing furrows in the water."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

EEStor news

via Clean Break, news about my favourite vaporware:
EEStor, Inc. has completed the initial milestone of certifying purification, concentration, and stability of all of its key production chemicals notably the attainment of 99.9994% purity of its barium nitrate powder.

The independent 3rd party chemical analysis was completed by Southwest Research Institute, Inc. located in San Antonio, Texas under contract with EEStor, Inc.

With these milestones completed, EEStor, Inc. is now in the process of producing on its automated production line, composition-modified barium titanate powders and is moving toward completing its next major milestone of powder certification....

The first commercial application of the EESU is intended to be used in electric vehicles under a technology agreement with ZENN Motors Company. EEStor, Inc. remains on track to begin shipping production 15 kilowatt-hour Electrical Energy Storage Units (EESU) to ZENN Motor Company in 2007 for use in their electric vehicles. The production EESU for ZENN Motor Company will function to specification in operating environments as sever as negative 20 to plus 65 degrees Celsius, will weigh less than 100 pounds, and will have ability to be recharged in a matter of minutes.
I've written about EEStor plenty before now. The product is supposed to be a capacitor with a much, much higher storage rating than previously available. If we can pack 15-20 kwh in to a car for a weight penalty of about 100 lbs, that's incredible. More importantly from the perspective of plug-in hybrids, capacitors don't face the same short lifespans that batteries do -- charge-discharge cycles can run in to the hundreds of thousands, instead of the thousands. It's certainly possible that the capacitors would outlast the car.

Long battery lifespans, and lower-cost batteries, are crucial if plug-in hybrids are going to play any role in helping expand the potential for storing renewable energy.

On a related note, it may have been a very good idea for GM to not announce who would be supplying the batteries for their Volt PHEV. If I were a struggling car maker who was still sitting on a hefty pile of cash, I'd pay through the nose to license EEStor's technology.

Other blogdom pissing matches

So the Other big kerfuffle at the moment seems to be between the 1960s "Dude, our protests totally worked" leftists and the later generation of "Dude, they totally fucking didn't" leftists. See Jon Schwarz' list of links here.

You know why I don't consider myself a radical? In short, because of idiocy like this "defense" of 1960s activism, and how it led to the 1980s:
When the Reagan administration tested the waters for direct US military intervention in El Salvador in 1981 with its "White Paper," opposition to this proposed move was immediate, as activists ranging from college kids to churchgoers to suburban dwellers staged sit-ins, organized street actions, wrote letters to politicians and newspapers, signed public petitions, and essentially raised such a degree of hell that the Reagan gang backed off, preferring to go clandestine instead.
Wow. Really impressive guys. You raised such a ruckus when Reagan proposed killing lots of people that Reagan eventually... killed lots of people anyway. But he had to hide it a bit! Victory at last!

And it's people like this that modern activists are supposed to take advice from?

Look, I have pretty low expectations for the Dems -- "sanity" is about all I'm hoping for at the moment. But check it out -- in the middle of a war, "sanity" is of paramount importance. Literally. People are dying, in numbers beyond counting, and if the Dems can even keep the killing from getting worse, than yes, they get my vote.

Iggy being sidelined?

Me likee... I'm not sure, but reading this from CTV, it looks like Dion is giving Ignatieff as low-profile a role in the new caucus as he can manage. Maybe I'm misreading things, but "Chair of a caucus committee on foreign policy" doesn't sound like Iggy will be getting a lot of microphone time, especially when Bill Graham will remain foreign policy critic in the front bench.

The funny thing is that, if you were willing to basically "forget" everything Ignatieff wrote after, oh, late 2001 or so, he'd be a perfect pick for Justice critic.

That is officially the nicest thing I'll ever say about Michael Ignatieff. Take note.

Haw friggin haw

Americans scare me when they talk like this. Fortunately, they also seem incredibly stupid:
Here's a hypothetical that while not completely analogous, is instructive. Let's say tomorrow, right-wing extremists take over Canada. The Canadian parliament is forced to regroup in Saskatchewan. Deposed Prime Minister Stephen Harper - no longer in power, but recognized by the United States - asks us to intervene and kick out the government in Ontario. We would be justified, legally, in doing so.
The idea of right-wing extremists evicting Harper is so funny I just needed to post this. This is one of the clearest examples of the problems with writing for the Internet. Change one word in this paragraph -- "right" to "left" -- and it no longer looks ridiculous (though still worrisome.) The writer clearly knows Canada is out there, somewhere, but had just enough time to look up who the PM of Canada was before he posted.

And as a side note, whenever an American writes theoreticals about invading Canada (always justified of course) I always picture them licking their lips. But maybe that's just me.

This is your media, people

Enough to drive a person the shrill, ranting insanity.

David Carr, writer for the New York Times media section (!!!), writes:
But at some point, ratings (which print journalists, unlike their television counterparts, have never had to contend with) will start to impinge on news judgment. “You can bemoan the crass decision-making driving by ratings, but you can’t really avoid the fact that page views are increasingly the coin of the realm,” said Jim Warren, co-managing editor of The Chicago Tribune.
Buh... snuh... I...

I'm sorry, my brains just exploded all over my monitor. Give me a moment to wipe up.


Alright. Let's go very slowly here. The New York Times media writer -- occupying some of the most valuable print real estate in God's creation -- says print journalists "have never had to contend with" ratings.

Let's see what history has to teach us about some of the earliest newspaper publishers in the United States.
In 1882... [he] purchased the New York World, a newspaper that had been losing $40,000 a year, for $346,000 from Jay Gould... shifted its focus to human-interest stories, scandal, and sensationalism. In 1885, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but resigned after a few months' service; it seemed that politics were not his cup of tea. In 1887, he recruited the famous investigative journalist Nellie Bly. In 1895 the World introduced the immensely popular The Yellow Kid comic by Richard F. Outcault, the first newspaper comic printed with color... circulation grew from 15,000 to 600,000, making it the largest newspaper in the country.

In 1895, William Randolph Hearst purchased the rival New York Journal, which led to a circulation war. This competition with Hearst, particularly the coverage before and during the Spanish-American War, linked [his] name with yellow journalism.
So at the very dawn of American newspaper journalism, "circulation" -- what are today known as ratings -- drove journalism. There's really no reason (especially for anyone alive and conscious during the Lewinsky "scandal") to think matters have changed.

By the way, the man cited in the above passage? An obscure publisher -- no reason a New York Times writer should know him, really -- named Joseph Pulitzer.

It might be too much to ask the media to understand basic military affairs, or complex economics, or any number of things. But surely we can at least expect the media to understand, y'know, the media?

No? Anyone? Okay...

And suddenly, I'm six years old again

Is it bad that I really want to see the new Ninja Turtles movie?

Okay, maybe it does matter after all

Okay, one good reason for people to still be debating who war more correct than who about Iraq: unless we actually grapple with some of the basic reasons Iraq went wrong, we are likely to make the same mistakes over and over again. Today's example comes from Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post. After many unflattering comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, Kaiser concludes:
What's the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice -- and Vietnam and Iraq both qualify -- define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you really understand the society you propose to transform. And never gamble that the political solution to such an adventure will somehow materialize after the military operation has begun. Without a plausible political plan and strong local support at the outset, military operations alone are unlikely to produce success.
If this is what the liberal hawks think went wrong with Iraq -- Bush didn't study enough? -- then we are truly doomed. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz thought they had studies the goal with honesty and precision, as Kaiser wishes. It just turns out they were wrong. Why? Because they were, in this context, revolutionaries. They ignored any and all historical data or judgment, because they believed it was irrelevant to this endeavour.

Moreover, the kind of knowledge Kaiser wants governments to have before they engage in "wars of choice" is not reliably available. How exact do you think US knowledge of Iraqi tribal structures was pre-2003? How good do you think it is today? My bet is not very, or not nearly enough. Kaiser's editor gave his column the header "Trapped by Hubris, again" but it's clear Kaiser doesn't understand what the Hubris was.

Hubris isn't when you consciously act in the absence of knowledge. That's just plain old dumb. Hubris is acting with certainty when your knowledge is flawed, or non-existent. Kaiser's answer to the hubris of Iraq is "be more certain", but that's just a recipe for further disasters. The right answer to hubris is humility, not more certainty. Start from the position that yes, you will fuck up, and yes, your knowledge is bound to be incomplete. Most importantly, governments need to understand that some tasks are simply beyond them, even the most powerful ones.

The lesson of Iraq (or Vietnam) is not "be smarter, then invade". It's "be smarter, don't invade."