Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The 9/11-Star Wars Mashup

Funny stuff.

For more funny, read the Digg comments thread here.

My favourite is the pic of the Emperor reading "My Pet Bantha" to a class of schoolchildren.

Libertarianism, Anarchism, and Me

So one of my favourite lefty bloggers, Mike at Rational Reasons, has disassociated himself from the NDP in favour of adopting the anarchist/left libertarian label. To which I say, good for him. It always better, in my view, for people to refine, and redefine, their political beliefs over time. I know I've probably moved away from the most extreme left positions I've held when I was, oh, 16 or so. (I blame my father's side of the family for warping my childhood with too much talk of the 1960s.) And so long as Mike keeps producing that sweet, sweet bloggy goodness I'll keep reading.

But anarchism/libertarianism/whateverism? Not for me. This isn't to say that anarchism doesn't have important insights for the left -- and I've quoted Jim Henley enough to value the insights of libertarians on occasion -- but as a coherent ideology, I think anything that starts from the position that the role of the state needs to be minimized has some fundamental flaws for anyone calling themselves "progressive".

You would have a hard time convincing me of any historical occasion where the poor, the working class, the environment, or any of the left's myriad causes have been well-served by a small state. Indeed, the period of American history where social justice was best-served (roughly 1940-1970) was marked by a massive expansion of the state: first for war, then for peace. Outside of a government guarantee of things like a minimum wage, the right to organize unions, and other minimum labour standards, we've seen what happens. The mean living standard stagnates, and the poorest actually fall behind. Is it possible that the left could organize without the, frankly, distasteful aspects of the state? Sure. But it hasn't happened yet. Which makes me skeptical about its chances in the future.

That skepticism is only reinforced by the simple fact that states, national governments, whatever you want to call them, are violence machines. The international arena is one of anarchy, where states rely primarily on their own means for self-defense. (Thank you, Intro Poli Sci!) What this means in practice is that the states which survive are those that use violence most effectively. You can argue a lot about World War II, but at the end of the day the Allies simply used more, and more efficient, means of violence against the Nazis and Japan. 20 years later, no less than the Reverand Martin Luther King said that the United States government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world...." He wasn't wrong, but that violence is inherent, it's not a particular sign of degeneracy on America's part. The greatest power in the world is by definition going to be the most violent.

(This would be why states that aspire to world power, or states that have world power, are suspect on those grounds alone. And why I find the US liberal debate over "soft power" vs. "hard power" laughable and insane.)

What does this mean for the left? Well, the state isn't going away anytime soon -- if nothing else, the state protects its interests very well. But it doesn't just protect its own interests, it also protects the interests of it's constituents. Read: the very wealthy. We know what it looks like when the state is controlled by reactionary forces: the 1920s and 30s, the worst days of Reagan, or any other example you can name. In the absence of a strong left within the state the state is free to serve the right -- breaking strikes, eliminating worker protections, allowing more discrimination of all sorts.

I once alienated a few classmates in a first year class by, um, calling them all stupid. It was a class on the US Civil Rights movement, and we inevitably got to debating the differing historical treatments of MLK vs. the Black Panther Party. While a few of the young men (and a surprising number of the young women) were enamored with the direct resistance of the BPP, I said something to the effect of "it's just unimaginably stupid to think you can beat the US government with violence or direct resistance. If you fight them, they'll destroy you. If you try to resist in other ways, they'll probably throw you in jail, which amounts to the same thing." Recall that even MLK himself spent a lot of time in jail simply for posing a non-violent, moral challenge to American Apartheid. And then there was that small matter of him being murdered.

The point is not that the state has always served the left well -- hah! -- but that without a strong lefty voice inside the state, all of the other flavours of the left are at the mercy of the state.

By all means, the left needs anarchists, and libertarians, and even liberals and conservatives. (Democracy, right?) We need people who want to smash the state as well as the people who want to build it. When I say anarchism isn't "for me", that's only and exactly what I mean. I do think it's a mistake to believe that left-wing people will be well served in the absence of state power, but a) I'm always willing to hear evidence, and b) that exludes very little, really, of the debate.

Things that amuse me, cont.

I like how some Americans are under the (woefully-mistaken) assumption that The New Republic will somehow improve now that it's being bought whole by the Aspers.

The logic seems to be: Aspers = Canadians, therefore less crazy neocon garbage.

Sadly, the truth is Aspers = batshit crazy Canadians, therefore the wingnuttiness is likely to increase, if anything.

It's nice that people have such a nice impression of Canadians in general, but sadly we aren't immune from the crazy. Or, as Witless Chum at LGM put it:
Yeah, it's like how much crazier does David Frum have to get?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Seriously? His electric bill?

Al Gore, who buys as much green power as the market will sell him, is being criticized for... buying too much green energy, I guess. I haven't quite figured it out.

In other energy news, Toronto seems to be suffering from a gasoline shortage, which I haven't really noticed because I don't care. There's even been reports of (GASP!) rationing by refusing to sell more than 75 litres to a customer at a time.

Don't these people know that rationing is the first step on the Road to Serfdom? That they're paving the way for a fascist dictatorship? Or something? I forget how it works, exactly, except for rationing = Mark of the Beast.

Do these people know anything?

Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum have read the latest Sy Hersh piece, and Josh has this to say:
In the Hersh piece in The New Yorker we learn that the US has essentially decided to get out of the al Qaeda/Sunni-jihadist fighting business and redirect our efforts toward fighting the Iranian peril. The real war we're in the midst of now, it turns out, is the trans-Middle Eastern Sunni-Shi'a civil war. And we're going to side with the Saudis, who will in turn enlist a bunch of al Qaeda type groups to work on our behalf against Iran.

Now, you may be worried that this sounds rather like how we got into this mess in the first place. But don't worry. As Hersh writes, the Saudis are assuring the White House, that "they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was 'We've created this movement, and we can control it.'"
Well, that's just about it, I think. The US government is now arming and training Salafi militants in order to hit Iran, and has entrusted as managers of this particular franchise... the Saudis. Because of course, that's never ever gone wrong before.

It was always kind of absurd to think that the US would take actually-existing terrorism seriously, in the sense of putting the screws to the Saudis and Pakistan for funding and organizing the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Client-patron relationships are always complicated, more so when we're talking about states. The problem, of course, is that the puppeteer is not really autonomous of the puppet -- the US, having armed and protected the Saudis for decades now, couldn't abandon them even if they wanted to.

I think we underestimate the amount to which personal relationships really do drive history. I'm not a big fan of the Bush-Saudi connection conspiracies (and calling them conspiracies is not meant to be derogratory) but can anyone doubt that US policy towards the Saudis has been skewed by the close relationships between those two families? Bush picnics with these people, but I'm supposed to think he can pursue America's interests rationally?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Because you lose control

Gareth Porter on the Democrats' unwillingness to rule out military force in Iran:
These Democrats act as though their support for keeping the military option alive—as opposed to supporting an actual attack on Iran—carries no risk, but that notion represents a profound misunderstanding of what it means to threaten aggressive war against Iran. In fact, keeping that threat “on the table” carries three very serious risks.

A war with Iran could be triggered by accidental or deliberate U.S. military provocation. To make the threat to Iran credible, the administration is deploying carrier task forces to the Persian Gulf, which inherently increases the likelihood that some U.S. naval commander will fire unnecessarily on an Iranian ship or plane. That is exactly what happened in 1988 when the cruiser USS Vincennes—apparently thanks to the aggressive tactics of its commander—shot down Iran Air Flight 655. That danger is especially acute given the provocative nature of the Bush administration's policy toward Iran.

Alternately, the administration may pursue a carefully calibrated strategy of combining a military buildup with increasingly warlike rhetoric, only to find that it has made Iran less, not more, willing to compromise. Even assuming that the White House has made no decision to attack Iran now, such a decision becomes far more likely once coercive diplomacy has been pursued and has failed.

Even if we are fortunate enough to dodge both of those bullets, coercive diplomacy carries the risk of tilting the political balance within Iran toward the actual manufacture of nuclear weapons. Contrary to the official Bush administration line, U.S. intelligence has long held that Iran’s policy toward the pursuit of nuclear weapons is significantly influenced by the U.S.'s policy toward Iran’s security concerns.
Using inflammatory language -- like "we've got to keep all options on the table" -- is only useful if one of the things you want is to inflame the situation. I have no explanation for why this seems to elude people.

Let's put it this way: even if Ahmedinejad weren't nutty and Bush weren't totally hopeless, and you still had two perfectly rational actors at work here, it's impossible for either side to trust the words of the other because each side keeps saying different things. If I'm the leader of Iran, and one day Cheney says an attack is possible/necessary, but the next day Bush says there's no attack planned, what do I do? Plan for the worse, obviously. The idea of indulging in the optimistic outlook -- that Cheney is freelancing and Bush doesn't want a war -- is discounted.

For a perfect example of how these dynamics occur, just take a look at, oh, absolutely every interpretation of Iranian actions for the last 2 years or so. Ahmedinejad's rhetoric gets all the press, but more mollifying words from the Ayatollahs get ignored.

As a side note, does anyone find it amusing that the Iranian Presidency used to be considered so powerless that when it was held by a reformer the US still couldn't talk with Tehran, but now that it's held by a firebrand it's so powerful we might need to get our war on? I think the people of Iran have noticed.
Increasingly, a lot of secular Iranians, like myself, are figuring that even if Iran is turned into the most democratic, secular, fair and peaceful state on earth, there is no guarantee the US won't find another excuse to try to overthrow its goverment. It will start bullying Iran for its "devastating role" in climate change, or animal rights, or - who knows? - for obesity.


Keith Olbermann on Condi Rice.

I wouldn't change a word.

Teh Funny.


I wonder if Conservapedia has an entry on "Lysenko"? How about "ideological crutch for the weak-minded"?

I'm sure the "laughing stock" article is coming soon.

Any chance of getting the PLA to Iraq?

via China Digital Times, it seems that the People's Republic is innovating in the fight against Muslim insurgencies:

Ironically, China’s ability to successfully kill or capture militants without social blowback demonstrates the significant degree to which China has won the population’s “hearts and minds,” however begrudgingly....

However, success came as China reduced the brutality of its repression and pulled the military out of direct confrontation with society. China built up more restrained, effective, and specialized police forces and tactics and reinvigorated political and educational projects in Xinjiang. The Chinese government purged separatist sympathizers from local governments and attempted to remove political dissent from religious worship. At the same time, availability of Uyghur language education was broadened and Beijing sought to expand economic development in Xinjiang, which was viewed as the key to success. Uyghurs in Xinjiang repeatedly explained in interviews that these changes made participation in the Chinese state more attractive, despite perceptions that economic opportunities primarily benefited the Chinese.

It was a lot more comforting when we could rely on the Communists to be the slow learners in the global classroom. But here we've got the Chinese government not only -- gasp! -- acknowledging and working to resolve Muslim grievances, but even repudiating the iron-fisted military approach to counter-terrorism:

The massive 1997 Yining riot involving over 1,000 Uyghurs, in which over 150 reportedly died from security force excesses, has not been repeated. While there has been ongoing low-level violence in Xinjiang since 9/11, Chinese government claims that this is the result of Uyghur separatists are suspect. China’s initial actions were brutal, and credible reports of security force excesses and torture persist. However, success came as China reduced the brutality of its repression and pulled the military out of direct confrontation with society. China built up more restrained, effective, and specialized police forces and tactics and reinvigorated political and educational projects in Xinjiang.

Now, obviously not all of these means are available to the US when the war is nominally about democracy-building, especially the mention of depoliticizing worship. But the key to the CCP's success, at least according to this article, was the construction of peaceful, and effective, modes of civil engagement for the Uyghur community. Uyghurs are being welcomed in to the actually-existing and actually-functional Chinese government and economy, at least at the local levels. No such options exist in Iraq today, locally or nationally.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Where are those grapes of wrath stored, anyway?

Maybe the core failure of the Iraq War: It was never, really, about Iraq at all -- it was about America, and how Americans see themselves.
It wasn't Kanan's fault that I supported the Iraq war. It was for wanting to believe so badly in the righteousness of America's terrible swift sword. I wanted to be worthy of the respect of such a brave man as Kanan that I ended up unworthy of it by abandoning rigor.
This was the one side of the coin that got talked about a lot -- America's desire to bring justice, freedom, etc. to the world. The other side of the coin, however, was the desire, as Henry Kissinger and others have said, to humiliate. 9/11 was not just a crime to the United States, it was humiliating. Just the language used to describe it -- "19 guys with box cutters bring Hyperpower to it's knees" -- was embarassing. And as much as many Americans never bought in to the direct 9/11=Saddam beguiling, I think Get Your War On struck true when it basically described the first month of the Iraq War as an antidote to 9/11. Sometimes satire really is the best history.

But both the humiliation of 9/11 and the missionary zeal of the Iraq War stem from the same root -- the illusion of omnipotence. It's probably true that any country would have reacted with murderous rage at a 9/11-style attack, and I don't begrudge the Americans their rage at all. But it was humiliating because America's "defense" budget was seen to be useless at the actual job of defense.

After the rage cooled, America could have turned humiliation to humility, but instead chose to try and create an Arab Switzerland instead -- and Tom Friedman still thinks this was possible, showing how enduring the hallucination is. For the hegemon, nothing is more threatening -- including the deaths of thousands of your own citizens -- than admitting limits to your power.

I'm sure it was an oversight...

But Scott Tribe gets it exactly wrong when he finishes a post on Canadian-US security cooperation with:
Well put. Don’t do it. Dont divulge data, Dalton. (Not at least til we see who’s running the show in Jan/09).
It won't matter who's running the show in Jan, '09 unless the law itself is changed. Sad as it is to say, Bill Clinton was bad for US civil liberties (compared to his predecessors) too, though arguably less egregiously so than Bush.

If Hillary wins, I have no confidence the US will actually be a more responsible actor when it comes to not harassing Canadians. Remember: this is the same lady who invented -- out of whole cloth -- stories about terrorists crossing the US-Canada border immediately after 9/11.

In short, no, the person who's in the White House doesn't matter. A GOP Congress could -- um, in theory -- pass civil liberties legislation (stop laughing) just as easily as a Democratic one would. Moreover, it's worth pointing out that the USA Patriot Act was passed, and renewed, with overwhelming support from both parties.

If we shouldn't be cooperating with the US -- and I agree we shouldn't be -- then it's going to take more than an election to solve these problems.

Madness, madness, madness

Condi Rice -- presumably by the order of George W. Bush -- has instructed the Israelis not to engage in exploratory talks with Syria about an eventual negotiation towards a peace deal. Ehud Olmert, dancing with those what brung him, has complied.

Some days I really don't know what's going on in the world. "Lunacy", "Insanity", "Psychopathy" don't really convey the meaning that I'm looking for.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Probably Going to Suck...

...yet I'll see it anyway: Remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Klaatu! Barada! Nikto!

Five years = 0 progress.

This is a few days old, but it's important: The NYT reports that Al Qaeda has basically re-created it's training infrastructure, this time in Pakistan. So not only has the war in Afghanistan not eradicated the AQ presence there, but it's actually managed to drive them in to a country that will be even harder to dislodge them from. Pakistan, after all, is not going to be invaded or subject to regime change except from within. (Nuclear weapons, y'dig?)

I remember when the war first started, post 9/11, I disagreed strongly with people to my left who argued that the war in Afghanistan wouldn't solve anything, and would only make things worse.

Damn George Bush for making me look like an idiot.


This is just too funny. via The Jurist, The Globe does a bit on former Prime Ministers, and interviews the four saddest, most pathetic PM's in the last half-century. Listen to them whine:
All four had much to say on what has gone wrong and what needs to go right — yet all are equally convinced the country has no ear to lend them.

“It is almost,” says Mr. Clark, “as if you are being penalized for your service.”

Past leadership might be revered in other societies, Ms. Campbell believes, but “it's not honoured in this country.”

“Just take a look at what happens to a politician who loses a seat in this country,” adds Mr. Martin.

“Absolutely,” agrees Mr. Mulroney. “Take a look at how the British and the Americans treat their retired politicians. Here they are just put off in a corner and forgotten.
Why, you might ask, are Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, and Paul Martin being "put off in a corner and forgotten"? Is it because Canadians are notoriously fickle, as the article suggests? Or could it be something more like this:
  • Joe Clark: Mainly remembered for punctuating the Trudeau epoch with a brief, and failed, attempt to bring in a gas tax.
  • Mulroney: Um, so detested by the end of his tenure that the Conservatives still like to forget that he's still alive.
  • Kim Campbell: One of the briefest PMs in our country's history, who had the honour of inheriting the Augean-style mess that Mulroney left for her. Led Canada's founding national party to a legendary defeat, losing all but two seats including her own.
And finally:
  • Paul Martin: Well, it must be a hell of a buzz-kill to go from "Prime Minister Martin" to "Paul who?" But what, exactly, should we be asking Martin's advice for? Slaying deficits that -- thanks to him -- don't exist? Dividing a party that -- now that he's gone -- is just barely unifying again?
Between the four "leaders" that the G&M interviewed, you've got three (Martin, Clark, and Campbell) who are simple mediocrities, and the odd man out (Mulroney) has been expunged even from the memories of Conservative partisans. Maybe that's why they've been ignored -- not because Canadians are fickle, but because some of our former PMs suck?

Maybe Chretien wouldn't return their calls, but seriously: could the Globe and Mail not get the one living PM who actually left office respected and successful? Why interview four of the biggest losers in Canadian politics?

To hear Mulroney, of all people, complain that old PMs aren't respected is simply hilarious. When Trudeau came out swinging against Meech and Charlottetown, Mulroney and his cronies publicly demeaned the great man, claiming he was "yesterday's man". Trudeau won those fights, and Canadians listened to him, because he was actually worth listening to. The four sad, simpering has-beens in this article are being forgotten -- mercifully -- because they're forgettable, not because Canadians are amnesiacs.

Um, math much?

This sounds a lot more ominous than it really is:
The White House is still holding out hope that it will have a chance to name a third justice to the Supreme Court and cement its conservative tilt for generations to come. "We need one more on the Supreme Court," says a Bushie who was instrumental in getting Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito aboard.
Well, one of the oldest members of the USSC is... arch-conservative Antonin Scalia. Short of a death, none of the liberal justices is going to leave before 2009 -- unless they're insane -- so the worst case scenario is that Bush nominates someone to replace Scalia, which might make things different but would be hard to make things worse.

Now, the actually ominous fact is that between Alito and Roberts, Bush has already managed to put two truly awful justices on the bench. Worse still, had a Democrat been in office we could have had someone decent replace the abominable Rehnquist. Oh well. Roll on to 2009.

Did anyone else realize that only 2 of the 9 Justices have been named by Democrats?

Oh, history

Zack Snyder on his upcoming movie, 300.
WN: In the film, a tiny bunch of European freedom fighters hold off a huge army of Iranian slaves. Everyone is sure to be translating this into contemporary politics.

Snyder: Someone asked me, "Is George Bush Leonidas or Xerxes?" I said, "That's an awesome question." The fact they asked tells me that this movie can mean one thing to one person and something totally different to another. I clearly didn't mean either. I was just trying to get Frank's book made into a movie.

That kind of debate is unavoidable right now. I don't live in a cave, but on the other hand, the film's about a 2,000-year-old conflict. People will say, "You made this because we are going to war with Iran." I'll say, "We are? Not if I have anything to do with it."
Whether you think George Bush or Ahmedinejad have any resemblance to ancient leaders I suppose depends entirely on whether you have a positive or negative impression of Leonidas or Xerxes, which is why these arguments really are so boring. At the end of the day, Leonidas was still an autocrat defending his country's institutionalized slavery and caste system*, and Xerxes believed he was chosen by God to lead a global empire. If George Bush sees this movie and thinks he's got anything in common with either leader, we're in worse trouble than I thought.

*Thermopylae is still a great story. I'm a strong proponent of recognizing the flaws of previous eras without letting that get in the way of genuine nobility.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ouch. Bad Poll.

From Strategic Counsel.
* Liberals: 29 per cent (- 8)
* Conservatives: 34 per cent (+ 3)
* NDP: 14 per cent (none)
* Bloc Quebecois: 11 per cent (none)
* Green Party: 12 per cent (+ 5)
So we've got the Greens neck-and-neck for third place, outpolling the Bloc Quebecois!!!, 2 points behind the NDP. And yet, if the numbers are to be believed, the Greens are actually sapping voters from the Liberals and not the NDP. Interesting.

I've been thinking recently that the media, and prominent Liberals, have been so kind to the Green Party (vocal praise by Liberals, lavish coverage by the media) as an attempt to marginalize the NDP. It seems either my theory was wrong, or it was right and just isn't working.

Anyone think Dion is going to try and take the Liberals in to a spring election with numbers like this?
Following the release of Tory attack ads aimed directly at Dion, just 18 per cent of respondents thought the Liberal leader would do the best job as prime minister, compared to 36 per cent for Stephen Harper.
Layton should call the Liberals' bluff and declare that he'll vote against the budget (the content of the budget itself is immaterial at this point, right?) Then we get to see if the Liberals will actually vote to go to the polls with anemic numbers, or keep Harper in power until (and if!) Dion's numbers improve.

I actually think the Liberals might just call a sick day rather than show up and vote.

No Megaparty, cont.

There's been much discussion about Jamey Heath's latest book (Dead Centre) about the possibility of creating a single progressive party from the NDP and the Liberals. I've said before, I don't think it'll ever happen unless Stephen Harper enters a second majority government. Aside from the logistical and logical problems, the personal animus between both parties simply runs too deep.

But there's another problem I haven't mentioned (I think) before, but I tried to get at it here many months ago:
We could try and draw a line in the sand against Harper, but for what? A misguided and mistaken belief that we can stamp out homophobia, racism, or misogyny in the Conservative mind? I've had enough crusades this decade, thank you.

But for Laxer - and too many leftists, it seems - it was a great betrayal for the NDP to run against the Liberals in the last election. Harper is a scary conservative, I admit. But... the Conservatives will always be scary.
I should say, Conservatives will always be scary to progressives. But the point stands.

Something more than 30% of this country votes conservative, and on occasion much more. But the motivating idea behind a single progressive party seems to be to prevent Conservative voters from ever forming a government, ever again. Or at least, not until we've decided they're responsible enough to handle the reins again.

The problem, in case it isn't obvious, is that Canada isn't a left-wing country. Canada has a strong and legitimate conservative streak, and I'm not wild about any idea that has as it's goal the marginalization of 30%+ of the Canadian electorate. Pragamatically, we can see that Japan has had a single party in power for the last half-century, and it's produced paralysis, corruption, and a legendary amount of pork-barreling in government.

Now, if we want to form governments with the Liberals and the NDP, we don't require any kind of merger or even electoral reform (though that would help) -- we just need the two parties to sit down and agree to a coalition, as IP suggests. It's really not that hard, and it could happen tomorrow. But while the Liberals talk a good game about wanting to bring Harper down at the earliest opportunity, I haven't seen a single Grit put this on the table.

And, as the current rules to the game stand, there's no reason for the Liberals to do this -- the siren song of a majority government calls, and why make deals when you don't have to? If Canadians really want to bring about a centre-left realignment, the first step is to change the rules -- and Ontario's MMP announcement this morning is a great first step. Under PR, one would hope to see the Liberals and the NDP reach out to each other when the Conservatives are too scary, but the Liberals could also reach out to the Conservatives when they're led by more moderate factions.

Basic politics in a democracy: If you want to change the behaviour, don't change the actors -- change the rules.

Lowering the bar

Okay, back to bad news. The BBC is reporting that the US planning for air strikes against Iran is far more extensive than previously reported:
US contingency plans for air strikes on Iran extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country's military infrastructure, the BBC has learned.

It is understood that any such attack - if ordered - would target Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centres.
But the key quote is this:
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says the trigger for such an attack reportedly includes any confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon - which it denies.

Alternatively, our correspondent adds, a high-casualty attack on US forces in neighbouring Iraq could also trigger a bombing campaign if it were traced directly back to Tehran.
So now we're facing a war if the Bush Administration cooks up some half-assed link between a major attack and Iran. Nice.

Losing a third war in 8 years really would cement Bush's reputation as the worst President ever. It might also just start the impeachment ball rolling.

Good news, for once

It's come to my attention that -- when I'm posting at all -- I've been a depressing blogger lately. Bad news in Iraq, bad news in the world, bad news bad bad bad. So it's nice to have some unvarnished good news to report, for once: the Ontario Citizen's Assemply (despite having a slightly Maoist ring to it) has decided on a mixed-member Proportional Representation scheme for Ontario. There's been consultations, deliberations, and now we've come out with this. I'm very pleased.

(An interesting essay on Germany's experience with MMP here.)

I'm such a sucker for electoral reform that I'd probably vote for any alternative to the status quo sight unseen. (Save, of course, an American presidential system!) But I'm actually a big fan of MMP, so this is especially good news. The OCA still has to put together the details of a system. Then we all get to vote on it in a referendum this October.

MMP is such an easy sell, if we can't win the 60% threshold for the referendum we probably deserve to lose. But if we win, that's a huge step forward for electoral reform in other provinces and even -- dare to dream! -- nationally.

I'm smiling a bit this morning.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

One of many fights coming over LNG

(Cross-posted at Ezra's)

There's an interesting squabble brewing on the east coast, on the border between New Brunswick and Maine.  In short, US companies would like to take huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) ships through waters claimed by the Canadian government.  The development is opposed by some local residents on the grounds that the LNG ships are much, much larger than the freighters that currently frequent those waters, and that the narrows in the area are too small for the ungainly LNG tankers.

There's also the international aspect -- our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is celebrating a year in power after winning an election based on the slogan "standing up for Canada".  He also explicitly made sovereignty over Canadian waters a political issue, so it will be interesting to see how this issue evolves.  The shipping route that is under discussion would have ships cross through Canadian waters to get to LNG terminals in Maine.

One of the issues that is usually brought up surrounding LNG is the possibility of an explosion.  If the contents of a tanker were to explode, the resulting fireball would theoretically carry a nuclear-sized punch.  In reality, it should be nearly impossible to trigger an explosion on a LNG tanker with modern equipment.  (Yes, Syriana had an inaccurate ending.)  There have been occasional accidents and explosions with LNG (including a large one in Cleveland, 1944) but not from ships, so far.  Still, terrorism experts worry that as the volume in LNG traffic increases, the danger will increase as well.

One point that Paul Roberts has made in interviews (apologies, can't find the link) is that worrying about LNG ships while we have tens of thousands of gasoline and LPG trucks running about our cities every day is a perfect example of what's wrong with our thinking on these issues.  The "new" danger gets a lot of people excited, but the old dangers persist unresolved.  Basically, so long as humans draw the bulk of their energy from things that go "boom", there's going to be some opportunity for terrorists.

And of course, there's Iran.  Some people have pointed out that Iran's oil industry is in bad shape, and Iran's oil reserves may not last much longer.  That may be true, but Iran also sits on one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas.  As America comes to rely more and more on LNG, we may see an evolution in the natural gas market from many regional markets fed by pipes to a larger, global market fed by tankers much like the oil market today.  And as we've seen with the oil market, it doesn't really matter if you try to isolate a resource-rich country:  if the US doesn't buy Iranian gas, the Chinese or Indians will.  And as the price for natural gas increases, Iran may very well be able to offset the decline of it's oil industry with gas royalties.

An intelligent long-term strategy for isolating Iran would be to try and get the US, India, and China off of natural gas, or at least to moderate their demand growth as much as possible.  That seems unlikely, and arguably for good reason -- gas is still ridiculously cheap and one of the cleanest energy sources around.  Trying to force the Chinese and Indians to be poorer just because Washington and Tehran can't get along is probably a non-starter.

It is in any case a perfect example of the bind America's in when it comes to security, energy, and even development issues in the world today.  The people America doesn't like have things America (and other countries) want and need.  The only way to solve this is to either: a) not want or need the things your rivals have, or b) try and turn your rivals in to friends.

Of course, there's always c) bomb them until they love us.  I'm sure that'll work this time.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Apparently, it's bitch and moan about snow day

Ezra writes [in jest]:
the ground looks light and fluffy but is actually diamond-hard and dangerously slick, and I'm cold. If something doesn't change, I'm totally withdrawing my support for DC's new mayor Adrian Fenty. I want protection, dammit!
With the recent dump we got in Ontario (and Toronto was hardly the worst hit) I spent two hours on Wednesday shovelling snow. The problem is that space is kind of a problem, and the only places I could put the snow that wouldn't obstruct parking and/or sidewalks were by the windows to our basement apartment. So now I've got two windows that are totally obscured, and one that's partially so.

And yes, I know, Toronto is fortunate not to get as much snow as most of Canada -- believe me, nobody in Ottawa would let me forget it -- but I'm not going to begrudge Ezra his whining (in DC) and so I'd ask my fellow Canadian not to begrudge me mine.

But if Brad Delong whines about the "cold" in Berkeley, California, one more time, I vote we get a posse together and introduce him to the point at which Fahrenheit and Celsius are one. Shouldn't be too hard.

More good news on the global warming front

Water is forming rapidly under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. This is usually one of the signs that a glacier is undergoing accelerating disintegration. In this case, however, the scientists are quoted as saying this has been going on for a long time.

That's not exactly reassuring. The conventional understanding of the dynamics of glaciers is that they're extremely stable bodies. What this discovery could mean (and I really am past my level of knowledge, so grain of salt) is simply that our understanding was wrong -- that polar ice masses are more dynamic that we'd previously assumed. Either way, it seems unlikely that finding huge bodies of liquid water underneath the WAIS is good news.

If the WAIS disintegrates entirely (and I have no idea if that's what occurring) it would raise sea levels by 7-8 meters.

Has anybody modeled what happens to the Maritimes and BC when the sea level rises by, say, 1 meter?

Consequence Free Punditry, cont.

The American Enterprise Institute: Wronger, even, than the Bush Administration.

Of course, they will pay no price professionally or publicly for their incompetence. But don't worry, it's not like the AEI's staff has any influence on US policy, like, say, advocating a 40,000 20,000 vague and uncounted "surge" in troops to feed in to the Mesopotamian meat grinder.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

No, that's NOT what happened

Bill Maher:
This was our little time of trauma. We were angry. The president didn't focus that anger. He did not channel that anger anywhere it could have done some good. If he had made a speech and said, "You're angry at these people? Well, these are the people who are filling your cars with the substance that funds their terrorist activities," you could have passed a pretty comprehensive energy reform bill, just the way Reagan, after he was shot, could have passed significant gun control legislation. Who could have challenged the president, as he was sitting in the hospital with a bullet an inch away from his heart, on gun control? Even the NRA would not have dared to speak too loudly about that. But he let that moment pass.
"...let that moment pass"? No, he didn't. This wasn't passive. Bush watched as the moment passed by, walked to the edge of a pier, and just as the American people began to look around after 9/11 and say to themselves, "what do we do now?", Bush pushed that moment over the edge and watched as the last bubbles of oxygen floated to the surface and popped.

The American people were told to go shopping.

The American people were told that if they changed their lives, "the terrorists had won."

Does anyone seriously think for a second that Bush was ever going to use 9/11 to push for serious energy reform? Re-thinking America's foreign policies? He used 9/11 to get exactly what he wanted from the first months of his Presidency -- an invasion of Iraq. For all the good it did him.

To say Bush "let that moment pass" implies that Bush simply didn't think of it, or that he didn't get around to it, or that he didn't realize the mentality he could have called upon. I think that's a profound misreading of what Bush did. Bush (or his handlers, whatever) knew exactly the psychology they could call upon in 2002, and they harnessed it to exactly the ends they wanted.

In retrospect, we all wish the citizens of the Republic had put their post-9/11 spirit to better uses. Bush deserves his share of scorn, no doubt. But as a guy once said, the fault lies not with the stars, but with ourselves...

Reading list

I had thought I was going to do a few different posts about all of these pieces, but I'm honestly not sure what I could add that wouldn't be redundant. Read, enjoy.

Bush Lie Roundup

Let's see: The Bush Administration presented its case against Iranian involvement in Iraq, claiming the following:
  • The new-and-improved IED, the EFP, was recently introduced to Iraq and has accounted for a growing number of US casualties.
  • The EFP was obviously too sophisticated for native Iraqi manufacture.
  • It therefore must have been made by Iran, given to the soldiers in Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, who have now used it against Americans.
A very convenient little story, in that it implies the guilt of both Iran and the turbulent priest himself. There are, however, a number of problems with this story.
  • The EFP isn't new. It was introduced to Iraq over 2 years ago, probably by the Syrians. This actually makes more sense, because the Syrians would be arming the Sunnis, who actually have killed many US soldiers.
  • This certainly isn't beyond the Iraq's capability to manufacture. The Syrian technique (see above) is at least decades old, and the idea goes back to the Nazis.
  • Now the Bush Administration is even walking back from the claims that Iran is directly involved with any of this.
Once again: When the government says "it's classified, but trust us", they're lying.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

AACS well and truly dead

So it looks like the DRM scheme used to "protect" HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs has been drawn and quartered. Cory Doctorow:
Arnezami, a hacker on the Doom9 forum, has published a crack for extracting the "processing key" from a high-def DVD player. This key can be used to gain access to every single Blu-Ray and HD-DVD disc....

AACS took years to develop, and it has been broken in weeks. The developers spent billions, the hackers spent pennies.
This is one of the "strongest", "best" systems business has been able to devise, and it's now effectively useless. Anyone who's even half-motivated to break the DRM on these disks won't have any trouble doing exactly that. Every disc made so far with this technology is now vulnerable.

This just isn't working, Hollywood. Give it up.

I'm sorry, who lectured Washington on democracy?

So a few days ago ol' Vlad Putin got all up in America's bizness with a speech in Munich:
What then is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it describes a scenario in which there is one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And this is pernicious, not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within. And this, certainly, has nothing in common with democracy. Because democracy is the power of the majority in the light of the interests and opinions of the minority.

We, Russia, are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.
Oh no he didn't! Seriously, any Russian leader lecturing the rest of the world on Democracy -- or lecturing the lecturer, even -- is really too funny. Nevertheless, Putin's message is correct, even if he makes a piss-poor messenger on this count. But it would be a mistake to view America as the audience for this speech: think the capitals of Europe instead, argues Nick Gvosdev.
An important litmus test for the United States—and for claims being made here in Washington that problems in the transatlantic relationship can be laid solely at the doorstep of the Bush Administration—is the response in the coming days and weeks to what Putin said. Polite disagreement, vehement rejection, studied silence? Even a quick perusal of European-based chat rooms shows the main split among English-speaking Euro-netizens to be between those who agree with Putin’s assessments versus those who argue that Russia’s own less than exemplary record in foreign and domestic policy do not give Putin the moral authority to launch any critique of the actions of the United States—one is much harder pressed to find defenders of American actions....

Was Putin trying to speak for a European “silent majority” on Saturday? And will what he put on the record make it more difficult for European states whose populations are increasingly skeptical of U.S. intentions to cooperate with Washington’s security agenda?

Time will tell.
One of Russia's long-term strategic goals (and before Russia, the USSR) is the removal of US influence on Continental Europe. The thinking has always been to drive a wedge between the US and Europe (possibly in the guise of an independent European-only security force to replace NATO) leaving Russia as the single biggest power in Europe. Of course, the 1990s saw the exact opposite happen -- NATO's borders moved East until they now sit on Russia's doorstep.

Still, it will always be in Russia's interests to drive wedges between Europe and the US. Because of his toolish incompetence, Bush (and Rumsfeld, and Cheney) have inadvertently served Russia's interests.

Seriously, is there any country hostile to US hegemony (save the notable exception of Iraq) that hasn't benefited from George Bush's policies? Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Venezuela...

Monday, February 12, 2007

24, Cont.

At the risk of getting tiresome...

The people who make 24 aren't just making "art" or generic "fiction", though they are doing that. They are making fiction with an argument. And that's fine, and they have the right to do it. (Though I'll point out there's always the issue of public airwaves to consider...) Some of the best fiction I've ever read is explicitly political, though not GOP snuff porn.

The argument that the makers of 24 make, and have made, for 6 seasons now, is roughly this:
Evil brown people and unscrupulous women will endanger national security. Failing to kill and/or torture these people will cause Americans to die.
Now, I think you could -- and I say could very tentatively -- make a sincere argument for censoring 24 on the grounds of racial or gender equality, because it really isn't terribly subtle about it's racism, misogyny, or American political voting preferences for that matter. I don't think I could support that argument, but I don't think it's out of the question. Somebody more pro-censorship could take a go at it and probably make a decent case.

More broadly though, the one thing the makers of 24 cannot do is escape the paternity of responsibility. When you make a show that explicitly, repeatedly, argues not that torture is sometimes an undesirable mistake, but that torture is a necessary and frequent tool of the US government and this is a good thing, you can't then hide behind the cover of "art" and say "we're just making a show, we're not responsible for the actions of others."

I don't remember Ayn Rand ever hiding behind that excuse for The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

When Laura Ingraham or Rush Limbaugh refers to Jack Bauer and 24 in their pro-torture rantings, that's not them "twisting" art. That's them making exactly the argument that 24 makes every Monday at 9 on Fox.

Careful what you wish for

I'm not naturally sympathetic to the idea that the NDP should try and build a new left party in Canada, but I do try and deal with the arguments seriously. Giant Political Mouse has a provocative point when he writes that NDPers should "....take a lesson from, of all people, Preston Manning. We on the left need to unite the left and create a winning coalition."

Um, okay. Let's imagine we are as successful as Manning. We'll spend a decade building a party in the wilderness, while the governing party (presumably, in this scenario, the Conservatives) runs roughshod over our grievances, go through two successive re-brandings in an attempt to unite some mushy notion of "Progressives" that nobody in Canada really agrees on, until finally a party that really doesn't look much like the early vision finally, tortuously, wins one of the weakest minority governments in Canadian history.

Victory at last!

You may think I'm being flip, but look at what these plans inevitably require: splitting the Liberals in two (presumably between the Business-Right and the Left factions) and glomming the various "progressive" parties together in Parliament.

The problem isn't (only) the natural arrogance of elected officials. There are substantive differences between the Libs, Greens, and NDP, and not just in details. The only kind of platform that could unite three groups that are today so disparate would be something about as vague as "we like puppies" and "fire bad, tree pretty".

So first we destroy the one working, national alternative to the Conservatives, then we improvise together a party out of three parts (not one of which will be treated well by the press) and try and keep it together long enough to win an election.

This is a recipe for successive Conservative majorities.

Now, that's not to say we won't get Conservative majorities anyway -- Harper has been underestimated in his career before -- but we don't have to help Harper along, do we?

And, looking forward, I think that two Conservative majority governments is about the only thing that could force the various parties to the table. But even this radically under-estimates the incredible animosity the Liberals and NDP have for each other. Anyone who's spent any time with actual Liberals close to politics knows what I'm talking about -- in Ontario, I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that the McGuinty Liberals detest Howard Hampton's NDP more than the Tory Conservatives.

Carbon tax follow-up

The latest Angus-Reid poll (PDF!) shows that a $0.25 tax on every litre of gasoline has the measly support of 29% of Canadians. Interestingly, it's more popular in Alberta than it is in Ontario. (BC and Quebec predictably are warmest to the idea.)

Still, at 29% it's only a few percent less popular than our current government.

Promising methanol electrolysis

The Chinese seem to be moving in a big way towards a Methanol Economy. The advantages for the Chinese are pretty clear: Methanol can be synthesized quickly and cheaply from coal, which China has in abundance. Over the long term, one could phase out coal production and produce methanol from dedicated crops and wastes.

So I'm not surprised to see this kind of work come out of China:
Water electrolysis for large scale hydrogen production is unattractive because of its high electricity consumption. But hydrogen produced by electrolysis of methanol as proposed by Prof. Shen, from Advanced Energy Materials Research laboratory of Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China uses only 1/3 electricity consumption of water electrolysis.
One caveat seems to be that methanol production also requires a hydrogen source, which in conventional production comes from the fossil-fuel input. It could also (in theory) come from a gasified biomass source.

Efficient methanol synthesis and electrolysis could make fuel cells more useful than I've given them credit for recently. I've been betting on batteries (in electric cars and plug-in hybrids) the win the market first, but the neat thing is that the plug-in hybrid concept isn't an either-or: so long as grid electricity is cheaper, per-mile, than a liquid fuel it's going to make most sense for a consumer to do their day-to-day driving with a plug handy. You can have a plug-in fuel cell hybrid (indeed, this makes at least as much sense as an internal-combustion/battery hybrid.)

Why 24 is awful, and why it matters

via Digby, this New Yorker profile on "24" creator Joel Surnow is crucial reading:
This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind “24.” Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan—wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals—aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his “call” was.

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”...

Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

How do you spell "restitution", Natalie Maines?

"That's interesting," Maines crowed from the podium after the country award was handed out earlier in the night. "Well, to quote the great 'Simpsons' — 'Heh-Heh.'
If you watch the video, she's clearly saying "haw, haw" (a la Nelson Muntz), not "heh heh." Silly AP reporter.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Continued food blogging

After the NYT Michael Pollan piece, maybe I should avoid food as a topic for a while. But Tony Bourdain (he of Kitchen Confidential) has a funny bit here. He gets downright mean about Rachael Ray:
Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So...what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could--if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?”

Memories of freedom fries

via The Vanity Press, this interview with Chris Hedges is excellent reading. But I'd like to focus on this bit, about the run-up to the war in Iraq:
The media was completely in complicity with very few exceptions. The population at large got off on it; the cable news channels pumped out this garbage over 24-hour news cycles with graphics and drum rolls. And this was part of the whole sickness that happened to the country after 9/11, where unbridled nationalism—which I think is a disease—was unleashed. It brings with it—it really is just a form of crude, self-exaltation, but it brings with it a very dark undercurrent of racism—racism towards Muslims, towards anyone, including the French, who disagreed with us. And our society was really enveloped with this sickness. It really was a sickness that I had seen on the streets of Belgrade. It wasn’t a new sickness to me, but of course it was disturbing because this time around it was my own nation. And that euphoria lasted basically until the war went bad, or until people realized that it was going badly. And then we forgot about it. There’s a kind of willful amnesia that is also a pattern of wartime society—certainly something I saw in Argentine society after their defeat in the Falkland war.
I've had a few people call me crazy for worrying about a war with Iran. Well, fine, then I'm crazy. But I remember 2002-2003, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of me. To see a nation as powerful as the United States go totally batshit insane -- beyond reason, beyond fear, filled with hate and loathing for France of all things? -- was terrifying, deep in my bones. I have American family -- staunch Democrats* almost without exception -- and still some of them were gulled in to supporting this war.

I mean, the Dixie Chicks for the love of Christ.

Now, maybe Bush can't pull that rabbit out of the same hat twice. Things are different now, sure enough. But I can't shake that fear. Rather than deal seriously with the fact that they were taken for suckers, the Press, the Democrats, and the American people themselves seem to want to forget it ever happened. It's obviously impossible to learn anything if you refuse to even remember anything.

About half the people who now claim they don't support the war are -- to be blunt -- lying. If the statistics from March 2003 mean anything, it's that they supported this war until it started going badly. I may be petty, but I'm not inclined to be charitable to these people.

*I'm told my grandmother refused to vote for FDR for a third time, on the principle that a President had no business seeking a third term. Fortunately, it was 1940 and FDR won with 55% of the vote and carried 80% of the states. Go New Deal!

Didja hear?

So.... this Anna Nicole Smith thing. She's dead. I get it. But I honestly didn't pay that much attention to her when she was alive.

Marilyn Monroe she ain't.

So could somebody please explain to me this? Or for that matter this?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Judge to teen: You should have had more gay sex.

Xiao Pangzi treats the judge in this case about as seriously as they deserve, but surely it strikes everyone else as a bit bizarre that a young man risks deportation (and death) because, as a 16 year old gay boy in Texas of all places, he wasn't chasing boys all night and day?
IRB adjudicator Deborah Lamont, who heard the case from Calgary via videoconference, questioned his lack of same-sex relationships while he lived in the U.S.

"I found the claimant's many explanations unsatisfactory for why he chose not to pursue same-sex relationships in the U.S. as he alleged it was his intention to do so and he wanted to do so," she wrote in her decision.

Instead, she concluded: "...he is not a homosexual... and fabricated the sexual orientation component to support a non-existent claim for protection in Canada."
Um, I never feared I'd be beaten to death for my sexuality, and still I didn't find a girl willing to spend time with me until I was 17. This isn't just homophobic -- though it is that -- it's anti-male, period. Unless of course you believe that all men sex-addled beasts.

One wonders if Deb Lamont believes anyone is really gay, or just "confused", like Ted Haggard.

This makes me want to scream.
Orozco travelled to Toronto in 2005 after learning that Canada respects gay rights.
Who told him that, I wonder?

So here's a question -- will the Honorable Minister of Immigration allow a now-21 year old gay man to stay in Canada, or will the Conservative government give in to it's worst instincts regarding gays and lesbians?

Catching Up II: Tech talk

So for a few weeks now we've been hearing rumours that the major music labels have come around and are considering releasing their songs as DRM-free MP3s. These would still be sold legally and be protected by copyright law, but the technical measures that offend users would be gone. As a bonus, the labels wouldn't have Steve Jobs' boot on their necks over the Fairplay DRM issues.

Freedom to Tinker raises one interesting point: the labels have spent a decade screeching about how necessary DRMed music is to protect copyright. Empirically false, but that didn't stop the labels from screeching it.
The industry will find these views particularly inconvenient when it is ready to sell MP3s. Having long argued that customers can’t be trusted with MP3s, the industry will have to ask the same customers to use MP3s responsibly. Having argued that DRM is necessary to its business — to the point of asking Congress for DRM mandates — it will now have to ask artists and investors to accept DRM-free sales.

All of this will make the industry’s wrong turn toward DRM look even worse than it already does. Had the industry embraced the Internet early and added MP3 sales to its already DRM-free CDA (Compact Disc Audio format) sales, they would not have reached this sad point. Now, they have to overcome history, their own pride, and years of their own rhetoric.
I want to come back to this issue later, but for now it's interesting to see how this is playing out. Perhaps in response to the persistent rumours, Steve Jobs released a letter where he outlined 3 possible futures for the Internet music industry:
  • 1) Status Quo, cont. Each competing firm (Apple, MSFT, etc.) tries to control the market for music and music players, top to bottom. Jobs unsurprisingly claims this system is working just fine, and can continue ad infinitum.

  • 2) Fairplay becomes the standard. Apple licenses it's proprietary DRM to all comers, probably because of legal intervention such as that being contemplated in Norway as we speak. Jobs no likee. He claims -- with a straight face, apparently -- that if Apple is forced to license Fairplay DRM widely, the security will be broken. Apparently, Jobs is a blithering idiot. Fairplay tracks have an average "secure" lifespan of minutes before they're cracked and re-distributed sans DRM.

  • 3) DRM-free music for all! Jobs says he prefers this possible future to all others. It's hard not to read this as Jobs attempting to call the labels' bluff. The labels want Internet music sales -- finally, they've accepted that they can't break the Internet -- but don't want Apple to control them. Jobs is saying fine, but if I can't control them neither can Bill Gates, or Sony, or whoever.
Of course, both Jobs and the labels know the obvious -- the vast majority of digital music ever sold has been sold DRM-free on CDs. The labels have done just fine with Internet and real-world sales despite the ridiculous ease with which CDs can be ripped and shared with friends.

Nevertheless, the labels have responded to Jobs' letter, and you can just guess which one of Jobs' options they prefer:
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A recording industry group fired back Wednesday at Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, suggesting his company should open up its anti-piracy technology to its rivals instead of urging major record labels to strip copying restrictions from music sold online.

Mitch Bainwol, chairman and chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, said the move would eliminate technology hurdles that now prevent fans from playing songs bought at Apple's iTunes Music Store on devices other than the company's iPod.
But it's this part that shows us what business really wants -- where they want the industry to go:
"Eliminating online DRM appears to us to be an overly risky move that eliminates the potential for a future digital-only distribution model free of piracy," Deutsche Bank analyst Doug Mitchelson wrote in a research note.

Jobs could have just as easily lectured the software industry, which includes Apple, for its unwillingness to pursue an industrywide DRM standard or work to make media players recognize and not play pirated songs, Mitchelson wrote.
The only way Mitchelson could get his wish would be to abandon every existing standard of music file, make a new standard that contained some kind of digital watermark from the labels and then have new-model players reject any and all files without that standard. And even then, it simply wouldn't work.

All this in pursuit of a market where piracy doesn't exist -- a fantasy world that never existed and never will.

I think the industry will eventually move towards DRM-free tracks unless they're able to compel Apple to license Fairplay (a fight I don't think they can win.) So what happens when the labels make DRM-free tracks available and Ragnarok stubbornly refuses to arrive?

More specifically: What happens to the movie industry -- which is DRMed top to bottom, far more intrusively than Apple -- when DRM becomes discredited in the marketplace even more than it already is?

Can we convince Hollywood studios to abandon DRM on DVDs and Hi-def DVDs, and allow the market to actually function properly? The iPod, after all, would never, ever have arrived if music were as tightly controlled as digital video is. It's a good thing to allow the market to function, at least so business always tells us.

Color me skeptical.

Edwards keeps his bloggers

This is about as insider-baseball as it gets: John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's Sister to blog for his campaign website, among other duties. These young women -- being bloggers, and popular ones at that -- had occasionally resorted to language and topics that could offend some. Especially wingnuts.

The right-wing blogosphere, in it's never-ending crusade to scalp anyone, at any time, for any reason or no reason whatsoever, predictably went insane(-er).

Edwards, after a too-long period of silence, has decided to keep the bloggers on staff. Good for him. Firing them would have just chummed the waters for these freaks, aside from punishing Amanda and Melissa for doing nothing wrong. (A note for posterity: In the 21st century, everyone everywhere will have expressed an opinion on the Internet. Politicians need to anticipate this and deal with it.)

Chester Scoville at the Vanity Press writes:
Harrumph. I am not pleased with the apologetic tone that the Edwards campaign has decided to take here. Nor am I pleased with the patronizing, big-daddy tone of Edwards's own statement. It's good that Edwards has decided not to ground fire his two naughty little girls bloggers because of the whining of a few of his enemies, but this is still triangulation. In fact, it's capitulation. And it stinks.
I understand the sentiment, I really do. But triangulation? My read of Edwards has always been that he's a devout, middle-aged southern American man. His statement may be paternalist and apologetic, bending the knee and the neck to the fundies, but it strikes me as basically sincere because my read of Edwards is that he's that kind of guy.

I dunno. People obviously have different reads of politicians, and doubly so over events like this. I want to be clear that I'm not wild about Edwards' statement or his general handling of this -- I'd love to see some spine from a Democrats, any day now -- but "triangulation" seems to imply that Edwards' statement is something other than sincere, which I don't believe it is.

Whether that's actually a net plus for Prof. Scoville or anyone else is of course up to you.

And if the Communist's don't like it, it must be bad

The Chinese Communist Party didn't like Zhang Yimou's latest:
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top Communist Party training academy has slammed Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou's latest film "Curse of the Golden Flower" as the latest in a line of bloodthirsty blockbusters smearing modern Chinese cinema.

A commentary in the "Study Times", the Chinese Communist Party School's official mouthpiece, complained that Chinese directors were deluding themselves that big-budget violent movies would lead to Academy Awards.

"Fine art is not built on money. Good movies are not based on banquets of glitzy scenes and effects, and less so when violence and sex are involved," the editorial said.
I agree with them: Curse of the Golden Flower was crap, and none of the violence or timid sex made up for it -- I haven't walked out of a film less impressed with a director in a long time.

Funny thing though -- Zhang Yimou's previous films include Hero, which was just as bloody and timidly sexual as Curse, if not more so. Except that the totally unmissable message of Hero was that sometimes dictators do horrible things to preserve social order and national greatness, and we should all just accept that and not raise a ruckus when they do.

Shorter Hero: Thank you sir! May I have another!

And yet somehow Beijing didn't complain about the sex and violence in Hero. Wonder why...

They don't call them the Founders for nuthin'

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended… War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them…”

--James Madison, from Political Observations , April 20, 1795.

The ongoing fall of the House of Chiang

I find this story fascinating:
On February 5, the Military Police Headquarters in Taipei removed Chiang's statue from its premises. Similarly, DPP President Yu Shyi-kun today presented a proposal to remove honor guards from Chiang Kai-Shek's mausoleum at the Tzuhu Presidential Burial Place, handing responsibility for the upkeep of the tomb to the late dictator’s family.

A group of DPP MPs also said they would press for the name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei to be changed to Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.

The KMT slammed the ruling DPP for trying to cut off Taiwan's Chinese heritage. “Like him or not, Chiang is part of Taiwan's history,” KMT legislator Tseng Yung-chuan said.
There's little more absurd in the history of the Cold War than the fact that the US and Chiang insisted -- for more than a generation -- that Taipei was the legitimate government of all China, only to see Nixon turn on a dime when there was a chance for the US to drive a wedge between the Soviets and Beijing.

And yet well before the Cold War Chiang Kai-Shek (and more importantly Mme. Chiang) held this incredible power over Washington's leaders. Bizarre.

Anyway, good to see some of the trappings of Chiang's cult of personality being dismantled.

Catching Up

  • An interesting article on the PhD's who are now running the war in Iraq.

  • The US Air Force is refusing to count the dead from it's air strikes, and even refusing in some cases to count the ammunition it expends for the same reason. Aside from a moral problem with not counting the dead Iraqis you're there to save, you can't expect the USAF to get better if they don't recognize the problem.

  • And for a bit more than a week now, Josh Marshall has been blogging furiously on the rash of shoot-downs of US helicopters in Iraq. For the first month of the year there's been a dramatic increase in the number of downed helicopters and dead soldiers.
That last bit is worrisome for a few reasons. It's been clear for a while now that the Iraqis are learning to fight the Americans and adapt extremely quickly. The downing of US helicopters (aside from having Vietnam and Afghanistan paralells) seems to be more due to better Iraqi tactics and less to any new weapons.

So, another clear reason the US needs to leave Iraq: the longer they stay, the better trained the insurgents will be. It took two summers for IEDs and suicide car bombers to make their way to Afghanistan. Any wagers on how long it will take for this innovation?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A brief thought

I've got one foot out the door, but when it comes to environment and energy policies, there's something that people need to keep in mind. And it's something that doesn't get said a lot in Canadian politics. But it's utterly central to any reasonable attempt to lower Canada's carbon dioxide emissions:

The goal of Canadian national policy should be the dismantling of all fossil fuel industries in Canada, especially coal but including the natural gas and oil industries.

We can disagree on timelines and methods, but the end state is clear: a Canada that is right with the world needs to include an Alberta that doesn't produce oil or gas.

Sometimes the obvious goes unstated, and this shouldn't be the case.

So serious proposals to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions need -- as a political reality -- to grapple with how to sell the issue to the constituencies that most depend on fossil fuel profits.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I've got a fever...

and the only cure... is more Mario!

More regular blogging when I get bored of this awesome game.

And yes, I'm 20 years out of date.

Stephen Harper is a pig

...according to the ancient and always-correct Chinese Zodiac, which must not be questioned ever. This is his birth year coming up in a few weeks.

He shares this honor with such notables as Chiang Kai Shek, Jack Ruby, and Lee Kuan Yew the Singaporean Autocrat. Also, Winona Ryder. A list of others here.

Just thought I'd share.

I'm (just barely) a rooster. My parents are Tigers.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Weirdest/Best Story Ever

Admit it. If you're going to be kidnapped, you'd want your (attempted) kidnapper to be an astronaut.

NASA says this is the first time an active-duty astronaut has been charged with a felony.

All this over -- I swear to God -- an astronaut love triangle.

Canadian connection: The accused operated the Canadarm during her last mission.

Towerless, Wireless

Interesting NYT article on a startup that's trying to bring cheap broadband to the masses through mesh networking.
Meraki Networks, a 15-employee start-up in Mountain View, Calif., has been field-testing Wi-Fi boxes that offer the prospect of providing an extremely inexpensive solution to the “last 10 yards” problem. It does so with a radical inversion: rather than starting from outside the house and trying to send signals in, Meraki starts from the inside and sends signals out, to the neighbors.

Some of those neighbors will also have Meraki boxes that serve as repeaters, relaying the signal still farther to more neighbors. The company equips its boxes with software that maintains a “mesh network,” which dynamically reroutes signals as boxes are added or unplugged, and as environmental conditions that affect network performance fluctuate moment to moment....

For NetEquality, Mr. Burmeister-Brown decided to try out the Meraki equipment in several neighborhoods. In the largest, consisting of about 400 apartments, five DSL lines were used to feed 100 Meraki boxes, which cover the complex with a ratio of one box to every four apartments. Each box both receives the signal and passes it along, albeit at diminished strength. For an initial investment of about $5,000, or $13 a household, the complex can offer Internet access whose operating costs work out to about $1 a household a month.

The bandwidth can match DSL service, but here it is throttled down a bit to deter bandwidth-hogging downloads. Nonetheless, Mr. Burmeister-Brown says everyone is able to enjoy Web browsing with what he describes as “really snappy response.” The sharing of signals among neighbors does not compromise privacy if standard Wi-Fi security protocols are switched on.

Carbon Tax II

How much would a carbon tax cost actual consumers? (We naturally assume that no oil company is going to pay a chunk of its tax bill through lower profits.) Well, judging by the CO2 figures for various fuels available at the US Department of Energy, here and here, we can put some quick math together.

I'm going to keep assuming, for the sake of this discussion, that we have the Stern-approved level of $85/metric ton of CO2 emitted.

For a barrel of conventional oil (yes, Alberta still produces normal oil, even though the tar sands get all the press) we'd add about $2.50 to the cost of a barrel of oil. For the tar sands oil, the tax would be $7.50.

For gasoline and diesel, the tax would be in the range of 20 cents a litre.

For electricity derived from coal we'd be paying an extra 8 or 9 cents per kwh.

These taxes would amount to a 25% increase in the price of gasoline and a 100%+ increase in the price of electricity in some areas. So you'd pretty clearly want to start at a lower level and phase it in upwards. But what would the effects be?

Well, coal would immediately be uneconomic. Wind and even solar (yes, even in Canada) would rapidly be more profitable for business, and cheaper for consumers, than coal-fired electricity.

Meanwhile, natural gas costs would have about $4.60 tacked on to each 1000 cubic feet. (Prices for natural gas averaged $5-6 for the last year.)

So yes, prices for energy would go up substantially. That's actually the point. One thing I'll point out here is that in none of these examples would the price be outside the range we've seen in volatile energy markets recently.

Why do prices increase so much? Think of it this way: the scale of the price increase is directly proportional to the size of our problems.

The biggest problem today is that no business is being forced to pay a price for its environmental activities. Nicholas Stern has correctly called climate change the greatest market externality in history, and we need to find some way to impose a price on carbon.

So why not a cap-and-trade system, like what's fitfully beginning in Europe? Well the big reason is that these markets take time to build and to refine -- the Europeans just had a minor meltdown when they issued too many carbon permits. A tax on carbon has the virtues of simplicity, predictability, and it's something the government can put in place quickly. Predictability really is crucial -- business can plan around a stable price.

What could we do with all this money? Remember that we could raise about $60 billion a year at $85/tonne. Thinking big... well, we could retire every single one of Canada's 400,000 coal, gas, and oil workers and give them $50,000 a year tax free ($20 billion a year) and still have 2/3 of our bounty left over. This would have the obvious effect of making Canada totally dependent on energy imports as far as oil, gas, and coal in concerned. So let's start conserving: With the other $40 billion we could give each of the 12 million Canadian households $3,000 towards the purchase of a new hybrid car. (On the condition they get rid of their old one, of course.)

And the next year we'd have another $40 billion to play with (those pensioned carbon workers still need their money until they die, and some of these guys are still young.)

You can play with these numbers a bit, but the point is clear I hope: Any reasonable tax on carbon is going to raise some pretty large amounts of money, and as I've said there's no reason to stop at $85/tonne. Like any sin tax, the government may find it's useful on occasion to raise it further. (Sweden: $150/tonne.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Step One is a Carbon Tax

Because I can't get enough of that glorious Kyoto talk...

Olaf linked to an article a few days ago claiming the following:
But the problem is the Kyoto deadline. Ms. Donnelly estimates it would cost $80-billion in new capital spending projects (including building retrofits, manufacturing plant upgrades and redesigning vehicle and engine production lines) to achieve the transformation Kyoto compliance would require.

"The problem is that even if we had the skilled labour and cash in place to start construction on all $80-billion in capital projects today, most of the new clean energy supply would not be delivering energy product to Canadian consumers before 2013," she said.
Olaf says it sounds low to him -- I dunno, I've heard $100 billion estimates for the US economy, which is ten times our size. So color me skeptical.

But let's run with this $80 billion estimate. What would it take to raise $80 billion before 2012, our Kyoto deadline? Assuming our economy grows not at all in the next 4 years... 2% of GDP. A bit less, even. Hardly insurmountable, though I acknowledge that it's not trivial either. How do we raise this kind of money?

Well, the Stern Report says there's a social cost to a tonne of carbon of about $85. Canada emits approximately 760 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

760,000,000 X $85 = $64.6 billion. A year. So a reasonable and well-researched level of carbon taxation could fund 3/4 of the capital costs this estimate says we need per year, or more than 3 times the amount cited by 2012. Obviously, a tax like this takes time to get off the ground, but it's worth pointing out that some countries have much higher levels of carbon taxation -- Sweden has a tax of $150/tonne of CO2, though with some partial and full exemptions for some industries.

I think a reasonable starting place would be to start at $50/tonne, and add $10 to the tax every year for a decade. By 2018, we'd be paying Sweden levels of taxation on oil, coal, and natural gas.

And as anyone who's read up on this matter knows, the best case scenario is when industry and business engage in massive carbon tax evasion -- changing their investments and business plans to emit less carbon. The tax works twice.

Is it doable? Almost certainly. In Canadian politics, the biggest problem with environment and energy issues is the division of powers between Federal and Provincial governments. But the feds have basically unlimited taxation powers, so this is well within Ottawa's constitutional rights. All we need now is a government that doesn't view taxes as the mark of the beast.

Friday, February 02, 2007

What does it mean to be "anti-Kyoto"?

Olaf says here it's possible to be for positive steps to reduce climate change and still be anti-Kyoto. Mike says maybe, but put up or shut up.

Allow me to dissent here for a minute. Kyoto says absolutely nothing about the methods with which we reduce our emissions, except that it allows Canada to fund clean development outside of our country if we can't meet our goals domestically.

Therefore, there's really almost nothing you could propose as a means to combat climate change that would be "anti-Kyoto", especially when you consider that the Kyoto process is ongoing -- we're already negotiating the second stage.

What being "anti-Kyoto" means, if it means anything at all, is being opposed to the goals of Kyoto, that is in the Canadian context a 6% reduction in our GHG emission below the 1990 baseline by 2012.

We can, if we act now, still achieve the lion's share of that goal in Canada and fund clean development to earn the rest. In fact, if we want to spend our money most wisely, it probably makes sense to single-mindedly focus on reducing Chinese emissions with Canadian money. This would be cheaper, on a $/Tonne of CO2 reduction basis, than spending all the money domestically. It would therefore achieve better returns for the planet and Canadian taxpayers. (The atmosphere is totally indifferent as to who emits a ton of CO2.) AND it's entirely consistent with the Kyoto treaty.

(There is the always-pertinent issue as to whether money spent in China will be spent well in China.)

We should, on development grounds alone, be sponsoring massive technology transfers and subsidies to the third world to make clean development possible. That it's also self-interested of us makes this a no-brainer. So why aren't we doing it?

Well, because the politicians that Olaf would prefer we all vote for have spent the last decade, with great success, screeching about how Kyoto will destroy the Canadian economy and have managed to arrest any progress that could have been made.

(Conservative readers will understand that I'm not defending the Liberal record here. But it's disingenuous to claim that the Reform, Alliance, and Conservative Parties were merely observers through the 1990s. You had an effect, and a profoundly negative one. Live with it.)

Funny thing -- if we'd started a decade ago, we could have gradually transitioned to our objectives without any painful dislocation in the Canadian economy. But because the "pro-business" conservatives succeeded in arresting any progress, the dislocation in the Canadian economy will now be much, much more painful for business. Haw haw.

Finally, there's this little matter of Stephen Harper's grasp of climate science. He seems to have finally accepted the reality of climate change, um, sometime after June of 2006 or so. Some of us have spent more than a decade reading about this stuff, and the basics of climate change science have been understood for more than a century. So pardon me if I don't trust him as far as I hope the Canadian voters throw him.

CIA: Iran "not likely to be a major driver of violence" in Iraq

The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is out. It's pretty bad, on every level, for the Bush admin.

Yes it's a civil war, no it's not Iran's doing, it's just awful. Oh, and the surge just won't work.


Connect the dots: 1) New research shows that previous models have underestimated the potential sea level rise from global warming, and that a rise of as little as 2 degrees Celsius could lead to catastrophic climate change.

2) According to the IPCC, the "best guess" minimum likely amount of warming we will see in the 21st century: 1.8 degrees Celsius.

Our toes are over the cliff-edge, people. And we're leaning forward.

Does nobody learn anything, ever?

A good point by Ezra about Hillary Clinton and John Edwards:
Just because a Democrat claims to have learned the lessons of Iraq, just because they now oppose this war, doesn't mean they've learned the same lessons the anti-war movement imagines they've learned. This war can be opposed on grounds so limited as to hold little bearing on a similar, subsequent conflict, say with a country that's a typo of "Iraq."
Two of the leading Democratic contenders -- having both abandoned the Iraqi crusade more or less -- are still so bamboozled by the Bush Administration that they've been very hawkish about Iran. Argh.

Ezra names his lessons from the Iraq War:
The lesson I've taken, by contrast, is that toppling Middle Eastern governments, occupying their societies, and trying to impose pluralistic democracy is an almost impossible endeavor, one with far more potential for catastrophe than completion.
How about this one: George W. Bush cannot be trusted, on any matter, under any circumstances. More generally applicable, and relevant to this very day.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Iran: A demon of Bush's making

I've been remiss in not linking to this bit by Tony Shadid on Iran's ascendance in the WaPo. The silly thing is that calling Iran "ascendant" is really a misnomer -- Iran's absolute power really hasn't grown that much versus it's status in, say, 2001. What's changed is that Iran's two implacable enemies -- Taliban Afghanistan and Baathist Iraq -- have been destroyed, and the global hegemonic power is tied down in two wars and is unable to realistically stop any moves Iran makes. Even worse, the US has deliberately (if not consciously) made itself more vulnerable to Iranian retaliation by putting hundreds of thousands of soldiers within Iran's reach.

Which just shows us that the Realist school of International Relations is right -- it's relative power, not absolute power, that matters.

Meanwhile, the only thing Chirac's latest statement/embarrassment really shows is that a) he's still right about the Middle East, and b) the Right will never forgive him for being, um, correct about it.

Oh, and I guess c) it's still true -- a gaffe is when someone tells the truth.