Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On self-inflicted wounds

It's really quite amazing what our government has come to. If the Finance Minister believes that tax cuts are always a good thing, then he's an extremist, if not a revolutionary. This thing called government actually exists to do real things for real people, y'know? And every time we cut taxes, we reduce the government's capacity to do anything. And it's not like there's any shortage of things that need doing -- even if you limit your options to those prescribed by our current government, those needs include big-ticket items like a wee little war in Afghanistan, and putting the Canadian Forces on a more robust, sustainable footing. Not to mention the whole "Arctic sovereignty" thing which, if it's to be done properly, will be substantially more expensive than currently envisioned.

And of course, there's a much longer list of things that need doing, like working on this whole global warming thing, this whole oil thing, and this whole "our cities can't afford to keep the lights on" thing.

Gee, $60 billion over five years? Can we think of anything else the government might be able to do with that money, like 1,500 kilometers of high-speed rail (the combined length of both the Quebec-Windsor corridor and the Edmonton-Calgary run) or maybe something like this, paying the upfront costs of solar panels so people can make real, immediate changes in how they consume energy?

Every time we give in to this low-tax fetish, we make the future harder to deal with. These surpluses, believe it or not, are a transitory phenomena, and deficits will come again. So maybe, just maybe, we should think about what we could use that money for now, while we've got it, before we just sign it away?

Added later: And is there any real reason to believe this isn't tax cuts just for the sake of tax cuts? Are Canadian taxes burdensome to industry? How can that be, if we're in the middle of an economic expansion?

I'm not even opposed to retiring burdensome or unproductive taxes, I just think that what we have here is a succession of governments who cut taxes because it would never occur to them to do otherwise.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I'm gonna go and disagree with Matthew Yglesias on this one:
Hybrid cars are already available on the market, are much more fuel efficient than conventional autos, and with the "hybrid premium" standing at a few thousand dollars and falling, it seems obvious that if drastically higher fuel prices emerge, middle class suburbanites are going to respond with slightly altered consumption habits (more expensive cars, fewer plasma TVs and granite countertops) rather than radical lifestyle alterations
I don't want to over-state this, because I've argued against oil-catastrophism for some time. But, there's an obvious point to make that current hybrids are not, relatively speaking, "much more fuel efficient." The Prius, in normal driving, is about twice as efficient as a comparable non-hybrid. Meaning, in absolute terms, my fuel bill would only be advantaged until the price of fuel doubled. In the US, the price of regular gasoline has doubled, roughly, since 2004 (Excel link!). And, if you grant that we're at or near peak oil (as Matt seems to, albeit optimistically) then the rate of price increases can be expected to accelerate. Meaning, in the lifetime of your average car purchase (8-12 years) a hybrid bought today would still see it's owner's fuel costs be many multiples of what they would otherwise have paid.

So households could still face severe hardship, even if they make the "right" choices. A rapid quadrupling of gasoline prices would be roughly what the west saw in the mid 1970s, and would begin to eat up a significant chunk of a household budget (12% or more. Currently, the average is about 3%) And those who make the wrong choice -- often because they took bad advice from bad people (housing bubble, anyone?) -- are going to be punished severely, and this fraction of the population can be quite large indeed.

Now, like I said, I don't think this needs to be catastrophic. But somebody mentions the example of many European countries, where gasoline is more expensive now than it will be in North America for the forseeable future. This is true, but look what it's meant -- a large and efficient high-speed train network, people commuting largely on mass transit, and more people living closer to where they work. The built space of Europe is far more conducive to car-free or car-lite living, and it's taken decades. (And Europe was already more car-hostile when the oil shocks came around, meaning it was easier to turn around!)

What Matt says is true, in one sense: people will make different choices about how they live -- where possible. But in many places, it simply isn't possible to live close to where you work, or possible to drive less when gas prices increase. (Most driving really is "essential" for suburban families, in that they can't immediately choose to not drive to work, or not get groceries.)

The fundamental problem with peak oil, like climate change, is that the range of effective individual actions is really very small absent policy change. In fact, it's almost zero absent policy change. Which means, like climate change, the answer to peak oil is going to rest in large part on the people we elect and what they elect to do about it.

With intelligent policies and decent-to-bold leadership, I think that peak oil need not be a disaster. But like oil, intelligent policies and adequate leadership seem to be a resource in decline.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Me write pretty one day soon

The editors at Gristmill allow me to pollute the discourse with an obscenity. I'm amazed I'm still allowed to post at all, my posting there has been so uneven!
Apparently, we've all been going around in funeral dress, like flagellants during the Black Death. But that caricature is not even what bothers me, so much as the implied dishonesty.

I hate to break it to anybody who hasn't been paying attention, but things aren't good, and they're not getting better. Things are bad, and they're getting worse. When the UN releases reports saying "humanity's survival is at stake," things are fucking bleak. I don't see why the green movement should respond to that kind of news by putting on a happy face, or by trying to sidestep the issue.

Read the whole thing here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Never has so much been owed by so many

Fred Clark reads "Left Behind", that shitty apocalyptic Christianist spank-fiction, so you don't have to. You should go thank him:
In just the past week, Nicolae Carpathia has been linked to the suspicious death of a whistleblower, a police officer and a journalist. (Something in Buck's gut -- call it instinct or a nose for news -- tells him that car bombing was no accident!)

Did Israel score an own goal?

This is somewhat amusing: according to Russian media, Iran is buying 24 Chinese J-10 fighters. The J-10, it's long been alleged, was developed with Israeli assistance. The J-10 is, according to Wikipedia, roughly comparable with an F-16, so it's not the bleeding-edge state of the art, but it's awfully good all the same. It's also compared with the Mig-29 which Iran owns dozens of, but has a shorter range. So now Iran may be getting an advanced fighter-bomber with sufficient range (if refueled in flight) to hit Israel. Fighters that were originally developed with Israeli help.

(There's a bit of history to this Israel-China-Middle East triangle.)

Maybe, just maybe, the military-industrial complex needs to be re-thought before things get much worse.


The references are pretty subtle... see if you can catch it!

Because facts are for yurpeens

Matthew Yglesias writes:
I remember when Howard Dean couldn't correctly state the total number of people in the Army and it was like the end of the world.

But the top House Republican (like the president and vice president of the united states and most other Republican Party elected officials) can't correctly state the relationship between tax rates and federal revenues, which seems like a big deal.
In most other countries, this would be true. But the main project of the American right (including much of the Democratic Party!) has been to get the American public and media to believe totally false things. This has been going on for decades.

--"There's no connection between industry and global warming."
--"We're defending democracy in the Middle East."
--"When you raise taxes, revenues go down."

Lather, rinse, repeat. You get the public to accept demonstably false things, and you run with it. Eventually, they'll be convinced of anything, like say that Iran poses an existential threat to the country.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Adventures in men cooking: the tale of the ever-more-variegated salad

Note to self: John, you need to accept that no matter how much protein you add to that salad, it's never going to become a hamburger.

Now, put down the egg, and back away from the cutting board...

Trying to lose

"The best weapon for killing is a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The next best is a rifle. The worst is an airplane, and after that the worst is artillery."

-John Paul Vann
The U.S. military has increased airstrikes in Iraq four-fold this year, reflecting a steep escalation in combat operations aimed at al-Qaeda and other militants.

Coalition forces launched 1,140 airstrikes in the first nine months of this year compared with 229 in all of last year, according to military statistics.
The surge is irrelevant. Petraeus is irrelevant. Hell, the new COIN manual is irrelevant. The US doesn't know how to fight a small war, and attempts to do so only make things worse. Fred Kaplan makes it clear that this is a direct reaction to Petraeus' change in tactics. If US soldiers are going to be put at more risk, they're going to call in more air strikes. Alternately, the USAF could be responding to the threat of their own irrelevance in small wars by making their resources more available. Obviously, sitting in a basement in Toronto, I can't tell you.

The short version of the story, however, seems to be that trying to tamp down on harmful, counterproductive incompetence in the military is like trying to squeeze a balloon -- is just goes somewhere else.

No siree

via Greg: Nope, there's definitely not a lick of racism among Quebec's separatists anymore. Absolutely none. Ancient history.
TROIS-RIVIÈRES, QUE. — The stoning of women could happen in Quebec unless cautionary steps are taken, a proponent of the controversial Hérouxville code of conduct said yesterday, urging people to stop accommodating religious minorities.

"If we do nothing, my dear sir, in a few years we might have some here," Hérouxville town Councillor André Drouin told Gérard Bouchard, the co-chair of a public inquiry into religious accommodations.
While it's certainly possible the journalist is doing a bad job, as written the quote seems to indicate the purpose of the law, according to Mr. Drouin, is explicitly to keep minorities out of town. The alternative is that he thinks, absent his law, there'll be women stoned in Canada, which is insane. And, if he doesn't get the law he wants to exclude minorities?
Either the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be amended to make it impossible to seek religious accommodations, or the province should separate, he said.
Yeah, it always comes back to that, doesn't it.

"This steak is well done, not medium rare! Separate!"

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Late entry quote of the day

Just as the most poisonous form of disorder is the mob incited from high places, the most immoral act the immorality of a government, so the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news.

-- Walter Lippmann

It's the REM song as we know it...

Two pieces of good news! One, CO2 emissions are rising faster than expected, and two, the ocean is absorbing them at lower rates as it saturates with the damn stuff. Oh, and I guess three: the wildfires in California are the kind of thing we can expect more of in the future.

I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to say these days. I really feel like I'm on the edge here, and we're all waiting to be pushed off.

She's runnin' aground, cap'n!

I've got to say, shipping freighters being less profitable isn't my biggest concern about losing water on the Great Lakes, but it's worth pointing out.

That, and I laugh every time I read the words "International Joint Commission." Gotta get me on that commission!

Inaccurate, but it'll blow your mind

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oh good God people are stupid

A perfect example of how a little bit of economics knowledge can be a dangerous and very embarrassing thing.
As MIT professor Morris Adelman put it, “The great oil shortage is like the horizon, always receding as one moves toward it.” But Adelman's is a fundamental insight of economics, a science that considers human behavior and so is a better tool for analyzing scarcity than is geology...

But that model doesn't reflect the real-world use of resources at all. Take copper: Humanity has been mining copper for millennia, but even after all that time, the pattern still doesn't resemble a bell curve. Instead, production keeps increasing: The world mined 291,000 tons in 1852, 3 million tons in 1935 and 15.3 million tons in 2006.
Actually, those numbers suggest that the growth curve for copper extraction is already flattening out, and the author doesn't even realize it: copper extraction increased by 10 times from 1852-1935, but from 1935-2006 only increased five times -- when the global population tripled, and the global GDP increased by, what, two orders of magnitude? In the next fifty years, will it only increase 2.5 times? Will it increase at all? Will it fall?

And of course, whether you talk about copper or what, peak oil quite clearly describes the behaviour of past oil provinces, most obviously the US.

Meanwhile, the Energy Working Group says peak oil was in 2006. (PDF) This is the same group that has previously argued that peak coal will be in the 2030s, and that peak uranium will be in 2050ish. Basically, if we don't move to an all-renewable economy we're screwed.

Profile in Honesty

Tom Walkom is a good journalist.
Initial reports of an Environics survey released Thursday suggest the answer is a strong yes. "Majority of Afghans want foreign troops to stay and fight" was The Globe and Mail's headline.

Analysts argued that the poll results, based on interviews conducted last month in the war-torn country, would bolster Prime Minister Stephen Harper's efforts to keep Canadian troops fighting in Kandahar past February 2009.

But when the poll is examined more carefully (it's available at, its findings become far less definitive. Indeed, it is not clear that they provide solace to any of the politicians now debating Canada's Afghan mission....

Yet at the same time, 74 per cent say they want their government to negotiate with the Taliban, which is the NDP position.

And more than half say they want to be ruled by a coalition government that includes the Taliban....
It would be really nice if this had gotten the attention it deserved.

Profiles in dishonesty

Or, why I try not to write about the Middle East.

James Fallows writes, in about as balanced and fair a tone you can imagine, that in recent months we've witnessed Israelis, Armenians, and Cubans have a negative effect on American foreign policy. To point this out, Fallows writes,
is not to be anti-Armenian, anti-Orthodox, anti-Cuban, anti-Catholic, or anti-Semitic. Nor is it to deny that members of each lobby claim, and probably believe, that what they're recommending is best for America too. But in these cases they're wrong. And noting these groups' power and potential to distort policy mainly means recognizing that James Madison's warnings about the invidious effects of "faction" apply beyond the 18th century in which he wrote.
He is then gratuitously, egregiously, dishonestly accused of singling out the Jews for criticism. He could have just as easily added the long-term influence of the Taiwan lobby -- keeping the US from recognizing the People's Republic for thirty years! -- but it doesn't matter. No matter how balanced, how fair, how "sensible" you try to be, there are people who have no interest in fairness, balance, or sensibility. And they'll lie about you to keep tempers high.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The face of globalization, c. 1820

So we all know that Qing China was simply overwhelmed by a rapidly-modernizing Europe, particularly Britain, whose new weapons and control of global trade caused the collapse of the last Chinese empire, right?

Er, no. What happened to China in the 19th century would, in the 20th century, have been ruled a gross war crime. via HTWW, a useful corrective to the all-too-common western triumphalist narrative:
At the time, in fact until the 1820s, China was doing quite well in foreign trade. Without a market for British goods, the British had to pay in silver resulting in a huge trade imbalance and net inflows of silver into China. Britain didn't change this pattern by "controlling shipping and financial flows," they changed it by turning Victoria into a heroin-peddling drug 'queen-pin'. By 1838, foreign traders were smuggling nearly 40,000 chests of opium into South China every year (up from 4500 two decades earlier). Because smuggling is a cash business, silver began to pour out of South China causing enormous economic dislocations and hardships. This was not the triumph of Western liberalism, this was a crack economy run by a state-sponsored cartel....

But the larger point is that this narrative of Qing obstinacy in the face of Western dynamism is an old wives tale that makes westerners feel better about what happened next: Namely, the imperialist dismantling of Qing sovereignty for the purposes of profit and filthy lucre. It's the classic date rape defense: The Chinese didn't know what they really wanted, so we gave it to 'em anyway.
It's so hard to get white, wealthy, developed countries to accept that they're only wealth and developed because they did horrible, horrible things to the rest of the planet. Not surprising, but it would be great if we could get closer...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lazy Saturday fun with Google Earth

What is this dead-worm-looking thing?

A bit closer...

Closer still...

It's a turbine in the Prince Wind Farm up by Sault Ste. Marie. Incidentally, Vicki and I were in the area of Kincardine last weekend, and ended up serendipitously driving by some of the wind farms there. I say "some of" because, damn, there's a lot of wind farm building going on around there.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sign of the times

The prices for precious metals are so high that parked cars are having their catalytic converters ripped out -- leaving the car in place -- because they contain small amounts of metals like platinum, rhodium and palladium. Apparently, the converters alone are worth several hundred to several thousand dollars in minerals.

Then you've got this dude who thinks that we're passing peak production for most important minerals. Whee.

Friday Tech Blogging, II

So I downloaded Ubuntu 7.10 yesterday, and installed it last night. I don't exactly have copious amounts of spare time, so what follows is based on a very, very brief overview. But basically, es muy bueno.

(For those who don't already know, Ubuntu is a free, open-source operating system based on Debian Linux.)

I'm having some issues with installing new programs, but I think that in this case it's because of my internet connection, not Ubuntu's fault. Upon installation, 7.10 automatically detected my video card and installed the proper drivers. I also found, joy of joys, that Compiz was automatically installed and working. No previous Ubuntu installation had found my video card (even the immediately previous version, 7.4) and as for installing Compiz, fuhgeddaboutit.

(Compiz adds all sorts of neato shiny desktop effects, making Ubuntu pretty instead of ugly-ass.)

There's been a few problems about actually getting Ubuntu to play music and movies, but again this is more problematic because of my dodgy ethernet connection than because of anything on Ubuntu's end. I'd almost say it's slightly more annoying to download codecs for Ubuntu than it is for Windows, only because Ubuntu makes a big deal about notifying you that, yes, these codecs are proprietary and yes, you still want them anyway. But -- and this really is important -- Ubuntu is really good at automatically finding the codecs you needs once you've told it that you want them.

One of the reasons I was eager to try installing Ubuntu was that I already have a Windows laptop, and my old desktop was sitting there gathering dust on my desk. I'm going to spend a bit of time over the next little while (school and my jobs permitting!) toying around with Ubuntu, and seeing what I can make it do. But I'm already impressed and pleasantly surprised. Linux partisans have been saying for a while now that Linux is ready for the desktop, but I've never really thought it was ready for the desktop user until now.

Stross speak, you listen

Random tech blogging of the day: Charlie Stross says that Sony may have finally made a decent e-book reader.

Also, a brief little note on what can happen in a generation:
Lest we forget: back in 1988 the internet was a spam-free file transfer net for big computer corporations and academic departments, modems — remember those? — ran at 2400 bits per second, mobile phones were the same size as bricks, and the Cold War was going to last until 2050, at least. Things have changed, slightly.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Harper wants an election the way Sauron wanted the Ring

...and, let's admit it, it's got to feel good to be Stephen Harper right now. No matter how hard you kick the Liberals, they don't seem to fight back. Harper declared Kyoto dead yesterday, and the only thing the Liberals could think of was somehow finding a way to avoid bringing the election. Hint: When the Tories are all saying Dion isn't a leader, doesn't have leadership material, etc., try and find way to prove them wrong, not right. Leadership isn't throwing yourself in front of a train: Harper, the NDP, and the Bloc are all willing to go to the polls, and trying to stop that at this point isn't going to make you look good. Meanwhile, taking a stand and killing the Throne Speech on the principle of, well, any of the things that Harper said (stuff about Kyoto being only the most egregious) would have actually been an act of leadership.

But now the Liberals have the worst of all worlds. We're probably headed in to an election, but the Liberals have already signalled that they're desperately afraid of one and willing to let the Bloc and the NDP take the lead in killing the 39th Parliament. I just don't think that the Liberals are going to put voters in the mood for change if the only thing they can say is "well, we didn't want an election..."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Kill it, you bastards, kill it

So now on Newsworld I'm watching as the Liberals and NDP can't agree over a) whether the government should fall, but more b) who is going to be blamed/credited with killing the damn thing.

The Liberals don't actually want an election with the dismal, sucking abyss that is their fortunes in Quebec lately. But they also don't want to be seen supporting the government. So they're proposing a motion that they think the NDP will vote in line with the government on, in order to make it look like the NDP are supporting Harper.

Of course, it seems to have not occurred to the Liberals that you might not want to put your electoral future in the hands of the NDP. We, uh, don't exactly see your and our interests as the same.

It seems, according to the CBC, that Dion is getting fantastically bad advice. Most of the bloggers on the front of the Liblogs page seem to want to see the government fall, and outside of Quebec I don't see the Party doing all that badly -- nor do the actual party members seem to be afraid. And Dion himself seems to think he can win in a stand-up fight.

Maybe, as a branded NDP blogger, this is going to sound like misdirection. But I think the Liberals should go for it. Kill the Parliament, run in the election, and win the damn thing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Those people across the ocean are Evil for doing the same stuff that makes us Good

Your American-hypocrisy-in-foreign-policy-blogging is outsourced to Matthew Yglesias:
Meanwhile, conflict with China is on the horizon. Despite McCain's proposed US defense build-up, "When China builds new submarines, adds hundreds of new jet fighters, modernizes its arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles, and tests antisatellite weapons, the United States legitimately must question the intent of such provocative acts." And despite McCain's proposal of a new multilateral institution from which China would be excluded, "When China proposes regional forums and economic arrangements designed to exclude America from Asia, the United States will react." Nevertheless, he wants us to believe that "China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries." But if McCain thinks that Chinese actions that are exactly the same as the actions he proposes for the United States should be viewed as hostile, then how are we going to avoid becoming adversaries?
It's kind of bizarre that it even needs to be said, but so long as a large number of American leaders persist to hold double standards applying to their own conduct, the chances for us making it to the year 2107 are pretty low.

While we're on the topic of crazy foreign policy (since 2003!) I'd like to just take this opportunity that, yes, trying to invade Russia and depose Stalin after WWII is a batshit crazy thing to talk about -- and I love historical counterfactuals.

Let me put this as simply as I can: the Western Powers tried to depose the Bolsheviks after WWI, when the balance of power between the Communists and the West was incredibly more favourable than it was in 1945. (Among other things, Trotsky had not yet won the Russian Civil War.) And they still failed miserably. By the spring of 1945, the Soviets were in a vastly more secure position than 1918, and any discussion of regime change needs to explain exactly how, outnumbered and (arguably) outclassed, the Allied armies were going to fight through Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia to take Moscow. Remembering, of course, that the Nazis tried the same thing -- starting rested and well-fed on the Russian border! -- and failed.

Any attempt to attack Russian forces in Europe in 1945, if we eliminate the insane from the discussion, would have certainly enhanced Russian power, not decreased it. We were really lucky that nobody was as crazy then as the American right is today.

Jonah Goldberg, who never saw a foreigner he wasn't willing to have someone else's kid kill, thinks that it's still worth considering how nifty the world would have been if the US could have "settled Stalin's hash". And yes, I agree that a world without Stalin would have been nifty indeed. As would a world without Hitler, or Napoleon, or Genghis Khan, or Tiberius Caesar Augustus. The question for me is, why does Goldberg so manifestly lack the moral clarity to argue for America entering the war against Napoleon?

I'm not even that hostile to navel-gazing in general (good Lord, I'm a blogger!) but Goldberg is, like all of us, gazing with a politcal aim, one he states pretty clearly:
Before one engages the question of what was possible, it makes sense — and is very clarifying — to address the question of what was most desirable.
This manages to be 180 degrees, and several light-years, away from the state of matter scientists call "correct". If something is impossible, it's not worth discussing whether it would be desirable. It would be fantastic for me if I shit solid gold, but I don't foist this debate on my readers. Goldberg wants us to keep discussing the "desirable" because this way, we keep arguing about the Bush Administration's motives, not their results.

This is where the discussion should properly be held -- results, not intent. Attacking the Russians in 1945 would have reignited the global war that had just ended, and anything in Europe that was still left unburnt would have been put to the torch. America could have, amusingly, found itself allied with the same Japanese war criminals it had just been fighting, now united by their anti-Soviet mania. Whatever else happened (and I happen to think the likely results would have been cataclysmic for America) the death toll would have been in the tens of millions -- even an American victory would very likely have resulted in the Russians using the same "scorched Earth" tactics they used against the Germans, except this time the burn line would start in Berlin and move East on a river of blood.

A basic prinicple of economics, that field that right-wingers are alleged to love so much: nothing comes without a cost. It's as true in foreign policy as anywhere else. A suggestion to, say, depose a foreign tyrant, needs to be justified not on the intent, but on the results and on the costs.

You would think that, five years after the debate about invading Iraq started, we could at least all come around to agreement on this basic point. But no. The right hasn't learned a single fucking thing in the past five years. They still want us to talk about killing tens of thousands of people in foreign countries based on nothing more than happy-talk and good vibes. They're like hippies from bizarro world.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Crazy, stupid people make the world go 'round

What's the common link between an Egyptian man pissed off about Israel and the American invasion of Iraq? via Ezra, Shadi Hamid thinks it's "dignity", which seems too dry and dignified a word for the emotions involved.
He went on to talk about the retributive impulse that had defined the post-9/11 American “psyche;” how we, too, have acted irrationally and done things that have not only failed to help us, but have so obviously hurt us. Our pride and our honor took a hit on 9/11. And what came out of it was a visceral reaction, one full of confused anger. Such impulses are necessary at first, even healthy. Anger can be a good thing, particularly when channeled constructively in support of a national cause. But we went far beyond healthy responses, and we’ve drawn out a long, six-year process of cathartic retribution, in some way aiming to erase the humiliation - the affront to our dignity – that the attacks of September 11th brought upon us. And, in doing so, we have descended into a spiral of irrationality, both self-destructive and self-defeating.
Karma: the reaction to one humiliation -- 9/11 -- will bring about a further humiliation -- the withdrawal from Iraq.

I still have not heard the answer to my longtime question, though: why wasn't Afghanistan enough? Why couldn't we have gotten our retribution out of our system by actually hurting the people who hurt us, and by helping their other victims? I suspect there is no good answer, except for the racist complex of ideas that basically say one dead Muslim is as good as any other, and so long as we're killing the Taliban in Afghanistan, we might as well go after "Saddam" too, as if he was the only one who ever lived in Iraq.

Research Bleg

So, I'm reading today's Toronto Star article about the Feds throwing more money at VIA rail, and a few days ago the Calgary Herald ran a piece about the prospects for high-speed rail in Alberta. Then it occurs to me, "Hey, John, you're a big fan of trains, but you're shockingly ill-informed about the costs and methods of construction for these things."

So, do I have any enthusiasts out there who know a good resource for general train info? Preferably, something that can give me some basis for comparing (for example) the costs and virtues of electrified vs. non-electrified high-speed concepts, or whether electrification is a useful technique outside of high-speed applications.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Pass the popcorn

Oh, I'm sure this won't have any repercussions at all.
OTTAWA–Former prime minister Jean Chrétien says in his new book that he should have fired Paul Martin as finance minister in 2000, more than three years before Martin went on to replace him in the job.

Chrétien's soon-to-be-released memoirs are his fullest comments yet on the years of leadership intrigue with Martin during the Liberals' years in power, and he makes no secret of his scorn.

The 435-page book, titled My Years as Prime Minister, is laced with shots at Martin, including blame for Canadian soldiers ending up in the more dangerous "killing fields" of Kandahar in Afghanistan because "my successor took too long to make up his mind about whether Canada should extend our term" with the International Security Assistance Force in the country.
Yes, I'm sure Stephen Harper won't be using that quote, at all. I'm also sure that the Martin supporters still in the Liberal Party won't take this opportunity to talk about Chretien's failings as.. uh, a three-time winner.

Also, I'm sure monkeys will fly out of my butt. This, by the way, is especially interesting:
However, had former Ontario NDP Leader Bob Rae joined the Liberal Party in 2000 when Chretien tried to recruit him, Rae would probably be party leader today, Chretien said.
Had Rae joined in 2000, held back while Martin imploded, and run in 2006, I daresay Chretien is right -- he would be leader now. Hell, he nearly won the leadership, and that was with everyone calling him an opportunist for parachuting in to the party. Whether the Liberals would be in any better a position then they are right now is a whole other question of course.

And yes, it looks like we'll see yet another week of election speculation. I never thought I'd see Stephane Dion's Liberals acting nervous about an election about climate change.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Who do we talk to about getting Lake Superior back?

So apparently Lake Superior is a meter below it's annual average this year, according to this CBC Radio piece. (WMV link. Start listening about 15:30.) Given that we're talking about the largest source of freshwater in the world, that's enough water, the piece says, to keep Canada slaked for a decade. And it's going away.

Have I mentioned there's a really dumb idea out there to send water from the Great Lakes to the American Southwest? Any chance I'll be able to win my ecology back at the blackjack tables in Vegas?

The suspects for this recent drop in water levels are more diverse than usual -- global warming for sure, but it's also being blamed on overzealous dredging in the St. Clair River, apparently. Basically, somebody deepened a channel between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and now apparently all the lakes from Detroit on up are draining much faster than previous.

Which wouldn't be a good thing at the best of times, but when you combine drier summers and warmer winters it means the rivers which feed Lake Superior have dwindled, too. So water's rushing out and not being replaced quickly enough.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that Bill Richardson may be right on the war, but sending water from the Great Lakes south so that people in Las Vegas can have larger pools is insanity. And my other favourite Democratic governor of a border state agrees.

We need to start thinking about different ways of doing things with water, just like we need to start thinking about different ways of using energy. And a big one is going to be "stop creating permanent settlements in a desert, people!" Barring that, if America isn't smart enough to put together solar-thermal power and seawater desalination, I don't see why the Northeast should be dried out for a Southwest that's already a desert.

Fred Pearce did a really, really good
book about the global water problems we're facing, but one of the most interesting bits in it was the (apparently not new) concept of "virtual water", where economists talk about the amount of water embodied in, say, a T-shirt made from cotton in Egypt or Russia or whatever. Basically, some countries are massive water exporters depending on the products they sell, while others are massive water importers. The "water" can be bound up in finished products, or simple crops like tomatoes or alfalfa.

It would be interesting to look at something like ethanol or tar sands oil and see the amount of virtual water Canada exports to the US as oil.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Terrifying Bedtime Reading

Carbon Equity has a report out that summarizes the summer's horrifying news from the Arctic, and makes some conclusions. First, a picture:

That thick black line is the observed reality, plumetting below all the predictions. I've copy-pasted their executive summary below, but you should really just spare a few minutes and read the whole PDF here.

• Climate change impacts are happening at lower temperature increases and more quickly than projected.

• The Arctic's floating sea ice is headed towards rapid summer disintegration as early as 2013, a century ahead of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections.

• The rapid loss of Arctic sea ice will speed up the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, and a rise in sea levels by even as much as 5 metres by the turn of this century is possible.

• The Antarctic ice shelf reacts far more sensitively to warming temperatures than previously believed.

• Long-term climate sensitivity (including "slow" feedbacks such as carbon cycle feedbacks which are starting to operate) may be double the IPCC standard.

• A doubling of climate sensitivity would mean we passed the widely accepted 2°C threshold of "dangerous anthropogenic interference" with the climate four decades ago, and would require us to find the means to engineer a rapid drawdown of current atmospheric greenhouse gas.

• Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are now growing more rapidly than "business-as-usual", the most pessimistic of the IPCC scenarios.

• Temperatures are now within ≈1°C of the maximum temperature of the past million years.

• We must choose targets and take actions that can actually solve the problem in a timely manner.

• The object of policy-relevant advice must be to avoid unacceptable outcomes and seemingly extreme or alarming possibilities, not to determine just the apparently most likely outcome.

• The 2°C warming cap is a political compromise; with the speed of change now in the climate system and the positive feedbacks that 2°C will trigger, it looms for perhaps billions of people and millions of species as a death sentence.

• To allow the reestablishment and long-term security of the Arctic summer sea ice it is likely to be necessary to bring global warming back to a level at or below 0.5°C (a long-term precautionary warming cap) and for the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases at equilibrium to be brought down to or below a long-term precautionary cap of 320 ppm CO2e.

• The IPCC suffers from a scientific reticence and in many key areas the IPCC process has been so deficient as to be an unreliable and dangerously misleading basis for policy-making.

Fox News = MiniTru

In the segment, Neil Cavuto hosted New York Sun editor Seth Lipsky, whose paper ran an editorial this week saying that Petraeus deserved the [NOBEL FUCKING PEACE] prize for his attempts to “save the nation of Iraq.” Lipsky said that Petraeus “deserves” the award “as a representative of G.I. Joe” because American troops “go overseas to liberate, they go overseas to make peace.” He then added that the use of “fighting” in a war doesn’t undermine the “idealism” of the Nobel Prize...
Oh good God my eyes are bleeding. Make it stop.

Let's wander a bit...

Jerome a Paris has an interesting piece on energy deregulation. Basically, the CATO institute (!) has come out against energy deregulation. Jerome comes to the conclusion:
Which means, as the CATO writers conclude, that in a really, really free market, players would end up with something that would look amazingly similar to a fully regulated market, based on long term contracts and smoothed out price formulas.

So why bother with deregulation? To be sure that the choice they make is actually that one? As they point out, deregulation has been botched, incoherent and/or inconsistent every single time it has been tried, for various reasons. The time spent to get to a perfect "free market" has actual costs in real life, and it is worth asking if they are worth paying.

Re-regulate. Even CATO points that way.
Sean Casten, at Gristmill, disagrees. But it's a mark of how bad the history of energy deregulation is that I think Casten makes a weak case -- and he's making one of the strongest cases for deregulation that I've seen since Enron. It's an odd day for me -- choosing the nutbars at CATO over a co-blogger at Grist! Shocking!

What's more important than a relatively narrow regulate-or-don't debate is something else at Grist: David Roberts brings us this little gem: an experienced energy analyst arguing that the primary choice for energy is fundamentally political, not economic or technological. I'd like to highlight this part in particular:
All in all, what with assorted, perverse and often enormous subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power, and more modest but more visible subsidies for renewables; with inadequate accounting for risks; and with arbitrary and distorted provisions for externalities, only one conclusion can be drawn. As far as comparative costs are concerned, the choice of generation is political, not economic. Electricity costs stated as so many cents or pence per kilowatt-hour are just window-dressing after the fact, an artefact of prior decisions otherwise concealed.
Anybody, in any debate, will eventually try to tell you they've demonstrated an objective conclusion. This is possible, in some cases, but you've frequently got to call people on their bullshit. Energy is a perfect example. Any statement has to be prefaced with the assumptions. For example, any statement like "renewables are too expensive" or "coal is cheap" needs to be prefaced with the assumptions that coal will continue to be given subsidies by the bucketful, and that not only do we not put a price on pollution, but we'll continue to let polluters pollute for free forever.

There's a similar dynamic in politcal science, where International Relations scholars frequently bring up the idea of "national interest" without contextualizing it. For example, "it's in the US' national interest to keep forces in the Persian Gulf" that makes absolutely no sense unless you assume that the US has an interest in keeping oil flowing, and you believe that the US plays that role. If you disagree with either of those statements, then clearly the US doesn't need to be in the Gulf.

For example, there's good reason to believe that the Gulf oil producers would sell to whoever wanted their oil, regardless of US presence. Their populations are too large now, and their economies too dependent on oil exports, to cut off their noses for very long. Ergo, any military act to re-open the oil supplies would almost certainly be more expensive than the disruption caused by a cutoff. Doubly so, when you consider that strategic oil reserves are ubiquitous in the world today. Therefore, there's no US interest in keeping forces in the Persian Gulf.

And that's before we even get in to the question of whether the US "needs" oil in the first place!

So theorists -- political or economic -- who talk like this are doing a disservice to their fields. They're using the language of their fields to conceal reality, not illuminate it.

But back to energy: one of the things that intrigues me is how policy proposals in the US are rapidly catching up to the Kyoto-loving Liberal Party in Canada. You've got both Obama and Edwards putting forward very, very good proposals as far as cap-and-trade systems go, and some measures that in fact go further -- Edwards sorta-moratorium on coal plants is something that I think Dion would have a really, really hard time with.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, I watched during the election as the owner of Bruce Power claimed to be a "private businessman", and nobody called him a liar. His "assets" were built with public money, his access to the market (transmission lines) were built with public money and the use of state power in the form of eminent domain, he's got guaranteed insurance from the Province in case of an accident (something Ontario drivers can't get!) and his contracts with the government stipulate a guaranteed demand, regardless of market conditions. This, the fruits of Ontario's so-called privatization. (And yes, Bruce Power's been given a pretty shady handout from the Province. Journalism, anyone?)

Not to get back on an old argument, but this is where economics fails us. Economic arguments about whether nuclear will be more or less expensive than solar or wind are frankly meaningless. The first questions are political, not economic or technological: what forms of energy do we want for the future? Economics and technology are really secondary in this debate -- if we want solar and wind, there's really no question that we can make it affordable, especially once you start analyzing the assumptions behind our current system.


Scott Tribe, in comments:
Ian [Urquhart] in his email states that he believes that any form of PR is a cure worse then then disease.
Bad, bad people. I simply don't understand how a person could hold that belief.

Apparently, the rest of the industrialized world doesn't count, or has it plain wrong.

Congratulations Al Gore, for driving the right-wing of US politics right off the deep end. Yes, they're comparing him to Yasir Arafat now.

Oh, also, way to go on that whole "winning the Nobel prize" thing.

Told Ya so

Ian Urquhart: "Let's hope this is last we hear of MMP".

Toronto Star editorial: "Ontario has now joined British Columbia and Prince Edward Island in rejecting proportional representation and choosing the status quo. That should be all the answer the advocates of electoral reform need."

You've got to love that -- BC voted more than 55% in favour of STV, but because it didn't meet the arbitrary level of support the government said was required, the Star describes it as "rejected". I'm beginning to wonder if the Star is even capable of not lying to it's readers on this issue.

And it's time to go back to bashing Ian Urquart:
This is a valid argument only if the principle of "proportionality" – that each party's seat count should be directly proportional to its popular vote – is seen as trumping all other concerns, including accountability, tradition, simplicity and stability.
Funny. Three of Urquhart's four concerns would be satisfied by a one-party state in some countries. In China, there's a long history of undemocratic rule, which is awfully simple and stable (6,000 years!) So: is Ian Urquhart three-quarters of a Communist?

And just to be clear, yes, Ian is opposed to any proportionality: "But, please, no more talk of MMP or its ilk." These are bad, bad people. They don't want any talk of silly concerns like voters getting the outcomes they vote for. Blech.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The end of reform

Scott and Rob both seem to think that there's going to be a next time with electoral reform even after the referendum got crushed yesterday. Uh, sure. Maybe by 2040 or so.

We've learned two things from this experience: First, nobody with a significant bullhorn in this Province is at all interested in substantial reform. Tinkering around the edges is permissible (fixed election dates! additional holidays!) but structural change is off the table. Secondly, all the arguments that were used against MMP will be used against any effort for reform -- I don't care what your preferred system is, they're going to hate it if it actually has any elements that make it substantially democratic.

Moreover -- and this is what really has me depressed -- nobody's going to talk about reform for the next election cycle at least. The results of this referendum are going to be used as an endorsement of the status quo for the next decade. Every time an activist or small party says "electoral reform", the answer is going to be "the people of Ontario already spoke on this issue in 2007, and clearly said they prefer the current system..."

Maybe, by the time I'm drawing a pension, I'll be able to vote in a system considered fair by the standards of the industrialized world. But today, I'm not feeling optimistic.

V-B Day!

My girlfriend just spent two minutes jumping around and cheering because she opened a beer bottle by herself.

Cheering. Because she opened a twist-off.

Never in the field of human conflict has someone been so proud for so little.

God help me, I cheered with her.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Election day!

Somehow, I almost feel sorry for John Tory. There's little evidence that he personally was a big fan of the disastrous school funding idea that ate his campaign. Rather, it was supposed to be red meat for the base so they felt that somebody up there still loved them.

Still, the effect is clear: Dude went from being Premier-presumptive to being Opposition-leader-presumptive to now not knowing if he's going to even win his own seat. Ouch. Now, unless there's a really weird hiccup in the polls, we're looking at a Liberal majority. The talk before the election was about whether or not there would be a Conservative majority, and I remember speaking with Liberals a year ago who were worried about that.

What's next for the Conservatives? I imagine, the old Harris caucus will demand a leader with more ideological purity, which normally I'd say was a death sentence for their party. Except, and this is where the next few years will be interesting, Dalton McGuinty is probably not going to run for a third government -- his sixth election! -- in 2011. Neither, I'm assuming, will Howard Hampton, meaning that in the next election all three major parties will have new leaders and not a single one of them has an heir-presumptive for the top post. The next few years are going to be very interesting as the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP all hold leadership campaigns -- probably all within the next two years, so they're ready for the election. (Journalists, clear your social calendars.)

Anyway, go vote. After all my whining about how my incumbent NDP MPP is going to for sure win, it looks like he's worried about something, based on the last-minute flurry of campaigning I'm seeing. Also, the Liberals seem to have gotten a second wind in my riding. Maybe the Greens are taking enough votes (like mine) that the Liberals are going to win it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Why you should vote for MMP tomorrow

So I was out with friends on the weekend, and between the third or fourth round (it gets fuzzy) they started talking about the referendum tomorrow, and how they weren't sure which way they'd vote. And then one of my friends said, of me, "he's a real MMP partisan."

See, the funny thing is I'm not, really -- at least, not a partisan for MMP in particular. Over the years, I've been a fan of pure list proportional representation, Instant Runoff Voting, and all sorts of other systems. I'm not really picky in the end as to which system we choose, so long as we arrive at some measure of proportionality. Don't get me wrong -- I think MMP is a good choice, and better than some of the other possibilities, and I'll be voting for it happily and enthusiastically.

What's really animated me for the last few weeks is not, however, my enthusiasm for MMP. Rather, it's been the sloppiness and stupidity of the anti- side. I've already smacked around Murray Campbell and his idle thoughts about MMP bringing about an Islamic government. And, though this is clearly more arguable, I think I've presented a decent and honest argument for why List MPPs would be at least as legitimate as some of the current MPPs, who frequently win their seats with only a few thousand votes in a province of over 10 million people.

I don't want to rehash all of the arguments for MMP and against the status quo, but the Toronto Star ran yet another editorial today against MMP. The last line of the editorial is really the only thing you need to read:
Tomorrow voters who care about good government should vote to retain the existing first-past-the-post method. Our system does not need a "fix," because it isn't broken.
Amazing. The Star has run any number of editorials complaining about many different Ontario governments, I'm sure. But it's apparently never occurred to the Star that, if the system keeps producing bad results, regardless of the party in charge, that maybe, just maybe, the system is flawed. Nope. The system isn't broken -- at least, not for the people on the Star editorial board.

It's said that journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Today, the Toronto Star has thrown it's lot in with the comfortable, and would prefer not to be afflicted thank you very much. It's laziness of the worst kind -- Ontario politics is broken, but the journalists of the Toronto Star get paid whether it's broken or not I guess. Journalists are supposed to highlight the flaws of the way we do things, and supposed to show us how they can be improved (in any sphere, not just politics.) The Star, apparently, can't be bothered. Or worse, the Star thinks it's job is to hide our flaws, to keep sunlight away from dark places, and to keep criticism to a minimum. Whatever that is, it's not journalism.

Frankly, I can't wait until the next Conservative government in Ontario, and to listen to the Star's mewling supplications then -- Please, Premier, don't hurt us! If they only had a minority...

What's most infuriating about all this is the simple refusal of the anti-MMP side to deal with the reality of Ontario politics: a vast majority of voters simply do not matter, myself included. In my riding, I can either vote for the incumbent, and simply pad his victory margin, or I can vote for another candidate and not be counted at all. And that's it. Those are my choices, once every four years. If you read the Star or the Globe, you'd think this either a) didn't matter (I am a smelly hippy, after all) or b) isn't true (I'm a figment of my own imagination.) As Greg Morrow has pointed out, the outcome of this election is going to be determined by about 75,000 people -- that's it. Or, to put it another way, if you're one of the 98.5% of Ontarians who didn't get a golden ballot tomorrow, and you'd like that to change, then vote for MMP tomorrow.

There's one other thing I'd like to deal with in the Star editorial:
Consider Ontario's case. Where would McGuinty have to turn for enough support to govern, if the proposed new system were in place today, and he won less than 50 per cent of the vote and half the seats?

He could form a "grand coalition" or cut some other kind of deal with John Tory's Conservatives. But they have made funding religious schools a big part of their campaign.... Alternatively, McGuinty might try to make a pact with Howard Hampton's New Democrats, whose program is progressive and far closer to the Liberal one. But even there, the New Democrats oppose investing in new nuclear reactors.... The point is, even with like-minded partners, deal-making does not always deliver the best policies.... And where would McGuinty be forced to turn if both the Conservatives and New Democrats balked? To the Green party?
My usual thing here would be to take the latest poll numbers and show that, if they hold, McGuinty could form a coalition with not just one, but any of the three potential opposition parties. (For political and mathematical reasons, I think the NDP would be the best bet.) This puts McGuinty in the perfect position to make the Greens, Tories, or NDP moderate their positions and demands, not pull the government away from it's core decisions.

But that's not really what's bugging me about that passage. What bothers me is the Star (and other people) seem to want to make all the political divisions in Ontario seem insurmountable. We need a less democratic system, they're saying, because otherwise we can't govern the rabble. I think it's insulting to be told that, despite the success of MMP in places like Germany, the voters and representatives of Ontario just aren't smart enough to work through their differences. More than that, it shows that the main ingredient in the anti- side's cake o' inaction is fear. They can't win unless they scare you about the future. My God! We could be as poorly governed as Germany, what with their huge manufacturing exports, better health care and excellent environmental policies! Die gasp!

Be not afraid, the Book says. (It says it over and over again, in fact. And yet we're still afraid all the time.) If we approve MMP tomorrow, we'll have 4 years to work out the kinks, and 4 years of medicore Liberal government to soothe your jangled nerves. Ontario will keep working, and even after we bring MMP in, we're not going to all become too stupid to run the Province properly. Calm. Down. Be not afraid.

We vote for these governments once, and then spend years complaining about how they don't listen to us. And then, when we think of changing the way we do things, suddenly we're told "stability" is a virtue. The press lets them get away with bald-faced lies about how "dangerous" these changes are, or worse yet the press lies itself. And we still don't do anything.

At this point, you've basically got a choice: either vote for MMP tomorrow, or stop complaining about government. You've got a chance to make it better. This isn't like the weather, you -- yes, you in the chair -- have a chance to actually make some good come out of this waste of time we call an election. Or, you can do what the Toronto Star would prefer you do, and simply endorse the status quo, and everything that goes along with it. If you wished you could have punished McGuinty for raising your taxes, or Mike Harris for throwing your kids out of school, or Bob Rae for, well, anything he did, you've got a chance to change things now. Don't throw it away.

Can we call these people terrorists yet?

I mean, I know they're not Muslims, but by the time you're stalking and threatening a family with sick children, you're well in to Cape Fear territory.

Oh, and as for the protests that this is just "citizen journalism", give me a fucking break. You want to ask these people questions, fine -- call them on the phone and ask. Stalking is generally considered the mark of sleaze, even among journalists.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The nightmare scenario

"Iraqis say Basra quieter after British troop pullout".

I know we've all been girding for some bloodletting when the white people British soldiers leave behind those savages innocent Iraqis, but it turns out that even Arabs can bring things under control if there isn't an occupying Army providing a target and motive for every crazy who "inherited" a few pounds of plastic explosive.

Of course, to some this is the nightmare scenario: if the Iraqis can bring things under control after a withdrawal of UK/US forces, it's possible they might be able to... do exactly the same thing elsewhere. That would seem to mean the last reason to stay in Iraq -- for the Iraqis own good, don't you see? -- is so much hot air, just like all the others.

Don't worry though, I'm sure Will Kristol can find another reason to stay.

Look, insanity in print!

William Kristol thinks America should bomb Burma to help democracy there. In a column titled "Talk is Cheap", he ends with this little nugget:
In his second inaugural address, President Bush, quoting Lincoln, put "the rulers of outlaw regimes" on notice: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it." Couldn't the Bush administration do more to give that just God a helping hand?
Um. Sure, if that's where you want to go. There's an old precedent for this kind of thinking, and it's variously translated as "Cædite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius," or "Slay them all, God will know his own." Bush is Texan, so he might know it better as "kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out." Time and again we've seen that aerial bombing lacks the precision needed to separate the innocent from the guilty. Hell, the Catholic Church has been judging sinners a lot longer than GPS or laser-guided bombs, and they still protect the occasional pedophile.

I mean, what are we supposed to make of this man? Nobody treats him like the unmedicated mental patient he so clearly is -- quite the opposite, he's given space in the Washington Post to advocate bombing a nation of buddhists. And he continues to show absolutely no conception that the US military has limits. Limits, I hasten to add, made necessary by the various wars America is already in, and which he advocated for and continues to.

You mean, pregnant women have their own free will?

I was shocked, when Vicki's sister was pregnant, at the number and intrusiveness of the bizarre restrictions on her diet/behavior that family (and total strangers!) felt free to suggest. Some of it was well-intentioned but silly, and other stuff was basically just weird. (This intrusive do-gooderism continues well after pregnancy, of course!)

What was really funny was the unanimous consensus among elders that there was going to be a baby boy at the end of nine months. 9 months later: a healthy baby girl! So much of the "suggestions" were offered in the spirit of "folk wisdom" or whatever, that generations of women have passed down, etc etc etc. Well, sometimes your annoying and silly ideas are just annoying, silly, and wrong to boot.

Anyway, I thought about this a bit more today after reading Natasha. It might occur to us one day that women not only are intelligent actors with their own agency, but that they remain such even after they've been impregnated.

Energy links!

Engineer-Poet, always one of my favourite bloggers for coming up with, uh, unique notions on how to solve energy problems, proposes we mine fluoride waste for it's silicon content. The result: 112,000 tons of silicon per year, enough to make 48 gigawatts (10% of US demand!) at a cost of about $0.35 per watt, or competitive with your current roof's shingles.

And I keep paying attention to Focus Fusion -- one of the hydrogen-boron fusion proposals out there -- for reasons that really escape me. But if you'd like to listen to a physicist talk for about an hour about what he thinks they can accomplish for a few years' and $2 million worth of effort, the head of Focus Fusion gave a talk at Google recently.

One of the interesting things about FF is they don't require any water input for their ongoing electrical production (just a bit for radiation shielding, they say.) One of the many, many limiting factors on expanding our electrical generation if we only stick to status quo technologies is where we're going to get all the water we need to power nuclear or coal. Already, power plants make up a substantial fraction of the water that gets used by human industry every day.

Or, if this guy's right, maybe we're all doomed anyway.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Coveted Dymaxion World Endorsement!

If these numbers are right, any non-Conservatives out there who live in Carleton-Mississippi Mills should probably vote Green. NDPers who want to stick it to the Liberals can do so, while sticking it to the NDP and the Tories at the same time!

It's like the Lunar Eclipse of Ontario Politics -- a rare confluence of events, which come together in perfect harmony.

Welfare for white folk

Here. Basically, white kids still get more money from universities (for being the kids of alumni, or whatever) than browner folk.

Now, here's a predicament for me. I'm a white man, and getting substantial funding from my university. The evidence seems to show that this is at least in part because the University is betting on me becoming a success, and giving them a bunch of money in turn later in life. (Also, my marks from undergrad kicked ass.) So, if I've been given an unfair advantage (possible) because the university expects a certain result (success, money for them) what is the proper response for me, from a social justice viewpoint?

Can I strike a blow for class equality by becoming a lifelong mediocrity? Can I attribute a life of sloth and indolence to my righteous refusal to bend to the will of the class hierarchy? Or should I simply choose to never give a single red cent back to my particular institution?

THD on feedback

Thomas Homer-Dixon on global warming, and feedback loops:
his summer’s loss of Arctic sea ice indicates that at least one major destabilizing feedback is gaining force quickly. Scientists have also recently learned that the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica, appears to be absorbing less carbon, while Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at an accelerating rate.

When warming becomes its own cause, we might not be able to stop extremely harmful climate change no matter how much we cut our greenhouse gas emissions. We need a far more aggressive global response to climate change. In the 1960s, mothers learned that the milk they were feeding their children was laced with radioactive material from atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons and that this contamination could increase the risk of childhood leukemia. Soon women organized themselves in the tens of thousands to demand that nuclear powers ban atmospheric testing. Their campaign largely succeeded.

In response to the new dangers of climate change, we need a similar mobilization — of mothers, of students and of everyone with a stake in the future — now.


DUBLIN, Ireland – Dan Keating, an IRA member and the last surviving veteran of Ireland's 1919-21 war of independence from Britain, has died, his nursing home and fringe political party said. He was 105....

Keating spent his entire adult life committed to the most hard-line branch of Irish republicanism on offer. He said Ireland should never be at peace until the border dividing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – both states he considered illegitimate – was eliminated and the island united under one government.

In 1970, he switched his allegiance from the "Official" IRA to a new, Northern Ireland-based faction called the Provisional IRA that spent 27 years trying to overthrow the British territory.

When the Provisionals called a 1997 cease-fire and supported Sinn Fein politicians' push for a negotiated settlement, he switched support to a breakaway faction, Republican Sinn Fein, that opposed compromise and continued bombings. He became honorary patron of the fringe party in 2004.

Republican Sinn Fein president Ruairi O Bradaigh said Keating was committed to the cause "to the very day of his death and an inspiration to all true republicans.''

Keating opposed the existence of the Republic of Ireland so much that he refused to accept the state's old-age pension. In 2002 he also refused a $3,500 award from President Mary McAleese that is offered to all Irish citizens who reach age 100; Keating argued that she wasn't the real president of Ireland.
I think I need to go listen to "House of Orange" a few times...

To the polls we go, I guess

I agree with Greg: this kind of behaviour is bizarre. How does it serve Harper to broadcast early that he's going to slip unacceptable language in to the Throne Speech?
OTTAWA — Federal Conservative organizers say they have been told that their election campaign offices should be ready for opening on Oct. 20 and that candidates should begin canvassing constituents immediately.

They also say campaign chairman Doug Finley told candidates in a conference call yesterday that there will be four or five items in the Throne Speech that will be absolutely unacceptable to the other parties. And they say Mr. Finley told them the Conservative brass is currently trying to decide between three different election dates.
Or let's put this another way: What, exactly, could Harper put in the Throne Speech that would be totally unacceptable to the other 3 parties but not unacceptable to the 65-70% of voters they represent? I suppose there's been some electoral success in heightening the contradictions, but not when your party is stuck at 30-35% and has been for a year.

I would want to be very, very sure that I could wallop the hell out of Dion before I made a move like this. And I don't see it -- neither the Conservative attacks nor the Liberal feet-shootings over the last little while have moved the poll numbers significantly. Dion would have to screw up hugely to hand the election to Harper, and meanwhile Harper's caucus could always choose to de-muzzle on some issue like abortion or teaching creationism. Elections, in short, are terribly risky things.

Oh, and there's the little fact that Canadian voters seem to show an incredible amount of agency -- every time Harper gets to within a few % of majority territory, his number bounce like a superball off the ceiling.

You're kidding, right?

"One Cent of the GST" would provide Toronto with approximately $400million per year, funding that would be dedicated to transportation, maintaining infrastructure and helping Toronto keep pace with the pressures for City services brought about by growth.

The Royal Canadian Mint, a corporation of the federal government, has now demanded that the City of Toronto pay $47,680 for the public education campaign. Included in this amount is a request for $10,000 for the use of the words "one cent" in the campaign website address ( and the campaign email address (, and an additional $10,000 for the use of the words "one cent" in the campaign phone number (416-ONECENT). The remaining $27,680 has been assessed against the City for the use of the image of the Canadian penny in printed materials such as pins and posters. (The Mint has come to this amount by taking the total number of materials printed divided by the approximate population of Toronto, and then using a percentage of that number to arrive at a dollar figure.)
So now we've got a federal crown corporation suing a municipal government for infringing copyright on the penny. Brilliant. Maybe Joachimsthal should sue the US Mint for use of the word "dollar", while we're at it. I suspect they could collect quite a bit more...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Happy Sputnikaversary, everybody

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Thursday celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch that opened the space age, with officials seeking to revive the glory of the Soviet program, although some experts worry about a loss of momentum for new missions.

Goose-stepping guards and medal-bedecked space veterans laid flowers at the tomb of the father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolyov, at the foot of the Kremlin wall.

"We are rightly proud that it was our nation that opened the way to stars for the humanity," President Vladimir Putin said in a statement marking the launch of Sputnik, Earth's first artificial satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957.

The launch of the beachball-sized satellite caused a global furor and prompted the U.S. to build up its own space program quickly, entering a race it ultimately won when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in July 1969.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I'm sorry, exactly who just abandoned DRM?

Microsoft starts selling DRM-free music tracks. As Cory Doctorow writes, "In other news, Satan just sent out for a snow-shovel."

The collapse of industry support for DRM has been even faster than I'd imagined it would be. On the other hand, Microsoft had their own people telling them years ago that DRM wouldn't work, so it's not like they deserve a prize.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I've been Kinsella-ed!

Not that it's had any impact on my traffic or anything.

Oh, Warren, no need to beg, you can have a link...

An Israeli historian on the settlements

An important point about Israel-Palestine:
Beyond that he had the striking observation that since Israel signed on to the "road map" and thereby committed to dismantling "unauthorized" settlement outposts (i.e., the ones that are illegal under Israeli law) only nine houses have been removed. Meanwhile, he said that while just two percent of the Occupied Territories are actually under settlement control, a much larger swathe of the West Bank is now off-limits to Arabs, either because it's been set aside for further settlement expansion or else because it's part of the network of no-Arabs-allowed roads that connect the settlements, etc.
And, if you take a look at a map of the West Bank, you'll see that Israeli control extends up and down the actual west bank of the Jordan River -- nobody expects this control to be relaxed, so even if the rest of the West Bank were released, the Palestinians would be fundamentally at Israel's mercy.

This is a pretty elemental fact, but somehow we keep expecting the Palestinians to meekly accept this without resorting to violence. I wonder if we'd be so sanguine if the Americans seized our side of the St. Lawrence.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Only real leaders shoot themselves in the foot with such vigor!

Okay, enough beating up on Ian Urquhart. He thinks he knows why John Tory adopted the laughably self-destructive policy on religious schools:
...Tory's policy can be traced back to his bid for the provincial party leadership in 2004.

His two opponents – Jim Flaherty and Frank Klees – were in favour of restoring the tax credit for private schools, an initiative of the previous Conservative regime that the Liberal government had killed.

Tory felt the tax credit was vulnerable to attack by the Liberals on two grounds: 1) it would go to parents who send their kids to elite schools like Upper Canada College; and 2) it would be funnelled to schools with uncredentialed teachers and dubious curricula.

But under pressure from the Harrisite wing of the party, Tory agreed to bring the tax credit back in one form or another.
This, I think, is the real body-blow to Tory's claims that this scheme wouldn't hurt public school funding: the policy was put together for the sole purpose of appeasing people who want to hurt public school funding. To put it another way, the prime lesson of Bushism is that interests (and interest groups) matter: if you're not interested in, say, making sure that prisoners of war aren't tortured, then watch out what happens. If you don't take civilian deaths seriously, you can end up with a bloodbath on your hands. And whatever fringe benefits your policy may have, you can't escape the paternity of it's creators.

Just one more reason to not vote for him: despite all his talk of leadership, he wasn't man enough to tell the base to go pound sand.

Da only Bybill I reeds is Revalayshuns

This is a form of Christianity that I'll never understand.
Christians have a biblical mandate to be "good stewards of God's creation," Ms. Paynter says she told the Rev. Frank Brown, pastor of the Bellmead First Baptist Church here in the county where President Bush has his ranch. So, Texas Baptists should demand that controversial plans to build a slew of coal-fired power plants be put on hold.

Mr. Brown was not impressed. God, the pastor said, is "sovereign over his creation" and no amount of coal-burning will alter by a "millisecond" his divine plan for the world. Fighting environmental damage is "like chasing rabbits," he recalls telling her. It just distracts from core Christian duties to spread the faith and protect the unborn.
I'm not sure what's more depressing -- the incredibly narrow view of what a "core Christian duty" is, or the incredibly narrow conception of "protecting the unborn." Does it not occur to the minister that protecting the unborn might, I dunno, include making sure the world is worth living in when they emerge from their mothers?

As always on religious matters, Jerry Falwell had a sense of balance and moderation:
Shortly before his death in May, Virginia Baptist preacher the Rev. Jerry Falwell denounced the clamor over global warming as "Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus."
So if any of you Christians out there thought the articles of your faith included anything other than the following: who's having sex with who, what the results of that sex are, and whether those people should be allowed to marry each other, well, Jerry Falwell wanted to set you straight, but the good Lord took him to a better place.

Of course, Falwell thought Jesus would drive an SUV. I think he'd walk. We'll see who was right when I die, I guess.

On the margin

So Ian Urquhart wrote a column last week -- and yeah, I double-checked the name this time! -- that was headlined "How MMP could sneak to victory". In short, his column was all about how the pro-MMP side on the referendum could eke out a win due to a number of factors. Sample quote:
Yet when the votes were counted, the proposed new system came within three percentage points of reaching the required 60 per cent threshold. The reason why, according to one post-referendum analysis, is that voters in B.C. were impressed that the new system had been recommended by "people like us" in a citizens' assembly.
So Urquhart is worried that a momentous political change could happen if -- and only if -- 60% of Ontarians vote for it, with at least 50% support in 2/3 of the ridings. And his editor decided the appropriate headline was about "sneaking" to victory.

Meanwhile, yesterday, the Star endorsed keeping the status quo, where 37% of voters got to form the government in 1990. But, you see, that's a manly margin of victory -- a whopping 5.2% difference between the NDP and Liberal polls led to the NDP winning twice as many seats! Not like those sneaky reformers, sneaking in with their sneaky 60% margins of victory. Those dirty sneakers.

Ah yes, I recognize this feeling....

Hm. It's 1:30 am, but I'm over-caffeinated and can't get to sleep.

Oh, I remember now. I'm in school again, and have an assignment due tomorrow.