Monday, March 31, 2008


Tom Tomorrow describes the plan:

EEStor math update

In comments, Adam points out that EEStor originally claimed to be able to sell storage at a cost much lower than I was taking as an estimate. This was part of my whole "conservative estimation" thing, but if we throw caution to the wind and assume EEStor can hit the $2100-$3200 price point and that we only need 12 hours of storage, that gives us a $/watt figure of about $3.90/watt, about what new coal plants are costing in the States these days. Or about half of what new nuclear is costing.

To reiterate: if EEStor's claims are legit, renewables can provide baseload power at a cost equal to coal, and cheaper than nuclear.

It's all napkin-doodling at the moment, but I like to point this stuff out because at the moment we're planning on a 30-year timeline at the exact moment when a lot of our assumptions are going to be proved invalid.

Better ads, please

This is Al Gore's first ad in a multi-million dollar campaign to raise the profile of climate change.

And... I'm pissed off. Not really, but it's hard for me to take this ad seriously. The whole premise of the ad is that action "can't wait", but 2 of the 3 points of comparison are obviously wrong, and the third one arguably so.

1) America didn't wait for someone else to storm the beaches at Normandy? Well, they did have help in the form of the Canadian and British Armies, plus there's the little fact that America was late for the damn war.

2) America didn't wait for someone else to give civil rights to blacks? Well, in the obvious sense this is true because only America can define the rights given to American citizens. Nevertheless, it's true that Blacks remained 2nd-class citizens in America far longer than they did in other countries. Let's not even get in to the whole "ended slavery 50 years after the British Empire" thing.

3) Okay, this one is passable. But it's still worth pointing out that, indeed, the goal of landing a man on the moon "waited" until America had been bested enough times by the Soviet space program.

It's an ad with a purpose, and it serves it well: appealing to American exceptionalism and turning that towards the goal of preserving a liveable planet. But man it gets on my nerves.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

My 10-word review of 21

Making a sexy math movie is hard. Kate Bosworth helps.

We've got a new theatre here in downtown Toronto, and they're offering students from my university free admission on weekends or something. So after work I went in and saw 21, which isn't very good. But the theatre itself is interesting. All the theaters have digital projection, and the resolution is good enough that I didn't notice the difference between them and celluloid except during one particularly fast-moving shot when there was some motion blur. (YMMV.) What I did notice was the lack of cue marks. Somewhere, George Lucas is happy.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

ZENN moving forward

So, a bit more news about ZENN cars and through them, EEStor. EEStor, you'll recall, either has the silver bullet to make renewables competitive with all other forms of power, or they've got snake oil. Increasingly, it looks like the real deal. Certainly, ZENN seems to think it does. I've actually been interviewing some people at ZENN recently for a school thing, and I can tell you that the people there are long, long past the "does it work?" phase. ZENN expects to have a full-up highway-certified electric car by the fall of 2009.

So it looks like, shock of shocks, EEStor might actually exist. But how big a deal is this? Let's fiddle with some numbers here.

It really is very rare for any single wind turbine to be totally still for a 24 hour period. By "rare" we mean it has almost never happened in the operating histories of most European countries with significant wind power. If we assume that a 24-hour cycle is a reasonable unit of measure for a wind turbine, we can follow with some very conservative assumptions.

The first assumption is so conservative it's certainly wrong: that any electricity generated by a wind turbine needs to be stored before it can be sold. This clearly isn't the case, but I just got finished saying we need to design for resiliency, not efficiency, so I'll stick to that principle.

A 5MW wind turbine with a capacity factor of 30% will generate 40MWh over a day (on average.) To store 40 MWh of electricity, we would need 770 of EEStor's capacitors (from what we know of them from the patent filings.) Call it a round 800 -- again, conservative assumptions.

40MWh is enough electricity to provide 1.5 MW of power for more than 24 hours. In this sense, we've kind of designed a perverse system: using a perfectly good 5 MW wind turbine to generate a measly 1.5 MW. So what would it cost? Ah, the big mystery.

Well, not so much. The wind turbine itself would almost certainly cost around $5 million -- this has been the ballpark figure for wind for a while now. And how much would 800 of EEStor's capacitors cost? That's the big question. But we can make some guesses: for it to be useful to an automobile company, especially one that has stressed "affordability" as its goal, we probably want a capacitor that costs $10,000 or less. This means that the combined cost of the turbine and capacitors is about $13 million for a 1.5 MW system, or about $8.60 per watt of baseload power.

Which is only a bit more than what the people of Florida recently found themselves paying for a nuclear plant after -- surprise -- the price tripled on them.

Here's the thing: my above example of storing 100% of daily generation is really absurd. Even reducing that to 75% puts our hypothetical wind-baseload below nuclear power in cost. And if we go to a more reasonable 12 hours of storage, and the capacitors were to come in closer to $5,000 instead of $10,000 then the game's pretty much over -- renewables have won the day. Wind is competitive with coal, even for baseload, without a carbon tax -- which would still be a good, just, and necessary policy.

Something else that needs to be stressed: this would be a really stupid way to build a reliable wind-based system. Rather, what you would do is balance solar and wind against each other, with a much smaller fraction of storage -- preferably being built for you by eager electric-car buying consumers. If every car in Ontario had one of EEStor's capacitors in them, we'd have more than 24 hours of storage on hand -- most cars are parked 90% of the time.

But. I can't emphasize enough the hold that "baseload" power has on the minds of regulators and politicians, especially in Ontario. Mention renewables of any kind and "baseload" spits from their mouth like they're having a seizure. Of course, given that baseload is literally the only kind of electricity that nuclear can provide, this is a really cynical way of stacking the deck in favour of conventional sources without ever quite saying so.

So, "because there's no other options", it looks like we're about to pay more to build more nuclear plants because nobody is keeping their eyes open to the new technologies that are available.

(It's certainly worth pointing out that EEStor is only one of many energy storage companies out there, and there are plenty of other promising technologies too.)

Friday, March 28, 2008


Seriously? No, seriously?
It was a long-time, well-respected Liberal, not one of Martin's close circle, who first floated that to me this week. As he sees it, the Liberals might well be back in power right now, or on the way back, if Martin hadn't up and walked away when he lost government.
Sure, and the Democrats really ought to ditch the two losers they've got and nominate Adlai Stevenson instead.

So many ways be a total moron.

Megan McArdle, giving a bad name to libertarians everywhere, writes that really the anti-war crowd likes big numbers of Iraqi dead because it helps the anti-war cause. No, really, she's so fucking stupid she actually wrote that. Badly, and like she was wrestling the english language to the ground and forcing a tranquilizer down its throat, but she wrote it:
Witness the Johns Hopkins team's critics, who triumphantly waved the WHO results at their opponents. But even if "only" 150,000 people have been killed by violence in Iraq, that's a damn high price. Conversely, few of the study's supporters expressed much pleasure at the news that an extra 450,000 people might be walking around in Iraq. After a year and a half of bitter argument, all that anyone seemed interested in was proving they had been right.
Yeah, I didn't take any pleasure in that idea, any more than I take pleasure in the idea of a flat earth, or global cooling: because I don't think they're true. If I honestly thought that in the charnel-house that is Iraq, "only" 150,000 people had died, I'd be elated. But it's absurd to dignify the number with a response.

Then there's this other thing: the anti-war people don't want dead Iraqis. We don't want more dead Iraqis or less dead Iraqis for any kind of political posturing. We never wanted there to be a fucking war in the first place, you absolute tool. Understand?

We desperately need a Truth and Reconciliation commission for these people. Even alleged "critics" of the Bush administration love nothing more than to prove how the dirty fucking hippies are the real enemy.

In to the mists of time

Hey, remember that crazy black dude screaming "God damn America" or somesuch?

Yeah, me neither.
PRINCETON, NJ -- Today's Gallup Poll Daily tracking update finds Barack Obama with an eight percentage point advantage over Hillary Clinton (50% to 42%), this gives him a statistically significant advantage for the first time since before the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy.
With the news today that Bob Casey is endorsing Obama, Pennsylvania could potentially get much closer than Clinton needs it to be: remember, Obama doesn't need to win Pennsylvania, he just needs to lose by a narrow enough margin. In this case, anything better than 45% is good enough to deny Clinton the delegates she needs to... still lose by more than a hundred delegates.

Of course, this primary season has also shown how limited endorsements are.

I can't believe the primary isn't until the 22nd.

At least 1 out of 3 Presidential candidates opposed this war from the beginning

Gee, remember how I said the surge was already starting to fail, and that we could very likely see the return of sectarian violence in Iraq?

Man, I'm so fucking stupid I shouldn't be allowed to blog. That's right, too stupid to blog.

To turn the snark off for a moment, I was actually wrong in the particulars of my guesses: I assumed we'd see Shia-Sunni violence, not Shia-Shia violence. But that's the great thing about Iraq: in five years of this goddamned war, I've only ever been wrong by assuming things might turn out better than they actually did. (And I've never been anything but a pretty strident critic!) How is intra-Shia violence worse than the old sectatian gunfights? Well, we're seeing two Iranian-dominated Shia groups collude to crush the one genuinely nationalistic, domestic political force in Iraqi politics. I don't know about you, but using US airpower and Iranian weapons to crush the Sadrists, who like it or not were able to keep a lid on Shia discontent with the occupation for the last 6 months, seems like it's prone to bite us in the ass later.

Maliki and ISCI are both highly compromised forces in Iraq. Even if they actually succeed against the Sadrists -- and note they're not having great luck there -- we'll have succeeded in removing one of the few forces considered legitimate in the eyes of Shia Iraqis.

Remember Saddam's execution, how the hangmen chanted "Moqtada, Moqtada"? I'm sure they were talking about some other dude.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Efficiency vs. Resiliency

mrvnmouse has an interesting post about his employers giving up on regular, scheduled maintenance and instead just waiting for important things to break. In the name of cost-cutting and efficiency, disaster ensues. You could run a search/replace function on the entire post with "my workplace" changed to "any level of Canadian government you care to name", and it wouldn't lose its accuracy at all.

Given that just yesterday I strongly disagreed with Thomas Homer-Dixon at one of my other haunts, let me make up for it by bringing up one of THD's other points that is very important: in many ways that we don't often consider, systems can either be designed for efficiency or resiliency, but not both. "Resiliency" in this case is defined as being able to withstand and adapt to external and unpredicted shocks. Our electrical system today is not resilient in this sense, but it is relatively efficient within the metrics it's designed to meet. (There are of course many arguments about whether those metrics are appropriate.)

Or look at the financial system. For decades it's been getting "more efficient" as transaction costs were lowered and regulations were either removed or ignored outright. But we now have a system that is collapsing from the inside because of something even worse than an unpredicted shock: a predicted one. (What, you thought home prices were sustainable?)

THD's point, near the end of The Upside of Down, is that we need to escape from a cult of efficiency and rebuild our systems around an ethic of resiliency -- or dare I say it, sustainability. We sacrifice some marginal expense in exchange for substantially improved reliability and predictability.

There's this idea, touted far too often by right-wing environmentalists (they exist!) that what we need is an end to subsidies, a carbon tax, and nothing else. Sorry, won't cut it. We need a wholesale regulatory change for the way we do a number of things, from finance to the environment, because what has failed is not just some isolated part of these systems, but the ideology that has built them in the first place.

Shake Hands with the Devil

Okay, there's always been people out there who have asserted something like the following: "asking Israel to give up the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank makes you an anti-semite." These people are usually kept in a small corner of right-wing discourse, and sane people on both sides of this (obviously very heated) argument have been able to ignore them.

Let's ignore for the moment that most Jews, by this definition, are anti-semites. It also happens to be the stated official position of most governments around the world, including the American government pre-Dubya, that Israel should in fact abandon the settlement enterprise and live within it's acknowledged borders.

It also happens to be the opinion held by Merrill McPeak, former USAF General and Barack Obama advisor. For this, Sen. Clinton's campaign is calling him... an anti-semite. (And yes, pushing an article written by someone else that calls him an anti-semite is the same bloody thing.)

Time's up. First Wright, now this. Ring the gong, get the hook, whatever. I've defended a lot of hardball on the part of Sen. Clinton's campaign, but this really is too much. This is also the first piece of evidence I've seen that suggests to me that Clinton is actually trying to poison the well -- trying to ruin Obama's chances in the general election, whether she can win or not. I'd been deeply skeptical of this notion before now, but this is making me reconsider.

Mixing work and pleasure

If you get this joke, you may be me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

History lesson

It's worth repeating: the Civil War didn't end when you think it did, the slave power won, and the abolitionists only managed to secure equal rights under the law for blacks well in to the 20th century.

Look, actual journalism!

The Wall Street frickin' Journal publishes an article about increasing resource constraints in an overpopulated world, specifically cites The Limits to Growth without inventing or repeating a slanderous anecdote about it, and even says (gasp!) that this is something that the market cannot solve left to it's own devices.

I may faint.

The heavens themselves salute him

So friggin' awesome. via Adam in comments:
A powerful stellar explosion that has shattered the record for the most distant object visible to the naked eye was detected by NASA's Swift satellite on Wednesday.

The explosion, known as a gamma-ray burst, also ranks as the most intrinsically bright object in the universe ever observed by humans....

The burst was detected by Swift at 2:12 EDT on March 19 and was one of five gamma-ray bursts detected that day, the same day that famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died.

"Coincidentally, the passing of Arthur C. Clarke seems to have set the universe ablaze with gamma-ray bursts," said Swift science team member Judith Racusin, a Penn State graduate student.
Yeah, "coincidentally". The monolith-builders are bringing him home.

Monday, March 24, 2008

This is what I'm talking about

I keep saying it: when Sen. Clinton and her surrogates keep saying, "she's like her husband, only more so," that's not a feature, that's a bug. The latest example:
Clinton also called on President Bush to appoint "an emergency working group on foreclosures" to recommend new ways to confront housing finance troubles. She said the panel should be led by financial experts such as Robert Rubin, who was treasury secretary in her husband's administration, and former Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker.
Paul Volcker is more or less irrelevant to the point I'm about to make, but Rubin and Greenspan are among the people most responsible for the current financial mess. Rubin and Greenspan both put their energies during the 1990s to pushing the financial deregulation that is at the core of the current meltdown. Rubin himself pushed for the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which was the cornerstone of US financial regulation set in place by FDR.

To put these two men in charge of figuring out how to fix the financial mess is as absurd as asking Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to fix America's problems in the Middle East: They already tried once, and look where it got us. Any solution these people recommend will not only probably not help, it could end up making things worse.

There's a broader point here, one that is usually used to take a swing at Sen. Obama, who's been criticized by some Democrats for wanting to "reach across the aisle" and work with Republicans. Well Sen. Clinton has just recommended not just any old Republicans, but two of the most retrograde Republican Federal Reserve Chairs ever. (Volcker isn't responsible for the current mess the way Greenspan is, but he's no friend of the left, or for that matter the center either.)[See below]

I'm not much for cheap gotchas, but I think this is important enough to rise above the usual blather. The failed policies of the Clinton-era deregulation have come back to bite America in the ass, and the only thing Sen. Clinton can think to do is resuscitate the ideas and men who served her husband's administration so poorly.

UPDATE: Er, whoops: A different John corrects me and points out that Volcker is not a Republican like I thought. Don't know where I got that impression -- except for the fact that he served under most of the Reagan Administration. In any case, I said in the original post that Volcker was largely irrelevant to the point that I was making, but you should probably ignore the last paragraph.


4,000 souls to haunt George W. Bush.

How many more?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Actually, if we wanted to help....

I don't mean to pick on Scott here -- he's just one person in a conversation -- but boycotting the Olympics would not be a sign of how much we care about the rights of the Tibetan people. It would be a very clear sign of how little we care, if that was all we were going to do. And this is reality, that is the extreme frontier of what we're likely to do.

"China, wow, you can beat, imprison, and murder your citizens for demanding a measure of justice, but if you do we're not going to come to your coming-out ball. That'll show you!"

Canada specifically has some very dirty hands here. Three years ago, Bombardier won the contract to build the high-altitude trains that are now being used to bring in Han Chinese settlers to displace and outnumber the Tibetan majority. The same basic process has already occurred in Xinjiang, where Hans now almost outnumber the Uighurs. If we really wanted to help the Tibetans, we would have not allowed Bombardier to build that train line. There's no mystery here, no surprise that Beijing is going to use these rail lines to further the integration of Tibet in to Beijing's control. If we had cared, at all, about the Tibetans, there's no way we would have allowed a Canadian company to participate in that.

But we did, ergo, we don't give a fuck about the Tibetans unless they make some noise and it's politically expedient to do so. (Most assuredly not accusing Scott of this, just the general atmosphere.)

One thing I think needs to be said over and over and over so that western audiences understand: China's ownership of Tibet is as uncontroversial in China as Canada's ownership of Quebec is here. Indeed, probably less controversial. So Canadians need to understand that us siding with Tibetan protesters looks very much like Charles De Gaulle's little moment in Quebec City a few years back. De Gaulle was at least supporting separatism before the most violent period had started: us supporting Tibet during a period of violence probably looks much worse.

This isn't even to say we shouldn't still support human rights in Tibet: of course we should. But we just got ourselves in to one bind (Kosovo) by blithely supporting human rights without thinking about the long-term consequences. Indeed, we explicitly lied about what the consequences would be when we started bombing Kosovo in 1999. So I kind of feel like we should all be aware: the Chinese are going to remember that when a bunch of domestic terrorists started killing Chinese police (the narrative that is already being told in China, you understand) we were on the side of the terrorists. This is going to be seen as just one more western hypocrisy, one more element of a story of white duplicity that literally goes back centuries now. I'm sure somebody's already written an op-ed in some Chinese paper reminding mainlanders about how the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

I want to be clear: I think what the mainland government is doing is despicable, and I'm certainly not opposed to boycotting the Olympics. Indeed, if I thought anyone was seriously considering trade sanctions at this point I'd be willing to support that. But we need to remember that everything -- even just talking about this stuff now -- has a cost, and we can't just wake up one day and wonder why the Chinese are so pissed at us. I had to deal with enough of that bullshit on Sep. 12, 2001, and I'm sick and fucking tired of having to explain to retards that no, not everything that's ever been done in our name has been kind and benificent.

Friday, March 21, 2008

BD+ cracked

One of the key reasons Blu-ray won out in the format war (probably the reason) was an additional layer of copyright protection that HD-DVD lacked, BD+. The existence of this consumer-screwing code in the BR discs was explicitly named by many studio heads as the reason they went with BR. Sony, having won out in the format wars by convincing the movie studios that a more expensive format would be better for their digital media sales (???) now drinks from the chalice of victory: Slysoft, an Antigua-based software company, has cracked BD+. There were some false claims about this last year, but this time it's seems for real.

This is what's so absurd about the whole DRM issue. It's causing large, multi-billion dollar firms to make objectively bad decisions for their bottom line. I'm pretty skeptical that the HD transition would be zipping along in the absence of a format war, but I think it's pretty clear that more people would be buying hi-def movie and players if they were cheaper. HD-DVD was cheaper, BR isn't. In fact, it now looks like, having won the format war, Sony is going to try and keep prices high for at least another year or so. In the absence of BD+, what good reason was there to choose Blu-ray over HD-DVD, if the priority was quickly transitioning to HD?

In a different industry, Stardock games points out the obvious: they're in the business of serving customers, not foiling pirates. DRM pisses off their customers and is barely noticed by pirates, so why bother?

Once I upgrade my desktop and close out this term at school, I'm totally buying some of Stardock's games.

Awww, fuck

According to God, Dana Perino and I have pretty similar undergraduate degrees. (Slightly different minors.)

Way to debase the coin of the realm, lady.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The creeping menace of a global military threat

Oh God, I think I've gotten stupider just watching it. Mr. Farley posted a youtube clip of this ridiculous Cold War "documentary" about the devious Soviet plan to win the Cold War with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. You can watch the whole thing (1, 2, 3, 4) but I seriously wouldn't recommend it -- the blood started leaking from my eyeballs about 20 minutes in.

What's striking is the logic at work -- no different from usual Cold War logic, but still: we know that the Soviets have a devious plan for world domination, because they spend more on their military than the rest of the free world combined. And what is their devious plan? To contain China, to split America from it's European allies, and to expand their power in the Persian Gulf to ensure energy supplies.

I may be a Liberal Fascist, but I'm beginning to think Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have been Soviet moles operating on autopilot for the last several decades.

Why I hope Obama wins
or, The Kids are Alright

It was presidential, I say.

Obama's speech yesterday was something I haven't seen in a long time. I can actually tell you the last time I remember seeing something like this: in very different circumstances, during the 1999 war over the skies of Kosovo. President Clinton came on the television and did more than just tell America that the Serbs were evildoers and had to be destroyed. He told America where Kosovo was, why what was happening mattered to both to the American people and the Serbs, and then explained what he and NATO were going to do about it.

After that, you could say you disagreed with the President (and many did then, and I came to over time) but you couldn't say you'd been kept in the dark.

The current President has neither the faculties nor the inclination to keep the American people informed in such a manner. But it's clear, after Obama's speech yesterday, that the junior Senator from Illinois does. This was a political speech, to be sure -- all speeches by politicians are. But it was also an attempt to inform, to educate, and appeal to reason.

Appeal to reason. I miss that so much today, of all days.

A lot of people are comparing it to MLK, which I think misses the mark pretty badly. This was something more like Kennedy, or even FDR -- Democratic Presidents who used the media of their time to keep the public informed and up-to-date on matter of incredible import and complexity.

But being the year 2008, Sen. Obama isn't using radio, as FDR did, or TV, as Kennedy did. The Youtube video of his speech has been viewed 1.2 million times since yesterday. It's more than have watched Pastor Wright's inflammatory speech in a week. It would be one thing if Obama had made this speech and it had fallen on deaf ears. I had to listen, for years, as idiot pundits tell us that my generation isn't interested in politics, that the Internet is killing people's attention span, that our very democracy was at risk because citizens my age and younger find meaningful communities on the Internet, not just in person.

Well, 1.2 million people just showed us, because apparently we always need to be reminded, that the medium isn't the message (fuck you, McLuhan's ghost), and that Youtube is good for 40-minute primers on race relations, not just 40-second clips of dogs on skateboards. And don't kid yourself -- if baby boomers are watching this speech on youtube, it's because half of them are getting the links forwarded to them by their kids.

We saw the first glimmers of this in 2004, with Howard Dean's unsuccessful campaign. We're seeing those techniques come to fruition today with campaigns from both Democrats that are feeding on the Internet, and being driven by it. And while I'll credit both Obama and Clinton for adopting these techniques, I think what Obama did yesterday was more important in the long run. He showed that while you can build a campaign on Facebook friends and Obama Girl videos, the new power of the Internet also gives you the power to speak to people in ways that we've forgotten. Rhetoric and argument never lost their power, but they've been inconvenient for modern media until now. Obama made an entire 40 minute speech without a really useable sound bite, a ten-word quote that the networks and papers could wrap a headline around.

I desperately want to see a campaign like this succeed, less because of Obama himself than because America desperately needs to remember how to really debate real issues. There's nothing more necessary to democratic governance than this, which we know because the most rapid and fundamental changes in American politics have been driven by exactly these debates. But they've been what's sorely lacking in American politics until now.

Various groups bicker over what will be the biggest problem of the new century -- climate change, peak oil, the economy, overpopulation, etc. -- but miss the larger context: unless America re-learns how to govern itself, unless it becomes possible again for a democratic country to choose something other than the status quo, than none of those problems are solveable. And if the United States learns what it means to have an active political culture again, one where people can choose the best of a number of outcomes, then none of those problems in insurmountable.

So to my friends who think I've been pretty fucking depressing lately, I say buck up: we're seeing something important change in America. If it doesn't put Obama in the White House, it can still change the way politics happens in America from here on out. We might just be seeing the early days of a better nation. It almost makes me feel sorry for my parents' generation. All they got to see was the Civil Rights movement, the Apollo Program, and Jimi at Woodstock. If we're smart, demanding and lucky, my generation will get to see America become American again.

Wait. That Bob Rae?

If you'd told me three years ago -- about the same time he was recommending that Ontario's university students all be made poorer for their own good -- Bob Rae would be the white knight for the Liberal Party of Canada, I think I probably would have laughed in your face and maybe used an obscenity or two.

It really is a mystery to me why we should all be excited that 3 of 4 Liberals won... three safe Liberal seats. Yet this is the headline in Canadian newspapers.

My God, it's full of stars

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008. He's gone to that great black monolith in the sky...

It's difficult for me to say which one of Clarke's works is my favourite. Everybody knows 2001, but I maintain that owes at least as much to Kubrick as it does to Clarke. Childhood's End is a masterpiece -- probably the best writing that Clarke ever did, as writing goes -- and blew my frickin' mind when I was 14. Earthlight is a weird and fun little mystery that also happens to have the best final 50 pages of any golden age SF book that isn't Childhood's End or Canticle for Leibowitz (not Clarke, but still.) But I'm also a huge fan of Clarke's shorter works. The Sentinel which became 2001 actually managed to be more mysterious than the movie, I think, and then there's The Star, in which a Jesuit astrophysicist is part of a team of interstellar archaeologists who discover an ancient archive from a civilization that died when their sun went nova. The team spends weeks poring over the archive, learning the alien's culture and accomplishments, and it's only at the end that Clarke has his Jesuit reveal what his measurements have proved: this star went nova, destroying a beautiful culture, so that the heavens could announce the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem, c. 1 A.D.

My teenage mind: ka-BOOM.

There are precious few SF writers who've had the kind of impact that Clarke had, and it's difficult to feel like a 90 year-old man got taken from us too soon. Still, somehow it feels like a slightly smaller universe with him gone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On the other hand...

Whatever else this whole Wright affair has done, I think I've just watched an uninterrupted five-minute stretch of CNN with nothing but African-Americans talking -- the anchor and two guests were all black. Given the usual, uh, pale makeup of cable news, this is something.

Things I learned about US politics in the last week or so

It's totally hunky-dory for a white politician to appeal to American racism by basically calling Barack Obama an affirmative action hire, but it's absolutely unforgiveable for a black leader to be angry about the persistent racism which gives that charge it's power.

For extra-super-duper unforgiveability, a black leader could demand moral consistency in America's foreign policy.

It's so nice to live in a society where racism doesn't matter anymore, right? I mean, clearly Barack Obama's candidacy is being judged equally and impartially, and isn't at all being held to a double standard because of his race.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dunno what this means

I have nothing intelligent to add about Bear Stearns, but I sort of feel like I should have been paying more attention to whatever the hell is going on in the market over the last few months. I mean, here's a generations-old investment firm that lost 95% of its value in about 48 hours.


I think, of all the life experiences my grandparents would have liked to share with me, living through a stock market collapse wouldn't have been one of them.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Quotes like this drive me up the friggin' wall.
In recent years, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman has become the lawmaker most linked to this cause. His version of the safety valve emerged in 2005 in a legislative proposal that created a price cap on carbon. It would guarantee that American companies pay no more than $12 for every ton of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere. This rate would go up five percent annually beyond inflation.

Rallying against him are environmental groups and commodity traders who are concerned his plan would stifle investment in new low- and zero- carbon energy technologies. Meanwhile industry and labor unions are forming up their ranks behind Bingaman.
Jesus H. Christ. Why the hell is it that every time there's any even remotely progressive move on energy or the environment, old-line industrial unions can be found on the wrong side?

Haven't you guys learned anything from the last 100 years? Your bosses are not your friends. Anytime they say they're trying to protect your jobs, they're lying . Any time they say a government action would lead to less jobs, they're lying. Look at fucking Hollywood. The writer's union had about as uncontroversial demand as it is possible to have: payment for work. And Hollywood -- which, you'll note, has just spent the previous decade saying that they're suing teenagers and killing their puppies "to protect artists" -- told the writers to go fuck themselves, with a strike on top.

Jim Stanford manages to get this exactly wrong, quoted back when the Liberals were applauding the Conservative budget:
However, Mr. Stanford said the Canadian auto industry will actually be happy to see the end of the green-car rebate program. “That program sounded good in spirit, but it was perverse in impact,” he said.

While the program has been attractive for environmentally conscious consumers, the auto makers saw it as providing an incentive to buy fuel-efficient foreign-made cars rather than bigger vehicles built by Canadian manufacturers.

“We'll be glad to see that one die,” he said.
OH MY GOD BRING ME STANFORD'S HEAD ON A PLATTER. Here's a wild idea for Jim Stanford, economist with the Canadian Autoworkers Union, to get behind: Canadian car makers should make smaller, more fuel efficient cars. Then they could have gotten some of that magic government money too. By saying "it was perverse in impact", Stanford means "it did exactly what it was intended to do, we just suck at making good cars, and the Koreans are really good at it. Unfair!"

Now, before you get the wrong idea, my idea was always that everything should be unionized. I want to see strong solar, wind, and electric car unions too. But at the moment, the only industries that have real union muscle behind them are the big polluting ones. (See Ontario's Power Worker's Union and their attacks on coal closings.)

Asked and answered

A bit more than a year ago, I asked:
why not simply have the government take over the human testing -- not the research or manufacturing, at least not initially (insert conspiratorial Marxist laugh here) -- for drug developers? You socialize the risk in the most expensive part of their operation, but in exchange you require the government be allowed to independently verify all of Big Pharma's claims about any drug. The public then has the chance to get early warnings on any problems.
And Dean Baker answers, with a fancy degree and everything, "indeed, why not?"

"The vocabulary of David Duke"

Keith Olbermann:

A basic rule for American politicians, especially Democrats: don't ever, ever make Olbermann mad at you. You won't recover from it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Always look on the bright side of life

Now you're going to think I'm a small-minded, petty person. But the firing of Adm. Fallon as commander of Centcom makes me happy. You see, I'd almost convinced myself that the United States wasn't going to bomb Iran. And if that happened, I'd probably have to admit that I was worrying about nothing. But, if Adm. Fallon's dismissal is step one in the plan to start bombing Tehran, than I have to admit my fallibility to no one!

See, I like to stay optimistic.

Stop digging

I should probably comment on our PM's so-called carbon policy. Basically, it's probably doomed. Let's start with this: carbon capture and sequestration, the lynchpin of the Tory plan, is a blind alley. There is no real reason to believe that emitting carbon, capturing it, and storing it is ever going to be cheaper than not emitting carbon in the first place. Let's start by taking IGCC coal plants -- ones that don't capture and sequester. Only capital costs for these plants have been going through the roof, to the point now where coal, once the "cheap" fuel, is now more expensive than wind or natural gas. In West Virginia -- coal country if there ever was -- the estimate for this "cleaner" coal power comes to a whopping $3,500/kW of power, which is closing in on nuclear pricing. Adding a carbon tax or a requirement for sequestration is obviously going to add to these costs.

Interestingly, the earliest beneficiaries of the death of coal will probably be natural gas plants. Most of the gas plants we've built in the last decades are peaking plants, meaning that they only run for a few hours a day. But there's no physical reason why they couldn't be run longer as the economics become more favourable: before we build a single new nuclear plant (or wind turbine, or solar plant) we'll be cleaning the air by putting coal out of business and running gas plants longer. Of course, we'll be paying more money if we burn coal or not, so let's at least get the clean air, right?

The other point is that Canada's natural gas industry is facing a rapid decline in the next few years, so that increased use of natural gas will mean increased reliance on imports -- probably, in this case, liquid natural gas imports from Russia or Qatar. But the energy balance of LNG is so bad that it's effectively as CO2-intense as coal, or worse.

So: coal is becoming too expensive to use, natural gas is about as bad (expensive and carbon-intense) and oil just hit $109/barrel. The only sensible option is to just stop using carbon fuels.

Instead, our government is handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to coal and oil companies in the hopes of creating a continent-spanning network of CO2 pipelines, all of which will need to be far more reliable than our current gas infrastructure if they're going to be really effective from an environmental standpoint.

It's actually emblematic of the choices presented by Thomas Homer-Dixon (channeling Joseph Tainter) in The Upside of Down: societies can choose to invest energy/time in complex solutions, until the complexity starts to overwhelm them, or at a certain point they can invest in simplicity, retrench, and invest in less failure-prone, less complex solutions instead. Oddly, Homer-Dixon supports carbon capture technologies, which makes me wonder if he's read his own book. Carbon sequestration seems, to me, to be a classic example of an investment that will a) not pay the kinds of dividends we need, b) be extremely complex relative to the alternatives, and c) not be resilient the way the 21st century will need technology to be.

Any dollar spent on sequestration will be one dollar less spent on renewables and efficiency. And in a watt-for-watt comparison, sequestered carbon is probably cheating us out of several more dollars worth of carbon-free energy. Why we would make that choice is beyond me, but hey, it's the Canadian government.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Because we secretly want it

This article that I linked to (about the Union widow who died in 2003) deserves a bit more elaboration. Basically, Lee Siegelman notes that the long-term costs of veterans benefits dwarfs the costs of the war itself -- to put it another way, "the wars last longer than the fighting."

Siegelman quotes James L Clayton, from a Nation article in 1969:
Clayton indicated that up to 1967, veterans benefits for the Spanish-American War had amounted to twelve times the original cost of that war, and didn’t peak until 51 years after the war ended; that World War II veterans benefits would probably peak around 2000, and that dependents of Vietnam War veterans would be drawing benefits until the 22nd century.
Also, the cost of debt incurred to fight the war is much larger than the direct cost of the war, leading Clayton to think -- hope? -- that war would eventually become "too expensive to contemplate". Which, funny enough, brings us to a book written just over 50 years before Clayton wrote his article: The Great Illusion, which is often lampooned for having argued that there would never be another major European war. The book had the unfortunate timing of being published in 1912. Of course, the book didn't argue that there would never be another war, but actually argued that there could never be another profitable war among the European powers -- that the wars of the future would be negative-sum games, in which all players were worse off, even the victors. (Like The Limits to Growth, everyone "knows" what this book says, even though almost nobody's actually read it.) And here, Norman Angell was way behind the curve -- does anyone think that the UK profited from the Crimea?

So you could confidently say we've been arguing for over a hundred years now that modern war makes no goddamn sense. I'm not better off, you're not better off, and for damn sure our victims aren't better off. These are facts: if you don't need to fight a war, only madmen think it's a good idea to. These people should be regarded with the same disdain and pity you would regard any other lunatic claiming to be Napoleon.

But war will never be too expensive, too foolish, or too bloodthirsty to contemplate. Like Hollywood blockbusters or financial speculation, there's always some new, really new, this-time-it's-different-new reason that we've just got to get in on the action. Because this time, our enemy is more implacable than our previous foes, or he has worse weapons, or he believes in a different sky fairy, or whatever. War is inevitable.

A new triangle trade

With China in the middle. And Africa at the bottom. So in that sense, it's just like the old triangle trade.
Just as it has grown ravenous for Sudan's oil and the DRC's gold, China is discovering Tanzania's natural resources. In the southern coastal region, Chinese companies are buying millions of dollars' worth of indigenous hardwood logs to feed China's construction and furniture industries, which supply companies like IKEA with products. Nonprofit organizations that monitor the trade in illicit goods have tracked the flow of ivory from and through Tanzania to China.

But as China's investments grow increasingly hard to resist, the fast-flowing trade is ripe for corruption in weak African states like Tanzania. A report released in May 2007 by TRAFFIC International, a joint program of the WWF and IUCN—the World Conservation Union, found that Tanzania had lost $58 million in timber revenue to corruption, in part because the majority of the timber sales were illegal. Most of the benefits from the trade were lumped among a select few groups with little trickling down to the communities living closest to the forests.


So the kinda-successful Democratic Governor of New York State, Eliot Spitzer, has been caught in a prostitution bust.

So I have a simple question: is it required in some super-double-secret clause of the American constitution that chief executives and legislators get the monogamous part of their brains removed?

(Cynics: feel free to speculate in comments on whether those parts of the male brain even exist.)

I mean, this is just stupid. Spitzer not-too-subtly had his eyes on the White House. And, you know, it's not like the Dems have had any trouble with zipper-challenged Presidents in the past.

Maybe he can shake this off by 2016 and run to replace President Obama (see what I did there?) but really, stupid stupid stupid.

And I can't help but feel bad for Silda Spitzer, who's just been humiliated in a way that only a few women can really imagine -- maybe she can call the junior Senator from New York for advice.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

I'll take "WTF?" for $1,000

In what year did the last widow of a Civil War veteran die?

Answer here. I guarantee you that, whatever your guess is before clicking that link, it is too early.

Idle thinking

With the weather we've been having lately in Ontario (Toronto has been hit, but pretty much everwhere) I've been thinking about a few things:

1) Does my British citizenship count for labour mobility within the EU?

2) Does French Polynesia count as the EU?

3) Can I move to French Polynesia? My french is okay... because damn, this looks good:

That's sand, not snow, I'm told.

Friday, March 07, 2008


So, Samantha Power said something very stupid to a reporter, the reporter published it, and now Power has resigned from the Obama campaign. Even though I'm rooting for Obama, I have to take issue with the people who are clutching their pearls at the thought that a journalist would print a quote after a source tried to retroactively go off the record.

I want to be clear on one thing -- in that reporter's place, I don't think I would have run the quote. If for no other reason than because it would make me a douchebag. But the reporter was within his rights to do so, douchebaggery and all. More importantly, and this is something I wish more American reporters would take seriously, it is not the reporter's job to make her source's life easy. We've spent years bellyaching about how the press is too cozy with official sources. Well, guess what, Power is an official source. The Scotsman has no good reason to play with kid gloves here. (And spare me the line about how she's just an academic, and shouldn't be held to the campaign's standard.)

Now, should she have had to resign for this? Only by the crazy standards of the Democratic Primary. I still hope Obama wins the nomination, the election, and that Power can be given an important role in the Obama Presidency. But count me among the people who think this episode shows the Obama camp has been rattled by Ohio more than we thought.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Things on TV while I study

1) The Homer has heart surgery episode of the Simpsons. Damn, the Simpsons used to be funny. What happened?

2) Terminator 2. Greatest action movie ever? I mean, really: the CGI has stood the test of time remarkably well, for the very simple reason that like Star Wars 4, 5, and 6 but unlike Star Wars 1, 2, and 3, the effects tell the story without being the story. Then you've got Linda Hamilton, who kicks ass and takes names, and Ah-nuld manages to even put in a decent performance by his standards. And if you don't like it, he still gets impaled then dumped in molten steel. So everybody wins!

Which reminds me to say that Terminator 3 could have been much, much worse than it actually was. In particular, they get points for actually pulling the trigger at the end.

I channel Goldberg and make useless historical analogies

This quote is really inexcusable for a Democrat: "Sen. McCain has a lifetime of experience, I have a lifetime of experience, Sen. Obama has one speech in 2002." Way to go a-kneecapping, people.

Anyway, that quote comes from James Fallows who has an interesting post about the Obama campaign's effective strategy, and (citing Chuck Spinney) specifically the concept of the "OODA loop." In Spinney's analysis, Obama has gotten "inside Hillary's OODA loop", meaning that he is observing, orienting, deciding, and acting faster than her (or rather, his campaign is faster than hers) in ways that have limited her choices and put her (in Spinney's telling) in a position to lose.

Given that the classic example of 20th-century military that repeatedly managed to "get inside" their enemy's OODA loop is the German Wehrmacht of World War II, I offer the following two interpretations, which you can adopt based on your favoured candidate:

1) Ohio is Stalingrad:

Neither the Germans nor the Soviets wanted to fight over Stalingrad -- it was a battle that began and escalated unexpectedly. By the time it was in full swing, the Germans were supposed to have won. The Wehrmacht had successfully outwitted and outfought the Soviet army at every turn, pushing the Red Army back over thousands of miles of frontier. The Soviet leadership, meanwhile, had been totally surprised by the invasion itself (oops) and spent the period leading up to Stalingrad trying to keep the entire country from being eaten alive by the Nazis. By Stalingrad, the Soviets managed to grind the Nazi offensive to a halt largely by winning ugly: an incredibly high body count halted the Soviet retreat, but just barely and at an unsustainable cost. If the Red Army had fought the rest of the war like they fought Stalingrad, they'd have lost by depopulating Russia in their attempt to stop the Germans.

Sen. Clinton never expected a fight over Texas or Ohio -- this was supposed to be over a month ago, on Super Tuesday. And more broadly, she never expected the Obama campaign to come close to even in the national polls -- this was supposed to be a cakewalk. And, after a month of defeats, the Clinton campaign has managed to win, but win ugly: constant negative campaigning designed to destroy Obama's positive sheen, and working the press with (fair) accusations of unbalanced coverage. She can win this primary, and maybe even a few more, but she probably still can't win the nomination, and in trying to she'll actually hurt the party's chances in November.

2) Ohio is Kursk:

While Stalingrad gets movies made about it, Kursk is really the turning point of the war -- the Soviets not only stop a Russian advance, but with a combination of preparation, good intelligence, and rapid counterattacks make Operation Citadel the last German offensive of the Eastern Front, pushing the Germans back and setting up for the great southern counter-offensives of later in 1943, which themselves led to Operation Bagration, the final destruction of Nazi power in eastern Europe, and the Soviet occupation of Poland. The point here is less about Kursk (which, at the time, had a pretty murky outcome) than it is about the rapidly-increasing skill of the Soviet Army: while Stalingrad was a bloodbath, by the time Bagration comes around, the Soviets are inflicting the same casualties on the Germans as they did at Stalingrad, but at a fraction of the cost. By the end of the war, the Soviet Army is at least as good as any other land force in Europe, and considerably better than most. The point being that it is possible for the OODA loop to go the other way, too.

So what if the Clinton campaign uses hardball tactics -- this is Presidential politics, it's supposed to be hardball. That's how she'll win in November. If she can do it to the golden boy Obama, she can do it to McCain, too. What we're seeing, the analogy goes, is Clinton learning from her mistakes and Obama's successes and responding by knocking Obama back on his heels for the first real time. If we see the polls start to move back in her direction, and if she can rack up some really big wins from here on out, this will be seen as the turning point.

I'm resisting prediction, but I think you can read this one of two ways, but we have to leave the military analogies behind. First off, the facts are that in neither Ohio or Texas are the results as clear as they are on the battlefields of history: the delegate count has shifted barely, if at all, and Clinton still has a lot of ground to make up. And the most likely outcome is still that she won't be able to do it. But I agree with some people who say that if the momentum shifts decisively in Clinton's favour over the next two months, it's not improper for the supers to step in and throw their weight behind Clinton, just as I don't think it's improper for them to do so for Obama under similar circumstances.

Or it's possible that I've got the roles wrong -- maybe Obama's actually the Soviets, and Hillary's strong attacks will help him against McCain later. No doubt Jonah Goldberg would love to compare Hillary to Hitler -- oh wait, he already did. But what worries me is that we're not watching a replay of the eastern front at all, but the Russian Civil War. In this analogy, Dean is Trotsky, and in the real world when Trotsky's rival took over, he effectively destroyed the Red Army, leaving the USSR vulnerable to the invasion of 1942. So rumours that Hillary and co. are trying to push Dean out when he's had such a success in turning the Democratic Party around, and when Obama has clearly shown the effectiveness of Dean's strategies and organization, concern me a great deal. Read that Clinton quote above and then tell me it's an irrational concern. This is the Democratic Party -- fratricidal infighting is what they do.

Random education blogging

I thought this ad campaign was pretty awesome. If nothing else, I think it's pretty ballsy to tell people they're being shitty parents. And I think it's almost certainly true that a lot of students end up in University because they a) didn't know what else they wanted to do, and b) their parents left them litle other options.

There's also the macro-perspective that we're producing way more undergraduates than this province's economy needs in any sense that their education = better performance. What it is doing quite clearly is devaluing the employer's opinion of university education at the undergraduate level.

Which leads to a whole new boom in Master's levels programs -- "grad work: the new undergrad!" -- so that HR departments have easy markers to sort the "qualified" from the not. The shame is that the number of people who can reasonably commit to 6 years of schooling after high school, and the $30,000 total cost, is not representative of the general population. Let's just say that my Master's program is a pretty pale collection of students. Not exclusively white, but damn close.

There's also a political economy thing here. Mike Harris created the double cohort, which caused a huge expansion of university undergraduates and, four years later, a huge expansion of masters applications. In both cases, there were large piles of public money being offered expansion of facilities, but somehow that translated in to massively larger class sizes and lower quality education for students.

Example: I can tell you without question that the difference between first-year assignments at Carleton for Communications undergrads was shocking: by my last year, first years were being asked to do final assignments half as long as the ones I'd written in their place in 2002. That meant five-page essays, which was less than I was doing in high school.

I'm sure it's possible to produce a university system that has a) high enrollment, b) near-perfect accesibility, and c) high standards. We've managed less than two of those three in Ontario, depending on how you score our accessibility. I don't know if re-directing some or much of the current student body to colleges instead would help matters. Given that these universities are almost certainly financing expansion on the assumption of further expansion (The university bubble! Llike Enron, but more pretentious!) I suspect even a modest shrinkage in enrollment would be nasty for the universities.

But what we're doing now ain't working.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Can "The Bogota Lobby" be far behind?

An American ally, the recipient of massive military aid, is leaking hints that a nearby anti-American leader was trying to provide terrorists with funding to develop nuclear weapons.

And it's not who you think!

I don't have anything to add to the brewing crisis in Latin America, but Mr. Trend has some intelligent commentary. I would just say that there's probably nothing worse for the US' image in Latin America than having this crisis get any worse. You've got historical grievances going back centuries, Colombia's huge reliance on US military aid making it look like a proxy or puppet, the potential for this to look very much like the Americans supporting right-wing proxies against elected leftist governments: very much the bad old days.

On the other hand, maybe my suspicion of the democratic peace theory will finally be justified.

Our stupid discourse

(With apologies to Atrios.)

-- Jim Hagee is a Protestant Christian the way bin Laden is a Sunni Muslim: he hates Catholics, hates Muslims, and he likes Jews only in so far as he believes their deaths and damnation will bring about the rapture. But he supports the maximum use of violence against Arabs, so Joe Lieberman has no problem with him. Because, you see, this makes Hagee "pro-Israel".

-- Barack Obama has to denounce and reject the support of Louis Farrakhan on live TV (whose support he never sought), but the fact that John McCain explicitly sought out, courted, and secured Hagee's endorsement is not worth of comment.

-- CNN just ran a piece about how Muslims and Arabs are paying attention to the Democratic race, and are worried about Clinton winning because the Middle East is a region "where most countries are still run by men." Yes the Middle East is, like every other "region" on Earth, run mostly by men. I don't know why that's worth mentioning, unless we're trying to make the argument that Arabs are somehow uniquely patriarchal. And while I can understand why the US media would want to try and find some way to make it's own rampant sexism of the last few months look better in comparison, I don't think this is a winning tactic.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Useful trivia blogging

So, having just thrown out half a bag of potatoes because of deep, ugly rotting, I ventured on to the Internet for a solution. This is the one I think I'll try:
Store them in the refrigerator but let them come to room temperature for a day (take them out in the morning) so that their sugar can return to starch.
Any commentary? Given the geography of our apartment, it's actually difficult to do dark + cool in a way that's convenient for the kitchen. (My sock drawer would work...) So I'm going to go with this next time.

Also, I think I love Lifehacker.