Thursday, May 28, 2009

Called it

Photographs of alleged prisoner abuse which Barack Obama is attempting to censor include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse, it has emerged.

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.

Another apparently shows a female prisoner having her clothing forcibly removed to expose her breasts.

This changes nothing -- Obama should reverse his decision, release the pictures, and then the perpetrators should suffer the consequences. You only support the troops worth supporting.

Otherwise, we should all basically just concede that the US Army is an institution with as little credibility as, say, the Catholic Church.

"...and now you have cholera"

Thanks be to adam, who sends this along for the lulz:

Of course, this just means we should give motorists even more

The Toronto Star has an interesting series on the conflict between cars and bikes in Toronto. But if you really want to know which side of the conflict to weep for, I suggest you read this:
Q: Is there a misconception about who causes more accidents? Is it drivers or cyclists?

A: A New York study called Killed By Automobile took a look at over 1,000 traffic fatalities involving vulnerable road users, with an eye to figuring out who was primarily at fault.

The study showed that drivers were largely culpable in 74 per cent of all of accidents and partially culpable in another 16 per cent. Interestingly, one of the big findings was ... that 97 per cent of the drivers in cases of fatal accidents involving cyclists were male. It is highly unlikely to get that kind of statistic by random chance. One of the things we know about young men is that they tend to be the most aggressive drivers on the road. If you take a look at statistics around street racing and other indicators of aggressive driving, young males are the group that are overrepresented. This says there is something about the way particular groups of people drive that puts vulnerable road users at higher risk.
That's a staff physician at St. Mikes. This is a pretty one-sided war.

An interesting idea

I approve:
The Liberal government is struggling over whether to bury Premier Dalton McGuinty's new 13 per cent harmonized sales tax in the price tags of goods and services, sources told the Toronto Star.

Insiders say there is mounting pressure on McGuinty to follow the lead of such places as the United Kingdom, where the price tags on items displayed in shops incorporate the retail price and a 15 per cent value-added tax.
I don't see what the argument against it is, really. It would make shopping easier, and if you can't figure out which fraction of the price is the tax, then please wear a bib to control the drool.

The end of convergence

Time Warner to sell AOL. It's been a long, strange trip.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Comically stupid PR campaigns

"..and we haven't got security."

Righteous rant by Cory Doctorow. Also liked "the technocratic solution is the Singaporean solution, but at least in Singapore the trains run on time."

I may allow this

I'm just old enough to remember what the waters were like around my cottage before the plague of jetskis arrived there, so of course I hate them.  But if you must own one, surely an electric one would be best for all involved? Check out the videos -- it's truly weird to see, but not really hear, the sound of anything but the waters parting.

As always, Gwynne Dyer said it first

Fareed Zakaria, this week:
Following a civilian nuclear strategy has big benefits. The country would remain within international law, simply asserting its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a position that has much support across the world. That would make comprehensive sanctions against Iran impossible. And if Tehran's aim is to expand its regional influence, it doesn't need a bomb to do so. Simply having a clear "breakout" capacity—the ability to weaponize within a few months—would allow it to operate with much greater latitude and impunity in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Gwynne Dyer, 2007:
Many countries have similar enrichment facilities to upgrade uranium as fuel for nuclear reactors, and that is what Iran now says it is doing, too. If the Iranian government also knows that, in a crisis, it could run the fuel through the centrifuges more times and turn it into weapons-grade uranium, well, so do lots of other governments. It is called a "threshold" nuclear weapons capability, and it is a very popular option.
And he said the same thing in 2006, too.

So how many people want to sign up for the anti-Iranian crusade, against a country that is pursuing only something that it is manifestly, explicitly entitled to under international law?


Tim F:
In their classic language guide Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White encourage writers to avoid abstract language when a simpler, familiar, word will do. In that vein I would remind the Washington Post that most readers have never heard of ‘sovereign citizens’. The crazy band of teabaggers, racists, militiamen, abortion clinic bombers and secessionists could equivalently be known as ‘the Republican Party’.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

In the proud tradition of this blog, I now give you last week's blogging, today! Two warnings: First, some hard core nerd coming up. Second, beyond this point there be spoilers.

So I saw Star Trek tonight. For the second time. It's awesome, and if you haven't seen it you really should. Not only is it the movie of the summer, it's just been so damn long since we've had a watchable ST product. And I say that as a guy who endured Enterprise for far longer than it really warranted.

But that's the great thing about this movie -- it manages to embed itself in the lore of Trek even as it overturns it. Even Enterprise gets a brief mention, when Scotty talks about a transporter accident with "Admiral Archer's prize beagle." The actors by and large do a great job, and while Quinto is great as Spock my favourite has got to be Karl Urban playing McCoy. Just note-perfect.

The movie also implicitly damns George Lucas all over again, because it shows that it is possible to revitalize a stale franchise after and despite decades of story and hysterically loyal fans. More than that, it's the kind of Star Trek movie you can only make after 40 years of Hollywood science fiction that, itself, was made possible in large part by the original series. Seriously -- there are influences from Lucas, from Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, and of course references to the previous decades of successful and not-so successful Star Trek series. Gene Roddenberry may or may not have liked this movie, but he'd appreciate the time-space paradox.

It's also most definitely no longer the same universe that Roddenberry created, despite still having his name in the credits. Roddenberry created a world that was an analog of Cold War liberalism's aspirations -- one where the Americans were friends with the Russians, blacks served with whites, but you could still count on a white dude to be running things. (Kidding!)

But this new movie avoids the cheap, easy comparisons to contemporary events. In JJ Abrams' analog, we see an arrogant, alcohol-abusing hick get help from friends in high places to put himself in command, where he ignores the advice of his most competent analysts and, despite his obsession with tough talk, is unable to stop a terrorist attack on a major American city, and truly disastrous results for his allies. Clearly, the future is nothing like the present.

Okay, enough from me -- go see the movie. Terminator is going to suck, and you know it, so go see Star Trek.

On Waxman-Markey

First, read Brad Delong on Paul Krugman:
1. Paul Krugman's analysis is correct.
2. If you think that Paul Krugman's analysis is incorrect, see rule number 1.
Now, read Paul Krugman on Waxman-Markey:
The legislation now on the table isn’t the bill we’d ideally want, but it’s the bill we can get — and it’s vastly better than no bill at all.

One objection — the claim that carbon taxes are better than cap and trade — is, in my view, just wrong. In principle, emission taxes and tradable emission permits are equally effective at limiting pollution. In practice, cap and trade has some major advantages, especially for achieving effective international cooperation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, think about how hard it would be to verify whether China was really implementing a promise to tax carbon emissions, as opposed to letting factory owners with the right connections off the hook. By contrast, it would be fairly easy to determine whether China was holding its total emissions below agreed-upon levels.

I continue to not understand Peggy Wente

I mean, I haven't been following the Oliphant inquiry that closely, but how bad has it been for Wente to write a column headlined "Mulroney diminished"? I mean, I already wouldn't have crossed the street to spit on him. So how bad has it been?

Somebody educate me, please.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Conversations you have when your fiancée makes more money than you

Me: Um, how much research on prenups have you done, exactly?

Vicki: Not much -- I just read one webpage, really. One looong web page.

Me: You know, you don't get to count Google as one long page.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The ads really do write themselves

The ongoing saga of the implosion of the Ontario Tory party:
TORONTO — Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership hopeful Tim Hudak says he would scrap the province's Human Rights Tribunal if he wins, a policy that party insiders fear could become as controversial as the religious-schools issue.

Mr. Hudak, the acknowledged front-runner in the four-person race, announced this week that he would replace the tribunal with a court-based system bound by rules of evidence instead of an entity that uses the province's Human Rights Code as a “tool for political advocacy.”

Party insiders said the policy is an attempt by the veteran MPP to woo the supporters of leadership rival Randy Hillier, a rookie MPP who is expected to finish in fourth place on the first ballot. Mr. Hillier, who is attracting a growing following in eastern and southwestern Ontario among farmers and land owners, has also called for abolishing the tribunal.
There are only two reasons anyone knows anything about the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The first is the complaint against Mark Steyn for being a racist, and the second is the report the OHRC issued on the harassment of Asian fishermen in small cottage communities across Southern Ontario. So I'd like to know which of these issues Hudak is so incensed about. Does he think that Mark Steyn was unfairly treated, or is he pro-racist harassment of new Canadians? I suspect that the rural Tory base is incensed at being singled out for their antics, but inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Strange Bedfellows indeed

An argument I made in 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon, about the likely lessons Muslims would learn:
Avowedly "Islamic" armies can match western power, secular nationalists can't. (I say that al Qaeda types now "know this" only because this is almost certainly how it will be interpreted by them.) Look at the history of Israeli-Arab conflicts to get an idea of how this can be read in to history: The wars of '48, '67, and even 1973 are pretty spectacular Arab defeats, though I hesitate to call '73 a rousing victory for Israel, costly as it was.

Meanwhile, the Mujahideen drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan (US aid has probably been forgotten), the resurgent Taliban looks to be laying the hurt on NATO forces there today (how soon until some young Afghan explains how Mullah Omar wasn't a "true muslim"?) and while the Arab nationalist Saddam Hussein collapsed before the Americans (twice!), the nominally muslim resistance will almost certainly drive the US Army out of Iraq. And now Hezbollah has stood up to the IDF in the field and survived. It's not a march through Tel Aviv, but for angry muslims across the world, it might as well be.
The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army, last year:
Hezbollah inflicted more Israeli casualties per Arab fighter in 2006 than did any of Israel’s state opponents in the 1956, 1967, 1973, or 1982 Arab-Israeli interstate wars. Hezbollah’s skills in conventional warfighting were clearly imperfect in 2006—but they were also well within the observed bounds of other state military actors in the Middle East and elsewhere, and significantly superior to many such states.
When I tried to describe the arguments that Muslim fundamentalists would make, I didn't imagine the US Army would agree with those arguments.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On last night's election

In BC, the electorate re-elected Gordon Campbell and decisively rejected a proportional representation variant (STV). The Campbell win is, at the very best, a mixed bag, as it means that Canadians aren't reactively anti-carbon pricing, though they re-elected a pretty brown pol to prove it.

The STV loss merely confirms what I assumed after MMP lost in Ontario: I will not see electoral sanity in this country in my lifetime.

Al Gore is back to terrify you

It's 7 minutes, so watch the whole thing. There's an explosion!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On the social contract

Christie Blatchford, on the Tamil protests that committed the unforgivable sin of delaying motorists on a Sunday:
Are the Tamils merely exercising their rights or have they somehow breached the covenant, unwritten but understood, they have or ought to have made with their new country?...

I looked out upon the crowd and counted a single Canadian flag and 29 of the large, red flags of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the separatist Tamil organization deemed a terrorist group by dozens of countries, including the United States, Australia, the nations of the European Union and, oh yes, this one, too.

I couldn't begin to count the number of tiny, red paper flags or the Tiger T-shirts I saw, though I did note that one of the chants had the person at the megaphone yelling, "Tamil Tigers!" and the crowd answering, "Freedom Fighters!" This struck me as not very respectful of the Canadian Parliament and the elected representatives who decided, in their wisdom, to put the Tigers on the terror watch list.

The Tigers aren't there because of some dippy mistake, by the by, and they have long had tentacles into the Tamil community here, raising money for the cause fair and square or by extortion and threats....
Okay, maybe that's enough of that. We've got shady brown people, breaching Blatchford's expectations of what brown people ought to do, including sinister "tentacles" of a terrorist organization. (And the LTTE will get no support from this corner.) Oh, and for good measure she calls in the Taliban as rhetorical support.

Say what you will about these Tamil protests, but a) it's clear that a lot of Tamils are dying, b) I wouldn't expect them to take it quietly, and c) shutting down the Gardiner was the most effective thing they've done so far. In fact, I think they gave up to soon -- a "commitment" from an Ignatieff staffer that he'll bring it up with Harper, plus 50 cents, will get you a phone call.

Seriously, Canadians are objecting about the politics of a distant war and its effects on a vocal, morally ambiguous, and numerous minority? Have they never heard of NORAID? Support for Irish Republicanism was, if anything, more objectionable than support for the LTTE, because the last time an armed force invaded Canada and killed Canadians it was, you guessed it, Irish Republicans.

There's a lot of great things about living in Canada. But there's a cost too. Our Consitution's main guidance on the structure of our government was, for generations, that we have "a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom". Our Queen reigns from 3000 kilometers away. Her representative was born in another country and came here to escape a horrible dictatorship, but it's worth noting that Michaelle Jean is just one of many Governors-General we've had who were not born here: it tooks us almost a century to get a GG who'd had the luck to be born here.

Our military is currently serving in a war under an American commander. Nothing really new there. The European Union's decisions on our exports basically decide if the seal trade lives or dies. Washington's verdict on how polluting the tar sands are will, undoubtedly, be more important than anything our own government does. Our government's explicit position on matters ranging from climate change to fiscal stimulus is: wait and see what other people do.

My point, to go on a bit, is that being a 21st century Canadian means our politics are tied up in all sorts of ways with the politics of other countries. In matters both symbolic and substantial, the world's business is very much our business. Screeching about how unfair it is that the Tamils are annoying us with their pesky insistence on being heard, and listened to, is basically a demand that the world stop turning. They wouldn't be Canadian if they weren't pissing off other Canadians with their own individual concerns about living in an interconnected world -- now they get to be part of the same club as Maritime fishers, Quebec nationalists, Ontario autoworkers, Prairie farmers, Albertan oilmen, and the rare person in BC with a complaint about where they live.

Of course, unlike the rest of us, Tamils in Sri Lanka are actually dying in large numbers. So maybe, just maybe, we can let them get in the way of the Mother's Day dinner you didn't want to go to anyway, this once?

Hellish urban living

The Germans try out a car-reduced suburb. Clearly, they've learned nothing since Hitler.

What's astonishing is how minimal the changes really are, when you think about it. If you want parking -- you can have it! You just have to buy it separately. Check it out: consumer choice!

Obviously, something we will never, ever accept in North America.

The Globe and Mail makes it harder to care

A world in which John Barber is replaced by Marcus Gee is not one in which I buy more copies of the G&M.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Notes from a parched country

Got back from Vegas yesterday. A few days in the navel of sin and I've reacted far closer to Sayyid Qutb than I would have previously guessed. Had a great time with friends, but boy does a further adventure not interest me.

Some thoughts:

--Jesus effing Christ, you people choose to live in a desert? On purpose? From the point of view of a Canadian who's used to living on the shore of a Great Lake, this makes no sense at all. If the lack of freshwater wasn't enough, the heat was really oppressive. You get used to it quickly enough, but stepping out of the airport on the first day was a bit of a shock. And it was allegedly only 35 degrees or so. Yes, I'm a Canadian who's apparently not comfortable too far from the freezing point of water.

--Saw the Hoover Dam. Very impressive. You realize something rather important about the Hoover when you realize that hydroelectricity is its secondary purpose. Providing regular control over the Colorado River is the main mission, and one it's done pretty well. The bypass bridge they're building over the Dam is really impressive in construction too. No doubt it will provide drivers with an impressive view of the Dam (travelling west at least) when it's complete.

--A very observant friend suggests that the construction of the Hoover Dam is basically America's most successful experiment with actual socialism: government contractors, working in an isolated town with substantial social controls to prevent "deviance", all working for the good of the state. It's America's Magnitogorsk.

--When the sun goes down, the American Southwest actually has a bearable climate, one that's really well experienced driving through the desert, even if you're only driving a rented minivan with five friends. If you squint hard, you're basically bullseyeing whomp rats on a landspeeder in Beggar's Canyon back home.

--My friends mentioned these on the plane ride down to Vegas, and even if it was all that I'd experienced as a result of the trip, it would still be worth the price of the plane ticket:

--Prostitutes don't look like they do in the movies. And strippers aren't really that charming. But then, I wasn't the one getting the lap dance.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Not quite gear lust, but gear intrigue

Jeff Bezos says that, where Kindle editions of their books are available, they now make up 35% of those titles' sales. That would seem to indicate that the market for e-books is more robust than I'd assumed. Also, the new Kindle comes with a bigger screen and reads PDFs natively.

What will this do? Jump-start the market for pirated e-books, I'd wager. But no, I'm sure university students would never find creative or surreptitious ways to save themselves hundreds of dollars a year.

I think requiring 4 parking space per house might encourage car ownership

Awhile back, I described the mass ownership of the automobile as a public policy, leading Noumenon to ask why I would call it that -- in comments -- and I spent a bit of time thinking over my arguments before I posted again on it. But basically, I would argue that there are a ton of hidden-and-not-so subsidies for car ownership and more broadly the automotive system, that it effectively makes car ownership a presumed default position, even in a dense, walkable city like the one I live in.

To define my term, I'd define mass-ownership of the automobile as a car ownership ratio of greater than 1 car for every two people in the house. If you've got a family of four, I can see needing two cars, though when I was younger I lived in a household of 4 with "just" one. As a contrast, there are currently more private cars in America than licensed drivers. The number is lower in Canada, but still much higher than 1:2. In both cases, it's the result of a number of choices by government about what to subsidize, and how.

As a basic example, the few streets that have bike lanes almost always also have 4 lanes of automotive traffic. (And of course, most streets have no dedicated bike lanes at all.) There's an embedded preference there, and it's codified in law and asphalt. And if you believe the press, Toronto is one of the most car-hostile cities in Canada. (What's laughable is that the timid half-measures brought forward by the City are being called a "war". Let's tear up the Gardiner and the DVP and replace them with parks, then see what car-hostile looks like.)

If you'd like a better example though, I'd strongly suggest reading this article by Ben Adler about some DC exurbs. I cannot emphasize enough the role that nearsighted or outright stupid or cowardly decisions by regulators have had on creating the car-centric universe.

If you feel like digging really deep, there's plenty of urban planning literature out there on this stuff. My personal recent favourite is "The High Price of Free Parking", by Donald Shoup, which estimates that the legally-mandated creation of free parking spaces in residential and commercial building amounts to a subsidy of about $5000 per car, per year to car owners in America. To be clear: in most municipalities, it is illegal to build a new mall or home without a certain amount of parking spaces set aside. In malls, this gets pretty ridiculous because they're often required to build enough parking not to handle the daily average, but to handle the annual maximum (i.e., Dec. 21) leaving vast amount of empty space the rest of the year. This has huge costs for developers, who pass those costs on to retailers and through them to the customers.

You can read a brief summary of Shoup's book as a PDF here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

All of you, calm down

Oh Lord I could marry this woman, but will settle for buying this book. This will keep domestic peace with my fiancée:
Then there are products out there that will prevent this from happening. Here is a helmet your child could wear when she starts to toddle, lest she fall over and split her head open and die, or suffer traumatic brain injury.

Kids have been toddling -- it's a whole stage we actually call toddlerhood -- ever since we started walking upright, which has been a pretty successful experiment for the human species. But now you're supposed to think that it's too dangerous for a kid to do without extra protection and without extra supervision and without this stupid thing you can buy.

There are kneepads that you're supposed to put on your kid because crawling is considered too dangerous for the knees, as if knees weren't built for crawling. That's why they're cute and dimpled and fat.
This isn't an argument for carelessness, but an argument for perspective. See in the same article her comparison between kids today and suburban housewives of the 1950s. Very interesting.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Things I continue to not understand


Okay, these devices don't make any sense to me. You're still exposed to the elements, you don't go very fast, can't take it on highways, and still have to wear a stupid helmet -- stupider, in fact, than the helmet I wear. I have, going uphill, kept up with scooters in no traffic. (And I'm hardly Lance Armstrong.) In heavy traffic, I go much faster than any scooter (or for that matter, car.)

Okay, if you insist on having a motorized vehicle, I guess a scooter is better than a car. But it's not at all clear to me why a scooter is better than a bike. You're paying substantially more upfront, for the privilege of paying more later and not getting wildly more utility.

I just mention it because we had some pretty substantial rain yesterday, and I passed 3 separate scooterists who clearly looked miserable. I would too, in their position.