Monday, November 30, 2009

Too much to hope for

I keep hoping that, years from now, Tom Friedman is going to pull off a mask or something and yell, "I call it The Aristocrats!" Otherwise, all this would just be an obscenity.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

That's my girl

So Vicki bought us a new set of computer speakers for the living room (we watch almost all movies and TV off the computer now) and unlike previously, the new speakers have a pretty decent amp and subwoofer. Nothing terribly impressive, but certainly more than what we had before.

To kick the tires a bit, I serve up Star Trek -- the new one. Just as the Kelvin is attacked, and the living room shakes with explosions only to go silent as a body is sucked out in to space, Vicki's mouth opens:

"We need a bigger TV."

Me, mouth full of dinner: "Mbrokay!!!"

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Rotten ice (slightly fresher lake chronicles)

If you want to get a decent discussion of what's going on in the Arctic, you can either read this article at the Globe or listen to this Quirks and Quarks podcast segment about it.  Basically, a lot of what looked like multi-year ice in the Arctic turns out not to be.  Instead, what we have is slush with a veneer of ice, but nothing that even slows down an icebreaker.  Unfortunately, the rotten ice looks like multi-year ice from a satellite, so nobody knows how far it has spread.

And in other cheery news, Polar Bears are resorting to late-season cannibalism, something usually unheard of in the fall and winter -- there's supposed to be plenty of hunting grounds on solid ice where the bears can catch seals. Instead, there's no ice, or ice that can't support the mass of a bear. So out of desperation, they're resorting to cannibalism.

The neat thing about global capitalism is that it creates the very metaphors you need to describe its predation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tab-clearing, Nov 27

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

If true, we're boned

This is the kind of news that makes me want to accept Jesus as my personal lord and saviour:
The East Antarctic ice sheet has been losing mass for the last three years, according to an analysis of data from a gravity-measuring satellite mission.

The scientists involved say they are "surprised" by the finding, because the giant East Antarctic sheet, unlike the west, has been thought to be stable.

Other scientists say ice loss could not yet be pinned on climate change, and uncertainties in the data are large....

Melting the East Antarctic sheet would raise sea levels by much more - about 50-60m.

But scientists have generally discounted the possibility of it happening because the region is so cold.

The Grace measurements suggest there was no net ice loss between 2002 and 2006.

But since then, East Antarctica has been losing 57 billion tonnes (Gt) per year.
If East Antarctica is becoming unstable, then there's no end to the trouble in sight for the next 100 years. Even Jim Hansen -- who, while firmly grounded in the science, is yelling about this stuff as loudly as possible -- has mostly presumed that East Antarctica would remain stable.

These analyses are very preliminary, so here's hoping that, for the first time in a while, that the bad news on the climate front is actually alarmist, instead of prescient.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In private conversations, people are sometimes unguarded -- FILM AT 11

The latest revelations about the private discussions of climate scientists are so shocking, so disturbing, I can barely bring myself to type the words.

You see, my fair readers, accredited professionals in the field of climate science don't think much of the cranks and frauds out there polluting the discourse. I know! Shocking! Even worse, they use some impolite language to express their opinions. Clearly, the entire scientific edifice of climate change will come a-tumbling down.

The whole thing makes me laugh. I've had more than a few discussions with climate scientists as I finished up my degree this year, and the idea of getting excited because of the language in the emails is hilarious. I've had a climate scientist start a sentence, referring to a prominent Canadian climate skeptic, "he's so fucking stupid..." before he remembered the recorder was on. Calling the deniers "idiots" is relatively tame, compared to what some have said to me on the record. Of course, they aren't fond of reporters either, which led to further paint-peeling uses of their substantial vocabularies.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

No, really, this won't work

Matthew Yglesias sadly reiterates his belief that my country shouldn't exist:
But the case for US-Canadian political union is pretty clear. As things stand, Canadian citizens are intensely impacted by decisions taken in Washington but have no real ability to influence them. Political union would give residents of Vancouver and Toronto an opportunity to have a say in decisions that are important to their lives. What’s more, the politics of AmeriCan would be more sensible than current US politics. There’d be a lot of microeconomic efficiency gains, and bringing America’s higher per capita income together with Canada’s vast natural resources could be beneficial for everyone.
Let's take these in turn:
  • Canadians actually more or less get along fine without a direct voice in American policy-making -- as do residents of Washington, DC. We make our wishes known, and we are either listened to or ignored depending on domestic US concerns. When things are going well, we do alright. When not, not. You know what really protects us from the downside of US decision making? Being a sovereign country.
  • The politics of the US would, if anything, become only marginally more sane if we all started voting in your elections. Marginally, as in "margin of error". Canada has only 10% of the US population. This means, if you can do the arithmetic, that even in 2008, as his Presidency was an increasingly bitter joke, that there were twice as many Americans who believed that George W. Bush was doing a good job as there were Canadians, period. An influx of Canadian voters would shift the bars only slightly.
  • America is already going to have access to Canadian natural resources, by an obscure and complicated mechanism called "paying for them". This is particularly strange, because unlike the median American voter, Matt usually seems to understand that resources can be bought and paid for on the open market, and that we don't necessarily need to use political means (including massive firepower) to secure economic goods like oil. So WTF?

Let me propose an equally logical act on Yglesias' part: he should join the Republican party. For most of his life, Republicans have dominated either the Congress or Presidency, or both. The GOP, then, is an institution of incredible political importance and as a Democrat, he has no real input on their policy-making decisions. I think we can all agree that he's unlikely to join the Party of No anytime soon, though. If he thinks about the reasons for why that's so, he might stumble upon the reason why Canadians might view the idea of a political union with the US as a bad idea.

Writing the headline while it's still relevant

Liberals and NDP statistically tied!  (Just barely: the AR poll has a MoE of 3.1%, the IR poll has the same.

Won't last, but as it happens I'm reading The Strange Death of Liberal England. Kind of eerie.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The American impulse to misunderstand things continues unabated

Steve Benen, who actually is a smart yankee, writes:
Offered a very good deal, Iran nevertheless continues to be uncooperative.
Except that the deal Iran is being offered isn't very good at all. Following the link, we get a NY Times article which says:
CAIRO — Iran’s foreign minister said this week that his government would not ship its stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country, making him the highest ranking official so far to declare that Iran would renege on a deal aimed at defusing a confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

“We will definitely not send our 3.5-percent-enriched uranium out of the country,” Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency in remarks reported Wednesday.
One of the things that is missing here is the fact that, under all relevant international laws, Iran has the unquestioned right to uranium enrichment. It is, quite literally, as firmly rooted in international treaties as the right to vote. (This is a political science joke, sort of.) As far as international law is concerned, asking Iran to give up the right to enrich uranium is like asking America to give up the right to vote. This was put in print decades ago as part of the 1950s "Atoms for Peace" plan put forward by the US government of the time. Say it with me one more time: Iran has the right to Uranium enrichment. This fact is well known in Iran, and the Iranian opposition -- remember, the "good guys" from the protests earlier this year -- are actually quite fond of their country's nuclear program:
But in Tehran, where officials insist their nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, the deal was attacked from across the political spectrum. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to suggest it was acceptable, he was criticized from all sides, even by the reformists he long called too soft on the West.
The point of "Atoms for Peace" was to take some of the scary edge off of nuclear technology, and spread "peaceful" nuclear technology throughout the developing world, because there was no possible way that could go wrong. But an inherent part of that was to allow countries that were recovering from World War II -- and those recovering from colonialism -- to enrich natural Uranium to the point where it would be useful for power production. In standard reactors, this is somewhere less than 20% U235, but the important point is that the technology that allows a nation to enrich Uranium to power-producing quality (protected by international treaty!) is the same technology that allows them to make weapons-grade material. This is why Japan is both entirely within the legal limits of nuclear technology and never more than 18 months away from having a bomb in hand. (The above is grossly simplified because it's late and this is a blog.)

Moreover, if we're going to have a global trade in nuclear power, Iran has to have a right to uranium enrichment. Otherwise, we're just proving countries like Iran and India correct when they say that non-proliferation is just a thin cover for keeping advanced technology as the exclusive preserve for white countries.

The other alternative would be for us to get rid of nuclear power altogether, because the enrichment needed for nuclear power is not fundamentally different from that needed for nuclear weapons. But that's probably too radical a step: we're so much fonder of treating symptoms than causes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A brief story

So because of our recent move, Vicki and I have had to buy a new router and re-arrange the connections between our computers. Where her computer was once wired to the router directly, my computer used a USB wireless adapter to connect to our network. That's basically switched now, so I had to install the USB adapter's drivers on her computer -- because Windows or the adapter manufacturer, for some reason, have totally missed the whole "plug and play" thing that USB accessories are normally so good at.

This led me to three separate attempts to install the driver properly on Vicki's desktop, which had a three-or-four year old install of XP on it. None of these worked. I suggested that we finally reformat her HD and reinstall Windows XP, something that we'd been meaning to do for months now. Except that the registered, original XP install disks I have no longer work properly, so we end up with a partial install of XP that refuses to authorize. How do we authorize? By getting the desktop to talk to the Internet -- something it refuses to do wired or wirelessly.

So, because I didn't want Vicki to have to endure any more time with a Microsoft-induced boat anchor than necessary, I installed Ubuntu 9.10 (which I've been using on my laptop) as a stopgap measure. In contrast to XP's procedure of 1) Pray it works 2) Swear a lot when it doesn't, the procedure with Karmic Koala was, well, what it should be with an OS install in 2009:

1) Select "install". Answer a few questions, none more advanced than selecting one of three partition options.

2) OS installs.

3) Plug in wireless adapter.

4) Mirabile dictu, the wireless adapter works from the moment you plug it in, find the network correctly, and prompts for the password. [This strengthens my belief that the problem was on the MS end, not the USB manufacturer end.]

Now, this is unfair to Windows XP because I'm comparing a 2009 OS to a 2001 one. Fine, but Microsoft has always had the resources to make an OS that works well. I take the fact that most people who've used it tell me that Windows 7 is actually quite good an indication that Microsoft is actually taking the threat of users abandoning them seriously as Apple becomes more of a threat, not that MS has suddenly achieved what was impossible before.

Sadly, I can't convince Vicki to go without XP for too long -- too many MS-specific apps that she needs -- but it will be enough for now.

And generally, I can say that I've now used Ubuntu for the last two years almost continuously, including some pretty heavy use to finish my Masters, and found there was little that I couldn't do on it except of course play Windows games. And the one moment of total digital failure -- when my desktop ate all the data on my USB drive, including two months of interview tapes -- was the result of XP, not Ubuntu.

There are still kinks to it -- it doesn't talk well with my big-screen TV -- so that's really the only reason any of my computers have XP on them still. That and my desire to keep killing Nazis/Soviets/Insert bad guy here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

However did the Americans get to the North Pole without asking our permission?

You know, for a bunch of people who've spent the last few weeks talking about the former governor of Alaska, I'm really surprised that Canadian journalists keep jumping at these little stunts:
The recent surfacing of a U.S. submarine near the North Pole and an increase in military activity in the Arctic this year should send a warning to the Canadian government that other nations are serious about boosting their presence in the resource-rich region, says a specialist on Canada’s northern security....

It is unclear exactly what route the USS Texas took during its voyage, whether it transited through Canadian waters or whether Canada was told in advance about the visit.
I have absolutely no personal knowledge of this event, or any of the other surfacings of US nuclear subs in the recent past, but I'll guarantee you that none of them transited Canadian waters to get to the North Pole, if for no other reason than because submarine crews -- being incapable of seeing where they're going -- don't like to enter narrow passages choked with ice if they don't have to. The Texas stayed well clear of Canadian waters, because the US happens to own this little piece of land called "Alaska" and can make a direct run to the North Pole from there.

Which brings me to another point, which is that we should all really calm down about the whole Northwest Passage dealie. In short, it won't be nearly as exciting as some are hoping if and when it clears, and that's due in part to the fact that -- unlike the Russians -- Canada has never really invested heavily in its northern tier. Take it away, Gwynne Dyer:
The problem for Canada is that all the routes for a Northwest Passage involve shallow and/or narrow straits between various islands in the country’s Arctic archipelago, and the prevailing winds and currents in the Arctic Ocean tend to push whatever loose sea ice there is into those straits. It is unlikely that cargo ships that are not double-hulled and strengthened against ice will ever get insurance for the passage at an affordable price.

Whereas the Northeast Passage is mostly open water (once the ice retreats from the Russian coast), and there is already a major infrastructure of ports and nuclear-powered ice-breakers in the region. If the distances are roughly comparable, shippers will prefer the Northeast Passage every time – and the distances ARE comparable.

Just look at the Arctic Ocean on a globe, rather than in the familiar flat-earth Mercator projection. It is instantly obvious that the distance is the same whether shipping between Europe and East Asia crosses the Arctic Ocean by running along the Russia’s Arctic coast (the Northeast Passage) or weaving between Canada’s Arctic islands (the Northwest Passage).

The same is true for cargo travelling between Europe and the west coast of North America. The Northwest Passage will never be commercially viable.
Emphasis mine. If there's anything to be done in the Arctic because of the receding ice, it will be for purely domestic Canadian reasons, not because the Northwest Passage offers new commercial opportunities.

Which makes me a little sad, as a Canadian...

Monday, November 16, 2009


I'd say "spoiler" alert, but if you're capable of being surprised by the outcomes of a Roland Emmerich plot, you really ought to be reading this blog with two helpers and a drool cup.

The ads for this movie have the phrase, "We were warned" emblazoned across them, and no joke: be warned, this is exactly the movie you think it is. But for all that, it's really not bad. There are bad parts to it, but overall I actually enjoyed it.

The science is atrocious, the writing is ridiculous, but the thing that has stayed with me -- and has kept me crabby -- is a moment late in the film, when they're unveiling the enormous arks that will preserve a remnant of humanity when the global crisis passes. The President's Chief of Staff exclaims, "Leave it China! Nobody thought we could do it in time."

Grrrr. Actually, America used to be capable of big things too. America used to be able to build the Hoover Dam. America used to be able to invent the Atomic Bomb. America used to be able to do the impossible and land a man on the moon.

You want a sign of hegemonic decline? Even in her fantasies, America is too tired to stand up anymore.

This always works out well for us. Except for all the times it hasn't.

One of the developing plot points about Prime Minister Harper's trip to Asia this week is whether, or more likely when, we'll sign a civilian nuclear deal with the subcontinent. There's really nothing left for Canada to gain by staying out of India's market, except for us to make a point about non-proliferation.

Is it a point worth making? Nobody asked me, but it's worth pointing out that the Indians screwed Canada the first time we helped them out with a nuclear reactor, promising to adhere to all sorts of safeguards and not use the resulting nuclear materials to develop a bomb. India's first nuclear explosion used, you guessed it, material derived from that reactor.

Now, countries don't make decisions this way and never have. Canada will almost certainly sign a deal with India because, frankly, we want a piece of the action and the US, EU, and France have all already beaten us to it. There's no embargo, no isolation of India to maintain. But I can't help but feel like we're throwing out lot in with those who have basically killed any realistic chance of nuclear non-proliferation.[1]

The flip side to this is that opening up India to the boys at AECL is another sop to Canada's struggling nuclear industry. This would be the crown corporation that, with every break and every subsidy thrown its way by the Province of Ontario, still couldn't build a reactor that the government would dare build. So wonderful for us -- in order to keep "jobs in Canada", we have to prop up a company that, uh, can't build new projects in Canada anymore.

[1] People shouldn't think I'm blaming India for the end of the era of non-proliferation: India has always stated, rather forthrightly, that it thinks any attempt to keep developing countries from having the bomb while western countries maintain their nuclear forces is unacceptable. That doesn't mean we have to sell to them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tab-clearing, Armistice edition

...because if it was "Remembrance edition", I'd have gotten to these before now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Things I wish I'd written

Here. Read the whole thing -- the payoff comes at the end.

I knew him, Horatio

A man of infinite jest.

When I met Bernie Stewart, he was already in his 50s and had never had any use for a computer, and literally didn't know how to turn one on. As you can read in the obit linked above, by the time he finally retired he had built a strong small business out of computer repairs.

The reason, as far as I can tell, that a man born at the outset of World War II decided to get in to computers late, was that he became addicted to solitaire. So while it may be the biggest destroyer of productivity since the invention of alcohol, in at least one case Microsoft Windows Solitaire was actually responsible for an increase in productivity.

The fact that flight simulators had gotten shockingly good by the late 1990s, and Bernie had been grounded ever since his first heart attack, probably didn't hurt either.

Anyway, Bernie's the reason I have a great deal of scorn for people who claim to be too old, or too confused, or too whatever for computers. He started from nothing and within a few years was running laps around his teachers, figuratively speaking. His curiosity and good humour saw computers as just something new to learn, a perspective I wish more people would bring to all the areas of their lives.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Why, oh why, do I read the Globe?

Marcus Gee:
The Toronto waste department lets you put out overflow garbage if you mark it with a yellow tag, purchased at Canadian Tire for $3.10. But the garbage has to be bagged. So, on a cold and rainy night, I found myself trying to stuff the laundry hamper into a wet garbage bag, muttering curses as the broken edges of the hamper reduced the bag to shreds.

It was a minor hassle and I would have been happy to endure it if I thought I was helping to save the planet. The trouble is that I don’t. Most recycling is a giant waste of time and money...
Oh, goody. It had been so long since Gee had written something asinine about waste disposal, I was starting to forget what unadulterated stupidity looked like in print.
Money aside, recycling gobbles up time and energy. In effect, the city has outsourced garbage sorting to households, turning everyone, from banker to housewife, into domestic trash workers.
Welcome to Canada, the classless society, where in 2009 major newspapers sneer at the implications of upper-class bankers and middle-class housewives being struck down to the level of trash -- pardon me, trash workers. Gee would never call another person trash. Heaven forfend.
Unlike me, most of them do it quite cheerfully, believing they are combatting a dire threat to the environment.

In reality, recycling is a bust for the planet. The materials we recycle – paper, plastic, glass, metal – are not running out. Most metals are in abundant supply. Plastics come from readily available chemicals. Glass comes from sand. Paper comes from trees, a renewable resource. In fact, most paper comes from trees grown specifically for pulp.
Ah, the abundance fallacy. Because human destruction of the biosphere isn't yet total, we should just go ahead and use it all up. But, to go down the list: The price of commodity metals are still at historic highs. (At $6,000 per short ton, the price of copper is higher than any time since the oil shocks, (PDF), excluding of course the last two years of economic frenzy. High prices, for those of you who neglected to take Econ 101 [1] are usually an indicator of relative scarcity, not abundance. But then, we're not privy to the subtleties that come from working at the Globe and Mail, who I'm told have a pretty substantial business section that could explain these things to their columnists.

Quickly, now: plastic manufacturers are leaving North America and moving overseas to places where natural gas actually is cheap and abundant. Glass is extremely energy-intensive to make, which is why the Beer Store and LCBO now recycle and reuse as much as they can -- it's cheaper for bottlers to recycle than use virgin stock.

Paper may be the exception to the general rule -- depending on your interpretation of the data, though you won't be surprised to learn that I side with those who argue that, on a life-cycle basis, recycling paper is better than merely landfilling it. But suppose my side is wrong, and it would actually be better for the planet to dump heavily bleached cellulose into holes in the ground by the kilotonne every year. Here we come to Marcus Gee's perennial complaint: that communities outside of Toronto are unwilling to act as our toilet.
All these materials are relatively harmless if buried in modern landfills equipped with clay foundations, impermeable plastic liners, drainage systems and gas-capturing technology. If there is a shortage of landfills near Toronto, it is only because governments refuse to show the courage needed to convince local NIMBYs to host one in their backyard.
I'm happy to criticize NIMBYism in some forms, but this is really strange. We just had a strike in Toronto which halted garbage collection, and people who live near public parks where temporary dumps were formed went apeshit. Setting aside whether I agree with them, you'd think Gee could at least acknowledge that nobody wants garbage in their backyard, not just yokel NIMBYs that he wants to caricature.

Meanwhile, recycling is an industry that increasingly is being handled in our backyard -- the compost plants that Toronto wants to build are being sited on municipal land, without the Province having to strong-arm anyone. And Gee spurns it.

Why, you'd think that Gee is actually just an irrational crank, with nothing of value to say on this matter. But that can't be right, because he's been given some of the most valuable real estate in Canada's print media to say basically whatever he wants. Surely they wouldn't give such a position to anyone, would they?

[1] I of course did not take Econ 101, as columnists like Marcus Gee used to explain to me during the earlier part of this decade when he was a cheerleader for globalization. So my high-prices = scarcity theory must be Communist gobbledygook.

UPDATE: Should have googled this earlier, but in his column Gee makes much of the $54 million price tag for Toronto's waste diversion plan. The cost of buying the Green Lane Landfill in 2007? $220 million. And that was just acquisition, not including the costs of actually dumping there.

But yeah, recycling is the waste of money.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

On the subject of taking people seriously

I just watched V tonight, and I gotta say I enjoyed it. But, should the unthinkable occur and aliens do actually arrive on Earth, I'd like to take this opportunity to list the warning signs for them being our oppressors, not benefactors.

1) They speak our languages perfectly. The US only becomes concerned about whether or not it has enough funny-language-speaking translators when it's engaged in a war of occupation somewhere. An entire civilization of people who are charming, attractive, and take the time to learn our native tongues? Clearly, they must be evil.

2) They claim to need water. Seriously, we'll let you have Pluto. We don't even call it a planet anymore. Just keep on movin', friend.

3) They claim to need metals or some other resource on Earth. Assuming our understanding of the physics of stellar formation are correct, there's no element on Earth that can't be procured from asteroids at far lower energy cost. And given that the Vs claim the desired element is "abundant" in Earth's crust, they could just get it from the moon (again, at much lower energy cost) because the moon really nothing more than a giant hunk of the Earth's crust, torn off and scabbed over 4 billion years ago.

Nice try, aliens, but you'll have to think up a different set of lies. Oh, and most civilized countries already have universal health care. Go eat the Americans, the rest of us don't need your help.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

If you ever needed another reason to not take David Brooks seriously

I'd just like to say a big hooray to Ezra for writing this, apropos of Brooks' curmudgeoning over IMs and text messages:
Columns like Brooks's irk me because they demean not only my lived experiences, but those of everyone I know. To offer a slightly more modern rebuttal, Sunday was my one-year anniversary with my girlfriend. A bit more than a year ago, we first met, the sort of short encounter that could easily have slipped by without follow-up. A year and a week ago, she sent me a friend request on Facebook, which makes it easy to reach out after chance meetings. A year and five days ago, we were sending tentative jokes back-and-forth. A year and four days ago, I was steeling myself to step things up to instant messages. A year and three days ago, we were both watching the “Iron Chef” offal episode, and IMing offal puns back-and-forth, which led to our first date. A year ago today, I was anxiously waiting to leave the office for our second date.

It is not for David Brooks to tell me those IMs lack poetry, or romance. I treasure them. Electronic mediums may look limited to him, but that is only because he has never seen his life change within them. Texting, he says, is naturally corrosive to imagination. But the failure of imagination here is on Brooks's part.
To people like Brooks -- and so many other middle-aged newspaper writers -- communications technology (in the broadest sense) has been something that lets them do the stuff they already did faster, or easier. What they simply don't get is that it lets you do other, totally new stuff, that would have never occurred to a previous generation. Like striking up a relationship between snarky IMs about Iron Chef.

What seems to bug Brooks is that young people have options he never did.

Monday, November 02, 2009


Moved in, unpacking, got a cat, been busy. But I noticed that the CBC this morning was reporting today is the last day for CRTC submissions on the issue of a local TV surcharge for cable and satellite users. This is an issue that leaves me ambivalent.

On the one hand, you've got the cable and satellite providers who are basically abusive monopolies, and on the other you've got the legacy TV broadcasters, who wave the flag of "local TV" when they spend -- and make -- most of their money buying US content and whine about getting nothing from cable and satellite, when they get the very, very lucrative privilege of simultaneous substitution. (How many ad dollars do they get from Oscars and Superbowl broadcasts that they would otherwise miss out on?)

On balance, I suppose the hypocrisy of the legacy broadcasters bugs me more. But the whole issue reminds me of Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq war: It's a pity they can't both lose.