Friday, December 24, 2010

Volcker fears for the future of America

Paul Volcker, who chaired the Fed through most of the 1980s, thinks the dollar is in trouble:

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who is chairman of President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said the U.S. dollar is in danger of losing its role as a global benchmark currency.

“The growing question is whether the exceptional role of the dollar can be maintained,” Volcker told a gathering of New York civic leaders at the University Club of New York last night.

The decline of the U.S. economy, political gridlock at home, U.S. involvement in two wars and “festering” geopolitical issues in the Middle East and Asia have undermined the ability of the U.S. to influence global events, Volcker said.

From Bloomberg (h/t Eric Janszen in this iTulip thread). Not surprisingly, Volcker takes it for granted that this will be a bad thing. But perhaps most interesting is this:

Volcker offered no prescriptive solutions as he spoke in broad terms of the country’s loss of stature.

When a guy who's supposed to be in charge of America's economic recovery admits that he has no clue what to do about it, it certainly does look like that country is in trouble.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Prentice was prepared to act on oilsands: Wikileaks

This is an interesting revelation:

Former environment minister Jim Prentice privately told U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson more than a year ago that he was prepared to impose new regulations on the oil sands if the industry and province did not improve their environmental performance, newly released Wikileaks documents reveal.

In a cable to Washington, Mr. Jacobson described an introductory meeting – held a month after he assumed his post in October, 2009 – in which Mr. Prentice eagerly sought to establish a personal relationship with the new face of the Obama administration in Ottawa.

From the Globe. One can't help but wonder if this had something to do with his recent resignation; if Harper wasn't prepared to budge on the issue, Prentice would have no choice but to either live with it or resign. Maybe he took the latter option.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The US is even more strapped for cash than we thought

They're so broke it's starting to cut into their ability to kill people:
The United States executed fewer people this year, in part because there is a shortage of the drug used in lethal injections and because executions are too expensive in tough economic times, a report released Tuesday said.

The Death Penalty Information Center said in its annual report that executions decreased 12 percent this year and new death sentences stayed near the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

From the London Free Press. The death penalty, paradoxically, is far more costly than imprisoning someone for life. The thing is, even societies that accept the death penalty don't feel comfortable if they get it wrong, so if someone's going to be executed they have to make sure they get it wrong as little as possible. And that means a lot of appeals, making sure that the accused has proper legal representation right up to the point when the last appeal is exhausted. Indeed, in some US states a person who is sentenced to death gets an automatic appeal whether they want it or not. Needless to say, that gets expensive.

What's striking, though, is that the US is one of the few modern democracies that has stubbornly clung to the practice of capital punishment. It's almost a fine old tradition there, and they don't give up their traditions easily. So for them to loosen their hold on it now is a sign that they're really broke.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The spectre of Internet voting turns up in Manitoba

It seems some municipal officials want to introduce Internet voting:

Plans are already in the works for the next municipal election in 2014 that advance polls in Winnipeg will include the Internet.

"If you want to continue serving the people you serve, you've got to meet their expectations," city clerk Richard Kachur said. "It's also important for the next generation coming up. They use the Internet far more than anyone else. They expect it."

From the Free Press (h/t PolicyFrog). It's a seductive idea, to be sure; even decent folk like Joe Pantalone have advocated it. And it's in use already in some places, but does that mean we should follow their example? I don't see any way of ensuring that the vote isn't rigged by hackers, and even if you could guarantee beyond a reasonable doubt that it couldn't be rigged, it would be a lot harder to convince voters of this. It would undermine the legitimacy of the winner, too. At least now, I can accept that Sam Katz (and Rob Ford, for that matter) won fair and square. I might lament the narrow-mindedness of the voters who put them there, but I can't dispute their legitimacy. But if they had won their positions through Internet voting, a lot of people would be skeptical - perhaps to the point where they wouldn't bother voting next time, since the fix is in. Which is exactly the opposite of what the proponents of Internet voting want. And that's not even counting the fact that some would likely conclude that they ought to try to "un-fix" the next election (i.e. fix it in the other direction).

It's also worth noting that Internet voting could actually worsten the tendency for the poor to be underrepresented at the polls. Laziness spans class boundaries, but if those who can afford a computer and an Internet connection find it easier to vote than those who can't, this will further disenfranchise the poor.

Finally, you have to be suspicious of an idea that is promoted using bogus arguments. And PolicyFrog has found one in the article - U of M political scientist Jared Wesley, who thinks online voting is just grand, tossed out the old chestnut that "more people voted on American Idol than the American president". Sounds shocking, but it isn't true, as Froggy points out:

The 2008 U.S. Election drew over 131 million votes, while the biggest American Idol finale brought in about 100 million.

Furthermore, fans can vote multiple times on Idol. Given that the viewing audience for a finale ranges from 20 million to 30 million, and only a portion of those people actually vote, then it’s clear that waaaaaaaay more people cast a ballot for President than Idol. And don’t even get me started on votes cast by those over the age of 18…

So does anyone still think online voting is necessary or desirable? Fortunately, the city can't implement this without the province's co-operation, and the provincial NDP has shown no interest in this folly to my knowledge.

The Alberta tail wags the federal dog

It seems that Alberta's opposition is enough to convince the Harper government to shelve the proposed expansion of the CPP:

Provinces are planning to fight for enhancements to the Canada Pension Plan at a key meeting on Monday, setting up a showdown with the Harper government over how Canadians will fund their retirements.

Just days before federal and provincial finance ministers meet in Kananaskis, Ottawa made a surprise move to reject CPP enhancements for now in favour of a new privately run savings vehicle.

The shift in federal priorities on pension reform comes as the Bank of Canada heightens its warnings that Canadians are borrowing too much and saving too little, putting some households at risk when interest rates inevitably climb back from near-record lows.

Ottawa’s critics insist long-term pension problems must be tackled now and premium increases can be phased in, but the Harper government is aligning itself with Alberta in arguing the economy cannot absorb a new hit on the take-home pay of Canadians.

From the Globe. No doubt the feds (and Alberta) like the private-sector nature of the new proposal; from the average citizen's point of view, though, the most significant feature is the fact that it would be a defined contribution plan, unlike the defined benefits provided by the CPP. It's trendy these days to call defined benefit plans "gold-plated pensions"; I suggest that a more appropriate term would be "galvanized", since they protect your pension from corrosion.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Polls show a lot of volatility

A new poll has come out from Harris-Decima that completely contradicts the Ipsos poll of a few days ago:
The Conservatives and Liberals appear to be ending the year the same way they started it — in a dead heat.

A new poll by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima suggests the Tories have the support of 31 per cent of Canadians, statistically tied with the Liberals at 29 per cent.

The poll puts the NDP at 15% and the Greens at 11%, both noticeably higher than the Ipsos results. The Ipsos poll was conducted between the 7th and 9th; the Harris-Decima one was conducted between the 2nd and the 13th. So it's pretty clear that at least one of them must be wrong. Which one? On the one hand, the Harris-Decima poll has a larger sample size (2,022 respondents vs. 1000 for the Ipsos poll); on the other hand, the Ipsos poll, having been conducted in a shorter time period, might provide a better snapshot (and 1000 is still not an unreasonable size). The moral? Nothing really, except that it's hard to predict how the actual election will play out.

Is Hugh McFadyen driving away the moderates?

The fact that Brandon West MLA Rick Borotsik has decided not to run in the 2011 election would not be a big deal in itself; politicians retire all the time, and Borotsik has had a long and (by Tory standards) respectable career. However, David Faurschou has also decided not to run, and it may be no coincidence that both Borotsik and Faurschou are among the most moderate Tories in the legislature (for instance, Borotsik, as an MP, was one of the few members of his caucus to support same-sex marriage). Add to this the fact that former Tory MLA Marcel Laurendeau, in announcing his intention to run for the Liberals next year, said that McFadyen has moved the party "too far to the right", and you have to ask - do we really know Hugh McFadyen? One thing is clear - Borotsik, Faurschou, and Laurendeau do...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

US Southwest could face catastrophic drought

Nothing is certain in this business, of course, but some fear this is what's on the way:

U.S. researchers shows that the American southwest could experience a 60-year stretch of heat and drought unseen since the 12th century.

Researchers at the University of Arizona examined studies of temperature changes and droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years and used them to project future climate models in the hope that water resource managers could use the information to plan ahead.

An examination of the past, through human-kept records but also via rings in the cores of trees that can show periods of wetness or drought, showed that dry spells of earlier centuries were much worse than any we have seen in modern times.

From the Montreal Gazette. The thing is, those areas are strapped for water now owing to the huge demands of agriculture, not to mention the golf courses and swimming pools that litter that part of the US. Even now there are fears of Lake Mead drying up, for instance. What would they do? Desalination might help, but it is extremely expensive in terms of money as well as energy, and given that California and Arizona, at least, are badly strapped for cash, how are they to pay for something like that? Will private money be forthcoming? If not, the next few decades could see a massive displacement of people from those areas. If nothing else, one could relish the irony of Arizonans wanting to move somewhere for a better life and being hated as job-stealing outsiders...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Swedish city eliminates use of fossil fuels for heating

Kristianstad is almost as big as Brantford, and Sweden is not exactly a warm climate. If it's possible there, it should be possible almost anywhere:
When this city vowed a decade ago to wean itself from fossil fuels, it was a lofty aspiration, like zero deaths from traffic accidents or the elimination of childhood obesity.

But Kristianstad has already crossed a crucial threshold: the city and surrounding county, with a population of 80,000, essentially use no oil, natural gas or coal to heat homes and businesses, even during the long frigid winters. It is a complete reversal from 20 years ago, when all of their heat came from fossil fuels.

But this area in southern Sweden, best known as the home of Absolut vodka, has not generally substituted solar panels or wind turbines for the traditional fuels it has forsaken. Instead, as befits a region that is an epicenter of farming and food processing, it generates energy from a motley assortment of ingredients like potato peels, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig intestines.

A hulking 10-year-old plant on the outskirts of Kristianstad uses a biological process to transform the detritus into biogas, a form of methane. That gas is burned to create heat and electricity, or is refined as a fuel for cars.

From the New York Times.

What the Cons might do with a majority

Dean Del Maestro, parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister James Moore, let this slip in committee last month:
Do you think, and I'm just asking an opinion, this is not a government policy, obviously, but do you think it's time that the Canadian government looks at it and says, maybe it's time we get out of the broadcasting business and get into investing more money into content?
Source. Admittedly, he says it's not government policy, which is to say it hasn't appeared in public policy statements. But what if they had a majority? Just another reason why the Cons must be stopped at all costs. For what it's worth, there's a petition here; it can't hurt to sign it, at least...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cons close to majority territory - poll

What the heck is this?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives have lunged ahead of their political rivals in public favour and would easily be returned to power if an election occurred now, a new poll finds.

The national survey, conducted for Postmedia News and Global TV, reveals that the Tories have broken out of a lengthy stalemate in public opinion and appear to have political momentum on their side.

The new findings by Ipsos Reid raise questions whether Harper will try to precipitate an election next spring, or perhaps even earlier in 2011.

According to the survey conducted this week, the Conservatives are supported by 39 per cent of decided voters, up four points from a month ago. By comparison, Michael Ignatieff's Liberals remain at 29 per cent of the decided vote.

The NDP, led by Jack Layton, would garner 12 per cent of the vote, down four points from last month. The Green party, led by Elizabeth May, would receive nine per cent of the vote, down two points.

Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois has 10 per cent of the vote nationally, but within its own province the party has a commanding lead over the other parties.

From the Free Press. Now I know that Ignatieff is not an appealing leader, but that doesn't explain the fact that the NDP is dramatically down from previous polls too. And it's not like the Cons have been doing themselves proud - they've lost one of their most competent ministers, the war in Afghanistan is a defeat waiting to happen, they've gutted the census, they continue to embarrass us on the international scene with their inaction on climate change, and they're under investigation for cheating in the 2006 election. So what's going on? This might provide a clue:
He says these “key cluster” ridings had been Conservative under Brian Mulroney. In suburban ridings, Mr. Nanos believes Mr. Harper’s team is using “crime as a hot button” and in the rural Liberal and NDP ridings, they are using the long-gun registry as a wedge issue.
From the Globe. The sickening thing is that this strategy seems to be a very sound one. Regardless of the actual truth, the TV-watching public generally seems to think crime is worse than ever, and if the Cons keep screaming "CRIME! CRIME! CRIME!" enough times, the suburban zombies fall into line and vote for them. Quite disheartening really.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

B.C. forests now a polluter, thanks to pine beetle

Not a good situation:
A government report says B.C. forests, often hailed as a giant sponge soaking up harmful air pollution, have become a net producer of carbon dioxide.

The report says the mountain pine beetle, which has killed millions of trees, and massive forest fires in recent years, have transformed the forests from a carbon sink into a polluter.

From the Star. The thing is, the beetles have become much more lethal to forests due to milder winters, so this is an example of a positive feedback with regards to climate change. Dealing with the problem may involve some hard choices, because the best way to mitigate the damage done might well be to harvest all those dead trees before they burn or rot (since either process will release an unacceptable amount of CO2). The idea of clearcutting huge areas is far from appealing from a biodiversity point of view, since a forest that is clearcut will not return to its natural state for a long time, if ever. However, it is far from normal for such a wide area of forest to die off like this; I suspect it won't return to its natural state regardless. In effect, the forest has already been clearcut; it's just that the trees haven't fallen down yet. Whatever replaces those trees, whether they're removed or not, will be different from what's there now, so maybe they should be harvested and made into furniture, building materials, or biochar.

Just to make things more difficult, this comes at a very awkward time, since with the crash in housing in the US and elsewhere (including here to some extent) the market for timber is way down, and isn't likely to recover in time to use all that material. Perhaps the BC government should be actively harvesting it and making it into biochar, returning much of that material to the soil so as to keep the nutrients in the ecosystem. After all, they just brought in a carbon tax; maybe they should be devoting that money to trying to actually mitigate climate change. But maybe that would make too much sense...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Can hyperlinking be defamatory?

A case before the Supreme Court of Canada depends on this question:

Canada would be offside with other English-speaking countries if legal restrictions were imposed on the exploding practice of linking to online postings, the Supreme Court of Canada was told Tuesday.

The court reserved judgment after a three-hour hearing in the case of Lake Cowichan writer Jon Newton. Several lawyers representing a variety of interests argued that exposing writers like Newton to lawsuits if they link to a defamatory posting would cast a wide chill.

Several judges seemed receptive to the argument, including Justice Louise Charron, who speculated that Internet users would be afraid to link to other material if the court made them legally responsible for their actions.

The appeal was brought to the Supreme Court by Vancouver businessman Wayne Crookes, who alleges that Newton, who runs the website, defamed him by linking to a reputation-smearing article in a 2006 post about free speech.

From the Vancouver Sun. I'm pretty confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court's decision, which ruled that hyperlinks are analogous to footnotes and are not publications themselves, but we'll have to see how it goes. Any other ruling, however, would be a travesty. For one thing, I'd have to think twice about continuing this blog; what if someone decides that something I've linked to is defamatory? Or what if you link to something that links to something else that's defamatory? If Crookes gets his way, you wouldn't want to risk linking to anything. And of course, without links a blog -- and indeed, the entire Web -- is almost worthless.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

US historian has ominous predictions for the future of America

Alfred McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He thinks the American empire has passed the point of no return and is now in a death spiral:

A soft landing for America 40 years from now? Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.

Future historians are likely to identify the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq in that year as the start of America's downfall. However, instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this 21st-century imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic collapse or cyberwarfare.

But have no doubt: When Washington's global dominion finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

From the Huffington Post. The reasons are ones that should be familiar by now; he expects that the US dollar will eventually lose its reserve status, the country has badly overextended itself with its foreign military adventures, and its economy is gradually being hollowed out as manufacturing increasingly moves offshore. While his predictions are fairly good as they go, I'm not sure I agree with his assumption that China will simply replace the US as the world's most powerful country. The biggest issue is not mentioned in the article -- namely, climate change -- and this will harm China at least as much as the US.

Gillard hangs Assange out to dry

Usually, if you get in trouble in a foreign country there is an understanding that your country will do what it can to help you. In Canada we've seen this principle flouted (Maher Arar, or the even worse example of Omar Khadr) but it doesn't particularly shock or surprise me any more coming from Stephen Harper. I'd have expected more of Julia Gillard though:
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been accused of possibly prejudicing any future case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by claiming he is "guilty of illegality" for leaking US diplomatic cables.

Mr Assange is expected to meet with British police sometime in the next 24 hours after Swedish authorities issued a fresh warrant for his arrest over alleged sexual offences.
From the ABC. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she's afraid for the stability of her minority government (especially given that she's of an age to remember the infamous dismissal of Gough Whitlam's government). I guess all governments make such calculations sometimes, but it always seems like a letdown coming from a progressive government.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Europe doubts Afghan war winnable: Wikileaks

It seems that one of those leaked diplomatic communications suggests that European Union officials suspect what many of us have believed for years -- namely, that there's little hope of success in Afghanistan:

Leaked diplomatic memos said that European Union President Herman Van Rompuy told America's ambassador that the EU no longer believes in success in Afghanistan, and that European troops are still there “out of deference to the United States.”

U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, in the memo released by WikiLeaks, quotes Mr. Van Rompuy as saying in December 2009 that the EU will wait until the end of 2010 to see progress.

Mr. Van Rompuy, the former Belgian prime minister who at the time was EU president-designate, reportedly said that “if it doesn't work, that will be it, because it is the last chance.”
From the Globe. Will this hasten the end of the war? I don't know, but possibly. After all, with this going public, a lot of European governments will face hard questions from their citizens about why they're still throwing money and lives at a cause that they know is probably hopeless.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Toronto police chief apologizes to beaten protester

A couple of days ago police chief Bill Blair savagely criticized the Special Investigations Unit for their ruling on the vicious beating of a chap known, publicly at least, as Adam Nobody. Blair alleged that the video had been tampered with. Now he's backing away from that statement:

Chief Blair said there is no evidence Mr. Nobody was armed at the time of his arrest.

He also said he regretted that his comments in a radio interview created a false impression that the video of Mr. Nobody’s takedown, captured in two segments by bank employee John Bridge, had been doctored in an attempt to mislead.

Source. Well, at least Blair is willing to admit that he was wrong, which is probably more than can be said for a certain previous police chief...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaked document suggests health-care privatization for Alberta

Given that it's Alberta, this isn't a huge surprise:

A leaked internal document from the Alberta government shows the ruling Tories plan to privatize health care after the next provincial election, opposition parties are charging.

The 27-page internal Alberta Health and Wellness presentation suggests the provincial government has a two-part plan to delist health services, legalize new kinds of private insurance and allow doctors to provide public and private health care at the same time.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky denied the allegations late Monday, but exiled Conservative MLA Dr. Raj Sherman confirmed its authenticity and slammed the government's plan.

"This is basically privatizing health care," said Sherman, who was Zwozdesky's parliamentary assistant until he was ousted from the Tory caucus last week for criticizing his own government's record on health care. "My understanding is that phase two is coming after the next election, and I absolutely can't support that."

From the Calgary Herald. It would be interesting to see how much awareness the feds have of this; it sounds like Stephen Harper's wet dream.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Suburbanites carry the day in Winnipeg North

Kevin Lamoureux is good at winning elections, if nothing else:

Kevin Lamoureux has formed a second beachhead for the federal Liberals in Manitoba.

The spunky former Inkster MLA won the Winnipeg North byelection Monday night, seizing a longtime NDP stronghold and giving Michael Ignatieff's Grits a big morale boost in the process.

Lamoureux earned 7,303 votes compared with 6,508 for the NDP's Kevin Chief in a race that literally went back and forth all evening. All 153 polls had reported by about 9:50 p.m., and advance votes and institutional votes were also tallied.

Conservative candidate Julie Javier finished third with 1,645 votes.

From the Free Press. Naturally Chief carried the traditional North End, while Lamoureux dominated the more suburban parts of the riding. I'm not entirely sure what it is about Lamoureux that appeals to such people, but then I don't understand suburbanites generally.

Monday, November 29, 2010

One of the more interesting things to come out of the latest batch from Wikileaks

It seems the US did some serious arm-twisting to avoid the prosecution of some of their agents in Germany:
The messages also reveal some of the diplomatic pitfalls of America's so-called "war on terror". In 2007, the US fell out with Germany over arrest warrants that were issued for CIA agents accused of being involved in rendition. A senior US diplomat told a German official "our intention was not to threaten Germany, but rather to urge that the German government weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US".
From the Independent. I wonder what those "implications" would have been? Perhaps new regulations such that BMW, Mercedes, and VW don't meet new safety and emission standards?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Irish bailout talks continue

The Irish government is still trying to negotiate terms for a bailout, having become overextended in bailing out the country's banks (among other things) while trying to keep taxes low (sound familiar?) The thing is, once they get a deal, they still have to get it through their minority parliament (Irish MPs are elected by multi-member single transferable vote, so majorities are virtually unknown there). And needless to say, a vote on this issue would be a vote of confidence. The government has already agreed to call an election immediately after the necessary legislation is passed, but when huge numbers of people are demanding that the government not agree to the austerity measures the EU and other backers demand in return for a €85 billion loan, one has to wonder if the government's coalition partners are going to be in the mood to co-operate. Several of them are independents, and following a by-election this past week (which was won by Sinn Fein, incidentally) the government has a majority of two seats assuming no defections.

One thing is clear - if Ireland defaults instead of accepting the bailout, things will get very interesting very fast. A lot of bondholders will lose a lot of money, of course, and unless the sky falls on the country quite a few other countries will follow their lead, compounding the situation. My money's on the sky not falling, by the way, though times will get a bit hairy for a while.

And even if Ireland doesn't default, Thomas Walkom in the Star reports that the markets aren't optimistic about two other troubled European economies:
The markets are also betting that two other euro nations, Spain and Portugal, will drop out of the common currency, default on their debts or do both.
Walkom, incidentally, thinks default is only a tiny part of the risks ensuing from this crisis:

Yet perhaps the most distressing element of the Irish crisis is the sense of déjà vu it creates.

In the ‘30s, nations faced with angry bondholders did exactly as Ireland’s government is doing now — raised taxes and cut spending in an effort to persuade financial markets of their fiscal rectitude.

Ireland is even lowering its minimum wage.

As in the 1930s, the Irish government is portraying its actions as inevitable.

As in the ‘30s, its cutbacks — by squeezing even more spending power from the economy — will only make matters worse.

And, as in the ‘30s, governments in Ireland and elsewhere will eventually find that their voters can put up with only so much.

The Great Depression boosted the fortunes of European fascism. We don’t know yet where the politics of this slump will take us.

But unless democratic governments show some imagination, the future doesn’t look pretty. Portuguese workers staged their largest one-day strike in 22 years Wednesday to protest government austerity plans. More troubles are on the horizon.

Now as hinted at above, the main beneficiary, politically, of the crisis in Ireland has been Sinn Fein. They certainly are not what most people would call fascist, though they do have a nationalist streak that bears watching. But as things degenerate in other countries, things could go very differently. Indeed, it already has in places (notably Austria and the Netherlands).

Intel on Iran has telling flaw

Every so often the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons comes up. How likely is it that they will develop such weapons soon? Hard to say, but it would be surprising if they aren't interested, given the deterrence that such an arsenal would give them against regime change from outside. What's interesting, though, is that certain folks don't seem to want the US to wait for real evidence:
The most important intelligence documents used to argue that Iran had a covert nuclear-weapons research-and-development program in 2003 - a set of technical drawings of efforts to fit what appears to be a nuclear payload into the re-entry vehicle of Iran's medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3 - turn out to have a fatal flaw: the drawings depict a re-entry vehicle that had already been abandoned by the Iranian missile program in favor of an improved model.

The re-entry vehicle or warhead shown in the schematics had the familiar "dunce cap" shape of the original North Korean Nodong missile, an Inter Press Service (IPS) investigation has confirmed. But when Iran flight-tested a new missile in mid-2004, it did not have that dunce cap warhead but a new "triconic" or "baby bottle" shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original Iranian missile.

The development of the new missile and warhead had already been under way for years by that time, according to the author of the most authoritative study of the Iranian missile program.
From Asia Times Online. Are the Americans making stuff up again, like the "yellowcake from Niger" business a few years back? Or have they been fed false information by some other party, perhaps someone who is no friend of either Iran or the US?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Has the TSA finally gone too far?

The recent intensification in US airport security has gone over extremely poorly, and with good reason. Consider what they did to this woman:

Now truth to tell, I'm not sure whether or not X-rays are actually harmful to breast milk. X-rays are a form of ionizing radiation, and not good for living tissue, but I'm not sure how much effect they'd actually have on the milk. Still, I can't blame anyone for preferring to be safe than sorry, especially if it says in the rules that breast milk doesn't have to go through the X-ray. And for trying to point out what the rules actually say, she was put through hell. And I'm sure this is far from the only example of such harassment; if there's anything unusual about this case it might be the fact that the victim was white.

The thing is, even when the rules are followed things are crazy enough. Consider this point raised by Roger Ebert:
It appears that not a single TSA agent has declined to perform a full-body pat down of airline passengers. That includes patting down small children. They're not patted down on a routine basis, but on some occasions they can be and they are. A child under 12, sometimes way under 12, may be required to remove outer clothing and be touched on such areas as the genitals.
This is so high on the WTF scale that it beggars the imagination. All this makes me wonder, though, if there might not be a silver lining of sorts to this very dark cloud. While I'm not sure I'd go so far as the Bishop of London, England in saying that flying is a sin, it is the worst form of travel from a climate perspective, and I suspect that a lot of people will start to think hard about whether they really need to fly after being submitted to indignities like this a few times. It would be interesting to track Greyhound and Amtrak ticket sales before and after the new policies came into place. Of course, if there are signs of a major shift, the airlines will start to lobby for the TSA to be put into the train stations and bus terminals too; can't have unfair competition after all.

And what will happen to tourism? Even if the Americans eventually submit meekly to this stuff, will people whose own countries don't put them through this stuff every time they fly want to visit a place like that? I certainly have no enthusiasm for flying to the US any time soon, that's for sure.

And, predictably, a lot of people are saying that the solution to this problem is to only do it to brown people.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A tale of two jurisdictions

The vital parts of the expansion of the Red River Floodway are now complete, and none too soon given what next spring could be like. At the Floodway Authority's website there's a very interesting animation posted of how a "700 year" flood might play out in Winnipeg. Now two things stand out about this animation:
  1. If it is accurate, the improvements to the floodway are pretty darned impressive in terms of controlling overland flooding.
  2. The animation with the improvements to the floodway omits any simulation of the effects on sewers.
I checked with someone in the know about this, and was told that for sewer backup, the floodway is of some use but not a whole lot; to deal with this problem you have to improve the sewers. A good start would be to replace combined sewers with separate storm and waste sewers... but that would require the city to actually invest in the future. The city's own website has some info on sewers, complete with a map at the bottom of the page showing where each type of sewage system is used. Ominously, pretty much the whole of the "old" (pre-Unicity) Winnipeg, as well as sizeable chunks of the suburbs, have combined sewers. Hopefully this will be remedied before a 700 year flood strikes; just in case, though, it wouldn't be a bad idea to pick up a back-up valve...

And if a big flood does strike, I do hope voters know who to be angry with when their basements flood... and to whom to be grateful for the fact that relatively little overland flooding occurs.

Montreal introducing car tax based on number of cylinders

Good idea I think:

Resident Montreal motorists can expect to be hit next year with a vehicle tax based on the number of cylinders they have under the hood, and that charge will be capped at an “average maximum” of $50 annually, according to documents tabled at Montreal city hall this week.

From the Gazette. Predictably, a some people are up in arms about this, but one of their objections is interesting:

“It is inequitable and unfair that in 2011 a special $50 tax on (vehicle) registrations be imposed only on residents of the island of Montreal,” Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel said in a communiqué, noting that such a tax ought to be applied to all motorists in the Montreal Metropolitan Community, an affiliation of 82 Montreal-area municipalities extending from Mirabel in the north to Richelieu in the south and including the cities of Longueuil and Laval.

Setting aside the rather obvious point that Montreal doesn't have jurisdiction outside the island, it could be argued too that people on the island have less actual need for cars. The city has excellent public transit, and is reasonably friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

One quibble, though; it would probably make more sense to base the tax on displacement, rather than cylinders per se. If the tax goes through as described above, a GM pickup truck with a 2.9 litre Vortec four will be cheaper to register than a VW with a 2.5 litre five, which seems rather at odds with the intent of the law.

"Dirty electricity" studies fail to stand up to serious scrutiny

Perhaps you've heard about the so-called "dirty electricity" that's supposedly used by compact fluorescent lamps, among other things, that will make your willy fall off or your body to break out in tumours or something like that. When I heard that story I was immediately suspicious, perhaps because I was reminded on an unconscious level of Andrew Wakefield's allegations about vaccines causing autism. Well, it seems my suspicions were justified:
In an ongoing attempt to keep Canadian politicians informed about the true state of scientific evidence surrounding microwave radiation for communications, the kind used in cell phones and wireless networks, the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry (CFI), Canada submitted a brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health (HESA) last Monday, November 8th. This year, HESA has been investigating the possible effects of low-level microwave radiation on public health and has deposed many different speakers. The transcripts to two of the interesting depositions can be found here and here, the latter having been conducted just a few weeks ago on October 28th.

Last week, we published a critique by CFI science advisor Lorne Trottier and electronics engineer Harvey Kovsky of the most recent “scientific” study by Magda Havas, promoter of the idea of “dirty electricity” and electro-hypersensitivity syndrome. This week, on the heels of the reportage by the CBC and an article this Saturday in the Montreal Gazzette, we present another critique, this time of an article that appeared originally in a Canadian National Research Council publication the Environmental Reviews. In this review, B. Blake Levitt, a science journalist who has published 2 books on EHS and the supposed dangers of EMF, and Henry Lai, an original author of the now debunked Bioinitiative Report, present a re-hashing of old science and try to make their case that there is such a thing as EHS and that we should be worried about low-level microwave radiation, an idea that has been refuted by Health Canada and several other agencies.

It is suspected , because Lai, Levitt, and Havas have not had much success in promoting these ideas and have been denied legislative change in the United States, that any adoption of changes to the laws in Canada would strengthen their case in other, larger, jurisdictions. CASS is determined to not let this happen in Canada, and copies of the Havas and Levitt and Lai critiques have been sent to HESA in an effort to counter the fallacious claims being made by these purveyors of bad science.

From Skeptic North (h/t Startled Disbelief). I find it fascinating how these things seem to take hold of societies. A conspiracy theorist would suggest that the promotion of this idea is a plot by the coal industry to keep CFL sales down, but I don't think it's anything that complex (and how would you explain the similar phenomenon with Wakefields' claims about vaccines?) I suspect it's the same sort of thing that makes other urban legends thrive; a tendency to want to believe that the experts are wrong. (Of course, sometimes the experts are wrong, but that's another story). The thing is, unlike most urban legends (or even this guy's strange claim to have developed a reactionless drive), these stories have the potential to do real harm. Indeed, Wakefield's nonsense has been blamed for a dramatic drop in vaccination against polio, and according to some may have undermined efforts to eradicate that disease. And scaring people away from CFLs is potentially worse, given how much we're going to have to reduce our energy consumption in the future.

That said, there is one well-established problem with CFLs, and that's the fact that they contain a small amount of mercury. This is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but just to put things in perspective, coal also contains mercury. In fact, even assuming the worst case scenario where the CFL is tossed in the garbage (no, please don't do this), the CFL is still the lesser evil, if coal is a significant part of the power grid:

That said, from a purely selfish point of view, you might prefer the incandescent bulbs, because if you break a CFL it's you who gets exposed to the mercury.

More international shame for Canada, courtesy of you-know-who

When you have a dirty but lucrative product, it's apparently not enough to fail to sufficiently regulate it; you have to lobby other countries to stop them from using cleaner alternatives:

Three major departments in the federal government have been actively co-ordinating a communications strategy with Alberta and its fossil-fuel industry to fight international global-warming policies that “target” oilsands production, newly released federal documents reveal.

The documents, obtained by Postmedia News, suggest that Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, have collaborated on an “advocacy strategy” in the U.S. to promote the oilsands and discourage environmental-protection policies.

From the Montreal Gazette. Anyone still think Harper's government has any legitimacy?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Researchers capture sample of antimatter

Not much, but it's a start:

A team of scientists, including University of Calgary researchers, has captured antimatter for the first time.

The feat, which trapped 38 atoms for 1/10th of a second, is being touted as a major milestone that will test the foundations of physics, said one of the U of C scientists involved with the international project.

"We're definitely not stopping here," said Rob Thompson, the U of C's head of physics and astronomy.

"This is a huge milestone to actually achieve doing this, but it's just the first step into this massive new area we're moving into in terms of possible experiments."

The discovery was made at the world's largest particle physics lab located at CERN -- the European Organization for Nuclear Research -- in Geneva, Switzerland.

Two teams, including a Harvard-led group and a collaboration called ALPHA, which includes the Canadian researchers, are conducting experiments to understand antimatter.

Antimatter has long been regarded as mysterious -- sometimes looked at as the "evil twin" of matter since the two annihilate upon contact, leaving behind pure energy.

It's also a staple of science fiction, used, for example, to fuel Star Trek's starship Enterprise through the galaxy.

From the Calgary Herald. In fact the Star Trek reference might not be out of line; Charles Pellegrino and Jim Powell have been suggesting for years that this might be the key to interstellar travel. They even have a design -- the Valkyrie rocket -- which should theoretically be capable of reaching 92% of the speed of light (enough for relativistic time dilation to be significant). Incidentally, the starships in Avatar are based on this design (Pellegrino was a consultant for that film).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gordon Campbell has a parting gift for BC

He's cancelling the income tax cuts:

Premier Gordon Campbell backed away Wednesday from the major tax cut he announced on prime-time television last month, saying it would place too many restraints on his successor as premier.

“I felt it was important, when I decided to step aside as leader, that there be an unfettered opportunity for the new potential leaders to move ahead and make their own decisions about what they wanted to do,” Campbell said.

“I didn’t think it was right for me to lock in — or for this executive council to lock in — the new leader and the potential next executive council in making that decision.”

The planned tax cut had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2011 and would have meant a 15-per-cent reduction in personal income tax rates for the first $72,000 of an individual’s income.

From the Vancouver Sun. Now for what it's worth, I actually agree with this decision; the last thing the province needs now is to lose revenue that's desperately needed for social programs and the like. However, this isn't likely to do his party any good... not that I'm complaining of course.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Free market won't deliver alternatives before oil runs out: study

A study by American researchers has concluded that oil will run out long before alternatives are ready:

The world will run out of oil around 100 years before replacement energy sources are available, if oil use and development of new fuels continue at the current pace, a US study warns.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) used the current share prices of oil companies and alternative energy companies to predict when replacement fuels will be ready to fill the gap left when oil runs dry.

And the study’s findings weren’t very good for the oil-hungry world.

If the world’s oil reserves were the 1.332 trillion barrels estimated in 2008 and oil consumption stood at 85.22 million barrels a day and growing year-y at 1.3 percent, oil would be depleted by 2041, says the study published online last week by Environmental Science and Technology.

But by plugging current stock market prices into a complex equation, UC-Davis engineering professor Debbie Niemeier and postdoctoral researcher Nataliya Malyshkina calculated that a viable alternative fuel to oil will not be available before the middle of next century.

From the Montreal Gazette. This is unsettling, but when you look at the details it turns out it may not be as bleak as it appears:

On the oil supply side, consumption could well decrease in future as more energy-saving measures are introduced and used by consumers, and new oil reserves could become available as extraction techniques improve.

On the alternative fuel side of the equation, the study did not look at nonprofits, government agencies and universities which are developing new fuels, because they are not quoted on the stock market.

And if governments announced new policy initiatives to promote alternative fuel development, share prices of alternative energy companies would rise, and the gap between the end of oil and the kick-in of alternative fuels would shrink.

So the Gazette's headline is more than a little misleading, but we shouldn't be surprised that they didn't use the title I did; it would be unseemly for a capitalist paper to be too obvious about the shortcomings of capitalism. That said, whether governments and nonprofits will step up to the plate is very much an open question. But there's no reason why it can't be done with sensible government policy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Man on trial for son's massacre

A year and a half ago, a teenager in Germany took his father's handgun to school and killed 15 people before turning the gun on himself. So since he's dead, they're putting his father on trial for manslaughter:
Jörg K., a businessman, has been a gun fanatic and amateur marksman since his boyhood. He passed on his passion to his son, an adolescent he apparently didn't know well enough. As it turned out, Tim K. developed a hatred for the world and, using the weapon his father had hidden under his sweaters in a bedroom closet as protection against burglars, became a murderer. On March 11, 2009, the 17-year-old shot and killed 12 children and teachers at the Albertville secondary school in Winnenden, a small town located about 20 kilometers north of Stuttgart in southern Germany. He killed three more people and injured 13, some severely, while fleeing from the police. In the end the boy shot and killed himself.
From Der Spiegel. Now to be fair, he's also on trial for violation of Germany's gun control laws (the article doesn't make it entirely clear, but it sounds like careless storage of a firearm). Is that sufficient grounds to convict someone of manslaughter? Maybe, maybe not. But part of what bothers me is this:

The Kleischs could hardly imagine that K. didn't suffer in these moments. But the disturbing thing about it all is that he didn't seem to be suffering. Doris Kleisch says that she would have liked to shake him and "see if he felt anything at all."

A video that was shown in the courtroom shows how police in riot gear surrounded Jörg K.'s house on the day of the rampage. It looks like a scene from a war zone. Then K. appears in the video as he walks into the house with the officers, checks for the Beretta in a bedroom closet, just as he does every night before going to bed. "The weapon is gone," he says in a businesslike tone. Then he looks in the bedside table and says: "The ammunition is gone too."

"How did Mr. K. seem to you?" the chief judge asked the police officer who was at the scene. "Surprisingly calm," the policeman replied. "If it had been my house, I would have been more upset."

Now maybe he really doesn't care, but it seems more likely to me that he's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (after all, wouldn't you, if your kid did that?) And the families seem to be judging him as guilty based on what they see as failure to display sufficient emotion (if I recall correctly, that was believed by many to be a factor in the wrongful conviction of Lindy Chamberlain back in the 1980s).

But the biggest thing that bothers me about this is that the families, and the prosecution, seem to want to get their pound of flesh one way or another, and since the actual perpetrator is dead they have to pillory someone else. Is that their idea of justice?

Friday, November 12, 2010

NDP makes gains amid ‘startling’ Tory-Liberal deadlock


Released Thursday morning, the survey shows Stephen Harper’s team and Michael Ignatieff’s statistically tied. The Conservatives have the support of 29.4 per cent of Canadians compared to 28.6 per cent for the Liberals. Jack Layton’s NDP, however, is at 19.3 per cent – the highest level the party has been at in two years.

Notably, New Democrats are leading among youth and Atlantic Canadians – usually the bastion of the Liberals. And Mr. Graves found that if the vote was restricted to women, the NDP would be tied with the Conservatives, who have tremendous support from older men in Alberta.

The Greens and Bloc, meanwhile, are at 10.7 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively.

From the Globe. So both the NDP and the Greens are at near-record levels, while the Cons and Libs are both below 30%. I'd be interested to see some seat projections based on this (though it may turn out to be yet another case of "parked" votes that don't mean much).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

China lowers US credit rating

This is interesting:

The dispute between Washington and Beijing about monetary policies and trade imbalances has spilled over into the more arcane world of debt ratings.

Citing concerns about Washington’s capacity to repay debt and the potential impact of another round of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, an unheralded Chinese bond rating agency has slashed its sovereign credit rating on U.S. government debt to the equivalent of single-A-plus from double-A, with a negative outlook.

The rebuke is mainly symbolic; the rating cut by Dagong Global Credit Rating Co. Ltd. will not have any impact on the market. But it is another sign of growing world anger over the U.S. decision to further loosen monetary policy and could be another indication the Chinese are becoming disenchanted with U.S. Treasury bonds.

Major mainstream rating agencies, such as Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, still give Washington their top, triple-A rating, despite also expressing concerns about soaring debt levels and record deficits.

From CTV. I have to wonder why Dagong's assessment of American debt differs so much from the other agencies. I can't help but wonder, though, if Moody's and Standard and Poor's don't have a bit of a conflict of interest here; if the US dollar collapses those companies, which are US-based, have a lot more to lose. On the other hand, China would have a lot to lose if the dollar collapses too, so it's hard to say.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

British troops may face war crimes trials

Maybe there's a smidgen of justice out there somewhere:

A number of British military interrogators may face war crimes charges after members of their unit filmed themselves while threatening and abusing Iraqi detainees at a secret prison near Basra, the high court heard today.

The men have been referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions (DSP) after an investigation considered whether they had breached the International Criminal Court Act, which prohibits war crimes.

From the Guardian.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bush planned attacks on Iran and Syria

Not a big surprise, but he's quite open about this in his memoirs:

Bush, in the 497-page Decision Points, a copy of which was obtained by the Guardian in advance of its publication in the US tomorrow, writes: "I directed the Pentagon to study what would be necessary for a strike."

He adds: "This would be to stop the bomb clock, at least temporarily." Such an attack would almost certainly have produced a conflagration in the Middle East that could have seen Iran retaliating by blocking oil supplies and unleashing militias and sympathisers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Bush also discussed with his national security team either an air strike or a covert special forces raid on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility at the request of Israel.

From the Guardian. I wonder how that would have played out? Probably not well...

Friday, November 5, 2010

NAFTA claims against Canada surge

The North American Free Trade Agreement has had its critics from the get-go (myself included). Here's an example of why:

Foreign investors are increasingly targeting Canada for alleged breaches of the North American free-trade pact and it's costing the federal government millions of dollars in damages and legal fees, according to a new study.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found as of October, 43% of 66 claims under NAFTA's investment chapter were made by foreign investors against Canada.

"The trend over the last five years is alarming. More than half the claims (54%) against Canada since NAFTA came into force over 15 years ago were initiated during this time period," said CCPA senior researcher Scott Sinclair said.

"This trend reflects a growing awareness among foreign investors and corporate trade lawyers of NAFTA investment rights, and an increasing willingness to invoke them to contest public policy measures," he said.

From the Brantford Expositor (my bold). And what kind of public policy measures might those be? Here are a few examples:

April 14, 1997 Challenged Canadian ban on import and inter-provincial trade of gasoline additive MMT.

July 22, 1998 Challenged temporary Canadian ban (Nov. 1995 -Feb. 1997) on export of toxic PCB wastes.

Dec. 24, 1998 Challenged lumber export quota system.

Apr. 23, 2009 Newfoundland provincial government enacted legislation to return water use and timber rights to the crown.

Most of us have heard of this sort of thing before, but it's still disturbing, especially given the escalation in the number of claims of late.

Did Ford's campaign use dirty tricks to keep John Tory out of the race?

You may recall that John Tory was originally considered a front runner for the Toronto mayoral race, until he declared that he wasn't going to run and thus handed the race to Rob Ford. So it's rather interesting to see a report that one of Ford's top campaign staff went to great lengths to keep Tory from running:

The Rob Ford campaign had one of its members anonymously call John Tory’s radio show and bait him about his integrity in a strategy to keep Tory out of Toronto’s mayoral race.

Nick Kouvalis, Ford’s deputy campaign manager and now the mayor-elect’s chief of staff, told a forum Friday that his success in keeping Tory out of the race was a “huge victory” and “Rob won because of it.”

And now that Ford is elected, he added, the transition team is talking to Tory, the Newstalk 1010 host and chair of the Toronto Summit City Alliance, about playing a possible role in the Ford administration.

Kouvalis disclosed the election tactics less than a week after admitting the Ford campaign set up a fake Twitter account for “queensquaykaren” (aka Karen Philby) — a supposed Smitherman supporter, complete with photo and profile — to covertly obtain a recording of a potentially damaging phone conversation between Ford and an OxyContin drug user.

From the Star (h/t pogge). And are Ford's people trying to deny this? No, just denying that there's anything wrong with doing that:
Kouvalis denied the anonymous call and fake Twitter account were “dirty tricks,” portraying them as a normal part of campaigns done by all sides.
Hmm. Deception is a normal part of campaigning? I guess...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ontario Liberals shoot down inquiry into G20

Andrea Horwath recently introduced a private members' bill at Queen's Park to bring about an independent inquiry into what went down at the G20 summit in Toronto earlier this year. Sadly, this bill was voted down handily by both Tories and Liberals. The Liberals' stated reason for opposing an inquiry was that the mess was the feds' fault (why that means the province shouldn't hold an inquiry is unclear to me) while the Tories say it's important to wait until the ongoing whitewash- er, inquiry- completes its work, while disputing (not unreasonably) the Liberals' contention that they had no role in it.

Myself, the biggest question in my mind is why the McGuinty government went along so slavishly with the whole G20 affair in the first place. It would have been very interesting to have the perspective of a fly on the wall of the room where the two levels of government met to plan the operation...

The Harper government suffers a significant blow

They've lost one of their few competent ministers:

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is resigning from politics for a job at CIBC.

Mr. Prentice announced in the House Thursday afternoon that he is resigning his cabinet post immediately and will leave as an MP by the end of the year. He has accepted a position as vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

From the Globe. This is probably a sign of bad things to come for the Cons (and hence good news for Canada); the talent pool in Harper-land is awfully small. Between idiots like Stockwell Day and Rona Ambrose, and scumbags like John Baird and Vic Toews, they don't have a whole lot left. Furthermore, Prentice was one of the most moderate members of the cabinet, thus reducing the party's appeal to Lib-Con swing voters.

It's a safe bet that we haven't seen the last of Jim Prentice, though. Most likely he'll lay low until Harper crashes and burns (probably within a few years) and then come back as the party's saviour. It might even work.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vandal appointed to EPC

This is a surprise:

One of Sam Katz's toughest critics on city council has joined the mayor's inner circle as part of an executive policy committee that has three new faces.

St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal, an NDP-affiliated councillor who ran against Katz in the race for mayor in 2004, was appointed to EPC on Tuesday evening, as Winnipeg's mayor followed through on an election-night promise to heal wounds between the political left and right in Winnipeg.

Shortly before the inaugural meeting of Winnipeg's 13th city council, Katz appointed 13-year councillor Vandal, sophomore North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty and rookie Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck to EPC, which approves most civic legislation before it goes to council.
From the Free Press. This is a good thing I suppose, though I wonder how Vandal will fare (remember what happened to Russ Wyatt).

Federal government rejects Potash Corp. takeover

This is good news:

The federal government has rejected BHP Billiton's $40 billion hostile takeover of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

Industry Minister Tony Clement said Wednesday Canada wants to attract investment and business, but "some decisions can only be made once … and there's no turning back, ever."

From the Globe. Of course, this is purely to protect Conservative votes in Saskatchewan and neighbouring provinces; if they'd acted on their free market principles they'd have allowed it to go through. Nonetheless, I'd much rather they did the right thing for the wrong reasons than the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Meanwhile, others are interested in stepping up to the plate:

The CEO of a Toronto-based merchant bank has been travelling the globe in recent weeks on behalf of a group of Saskatchewan First Nations, securing an estimated $25 billion in preparation for a bid to rival the hostile takeover attempt of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. by BHP Billiton Ltd.

"We feel the First Nations have a great concept. The idea they have is brilliant. We are looking at capital all over the world," Forbes & Manhattan CEO Stan Bharti said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Miami, where he is meeting with a group of Brazilian investors.

The Indigenous Potash Group, a collection of Saskatchewan First Nations, is preparing a rival bid, said group CEO Ken Thomas. It enlisted Forbes & Manhattan and Toronto-based GMP Securities to find investors and raise the money, Thomas said.

From the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. This sounds like it could be a very good thing for all concerned.

Gordo's gone!

Gordon Campbell has resigned as premier of BC:

B.C.'s embattled Premier Gordon Campbell announced he was stepping down on Wednesday in Vancouver and said he has asked the B.C. Liberal party to call a leadership convention as quickly as possible “to return public attention to what is important in British Columbia."

“It was always worth the effort,” said Mr. Campbell, who has led the party since 1993 and has served as premier for almost a decade.

Good riddance. Hopefully this won't be enough to save his party from defeat in the next election...

More notes on the US midterms

As expected, the Republicans have gained control of the House, but not the Senate. Happily Dennis Kucinich, the House's token social democrat, has retained his seat in Ohio, and as noted last night it's also good to see the defeat of Christine O'Donnell and Ilario Pantano, not to mention Sharron Angle who failed to unseat the Democrats' Senate leader in Nevada.

In California, Proposition 19, the bold referendum question on legalizing marijuana, was defeated yesterday, which is a disappointment, but my disappointment by that vote is outweighed by my relief at the defeat of Proposition 23, which would have rolled back the state's measures to control greenhouse gas emissions.

What does all this mean? For the most part, it means of two years of sound and fury signifying nothing. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will be able to pass legislation without the other party's co-operation, and co-operation is one thing that will be in very short supply in this Congress.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Even North Carolina voters have their limits

Ilario Pantano, the Tea Party endorsed candidate for North Carolina's 7th Congressional district, has conceded defeat. Perhaps his mysterious acquittal on war crimes charges failed to convince voters. Christine O'Donnell, star of this entry, has been defeated in Delaware as well.

On the other hand, it looks like Rand Paul has been elected, along with some other pretty far-out individuals. It doesn't look like they'll gain control of the Senate, though.

Harper's free market principles may have their limits

BHP's bid for Potash Corporation has put our "fearless" leader in a bit of a bind:

Weighty political opposition to the Potash Corp. takeover from Stephen Harper's hometown of Calgary is complicating the task of reviewing BHP Billiton's bid, Conservative insiders say.

As one senior Tory tells The Globe, this Alberta-based backlash to the BHP deal has ended up broadening the political calculations for Ottawa beyond Saskatchewan.

Richard Haskayne, a veteran of Canadian boardrooms who's helmed several of this country's biggest companies, is one Calgary businessman who's been pressing Tory MPs and cabinet ministers to reject the takeover.

“My neighbour, two doors down, is Jim Prentice and he knows where I stand,” said Mr. Haskayne, after whom the University of Calgary's business school is named.

The Harper government has set itself a deadline of November 3 to rule on the acquisition. It must decide whether the deal is what foreign-takeover legislation calls a “net benefit” to Canada.

From the Globe. Now for what it's worth, I agree with those who say the government should intervene; however this must create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for Harper...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Big Oil prepared to sue to stop offshore wind farms

They claim a few turbines would be disruptive to their operations:
The warning over legal action came from trade body Oil and Gas UK. The government is currently consulting on national policy statements, which set out how the UK's ambitious renewable energy targets will be met, with offshore wind turbines a key factor. In its submission, Oil and Gas UK said the policy statements did not take account of the way offshore wind farms could impede mobile drilling rigs, disrupt helicopter flights and get in the way of pipelines and underwater equipment.
From the Guardian. What do you think their real reason is?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Columnist calls for the assassination of Julian Assange

Naturally, American right wingers like Jonah Goldberg really dislike Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and would like something done about this. But what Goldberg says in this National Review article (h/t Ezra at Popehat) is quite disturbing:

So again, I ask: Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?

It’s a serious question.

Yeah. What the heck is the CIA for, if not for rubbing out people who embarrass the US?

The new Fatal Shore?

With all the obsession with crime these days, it's hard to even get a word in edgewise about such things as prevention. Just look at what happened in Wednesday's municipal election -- I'm pretty sure that a big part of the outcome was a rejection of anything other than a purely punitive approach to the problem. The thing is, it can't go on forever like this. It costs a heck of a lot to keep people in jail, and doesn't really solve the crime problem anyway -- yet ask the average person on the street how to approach the problem, and they'll likely tell you to get tough, hang 'em high, etc. How will this play out in the long run?

One possibility, of course, is that the general public will come sufficiently to their senses that it will be politically possible to put more focus on rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the likes of Sun Media make it awfully hard to have an intelligent conversation with the average person on this issue, so the "get tough" approach is likely to continue for the forseeable future. But how will society deal with the escalating costs of keeping people incarcerated (not to mention the recidivism rate if convicts' issues aren't properly dealt with while they're on the inside, with is the case now and will only get worse as they incarcerate more and more people). The British found a "solution" to the problem in the late 1700s by setting up penal colonies (most famously Australia, but for a time Bermuda and the American colonies were used for this purpose as well). Of course, that's not so easy to do now that there are no more new frontiers.

Or are there? Recently I came across this story about plans for setting up a Mars colony. What leaps out is this:
Worden's comments prompted speculation that trips to Mars could be only 20 years away. Commentators talked about the difficulties of such a trip because of the cost, estimated at $10 billion US one-way, and the likelihood that the explorers would not be able to ever return to Earth.
My emphasis. It would be tough to get people to volunteer for such a mission, but I bet some will suggest sending criminals. You'd still need a few volunteers to run the place, but the general labourers would be virtually free. This idea is explored in D. G. Compton's 1971 novel Farewell, Earth's Bliss, and I don't doubt that it will be proposed in all seriousness in the years to come. It's not my idea of a good solution to the crime problem, but in one way it would be an improvement on previous penal colonies -- at least in this case it wouldn't involve the displacement and destruction of indigenous peoples, since there are none on Mars.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A sobering look at the public mind

The success of politicians like Rob Ford is bewildering to a lot of people, who tend to expect that a guy who is so obviously a xenophobic, narrow-minded jerk will be repellent to most people. One response seen in a focus group that Smitherman's team put together is revealing:
During one Marzolini focus group, a middle-aged woman explained that she would overlook personality failings in a mayor – as long as he didn’t waste her taxes.

“It was the most powerful thing I’d ever seen,” recalls campaign manager Bruce Davis. “People knew [Mr. Ford] had these character flaws. They knew all that …”

And, by all appearances, they didn’t care.

From the Globe. For lefties like me, this is disturbing; it paints a picture of narrow-minded suburbanites who don't care how bad a politician is to other people, as long as he or she is good to them. Perhaps this also explains some poll results discussed in another Globe story:
A new EKOS Research survey, released Thursday morning, shows voters “are underwhelmed with Canada’s actions on the world stage.” Asked whether they disapproved or approved of the Harper government’s foreign policies, 37 per cent said they disapproved compared to 21 per cent who approve and 35 per cent who don’t care either way.

“The data seems to suggest that the Tories don't have huge problems on foreign policy,” Mr. Graves told The Globe. “Wins like Haiti and losses like UN net out as mild negative.”
And by "mild negative" what they really mean is "it's not going to make the slightest bit of difference how most people vote". After all, Harper's supporters, like Ford's, care more about how much they pay in taxes than whether the government is bombing children and embarrassing us on the world stage.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


So some of my predictions didn't turn out so well. In retrospect, some of it was predictable (Rod Giesbrecht's role as a spoiler in Elmwood-East Kildonan, for instance). The overall makeup of council hasn't really changed much (in effect, the left lost Elmwood-EK but gained Mynarski). And of course Katz was reelected. And the turnout was high in spite of bad weather, which usually indicates an appetite for change, but here it didn't. So what happened?

I'm not sure, but I suspect that those awful shootings in the North End played a role. Yes, they happened under Katz's watch, but that doesn't matter; the right has been extremely effective in branding themselves as the ones who can solve the problem. They've been so effective in this branding effort that people ignore the evidence when they're sufficiently scared. (For similar reasons, deficits seem to help the right, even when they happen under right wing governments). The high turnout is probably partly explicable by people coming out in hope of voting for Judy, but part of it is people from the suburbs coming out to vote out of fear of Judy. Presumably they think that there'd be a veritable explosion of crime if she occupied the Mayor's office. Whatever...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Some guesses for the municipal election

Bartley Kives, in this Free Press article, makes some predictions about how things will play out tomorrow (about halfway down, though the whole article is worth reading). In some cases I have opinions on the matter myself.

Charleswood-Tuxedo: With seven candidates and no incumbent, this would seem to be about as wide open as it gets. Kives considers Havixbeck and Hannah to be the top contenders. My money would be on Havixbeck, since the Tory machine will be working for her, and when you have that many candidates it is a advantageous to have a lot of volunteers to pull the vote.

Mynarski: Again, we have a freshly vacated ward with a large field of candidates. Here, though, turnout is traditionally low, and thus having a lot of volunteers is even more critical. And the NDP has never had a shortage of volunteers. For this reason, I'm calling this one for Eadie.

Elmwood-East Kildonan: Kives calls it a three way race. I'm inclined to narrow it down to Robinson or Giesbrecht; Steen might have a better chance if he didn't open his mouth. In theory, Robinson should have this in the bag, but Giesbrecht is doing dangerously well. This could go either way.

Old Kildonan: Kives thinks Sharma has the edge; I don't know enough about that race to agree or disagree.

Daniel McIntyre: Kives goes no further than to predict that "one of the three lefties" (Smith, Bellamy, or Gilroy-Price) will win. Myself I'd give the edge to Bellamy, both due to the aforementioned organizational factor and due to the fact that Wolseley seems pretty solidly in his camp (and face it, Wolseley has a higher turnout than the West End). But Smith is not to be underestimated either.

River Heights-Fort Garry: Kives puts this as impossible to predict. To my mind it mostly turns on how annoyed people really are about those traffic circles; if Orlikow loses River Heights he's done for. But this may turn out to be a case of much ado about nothing; I do see a fair number of letters and comments defending the circles. Tough call.

St. Norbert: Kives figures a major upset would be necessary to unseat Swandel, but he considers this a possibility. He implies that this would imply a shift to the left; however, it could equally happen through a generalized shift against incumbents. In that case, his prediction -- that Swandel could only lose in a situation where the right gets severely stomped -- might be unsound. If Swandel and Orlikow are both defeated in an anti-incumbent wave, for instance, the net effect on the balance of power is zero.

St. Charles: This is another race that I know too little to challenge Kives' comments (essentially that Nordman has the edge but that Dobson has a chance).

Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry: Strangely, Kives lists this as a race where the incumbent could lose, although he thinks it unlikely. Myself, I would have no hesitation about calling it for Gerbasi.

St. James-Brooklands: Kives also lists this as one where there's an outside chance of defeating the incumbent. I call this for Fielding.

Point Douglas, St. Boniface, St. Vital, and Transcona: I can't really argue with Kives' contention that these are "virtually locks", though I don't know enough about St. Vital to say I agree with him on that one either.

OK, but what about the big one? Kives makes no prediction here, but what about me? Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I'm going to call this one for Judy. The thing is, there's a huge force of volunteers supporting the NDP-backed candidates, and most of the votes they pull will go to Judy. In addition, some of their opponents are as well. For instance, regardless of whether Harvey Smith or Keith Bellamy takes Daniel McIntyre, both of them are going to be getting a lot of people out to vote, and nearly all of those folks will vote for Judy. The situation with existing patterns of voter turnout is a bit murkier; in southern and suburban parts of the city, which tend to favour Katz, turnout tends to be higher. On the other hand, among identified supporters, this poll has concluded that Judy's supporters are more committed to actually getting to the polls than Sam's. Naturally, polls can be wrong (see Ford's margin of victory in Toronto for an example) but I think Winnipeg might finally break out of its long cycle of reelecting mayors until they retire (or die). Here's hoping...

Anti-incumbent sentiment strong in much of Ontario

Notwithstanding the fact that Hazel McCallion was reelected with a huge margin (along with her counterparts in Brampton, Oakville, Markham, Richmond Hill and Ajax) there was quite a strong shift against incumbents. Vaughan's mayor, and several veteran councillors, went down to defeat yesterday, and so did the mayors of Burlington, Hamilton, and Oshawa. Five incumbent Toronto councillors, representing the right as well as the left, were defeated. Outside of the 905, the mayors of London, Ottawa, Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay all went down as well.

Now I'd be more than happy to see this pattern repeat itself in Winnipeg tomorrow, but there's something about this that makes me a bit uneasy. The fact that this trend has victims across the political spectrum suggests that instead of voting for a clear platform (or even against one) they're voting against anyone they perceive as being too experienced. Under this mentality, once a politician gains sufficient experience to figure out how to do the job, he or she should be gotten rid of immediately. It's no coincidence that "vote out all incumbents" is a common cry from teabaggers, who would like nothing better than to insure that governments are unable to actually do anything. And consider this -- teabaggers are always going on about the need for term limits, but balk at campaign spending limits. Apparently it's better to stop someone from running at all, than to limit the amount they can spend on their campaign. And guess who that tends to favour?

So tomorrow, Winnipeggers, I'd like you to vote out Sam Katz, but don't do it simply because he's the incumbent. Do it because he sucks, and because Judy will be good.