Thursday, January 28, 2010

The glaciers and the damage done

No doubt you're aware of the reports that the glaciers on the Himalayas are not melting quite as fast as one scientist predicted. (They're still melting, mind you). Gwynne Dyer tackles the issue head-on here:

People who know science and scientists will be disappointed both by the behaviour of Phil Jones and by the glacier incident, but they will not be surprised. This sort of thing happens from time to time, because we are dealing with human beings. But it does not (as the denial brigade insists) discredit the whole enterprise in which they are engaged.

Not all the Himalayan glaciers will be gone by 2035, but a lot of the ones at lower altitudes will -- including some of the ones that keep the great rivers of Asia full in the summertime. That is important, because when they are gone, people start to starve. And we have all met people who are clever in theory but stupid in practice, like Foolish Phil.

The weight of the evidence rests overwhelmingly on the side of those who argue that climate change is real and dangerous. Some 97 per cent of scientists active in the relevant fields are convinced of it; all but a couple of the world's 200 governments have been persuaded of it; public opinion accepts it almost everywhere except in parts of the "Anglosphere." The United States, and to a lesser extent Australia, Britain and Canada, are the last bastions of denial.

Nothing too shocking here. The thing is, though, the "Anglosphere" has an inordinate amount of influence in the world. This "scandal", which is really about the details of climate change as opposed to the fundamentals, has the potential to seriously limit actions to deal with the problem:

U.S. President Barack Obama will do what he can, but his chance of getting even a very modest bill on emissions cuts through the Senate this year has just dwindled to near zero. The American public, worried about its jobs and its health care, doesn't want to hear about it -- and if it does hear, it doesn't believe.

If the United States is out of the game, then China is out, too. Without the participation of the world's two biggest polluters, jointly accounting for almost half of the human race's CO2 emissions, there's not much point in trying for another Kyoto-style deal, even a much better one. If you have any money lying around, put it on geo-engineering techniques for keeping the heat down. We're going to need them.

I have to say I'm not too keen on geo-engineering. Then again, I'm not too keen on the idea of taking drugs that interfere with cell division either, but if I had cancer I'd take them in a heartbeat. The stupid thing is, it shouldn't be necessary, but it almost certainly will be. Let's just hope that it works.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

US conservative activists accused of tampering with senator's phone

Why am I not surprised?

The four men accused of trying to tamper with Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's office phones share a common experience as young ideologues writing for conservative publications.

Federal authorities said two of the men posed as telephone workers wearing hard hats, tool belts and flourescent vests when they walked into the senator's office inside a federal building in New Orleans on Monday. The other two were accused of helping to organize the plan.

The most well-known of the suspects is James O'Keefe, a 25-year-old whose hidden-camera expose posing as a pimp with his prostitute infuriated the liberal group ACORN and made him a darling of conservatives.

O'Keefe and suspect Joseph Basel, 24, formed their own conservative publications on their college campuses. A third suspect, Stan Dai, 24, served as editor of his university's conservative paper and once directed a program aimed at getting college students interested in the intelligence field after 9/11.

And the fourth suspect, Robert Flanagan, 24, wrote for the conservative Pelican Institute and had recently criticized Landrieu for her vote on health care legislation. O'Keefe was a featured speaker at a Pelican Institute luncheon days before his arrest. Flanagan is the son of the acting U.S. Attorney for northern Louisiana.

From NPR (h/t jblaque). It will be interesting to see how deep this runs; hopefully this will be properly investigated.

MP calls for investigation of PETA as a terrorist organization

I should say up front that I'm not a big fan of PETA (even though I agree with them on some issues). But this is ridiculous:

A protest pie thrown at the federal fisheries minister should make Ottawa look into whether an animal-rights group should be labelled "terrorist," says an MP from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gerry Byrne, the Liberal MP for Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte, said the behaviour of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is threatening and intimidating and puts seal hunters at risk.

Byrne was speaking after the group known as PETA claimed responsibility for a pie attack Monday against Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in Burlington, Ont.

"There has to be a review whether or not PETA has crossed the line now by attacking a federal minister of the Crown for the purpose of public intimidation of an office-holder," Byrne told CBC News on Tuesday.

Source. Maybe Mr. Byrne needs to see what real terrorism looks like before he goes spouting off with such nonsense.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Scientologists send touch therapists to Haiti

I wish I was kidding:
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Amid the mass of aid agencies piling in to help Haiti quake victims is a batch of Church of Scientology "volunteer ministers", claiming to use the power of touch to reconnect nervous systems.

Clad in yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the controversial US-based group, smiling volunteers fan out among the injured lying under makeshift shelters in the courtyard of Port-au-Prince's General Hospital.

A wealthy private donor provided his airplane to fly in 80 volunteers from Los Angeles, along with 50 Haitian-American-doctors, in a gesture worth 400,000 dollars, said a Parisian volunteer who gave her name as Sylvie.

"We're trained as volunteer ministers, we use a process called 'assist' to follow the nervous system to reconnect the main points, to bring back communication," she said.

"When you get a sudden shock to a part of your body the energy gets stuck, so we re-establish communication within the body by touching people through their clothes, and asking people to feel the touch."

From AFP (h/t Stimpson). It would be funny if not for the tragedy of what other things could have been done with that $400,000 -- maybe things that would actually help people.

Conference on extraterrestrial life in UK

Today and tomorrow the Royal Society is hosting a conference on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The Times of London has a pretty good article. Several interesting things emerge from this. For instance:

Among the speakers will be Professor Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge University evolutionary biologist, who says there is good reason to think aliens exist — and that they may well have chemical and biological similarities to us.

Conway Morris, whose talk is entitled “Predicting what extraterrestrial life will be like — and preparing for the worst”, said: “My basic argument is that, contrary to most neo-Darwinian thinking at the moment, evolution is much more predictable than people think.

“In particular, I would argue that the emergence, by evolution, of intelligence, cognitive capacity and all that stuff is an inevitability.”

In short, under the right conditions of a “biosphere” such as that present on Earth, the molecules necessary to form complex and intelligent life are already available; Darwinian evolution will do the rest.

“I think we can argue some intelligence must emerge in a biosphere,” said Conway Morris. “If that is correct — and it applies to manipulative skill — then that suggests there should be alien technologies.” (pp. 319-320)

Interesting. I've heard this viewpoint before, but as Conway Morris himself admits, it's far from being a universal viewpoint in evolutionary biology. Indeed, some of Conway Morris' own work has been influential on many who hold to the contrary viewpoint. For instance, Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life is mostly about Conway Morris' work on the fossils from the Burgess Shale, and the way I read that book it suggests that Gould thinks quite the opposite:
... if, had Homo sapiens failed and succumbed to early extinction as most species do, another population with higher intelligence in the same form was bound to originate. Wouldn't the Neanderthals have taken up the torch if we had failed, or wouldn't some other embodiment of mentality at our level have originated without much delay? I don't see why. Our closest ancestors and cousins... possessed mental abilities of a high order, as indicated by their range of tools and artifacts. But only Homo sapiens shows direct evidence for the kind of abstract reasoning, including numerical and aesthetic modes, that we identify as distinctly human. All indications of ice-age reckoning -- the calendar sticks and counting blades -- belong to Homo sapiens. And all the ice-age art -- the cave paintings, the Venus figures, the horsehead carvings, the reindeer bas-reliefs -- was done by our species. By evidence now available, Neanderthal knew nothing of representational art.
I'm not sure I'd go quite so far as Gould, but I do think that if Pikaia, for instance, had not survived the catastrophe at the end of the Permian, it's far from clear that an advanced civilization would have arisen. There are a gazillion ways for living things to adapt to their environment that have nothing to do with intelligence. Consider something like Paramecium; its cell structure is immeasurably more sophisticated than ours. Incredible adaptation... but no good for building rocket ships or writing The Critique of Pure Reason (or even Valley of the Dolls). On the other hand, if sufficiently sophisticated brains do appear, I think there's a good chance that sooner or later memetics will take hold in a big way and hasten the development of abstract reason. However, there's no telling how long that would take.

Conway Morris goes further and suggests that we shouldn't count on any hypothetical alien civilization to be friendly, nor should we expect them to think any better of us. He's hardly alone in this; anyone who's read Pellegrino and Zebrowski's The Killing Star will recall the Three Laws of Alien Behaviour:
1. Their survival will be more important than our survival. If an alien species has to choose between them and us, they won't choose us. It is difficult to imagine a contrary case; species don't survive by being self-sacrificing.

2. Wimps don't become top dogs. No species makes it to the top by being passive. The species in charge of any given planet will be highly intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.

3. They will assume that the first two laws apply to us.
With this in mind, it is particularly chilling to note that any civilization capable of fast interstellar flight is capable of wiping out other civilizations; any relativistic spacecraft is potentially a relativistic kill vehicle (indeed, this is the whole point of The Killing Star). Given this, it seems quite reasonable to suppose that any alien civilization that detects our radio signals (or other evidence of our existence) will not necessarily want to advertise their own presence. For his part, Conway Morris suggests that we take similar cautions in the event that we do detect evidence of intelligent life.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Science project prompts San Diego school evacuation

And please note that this was not any kind of project that exposed anyone to any actual hazard, just that an ignorant fuck thought it looked hazardous:
SAN DIEGO — Students were evacuated from Millennial Tech Magnet Middle School in the Chollas View neighborhood Friday afternoon after an 11-year-old student brought a personal science project that he had been making at home to school, authorities said.

Maurice Luque, spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said the student had been making the device in his home garage. A vice principal saw the student showing it to other students at school about 11:40 a.m. Friday and was concerned that it might be harmful, and San Diego police were notified.

The school, which has about 440 students in grades 6 to 8 and emphasizes technology skills, was initially put on lockdown while authorities responded.

Luque said the project was made of an empty half-liter Gatorade bottle with some wires and other electrical components attached. There was no substance inside.
From the San Diego Union-Tribune (h/t ssdd in this sciencemadness thread); my bold. And what was it really? The fire department determined that the kid was actually trying to make a primitive motion detector. Now I can understand the vice principal having gotten a bit freaked out, but take note of what happened afterwards:

The student will not be prosecuted, but authorities were recommending that he and his parents get counseling, the spokesman said. The student violated school policies, but there was no criminal intent, Luque said.

"There will be no (criminal) charges whatsoever," Luque said.

Police and fire officials also will not seek to recover costs associated with responding to the incident, the spokesman said.

Now what in the fuck is this? He needs counselling because he happened to make something which the vice principal didn't recognize, and mistakenly thought it was dangerous? Yeah, I suppose if you're smarter than an authority figure, something has to be done about that. And this at a school which bills itself as a "tech" school?

And as an aside, the comments made by hissingnoise in the sciencemadness thread are, er, unfortunate.

An ominous sign for the future of California

There isn't enough fresh water:

Mike Chrisman looks out from his SUV as he drives through seemingly endless rows of walnut trees on his property near Visalia, in central California. "I have to be optimistic, I'm so tied to this land," he says. His great-grandfather, after trying his luck in the Gold Rush, settled in Visalia in the 1850s, and the family has been there ever since.

But as California's secretary for natural resources – a job at the intersection of the environmental and farming lobbies, perennially at loggerheads over the state's scarcest resource, water – Chrisman also knows that optimism has become a minority view.

His land is in California's Central Valley, a region that covers 19 counties and stretches for 725 kilometres from the Cascade Mountains in the north to the Tehachapis in the south, and is bounded in the east by the Sierra Nevada and the west by California's Coast Ranges.

Much of it was an inland sea in its geological past, and its alluvial soils and Mediterranean climate make parts of it, particularly the San Joaquin Valley in the south, about the most fertile agricultural region in the world.

But this status is at risk because water, the vital ingredient to make the soil productive, is increasingly scarce. Some of the reasons are natural; California has been in one of its periodic droughts since 2006, and climate change is a long-term threat to the state's mountain snowpacks.

Others are political; the pumps and aqueducts that carry water from the wetter north to the dry fields in the south are creaking with age, threatening ecosystems and endangering species.
And the absurd thing is, Californians use insane amounts of water simply making their lawns and golf courses look nice and green. They really need a reality check, though I fear their answer to the problem will be to push for something like this.

Thousands protest prorogation

It seems that the issue indeed resonates with a lot of Canadians:

In a display that was anything but apathetic, thousands of Canadians of varying political stripes clogged city streets across Canada demanding Prime Minister Stephen Harper reopen Parliament and get back to work.

Hordes of protesters crammed Toronto’s downtown square, cradling signs denouncing the Prime Minister’s decision to suspend Parliament until early March.

More than 3,000 people closed down a busy section of Yonge Street to sing, march and chant anti-Harper slogans.

Source. We didn't get that many people in Winnipeg, but it wasn't a bad turnout, as the following photos will show:





The Free Press estimates the turnout in Winnipeg at "over 300", which is more than Calgary or Edmonton got (surprise surprise). But even those cities got significant rallies apparently; perhaps it was unfair of me to offhandedly comment that the Calgary organizers could consider it a success if they got more people out than those in Brandon. And lest we Winnipeggers get too smug, Waterloo and London got over 500 each.

In any case, one wonders if Harper's worried yet. He ought to be...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kenney not keen on the democratic process

His attitude should come as no surprise, though his candour might:

OTTAWA–Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says it's a lot easier for the government to operate without Parliament in session.

"As a minister, I often get more done when the House is not in session," he said as thousands of Canadians were preparing to mount protests across the country against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to suspend Parliament until March 3.

From the Toronto Star.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Health care not the only thing set back in Massachusetts vote...

... nor even the most important:

SINGAPORE/OSLO (Reuters) - Hopes for stronger world action in 2010 to curb climate change have dimmed after the U.S. Democrats lost a key Senate seat to a Republican opposed to capping emissions, experts said on Wednesday.

The election of Republican Scott Brown, an opponent of cap and trade, to the Senate after the death of Democrat Edward Kennedy dims prospects for U.S. action. Once Brown takes office, Democrats will have 59 seats in the Senate and the Republicans 41. The bill needs 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.

Backers of the existing international Kyoto Protocol, which obliges all industrialized nations except the United States to cut emissions until 2012, will be more reluctant to take on tougher new goals for 2020 unless Washington also joins in.

U.N. climate talks in Mexico in November are meant to build on a weak "Copenhagen Accord" worked out last month by nations including the United States that sets a goal of limiting warming to no more than 2 Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times.

But the Mexico meeting will be undermined if the United States, the top emitter behind China, has not set caps on carbon emissions. That might dash hopes for a Kyoto successor from 2013 and mean a system of domestic pledges instead.

From Scientific American. Bad news any way you slice it.

UK forced to take action on phony bomb detectors

The UK government has announced a ban on the export to Iraq and Afghanistan of some so-called "bomb detectors".

It follows an investigation by the BBC's Newsnight programme which found that one type of "detector" made by a British company cannot work.

The Iraqi government has spent $85m on the ADE-651 and there are concerns that they have failed to stop bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of people.

The ban on the ADE-651 and other similar devices starts next week.
From the BBC (h/t PodBlack Cat).

Canadians' views on crime are hardening, poll finds

I guess the folks at Sun Media and City TV are proud of themselves:

A nation that has traditionally thought of itself as liberal and forgiving is adopting a hard line on crime and punishment – including the death penalty.

This hardening attitude among Canadians is revealed in a new Angus Reid public opinion survey that found 62 per cent of respondents favour capital punishment for murderers, while 31 per cent believe that rapists should be put to death.

The figure is a significant boost from the last such survey, in 2004, when 48 per cent favoured capital punishment for murderers.

The results of the survey are sure to buoy the federal government, which has closely aligned itself with tough-on-crime policies such as mandatory minimum prison terms for a wide range of offences. However, they belie statistics that show falling crime rates and studies that say harsh sentences don't prevent people from committing offences.

The survey, one of three conducted simultaneously last fall in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, reveals a shared belief that even though mandatory minimum sentences can be unfair to people convicted of minor offences, they are an indispensable tool in fighting crime.

From the Globe. And anyone who takes issue with my comment about Sun Media and City TV should note this:
University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob said that federal and police statistics show that in 2008, the volume and severity of crime fell by 5 per cent – a pattern that is consistent with previous years.
No real surprise here. Crime has been declining in most Western democracies for decades, yet at the same time media coverage of crime has skyrocketed. If you got all your news from Breakfast Television, for instance, you'd think that almost nothing happened in the world except for crimes and accidents.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wasylycia-Leis considers running for mayor

Rumours have been flying about this for a while, and now it's being reported in the press:

The race for mayor in Winnipeg just got a little busier, as federal NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis says she's thinking about running against Sam Katz this fall.

The Winnipeg North MP is mulling the prospect of returning from Ottawa to challenge Katz in the October civic election.

"A lot of people have been raising it with me and asking me to consider running. I'm certainly going to give it some thought," she said Wednesday.

An MP since 1997, Wasylycia-Leis, 58, served as a Manitoba MLA from 1986 to 1993 and held a pair of cabinet posts under Howard Pawley's provincial NDP government. But she has never held municipal office in Winnipeg and concedes she did not consider running for mayor before she was approached in late 2009.

From the Winnipeg Free Press. While I think Wasylycia-Leis would make an outstanding mayor, I don't think she should run right now. Why? For one very simple reason, conveniently pointed out in the article -- it's been over fifty years since an incumbent mayor was defeated in this city, and as sad as this sounds, Katz is popular enough that the pattern is unlikely to be broken this time round. So why would I want a good MP to step down, only to face likely defeat in a run for the mayor's office? And the fact that Lillian Thomas is already in the race seals the deal, as there would be a split in the left of centre vote.

What the left should be doing is focusing on getting more good people on council. That way, maybe Katz would get frustrated and not run again, whereupon Wasylycia-Leis or another worthy candidate could run and actually have a good chance of winning.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Not clear sailing for the economy yet...

China's being cautious, so markets are running scared:

The Canadian dollar plummeted more than a cent Wednesday and markets dove on concerns that China will curb bank lending and slow the economic recovery.

Traders were responding to a newspaper report that some Chinese banks have been ordered to stop lending for the rest of January after exceeding credit limits.

The Canadian dollar closed down 1.51 cents to 95.51 cents US. Oil ended the day off $1.40 at $77.62 US a barrel. The February gold bullion contract on the Nymex closed down $27.40 to $1,112.30 US.

The markets also ended lower, although they had recovered somewhat from their bigger losses earlier in the day.

The S&P/TSX composite index in Toronto was down 84.1 points to 11,679.3.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was off 122.28 points, or more than one per cent, at 10,603.15, and the Standard & Poor's 500 share index was down one per cent at 1,138.04.

The Nasdaq composite index ended down 29.15 at 2,291.25.

The Canadian dollar fell against the U.S. dollar, which strengthened as investors sought safety in American short-term debt. Traders also saw little cause for Canadian interest rates and the loonie to appreciate, after a report showing the annual inflation rate rose to 1.3 per cent, or less than expected, last month.

Scotiabank deputy chief economist Aron Gampel told CBC News that investors are now realizing their expectations about the rate of recovery and the growth in corporate earnings may have been overly optimistic.

"Even through the earnings growth is there, the expectations haven't been met," he said. "We've been raising the bar on expectations because the economy seems to be taking off and everyone's expecting profits to rebound quarterly, so any disappointment is having some impact on the outlook and clearly it takes some of the shine off of the markets and the currencies."

From the CBC. I still think there's a significant chance of a double dip recession, or at least a lengthy "jobless recovery".

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The lights all went out in Massachusetts...

Scott Brown has been elected to the Senate:

Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts on Tuesday in what is being called an epic upset for the Democratic Party.

Brown led by 52 per cent to 47 percent with all but 3 percent of precincts counted.

Democrat Edward Kennedy held the seat for almost 47 years before dying of brain cancer in August. Before that, his brother John held it for a decade.

Not only has Brown broken the Democrats' stranglehold, but his win also puts at risk the cause to which Ted Kennedy devoted his life.

Brown has vowed to kill the very thing Ted Kennedy lived for and President Barack Obama dearly covets — a form of universal health care.

Source. This is not good news for the Obama administration, for sure. How dramatic the effects of this are still remain to be seen, but it could get ugly. Of course, Brown won't have a long career, as kos points out:

Either Scott Brown alienates ideologically rigid Teabaggers by casting votes with Democrats in order to shore up his standing at home; or

He votes in lockstep with the rest of his party and becomes the nation's most unpopular senator.

One or the other is inevitable. Maybe both.

Which way this goes probably makes little difference to Brown's chances of getting reelected (slim), but it makes a big difference how damaging this is. If Brown votes against a filibuster, this minimalist health care package might actually be passed before the midterm elections. Unfortunately, I think the other outcome is more likely, and that the package will be delayed until fall, then die entirely when the Democrats lose their majority, as I expect they will.


According to this article, Nancy Pelosi is saying that health care reform will continue regardless of what happens tonight in Massachusetts. Not everyone agrees, though, as evidenced by this snippet from
U.S. investors returned to trading today in a much better mood than they finished off with last week. Today’s earnings slate helped to boost sentiment with no major negative surprises out of the banking sector, as Citigroup’s (C) TARP losses came in even with expectations, and First Horizon (FHN) reported an improvement in its loan loss provision. Industrial manufacturer Parker-Hannafin (PHN) posted strong earnings (62 cents vs. Street 34 cents) and guidance. The health care sector has also been rallying, led by Coventry Health (CVH) and Eli Lilly (LLY) ahead of a key Massachusetts senate by-election, which may have a major impact on pending health care legislation.
In other words, the potential failure of health care reform is good news in the eyes of those arseholes.

Iggy borrowing a page from Steve's book?

Harper is, of course, infamous for muzzling his backbenchers, lest they say what they actually believe (remember this guy?) It seems, though, that the Liberals are muzzling at least one of their potential candidates:

This morning, the Ottawa Notebook wanted to know about Mr. Rebagliati’s attendance at the two-day Liberal winter caucus meeting, which begins tomorrow. The athlete had put up a note on Twitter saying he was flying to Ottawa today to attend. He said he was returning to British Columbia on Wednesday.

“Ross’s speech will be on his experience as an Olympian, and how it relates to his choice of becoming a Liberal candidate – pride of representing his country, desire to serve needed commitment, etc.,” a senior Liberal official said. And that was it.

So we tried calling Mr. Rebagliati. We spoke to his wife, Alexandra, who also helps him out with media relations. She said the Liberals had emailed her, told her they had been in touch with The Globe and Mail, and that her husband need not add any more. She said he would not be making any comment.

From the Globe. I wonder if his views on certain issues are in conflict with Iggy's?

While Mr. Rebagliati has not spoken about his views on legalization of marijuana, Mr. Ignatieff was asked last week about it when he was on tour of university campuses in British Columbia:

“I never make comments on the personal lifestyle choices of my colleagues and friends, and I’ve never felt that marijuana use or, for example, possession of small amounts of marijuana are to be criminalized or that anybody should suffer consequences for personal recreational uses of marijuana,” he said, according to a National Post blog post.

“But then I have to say to people who then ask me if I want to legalize marijuana, and I know you don’t want to hear me say this, but I’d say no.”

Bummer, dude.

Do-or-die day for the Democrats

Who could have imagined the Democrats having trouble in Massachusetts? Well, today a by-election (or as the Americans call them, a "special election") is being held to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. And it's possible that they could actually lose:

The special election being held today to fill Mr. Kennedy's Senate seat, which is too close to call, is a stinging verdict on President Barack Obama's first year in office. If Democrat Martha Coakley loses - or barely scrapes by - Mr. Obama will bear the blame and the consequences will reverberate for the rest of his term.

The Massachusetts race also offers voters across the country a taste of what to expect this fall, when midterm elections will be held for all 435 seats in U.S. House of Representatives and more than a third of those in the 100-seat Senate. Gone from the Democratic pitch is the message of hope and empowerment that fuelled Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign. In its place are eerie attack ads and warnings of the dark days that a Republican win would bring.

From the Globe and Mail. If this happens, it could cripple Obama's administration, since the Democrats would lose their 60% majority in the Senate that they need to stop a filibuster. This would mean that the health care plan would probably collapse; all that the Republicans need is to delay it until the midterm elections. Worse, it could be damaging to efforts to minimize climate change. And in any case it could seriously damage Obama's chance of reelection in 2012. Gwynne Dyer's fear that Obama could be the next LBJ might well bear fruit. How does "President Mike Huckabee" sound to you? Maybe "President Nehemiah Scudder"?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The sort of science you don't see much these days

One of the marvels of the Internet age is the variety of public domain works that are available online. For instance, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the second oldest scientific journal in the world (and the oldest in English) has put their entire archives online. Looking at these articles, one finds some interesting things. For instance, here you can find the article from 1800 where Edward Howard describes the discovery of an interesting new chemical compound. Some of his observations probably would not have been made today:
Upon evaporating a portion of the saturated sulphuric liquor, I found nothing but sulphate of potash; nor had it any metallic taste. (p. 218/p. 16 of the PDF)


The muriatic acid digested with the mercurial powder, dissolves a portion of it, without extricating any notable quantity of gas. The dissolution evaporated to a dry salt, tastes like corrosive sublimate; and the portion which the acid does not take up, is left in the state of an uninflammable oxalate. (p. 222/20 of the PDF)
Now I don't know about you, but if I was working with mercury compounds, I sure as heck wouldn't be tasting the stuff willy-nilly. (Incidentally, "corrosive sublimate" is an archaic term for mercuric chloride, one of the nastier mercury compounds). Of course, back in those days the concept of bioaccumulation may not have been known... which may be part of the reason so many chemists died young in those days. Howard, for instance, died in 1816 at the ripe old age of 42.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The future of food production?

Hydroponic food-producing greenhouses in cities have been advocated for some time; now this idea is becoming a reality:

The light-bulb moment came for 55-year-old Jerry Fitzpatrick two years ago, while he was surrounded by marijuana.

On a tour of a friend's indoor grow operation (“He said it was just for his own use and for medicinal,” Mr. Fitzpatrick footnoted) the B.C. entrepreneur was stunned by the sight of the plants, which were thriving without any natural sunlight.

Then he began to wonder.

“I said, ‘If you can grow this stuff indoors, I wonder what else you can grow?'”

Mr. Fitzpatrick and his friend, an adept student of hydroponics science, began conducting some edible experiments which, after some time and nourishment, yielded a gold mine of an answer. “Anything that doesn't grow inside the ground, we can probably grow it. We worked with some strawberries and these strawberries turned out to be the best-tasting, juiciest strawberries I've ever eaten in my life,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

“We tried basil. It was like a weed. It was phenomenal. You couldn't keep up with it.”

Source. In some ways, this is a positive development; the obvious advantages include local food production and little or no use of pesticides. On the downside, greenhouses do require a lot of light, which means a lot of electricity. Still, in places where most electricity is produced from renewable sources, this would be a good thing. It also makes food production largely independent of climate.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Limbaugh outdoes himself

It seems there's nothing he won't stoop to:

From MediaMatters (h/t: Curtis at Endless Spin Cycle).

Prorogation hammers Conservative support in polls

About time:

Voter anger over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to have Parliament prorogued is costing the government heavily in public support.

The Conservatives, who were flirting with majority-government popularity in the fall, are suddenly tied with the Liberals, or headed in that direction, according to two polls released Wednesday.

Although there had been some softening in support before Christmas, it appears that Mr. Harper’s decision on Christmas week to suspend Parliament until March struck a nerve. A word that many had not heard of and few could spell has suddenly become the latest tactically clever move by the Conservatives that turned out to be too clever by half.

A poll released Wednesday by The Strategic Counsel shows the Conservatives with 31-per-cent support, a full 10 points down from October, when the firm last polled voters.

The Liberal Party is at 30 per cent, which essentially has them tied with the Tories, given the poll’s margin of error of 2.3 per cent. They were at 28 per cent in October. The NDP is at 18 per cent, up a healthy four points, and the Greens are holding steady at 10 per cent.

From the Globe. At this rate, the Cons could actually lose the next election. Can't happen fast enough, as far as I'm concerned. And the showing of the NDP could be impressive too... balance of power, perhaps?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Some retailers destroy unsold clothing rather than discount it

Not surprisingly, a lot of high end clothing goes unsold during an economic downturn. Well it seems that some would rather destroy it than sell it cheaply:
In the bitter cold on Monday night, a man and woman picked apart a pyramid of clear trash bags, the discards of the HM clothing store that reigns in blazing plate-glass glory on 34th Street, just east of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

At the back entrance on 35th Street, awaiting trash haulers, were bags of garments that appear to have never been worn. And to make sure that they never would be worn or sold, someone had slashed most of them with box cutters or razors, a familiar sight outside H & M’s back door. The man and woman were there to salvage what had not been destroyed.

He worked quickly, never uttering a word. A bag was opened and eyed, and if it held something of promise, was tossed at the feet of the woman. She said her name was Pepa.

Were the clothes usually cut up before they were thrown out?

“A veces,” she said in Spanish. Sometimes.

From the New York Times, via LargoWinch in this iTulip thread. Since the first article, that particular chain has announced that they won't be doing it anymore, presumably because the optics of this are really bad.

At first blush, one might think the economics of it are bad too. Why not simply sell the clothing at a discount? There is a good reason for this, of course, well summarized by Milton Kuo in the same thread:
Being that the clothes being destroyed are "brand-name," selling the goods at a deep discount cannot be allowed since that gives buyers insight into the actual cost of the good. Selling the goods at-cost or at an extreme discount to MSRP could condition customers to reject the prices typically paid.
Makes sense on a certain cynical level, though apparently in Singapore they just remove the labels before discounting them, which seems a better solution to me.

Nygard sues to block media

This guy has long been known for his litigious ways; here he's using his formidable legal arsenal to try to stop investigative journalists:

Winnipeg fashion baron Peter Nygard has turned to the courts in Winnipeg, New York and San Jose in a bid to shut down a CBC investigation of him.

To help him prove his case in Winnipeg, Nygard also wants the courts in California to force Google to reveal the identity of someone who posted an item on an anonymous blog.

Nygard is trying to block the CBC from airing a "negative and critical" story on him that he claims is based on information supplied by two former managers.

The crux of Nygard's challenge was filed last March in Court of Queen's Bench, but it now extends to courts in New York and California as the women's fashion designer and his lawyers try to tighten the noose around the CBC to stop a story from being aired on The Fifth Estate.

The case went largely unnoticed until Monday when the New York Times ran a piece on its website that Nygard had lodged a copyright-infringement complaint against the CBC, stemming from the attendance of reporter David Common and a cameraman at his Manhattan store on its opening Nov. 6. He claims they were trespassing.

In the Dec. 18 complaint, Nygard said he wants the CBC -- who he says did not have permission to be at the event -- to be ordered to return to him the video they recorded and to be prohibited from airing it ever again.

In Manitoba, Nygard's legal challenge is more complex.

He wants the courts to rule that the CBC's The Fifth Estate should be forbidden from airing a story he claims is based on confidential information supplied by two former employees in Winnipeg; ex-director of human resources Patrick Prowse and ex-recruitment and retention manager Dana Neal.

In his statement of claim, Nygard says Prowse and Neal were bound by confidentiality agreements and had no legal right to share information about their work at Nygard with local CBC researcher Timothy Sawa. Nygard also names Fifth Estate executive producer David Studer in the claim.

From the Winnipeg Free Press. One has to wonder how investigative journalists will be able to do their job, if Nygard gets his way. Evidently at least one court shares these concerns.

Edited to add: It finally aired.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ludwig released without charge

Seems they don't have enough evidence:
Anti-oilpatch activist Wiebo Ludwig says police interrogated him for 10 hours after arresting him as part of an investigation into a series of gas pipeline bombings in British Columbia.

The Alberta farmer was arrested Friday and held overnight in jail as police continued to gather evidence, but he was released early Saturday without any charges being laid.

A day after his release, Ludwig told CBC News that police tried a couple of tactics to get answers.

"They talked about having my DNA. It was about a 10-hour drilling to try to break my spirit and compare me to Nelson Mandela and all that kind of ego-tripping, you know, hoping that I would have enough ego to think, 'Yeah, I'm just like Nelson Mandela,' and cough up like he did just before he got 27 years."

Ludwig said he was indifferent when he heard that police thought he was a suspect in the bombings near Dawson Creek, B.C. He said he was more concerned with the "real criminals" in the oil and gas industry.

He denied being the B.C. pipeline bomber, but described himself to CBC News as "a leading spirit" in the fight against the industry.

"I have talked to many people at Tomslake, [B.C.], and I have encouraged that they not just lie down under it, so I have been involved in different ways. I've not placed any bombs, in case that's what's you're wondering."

From the CBC.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Western troops accused of executing 10 Afghan civilians, including children

It just doesn't end:

American-led troops were accused yesterday of dragging innocent children from their beds and shooting them during a night raid that left ten people dead.

Afghan government investigators said that eight schoolchildren were killed, all but one of them from the same family. Locals said that some victims were handcuffed before being killed.

Western military sources said that the dead were all part of an Afghan terrorist cell responsible for manufacturing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have claimed the lives of countless soldiers and civilians.

“This was a joint operation that was conducted against an IED cell that Afghan and US officials had been developing information against for some time,” said a senior Nato insider. But he admitted that “the facts about what actually went down are in dispute”.

From the Times of London (UK); h/t No A, B, C, or D. Gotta love that bit of hedging about the facts being in dispute.

Note too that while the troops are described as "American-led", it doesn't say who else was represented among the alleged butchers. Were Canadians involved? I have no idea; I hope not. But in any case does anyone still think we have any business whatsoever participating in this "mission"?

A rather curious journalistic error

At least I hope it's an error rather than a deliberate falsehood:
Dozens of Palestinian smugglers have died in collapses and strikes against the tunnels, which are used to bring everything from cigarettes and chocolate to livestock and weapons into the blockaded territory. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade to weaken Gaza's rulers, the Islamic militants of Hamas, who violently seized power in 2007.
So says an AP story on the CBC website. But as pogge points out, the bolded part is completely false. Hamas were elected in 2007. Hamas aren't great folks by any means, but the MSM should be able to find enough true negative stories about them without having to make up false ones.

More craziness from the American far right

Some time ago, a chap named Mark Fiore created this cartoon parodying the teabaggers:

Well, Bill O'Reilly took the time to attack him on his TV show. Soon after, he started receiving death threats. And on a related note, Charles Johnson, the blogger behind Little Green Footballs, also received threats after his announced break with the right, and has moved into a gated community for his own safety.

Thanks to Blaque for both stories.

Suspect in custody in EnCana bombings

You may recall that in 2008 and 2009 some over-zealous environmentalists planted bombs on EnCana pipelines in BC. Well, the RCMP now has a suspect in custody. If it's the right guy, it's someone who's no stranger to this sort of thing:

Wiebo Ludwig, an Alberta activist convicted of bombing oil and gas wells in the 1990s, has been arrested and will be charged with extortion in connection with more recent bombings at EnCana pipelines in northeastern B.C., according to his Edmonton lawyer.

"I can advise you that I've been told by the RCMP that Rev. Ludwig is in custody under arrest, and he is to be charged with one count of extortion," Paul Moreau told CBC News on Friday.

Moreau expected the charge to be laid immediately when he spoke to CBC News at midday on Friday but the RCMP have not announced that any charges have been laid.

Ludwig was arrested at a hotel in Grande Prairie, Alta., Friday morning after going there voluntarily to meet with a senior RCMP officer, Moreau said.

Source. I expect that if he's convicted of this he'll be going away for a lot longer than the 28 month sentence he received for his previous activities. Despite that, I also expect that he won't be the last; people are getting angrier and angrier, and when no legitimate forms of redress appear to be available, some people will seek other means.

Update: the latest version of the article says he's not being charged yet:

No charges have been laid against Wiebo Ludwig, an Alberta activist convicted of bombing oil and gas wells in the 1990s who was arrested Friday in connection with recent bombings at EnCana pipelines in northeastern B.C.

"That's going to be a wait-and-see situation," said Sgt. Tim Shields, media relations for the RCMP in B.C. "Charges have not been approved by Crown counsel in British Columbia and ultimately, they are the ones who have to make that decision as to whether or not charges are going to be approved."

RCMP have not named the man they arrested early Friday in connection with the bombings.

All they said is that they arrested a man in his 50s or 60s and were conducting a large search of an Alberta farm near Hythe, Alta., about 400 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, near the B.C.-Alberta border.

Earlier in the day, Ludwig's lawyer, Paul Moreau, confirmed his client was in custody and said he expected Ludwig would be charged with extortion.

Curiouser and curiouser. In this EnMasse thread Legless_Marine points out something interesting:
Wiebo couldn't light a fart on fire without the RCMP knowing.

My guess is that the actual bomber reached out the Wiebo, and Weibo refused to share the information with the RCMP. Now they're going to turn his life upside down in order to make him more cooperative.
Makes a lot of sense, actually; perhaps there isn't sufficient evidence that Ludwig was actually involved. He may well have had nothing to do with these bombings, but the police would nevertheless like to talk to him, I'm sure, and they probably have him in mind as a convenient scapegoat if they can't find anyone else to blame...

The world is watching, Canada...

... and increasingly often, they don't like what they see. Most recently, the Economist has an article on Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament. Nothing really new here, but it shows how the Harper government appears to international observers.

Happily, Canadians don't seem too happy with the latest Conservative shenanigans either:
Canadians following Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament were nearly twice as likely to oppose the move as favour it, an EKOS poll suggests.

The poll, released exclusively to CBC News on Thursday, found the majority of Canadians surveyed — 67 per cent — are at least somewhat aware of Harper's decision to prorogue, or shut down, Parliament until March.

Of those who were aware of the decision, 58 per cent opposed the move, the poll found. By comparison, 31 per cent of those polled supported the move. Opposition to the decision was highest among Liberal and NDP supporters and those with a university education.

"The initial evidence is that Canadians are indeed paying attention to the issue of prorogation, and they don't like it," said EKOS President Frank Graves.

Source. At this rate, the Cons could find themselves out of office sooner than they might think.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

'Explosive' at California airport found to be honey


LOS ANGELES, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Authorities shut down a California airport on Tuesday after a suspicious amber liquid in a passenger's bag tested positive for explosives -- only to ultimately determine that the substance was honey.

Francisco Ramirez, a 31-year-old gardener who had been visiting family in the central California city of Bakersfield, was allowed to return home to Milwaukee.

"The substances in the bottles did turn out to be honey. They tested negative for all explosives and narcotics. It is nothing but honey," FBI spokesman Steve Dupre told Reuters.

Source (h/t GRG55 in this iTulip thread). What's particularly interesting about this case, though, is the following:
When the bottles were opened, two of the screeners smelled a strong chemical odor, complained of nausea and were rushed to a local hospital, where they treated and released, Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Michael Whorf said.
The placebo effect is a powerful thing. I've also heard a story (for which I have yet to find confirmation, mind you) of people in Europe complaining about a cell tower causing headaches and such, not realizing that it wasn't yet operational. (If anyone can confirm or deny this story, please let me know in the comments!) For these reasons I also have to wonder about those reports of people getting funny sick feelings around wind turbines, especially with all the FUD surrounding this subject.

Conservative lead withers

This is starting to look good:

Support for the Conservatives is waning somewhat, with more than 33 per cent of Canadians saying they would vote for the party if a federal election were held tomorrow, an EKOS poll suggests.

The poll, released exclusively to CBC News on Thursday, asked Canadians whom they supported. A total of 33.1 per cent of the 1,744 respondents chose the Conservatives, while 27.8 per cent picked the Liberals.

Source. Certainly the Cons won't be in a hurry to force an election... but pretty soon the opposition might.

Peak vehicles?

Very interesting:

Americans scrapped 4 million more cars and trucks last year than they purchased, the first significant drop in the U.S. auto fleet in more than four decades, according to a new report.

The United States scrapped 14 million vehicles last year while buying only 10 million new ones, dropping the nation's fleet from an all-time high of 250 million to 246 million, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Lester Brown, the author of the report, said the drop -- the first significant shrinkage the U.S. fleet has seen since record-keeping began in 1960 -- represents a "cultural shift away from the car" and estimated the fleet size will continue to recede during the next decade. He estimated the fleet could shrink a total of 10 percent by 2020.

"No one knows how many cars will be sold in the years ahead, but given the many forces at work, U.S. car sales may never again reach the 17 million that were sold each year between 1999 and 2007," Brown said. "Sales seem more likely to remain between 10 million and 14 million per year."

From Scientific American, via ggirod in this iTulip thread. The article suggests that young folks don't see as much need for cars as their parents did:
"Perhaps the most fundamental social trend affecting the future of the automobile is the declining interest in cars among young people," Brown said. "Many of today's young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars."
Interestingly, last week I heard an interview on The Current with a US military psychologist, who noted that the majority of the new recruits she saw didn't have driver's licences. On the other hand, ggirod thinks it might simply be that the number of two-income households is declining. Either way, this is a good thing from an environmental point of view, though it means the industrial heartland of Ontario and Michigan is going to have to adapt big time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Oil shortage looms in Pakistan

It's been reported that most of their refineries are on the verge of bankruptcy:
ISLAMABAD: The country may plunge into the worst imaginable energy crisis as virtually all refineries are teetering on the verge of financial default and may close down operations by Jan 15.

All the oil refineries of the country, currently working on a negative gross revenue margin, and with their borrowing limits already exhausted, are likely to shut down within the next two weeks following their expected default to retire the existing L/Cs to import crude oil. The shutdown would mean no oil supplies for thermal power generation plants and the picture turns outright dark.

This harrowing scenario of the looming crisis was given to The News by a senior functionary of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Source (h/t Rajiv in this iTulip thread). Of course, claims of this sort can't necessarily be taken at face value, but this seems considerably more credible than some other stories of this nature; Pakistan is dependent on imported fossil fuels for much of its electricity supply, and its government may not have the resources to bail out those refineries. If I was them, I'd be dropping subtle hints with the Americans about the effect on the war effort in Afghanistan in the event that Pakistan falls into crisis. I have a feeling that Uncle Sam would quietly cough up the necessary cash if it came to that.

NATO in Afghanistan -- winning the battles but losing the war

An American study confirms what many of us have suspected for some time:
International forces in Afghanistan might have won most of the clashes they fought with insurgents, but they nevertheless have still lost much of the country, a new analysis concludes.

In a grim assessment of the war, the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies finds the U.S. and allied effort wanting.

"The U.S. failed to focus on the needs and security of the Afghan people," the report out this week concludes.

"It also failed to properly resource the war and to provide effective leadership."

The analysis, based largely on Pentagon and NATO data, finds the Afghan government and outside aid efforts have failed to meet even the basic needs of Afghans.

Afghan forces were simply treated as "adjuncts" rather than as true partners of the International Security Assistance Force, the analysis by the Washington-based think-tank concludes.

"The end result was that the U.S. and its allies won largely meaningless tactical clashes while steadily losing the country and the people," says Anthony Cordesman’s report.

From the Chronicle-Herald.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Could Harper be in trouble this time?

The Toronto Star seems to think so:

OTTAWA–Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to shut down Parliament for the next two months is facing a growing public uprising, which is building on social networks across Canada and is set to spill over in dozens of protest rallies this month.

"Get back to work" is the rallying cry on a Facebook page that has been gaining thousands of supporters each day since it was launched last week – approaching 20,000 by the end of the day on Monday.

It now has chapters in about 20 major centres, including Toronto, and demonstrations are planned for Saturday, Jan. 23 in those cities.

Interesting. Is this the beginning of the end of the Harper era, or just wishful thinking on the Star's part? We'll have a better idea once the 23rd rolls around; hopefully the turnout will be high at the demos. The Facebook page for the planned rallies is here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What constitutes a rogue state?

Here are two country summaries from Amnesty International's annual international human rights report. The first country:
Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country. Some significant steps were taken to implement the 2007 law on violence against women but there was a lack of commitment from many of the authorities responsible. Lack of arms control contributed to high levels of violence and public insecurity.
Hmm. Not so hot certainly, but compare it to this:
Thousands of people continued to be detained without trial as terrorism suspects and hundreds more were arrested. In October, the government announced that more than 900 would be brought to trial. Human rights activists and peaceful critics of the government were detained or remained in prison, including prisoners of conscience. Freedom of expression, religion, association and assembly remained tightly restricted. Women continued to face severe discrimination in law and practice. Migrant workers suffered exploitation and abuse with little possibility of redress. Refugees and asylum-seekers were not adequately protected. The administration of justice remained shrouded in secrecy and was summary in nature. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were widespread and systematic, and carried out with impunity. Flogging was used widely as a main and additional punishment. The death penalty continued to be used extensively and in a discriminatory manner against migrant workers from developing countries, women and poor people. At least 102 people were executed.
As Stimpson points out, there are additional differences between these countries:
Country A's head of state has won national elections. Country B doesn't hold elections for its leader.

A has no death penalty; B has capital punishment and uses it a lot.

AI's report lists prisoners of conscience in B but not A.

Torture is "widespread" in B but not in A.
So neither country has a stellar human rights record, but B seems far worse than A. And, notably, the way these countries are treated by the Western powers is dramatically different; one is seen as a valuable ally, while the other has been declared an international pariah. And what are these countries?

Country A is Venezuela. Country B is Saudi Arabia. Gee, wonder why such a difference?

Poll shows Canadians still want action on climate change

The results weren't evenly distributed, though:
More than half of Canadians believe greenhouse gases produced by human activity are a key factor spurring climate change, and they say the planet is in peril if significant action isn't taken soon.

The findings of the Leger Marketing poll conducted less than a week after the end of climate talks in Copenhagen suggest that Canada's political leaders must more clearly explain their plans for the environment.

But the survey's regional results highlight the dilemma climate change presents for policymakers.

The highest support for immediate action on greenhouse gases came in Quebec, where almost 70% of those asked said human activity is a key driver of climate change. They want something done now.

In Ontario and British Columbia, 51% felt this way. But in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 40% or less of those surveyed shared that sense of urgency. Prairie poll participants were also most likely to say human activity had no impact on global climate change, and most likely to say they were confused about the issue.

From the London Free Press. No bit surprise about the Prairies as a region, sadly (though I'd like to have a province by province breakdown; I suspect Manitoba is a bit more enlightened than Alberta in that regard).