Thursday, September 30, 2010

The invasive species problem

Although climate change has gotten the lion's share of the attention when dealing with environmental problems (and with good reason), there are other issues that shouldn't be ignored either. I'm reminded of this by a report that garter snakes (Red-sided, judging from the picture that accompanies the article) are now established and breeding in Newfoundland. Odds are, this won't be the end of the world, of course. Garter snakes are no threat to humans, and the smaller ones prey mostly on things like slugs, most of which breed fairly fast. However, larger ones do eat rodents, and this is a very double-edged thing. On the one hand, they might bring down the numbers of the House Mouse, an invasive species whose drawbacks are obvious. On the other hand, there's apparently a distinct subspecies of the Meadow Vole that is endemic to the island and has no evolutionary reason to fear long slithery critters. If I were the type to lay bets on this sort of thing, I'd bet that the voles will survive and the introduction of garter snakes will not lead to disaster... but nonetheless, this sort of thing is best avoided, because sometimes it becomes a major problem. If the "Asian carp" (actually two different species, the Bighead Carp and the Silver Carp) become established in the Great Lakes, they could devastate the entire ecosystem... unless perhaps another invasive species messes things up for them. Unfortunately, if that happens the mussels will probably also mess things up for the native fish of the ecosystem.

This leads to another point. Quite often, an invasive species has no serious enemies in its adopted home, and when it breeds out of control, like the Gypsy Moth has in North America, the temptation is to introduce another species to control it (swallow the spider to catch the fly and all that). In many cases this is the best option available; the preferred approach for invasive insects is to introduce some parasitic wasp or fly that is fairly specific to the pest you want to control. And indeed, a good many parasitic wasps and flies attack only one or a handful of species. It was most unfortunate that the folks who tackled the Gypsy Moth problem selected a parasite that wasn't host-specific - the tachinid fly Compsilura concinnata, which happily attacks and kills the larvae of various giant silkworm moths such as the Cecropia and Luna. A bit of research should have told them that this could happen; it attacks a lot of species in its native Eurasia too.

What is the moral of this story? It's a lot better to prevent the problem in the first place than to try to fix it after the fact. And if you think dealing with invasive species is a hard problem, imagine how complex geo-engineering is likely to be...

Recovery stalls

A blip, or a double dip?
The Canadian economy shrank for the first time in 11 months in July, another clear sign of a slowdown, as factories, construction and consumer activity all posted declines.

The country’s real gross domestic product fell 0.1 per cent in the month, the first monthly drop since last August, Statistics Canada said Thursday.

Many measures of the economy have stalled in recent months, from job growth and housing starts to consumer spending and exports, as the global recovery petered out. The latest GDP reading will bolster expectations that the Bank of Canada will pause in raising interest rates next month, after three hikes in a row.
From the Globe. Will holding steady on interest rates be enough? Perhaps some stimulus programs need to be extended...

Teens jailed for dumping baby... but what's wrong with this picture?

Sadly, it's all too common for this to happen, especially in a society like Malaysia where having a child out of wedlock is severely stigmatized. Which brings us to this case:
A Malaysian court has sentenced a teenage couple to two years detention for leaving their newborn in a trash bin - a penalty that a prosecutor said was harsh in order to send a message about the consequences of unwanted pregnancies.

A district court in southern Malacca state on Tuesday sentenced Mohamad Zolhalmi Khamis, 18, to two years in prison and his girlfriend, who will turn 18 next month, to a detention school for juvenile criminals until she turns 20, said prosecutor Farah Wahida Mohamad Nor.
From the Chronicle-Journal. Now as most readers will have already guessed, I'm not one of the hang 'em high crowd, and this sentence doesn't seem particularly light. However, Malaysia is known for harsh sentences for crimes much less severe than abandoning a baby. Consider the fact that if, instead of abandoning a baby, those teens had been caught with heroin, they would have been hanged. Dump a baby, they lock you up; that makes sense -- at the very least, it's an act of criminal negligence. But a bit of smack and they string you up? Priorities, people...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wasylycia-Leis presents environmental platform

A lot of this is just basic common sense, but by Winnipeg standards that's pretty darn good:

The former Winnipeg North MP pledged Friday if she's elected mayor next month, the city will offer small environmental-project grants to community groups, share the cost of placing bike racks outside of businesses, increase the tree-pruning cycle, create a local food-policy council and re-establish a formal environment committee at city council.

She also promised to fast-track the implementation of existing city environmental studies and reiterated her pledge to complete the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor as a busway - and begin a second rapid-transit route, most likely from downtown to Transcona - within her first term as mayor.

From the Free Press. What's more, she is willing to talk about costs:

Small grants for schools or community groups wishing to create green rooftops or green alleyways would be capped at $1,000 per grant. No more than $75,000 would be spent on this program, she said.

Cost-sharing the placement of bike racks would cost $50,000. And increasing the tree-pruning schedule from the current 13-year cycle - and providing more grants to neighbourhood tree-banding projects - would add another $300,000 to Winnipeg's operating budget.

Interestingly, although the latest poll has Sam leading Judy 34%-20%, fully 40% of those polled are undecided. So this one really could go either way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

FBI raids homes of antiwar activists

Apparently they were searching for evidence of "material support of terrorism":

The homes of five Twin Cities activists, including three prominent leaders of the Twin Cities antiwar movement, were raided Friday by the FBI in what an agency spokesman described as an "investigation into activities concerning the material support of terrorism." The office of an antiwar organization also was reportedly raided.

An FBI spokesman Steve Warfield confirmed that warrants were issued on six Minneapolis addresses this morning.

Among the homes raided were the apartments of Jessica Sundin, who was a principal leader of the mass antiwar march of 10,000 on the opening day of the Republican National Convention two years ago, and Mick Kelly, who was prominent in that protest and among those who announced plans to march on the Democratic National Convention in Minneapolis, if the city is selected to host it in 2012. Neither has been arrested.

From the Star-Tribune (h/t bludstone at ontd_political, bold following bludstone's example). So there's nothing obvious to pin on these people, though they're doing their best to find something:

Dooley said the search warrants cited a federal law making it a violation to provide, attempt to provide or conspire to provide material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations.

In the search warrant on Kelly's apartment, Dooley said, "It appears they are looking into any connections, travel, etc., to Palestine and Colombia, also around the United States," he said. He said that in Kelly's case, the warrant mentions a political organization called Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Dooley said, "They are looking at any connection between him and 'FTO's,' foreign terrorist organizations, including but not limited to FARC, PFLP and Hezbollah," and any support, contact or association with those groups. FARC is a revolutionary peasant organization in Columbia, and PFLP is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hezoballah is a political and paramilitary organization based in Lebanon.

Dooley said the search warrant mentions documents, files, books, photographs, videos, souvenirs, war relics, notebooks, address books diaries journals, maps or any other evidence in electronic for that shows Kelly's connections to those groups, and whether he supported or recruited people or talked to them. It also mentions potential co-conspirators, Dooley said.

Hmm. Would having communicated with a member of one of the aforementioned organizations be considered "material support of terrorism"? If not, what are they trying to do? I'm thinking the real reason is simply chill; they want activists to think twice about talking to people who support causes the US government disagrees with. For instance, if you were going to book a Palestinian activist to speak at an event, you might be a bit unnerved by thoughts like "what if s/he turns out to be a member of Hezbollah or somthing? Could I be convicted of supporting terrorism?" Indeed, you might well think twice about bringing in such a speaker, just in case there was something you didn't know. And most likely, that's what the authorities want.

Texas education board wants to limit mentions of Islam in world history textbooks

Just heard about this on As It Happens a minute ago:
The Texas State Board of Education adopted a resolution Friday that seeks to curtail references to Islam in Texas textbooks, as social-conservative board members warned of what they describe as a creeping Middle Eastern influence in the nation's publishing industry.

The board approved the one-page nonbinding resolution, which urges textbook publishers to limit what they print about Islam in world history books, by a 7-5 vote.

Critics say it's another example of the ideologically focused board trying to politicize public education in the Lone Star State. Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for religious freedom, questioned why the resolution came at a time when "anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country has reached fever pitch."
From the Los Angeles Times. The radio interview was with a guy named Dan Quinn, also of the Texas Freedom Network; he points out that while the resolution is not binding, it is likely to have a chilling effect on publishers (especially given that Texas is a very large market). He also points out the amount of hyperbole (or rather, utter nonsense) being trotted out in support of the idea that Christianity is under threat from Islam in Texas. For instance, apparently they're claiming that Muslim investors from the Middle East are buying publishing companies so as to manipulate the minds of American youth. The fact that they can say something like this, and get taken seriously, is deeply worrisome.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wyatt urges vote on city sales tax


Would you be willing to pay an extra penny on a can of Coke if all the cash went toward Winnipeg's crumbling roads, bridges and buildings?

That question -- or a more legalistic version of it -- will be on Winnipeg's civic election ballot next month if Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt has his way.

The quixotic councillor wants city council to add a referendum question to the Oct. 27 ballot, asking Winnipeggers to support a one per cent municipal sales tax that would be dedicated to infrastructure renewal.
From the Free Press. Is a municipal sales tax a good idea? Maybe, maybe not. I'd like to see a municipal income tax, but I don't think municipalities have the legal authority to levy income taxes. Failing that, a sales tax might be a good idea; while sales taxes are somewhat regressive, not having enough revenue to pay for programs is far more regressive.

What's interesting is that Wyatt, as well as Judy Wasylycia-Leis, is willing to put the idea of tax increases on the table. Maybe people are finally noticing that a permanent tax freeze has consequences, and are willing to accept that a small tax increase might be necessary. Then again, it could be that Judy and Russ (and me, for that matter) have fallen into wishful thinking. We'll have to see.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Another travesty from the Immigration and Refugee Board

A woman who grew up in this country has been deported for her association with a dubious organization, even though she has no criminal record and was never a member of the group:

A Toronto woman has been deported to Chile for associating with a gang, even though she has lived virtually all of her life in Canada and has no criminal record.

Carla Campagna, 23, was placed on a flight to Santiago late Tuesday night, hours after losing a deportation appeal in Toronto.

She was originally ordered deported last spring because of her association with a little-known Hispanic group grandly called the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation.

The Latin Kings and Queens are considered public benefactors in some nations and an organized crime group in others.

From the Star (h/t pogge). Sounds like guilt by association to me...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Some interesting employment data

Apparently employment has now risen to pre-recession levels. But there's a catch:

All the jobs lost during the recession in Canada have now been recouped, a feat that suggests the labour market has repaired itself in a mere four quarters, much faster than in previous recoveries.

But a closer look at Statistics Canada data shows the quality of the labour market has deteriorated by many measures compared with the pre-recession scene.

Manufacturing, traditionally a source of higher-paying work, now sits at a 34-year low. Contract jobs are proliferating, and part-time jobs have been added at a faster clip than full-time work.

The average duration of unemployment is longer than it was a year ago, even as some new jobs are being created. Nearly a third of people working part time are doing so involuntarily, meaning they'd rather be full time. Hours worked remain below the previous level, suggesting many people are still feeling their incomes squeezed.

From the Globe. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is likely to continue for some time. Thanks to peak oil, energy is going to become more and more expensive for quite some time to come, and the money to pay for that is going to come out of workers' pockets long before it comes out of profits. This is doubly true given that the worker's first line of defense -- unions -- are decidedly out of fashion these days.

What are the prospects for a resurgence in the union movement? The thing is, globalization has given management a potent threat - namely, to close factories and move their operations overseas if unions ask for something outrageous such as a living wage. This could change soon, however, again due to peak oil. As transportation costs make it less practical to manufacture stuff offshore, the old threat of "we'll pack up and do our manufacturing in China" will be a lot more expensive to follow through on. So maybe a resurgence of the labour movement is possible. Let's hope so, because I think we're going to need it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A little good news

Too often we've been getting bad news on the environmental front. However, this week there have actually been a few good news stories. Firstly, cod on the Grand Banks have recovered dramatically, though conservationists warn that it's too soon to reopen the fishery.

Secondly, a species thought to have been extinct since the mid 19th century has been rediscovered:
A 'mythical' fly has been rediscovered after 160 years.

Thought to be the first fly driven to extinction by humans, it was also considered one of Europe's few endemic animals to have disappeared for good.

The bizarre fly was considered 'mythical' due to its orange head, its preference for living on dead animal carcasses, and the fact it was rarely sighted even in the 19th Century.

The discovery of the fly living in Spain is "sensational", say scientists.
From the BBC. But perhaps the best news is this:

The protective ozone layer in the earth's upper atmosphere has stopped thinning and should largely be restored by mid century thanks to a ban on harmful chemicals, UN scientists said on Thursday.

The "Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2010" report said a 1987 international treaty that phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) — substances used in refrigerators, aerosol sprays and some packing foams — had been successful.

From the Telegraph. This is something to remember -- an international agreement to phase out a dangerous pollutant got positive results within 23 years. So maybe something can be achieved on the climate front too...

Corporations are persons... unless it's inconvenient for them

Basically, they get most of the rights of personhood, but don't get some key responsibilities:

Companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s Nigerian unit aren’t subject to U.S. lawsuits by foreigners seeking damages for human rights violations, a federal appeals court in New York ruled.

A panel of the court ruled 2-1 today that the Alien Tort Statute gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over alleged violations of international law by individuals only, not by corporations.

The decision dismisses claims by a group of Nigerians that Shell aided in the torture and murder of dissidents in Nigeria in the 1990s, including the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa.

“The principle of individual liability for violations of international law has been limited to natural persons -- not ‘juridical’ persons such as corporations -- because the moral responsibility for a crime so heinous and unbounded as to rise to the level of an ‘international crime’ has rested solely with the individual men and women who have perpetrated it,” Judge Jose Cabranes wrote on behalf of the two-judge majority.

Cabranes said that the Alien Tort Statute, enacted in 1789, allows U.S. courts to hear death and injury claims by non-U.S. citizens connected to violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

From Bloomberg. There's also a separate, partly dissenting opinion:

“The majority opinion deals a substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights,” he wrote. “According to the rule my colleagues have created, one who earns profits by commercial exploitation of abuse of fundamental human rights can successfully shield those profits from victims’ claims for compensation simply by taking the precaution of conducting the heinous operation in the corporate form.”

He agreed that the case should be dismissed, saying the plaintiffs didn’t properly claim Shell intended to cause the Nigerian government to violate human rights.

Hmm. I can't comment on the strength of the plaintiffs' case, but I agree with the first paragraph; the majority ruling is a travesty.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gun registry may survive vote

It seems that Jack Layton has managed to get enough of his dissident MPs on side to vote against Hoeppner's bill:

This week, after his party’s caucus meeting in Regina, the NDP Leader announced he had the votes to ensure the registry’s survival. Four of the original 12 had declared publicly their intention to switch their votes at the time, and on Thursday Carol Hughes became the fifth.

“This is not a decision I have taken lightly,” Ms. Hughes, who also represents an Northern Ontario riding, said in Canadian Press report. “I have reviewed a years’ worth of input from people across this riding – hundreds of mail-back cards, phone calls, notes from meetings and reports. And I can tell you that their views about the registry are rich and diverse, just like they are everywhere else in the country.”

From the Globe. Interesting that instead of whipping his caucus, Layton seems to have been able to get cooperation by proposing a compromise -- namely, to get rid of the problematic parts of the registry. Of course, the vote hasn't happened yet, and a lot of things could change in the meantime -- but if this works, it will reflect well on Layton and the NDP.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Japan files WTO complaint against Ontario's green energy legislation

Apparently they have a problem with the local content requirements:
The Japanese government has filed a complaint against Canada with the World Trade Organization, saying that Ontario’s green energy plan unfairly pressures its producers of clean power to buy hardware from manufacturers in the province.

Ontario’s new alternative energy structure pays very high prices for wind and solar power, as long as producers source a significant proportion of their equipment in the province. The program has so far been very successful in drawing manufacturers to set up shop in Ontario.

But Japan says the local-content provisions breach portions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and fall under the definition of a “prohibited subsidy.” It has asked for “consultations” with Canada under the WTO process, the first stage of a formal trade dispute.

From the Globe. This is unfortunate, because if this complaint is upheld it could gut the entire clean energy program:
Still, Mr. Atcheson said that if Japan eventually wins its claim, it could be a disaster for Ontario’s alternative energy plans. The prices the province pays for green energy – for certain types of solar power it is almost 20 times the rate customers pay – can only be justified if Ontario gets significant employment benefits from new development, he said. The province can’t afford to pay high prices for renewables “unless they are creating some jobs,” he said.
Yikes. Let's hope sense prevails.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I hate to defend a Liberal, but...

... the attack on this guy seems unwarranted:

Controversy is swirling around B.C. Liberal Ron McKinnon after he evoked Nazi policies in criticizing the Conservative government’s plan to deal with Tamil migrants.

His own party is distancing itself from him. In fact, they are now referring to him as “this individual” amid calls from senior Harper strategists for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to apologize for his remarks.

Mr. McKinnon is president of a federal riding association in British Columbia and a former candidate. In a blog post entitled “An Evasion of Duty,” he wrote: “This brave new policy is sordidly familiar, akin to collaborating with the Nazis to stop the flight of Jews.”

“So they propose to stop on the high seas vessels carrying such persecuted souls, and turn them back well before they get to Canadian waters,” he wrote. “If we build the wall high enough, and make it impossible for refugees to actually get here, we can bask in our warm pious glow and never have to actually face them.”

From the Globe. And what's so outrageous about this? Well, the Cons think it's obvious:
“There are some issues which should never be politicized,” the Tories said in a memo to supporters and MPs on Thursday. An “Ignatieff Liberal Association President ... crossed the line when he likened our Government’s determination to tackle human smuggling at its source to the Nazis' treatment of Jews.”
Right, except he isn't doing that. He's likening the government's policy to the policy of previous Canadian governments, who turned away Jews who were fleeing the Holocaust. I suppose one can understand why the Cons would sooner forget that nasty bit of history, but it is indeed a part of our history, and a part that I for one would sooner not see repeated.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Another 9/11 anniversary...

... and the world is still reeling. Happily Terry Jones called off his stunt, but others are behaving in a similar fashion (h/t superfan1 at ontd_political). And that's not even considering the controversy over the "mosque" "at" Ground Zero. Happily not all Americans are like that:
Guess who has helped the Muslims organize their plans for this community center? The JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER of Manhattan! Their rabbi has been advising them since the beginning. It's been a picture-perfect example of the kind of world we all want to live in. Peter Stuyvessant, New York's "founder," tried to expel the first Jews who arrived in Manhattan. Then the Dutch said, no, that's a bit much. So then Stuyvessant said ok, you can stay, but you cannot build a synagogue anywhere in Manhattan. Do your stupid Friday night thing at home. The first Jewish temple was not allowed to be built until 1730. Then there was a revolution, and the founding fathers said this country has to be secular -- no religious nuts or state religions. George Washington (inaugurated around the corner from Ground Zero) wanted to make a statement about this his very first year in office, and wrote this to American Jews:

"The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy -- a policy worthy of imitation. ...

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens ...

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Who else would dare point this out but Michael Moore (h/t omgangiepants at ontd_political)?

Friday, September 10, 2010

US considers intervention in Mexico

Thanks to organized crime, assassination is a major occupational hazard for local authorities in northern Mexico:
Masked armed men have shot dead the mayor of a small town in northern Mexico in the latest attack believed to be linked to drug gangs.

Prosecutors said four hooded men pulled up outside the office of Alexander Lopez Garcia in El Nranjo in the state of San Luis Potosi on Wednesday, before two of them burst in and shot him to death.
From Al Jazeera. Now this is nothing unique to Mexico, as any Columbian, Italian, or Russian will tell you. However, Mexico is much higher up on a certain country's priority list than those other places. Maybe that's why we're seeing stuff like this quote from Hillary Clinton:

Clinton also suggested that "we need to figure out what are the equivalents" for Mexico and Central America of the US Plan Colombia - in which American special forces teams train Colombian troops and US advisers are attached to Colombian military units.

Mexico has long rejected allowing US troops on its soil.

Well yeah. I'd reject the idea of foreign troops being deployed on my soil to deal with a domestic problem too... but the US can't leave well enough alone. California's proposal seems a far better way to deal with the problem, though.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jones calls off Quran burning

Of course this is an extremely good thing. However, let's have a closer look at this:

A Christian pastor in the US state of Florida has called off plans to burn copies of the Quran, in an event that had been roundly criticised and stoked fears of violence around the globe.

Reverend Terry Jones said on Thursday that he made the decision to cancel the event because the leader of a planned Islamic centre near the so-called Ground Zero site in New York had agreed to move its location.

However sources close to the imam of the planned Islamic centre told the Reuters news agency that he had not agreed to any such deal, and that the centre would not be moved.

"There has been no agreement. There have been no discussions with this pastor," one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
Source. I have a bad feeling that this "differing interpretation of the facts" is going to lead to nastiness in the coming days -- no doubt he'll accuse the Muslims of reneging on a deal. Of course, they made no such deal, but who are most Americans going to believe -- a pastor or an imam? I expect that the Quran burning will happen some time in the future, along with a bunch of inflammatory pronouncements about how those dirty Muslims can't be trusted on anything. This would not be a good thing in the long run.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Another military leader warns of consequences of climate change

This time it's a Canadian naval officer:
A navy planner says the Canadian Forces must be ready to be called to the front lines in the battle against the effects of climate change.

A recently published article by Lt.-Cmdr. Ray Snook of the defence department’s directorate of maritime strategy says the military may have to step in if conflicts flare over dwindling supplies of food and water.

From the Star (h/t pogge). Curiously, no mention is made of the US as a source of trouble we might have to defend ourselves against...

Extremists don't want a good crisis to go to waste

They're organizing in the flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan:
NOWSHERA, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province - The coalition government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the brainchild of the United States for an anti-Taliban political force that could effectively fight and support the American war in South Asia, has proved itself incompetent in the face of the country's unfolding flood disaster.

Devastating floods over the past month have affected more than 20 million people and laid waste a fifth of the country's land mass. The real fear now is that in the much-anticipated anarchy in the coming weeks, a fiercely anti-American Islamic revolution could break out if correct and timely steps are not taken as the waters recede and lay bare ruined lives.
From the Asia Times. No doubt the Taliban agitators are pointing out the fact that donations from the West are much less than for similar disasters (the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, etc), and insinuating that Islamophobia has something to do with it. Heck, Islamophobia probably does have something to do with it (though donor fatigue is probably a factor as well). And if extremists do take control of Pakistan, with its not insignificant nuclear arsenal, things could get very interesting indeed.

Private school parents want province to pay for upgrades

I guess the free market isn't good for everything, eh?

VANCOUVER — British Columbia has spent millions of dollars to improve seismic safety for students attending public schools, but has no similar program to protect thousands of children in independent schools.

That troubles George and Suzana Kovacic, whose daughter is entering Grade 1 at St. Michael’s School in Burnaby next week. They’ve asked everyone from the school principal to the premier but no one has been able to explain why independent schools have not been part of the provincial drive to improve student safety in B.C.’s earthquake zones.

From the Vancouver Sun. Now to be fair, some of their complaints are actually legitimate:
There are no rules requiring independent school operators to conduct seismic assessments of their buildings and no central registry — such as the one that exists for public schools — identifying buildings that may be at risk in the event of an earthquake.
Safety legislation should apply across the board to all schools, public and private. However, the cost should be borne by the school's owner -- which is the province in the case of public schools, but not private ones. And if the parents can't afford the tuition increase that would result, it won't kill their kids to go to a public school like the rest of us did.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gillard retains power in Australia

She's got enough support from the independents to hang on:

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says she will pump almost $10 billion into regional programs after today scraping back into power with the support of two key independents.

Ms Gillard has pledged to work tirelessly for the Australian people and says she will try and find common ground with the Coalition as Labor heads into its second term in government.

Two independents today broke the political deadlock by giving their votes to Ms Gillard in a Labor minority Government. She has advised Governor-General Quentin Bryce of the developments.

After more than a fortnight of suspense, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor revealed their intention to give Labor their crucial votes, meaning it has secured the 76 seats needed to rule.

The third independent, Bob Katter, had earlier decided to support the Coalition but it was not enough to install Tony Abbott as prime minister.

From the ABC.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Decline of pollinators having an effect

Notwithstanding the potential breakthrough on colony collapse disorder, it's worth noting that even if that turns out to be successful, there are a lot of other problems facing pollinators in many parts of the world. Given this, it shouldn't be surprising that it's having an effect:
A decline in bees and global warming are having a damaging effect on the pollination of plants, new research claims.

Researchers have found that pollination levels of some plants have dropped by up to 50 per cent in the last two decades.

The "pollination deficit" could see a dramatic reduction in the yield from crops.

The research, carried out in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, is the first to show that the effect is real and serves as a "warning" to Britain which if anything has seen an even greater decline in bees and pollinators.

"This serves as a warning to other countries," said Professor James Thomson at the University of Toronto, who carried out the research.

"For quite some time people have been suggesting that pollinators are in decline and that this could have an effect on pollination.

"I believe that this is the first real demonstration that pollination levels are getting worse. I believe it is a significant decline. I believe the pollination levels have dropped by as much as 50 per cent.
This is serious, as it could significantly affect the world's food supply if it happens in a lot of places. Interesting too is the explanation Thomson offers for the decline:
"Bee numbers may have declined at our research site, but we suspect that a climate-driven mismatch between the times when flowers open and when bees emerge from hibernation is a more important factor."
Interesting. So for instance if the bees come out of hibernation based on temperature, while the flowers opened based on some internal clock, any significant climate change could cause the bees to emerge too early to pollinate the flowers. Similar concerns have been raised about possible mismatches between emergences of boreal forest insects and the migrations of songbirds that prey on them. This could cause a decline in the birds and/or an increase in insect damage to the forest, with unpredictable results. Just another example of what a messy experiment we're conducting with the biosphere...

Even David Petraeus is scared of the American far right

Can't blame him, either:

KABUL—The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said the planned burning of Qurans on Sept. 11 by a small Florida church could put the lives of American troops in danger and damage the war effort.

Gen. David Petraeus said the Taliban would exploit the demonstration for propaganda purposes, drumming up anger toward the U.S. and making it harder for allied troops to carry out their mission of protecting Afghan civilians.

"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort," Gen. Petraeus said in an interview. "It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community."

Hundreds of Afghans attended a demonstration in Kabul on Monday to protest the plans of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has said he will burn copies of Islam's holy book to mark the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Afghan protesters chanted "death to America," and speakers called on the U.S. to withdraw its troops. Some protesters threw rocks at a passing military convoy.

From the Wall Street Journal (h/t jblaque on Twitter).

Interestingly, my dad recalls hearing a French journalist interviewed (perhaps on BBC news, though I'm not 100% sure of that). This guy had actually learned the language and got to know actual Taliban people. What was interesting was that among the numerous countries they were fighting against, the only country that they actually seemed to hate was the US. (Canada was apparently not mentioned in the interview, so I don't know if they see us as distinct from Americans or not). If anyone recognizes the interview, let me know in a comment; I'd like to find a link if one is available.

Vigilante hunt for puppy tosser targets wrong person

You've probably heard of the awful story of the girl throwing puppies in the river. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of folks out there who are out for blood. What's really unfortunate is that their wrath targeted the wrong person (translated from the original source):
A bad joke? Or real? An internet video shows a young woman laughing while drowning puppies. Now the users are hunting for the supposed perpetrator - and are threatening a girl from Aying near Munich.

The video is not for tender sensibilities: A blond girl in a red hooded pullover is standing on a bank, next to her a white bucket with fluffy, fidgeting puppies. She graps one after the other and throws them in the water. The controversial animal rights organisation Peta offers a reward for identifying the teenager. "Peta offers a reward of 2000 dollars for information which could lead to arrest and conviction of those persons" responsible for the content of the video.

Since then, a downright hunt for the girl is taking part on the net: "I hope they find you and throw you into jail, you evil, repulsive creature!" writes a user on the Peta site. Consecutively, a girl from the community Aying in the Munich area came to the attention of the riled-up internet community: A user published name and telephone number of the eighteen-year-old student on the web.

Since then, the internet has developed into a nightmare for the girl: She is insulted by phone by callers from all over the world, even her life is threatened. Now, the police must protect the young woman. And all that just because an unknown person on the video platform Youtube claims that she is the girl who in a movie laughs while throwing cute puppies into a river.

"Since then, the girl is being strongly threatened," says police spokesman Peter Reichl. Police met with the family for a counselling conversation, instated various protection procedures and is investigating for insult, threatening, and false accusation. For one thing is certain: The blonde girl from the video certainly does not come from Aying. "The film has apparently been recorded in Bosnia," says Reichl.
Stuff like this is one of the reasons why vigilante justice should not be taken likely. I hope they nail the real perpetrator, but equally I hope that poor German girl's reputation is restored... and that nobody hurts her in the mistaken view that they're doing the world a favour.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More info on that German peak oil study

Robert Rapier at The Oil Drum has obtained a translation of the main points in that report (not the entire document, but I imagine we'll see that eventually). Here are some highlights:

Overall, higher volatility and loss of trust are seen as possible outcomes in a world where oil supplies are limited, increasing the need for “oil related diplomacy” and thus increasing the risk of moral hazard among all actors, which in turn decreases overall global supply security.

The report then refers to already existing actions of the German government to tie close economic relationships with energy suppliers, and to the tendency of consuming countries to reduce oil dependency, trying to steer clear of risks of future supply shocks.

The Middle East is identified as a very dangerous region with high external involvement from many players and thus a very unstable overall situation.

Overall, the report expects a reduction of the importance of “Western values” related to democracy, and human rights in the context of politically motivated alliances, which increasingly are driven by emerging economies such as China – likely leading to double standards. Emerging economies are equally expected to receive higher recognition in international organizations, particularly those with strength in resources (such as Russia).

That sounds bad. This sounds worse:

In addition to the gradual risks, there might be risks of non-linear events, where a reduction of economic output based on Peak Oil might affect market-driven economies in a way that they stop functioning altogether, leaving the possibility of a relatively steady downward trajectory.

Such a scenario could develop through an initially slow decline of trade and economic activity, combined with higher stress on government budgets from lower tax income, higher social cost and growing investment into alternative technologies.

Investment will decline and debt service will be challenged, leading to a crash in financial markets, accompanied by a loss of trust in currencies and a break-up of value and supply chains – because trade is no longer possible. This would in turn lead to the collapse of economies, mass unemployment, government defaults and infrastructure breakdowns, ultimately followed by famines and total system collapse.

Will it actually come to this? Maybe. Of course, this is a bit vague as to where those famines would occur; would they happen in the developed world? Not out of the question, and if it comes to that a lot of other bad things could happen as well. The biggest question is the matter of widespread international conflict. Some examples:

4.6 Growing conflict potential concerning the Arctic Circle

Germany might have to take positions in case of an upcoming conflict regarding resources in the Arctic Circle, where multiple countries (including Russia) have open claims for accessing oil and gas fields. This requires further research.

4.7 Nuclear technology proliferation

The risk for nuclear technology proliferation and thus more countries with the potential for nuclear weapons (and the risk for terrorists having access to nuclear material) is growing due to the proliferation of nuclear technology for energy generation. Equally, risks for terrorist attacks and accidents on German soil are rising. Both scenarios require more surveillance, intelligence and preventive action.

4.8 Higher conflict potential regarding critical infrastructure

Energy delivery infrastructure for all sources including electricity will have a higher importance in an oil constrained world, thus, securing its reliability, security and availability becomes mission-critical. International cooperation is needed to secure large international supply paths (pipelines, sea routes).

Scary stuff. The Doomsday Clock currently stands at six minutes to midnight, but it could get a lot worse in the next while as tensions over diminishing resources increase.

Cons, Liberals almost even: poll

At the start of the summer, the Conservatives had an 11 point lead over the Liberals. Not anymore, according to a new EKOS poll:

The poll gives the Conservatives 29.4 per cent support of Canadians, a drop of three points from two weeks ago. The Liberals are at 29.1 per cent support, an increase of nearly two points from the previous poll.

New Democrats are at 15.7 per cent national support, the Green Party is polling at 13 per cent and the Bloc is at 10.9 per cent. The poll of 3,559 Canadians was conducted between Aug. 18 and Aug. 31; it has a margin of error of 1.64 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Source. They offer a suggestion as to why, as well:

The pollster gives only a small measure of credit to the Liberal Leader for the change in fortunes. “The [Michael Ignatieff] travelling redemption show has brought back MI and the LPC from life support to fully fledged contenders for next government,” Mr. Graves said. “In fairness the new parity is as much a product of Tory largesse to their competitors as adroit action on part of the Liberals.”

The Tory largesse to which Mr. Graves refers is, of course, the census. For weeks now it has dogged the Conservatives, gradually picking away at the party’s support, even with its own supporters.

“This seemingly obscure action has set in motion a chain of responses, which has managed to awaken the erstwhile dormant knowledge and professional classes,” the pollster said. “Virtually all of the shift in the political landscape has occurred with the movement of the highly educated.”

So it sounds like it could be another case of the right saving us from itself. Interesting...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How will the US midterm elections play out?

They're going to be interesting, that's for sure.

On the surface, things look very bad for the Democrats. The Guardian cites a poll showing the Republicans having the support of 51% of registered voters, compared to the Democrats at 41%. And the Democrats' base is rather demoralized, because a lot of the hopes that led to Obama's election are being dashed. Certainly this could be a good thing, but not if the troops are simply shipped over to Afghanistan... And the healthcare initiative, while perhaps a slight improvement on what there was before, has been pretty mediocre, to say the least. (We'll make you buy health insurance, but won't pay for it unless you're really poor. None of that Canuck crap for you!) And we'll have to see what gets done on the climate front; on a diplomatic level it looks rather mediocre as well (uh... we'll sign an agreement that says we think we should probably do something about this, but not actually commit to anything). But with the grip they've had on the levers of government you'd think the Democrats would have accomplished far more than they have...

The funny thing is, though, in situations like this your enemy can be your best friend. The Republicans are actually in a rather bad state right now. David Neiwert at Crooks and Liars (h/t jblaque via Twitter) has pointed out that when teabaggers contest Republican nominations, it's become common for the loser to refuse to endorse the winner. Not to mention, when teabaggers are running in swing districts, they're less likely to win over the moderates. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of polling numbers change in the US once the summer's over. Hopefully that will change in Canada, too, before the likes of Harper, Ford et. al. win any more elections.

German study warns of consequences of peak oil

We've already told of the UK's concerns; now it seems that Germany's worried too:
A study by a German military think tank has analyzed how "peak oil" might change the global economy. The internal draft document -- leaked on the Internet -- shows for the first time how carefully the German government has considered a potential energy crisis.

The term "peak oil" is used by energy experts to refer to a point in time when global oil reserves pass their zenith and production gradually begins to decline. This would result in a permanent supply crisis -- and fear of it can trigger turbulence in commodity markets and on stock exchanges.

The issue is so politically explosive that it's remarkable when an institution like the Bundeswehr, the German military, uses the term "peak oil" at all. But a military study currently circulating on the German blogosphere goes further.

The study is a product of the Future Analysis department of the Bundeswehr Transformation Center, a think tank tasked with fixing a direction for the German military. The team of authors, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Will, uses sometimes-dramatic language to depict the consequences of an irreversible depletion of raw materials. It warns of shifts in the global balance of power, of the formation of new relationships based on interdependency, of a decline in importance of the western industrial nations, of the "total collapse of the markets" and of serious political and economic crises.
From Der Spiegel. The article goes into a fair bit of detail, postulating that countries that still have a lot of oil will wield a great deal of influence in the coming years, among other things. Even more interesting is one of the report's recommendations:

The scenarios outlined by the Bundeswehr Transformation Center are drastic. Even more explosive, politically, are recommendations to the government that the energy experts have put forward based on these scenarios. They argue that "states dependent on oil imports" will be forced to "show more pragmatism toward oil-producing states in their foreign policy." Political priorities will have to be somewhat subordinated, they claim, to the overriding concern of securing energy supplies.

For example: Germany would have to be more flexible in relation toward Russia's foreign policy objectives. It would also have to show more restraint in its foreign policy toward Israel, to avoid alienating Arab oil-producing nations. Unconditional support for Israel and its right to exist is currently a cornerstone of German foreign policy.

One hopes that Israel is taking these issues seriously as well; their current favourable treatment in the foreign policy of most Western countries (not just Germany) is bound to be weakened by this. How they handle this, of course, could make all the difference, not just for them but for much of the world. If they completely pull out of the West Bank, for instance, they'll likely be fine (or at least no worse off than a lot of countries), as much of the animosity the Islamic world has towards them will be dissipated. On the other hand, if they refuse to do so, they could become vulnerable as Western aid starts to decline. The consequences of this could be catastrophic, and not just for Israel (Samson is still lurking, you know).

Some words Harper may have to eat

He says there'll be a coalition unless he wins a majority:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, intent on shaping the ballot box question for the next election, is adopting a strategy to gradually persuade voters they have a "stark choice" in the next campaign: a "stable" majority Conservative government, or a "coalition" government of Liberals, New Democrats and Quebec separatists.
From the Calgary Herald. So, Steve, when the next election comes and you still have only a minority of the seats, will you step aside and let the opposition form a government? Can we take that as a promise?

The serious side of the Manitoba judge's sex scandal

OK, I admit my first reaction was to shuffle this story off to the less serious part of my presence on the blogosphere. However, now that the judge in question, Lori Douglas, has had to step down, it's worth a serious look at whether or not this is just cause for her removal. After all, it seems that the salacious photos were posted to the Internet without her knowledge, and in fact she may not have been aware of their existence at the time she was appointed to the bench in 2005. Nonetheless, some legal scholars seem to think that's enough reason to ruin her career:

An Ottawa legal expert said that even if Douglas, who was appointed a judge in 2005, was the unwitting victim of a scheme, the presence of the photos on the internet raises issues about her ability to perform as a judge.

"If pictures of you naked end up on an internet site, it's quite difficult to say you have the credibility to be a judge," said S├ębastien Grammond, dean of civil law at the University of Ottawa.

Grammond doubts that Douglas would have been appointed a judge if she had disclosed the fact that there were nude photographs of her on the internet in her application.

Source. The legal community is not unanimous, though:

Bryan Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, agreed. He said the existence of embarrassing material on the Internet shouldn't disqualify somebody from being a judge if they're the innocent victim of a marital breach of trust.

"It double-victimizes you. People should have sympathy for you. It's a pretty reprehensible thing to do to a spouse," he said. "It sounds to me like people should be very slow to come to any judgments about this."

"If people were doing something that wasn't unlawful and somebody breaches that and blabs it to the public, I don't see how that disqualifies you from being a judge."

Source. For what it's worth, I agree with Schwartz. After all, if we accept Grammond's argument, where do you draw the line? Suppose, for instance, that someone posts Photoshopped images of you online? After all, the viewers probably wouldn't know whether they were real or not. Does the fact that someone in the courtroom might conceivably have seen those pics undermine your credibility as a judge?

Of course, if the allegations against Douglas' husband are true, there's good reason to go after him. But should Douglas suffer for her husband's follies? I don't think so.

Edited to add: Brian Oakley at Just Damn Stupid does make an interesting point:

Now. If King paid Mr. xDNA $25,000 to keep his mouth shut, and that action is in fact extortion – did the Judge know that idiot husband caved to extortion?

It is an uncomfortable, but important question.

For it can not be appropriate to have a Judge willing to turn a blind-eye to such an infraction of the Criminal Code of Canada.

On a human level, I sympathize 100% with Ms. Douglas, but can we have Judges ignoring criminal activity?

Hmm. It does complicate the situation...

Another twist in the Assange case

Sweden has reopened the rape investigation against him:

The case was dismissed last week by Eva Finne, chief prosecutor in Stockholm, who overruled a lower-ranked prosecutor and said there was no reason to suspect that Mr. Assange had raped a Swedish woman who had reported him to police.

The woman's lawyer appealed the decision and Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny on Wednesday decided to reopen the case.

From the Globe.