Friday, May 6, 2011

Online predator sentenced; victims' families differ on sentence

You may have heard of the bizarre and tragic case of an American nurse, William Melchert-Dinkel, who has just been sentenced for seeking out depressed people online and getting them to kill themselves. At least two of them, Nadia Kajouji of Brampton, Ontario, and Mark Drybrough, from Coventry, England, actually did it. Melchert-Dinkel has just received a somewhat creative sentence - following 260 consecutive days in jail, he'll serve weekends on the anniversaries of Kajouji's and Drybrough's deaths for ten more years. One thing I find interesting, though, is the vastly differing reactions of the victims' families to this sentence. From the CBC article:

Marc Kajouji, Nadia's brother, said the punishment was too light for the crime.

"A guilty verdict isn't justice; punishment is justice," said Kajouji. "A year in a jail with work release doesn't really seem like justice."

Meanwhile, across the pond we see this:
Last night Mr Drybrough’s mum Elaine, of Walsgrave Road, Stoke, said the sentence was a “good result”.
So is an individual difference, or a cultural one? I'm inclined to think the latter, especially since this isn't the only case of dramatically different responses to similar crimes between Canada and the UK. Remember how Tim McLean's mum was all but calling for the public execution of Vince Li? Well, when another person with severe mental illness, Sabina Eriksson, killed a man in the UK in 2008, the victim's brother had this to say:
"We don't hold her responsible, the same as we wouldn't blame a rabid dog for biting someone. She is ill and to a large degree, not responsible for her actions. But her mental disorder should have been recognized much earlier."
So why are we so much more vengeful here? I think it's probably because we watch more American TV, with its emphasis on hang 'em high "justice". For what it's worth, I find the British response more rational and civilized.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Science experiment leads to arrests

It seems amateur science can be risky in more ways than one:

Two teenagers in Kelowna learned a lesson in not playing with matches Tuesday night after they set off a hydrogen gas explosion that brought out the bomb squad.

Police received a call shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday from a neighbour. The caller reported that an explosion rattled windows and caused one person at the home to jump off a couch, according to Cnst. Steve Holmes.

“Neighbors went outside to find a woman and two males, in their late teens, picking up debris off their driveway,” said Holmes. “A noticeable ring of “charring” scarred the driveway and one of the young men stated that it was only hydrogen, which is a flammable gas.”

Holmes said a witness advised that a smaller explosion had been heard coming from the same residence earlier in the day.

“Police arrived, along with the fire department and maintained a distance from the residence as it was unknown what kind of explosive devices they were dealing with,” said Holmes. “Police called the residence and asked the 49-year-old female inside to come outside.”

The woman went outside her home and was detained by police as they spoke with her, said Holmes.

“Police learned that her two teenage sons were experimenting with hydrogen gas and that it was a science experiment that had gotten out of hand,” said Holmes.

The teenagers were out looking for their dog, which had run away when the hydrogen was detonated. After a search, they were found and arrested for possession of explosives.

Source, my emphasis. Now I don't know about you, but when I was a kid I had a chemistry set, and the instructions explained how to make - and detonate - small amounts of hydrogen. To be fair, they may have been a bit cavalier in the amount they made, and they shouldn't have done it with the dog off the leash, but the charge levied is one that in the old days was usually only applied to serious stuff, usually if you're actually trying to do damage. Of course, if they'd hurt someone, a charge of criminal negligence might be justified, but if possession of any material that could cause an explosion is a crime, then you'd best get rid of any blowtorches, gas barbecues, aerosol cans, and the like that you might have.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The day after

Well, as you're no doubt aware, the election didn't go the way I expected. For that matter, it didn't go the way most other people expected, including some of the winning candidates. And indeed there are some good aspects to what happened; while part of me would have loved to see the NDP jump from fourth place to government in one fell swoop, it's probably better that these rookie MPs get the chance to learn the ropes in opposition before they take office (I suspect that was a contributing factor to the troubles of the Rae government in Ontario back in the day). I'm not unhappy to see Elizabeth May in the House either, for that matter.

But while this was a hugely successful election for the NDP, it is definitely a Pyrrhic victory, thanks to the Conservative majority. What's odd, though, is the way things played out in the final day or so of the campaign. Nearly all the polls put the Cons in the mid to high thirties, while the NDP's share of the vote is shown as pretty close to what they actually got. So what gave the Cons the boost into majority territory?

It sounds crazy, but one possibility that comes to my mind is the death of Osama bin Laden. Some people seem to see the killing as a vindication of the Afghan war, and if enough people who were right-leaning but had a bad feeling about our involvement in said war had their (obviously limited) minds changed by this, it could have made the difference. Pretty pathetic, but then a lot of Canadian voters are pretty pathetic.

What can we expect now? The Cons claim that they're not going to introduce radical changes... and maybe the government itself won't, but I bet that there will be a lot of private members' bills reopening the abortion and marriage debates. Most of them won't make it far enough to be debated, but those that do get debated have an excellent chance of passing.

And as bad as that would be, there are worse things that could happen. At least if abortion or same-sex marriage is banned it will be easy enough for a future government to reverse the decision. Indeed, if they use the notwithstanding clause to avoid constitutional challenges, such a law would automatically be invalidated unless renewed. On the other hand, if they abolish the Canadian Wheat Board, for instance, NAFTA will likely preclude reversing such a move; it will be gone forever. And that is a bad thing.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The moment of truth approaches

Firstly, my apologies for not updating this blog more frequently. Among other things, I've been working on an actual election campaign (hey, you didn't think I was nonpartisan, did you?). But in any case, as you're no doubt aware, there seems to have been a dramatic shift in the last few weeks. The chances of a Conservative majority seem to be greatly reduced, although it's not impossible that the NDP surge could pull enough votes away from the Liberals to push the Conservatives over the top.

Last week, based mostly on poking around on the Election Prediction website, I came up with the following guess as to seat distribution: Conservatives 138, Liberals 67, NDP 59, Bloc 41, Green 1, Independent 2 (André Arthur and Hec Clouthier). However, the NDP could very well do even better, and indeed some seat projections from the latest polls put the NDP firmly in second place in the seat count. In fact, many of the projections have the combined NDP and Liberal seats adding up to a majority. But what then?

My suspicion is that the Liberals would be reluctant to defeat the government and allow the NDP to take power, because this would greatly diminish the Liberals' opportunity to rebuild their party. After all, once the NDP is out of third place they, and not the Liberals, will be seen as the main alternative to the Conservatives. On the other hand, for the Liberals to prop up the Cons once again, they'd have to swallow a lot of pride, and so it's not impossible that Layton will end up in the PMO. We'll know soon enough...

Also interesting is the race in Saanich-Gulf Islands. I have a sneaking suspicion that Elizabeth May will manage to win that seat, which could be the beginning of a slow ascent for her party. On the other hand, if she doesn't win that seat it may be quite some time before the Greens are a significant force.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elizabeth May shut out of TV debates

I wondered if this was going to happen:
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is once again getting shut out of the televised debates, but she is already rallying her troops for a fight and finding some unlikely allies.
From the Star. Interesting to see who some of these allies are:

New Democrat Leader Jack Layton — who had threatened to boycott if she took part last time — expressed dissatisfaction with the way the decision was made.

“If certain leaders are not invited to participate, I think it is reasonable for them to know why,” Layton said in a statement.

“We’re fine with her in the debate,” he added.


Bryon Wilfert, the Liberal incumbent for Richmond Hill and a close confidant of Dion, denounced the decision, although made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of his party.

“I think the networks are wrong,” said Wilfert, who considers May a friend and thought she contributed much to the debate last time.

It's very much to Layton's credit (and Wilfert's, but then he wouldn't have to face her in the debate) to take this stance, especially since he initially opposed her inclusion in the previous debate. The fact is, she did contribute a lot to the debate last time. Now technically, she was on much stronger ground in 2008, thanks to Blair Wilson's having crossed the floor to join her party. Technically, of course, the networks would be consistent with their previous policy if they didn't let her in, since the Greens no longer have a sitting MP, but surely having participated previously should count for something, no? It's worth remembering that the PCs came within two seats of being eliminated in 1993, and it's a safe bet that if Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne hadn't managed to cling to their seats, the PCs would still have been allowed into the debate in 1997.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Then again...

As noted yesterday, Ipsos' latest poll puts the Cons in majority territory. It's worth remembering, as a commenter to yesterday's post reminded me, that polls of this sort are hardly the last word, so maybe it's not time to panic yet. Indeed, EKOS also just came out with a poll of their own suggesting that the Cons, while ahead, are not anywhere near a majority. This poll is a lot more consistent with most (not all) recent ones.

Of course, if after the election the new parliament is pretty much the same as the old one, we'll be right back where we started... unless the opposition tries to form a coalition again. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely, since the Cons have been absurdly successful in painting coalitions as something evil and unbecoming of Canadians. Why this idea resonates with the public I have no idea, but it does. So we'd have yet another Conservative minority government... and quite likely a one-way trip back to Massachusetts for Iggy.

Friday, March 25, 2011

And they're off...

As you will doubtless be aware by now, the Harper government has been defeated in a confidence vote, which means an election is coming. The situation is unfortunate, because at best we're looking at another Conservative minority government... but the latest poll looks much, much worse:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives begin an election campaign this weekend far ahead of their political rivals in public favour and would be poised to win a "comfortable" majority if Canadians cast their votes now, a new poll has found.

The national survey, conducted exclusively for Postmedia News and Global National, reveals voter support is declining for the opposition Liberals who have put forward a non-confidence motion that will lead to the defeat of the Conservative government in the House of Commons this afternoon.

The March 22-23 poll by Ipsos Reid found public support remains solid for the Tories despite recent opposition attempts to draw attention to such controversies as the government's treatment of Parliament and revelations that an ex-senior aide to Harper lobbied a department to get funds for his fiancée, a former escort.

The Conservatives are now supported by 43 per cent of decided voters -- up by three points from two weeks ago.

Just as important, the Tories now have a widening 19-point lead over the Liberals led by Michael Ignatieff.

The Grits, who have been trying to incite public fury over the government's ethical record and improve the public's negative impression of Ignatieff, now have the support of just 24 per cent of voters, down by three points.

Jack Layton's NDP, which put the country on the path to a spring election by announcing earlier this week it would not support the Conservative budget, are backed by 16 per cent of voters -- no change from the previous poll.

What's confusing, though, is the fact that another poll found that voters are increasingly skeptical of the government:
A poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV by Nanos Research shows that 41 per cent of Canadians trust the Conservative government less than they did a year ago. Only 6 per cent trust it more. Forty-eight per cent feel about the same, and 5 per cent just don’t know.
What is going on here? One interpretation is simple - one (or both) of those polls is just plain wrong. But there's another possibility, and a disturbing one at that. It could well be that corruption and dishonesty in government tends to favour the political right, even when it's a right wing party that's being corrupt and dishonest. After all, people who have made up their minds that all politicians are crooks are going to be more inclined to give their (grudging) support to a party they believe will reduce the role of government... which is precisely how right wing parties like to market themselves. Notably, prominent Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella thinks the Ipsos poll is accurate, and that a Conservative sweep is coming.

I'm not 100% certain of this, of course, and I really hope it's not the case. If it is, our democracy is even more broken than previously thought.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in our democracy is first-past-the-post. Given this, some people are bound to advocate tactical voting (or, as it's become trendy to call it in this country, "strategic voting"). Now I'm a "never say never" kind of person, and I recognize that in extremis this might be necessary. However, most of the time it doesn't do any good, and you're simply wasting a vote on a party you don't even really like in the mistaken view that you're helping stop the Cons. That said, tactical voting might help if, and only if:

1) The national situation is such that the Cons are either on the verge of a majority (as they may well be now) or on the verge of being pushed into second place. The key, though, is on the verge. If things are such that a majority is inevitable - or impossible for that matter - there's no benefit for tactical voting (though there may be a benefit to the party that advocates tactical voting, which usually means the Liberals). Now this is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for this approach to help. The other is:

2) The situation in your own riding must be such that the Conservative candidate could credibly either win or lose. This rules out a riding like Winnipeg Centre or Elmwood-Transcona (where the Cons are a non-entity) as well as ridings like Provencher or Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette (where most of the population thinks they'll go to Hell if they vote for anyone else).

It's worth noting too that even in such a case, the best tactical vote might actually be for the NDP (especially in parts of BC or Saskatchewan) or even the Greens (in Saanich-Gulf Islands, for instance) but I doubt too many Liberals are going to point out subtleties like this. Myself, I'm kind of hoping a Liberal canvasser comes to my door and tries to sell me on the subject of tactical voting so that I can rub his or her face in this fact.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Republicans want to bring back child labour

SB 222 – This act modifies the child labor laws. It eliminates the prohibition on employment of children under age fourteen. Restrictions on the number of hours and restrictions on when a child may work during the day are also removed. It also repeals the requirement that a child ages fourteen or fifteen obtain a work certificate or work permit in order to be employed. Children under sixteen will also be allowed to work in any capacity in a motel, resort or hotel where sleeping accommodations are furnished. It also removes the authority of the director of the Division of Labor Standards to inspect employers who employ children and to require them to keep certain records for children they employ. It also repeals the presumption that the presence of a child in a workplace is evidence of employment.
Source (h/t PZ Myers at Pharyngula).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Manitoba judge says sexual assault victim was asking for it

I wish I could say I was surprised:

A convicted rapist will not go to jail because a Manitoba judge says the victim sent signals that "sex was in the air" through her suggestive attire and flirtatious conduct on the night of the attack.

Kenneth Rhodes was given a two-year conditional sentence last week which allows him to remain free in the community, in a decision likely to trigger strong debate. The Crown wanted at least three years behind bars.

From the Free Press. Yeah, it's a little shocking that we still see travesties like this, but judges tend to stay in their positions for a long time, and it takes a while for the dinosaurs to die off. The only thing is, the judge in this case was appointed in 2009 - by the "tough on crime" Harper government. Maybe that's why the Sun, which is normally all over these stories, is strangely silent on the matter so far...

Edited to add: The Sun is finally reporting the story, a day late and several paragraphs short. I suppose they couldn't ignore this case forever...

More signs of knee jerk anti-tax sentiment in Canada

Councillors in Hamilton attempted to introduce a tax on large paved areas. There's a good reason to penalize such expanses, as they send more stormwater into the sewer system, which costs the city money. Of course, it's easy to whip up public sentiment against something like this, especially if you give it a scary sounding name like "rain tax" (perhaps they borrowed the notion from the Manitoba PCs, who have gotten ridiculous amounts of traction by applying the term "vote tax" to something that, strictly speaking, is not a tax at all). So what was the actual proposal anyway?

The fee, originally presented to council in 2009, was created to penalize the owners of large swaths of asphalt and concrete – surfaces that send storm water rushing into the city’s overloaded sewer system.

The initial version of the plan would have required households to pay an annual fee of around $72, about the equivalent of a 3 per cent increase on your property tax bill.

However, Merulla and Whitehead were proposing a new version of the plan that would only target the commercial and industrial sectors and protect residential taxpayers from the new fee.

Sounds pretty reasonable, and no doubt if you presented it this way to the public, most of them would agree with it. Of course, many councillors didn't want to take the chance on this, and the measure was defeated. Too bad, because as a commenter on the story pointed out, taxpayers are on the hook for the rain anyway, thanks to the costs of overloading the sewage system.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An mystery organization?

In today's Free Press there appears this article about First Nations medicine. It does raise some worthwhile issues, and I noted with interest that its author, Don Sandberg, is described as the president of the Nistanan Centre for Public Policy, described as "Canada's first aboriginal think-tank". Curiously, this organization has essentially no presence on the web; the only thing that came up in a Google search was the aforementioned article. A search for Mr. Sandberg's name, though, brought up a bunch of things he'd written for the better-known Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a notoriously right-wing organization that is given far too much ink in the media. This leads me to think that the Nistanan Centre is an organization that should be viewed with suspicion. Too bad.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

ND legislative committee recommends forcing university to keep team name

For quite some time, the University of North Dakota has called their sports teams "The Fighting Sioux". Understandably, many feel uncomfortable with using a name that at best perpetuates a very one-dimensional view of the indigenous people of this continent. And indeed, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the main university sports organization in the US, has recently ordered names and logos that are "hostile and abusive" (like, say, perpetuating racist stereotypes) to be changed. The university is willing to comply, but legislators are preparing to force them to keep the name at all costs... and even legislators who oppose the bill are reluctant to express approval of the name change:

During the committee discussion, Rep. Phil Mueller, D-Valley City, said he’s never had a problem with the Fighting Sioux nickname, but he would not support the bill.

He said the state Board of Higher Education and UND concluded it’s time to move on.

“I guess I’m of common mind with them about that. This isn’t going to go away,” Mueller said. “I don’t think that the Standing Rock people are going to decide this is all fine and the NCAA is going to be happy.”

From the Fargo Forum. To make it all the more odd, the name isn't even that old - according to Wikipedia they were called the Flickertails until 1930. The university was founded in 1883, and managed almost 50 years without the name...

What constitutes child abuse anyway?

Evan Emory, of Muskegon, Michigan, has been charged with manufacturing child pornography (h/t Ken at Popehat). Pretty serious stuff, one would think. Except that the "child pornography" in question isn't what most of us would call pornography - it's just a video of him singing a dirty song to elementary school children.

Still, one might think, that's a pretty bad thing to do, no? Except he didn't actually sing the song to the kids. He sang a perfectly innocent song, then edited the audio to make it appear that he sang the dirty lyrics. But the prosecution seems to think this is the same as actually molesting children on video.

As Ken points out, there might be grounds for a civil action here, on the basis of unauthorized use of the kids' images. But the idea that this is criminal (much less felony sexual abuse of children) is absurd, don't you think?

Conservative austerity - Not what the doctor ordered

Brian at Just Damn Stupid has found this Bloomberg article which shows the folly of cutting budgets when the economy is rocky:

Sorry, fiscal austerity doesn’t work. For evidence, look no further than the U.K.

This can’t be good news for the U.S. political right, whose mantra has been: cut spending, put a lid on deficits, and growth will improve.

All sorts of good things, it is claimed, will spring from a turn to austerity that stops all this stimulus nonsense and prevents the Federal Reserve from doing more quantitative easing. Reductions in spending, according to a theory known as Ricardian equivalence, will do no harm because lower borrowing will automatically lead to higher private spending. Plus, of course, there is the notion of crowding out, meaning that reining in the public sector leaves room for the private industry to step in and all will be well.

This is dangerous hogwash.

There is little historical precedent in the real world, though lots of fantasizing in the made-up world of economic theorists, to suggest that fiscal austerity works. The best example of austerity’s failure is the double-dip that occurred in the late 1930s in the U.S., when spending was reduced too soon in a nascent recovery. In contrast, the U.K. didn’t have a double-dip because it was engaging in classic Keynesian spending as it began re- arming.

And as Brian goes on to point out, Hugh McFadyen's promise to balance the budget on an annual basis would require ridiculous budget cuts... not what Manitoba needs by a long shot.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's the real story with Saudi Arabia's oil reserves?

A very good question. It's recently been reported (via Wikileaks, once again) that there are serious concerns about this:
The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.
Interesting. On the other hand, others argue that this is a faulty interpretation:
Asked by the American diplomats what he thought of Mr. al-Saif’s statements, he made what appeared an extraordinary statement: that the reserves figure was inflated by 300 billion barrels. Deducting that figure from the 716 billion barrels created the idea that Saudi reserves were 40% less than it officially said.

As it turns out, however, Mr. al-Husseini’s memory of that conversation is rather different.

He says he has no dispute with Aramco’s official reserves data, but disagrees with Mr. al-Saif’s projection for the future and with the diplomats’ characterization of its existing 716 billion barrels as “reserves”.

In fact, he says, that figure refers to “oil in place” which includes both recoverable and non-recoverable oil.

The kingdom’s “proven reserves”, the oil Saudi Aramco believes it can extract, are officially given as 260 billion barrels (Mr. al-Saif said the actual figure was probably more like 51% of the “oil in place” –- around 358 billion barrels).

So it seems this particular report may have been overstated. However, before one gets too complacent, it's worth considering the bigger picture, which is precisely what Gail the Actuary is attempting to do in this post at The Oil Drum. It sure looks like the overall trend for Saudi is downwards...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Drought in China may have far-reaching effects

The world's most populous country faces significant food supply problems:
HONG KONG — The United Nations’ food agency issued an alert on Tuesday warning that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.

China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades, for national security reasons. Any move by China to import large quantities of food in response to the drought could drive international prices even higher than the record levels recently reached.

“China’s grain situation is critical to the rest of the world — if they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shock waves through the world’s grain markets,” said Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, in the Philippines.

From the New York Times. This is good news, in the short run, for grain farmers in North America who will benefit from the higher prices, but it will be very bad for a lot of the world. Already, many point to food prices as a major contributing factor to the political unrest in the Middle East, and in even poorer parts of the world (such as sub-Saharan Africa) the consequences will be worse still.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Quebec prosecutors on strike

Quebec's government lawyers, including prosecutors, have walked off the job as of today. Apparently they are paid some 40% less than their counterparts in other provinces; what's particularly interesting, though, is that the government gave them the right to strike in 2003 in order to avoid having to give them binding arbitration instead; presumably arbitration would have forced the government to pay them properly beforehand and the government was gambling that they wouldn't have the nerve to actually walk out. Well, the government has lost its gamble. Amusingly, the radio coverage noted that if the government wanted to fix their mistake now, they'd be out of luck, because along with the prosecutors, the lawyers that would be needed to draft the legislation are themselves out on strike.

Unfortunately, when criminal cases get thrown out due to delay (as they no doubt will) the corporate media and the general public will likely lay the blame at the feet of the union, rather than the government where it clearly belongs. One can see an element of this in the Gazette's article on the issue; it makes no mention of arbitration as the reason they were given the right to strike in the first place.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Man faces deportation - because his wife died

After 12 years, Kenyan Steve Onyango has been told he's no longer welcome in Canada, after his wife, and sponsor, died three years ago.

Onyango owns a home in Windsor and works as a parking enforcement officer, yet he may have to leave the life he's built if government officials get their way.

When his wife Michelle passed away in 2008, his immigration claim died too. This month, the government sent him a letter informing him that his application for permanent residence had been denied because his sponsor was no longer living.

"Losing my wife was quite a loss to me," said Onyango. "I didn't realize that immigration would actually take that — me losing my wife — an an excuse to refuse or to deny my application for permanent residency. I was thinking that they would be more compassionate than that.

From the CBC. Yeah, I'd have thought they'd be more compassionate than that too, but evidently not. And I can't help but wonder if this would have happened if he had come from the US or western Europe.

Aussies get it, we don't

In some places, car buyers seem to be getting the message that fuel efficient cars are the way to go:

Australia's large car stalwarts - the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore - have been punished in the January new-car sales results, succumbing to a continued onslaught by smaller, more efficient vehicles.

The Ford Falcon - once Australia's best-selling car - managed just 1157 sales in January, being outsold by more than three-to-one by the Toyota Corolla. The Falcon, which is due to be updated this year with the addition of a four-cylinder engine option, didn't even register among the top 10 selling vehicles for January.

From the Brisbane Times. This makes perfect sense; even setting aside environmental concerns, fuel costs are already high and are only going to get higher in the long run. Which brings us to our own car buyers:

It turns out Manitobans like trucks better than cars, and domestic-made vehicles better than imports -- especially General Motors vehicles, which was the market leader last year with 27.2 per cent of the 44,025 light vehicles sold.

Where they seem to be divided is on size. Large pickup trucks were the most popular type of vehicle, accounting for 25.8 per cent of all sales. But compact cars were second, at 18.9 per cent, followed by compact SUVs at 16.3 per cent.

From the Free Press. So why is it that the Aussies, with their redneck reputation, are making more sensible decisions than we are? To be fair, this counts new vehicle sales only, and it could be that those who are sensible enough not to buy a huge willy-compensating truck are also sensible enough to buy used rather than new.

Cannon refuses to demand Mubarak's resignation

While the leaders of most countries, including the US, are calling on Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately, Canada's foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, doesn't seem to want this:
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was pressed by opposition MPs Wednesday night but repeatedly refused to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation.

The Americans have taken a much clearer stand. U.S. President Barack Obama has called for Mr. Mubarak to step down now, dismissing his plan to leave in September as fighting escalates in the streets of Cairo.

Mr. Cannon was speaking during what was at times a very passionate debate in the Commons on the worsening situation in Egypt. Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, who had negotiated the emergency session, led off the questioning of Mr. Cannon.
From the Globe. This might seem rather peculiar, but perhaps this has something to do with it. The confusing thing, though, is that you'd expect Obama to avoid such calls too... unless he's absolutely convinced that Mubarak is finished, in which case his current message makes sense (cutting Mubarak loose now will improve the chance of maintaining relations with the new regime).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cab company vows to flout law

The province is requiring cab drivers to undergo child abuse registry checks. Seems reasonable, given that taxis sometimes, uh, transport children. But the owner of Unicity Taxi is prepared to ignore this seemingly reasonable law:
Unicity said it won't comply with the new rules until it meets with the Taxicab Board to discuss its concerns.
From the Free Press (h/t Fat Arse). I understand why Unicity figure they can get away with this -- they're by far the largest cab company in Winnipeg, and if they're shut down it will be awfully hard to get a cab in this city. What I don't understand is why they're so worried about it, unless... well, use your imagination.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Egyptian regime's days may be numbered

The popular uprising in Egypt is showing every sign of success. The fact that it has not been crushed so far is a very positive sign for those who hope to see democracy take hold in America's Arab allies. Gwynne Dyer sums it up pretty well:
By 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon (January 28), the protesters in central Cairo were chanting: “Where is the army? Come and see what the police are doing to us. We want the army.” And that is the main question, really: where is the Egyptian army in all this?

Like armies everywhere, even in dictatorships, the Egyptian army does not like to use violence against its own people. It would much rather leave that sort of thing to the police, who are generally quite willing to do it. But in Alexandria, by mid-afternoon on Friday, the police had stopped fighting the protesters and started talking to them. This is how regimes end.

First of all the police realize that they face a genuine popular movement involving all classes and all walks of life, rather than the extremist agitators that the regime’s propaganda says they are fighting. They realize that it would be wrong—and also very unwise—to go on bashing heads in the service of a regime that is likely to disappear quite soon. Best change sides before it is too late.

Then the army, seeing that the game is up, tells the dictator that it is time to get on the plane and go abroad to live with his money. Egypt’s ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was a general before he became president, and he has always made sure that the military were at the head of the queue for money and privileges, but there is no gratitude in politics. They won’t want to be dragged down with him.

All this could happen quite fast, or it could spread out over the next several weeks, but it is probably going to happen. Even autocratic and repressive regimes must have some sort of popular consent, because you cannot hire enough police to compel everybody to obey. They extort that consent through fear: the ordinary citizens’ fear of losing their jobs, their freedom, even their lives. So when people lose their fear, the regime is toast.

From the Georgia Straight. This may well turn out to be the start of a wave of uprisings across the Arab world, much as the uprisings throughout eastern Europe in 1989 heralded the end of Soviet communism. Interestingly, though, the western powers have been a bit leery about endorsing it. Harper, for instance, is described as "cautiously" supporting the protesters, and this cautious support might well not have happened if he hadn't been caught by surprise by the whole issue. I wouldn't be surprised to see him back away from this stance, especially in light of what the Americans are saying:
Ahead of a day that could prove decisive, NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked Biden if the time has "come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?" Biden answered: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some... of the needs of the people out there."

Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
From the Christian Science Monitor. Funny, I thought the criteria for calling someone a dictator had to do with whether they were responsible to the people, not whether they serve the geopolitical interests of the US. One does wonder, though, how said geopolitical interests will be affected by this, especially if other dominoes in the area (such as Saudi Arabia) start to fall.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Corexit still lingers in Gulf

While the methane seems to have been mostly burned off by bacteria, which is a good thing given its potency as a greenhouse gas, it seems that one of the dispersants used to clean up the spill is still there:

A crucial component of the chemical dispersant applied to oil gushing from BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico last year did not break down as fast as scientists initially expected and probably remains at detectable levels in the deep ocean, scientists said on Wednesday.

Traces of the dispersant compound were found in September more than 150 miles from the well site, researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said in their report.

From the New York Times. While this isn't as bad as some of the more hysterical predictions, it is most definitely not a good thing. I, for one, will be curious to see how many Common Loons, Double-Crested Cormorants, and White Pelicans there are at my parents' cottage this year. All of these birds have always been common there, and all of them migrate through the Gulf of Mexico.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Anti-gang programs to close

The federal government has cancelled funding for some programs to give kids an alternative to gang life:

Four successful anti-gang programs will shut their doors in March when federal funding runs out, leaving at least 65 kids at the mercy of the streets again.

One program that helps refugees steer clear of gangs like the Mad Cowz is the only one of its kind in Canada. Another program helped teens with gang connections get jobs at grocery stores and gas stations.

Staff from the four mentorship and outreach programs that are destined to close say they've dramatically reduced the number of new criminal offences.

"It's not cost-effective, it's not ethically effective and it doesn't reduce crime to close these programs," said New Directions program manager Liz Wolff.

From the Free Press. Oh well, I guess they need people to fill all those new prisons they want to build...

Medical isotopes without reactors

Particle accelerators (linear as well as cyclotrons) have been around for a long time, so this shouldn't be too hard to do, one would think:

Research in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia will use cyclotrons and linear accelerators to make the radioactive substance.

Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis says the goal is to have more diversified supply that is less vulnerable to disruption.

From the Star. Certainly a good idea, though it will be more difficult for some isotopes (such as cobalt-60) than others.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Can "enhanced geothermal" solve our energy problems?

Most Manitobans are familiar with geothermal energy in its mild form, the "heat pumps" used for heating and cooling buildings. What fewer people realize is that if you drill deep enough, it gets hot enough to boil water, which can be used to spin turbines and thus drive generators. The Guardian's Damian Carrington thinks it offers all the benefits of nuclear fission, without the problems:
By mass, 99.9% of the Earth is hotter than 100C. That means that not far below our feet is the power to boil unlimited water and generate clean, renewable energy. Is the UK throwing all it can at this extraordinary opportunity? Of course not, who do you think we are? Germans?

That contrasts strikingly with the more glamorous sister of deep geothermal energy, nuclear power. Both ultimately tap the heat generated by the decay of radioactive elements. Geothermal plants send water down holes to bring to the surface the heat from natural radioactive decay deep in the mantle. Nuclear power mines the radionucleides, concentrates them, sends them critical and then wonders what to do with the leftover mess - not very elegant by comparison.

The coalition government has pledged that nuclear power will receive no taxpayer subsidies. But it can receive financial support by other means which are subsidies in all but name.

So what support is there for deep geothermal projects? Nothing. As Tim Smit - founder of the Eden project where one of just two projects in the UK is sited - put it last night at a Renewable Energy Association event in Westminster: "I'd like the same 'lack of support' the government is giving to nuclear."

Geothermal energy has been tapped in the UK since Roman times, via the hot springs at Bath and elsewhere. Shallow geothermal projects - such as ground source heat pumps - are slowly growing. But even Decc's own and very conservative estimate is that deep geothermal - a few kilometres down - could provide 10% of the UK's electricity.

And how! It runs 24 hours a day, so perfect for baseload. The water circulates in a closed-loop, so it's clean and sustainable. It is virtually zero carbon and the plants have a small surface footprint, so it's pretty NIMBY-proof.
Sounds like a great idea. Carrington isn't the first to suggest this either (I heard Gwynne Dyer advocating it on the radio several years back, for instance). Of course, it's not entirely trouble-free; there is some evidence linking deep geothermal systems to earthquakes in some cases, and I also wonder about localized problems from the release of subterranean gases (such as sulphur dioxide) when you drill several kilometres into the ground. Still, it's worth looking very seriously at this as an alternative to coal and natural gas (and eventually fission).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

U.S. taking Canada to arbitration over softwood

It seems the efforts to use the beetle-killed wood before it rots are displeasing to the Americans:

The beetle infestation that has ravaged the dense forests of the B.C. Interior could wind up costing Canada a good deal more – up to a half-billion dollars in penalties to the United States.

The Obama administration opened an aggressive new legal front in the enduring trade fight over lucrative softwood lumber exports, accusing Canada of violating a 2006 deal by allowing British Columbia to sell vast quantities of cut-rate, Crown-owned timber to lumber companies.

From the Globe. And what is the nature of this "subsidy"?
The heart of the U.S. case is that B.C. lumber producers have blatantly exploited the beetle infestation and a flawed timber pricing system to get their hands on vast quantities of good, cheap logs during the worst industry slump since the Great Depression. Lumber that typically would be sold to mills for as much as $18 per cubic metre was instead dumped for only 25 cents per cubic metre. The result lowered lumber prices across North America and inflicted pain for U.S. mills, according to the U.S. claim.
Right. So presumably we're supposed to let the stuff rot (and incidentally dump vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere), so that it will be cost-effective for the Yanks to cut down live trees. Does this make any sense?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vatican warned bishops not to report child abuse

There have been whiffs of this before, but it seems the smoking gun has surfaced:
A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials instructed the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they must not adopt a policy of reporting priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities.

The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that the hierarchy in Rome never determined the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the church did not impede criminal investigations of accused child abusers.

Abuse victims in Ireland and the United States quickly proclaimed the document to be a “smoking gun” that would serve as important evidence in lawsuits against the Vatican.
From the New York Times (h/t PZ Myers). So will the bishops who obeyed this order be charged with obstruction of justice? Somehow I doubt it; don't forget that we're talking about a country that is so beholden to the Church that abortion is still illegal even in cases of rape (though to be fair, they did finally legalize homosexuality, in 1993 to be exact).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Biofuels that don't compete with food crops

The idea of biofuels from microbial sources has been around for a while, but if this company's claims hold up, it would be a huge breakthrough:
In September, a privately held and highly secretive U.S. biotech company named Joule Unlimited received a patent for “a proprietary organism” – a genetically adapted E. coli bacterium – that feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, “fossil fuels on demand.”

We’re not talking “biofuels” – not, at any rate, in the usual sense of the word. The Joule technology requires no “feedstock,” no corn, no wood, no garbage, no algae. Aside from hungry, gene-altered micro-organisms, it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these “inputs,” it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as “artificial photosynthesis.”

Joule says it now has “a library” of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has “proven the process,” has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 U.S. gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year.

By way of comparison, Cornell University’s David Pimentel, an authority on ethanol, says that one acre of corn produces less than half as much energy, equivalent to only 328 barrels. If a few hundred barrels of crude sounds modest, recall that millions of acres of prime U.S. farmland are now used to make corn ethanol.

From the Globe. I have to quibble with the claim that "we're not talking biofuels"; of course these are biofuels -- they're fuels from biological sources, after all. I kind of get what Reynolds means, though; they don't have the drawbacks that most biofuels we see today have. And I'm pretty sure you'd at least need some minerals to nourish the bacteria. Nonetheless, this could be great news.

Of course, as the article admits, the company is extremely secretive about their process. Naturally, this doesn't necessarily mean it's hokum; they may be trying to protect trade secrets as they claim. Time will tell whether this is the real deal, or just another bit of vapourware (by the way, has anyone heard any news of EEStor lately?)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The myth of scarcity is about to become a reality

Quite often, at least in progressive circles, you hear of "the myth of scarcity". Basically, the point being made is that most famines don't result from not enough food, but from unequal distribution of food. And it's true - there is enough food to go around, for the time being. Unfortunately, as Gwynne Dyer points out, climate change and other factors are likely to complicate matters:

Is this food emergency a result of global warming? Maybe, but all these droughts, heat waves and floods could also just be a run of really bad luck.

What is nearly certain is that the warming will continue, and that in the future there will be many more weather disasters due to climate change. Food production is going to take a big hit.

Global food prices are already spiking whenever there are a few local crop failures, because the supply barely meets demand even now. As the big emerging economies grow, Chinese and Indian and Indonesian citizens eat more meat, which places a great strain on grain supplies.

Moreover, world population is now passing through seven billion, on its way to nine billion by 2050. We will need a lot more food than we used to.

From the Georgia Straight. When this happens, a very ugly word will have to become a big part of foreign aid - triage. It's already happening because many NGOs don't have the money to help everyone who needs it; climate change will ensure that we don't have the food. How will such decisions be made? How should they be made? I sure wouldn't like to be the one making those decisions...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Carbon capture project leaking into their land, couple says

As many have predicted, it seems that carbon capture isn't the panacea many had hoped:
First there were the strange blooms of algae on water that had pooled in a gravel pit near Jane and Cameron Kerr’s house. Then there were the dead animals – a cat, an African goat, a rabbit, a duck, a half-dozen blackbirds. Then there were the night-time blowouts, which sounded like cannons and left gashes in the side of the pit.

But what started as a series of worrisome problems on a rural Saskatchewan property has now raised serious questions about the safety of carbon sequestration and storage, a technology that has drawn billions in spending from governments and industry, which have promoted it as a salve to Canada’s growth in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Before the blowouts made them nervous enough to leave home, the Kerrs lived on a farm near Weyburn, which is home to a major project that involves taking captured carbon dioxide and injecting it into the ground. It pumps 6,000 tonnes of the substance underground ever day; since 2000, it has sequestered more than 16 million tonnes, all of it 1.4 kilometres below the surface.

From the Globe. This is unfortunate, though not particularly surprising. Happily, Saskatchewan is looking at alternatives, notably buying electricity from Manitoba. The western route for Bipole III doesn't look so bad now, does it?

Monday, January 10, 2011

More water woes

This time it's a dispute between two American states:

The issue before the court centered on a claim that Wyoming has been consuming more water due to irrigation advances such as center-pivot sprinklers.

Those sprinklers allow farmers to use water more efficiently, by increasing the amount that goes directly to their crops. But they also mean less surplus water comes off of fields - decreasing the "return flow" into rivers that flow downstream to Montana.

From the Bismarck Tribune. So in other words, Montana is mad because Wyoming isn't wasting enough water. Does that make any sense?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Details of accused gunman in Tucson rampage slowly emerge

Definitely some serious issues here:

Loughner lives with his parents about a five-minute drive from the shootings, in a middle-class neighbourhood lined with desert landscaping and palm trees. Sheriff’s deputies blocked off much of the street Sunday.

Neighbours said Loughner kept to himself and was often seen walking his dog, almost always wearing a hooded sweat shirt and listening to his iPod.

His high school friends said they fell out of touch with Loughner and last spoke to him around March, when one of them was going to set up some bottles in the desert for target practice and Loughner suggested he might come along. It was unusual — Loughner hadn’t expressed an interest in guns before — and his increasingly confrontational behaviour was pushing them apart. He would send nonsensical text messages, but also break off contact for weeks on end.

“We just started getting sketched out about him,” the friend said. It was the first time he’d felt that way.

Around the same time, Loughner’s behaviour also began to worry officials at Pima Community College, where Loughner began attending classes in 2005, the school said in a release.

Between February and September, Loughner “had five contacts with PCC police for classroom and library disruptions,” the statement said. He was suspended in September 2010 after college police discovered a YouTube video in which Loughner claimed the college was illegal according to the U.S. Constitution. He withdrew voluntarily the following month, and was told he could return only if, among other things, a mental health professional agreed he did not present a danger, the school said.

From the Star. Politically, he seems a bit confused as well:

Mistrust of government was Loughner’s defining conviction, the friends said. He believed the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and worried that governments were manoeuvring to create a unified monetary system (“a New World Order currency” one friend said) so that social elites and bureaucrats could control the rest of the world.

On his YouTube page, he listed among his favourite books “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World” — two novels about how authorities control the masses. Other books in the wide-ranging list included “Mein Kampf,” “The Communist Manifesto,” “Peter Pan” and Aesop’s Fables.

The mere fact that The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Animal Farm are all among his favourite books suggests that he doesn't fully understand any of those works. On the other hand, his views on monetary policy seem to be in line with a lot of the teabaggers. There are also suggestions that he thinks he's Earl Turner. And there are other odd things; he's an ardent atheist (a decidedly un-teabagger-like trait, incidentally), but evidently also a pro-lifer:
When other students, always seated, read their poems, Coorough said Loughner “would laugh at things that you wouldn’t laugh at.” After one woman read a poem about abortion, “he was turning all shades of red and laughing,” and said, “Wow, she’s just like a terrorist, she killed a baby,” Coorough said.
Given that one of the people he's accused of killing was a nine year old girl, there's more than a little irony in that.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

In case anyone doubted that teabaggers could be dangerous...

I think it's safe to assume that the shooter isn't a Democrat:

An outspoken Democrat congresswoman was gravely wounded after an assassin opened fire with an assault rifle at grocery store in Tuscon, Ariz., on Saturday.

At least six others were injured in a burst of gunfire in what may be the first shooting of a federal politican since former president Ronald Reagan was shot two decades ago in Washington, D.C.

Gabrielle Giffords, 40, an Arizona congresswoman, was shot at close range in the head, according to eyewitnesses. She was greeting constituents at a grocery store. Some of her aides were reportedly among those wounded.

From the Globe. The shooter has apparently been captured alive, so we should know more soon. This is a huge escalation, but it's not really novel; Giffords has been targeted by teabaggers before:
Last March, vandals stoned the front of Ms. Giffords' Tuscon office – one of several Democrat storefronts attacked – when at least 10 members of Congress reported death threats and attacks over the contentious health care reform bill that was the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s first two years as president.
The question is, how much longer will this go on?

Edited to add: There's a bit more information now. It seems that a total of 18 people were wounded in the shooting, several fatally, including a US federal judge as well as a nine year old child. There's some information about the suspect as well:
Giffords's assailant was last night named as a 22-year-old Afghanistan veteran Jared Lee Loughner. He was described by witnesses as a young white man who looked like a "fringe character", clean shaven with short hair and wearing dark clothing.
Sounds a lot like Timothy McVeigh actually. PTSD and inflammatory rhetoric can be a bad mix it seems...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Apparently Columbia is now a safe country

At least that's what the Harper government seems to think, hence the dramatic increase in the number of refugee claims from that country that are being rejected:

Colombia remains on Canada’s list of top 10 source countries for refugees. For the last 10 years, the acceptance rates for Colombian refugee claimants has hovered between 75 and 83%.

In 2010, the rate dropped to 53%, meaning almost half the claimants were denied. Also last year, a free trade agreement between Colombia and Canada came into effect, putting Ottawa under the microscope of advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch.

From the London Free Press, my bold. Gee, do you think this agreement might have something to do with it?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food prices continue to rise

It's happening around the world, and there's no sign of an end to it any time soon:

Food prices have soared to record levels around the world, raising fears that poor countries could face a crisis similar to the one that led to rioting and rationing two years ago.

“We are entering a danger territory,” Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) told reporters Wednesday.

From the Globe. And what are the main reasons for this?
Prices for many agricultural commodities started rising last fall largely because of poor grain crops in Canada, Russia and Ukraine. They have spiked even higher recently because of dry weather in Argentina, a major soybean producer, and flooding in parts of Australia, which has wiped out many wheat crops. The price of wheat has jumped about 17 per cent in the last month while corn is up 11 per cent. Both are now close to two-year highs. Other food staples have been soaring as well, including canola, up 43 per cent last year, and sugar, which hit 30-year highs.
Now it's premature to say that this is clearly because of climate change; it's always a bit dodgy to attribute any particular weather event to climate change (or, for that matter, to claim it as a counterexample). However, I think it's safe to say that this sort of thing will become more common as the climate suffers further disruption.

Naturally, when countries suffer from poor crops, some of them will impose restrictions on the export of said crops. Governments generally want to ensure that their own people are fed first, after all. Well, some don't think this should be allowed:

The environment minister, Caroline Spelman, today risked incurring the wrath of many major food-growing countries by saying it should be illegal to halt food exports even at times of national crisis.

In a clear reference to Russia and the Ukraine, which temporarily halted exports of wheat and other grains in order to protect supplies for their own people during an unprecedented heatwave last year, she said no country should be allowed to interfere with the global food commodity market.

From the Guardian. Of course, Spelman presumably doesn't think that commodity speculators should be restricted from such interference; that's part of business after all. It's only when sovereign nations do so for the benefit of their own people that it becomes unacceptable.

Incidentally, thanks to NAFTA, Canada faces a similar restriction with regards to energy. If we face a shortage in the future (say a reduction in the flows of the Saskatchewan and Churchill rivers as a result of melting glaciers) and need to reduce our energy exports, any reduction in exports must be proportionate to a reduction in domestic consumption -- even if it means brownouts here. This makes no sense with energy, and it makes no sense with food either.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A made-in-Canada launch vehicle?

It seems the folks at the Canadian Space Agency (and others, but more on this in a moment) are suggesting that we should develop our own indigenous rocket for space launches. It's an interesting idea, and not as far out as one might think (we've been making first-rate sounding rockets for decades, so an orbital launch vehicle is not out of the question). There are a couple of rather interesting tidbits buried in the story, though. Consider this:
Shortt pointed out that sub-orbital launches used to take place at Churchill, and that site could be used for orbital launches.
Well, Churchill could indeed be used for orbital launches, though it's not really well-suited to the more conventional sort of launches, because it's a long way from the equator. Ideally, you want to launch from as close to the equator as possible (think Cape Canaveral, Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, or the EU's facility in French Guiana) so as to take maximum advantage of the Earth's rotation and thus reduce the amount of fuel needed to reach orbital velocity. However, Churchill would be a decent launch site to put satellites in polar orbit... which is precisely the kind of orbit favoured for spy satellites. Of course, there are other uses for polar orbits, but consider this point from the Free Press story:
Canada has the technological capacity to build its own rocket to launch small satellites, officials and documents have revealed, highlighting a top priority for future research at the Defence Department as well as something that's being studied at the Canadian Space Agency.
My bold, of course. And under Harper, this is the only way we're likely to see the development of space launch technology in this country, I fear.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Biofuel for aircraft

The gas turbine engine (be it turboshaft, turboprop, or jet) has a number of virtues, one of which is the ability to run on pretty much anything that burns. When Chrysler built a series of experimental gas turbine cars in 1963, diesel was the recommended fuel, but drivers experimented with numerous other fuels, including gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, tequila, and reportedly Chanel No. 5 with success. For this reason, turbine engines are good candidates for biofuel substitution. And it's happening:

The Australian airline Qantas will this month announce a deal to build the world's second commercial-scale plant to produce green biojet fuel made from waste for its fleet of aircraft.

Its proposed partner, the US-based fuel producer Solena, is also in negotiations with easyJet, Ryanair and Aer Lingus about building a plant in Dublin, although this project is less advanced.

Airlines are trying to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels ahead of their entry into the EU's carbon emissions trading scheme in January 2012 and the introduction of other new environmental legislation. Under the scheme, any airline flying in or out of the EU must cut emissions or pay a penalty.

Solena's joint venture with Qantas – which could be announced within the next fortnight – follows a tie-up with British Airways, signed in February last year, to build the world's first commercial-scale biojet fuel plant in London, creating up to 1,200 jobs.

Once operational in 2014, the London plant, costing £200m to build, will convert up to 500,000 tonnes of waste a year into 16m gallons of green jet fuel, which BA said would be enough to power 2% of its aircraft at its main base at Heathrow. The waste will come from food scraps and other household material such as grass and tree cuttings, agricultural and industrial waste. It is thought the Qantas plant, to be built in Australia, will be similar.

From the Guardian. The fact that it's waste that they're using, as opposed to food crops, is a very good thing; however I wonder just how much fuel can be produced that way. I suspect that future generations will fly a lot less than we do. Or, they'll make it out of palm oil, which is actually even worse than petroleum in terms of its climate effect, owing to the amount of rainforest that is typically cleared to produce it.