Thursday, March 29, 2007

Blue Gold

In a recent post I described a future in which global warming could change rainfall patterns, causing much of the United States to become desert. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the process may already be starting.

Canada, according to current predictions, may not suffer from lower rainfall when temperatures rise. But as Walt Kelly said, "When you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last." Canada must share water with the US - morally, and because we won't have any choice.

Bulk water export is currently illegal in Canada. At a lecture I attended recently, Canadian civil servant Peter Boehm hinted that the Harper government is planning to rescind that law. But even if we hold out on prohibiting bulk water exports, there are lots of ways the US can get water - the US has a lot of shore line on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence, for a start.

Gwynne Dyer thinks that, other than some cottage owners on the Great Lakes, Canadians won't be hurt by sharing our water with the United States. He says the US could keep a couple of supertankers in the mouth of the Skeena River, scoooping up fresh water before it flows into the Pacific Ocean, as well as divert Great Lakes water, and that he doubts it will resort to reversing the direction of rivers. He cautions that Canada will be better off if we keep control of the situation - otherwise the US may declare water a national security issue and take it by force.

What I worry about is not the diversion of needed water to the US. Of course if we have water and the US needs it then we should share. My concern is the diversion of Canadian water to ridiculous over-consumption in the US. The US already diverts water to grow rice in arid areas and to allow golf courses in the desert. I have seen huge sprinklers in Arizona watering a grassy median on a hiway surrounded by desert. I'm afraid it's going to feel like rape and plunder.

The issue of the US taking our water is a passionate one for Canadians. It was one of the most oft-heard concerns during the negotiation of the Free Trade Agreement, and is the reason that we passed a prohibition on bulk water exports. It isn't going to be an easy thing to give up.

In the meantime, here's something to think about: "Mandatory or voluntary water restrictions were placed in effect in parts of Florida, Texas, Oklahoma as lake and reservoir levels dropped and other municipal water supplies were reduced. River transportation was severely curtailed because of low levels of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. Agricultural impacts of drought include farmers being driven out of business and hay shortages in Wyoming, and low crop yields in Colorado, South Dakota, Missouri and Alabama. Wildlife population declines were noted in Arizona, Oklahoma and South Dakota." That was issued by the National Climactic Data Center in November.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Eighty Percent Carrot

Two Scottish scientists have perfected a method for making things out of vegetables. They are currently producing fishing rods made out of carrots, but hope to add rutabagas, turnips and parsnips to their melange. They say their technology will someday be used to create snowboards, engineering components and even battleships - replacing petroleum-based plastics.

Of course, the idea has been around for a long time. For example, in the dedication to the 1980 edition of Ringworld Engineers, Larry Niven wrote, "The Machine People would be able to use the vegetable sludge for other purposes, up to and including a plastics industry."

Some counter that we should not be using food to make plastics. This argument carries some weight in the ethanol debate (huge government subsidies leading to farmers switching to corn for ethanol production). I'd like to hear more on this argument vis-a-vis plastics made out of root vegetables. Fertilizer is a petroleum-based commodity (or so I hear). But perhaps legumes grown for the plastic industry could be grown in pure manure since we don't have to worry about them being safe to eat.

The New US Attorneys Must Face Congress or Go

The US Attorney scandal is off the home pages of the New York Times and Washington Post today. A new scandal has emerged about the General Services Administration chief conspiring to help Repub candidates.

But the new US Attorneys can't be left in place. They must face Congressional scrutiny or be let go.

As I detailed in an earlier post, last year the Repubs amended the Patriot Act so that they could appoint US Attorneys without the congressional approval that is called for in the Constitution. The Patriot Act must not be allowed to be turned into a partisan tool. Its provisions must only be used for the purposes for which it was created - security. There is no security issue here. All the evidence is indicating that the US Attorneys who were fired were done so because they refused to play ball for Repub candidates in the last election. All the evidence is indicating that the replacements were chosen because they are fiercely partisan hacks who will help Repub candidates win.

It matters a lot who fills the posts of US attorney. Congress must scrutinize these new appointments. And we musn't let the current administration corrupt democracy any more.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

License to Kill

George Bush is turning the world into a James Bond movie...

Dirty Tricks and the US Patriot Act

After 9/11, the US and Canadian governments brought in powerful legislation to help the government prevent more terrorist acts. (Arguably, Canada was forced to follow the US in this.) Some people protested that the new laws curtailed civil liberties but they were told not to worry, the new laws were just aimed at terrorists and would never be misused. Plus, we were told, if the new laws were ever misused there would be a huge hue and cry.

Well of course they were misused, horribly, resulting in tragedies like Maher Arar's months in a Syrian prison and a string of scandals in the US. But those were all still, at least, terrorist related.

The Bush government has now misused the US Patriot Act for purely partisan purposes - for purposes so partisan that they make Nixon look like a wussy. The March 26 New Yorker ("Winds on Capital Hill - Bullets") reports that the recent firing of US attornies and their replacement with highly partisan Republicans would not have been possible without the Patriot Act, becase US attorneys must be confirmed by Congress. The article goes on,
[The new US attorneys] did not undergo a confirmation process before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as is required by the Constitution. Instead, the President appointed [them] under a little-noticed provision of the 2006 renewal of the Patriot Act, which allows for the indefinite appointment of an interim US Attorney without Senate approval. Ostensibly, the provision was intended to be used in situations where national security might be at stake, such as the death of a sitting US Attorney resulting from terrorist attack.
The really scary thing about this is that the new powers were added to the Patriot Act only last year, and the firings began almost immediately. I cannot believe that it was an accident that these new powers were slipped in under the radar. This was almost certainly a deliberate move to subvert the Constitution.

This information in the New Yorker is not new. If you google
"patriot act" "us attornies"
you'll find hundreds of links to blogs and comment sections where people are talking about it. But there aren't many MSM articles, and I couldn't find any that used this fact in a headline. Even the New Yorker article just mentions it in passing.

A lot of Americans are feeling that the firing of the US attorneys may not be such a big deal because Clinton fired US attorneys as well. However, when Clinton proposed replacements, they had to be approved by Congress. There are other differences - the recent firings are scathingly, cynically political. Bush targeted attornies who refused to persecute Democrat candidates before the last election and he put in some shady characters, some of whom would likely not have passed Congressional scrutiny.

These new attorneys are there for one purpose - to disrupt the next election. The New Yorker article focuses on one new US attorney, Tim Griffin, who has a history of targeting black voters for voter challenges - and that was back when he was just an aide to Karl Rove, and didn't have prosecutorial powers. If this situation is not corrected, we can expect an even higher level of voter fraud in the 2008 election than we've seen in the last seven years.

What may be happening here is that Bush and his administration are being sacrificed to ensure a Republican victory in the next election. After all, Bush can't run again (at least not that Bush), and they can work on rehabilitating his legacy later.

Update/Mea culpa: When I realized that "attorney" was not pluralized as "attornies" but as "attorneys" the Google search got a lot more main-stream hits. Sorry about that.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Trouble With Google

Ten years ago or whenever it was that Google first appeared in our browsers, it was one of many emerging sites that let us search the internet. However, most of the others followed a "portal" model: they provided news, weather, customizable areas, and lots of ads. Most of us had dial-up and the portals were slow to load. Also, ads and spam were new things back then, and most people were wary of them. (Now we're just weary of them.) Some were utilities you had to install (like Copernicus), but they were clunky to use.

So Google won big and its competitors faded away. The business news said it was because of Google's superior search engine, but I suspect the biggest reason was the nice, sparse interface. When I had dial-up I got in the habit of using as my home page because it was the fastest loading page around, and I still use it as my home page, even though I have the Google toolbar.

But Google has never been as exceptional a search engine as it thinks it is, and some of its recent attempts at improvement have fallen flat. I have given up on Google News (except as a way to get around the Globe & Mail subscription fee). Google Blog (as I recently argued), is a dud.

Furthermore, the paid advertising in Google's results pages are annoying. It's easy to click on one of the first addresses without realizing that it's a sponsored ad. In addition, Google doesn't make any attempt to block the fake sites that pretend to be about your topic, but that are apparently created on the fly based on what you're looking for. Also, I'm having increasing difficulty finding a hotel's web site - I have to wade through hundreds of commercial hotel reservation sites. Overall, Google could navigate the crap-commercial sites a whole lot better.

There are some definite advantages to Clusty (which also has images and news).

My intention here is not to slam google. I still like that spare home page with the occasional little joke built into the typography. I want it to be good. I just want it to be better.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Climate Wars

Tonight at the University of Waterloo, Gwynne Dyer launched a world-wide lecture tour. The title of his tour is "Climate Wars." Dyer's a great speaker, speaking completely off the cuff with as much first-hand knowledge of the world as anyone I've ever seen, and I recommend that you get to his lecture if he's appearing near you. It's must-hear. This post is from my notes.

Dyer argues that the effect of uncontrolled global warming will be:

- mass starvation
- mass population movement
- war

He says if we let climate change go to the tipping point we will face dire changes in rainfall distribution that will change agricultural production that will in turn destabilize world politics. He says many governments and institutions are studying the implications of climate change on the world food supply and other factors, but they're keeping it quiet.

The way it works now is that water is absorbed into the atmosphere at the equator and then comes down, in most part, at around the same latitude north and south of the equator. This results in a band of desert at about 20-25% latitude north and south of the equator, and just past that desert band there is a breadbasket. Global warming causes the rain to shift further away from the equator.

Dyer talked to a researcher in India who recently did a study for the World Bank on the effect on Indian agricultural production if the mean temperature rises by 2 degrees and 5 degrees Celsius. (These are the lower and upper limit on what is expected to happen this century.) Her conclusion: at a 2 degree increase, India's agricultural production will decrease by 25%. I didn't quite get what he said about a 5 degree increase but it seemed to be close to no agricultural production. The World Bank has not made this study public.

Other studies predict that if the temperature rises by 5 degrees, the world will lose 50 to 70% of its agricultural production. The US agricultural breadbasket, the Midwest, will be hit hard. At a 5 degree increase, the US will lose more than half of its agricultural production. Greece, Italy, Spain and southern France will also do very badly. Australia, China and India will lose almost all their agricultural production.

Canada (with the exception of southern Manitoba), Britain, Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, Tasmania and New Zealand will be fine. Some of those countries might even become a bit more productive. It might be difficult to bring agriculture online in the far north, however, because the land will be water-logged.

When Dyer was born, in 1943, there were 2 billion people. There are now 6.5 billion. The prediction is that the population will plateau at 8.5 billion. That is already pushing to the limit our ability to feed ourselves. Dyer says that about the only way we have left to increase our agricultural productivity is to stop diverting so much grain to meat production. But currently there is very little slack in the system. The world has less than a 45-day reserve of grain.

Dyer says that Britain is one of the most knowledgeable countries in this area because, in part, Margaret Thatcher was a trained chemist and she understood what the climatologists were talking about. Britain is conducting massive research on the issue with the idea that they may become "lifeboat Britain" - an island with food surrounded by countries without. Russia, too, faces a problem because of its border with China. In China, only Manchuria will retain agricultural productivity if the temperature rises by 5 degrees.

Dyer stressed that his figures, which largely come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are conservative. The Panel works by consensus, so tends to low-ball figures. Their predictions also take into account that many countries are lowering emissions. Their predictions don't take into account unknowns such as methane gas being released when the permafrost melts or other possible types of ecological collapse.

Over the 150 years since the industrial revolution, 95% of man-made green house gas emissions have come from the wealthy northern countries. At the start of the industrial revolution, atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 285 parts per million. Now it's 380 parts per million, and rising 4 ppm per year. The point of no return is thought to be 450-550 ppm.

Dyer thinks that we can still avert disaster. He says that outside the US and Canada, emissions are stabilized. Northern countries have significantly improved the amount of GDP they get from a ton of emission.

The reason we need a framework like Kyoto is that emissions/GDP and overall emissions are increasing in southern countries as they industrialize. He said, "They may be adding the bit that makes the cup overflow but we filled the cup." Climate change initiative must be global and must address this issue.

Northern countries need to make deeper cuts so that southern countries can grow. Dyer said that developing countries like India are very aware of the dilemma they're in of needing to industrialize to meet their citizens' basic needs, but the planet being in a precarious situation. He said they're extremely bitter about the level of pollution caused by the north.

Dyer thinks that the US is finally coming around - that the coal, gas and electricity industries had flooded the media with PR and junk science to deny global warming, but that now even they have cut it out and the government is acknowledging the need to do something. The good news, he said, is that once the US gets going they can be very effective.

He said this is about the best time in the history of the world for us to have to deal with a problem like this. It's a golden age: we're at peace, unified, and have strong international agreements.

But, he says, we won't be able to deal effectively with global climate change if we slip into another cold war. And another cold war is what the Bush administration has been heading us towards.

According to Dyer, the Bush government is in full-out panic about the rise of China. He said the buzz at the American Enterprise Institute (a think tank that is enormously influential to the Bush people) is that the US is currently facing what Britain faced in 1900.

In 1900, Britain had been a global superpower for about 50 years. There were two countries who threatened Britain's position: Germany and Russia. (Britain's traditional enemy was France, but it was not then a threat.) Germany was stronger, so Britain chose to isolate it. Britain made treaties with countries surrounding Germany, including Russia, and so squeezed it. Britain's tactics were successful (except for the two world wars), and it retained its position for an extra 50 years.

The position of many at the American Enterprise Institute is that the supremacy of the US is threatened, and it should follow a similar strategy. The two main economic threats are India and China, but China is the bigger threat so the Bush administration has made significant moves to isolate it.

The US has pressured Japan to remilitarize. The US has moved the 7th fleet into the area. They have made a number of treaties and pacts, including with Singapore, but the main one is with India.

India was non-aligned since its independence, but that changed with the 2005 military cooperation agreement it signed with the US. The Bush administration has been wooing India for years to reach this agreement. India gets all sorts of things out of it: full technology transfer (which the US doesn't even give to its NATO allies), missile defense, military training. Congress has voted to take India off the nuclear blacklist (which it has been on since its 1998 nuclear tests) and allow it to trade in nuclear technology.

Dyer cited an official visit made to India by Condoleeza Rice. A state department spokesperson announced at a press conference that the US would help make India into a great power by the 21st century. Someone asked: Do you mean in all aspects, including military? The spokesperson answered yes. Dyer said he has heard this exchange quoted at least 20 times in India.

Dyer says that for now, China is taking the high road on this, pretending to ignore what the US is doing so as not to provoke them further. But if the Chinese population find out about it - an ironic twist given the west's demands for greater freedoms for the Chinese populace - then they will demand that China take counter-measures.

And at this point, an international incident, such as something happening in Taiwan, could drive the US and China into cold war. If that happens, we won't have the kind of international agreement on climate change that we need to avert disaster.

Note: If there are any poorly argued statements in this post or any incorrect facts, it's much more likely to be due to my note-taking than mistakes by the speaker.

See also:
Global Warming Report
UN Predicts 50 Million Environmental Refugees by 2010
Unsustainable Growth
America's Indian Ally

Vive Le Canada

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Car Cartel

In Monday's federal budget, Prime Minister Steven Harper introduced a program to tax gas-guzzling cars and provide hefty rebates for fuel-efficient cars.

To be eligible for a rebate, a new vehicle must be purchased or leased after March 19. For a rebate, cars must have a combined fuel consumption rating of 6.5 liters per 100 kilometers or less, while minivans, SUVs and light pickup trucks must have a rating of 8.3 liters/100 kilometers or less. The rebate starts at $1,000, and rises by $500 for each half liter/100-kilometer improvement, to a maximum of $2,000.

New passenger vehicles (excluding trucks) that consume more than 13 liters/100 kilometers will be hit with a $1,000 tax. The tax will increase by $1,000 for each extra liter/100 kilometers, to a maximum of $4,000.

Here are some examples of how it will work (with liters/100 kilometers in brackets, where I know them):

Toyota Prius: $2,000 rebate (4.1)
Honda Civic Hybrid: $2,000 rebate (4.5)
Ford Escape HEV 4x4: $2,000 rebate ($1,500?) (7.4)
Toyota Corolla: $1,000 rebate (6.3)
Mini Cooper M6: $1,000 rebate (6.5)
Saturn Vue Hybrid: $1,000 rebate (7.9)
Hummer: $4,000 tax
Jeep Cherokee: $4,000 tax

The car industry has some similarities to the illegal drug industry. If we want to reduce trafficking in illegal drugs, we need to target both the drug addicts in inner cities and the drug producers in South America and Afghanistan. If we want to reduce oil consumption, we need to influence both drivers in Canada and the big car manufacturers in Detroit and Japan.

In fact, consumer demand for small, fuel-efficient cars has been around for a long time, and manufacturers still aren't providing North Americans with good options. I drive a 10-year-old Corolla and am starting to think about buying a new car. I hope to put off the purchase for a few years, but I want to be ready in case my car starts to be unreliable. I want a car that is very small and very fuel efficient, but that has low maintenance costs and will last a long time. Oh yeah, and I want to spend as little as possible.

I don't want a hybrid. Hybrids have too much expensive, incomprehensible stuff that can break and that costs a fortune to repair. I see a hybrid as like a high-efficiency furnace: it costs less in fuel but the total cost of running it is no better than a less efficient model because of higher maintenance costs. (Plus, there's this sort of criticism of the Prius, FWIW.)

I don't want a diesel. I don't want to be stuck in some unknown town unable to find a gas station that sells diesel fuel. Plus I park outside and I'm concerned about problems starting them.

I really love the "smart car" but I don't want one because they're diesel. Also, I've read about a number of downsides: very poor handling; heat buildup in the back that means you can't carry groceries; high maintenance costs; things in the back storage area flying into the front if you brake hard.

VW bugs and Minis have been morphed into luxury cars, and cost way more than I would ever pay for a vehicle.

I want a reliable car that will last a long time without expensive maintenance, so that rules out American cars. (I heard the president of a big US auto company on the news a while back. He said that they had finally learned the lesson of providing cars that lasted. He said, "We have learned that people want to keep cars for three, even five years!" My god.)

I'd prefer a two-door with a hatchback (what they call a three-door). I really liked the Toyota Echo. However, Toyota replaced the wildly popular Echo with the Yaris, which is much glitzier, bigger, and has less visibility for short people. There are other options, like the Honda Fit, but they appear to be 4-door sedans, and that's too big for me. If I wanted that, I'd probably get another Corolla.

Mileage on the Yaris is 6.9 liters/100km city, 5.5 hiway, which isn't too bad. It may be the only car on the market that will meet my needs, but it's not as small or fuel-efficient as I want. Plus, even economy cars now have too many luxuries. I don't want automatic windows (which I believe are standard on Hondas). I don't want these new-fangled side-view mirrors that cost $500 to replace, or color-coordinated bumpers that don't provide impact protection (but I guess I'm stuck with those). I don't want computerized seats or automatic transmission. I don't want air conditioning - you can kiss fuel efficiency goodbye when you run air conditioning. I just want a basic, cheap, reliable, fuel-efficient little car.

Surely I'm not the only person asking for this. I can sort of see why the car industry doesn't want to provide a cheap, basic car. Labor costs are extremely high in the car industry, so the company squeezes out a little more profit by adding expensive luxury items that up the price of the car. And they use expensive parts to get a little more profit out of the parts business. But European car manufacturers face the same cost structure, and they produce all kinds of small cars.

The Toronto Star provided a couple of revealing quotes yesterday:

- Auto industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers: "The timing is just terrible for some companies. The federal government just threw a missile into their boardrooms. Can you imagine the president of GM Canada phoning Detroit to tell his bosses that they're slapping some of our models with levies."

- Buzz Hargrove, President of the Canadian Auto Workers: "The incentive is to buy vehicles that we don't produce in Canada. We've got enough problems in the industry, enough people already on layoff and thousands scheduled to be laid off before the end of the year. And now our government is encouraging people to buy vehicles from offshore to throw more people out of work." (Buzz is being a tad disengenuous because Toyotas that are made in Canada will benefit, but Toyota isn't unionized.)

I say: Kudos to the Harper government. We need someone to throw a missile into the boardrooms of the big car manufacturers. We need the whole industry to start worrying about how to provide more fuel-efficient cars. The program should go further, and include trucks in the gas-guzzling category. (If anyone needs a vehicle for work, it should receive exemptions.) But it's a damn good start.

Note: The Globe & Mail Report on Business came out against the program, saying that it had been tried in Ontario and BC and didn't work. I don't know about BC, but in Ontario the rebate and the levy were both $100. Of course it had no effect.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Google Blog Search Bites

Google Blog Search is Google's search tool for blogs. The idea is that regular Google is good for info from the main stream media, encyclopedias or commercial sites, but for blogs, we can use Google Blog Search.

However, Google Blog Search doesn't work as you'd expect. If a topic is in the MSM, Google Blog Search often finds the MSM sites first. If a topic is only in amateur blogs, regular Google is a better way to find where it's being discussed.

One reason for the problems with Google Blog Search may be that there are ways to improve your indexing in it, and web site professionals are more likely to use them than regular bloggers. For example, see the Google Blog Search Pinging API and the simpler Ping-o-Matic. This gives an edge to the commercial sites. Commercial sites are also probably more savvy about how to take advantage of Google Blog Search's search rules.

A little poking around makes me think that Google Blog Search is junk and should be avoided.

Here's my research...

First, I opened Google Blog Search and searched for "Conrad Black" ( a topic that is currently both in blogs and MSM). Of the first two pages of links (10 per page), none of the links were to amateur blogs. All of them were commercial operations with editors and staff. Some links were to "blogs" on big media outlets like the Wall Street Journal. Some were just to MSM sites with (in this case) no blog content, like Macleans and Canoe. There was also a really creepy online betting site.

I decided to try a topic that is in amateur blogs but not in the MSM, so searched on that great obsession of Canadian bloggers, Jason Cherniak. In this case, Google Blog Search seemed to work fine, and provided 270 links out of a total of 1,368 reported pages. But then I searched on "Jason Cherniak" in regular Google. This returned 200 links of a reported 62,900 pages... and I didn't find a single hit that wasn't a blog. Regular Google was more effective at finding blogs than Google Blog Search.

I tried searching "agblosticism", a term my friend Tom made up that has appeared in only three sites, all blogs. On Google Blog Search, only two sites were found. On Google, all three were returned. (The third site, Quick Study, is clearly a blog but apparently doesn't appear as one to Google Blog Search.)

Finally, I searched for my blog - first its name and then its URL. Again, Google Blog Search was a great disappointment compared to Google. It was even worse when I searched for a topic I have blogged on. For example, I have written a lot of stories about the environment, so I tried searching for "yappa ding ding" environment. Google returned over 500 hits; Google Blog Search returned one old post.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Being the Spendiest

In the lead-up to Monday's budget, Garth Turner calls Finance Minister Jim Flaherty our "spendiest politician".

And this is the big worry about the Conservatives (other than their social policies): They're not fiscal conservatives. Since 1993, the Liberals are Canada's fiscally conservative party. Liberals make balanced budgets and a recession-free economy their priority. The Conservatives are more about ideology than good governance: they want less government and lower taxes for ideological reasons, not to help Canadians. (The same process, only ten-fold, has happened in the US, where the current far-right administration is a reckless steward of the economy.)

Harper likes to describe himself as an economist, but (1) He only has an MA in Economics, and as someone who also has an MA in Economics, I can assure you that an MA in Economics does not an economist make; and (2) During his time as PM he hasn't acted like an economist in any way, shape or form. A year and a bit into Harper's rule, we're still riding the wave of a strong economy built by Paul Martin, but Harper's spending is ineffective and out of control. After Mulroney's reckless (and equally ineffective) spending and tax cuts, we underwent years of privation to make our economy healthy again. It's a damn shame that we're letting Harper put it back in the sewer.

There's a case to be made that many conservatives want to create conditions for a bad economy so that they can slash government spending. Their goal is not fiscal health but a smaller government. For decades they pretended that their goal was to balance the budget, but once the budget got balanced they seem to like to create deficits so that they can continue slashing. Some of us, however, believe that government spending is useful: that we need infrastructure, help for the disabled or sick, enforcement of regulations so we don't live in chaos, human rights, civil liberties, and all that stuff. And by spending effectively and taxing fairly, we (Liberals) have shown we can achieve all our goals.

The current climate has an added threat to good governance: Quebec separatists see a way to achieve their ends through Harper's anti-government ideology, and despite Harper being anathema to many Quebeckers, they may vote for him as a way to curtail federal influence in their province. We used to think that separation was the worst thing that Quebec could do to the fabric of Canada; now separation seems like nuthin' compared to what Harper and his separatist allies may have in store for us.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sci-fi Meme

I was just reading the sci-fi meme over on Five Public Opinions. The idea is that you reproduce the list and bold what you've read. Here's my record:

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Dune, Frank Herbert
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Neuromancer, William Gibson (I was unable to finish it)
Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (maybe)
Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
Cities in Flight, James Blish (maybe)
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett (? - his run together for me)
Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany (maybe)
Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
Gateway, Frederik Pohl (maybe)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Little, Big, John Crowley
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick (probably)
Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, Larry Niven
Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock (maybe)
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks (maybe)
Timescape, Gregory Benford
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

But this list is missing too many important writers to be of much interest to me. It also aims too much at the best-sellers (c'mon - Anne Rice? - although I'm pleased to see Theodore Sturgeon in the list). Off the top of my head, to have any credibility it must include:

James P Blaylock
Steven Brust
Emma Bull
Tim Powers
Kate Wilhelm
Connie Willis
John Wyndham

Saturday, March 10, 2007

New Techniques in Cooking

From my point of view, the problem with molecular gastronomy (aka "the science of deliciousness") is that it's too much about making the weirdest sounding crap imaginable. For example: bacon covered in butterscotch and dehydrated apple, threaded on a wire (at Chicago's Alinea restaurant). Lamb encrusted with crushed peppermints; foie gras lollipops encrusted with candy (at Avenues in the Peninsula, also in Chicago). Deep-fried mayonnaise (at WD-50 in New York). Snail porridge; sardines-on-toast sorbet (at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK). Deep fried bunny ears in the El Bulli 2003-2004 cookbook.

And that's why this stuff is just a flash in the pan. It makes one worry that our civilization has hit its zenith and is sliding into decadence.

But some people are taking the science of food (as I learned it from Shirley Corriher, Alton Brown and Harold McGee) and are pushing it into new realms with equipment, ingredients and techniques not previously found in home kitchens. Some of that has some interesting applications.

Take the iSi whipper (pronounced "icey"). This is like a soda siphon except it uses nitrous oxide cartridges. Restaurants use them to make whipped cream, but you can put soup, sauce or any liquid in them with interesting results. Here are some recipes. Four sheets of gelatin (1.7g each) is equivalent to one packet (1 tablespoon) in North America:

* Zaccardi's recipes
* ISI recipes
* Pina Colada and Americano drinks
* Prairie Moon

(Note about the iSi whipper: Some argue that this flash in the pan is already past, but I think the problem was that restaurants were using iSi-created foams (aka espumas) too much for garnishes that didn't add much to the meal. I think they have endless possibilities for drinks, cold soups, salad dressings, dips, and maybe mayonnaise. Be sure to get the model appropriate to your use: for example, only one model works with hot foods.)

You can also transform a liquid into a gel or foam with calcium chloride and sodium alginate, xanthan gum or agar agar. Gels and foams can be "poached" in a bath of liquid nitrogen to fast-freeze.

Emulsions are also popular. Here's a description of cinnamon oil. Here's a description of making emulsions with an iSi whipper.

Another idea that's new to home cooking is low temperature cooking. In the sous vide method, you put a piece of meat in a heavy plastic bag (you can add spices or sauces if you want). Squeeze out all the air and seal securely. Choose a temperature that you want the internal part of the meat to reach, and heat water to that amount. Put the bag in the water and leave for at least half an hour and up to several hours. The trick is to keep the water at the same temperature - you could do this in the oven, in a crockpot or on a hot plate, but you should pretest the temperature with a good kitchen thermometer. Choose 115F for extremely rare meat, up 160F for well done meat. When ready to eat, remove the meat from the bag and brown quickly on both sides in a hot frying pan. This method results in very tender meat. It can also be used to bring more flavor to very lean meat (and is used by restaurants to precook meat).

Another low temperature method is fish cooked in cooling water.

Turn pastes (for example, Nutella) into a powder using tapioca maltodextrin.

Make boffo spun sugar creations with isomalt sugar.

Use vodka and beer instead of water in your fried fish batter for a crispier, longer lasting crust.

It's not easy to find recipes for some of this new stuff. The El Bulli 2003-2004 cookbook will run you over $250. There is even talk of licensing recipes.

Khymos has some good info. Ditto a la Cuisine. There's a good overview at Foodite. My favorite source is Hungry in Hogtown.

Update: French Culinary Institute blog


Hey Ho The Witch is (Rumored To Be) (Almost) Dead

Rumors are starting to surface that US Vice President Dick Cheney may be about to resign. I know, it's unlikely, but consider this: he's unwell and he's implicated in a huge scandal to boot. (He escaped having to testify in Libby's trial, but there shouldn't be anyone left in the US who believes he didn't mastermind the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame for purposes of political revenge.) I imagine that both he and Bush want him to hang on till the bitter end, but hey, this just may be the bitter end. His latest health crisis may even be an orchestrated event to give him a way out.

In a spirit of optimism, I'll start writing Cheney's political obituary now.

It's startling how radically my view of Cheney has changed in the last few months.

When Cheney, as chair of the committee to find a Veep for presidential candidate George Bush, chose himself for the job, I started to think of Cheney as a foxy manipulator who was dominating the weaker Bush.

Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, an authorized account of Paul O'Neill's experience as Treasury Secretary to Bush, seemed to bear this out. Suskind/O'Neill describe cabinet meetings in which cabinet ministers are given scripts by Cheney aides and allowed only to say only what is in the script, while Bush sits silently and Cheney appears in a TV screen at the end of the table, Big Brother directing the play.

By all reports, Cheney acted as no Veep has acted before, directing policy and telling the president what to do. Post-9/11, Cheney took to the bunker while (the presumably more expendable?) Bush stayed in the White House. Cheney's guy (Defence Secretary Rumsfeld) held the balance of power, while Bush's "guy" (NSA Director Condi Rice) was left struggling. Cheney directed Iraq policy, and the company Cheney used to run, Halliburton, just happened to cash in to the tune of billions because of the Iraq war. My image of Cheney was unscrupulous, arrogant and corrupt, but also brilliant and wily.

Then I read State of Denial by Bob Woodward. Woodward, arguably the best-informed objective analyst of the Bush White House, paints a very different picture of Cheney: in particular, as a man of mediocre intelligence and dubious judgement.

For example, Woodward shows Cheney during the first years of the Iraq war, sitting with aides for days on end reading raw intelligence data about weapons of mass destruction - and he has no idea how to read intelligence data, so wastes everyone's time with false emergencies. He calls the head of the weapons of mass destruction search in Iraq at 2 AM, insists someone wake the guy up, and tells him he must immediately follow up on a lead that everyone else knows is a hoax. At other time he gives the guy geographical coordinates which he says pinpoint an Iraqi weapons cache, but the location turns out to be 1,000 miles away in another country. Here we see Cheney the bumbler, with an arrogance that makes him think he can take on a specialized task and do it better than people trained to do it. And he's not just a bumbler, but a buffoon who is laughed at.

That he inspires fear seems to be the truth. Suskind ends The Price of Loyalty with a cryptic account of Cheney firing O'Neill and Bush seemingly trying ineffectually to override the decision. Suskind asks O'Neill why he is speaking out about the Bush administration. O'Neill says that most people simply cannot criticize the Bush administration because they will be destroyed. "These people are nasty, and they have a long memory... I'm an old guy, and I'm rich. And there's nothing they can do to hurt me." That turned out to be true for O'Neill, and not true for Valerie Plame.


Friday, March 09, 2007

On Dealing With Frustration

(I was going to call this post "Dell - The Worst Company in the World" but thought better of it.)

I have a new approach to my Dell debacle - slow breathing, Happy Thoughts. I think my extreme frustration last week was bad for my health.

My hero and the person I would most like to resemble is someone I have never met. I saw him in a documentary about Chechen rebels kidnapping a theater audience in Moscow a few years ago. When gun-toting masked men stormed the stage and told the audience that they were all being held hostage, this man turned to his neighbor and said, "I may as well have a nap. Please don't disturb me." He put his hat over his face and went to sleep. Women with bombs wrapped around their stomachs moved into the audience; the kidnappers threatened and made demands; after a few hours the authorities sent an anesthetic through the air vents that knocked out everyone in the theater (accidentally killing half of them) and then stormed the building and shot all the kidnappers; the now-unconscious man was carried out of the building by medics and laid on the sidewalk with the rest; he apparently woke up and wandered off, and nobody knows who he was. That's the way to conduct yourself during a kidnapping.

So in that vein, I'm trying not to get my blood pressure up as Dell continues their campaign of terror against me.

My first computer, as you may remember, had a defective hard drive. It also didn't contain an element I ordered and didn't do some of the things the sales rep said it would do. Also Dell sent my credit card number to an ISP and authorized them to bill me, although I had not agreed to that. They also charged me more than they said they would. Oh, and talked me into buying an expensive component I didn't need. But that's all water under the bridge... I sent back the defective computer. The replacement came yesterday.

...And it had a corrupted operating system and has to be returned. And I hauled it down two flghts of stairs to my car but now it looks like the waybill to return it won't be coming till Monday so I'll have to haul it back up again. It's only the fifth time I have hauled a similar box in the last two weeks. So I should think of it like free weight training (hauling boxes)... an interesting way to meet new people (at the UPS office)... a chance to work on my telephone skills (talking to Dell support)...


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why We Still Need Feminism

1. Rape. Rape by strangers. Rape by fathers and uncles and brothers. Men dropping roofies in a drink in a bar. There is disagreement over how many women, exactly, get raped, but it's way too many, and it's not getting better.

2. Abuse of women by male partners. Men murdering partners when they try to break away. It's certainly not something most men do, but there are too many cases of it and it's not getting better.

3. Prostitution. Prostitution has become almost acceptable. The hit TV show House shows the lead character using prostitutes as if it's a perfectly normal thing for a single man to do. I have heard advocates for the disabled argue that the government should pay for prostitutes for disabled men. We now regularly hear politicians say that prostitution is a legitimate enterprise that should be legalized.

None of these people mention the lives of the prostitutes: the danger, beatings, disease, virtual slavery by pimps, the drug addiction that is practically a necessity to perform their disgusting duties. None of them mention the quality of life or life expectancy of prostitutes, the injuries on the job. None mention the quality of life of their children or the lives their children can expect to lead.

4. The erosion of reproductive rights in the United States. As I have argued elsewhere, free and easy abortions result in earlier abortions and less abortions, as well as better mental and physical health for women.

5. What happens to women who attain power. Look at Hillary Clinton or Sheila Copps: Women who reach the top in politics are seen as shrill castrating shrews... Or sexual opportunists flirting their way to the top... Or ugly crones who don't have lives... Or whatever.

There is an under-representation of women in the power structure. There aren't many female university professors, so female university students don't have role models. There aren't enough female managers, so many companies practice systemic sexism and don't even realize it. There aren't many female politicians, female heads of state, females on boards of directors, female CEOs, female power brokers, female rainmakers.

6. The ubiquity of pornography. Little girls walk into a corner store in their neighborhood, in an airport, or many other places that sell magazines, and they see Giant Jugs at eye level. Everyone gets spam advertising such delicacies as "underage girls masturbating!" Movies, TV shows, TV ads, billboard ads - all use (surgically and electronically enhanced) naked women to make money. The objectification of women has a devastating effect on the place of women in our society and leads to my points 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.


Monday, March 05, 2007

The LCBO's Deposit Return Program

Ontario's liquor retailer, the LCBO, recently slapped a 10 to 20 cent deposit on containers it sells. To redeem the deposit we must take the containers (mostly glass bottles) back to an Ontario Beer Store, which recycles them. The LCBO states the following reasons for the program:

- it will free up space in Blue Boxes, giving municipalities room to expand their recycling programs
- bagging empties back will help recycle 80 million containers a year that currently don't get recycled

It seems a bit bizarre that we need an alternative to blue boxes so that we can put other stuff in blue boxes. Anyone who has a problem with the capacity of their blue box can get a second blue box... or a third.

The LCBO's deposit return program increases pollution by:

- forcing people to drive to a beer store to return bottles, instead of efficiently putting them in a blue box on the curb with their garbage.
- providing special "bag it" bags that are made of extra-heavy plastic for us to return our containers in.

The program doesn't answer the real issue that, due to the cost of glass recycling, only 30% of bottles that go into recycling programs are actually recycled.

The program increases pollution and doesn't help recycling. What it does do is fob off those who are asking the LCBO to provide a real solution - refillable bottles. It protects their business from environmentalists who question the waste of one-use glass bottles and it provides them with a nice chunk of change from all the deposits they get to pocket.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Why People Deny Global Warming

Opposition to environmental protection comes, in large part, from proponents of small government who see the environmental issue as a threat to their attempt to reduce taxes, reduce regulations, and reduce government spending.

(If the threat to our country came in the form of a military threat, I'm positive that those same people would be willing to raise taxes, increase regulations, and increase government spending. Just look at recent events in the US.)

The troubling thing is that the opponents of large government do not phrase the environmental debate in terms of how we should respond to global warming; they deny the existence of global warming. Thus we have wasted years arguing about whether there is a problem, and are not making progress on how to address it.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been clear for some time that our pollution is causing global climate change. The most recent IPPC report states that this is "unequivocal". This isn't just a small committee. Wikipedia says, "The report was produced by around 600 authors from 40 countries, and reviewed by over 620 experts and governments. Before being accepted, the summary was reviewed line-by-line by representatives from 113 governments". I challenge anyone who doesn't believe the IPCC to say that they support big government; I don't think any such person exists.

There is a place in the environmental debate for people who are wary of big government. In fact, Canada's Green Party takes a very small-c conservative (even a big-C Conservative) approach to the environment by calling for a new tax structure that taxes waste and pollution. (I think the idea is crazy, as I have said before, on two grounds: (1) the tax system tosses out out the foundation of our current system, that people should pay proportionally more as their income rises, and so will have all sorts of unintended and negative social side effects; (2) their proposed tax system has no hope of being adopted in Canada, so the Green Party is wasting our time having this as the center of their environmental policy when they should be talking about more pragmatic, possible policy.) But the strategy is working for the Green Party - they are picking up right-wing voters.

In Europe, where big government is not such an anathema, environmental issues have been acknowledged and addressed much more effectively than in North America. And, gee willikers, the environmental initiatives haven't created behemoth public corporations, high levels of taxation or crushing regulatory bureaucracy. The free market isn't destroyed by wind power, tighter car emission standards, better urban planning, or better public transit infrastructure. It's nothing new... it's just smarter.

Germany, which is leading the way in environmental initiatives, now produces one-third of the world's wind power. It has the highest targets for cutting greenhouse gases in the EU, and is ahead of schedule. It has pioneered energy-sufficient towns and carless towns. It is the world leader in development of solar power. As one blogger writes, "Bad choices aren't banned outright (you can still buy a Hummer in Germany if you really want one), but better choices are encouraged. Discouragements: $6 a gallon gas, and special taxes on extremely inefficient vehicles. Encouragements: An efficient public-transport system, and compact, diverse neighborhoods." That kind of encouragement is no different from the Canadian government encouraging us to drive cars by paying for hiways but not for rail transit, or by zoning so much low density housing.

Germany is showing us all how to meet environmental targets. It has made huge environmental improvements without curtailing freedom in any way. An example: only one-third of German hiways have a speed limit. Argue that one if you like, but Germans like to drive fast, and they do.

Me, I'm a proponent both of free markets and of big government. In fact, I don't think markets work without a lot of government "interference". Take financial markets as an example - stock exchanges are arguably the most tightly regulated markets going, and that's what keeps them humming. If you lose investor confidence you lose investors. Hence the biggest proponent of free markets - the US - has the most tightly regulated financial sector.

I love government regulation, and I want more regulation and more enforcement throughout society. But I can see that not everyone agrees with me, and I respect that. So let's get down to work here and find a way to address the environmental issue that we can all live with, as Germany has done. Otherwise we're heading for a fall.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Flame on Agblosticism

Whimsley coins the term agblosticism to describe his skepticism about the worthiness of blogging: "To gain an audience you have to pick up on what other bloggers are writing about and respond within hours. So really, blogging just isn't my thing. The arguments go nowhere, no one changes their mind, and the signal/noise ratio is very low. The blogging world is a world built for quick-typing extroverts who don't go in too much for second thoughts."

Rubbish, Whimsley, rubbish! I have to give you some points for coming up with an el coolo new word, but other than that, well, geeze... I think you're being a curmudgeon.

You don't have to jump on stories to get an audience. You just have to join some blogrolls and write some good posts (which, I should add, Whimsley does). Many of my favorite bloggers (like James Laxer and Baghdad Burning) don't write regularly. I don't.

Being a blogger is a glorious activity. You get to be the editor of the New York Times. You never have to worry about having a piece accepted for publication or writing in a particular style. You write exactly what you want and presto - it's in print! And people read it.

I don't claim to be widely read, but I get enough comments to feel that I have some sort of readership. In addition, a quick google search shows that this blog has been quoted in Mother Jones; the Huffington Post; the Ken Dryden Liberal leadership site; a Judy Rebick-Elizabeth May dispute in Blue Wave Canada; a Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan web site; and numerous blogs.

Over the year and a bit that I've been blogging, I've had lots of good results:

- I'm writing better and faster.
- I'm getting better at finding ways to get through to readers. Sometimes I write a well-researched, ponderous post and find noone comments, so I rephrase it in a briefer, breezier style, and get a much better response.
- I'm less thin-skinned about comments that are critical of my posts. I find myself enjoying dissenting comments, even when they're inarticulate or nasty, and empathising with the writer.
- My opinions are becoming better informed (because, believe it or not, I actually do research my posts).
- Laying out my opinions in public has made me question a lot of things I took for granted and made my convictions stronger on other things.
- I have an unending flood of things I want to write about, and am held back only by time and energy constraints.
- I feel I'm part of the public discourse in a way I never was before.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Whatever Happened to eShopping?

Several years ago when internet shopping started to take off it was the companies who provided great user experience who got the attention and the business. Amazon, Dell and eBay all skyrocketed because they were the best.

This week I had a rude awakening as to the current state of eShopping. I bought plane tickets on and a desktop from Dell.

Both experiences were atrocious. The only reason I can see for this is that storeless shopping is now ubiquitous. It's no longer a cool novelty. We have to put up with it like we put up with automated phone services. Usability? - ha ha. It's all about cutting costs now, not about improving quality. Perhaps only Amazon has remained a great user experience (but they're getting really sloppy about shipping delays).

Northwest Airline's provides a user interface that is pitiful. For example, you choose a date by popping up a little calendar. The default is the current date. Fine, but when you've entered your departure date and try to enter your return date, the default is still the current date. Other problems include how they handle Canadian orders; what happens if you mistakenly sort by price; and the inability to retain your information when something goes wrong (you have to enter your entire itinerary again). It took me nearly two hours to buy tickets to Memphis with a layover in New Orleans, and this wasn't my first time ordering tickets on

When I purchased my last computer from Dell, five years ago, the experience was great. After choosing the computer I wanted a page came up with a long list of options. Next to each option was a link to complete info about the option. I was able to quickly get exactly what I wanted. What a fabulous way to shop, I thought!

Five years on and Dell Co. has changed... a lot. The user interface is a hodgepodge of ill-explained products. Each model has several variants with different processors and so on... in fact I never figured out what the different products with the same model name had in common. They seem to be deliberately confusing. When I tried to make the purchase online, Dell told me that if I wanted free shipping I had to order through a sales representative on the phone. The sales representative upsold me, and managed to do this in two ways: (1) she quoted a much lower price until it got to the point of sale, when the price miraculously rose substantially; and (2) she convinced me to buy something she said would do what I wanted, and when I got the computer and it didn't she sold me extra components. How did I get conned into this? I can't explain it. I feel royally suckered - as well as frustrated, angry, and extremely inconvenienced.

Economists David Laibson and Xavier Gabaix describe consumers as either "sophisticates" or "myopics". Myopic customers, they say, are those who are fooled by companies into making bad purchases. Companies hide information from customers in a process Laibson and Gabaix call shrouding. Common shrouding techniques include branding, creating forced scarcity, confusing the customer, and creating hidden costs (eg selling cheap printers that require expensive cartridges). At this point I feel like a myopic consumer.

Dell quality assurance, by the way, has also become questionable. They sold me a hard drive that was so defective that it died during the first week I had it - just long enough for me to have invested a lot of time configuring Vista. No problem they said - return it and we'll send you a new one. No problem for them, for sure. I'm the one who had to pack the box and lug it to UPS.