Friday, April 10, 2009

Words for Easter perhaps

"IV

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.

V

Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.

VI

A rivery field spread out below,
An odour of the new-mown hay
In his nostrils, the great lord of Chou
Cried, casting off the mountain snow,
"Let all things pass away."

Wheels by milk-white asses drawn
Where Babylon or Nineveh
Rose; some conqueror drew rein
And cried to battle-weary men,
"Let all things pass away."

From man's blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What's the meaning of all song?
"Let all things pass away."

(From "Vacillation", by W.B. Yeats)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mr. Burns would be proud


"Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun."

Perhaps it isn't purely coincidental that in the picture above Monty is making an "O" sign with his hands. The Obama administration is seriously considering seeding the earth's atmosphere with pollution in order to control the weather. The pretext, of course, is the global warming that has been on hold for the past ten years.

Whatever will they think of next? Perhaps Obama can use the American nuclear arsenal to try to knock the earth into a wider, cooler orbit?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The shape of things to come

The first hundred days of Barack Obama's presidency are not yet fully elapsed, but even in this short space of time he has managed to drastically and perhaps even fatally weaken the standing of the United States in world affairs. Although there exists at the moment an emergent alliance of mutually cooperative nations such as Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba whose hostility is mainly driven by various anti- Western ideologies, Obama seems to imagine that the grievances of each of these countries have been provoked solely by the past mistakes of American foreign policy, and that everything can be smoothed over in the future with apologies and negotiations.

This is terribly naive. The Slavophile nationalism of Russia, the populist Marxism of Venezuela and Cuba, the fossilized Stalinism of North Korea and the anti- Zionist hatred of Syria and Iran are directly incompatible with American interests in every degree. The U.S. has nothing to offer these countries but its own acquiescence to their territorial and ideological ambitions, and this is exactly what has happened so far under Obama.

On Russia, it appears ever more likely that Hillary Clinton's famous "reset button" will entail the abandonment of America's nervous allies in Eastern Europe, many of whom are former vassal states of the Soviet empire; on Iran and North Korea, Obama will continue to pursue the futile U.N. route of strongly- worded letters and sanctions; on Venezuela and Cuba, the administration seems likely to seek a policy of rapprochement involving apologies for past U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean and South America.

It's notable that very little of Obama's would- be diplomacy so far has earned the respect of the targeted countries. Russia's Medvedev reproached him for "haggling" over the Polish missile defence shield, Hugo Chavez called him "a poor ignoramus" with a "stench" like that of George W. Bush, and Iran has so far snubbed Obama's attempts at outreach by setting impossible conditions for reconciliation. The reason is very simple: strong leaders despise weak ones. It is only the leaders of liberal Western countries who cling to the idea that an enemy is just a friend who hasn't yet been recognized.

What will be the likely consequences of this way of thinking? One may turn out to be the abandonment of Israel. Joe Biden has claimed that it would be "ill- advised" of Israel to attack Iran, even though it is obvious that diplomacy with the Iranians is getting nowhere. In the event that Israel understandably tries to cripple Iran's nuclear programme, it can probably expect only condemnation from the Obama administration, and this effectively means that Israel will lose its only faithful ally on the world stage -- leaving the way clear for another round of anti- Israeli hysteria at the United Nations, and possible international isolation of the Jewish state through sanctions.

And what about Eastern Europe? Ukraine is directly menaced by the revanchist ambitions of Russia, which has already invaded Georgia in the interests of defending alleged "Russian citizens", most of whom were not ethnic Russians at all. But millions of genuine ethnic Russians do live in Ukraine, and the Crimea is a point of vital strategic importance for the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet. It can safely be assumed that the U.S. would do nothing for Ukraine, and that Russia has a free hand in this matter if it chooses to act. Even this would only be a preliminary, however, to the reconstitution of a new Russian empire, brought about by the absorption of surrounding countries under the same pretext of defending the interests of Russian- speakers -- who are practically everywhere in the region, thanks to Soviet- era policies of resettlement.

North Korea will continue to defy the U.N. and test increasingly more powerful missiles capable of reaching not only South Korea and Japan, but Hawaii, Alaska, and the western states of the mainland U.S. Decades of negotiations on this matter have achieved precisely nothing, and will continue to achieve nothing -- so that increasingly lethal weaponry will continue to accumulate in the hands of an ailing Marxist fanatic who, presiding over a half- starved and enslaved population, may feel he has nothing to lose in starting a major regional war.

Cuba will likely continue to stagnate under its Communist regime after the death of Castro, without even the moderate incentive to change provided until now by American sanctions and travel restrictions. It appears that Obama will pursue a complete renormalization of relations between the two countries. But this may not prevent the Cubans from further military cooperation with Russia and Venezuela just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, even as Obama feels paradoxically obliged to defer to Russian interests in the latter's alleged "sphere of influence" in Europe.

Syria will continue to sponsor terrorism against Israel, while holding out to American negotiators the elusive possibility that it will cease to do so once it regains the Golan Heights. Although there is not the slightest possible reason to believe that Syria will ever turn its back on its ally Iran and become a purely peaceful neighbour to Israel, U.S. diplomats will eagerly pursue this chimera for at least the next four years. That the Israelis -- already stung by their surrender of Gaza and that territory's transformation into a Hamas military base -- may be unwilling to trade yet more land for the deceptive prospect of "peace" will be taken by world leaders as a sign of incorrigible Zionist intransigence.

The only country I haven't mentioned so far is the one that may have the most impact of all on the fortunes of the Western world: China. It is true that the Chinese and American economies are at the moment interdependent, making any open conflict between the two powers unlikely for the foreseeable future. But this may change with the seemingly inexorable decline of the U.S. economy. A China which feels itself freed of the constraints of dealing primarily with America may find itself with a freer hand to deal with its own territorial preoccupations, such as Taiwan. Already, of course, there is abundant evidence of Chinese hostility to the U.S. Most notably, there have been significant attacks on American technological networks by Chinese hackers, who are in all probability working with the collusion of the Chinese government. Recently it was revealed that a China- based spy network had seriously compromised the security of foreign embassies and intelligence networks; today it has also emerged that sophisticated efforts have been made to undermine the U.S. electricity grid by the means of malware programmes that can be remotely activated to disrupt service. It is difficult to draw any conclusion from this other than that the Chinese are preparing for a possible future war with the U.S.

The West is in serious trouble. Western countries are already plagued with internal divisions, whether political -- partisan politics has sharply divided populations -- or ethno- religious, in those societies where years of mass immigration and multiculturalism have militated against a sense of shared national identity and interest. Even the economic might of the West is now on the wane. It is unclear that Westerners still have the will or the ability to defend themselves against a concerted attack from without, should one arise -- and with the formation of the new anti- Western alliance (explicitly touted as such by Hugo Chavez, who calls it a "new world order"), one may well arise sooner than we think. History tells us that wars of aggression and expansion have been far more common than prolonged periods of peace such as the one we have enjoyed since the end of World War II. And history is also sadly littered with accounts of societies which, having lost their will to survive, were submerged by others more aggressive or opportunistic. It may well be that the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency has marked the moment when the decline of the U.S. became irreversible, and its eventual death inevitable.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Out of the mouths of fools

Yesterday was April Fools' Day, and as in past years the British press expended great energies in creating fake stories that were just plausible enough to deceive the more gullible reader. The Guardian's contribution to this trend was to suggest that its newspaper was abandoning its traditional print format in favour of one consisting of stories delivered entirely by Twitter. Since the function of Twitter, a minimalistic blogging service, is to reduce every statement to an expression not exceeding 140 characters, the natural result was going to be "stories" such as "1832 Reform Act gives voting rights to one in five adult males yay!!!" and "JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?"

And that's pretty funny. But it's worth asking seriously what the popularity of Twitter (and other so- called Web 2.0 applications) tells us about contemporary culture. I'm already perplexed enough by the fact that, whenever I am using one of a bank of public computers, everyone sitting around me is looking at a picture of themselves on Facebook. Granted that other people are also sometimes in the same picture (and usually with the same idiotic expression on their face), how is this an improvement on simply seeing that other person in real life or -- if they are not available -- going home and staring at oneself in the mirror? It all seems so incredibly narcissistic.

Now, I'm willing to admit that I may just be too old to understand. (I'm two years shy of forty, which in modern technological terms is the new eighty.) The principal audience for this sort of thing is teenagers, and isn't the whole point of being a teenager that you think the world revolves around you, and that every little drama in your life is worth sharing with the world? But I see disturbing signs that over-25s -- and even over-40s! -- are getting into the act with this sort of thing, and enjoying trying (for example) to "poke" each other in some sort of boring, non- sexual way.

Which brings us to Twitter. Because whereas a normal blog has the natural disadvantage of allowing you to write an extended, complex, and well- reasoned entry that no- one will ever read, Twitter allows you to publish the online equivalent of a brain fart that no- one will ever read either. The maximum number of characters ensures that every observation is impossibly trivial and reductive. Still, isn't this what we've been working towards for the past forty or fifty years of Western civilization? Most of us by now feel that our lives are nothing more than journeys of personal self- discovery and self- fulfillment. Why on earth wouldn't we take this to its natural conclusion, and assume that every one of our random daily thoughts was worth being immortalized by being broadcast to a potential worldwide audience? "I ate a delicious pie today." "OMG pie is coming back as acid reflux." "WTF? Why does this always happen to me?"

There comes a time in everyone's life when, no matter how hard they've tried to keep up with new developments, they realize that they don't care anymore and that they may in fact even prefer the way things were in the past. And that is when they finally realize that they are old. Most people strive furiously to postpone this day of reckoning, but not me. I've had years to get used to it. After all, I don't have a cellphone either! So get off my goddamn lawn, you punks.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why capitalism rules...

There is an ill wind blowing Master Wu.

We are seeing articles like this piece in the Independent announcing the end of capitalism, neo-liberalism, or whatever it's called these days. The new socialists like to believe that capitalism has failed.
These arguments lack credibility because there is no evidence that capitalism has failed in any way. Quite the contrary, it is government intervention that has led to today's crisis.
Let's start by looking at Clinton's lobbying for more mortgages to low income families in 1999 described in this NY Times article.

In July, the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed that by the year 2001, 50 percent of Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's portfolio be made up of loans to low and moderate-income borrowers. Last year, 44 percent of the loans Fannie Mae purchased were from these groups.
The change in policy also comes at the same time that HUD is investigating allegations of racial discrimination in the automated underwriting systems used by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to determine the credit-worthiness of credit applicants.

The justification was that Hispanics and Blacks couldn't get on the property ladder. Unfortunately, this led to the very same group defaulting on their mortgages 10 years later. Who could have seen that one coming?
Next comes the fatuous claims by leading socialist leaders like Chavez that capitalist countries are on their way down. Tell that to the hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese who have emerged from poverty as a result of their countries adopting free market policies. Contrast these to countries such as Venezuela and Iran that have adopted aggressively anti-capitalist measures while relying on high oil prices. As this excellent article by Aiyar points out, socialism has eroded their oil producing capability and has seriously eroded their capabilities to diversify. It is precisely these socialist havens that are seeing their fortunes impacted the most.
The US will recover, unless Obama tries the social democratic model that has failed in Europe. American capitalism is about hard work, innovation, and rewarding those who can do both. Thatcher famously said that the conceit of collectivism is "the illusion that government can be a universal provider, and yet society still stay free and prosperous.... The illusion that every loss can be covered by a subsidy. The illusion that we can break the link between reward and effort, and still get the effort." We should remember that before we try to attack the most successful model in history.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dim bulbs

It's Earth Hour tonight. Turn off your lights for a whole hour and you will be illuminated from within by the glow of your own sanctimony. And just think: if a billion people take part, the energy saved will be equivalent to six seconds' of China's consumption! --No, it's not going to make a bit of difference, but perhaps it's not intended to: instead it's about raising "awareness", which as the ever- incisive Christian Lander tells us, "is the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it."

I once saw a reproduction of an old cartoon published at around the time London introduced gas lighting for its streets, in 1807. It had a caricature of a dour Scotsman gravely eyeing one of the lamps and saying, "Aye. But what is this, compared to the light within?" Poor Jock, he never lived to see Earth Hour.

If the van's a-rockin'...

...because a Chinese prisoner is being executed and having his organs removed for resale, then don't come a-knockin'. Really. Just don't.

Still, this does make an improvement over shooting a criminal in the back of a head in front of a crowd of thousands at a soccer stadium, then scooping out the bullet and sending it to the victim's family along with a bill. When it comes to China, we always have to be grateful for the slightest example of progress.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Retro-cinema: "A Bucket of Blood" (1959)

Despite the needlessly lurid title, Roger Corman's 1959 production is thankfully short on the red stuff and long on insightful social commentary. More of a late film noir than a true horror film, A Bucket of Blood explores the beatnik subculture of the late 1950s and satirizes both its pretensions and its assumptions. The story revolves around the downtrodden busboy Walter, who waits tables in a café patronized by snobbish hipster would- be artists and their hangers- on. Despised by the regulars, Walter longs to be recognized as artistic in his own right, but he lacks both the talent and the audacity to persuade anyone else that he is worth noticing. By accident, though, Walter does eventually hit upon a way to create unique works of art through the most macabre means imaginable; and even as he is subsequently feted by the cognoscenti he is able to justify his crimes to himself by appeal to the beatniks' own sub- Nietzschean credo that the artist is the ultimate lord of creation, one who is above all moral accountability.

Interestingly, this is all very reminiscent of the subject of Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 drama Rope, in which the professor -- played by Jimmy Stewart -- preaches the expendability of ordinary people in the interests of a higher "will to power", and so unwittingly inspires two of his students to engage in a pointless thrill- killing. Again, it is Nietzsche who is ultimately being targeted here, but more broadly the movie aims to say something about the darker side of a modern way of thinking that fuses elitism with nihilism in order to to come up with something that is truly horrible.

A Bucket of Blood is only 66 minutes long, so the plot moves very quickly through its development and resolution, and there is enough satirical humour in it to keep any real film enthusiast engaged -- at least until the film is over and he can pop the next DVD into the slot.

H.L. Mencken on death

This is undoubtedly morbid, but I think it's funny enough to be worth repeating:

"Men upon whom we lavish our veneration reduce it to an absurdity at the end by dying of cystitis, or by choking on marshmallows or dill pickles. Women whom we place upon pedestals worthy of the holy saints come down at last with mastoid abscesses or die obscenely of female weakness. And we ourselves? Let us not have too much hope. The chances are that, if we go to war, eager to leap superbly at the cannon's mouth, we'll be finished on the way by being run over by an army truck driven by a former bus- boy and loaded with imitation Swiss cheeses made in Oneida, N.Y."

(from "Exeunt Omnes", 1920)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brazil nut

The UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was apparently embarrassed when, while on a recent trip to Brazil to discuss economic matters, he was treated to the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva's impromptu attempt to interpret the global financial crisis in explicitly racial terms. According to Lula, "this was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by irrational behaviour of people that are white, blue-eyed..."

Even among white people (and even bankers!) blue eyes are comparatively rare; but leaving that aside, it can just as easily be argued that the crisis was largely precipitated within the U.S. by those disproportionately minority and poor homebuyers who, in taking advantage of civil- rights stipulations that they receive the same credit as anyone else, found themselves vastly overextended in mortgage debt at the time of the collapse of the housing bubble. If it is offensive to note that many of these people were non- white and had non- blue eyes, why is it any different to focus on the physical characteristics of the bankers as a clue to their behaviour? But Lula's remarks serve as another reminder of how strongly racial theories -- ones that are usually hostile to people of European descent-- continue to taint the political discourse of South American countries. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, I'm looking at you...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dyslocation

There have only been a few occasions in my life where I've felt the advance of technological change so keenly that I can honestly say I've been overwhelmed by it, and on each of those occasions computers have been involved in some way. I remember back in 1994 my first exposure to the Internet, and my discovery that I could read newspapers from the UK on the day they were published, and for free! That seems ridiculous now, of course, but during the 1980s my family used to make a twenty- mile trek downtown every week to buy outdated British newspapers at an inflated cost; we were otherwise mostly at a loss for news from the old country. When I first loaded up the website for the Times of London, I knew that all of that was at an end, and there was a curious feeling that went along with it: a kind of dizziness at the thought that the world was shrinking and being brought more easily within our grasp.

I experienced that same feeling again this week, thanks to Google's Street View UK. One of the 22 British cities to be faithfully photographed in every detail was Belfast, where I once lived as a boy and where I still have numerous relatives. My grandparents had a house on an estate in East Belfast until their death in 2007, and thanks to Google -- whose camera car stopped about four feet from the back gate -- I could see that the new owners of the house were renovating it from top to bottom. I was also easily able to track other changes to the neighbourhood: I noticed that the kind of grants given by various official bodies to the community tended to result in the creation of ostentatious signs and memorials, for example, even while the main street continued to wither away and die for lack of entrepreneurial activity. I remember the Newtownards Road of only twenty years ago as being a hub of thriving small businesses such as groceries, chemists, and newsagents, but unsurprisingly the extinction of the major local industry of shipbuilding resulted in a terrible blight that is evident from the numerous boarded- up and burnt- out storefronts.

There was one small sign of hope, which was that an actual office building was being constructed in the area at the time Google took its pictures. The neighbourhood is located only about a half- mile or so away from downtown Belfast, so from an economic perspective it isn't surprising that firms are beginning to consider moving there, but to someone like me who knows the local people and their ways it almost seemed as if an advanced alien civilization was constructing a distant and beleaguered outpost on a primitive planet. While the development is promising, it's not likely that many local people would yet have the professional or even social skills necessary to work in such a place.

The oddest thing about the Street View journey was the sensation of being able to move at will through my old neighbourhood while remaining stationary, and at a distance of thousands of miles. It was one of the first times that the endlessly over- hyped phrase "virtual reality" began to have any meaning for me at all. This is a truly revolutionary thing, to be able to travel and to explore a place from far away -- and after any session with Street View, I came away feeling as if I had actually been somewhere else for that time; all the while I felt the sensation, familiar to travellers, of having to adjust to new surroundings! Thanks to Google, the world has just become that much smaller again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

State of nature

Environmentalism being the dominant secular ideology of our age, its prejudices and preconceptions are always worth challenging wherever they are found. One of the ideas frequently put forth by Green thinkers -- and recently repeated by an in- house philosopher on Canada's CBC Radio -- is that Western societies are somehow unique in being responsible for environmental degradation because of Christianity's views about nature. We can assume from its mainstream exposure that this isn't a very controversial idea; but what does it really mean?

It's true that, according to the Biblical account, God commanded that man have "dominion" over all the earth in the book of Genesis, and that subsequent Christian thinkers saw nature as having fallen at the same time as Adam and Eve, who were supposed to have inhabited a perfect Creation. Environmentalists conclude from this that Christians have never had any reason either to respect nature or to have refrained from exploiting it mercilessly.

There are numerous problems with this. Most glaring is the historical fact that the two states in which pollution and the destruction of the environment have been most marked have not been Christian at all. The Soviet Union was officially atheist, and it gave us (among many other things) the disgraceful legacy of Chernobyl and the disappearing Aral Sea; while today China -- which is either Communist or Confucian in its values, depending on who you believe -- is happily blighting its landscape to an almost unimaginable degree. Neither of these societies have taken their inspiration from the Book of Genesis. But both have manifested to an extreme the desire to act on an impulse that is not Christian but simply human, which is the desire to make the best of living in what is essentially a cruel world.

It's naturally true that Nature is not "fallen" in some theological sense; Christians were always wrong to say this, not only because it was unclear how or why the Fall of Man would have altered the rest of God's creation beyond recognition, but also because that Creation itself was always so plainly hostile to man in the way it was designed. Even if the lion were destined to one day lie down with the lamb, there was no reason for the lion to be so swift on his haunches and powerful in his jaw unless he had been created to eat smaller, slower animals. Where the Christians were right, however, was in believing that nature was irredeemably hostile to mankind now, and that this would always be the case until the end of the world. It is difficult for affluent modern Westerners -- who unsurprisingly make up the vast majority of environmentalists -- to appreciate this simple fact, since they are insulated by advances in medicine and technology, or even by simple geography, against the crueller ravages of what the natural world has to offer: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, infectious diseases, large predatory animals, and so on. Our ancestors knew all of these dangers well, and so do many of the world's poor today.

The rejection of the Christian idea of dominion of nature is supposed to lead us to the opposite conclusion, which is that man is just one animal out of many and that we have no more right to exist than any other. But this is inconsistent with scientific perspective. Environmentalists may oppose the building of a subdivision on the grounds that it will disturb the habitat of (say) a particular rodent or bird. But to deny the human being his habitat in favour of that of the animal is to give the priority to the animal, which is not the same as treating the human and the animal equally. And besides, it is a uniquely human trait to assign an objective value to another species and to worry about its continued existence. God knows that the antelope isn't concerned about the continued existence of the cheetah, and anyway if the antelope could express an opinion on the matter at all we can easily guess what it would say.

In practice all of us, whether allegedly eco- conscious or not, behave much less sentimentally when it comes to the matter of our own personal survival: we have almost entirely eradicated the smallpox virus, for example, in the selfish interests of guaranteeing our own longevity, and many of us also have no qualms about eradicating unborn human beings if they pose the slightest threat to our peace of mind. Even in our daily interaction with others, the vast majority of us have no problem with the idea of ruthless competition with other people. One can only conclude that in the vast majority of cases our alleged humanitarianism is a sham, and that our sentimentality about nature is only a flimsy cover for our contempt for human beings. --Even Hitler, they say, was very fond of his dog.

No Love

The saddest thing about this story is that so few people are going to be surprised or concerned by it. A citizen of a modern Western democracy is facing his fourth arrest simply for speaking his mind, and the fact that he is a probable white supremacist with a fondness for ugly shirts doesn't make it any less alarming. Canadians are apparently only permitted to express their opinions at the sufferance of the government: say something unkind or unpopular enough and you will be punished for it by the State. Well, this is no more than we deserve. Censorship is an inevitable outgrowth of self- righteousness, and self- righteousness is the defining Canadian sin. Most of us are quite happy to point our fingers at other people and characterize them as intolerant, which is how we justify our refusal to tolerate them. The idea that anyone could say the same thing about us has never even crossed our minds. But the prosecution of so- called hate speech is now increasingly moving beyond fringe targets like Brad Love, and setting its sights on more mainstream figures. Once you normalize punishing people for "hate", you only have to expand the definition of "hate" in order to silence all inconvenient dissent.

Incidentally, it would have been nice for Canada's paper of record to have told us just what it was in Brad Love's speech that warranted his being dragged away in handcuffs by eight (!) officers. The article said vaguely that Love spoke of "black crime", but what exactly does this mean? If he were only making the observation that young black men commit a disproportionate share of urban crimes, he'd only be referring to an unfortunate statistical fact -- a fact which is incidentally often repeated by leaders in the black community who want to see that situation improve. Or did Love perhaps baselessly speculate that black people are genetically disposed to commit crime? It'd be at least some small consolation to know that Love was arrested for a falsehood rather than for a fact, but the Globe and Mail didn't seem to think that distinction worth mentioning at all. (And note that they disabled comments for the story as well! O delicious irony...)

Unnatural selection

The endless petty controversies in Canadian politics remind me of the old joke about student politics being so bitter because absolutely nothing real is at stake. Ours is still a small country whose importance on the world stage is minimal, but you'd never know it from the degree of partisan rancour found in the House of Commons every day, and in other fever swamps such as the Comments section of the Globe and Mail.

The latest storm in a teapot concerns whether or not the Conservative Minister of Science, Gary Goodyear, believes in evolution or not. Now, making fun of Christians is like shooting fish in a barrel for the mainstream Canadian media, whose sympathies almost always lie with the opposition Liberals anyway. This particular inquiry would be justified if Goodyear's beliefs were at all relevant to his ability to do his job, but there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. Goodyear is more likely being targetted for political reasons because of his preference for funding for applied rather than "pure" research.

I can't help but sympathize with creationists, for two reasons. One is that most of them are victims of poor science education in our schools. In most cases, they haven't been presented with enough information to reach an informed conclusion, so they've reverted by default to whatever they were taught at home. The other reason is that they are unfairly and selectively criticized for doing something which the vast majority of Canadians indulge in, which is holding irrational beliefs. If you were to add together all the believing Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, New Age- enthusiasts, Native spirituality adherents, Gaia devotees, and Toronto Maple Leaf fans, you'd have very few people in this country left over who could consider themselves to be perfect rationalists -- especially if those people had ever done something so foolish and ultimately unexplicable in their life as to fall in love or attach special significance to a material object such as a wedding ring or family heirloom. It is simply impossible for human beings to be logical and reasonable all the time. This doesn't mean that we ought to excuse superstition and sloppy thinking - quite the opposite; we should go after them with all of our energies, especially when they have dangerous consequences for others, but at the same time we should recognize that most beliefs don't have dangerous consequences, and we should also have the humility to remember that we ourselves are not perfect.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Solar System Climate Change?

The polar ice caps are shrinking. That would sound like a headline on Earth but it would also appear to hold true on Mars.
In a recent article on the National Geographic website, it would appear that Mars is also undergoing a general warming episode as well - the polar ice caps are shrinking on Mars, suggesting that it is warming up. Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of space research at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in Russia has observed this effect but has been attacked by the mainstream saying that he is discounting Martian orbital perturbations etc. If only these same scientists would be so diligent in discounting other effects on Earth as well.
Another interesting note from an article from a few years ago on the Space.com website points out that Pluto is also warming up - in spite of the fact that it is currently moving further away from the Sun.
In other climate news, Jupiter is developing a second red spot, which implies climate change on Jupiter.
And finally there is evidence that Triton, a moon of distant Neptune also appears to be warming up.
Now I am not a climatologist but when 1 body undergoes climate change, you look for a local effect, when 2 bodies simultaneously undergo climate change, this could be a coincidence, when 3 bodies in the same solar system undergo climate change, we are stretching the coincidence but when 4 bodies simultaneously undergo climate change (that we are aware of), then coincidence seems more than a little contrived. Now I'm willing to believe that there could be some weird statistical effect occurring here but Occam's razor implies that we look at what all these bodies have in common. And the simplest answer is that the Sun is getting hotter.

Must be all those damn SUVs on the surface of the Sun.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In the Balance

A superb article in the Economist magazine, which can be found here, demolishes the argument that inequality is rising.

The article argues that although income inequality has risen, what we can buy with a dollar has increased. True, someone earning $1 million/year can afford to buy the upcoming $100,000 Mercedes S Class with a sushi bar but is the overall experience of owning an S-Class that much greater than owning a Fiat Punto? After all, driving a Fiat Punto is considerably better than walking or taking a bus.
[The point] is that, over time, the everyday experience of consumption among the less fortunate has become in many ways more similar to that of their wealthier compatriots. A widescreen plasma television is lovely, but you do not need one to laugh at “Shrek”.

The article goes on to remind us that:
today's Gilded Age income gaps do not imply Gilded Age lifestyle gaps. On the contrary, those intrepid souls who make vast fortunes turning out ever higher-quality goods at ever lower prices widen the income gap while reducing the differences that matter most.

Wise words indeed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Canadian's view of Ron Paul

An interesting article from the Financial Post about what a Ron Paul administration might be like can be found here. Though the chances of him getting elected are slim, he would certainly demonstrate whether or not the Austrian school was correct.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Radioactive Coal Ash

In this article from Scientific American, it appears that the ash from coal has higher radioactivity than nuclear waste - Eeek!

I've always been a fan of nuclear power. Done right and without some of the hysteria connected with it, nuclear energy can be the solution for a whole lot of problems. Best thing about it is that we don't have to depend on dodgy governments and cartels. Most of the world's uranium comes from Canada and Australia.

What can I say when even die hard former anti-nuke protesters are coming around?

Bali-hoo

Bali talks end in acrimony. What a surprise. Asking the "wealthy" countries to reduce CO2 emissions by 45% while China and India are exempt is a recipe for disaster.
If climate change is happening then the way "to do something about it" is not to impoverish ourselves to reduce it's impact. CO2 is linked to energy use, which is linked to the wealth of our countries. If we were all a whole lot poorer then our CO2 emissions would probably drop but I'm not sure I want that. A much more realistic approach is to mitigate climate change "catastrophes" when they happen. As I like to remind people - if Bangladesh were a rich country, they would be able to build dikes and levies against rising sea levels (if they are rising).

Friday, December 7, 2007

A sign of times to come

Food prices are rising as this article from the Economist describes. Two notable things can be gleaned from the article. The first is that the rising affluence of the world creates a demand for meat, which involves more grain per calorie than consuming grain alone. The second is that the production of biofuels is taking an enormous amount of maize off the world's food markets. Ethanol is a government subsidised activity and not driven by the market. Joule per joule, ethanol is uneconomical, which is why the market doesn't produce it without substantial artificial incentives.
The rising affluence of the world is a good thing and the market will adjust by producing more food - higher prices will attract more farmers, will improve agricultural technology and will encourage more "efficient" uses of food. The second factor - government subsidies to produce biofuels - is wrong-headed because those subsidies come from tax-payers who end up paying as much or even more per liter of fuel (through taxes and higher food prices).
Biofuels are being pushed because they are seen by the lesser politician and his hanger-ons as solving both the climate change issue and the high oil price issue.
Let's examine these, shall we? High oil prices are temporary. The history of economics suggests that the solution to high prices is high prices and requires no government intervention. Higher oil prices do two things - firstly they encourage efficiency and secondly they encourage alternatives (for example, how many people use whale blubber for lamps these days) - the market should be the judge and not the government.
The climate change issue is another boondoggle. We can pour trillions into preventing a catastrophe but those trillions are not worth it. Look at it this way. If we spend $6 trillion to prevent a global catastrophe and no catastrophe happens then can we really say that the $6 trillion spent prevented it (politicians will claim it did because they're the ones spending our money and will have to justify it somehow)? On the other hand if we spend $6 trillion and the catastrophe happens then we have $6 trillion less to deal with its consequences. This is not like an insurance policy where we spend a small amount of money today to hedge our bets for tomorrow - this is all or nothing. How much should we spend to avert this mythical catastrophe? $6 trillion, $10 trillion? How much is enough?
Paying for climate change is a little bit like paying penance to avoid purgatory. No clearer example can be found than the useless subsides for biofuels.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Another reason not to vote for Hillary (or why globalization must continue)

One does not need to go very far to find a reason not to vote for Hillary. The latest reason - her stand on the Doha round of trade talks. Ms. Clinton has said that she will take "a hard look" at whether or not the Doha rounds were worth it. You can read more here.
There is a mountain of literature on why free trade is good for everyone and so I won't go into a lot of detail here (I'm sorely tempted to write an entry on economics 101 and the law of comparative advantage) but I will, instead, recommend that people read a couple of books:
  1. Why Globalization Works by Martin Wolf. It is a superb overview of the economics of globalization and why it is so important that we do not go back to the protectionist past that contributed to the severity of the Great Depression.
  2. In Defense of Globalization by Jagdish Bhagwati. Bhagwati presents an impressive argument on how free trade has improved the lot of people both in the third world and in the first.

Both books serve to dismantle many of the myths of globalization such as jobs being stolen from rich countries etc. and they present a powerful argument about why without globalization we would all be poorer.

Be afraid be very afraid...

Interesting quotation from Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider.
We need to get some broad-based support to capture the public's imagination. That of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.

Hmmm...scientific honesty? Makes you think.

Leaping backwards

(Original post: Sunday, December 2)
Today two countries are poised to turn back their clocks and regress to the bad old days of the 20th century. Putin and United Russia have won a landslide victory in Russia, cementing Czar Putin's hold on power. This is bad news for Russia and really bad news for the West that may, after all, be faced with totalitarian opponent again and a new cold war. We shall see.
Venezuela also stands on the edge and the outcome is still not certain. The polling stations have opened and Venezuelans are voting on whether or not to adopt a new constitution that, among other things, grants Chavez pretty much a presidency for life. So long freedom, so long prosperity, hello Comandante.
There is an excellent review of this slip back in time to be found at Reason magazine.
Another analysis to be found at American.com.

Update (Monday, December 3):
Chavez lost the referendum - unfortunately, the margin was narrow, which might mean that he will try again.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Climate change madness

Why people take celebrities so seriously, I have no idea. Case in point is Prince Charles and the Bali Communiqué that 150 major companies have signed to limit greenhouse gases.
An interesting feature of the communiqué is the statement that emissions reduction "must be guided primarily by science" (as opposed to economics). Excuse Me? Economics is about costs and benefits. If it is more costly to prevent climate change than to mitigate it, then surely mitigating climate change is the better deal. Unfortunately, much of the economics behind the communiqué stems from the Stern Report, which has some significant flaws.
This could mean that we are using a completely wrong-headed approach to deal with a crisis that may or may not materialize. Think of all the trillions we could be wasting, trillions that could go into anti-malaria initiatives, schooling for poor children, prevention of many childhood diseases and prevention of an AIDS epidemic in many parts of the world still at risk. Sadly none of these causes have a globe trotting hypocrite or two to champion them.
There is evidence for climate change (although there are still some important voices that are skeptical) and it could turn out that the most economic solution could be to prevent it from getting worse but I would think twice and do some more analysis before forsaking or committing trillions to deal with it. And sometimes, as this article at American.com points out, the cure could be worse than the disease.

Ron Paul

I've kept quiet about Ron Paul for a long time because I was curious to see how he would develop as a candidate and I have to say that I'm not disappointed. While I do not find everything he says convincing, I find him light-years ahead of the other candidates running for either the GOP or the Democrats. He is a breath of fresh air and a return to Goldwater Republicanism from whence Ronald Reagan came.
He is a strong supporter of laissez-faire capitalism, free markets, and state rights. He is everything that I would have thought the Republican party should be instead of the bloated elephant that it has become - a party of big government, irresponsible finances, and over-intrusiveness in private lives.
Ron Paul is a follower of the Austrian school of economics that includes such luminaries as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Whether he wins or not, he has demonstrated that libertarianism in the US is strong and, dare I say it, growing.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Schroedinger's universe

Quantum physics is not for the weak hearted. Sure the mathematics is simple - I mean what is as simple as |psi> = 1/sqrt(2)(|0> + |1>)? Well it turns out that this equation is the heart of the troubles. You see this equation says that a quantum state can exist as a superposition of one or more states until it is observed after which it is reduced to either one or the other (|0> or |1> in the equation above). This, in a nutshell, is Schroedinger's favourite cat.

A paper by Lawrence M. Krauss, which can be found here, implies that an act of observation on the age of the universe from inside the universe reduces the universe into one of many possible destinies. Here's my take on it: Bollocks. The universe is a closed system - an act of observation or even the ability to make an observation from inside the universe should have no effect whatsoever on the destiny of the universe. It's a bit like the electron being the observer of it's path through a double slit and thus preventing it from interfering with itself. Obviously it doesn't happen.

I should clarify that Lawrence M. Krauss did stipulate that there is no causal relationship ie. our observation of the supernova that resulted in the conclusion that the universe's expansion is accelerating has no effect whatsoever on the age or destiny of the universe but that the mere possibility of our being able to make that measurement does imply something about which of the many quantum destinies the universe will follow. While we didn't cause the universe to become unstable, Krauss suggests that just by being able to make an internal observation can have some implication on the outcome. Going back to the electron, can the electron somehow be able to measure which of the slits it will travel through? I suspect that the answer is no.

If there is something observing the universe from outside, that's a different story entirely but I'm not sure that there is an "outside" to the universe. Lesson learned - quantum physics is a weird thing and it is hard to get our puny brains around it. Physicists have been struggling for almost a century to interpret the weirdness of quantum physics. I guess we will be struggling for some time longer.

Peter Woit discusses the paper in more detail here.

Stupidity...

The religion of peace consistently outdoes itself in acts of stupidity. First there were the Mohammed cartoons and now Mohammed the Teddy Bear.
Demonstrators are out in full force in Khartoum demanding the execution of Gillian Gibbons that evil mastermind who was planning to destroy Islam by naming a teddy bear Mohammed. Never mind that Sudan is one of the world's poorest nations - obviously teddy bears named after their prophet are more threatening than poverty.

One can learn many things from this:
  • Don't go to a country that is carrying out a genocidal campaign.
  • There is something wrong with Islam that makes such fools of people.
  • Teddy bears are diabolical creatures.
  • Never listen to children.
  • Religion is truly for the imbecile and one is better served by abandoning the whole dirty thing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Long(er) arm of the law

In a chilling reminder of how liberalism is dying in the West, the law in the UK requiring that people hand over the decryption keys for encrypted data in their possession has been enforced as reported here by the BBC.

Even more frightening is:

...the authorities can also issue a Section 54 notice that prevents a person revealing that they are subject to this part of RIPA.

While I do understand the need to fight terrorism etc., we cannot compromise our core values in doing so otherwise what is the point? This is a grave step backwards.

In another alarming piece of news, Germany has recently brought into law the Data Retention Directive voted in by the EU parliament. Was Orwell just a little to early?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Contrition

Apologies to our (small?) audience for our infrequent updates to this blog. At the moment, both Neil and I are currently swamped with work, which stops us from writing as much as we would like.

Anyway, I came across an interesting blog from a gay conservative from Canada. I happen to agree with a lot of what he says and so I'll include the link to his blog for good measure. He had a link to a good op ed piece from the Guardian, a normally leftist newspaper from the UK, that points out that Islamic terrorism against Western targets was happening way before Iraq or Afghanistan and so its roots cannot be laid at the feet of Messrs Bush and Blair.

Another article from the Economist looks at the relentless push to totalitarianism in Russia. Now they are targeting children's textbooks with the claim (among other things) that maybe Stalin wasn't so bad. Apparently murdering about 20 million of your own citizens and winning the dubious title of this century's worst mass murderer doesn't count as "being bad" in Putin's Russia.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Next year's Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine?

It is a wonder that researchers get away with such twaddle as this gem from Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics (I thought that the LSE was supposed to be reputable???).
What is even more remarkable is that the BBC chose to report on it. Dr. Curry claims that the human race will split into two - one part will be tall handsome and intelligent the other squat and dumb. Especially interesting is his observation that:

Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds.

Sounds like the kind of fantasies I used to have when I was 14. ANYWAY...
The article goes on to say that:

Dr Curry warns, in 10,000 years time humans may have paid a genetic price for relying on technology.

This is the key. The BBC is part of the anti-technology Gucci Socialist/Environmentalist clique and anything that suggests that:
  • Technology and innovation is leading to our downfall

  • We should return to a simpler state (read living in jungles, praying to stone idols and dying of preventable diseases)

will get some airing on the BBC. Sad thing is that this sort of rubbish isn't even original.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

And the winner is...

The winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize is Anne Enright for The Gathering. Congratulations Ms. Enright.

Now I must be off to write my magnum opus. It will be a bleak story about a heroin addict from a dysfunctional family who joins a fundamentalist faction and is prompted to write about her sad past when her father and mother, two brothers and dog commit suicide. Unfortunately her writing is interrupted by her abusive husband and she is then confined to a wheelchair. Then an evil capitalist bastard comes and buys the apartment block in East London where she lives and she becomes homeless as well. Things come to a head when she straps some explosives to herself and kills herself and the evil capitalist bastard. Of course this work abounds with religious allusions and symbolism. She is the modern Christ struggling against the hegemonic twin powers of capitalism and modernity and...

Dostoyevsky, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

La Passionata

In a passionate defense of capitalism in the form of Howard Roark (the hero from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead), columnist Joseph Kellard contrasts the anti-life ethics of religion against the pro-life ethics of capitalism. You can read it here.

Adam Smith wrote:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

It is from self-love that we can afford to be pro-life. If one lives for others then there can be no love of life because one does not live for the most important life of all - one's own. Capitalism's miracle is that through self interest, society as a whole progresses.

Booker Prize Short-list announced

The Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced. The key contenders this year are:
  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
    • A depressing story about a dysfunctional family haunted by Edward IV's court jester.
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
    • A depressing story about a dysfunctional family from the eyes of a woman whose brother just committed suicide.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
    • A depressing story about a "well adjusted" Muslim who is drawn to fundamentalist Islam after 9/11. Basically an anti-American diatribe.
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
    • A depressing story about a girl on a war-torn Island who escapes by reading Dicken's Great Expectations
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
    • A depressing story about a couple's first time after getting married.
  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster)
    • I haven't read this one. Don't plan to. But reading the plot synopsis, it also sounds like "A depressing story about...".
Aside from Animal's People of which I know little, the other books are bleak and, quite honestly, dull. I don't mind bleakness in a book but it seems that literary merit in today's fiction equates to bleakness at least as far as the Man Booker prize is concerned. Absent from all of these novels is a sense of the wonder that it is to be human.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The triumph of folly

Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace prize. Well he joins such luminaries as Wangari Maathai who believes that HIV/AIDS is a part of an evil Western conspiracy to kill blacks, the late Yasser Arafat, the ethically challenged former leader of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Le Duc Tho (who in fairness turned down the prize) the unpleasant former leader of Vietnam. Aside from the obvious question about what the making of a movie has to do with peace, there are also the questions about the validity of the claims of anthropogenic climate change and whether we should even do anything about it.

Al Gore winning an Academy Award is more appropriate as it is given by an institution more at home with fiction and certainly Al Gore is not above the use of fiction to further his agenda.

Congratulations Mr. Gore, you have proven once again what a hollow shell the Nobel Peace Prize is.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Saturn's Hex



Weird rotating hexagon formation on the North Pole of Saturn. Remembering Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which took place around Saturn, it's a bit spooky. But like most things, this also has a "prosaic" explanation - a weird result of fluid dynamics.


In an experiment carried out in Denmark, Thomas Bohr, grandson of Neils Bohr, rotated a fluid in a bucket at varying speeds. At high speeds, the cavity formed in the middle started to take polygonal shapes and at really high speeds, hexagons appeared. It doesn't take much to imagine that something like this must be going on at the north pole of Saturn.


Still, it does remind one of the strangeness, power and beauty of nature and that what comes from simple physical principles transcends the wildest imaginings of fairies, goblins, gods and goddesses.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Daily nonsense from the Religion of Peace

A Malaysian woman who wanted to convert to Hinduism from Islam was arrested and taken to an Islamic rehabilitation centre where she was made to pray, wear a headscarf and eat beef. This in a "moderate" Muslim state. More can be read here.

Sometimes I think that that the reason why we have not received any signals from extraterrestrial intelligence is that they are too busy laughing at us.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Freedom Lovin' Democrats

A student was tasered during a talk given by John Kerry. The student was asking him whether he was part of Skull and Bones, the same secret society of which George Bush is a member. The video says it all.



So much for the Democrats defending free speech.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Iran beware...

For some time, Iran has been hiding behind the lack of cohesion in the West's opposition to its program of enriching uranium (probably for nuclear weapons). Recent comments by Nicolas Sarkozy and his foreign minister Bernard Kouchner suggest that Iran now has fewer places to hide. Increasingly Washington and Europe are becoming united in their stances against Iran.
While out-and-out hostilities with Iran would not be pleasant, the alternative - a nuclear armed Iran - is far worse.

Let's hope Iran gets the message and steps back but with their current leadership, that's doubtful.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster and other things of note...



Every once in a while, I come across something that makes me think that the human race is not so stupid after all or at least elements of it are not. Anyway, I came across this relationship between global warming and piracy. Apparently, there is an inverse relationship between the number of pirates and the average temperature of the world - so they are obviously related. I've always contended that we needed more pirates to roam the open seas with Jolly Rogers and swords. Their decline is obviously an egregious assault on the natural order of things.

In an open letter to the Kansas School Board, who believes that intelligent design should be taught at school, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has petitioned them to add the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the curriculum and mention that He goes around in a pirate costume. Obviously, the slow decline in piracy offends Him greatly and He's planning to boil the world as a result.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

In the name of Climate Change...

Now that the new religion of climate change is in full swing, we should expect to see things like an inquisition. Questions asked like:
"Have you been showering for longer than 5 minutes?...Answer me heretic"
"Do you turn off all the lights, when you leave the house?...Answer me or I will stick this flaming, recyclable rod up your a***"

Of course, I wouldn't have expected these developments to emerge for at least a few years more but this story about military planes flying over houses in the UK to spot thermal emissions does at least make me wonder. It's quite a simple idea really - well thought out but just *wrong*.

NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four*...no... *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.
Monty Python