Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lies, damned lies and polar bear statistics

Here is just another example of how difficult it is to get hard, definitive information on global warming and related issues.
The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente was the goad, as she so often is, with her bald statement that polar bears are not threatened or suffering from climate change at all, but on the contrary are thriving and increasing in numbers.
That sounded wrong to me (as Ms. Wente's claims so often do), particularly as I remember a previous column of hers from some months ago where she made similar claims, based on the fact that, when she visited Churchill, Manitoba, there seemed to be lots of white bears around.
So, I thought I would check up on the facts, only to discover that it is not quite as simple as either I (or Ms. Wente) thought.
I can understand that, if the sea ice flows (their normal hunting grounds) are smaller or breaking up, more bears are likely to be seen on land, but I wanted some convincing evidence that the overall populations are increasing or decreasing.
A quick Google search revealed a whole heap of contradictory results, several claiming that polar bears are suffering badly, and several assuring exactly the opposite. Most of them (on both sides) did not seem to be based on any hard evidence.
I delved further, and possibly the most convincing and detailed analysis I could find was by the World Wildlife Fund. Although they are admittedly not exactly impartial, they are at least reputable and their analysis seems to be based mainly on the latest report by the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union ( a dense and turgid report which seemed to go out of its way NOT to give any easily digestible overall conclusions).
What seems indisputable is that there are 19 populations of polar bears in the Arctic, (in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway and Greenland), 13 of which are either wholly or partially in Canada, mainly in the Northwest Territories. Clearly it is a mite tricky keeping track of these critters, given their habitat and their habits, but the best current estimate of total numers is 20,000-25,000 (which leaves a fair margin for error), of which about two-thirds are in Canada.
The WWF website goes on to list the estimates for the Canadian populations, with recorded dates varying between 1986 and 2006, and a Status, Trend and Estimated Risk of Decline for each, which is where things start to get a little muddled. The table suggests that 2 populations are severely reduced from historic levels, 4 reduced, 6 "not reduced" (presumably a euphemism for "increased") and 1 "data deficient"(?).
The WWF's summary, however, interprets this as 5 declining, 5 stable and 1 unknown ("for the 11 populations not known to be severely reduced from historic levels"). This almost seems to be deliberate obfuscation, and frankly I am not much wiser now than I was before.
It seems pretty clear than some populations are declining and some are increasing, but whether that just means that they are moving around more, and whether the overall population is waxing or waning (or neither) from, say, 20 or 30 years ago, I still have no idea.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Belated Canadian action on hybrid cars

We missed the recent Canadian federal budget as we were sunning ourselves in Mexico, but it seems to have been almost unanimously characterised as a vote-buying budget in preparation for a possible spring election ("A budget so liberal the Grits should sue" according to the Globe's John Ibbotson), pushed through by the Bloc Quebecois (40% of the new provincial transfer payments announced are going to Quebec, and Gilles Duceppe freely admits that he couldn't leave that on the table whether he agrees with the budget measures or not).
However, the budget contained at least a little welcome (and long-overdue) action to encourage hybrid and other fuel efficient cars, and to punish gas guzzlers.
Purchases of new cars that use less than 6.5 litres of gas for every 100 kilometres of combined city and highway driving (and minivans or SUVs under 8.3 l/100km) will be eligible for a $1,000 rebate, which will increase by $500 for each half-litre reduction, to a maximum of $2,000. So, the more efficient and smaller hybrids like Toyota's Prius and the Honda's Civic Hybrid receive a $2,000 rebate. This is in addition to the previously existing Ontario provincial rebate of $2,000 for hybrids.
Conversely, vehicles that consume more than 13 l/100km attract a penalty of at least $1,000, rising in $1,000 steps for every additional litre, to a maximum of $4,000 for cars and SUVs that use more than 16 l/km. For reasons that escape me, pickup trucks are exempt from these provisions.
There was a bit of fuss over a last-minute change to include a couple of gas-guzzling GM cars (GM stands to lose out big-time from these new rules, and the Japanese manufacturers stand to benefit most), on the grounds that technically they can run on E85 ethylene fuel, even though there are NO E85 outlets in Canada, so the cars would be forced to run on regular fuel anyway...
The only other good news in the budget from an environmental standpoint (albeit a rather watered-down measure) is the gradual phasing out of the accelerated capital cost allowance for Alberta's oil sands development.
Frankly, this is all something of a sop to cover up the fact that the Tory government is still stalling ondoing anything concrete towards Canada's Kyoto obligations.
Still, on balance, positive baby steps, I suppose.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Not much of a dreamer

After a conversation about dreams with some of my (female) soccer buddies in the pub the other evening, I started to worry that I was even more repressed and abnormal than I had thought.
I hardly ever remember dreams, haven't done for years. My correspondents, on the other hand, are clearly real afficionados, one even going so far as to keep a dream journal, and they claimed that I was incurious and uncritical, and only using a small part of my brain.
I have some sympathies with the latter point, although not, I think, for the reasons they were suggesting. But my interest was piqued, so I looked into the subject a bit (not too much).
After several which were "in the business" so to speak, I quite quickly came upon a website from the University of California Psychology Dept which pretty closely echoed my own opinions, and sounded reasonably objective, so I must confess I didn't look much further.
In particular, the website includes a report on the "The 'Purpose' of Dreams", a report on "Dreams and Parapsychology" and a FAQ, all of which suggest that I am not at all unusual or repressed in not remembering dreams, and not out and out wrong in being dubious or sceptical of people who read too much into dreams (including, in addition to soccer players, Messrs. Freud and Jung, of whom I have always been suspicious - see "Moving Dream Theory Beyond Freud and Jung").
My attitude to dreams is similar to my attitude to religion: if it brings you some solace, that's great, but it's not for everyone, and don't expect me to be taken in. I am a practical person, and I need some proof of what I believe (other than unsubstantial opinions and hypotheses). I also feel the need to take some control over my destiny, and not be at the mercy of (or rely on) the unknown.
So I feel a bit better about myself today...

Some recommended non-fiction

Unusually for me, I have been reading quite a lot of non-fiction recently, courtesy of the excellent Toronto Public Library.
Along with a huge number of others, judging from its top position on the list of best-sellers, and my position at one time as number 1183 out of 1215 in the library reservation queue (who knew there were so many atheists using the Toronto library system!), I read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. It merely re-states a little more comprehensively and elegantly most of the suspicions about the redundancy of the God concept I have had since my teens, but I thought it reasonably well-written, even if I found his carping, sarcastic and supercilious tone a bit tiresome after a while.
This led me to re-read (or re-attempt to read) "God and the New Physics" by Paul Davies (first published back in the 80's) in an effort to get my head around quantum theory, entropy, space-time curvature, etc. I'm still finding it hard going and may fail again, but it has led me down some other interesting avenues (for instance, did you know that the human body is basically composed of 65% oxygen 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen and 3% nitrogen, with a few traces of calcium, phosporus, potassium and sulphur thrown in?)
I also ploughed through "What Good Are The Arts" by John Carey, which sounded like an interesting line of enquiry, but I was not too enthralled by it. He looks at questions like: Do the arts make us better people? Does art equal civilization? Is there such a thing as a subjectively good work of art? Unfortuately, he doesn't come up with many convincing answers, and the whole book is sadly negative, unfocussed and inconclusive, I thought.
The second half of the book purports to show how literature is superior to the other arts, but represents more an excuse to ramble on about some of his favourite authors and books - interesting enough in its own way, but equally unfocussed.
The other non-fiction book which held my interest recently was "Unspeak" by Steven Poole, a British journalist for the Guardian. This investigates the way in which language, words and labels are used by governments and politicians in a persuasive, euphemistic or propagandizing way. The book is a largely an excuse for a blistering leftie diatribe against George W. Bush and Tony Blair (most of which I totally agree with, but it often leads the book off-topic, I thought). But it does point out how some everyday phrases used in the media are subtly warping our perceptions of the issues.
For instance, among many others, he touches on:
- "anti-social behaviour" (a vague and malleable term used to discourage and even criminalize people whose behaviour may not meet the standards of a particular group with its own social agenda)
- "community" (a catch-all phrase used to pigeon-hole whole segments of society and to completely define them according to one aspect of their views)
- "climate change" (a phrase deliberately encouraged in some circles as being less scary and more disarmingly vague than the phrase "global warming")
- "natural resources" (which gives the impression that everything in nature is there to be exploited and used up)
- "human resources" (which gives a similar sense that employees are expendable and non-individualized assets)
- "ethnic cleansing" (a self-justifying phrase which effectively hides the horrors of mass murders, rapes and concentration camps which undelie it, and encourages the idea that people of a particular ethnic background are all the same, and that a particular society can be improved by deleting the offending sub-section)
- " terrorist" (a word which has been broadened in definition and inexcusably over-used in order to justify otherwise unjustifiable tactics)
- "war on terror" (a Bush-ism designed to rally the population against a non-specific enemy, despite the illogic of declaring war against a particular tactic or technique of violence)
- "abuse" (a disarming euphemism for torture when applied by the good guys)
- "freedom" (an overused and woolly concept usually employed to indicate a US-style capitalist society protected by military power).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Canada still a positive influence

A recent BBC World/Globescan poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries has landed Canada in the enviable No 1 position as regards international perceptions of which countries have a positive or negative influence in the world.
54% apparently see Canada as having a mainly positive influence on the world, equalled only by Japan and closely followed by the European Union. But only 14% perceive Canada as having a mainly negative influence, significantly less than any other country.
At the other end of the scale (of the 12 countries which were the subjects of the poll) were world pariahs Israel, Iran, North Korea and the United States.
This comes after a November 2006 Macleans/Angus Reid poll of 20 countries for their views on Canada and the world, which indicated that the rest of the world still sees Canada's quality of life as better than that of other countries.
Canadians, who in recent months have been aware of a rather slippery slide in our international reputation due to our (or at least our government's) prevarications on Kyoto, the more aggressive international military role we seem to be taking, and our subservience to the political will of our neighbours to the south, are in shock.
But pleasantly so.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Canada meekly follows US time change nonsense

I can't believe that, because the Americans have decided in their (somewhat suspect) wisdom that summer daylight-saving time is suddenly to start three weeks earlier than it used to, Canada is to meekly follow suit. Just another case of the USA belching and Canada saying "excuse me", say I.
Frankly, I find it hard enough to believe that, in this day and age, we still bother with it at all, based as it is on an outdated idea of daylight usage.
While reading about it, I found it interesting to note that there are some provinces, and even some individual towns, which have never bothered with daylight time. The good burghers of Saskatechwan for one (with the bizarre exception of Lloydminster and two other even smaller towns), and Nunavut Territory for another, never have to remember to change all the time-pieces in their houses twice a year, and they seem none the worse for it. The town of Creston in BC is another isolated example of western stubbornness and contrariness.
This is on a par, in my mind, with Newfoundland's preversity in setting its time zone at three-and-a-half hours behind GMT. There is something rather charming and whimsical about it.
I found some of the arguments for following the US somewhat trite, including worries about being "out of sync" and "maintaining a competitive advantage" for the tourism, travel and telecommunications industries. Are they suggesting that the hordes of tourists crossing the border from North Dakota into Manitoba or Maine to Nova Scotia (or any other route which happens to be within the same time zone) will change their minds if the clocks are different during this three week period?
Kudos to Creston for sticking to their guns and ignoring all this nonsense. And remind me never to visit Lloydminster.