Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Biofuels - boon or bane?

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food has concluded that the continued development of biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, is ill-conceived and that there should be a five-year moratorium.
I used to go out of my way to fill up at gas stations which used a higher percentage of ethanol, but I no longer do, and I have a suspicion that Mr. Ziegler may well be right on this.
Despite its climate change advantages (growing the plants absorbs a comparable amount of carbon dioxide as the burning of the resulting fuel emits), biofuels have several drawbacks:
  • any agricultural land devoted to biofuels production is agricultural land not available for food production which, in a world where food is in short supply, seems immoral;
  • in Brazil and Southeast Asia, pristine rainforest is being burned down for sugarcane, soy bean and oil palm plantations for biofuels, which has climate change as well as species habitat consequences;
  • growing corn for biofuels in the first world requires fertilizer, tractor use and transportation, to the extent that it has been estimated that it uses almost as much energy as the final fuel provides, as well as leaving behind eroded soils and polluted run-off;
  • meeting the increasing demand for biofuels would require an unconscionable proportion of the available arable land;
  • some estimates show that ethanol only achieves carbon savings of about 13% when the pollution from the production process and reduced mileage efficiency is taken into account (even if that estimate is disputed, more conservative estimates put the savings at no more than 50%);
  • evidence from the current sugar and palm oil industries indicates that biofuels production will push up food prices significantly, with worldwide consequences;
  • potential problems with genetically-modified plants and mono-culture agricultural practices loom on the horizon, with implications for bio-diversity and species habitat;
  • developing biofuels will take away the impetus needed for conservation measures and improvements in fuel efficiency (a 20% overall improvement in fuel efficiency standards - quite feasible using existing technology - would apparently save far more energy than Europe's biomass could produce).
As usual, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and no technology that doesn't have its concomitant shortcomings. How depressing...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Donuts, saxophones, nihilism and satire

I am enjoying Chris Turner's Planet Simpson at the moment - 450 large-format pages of encomium, homage and rant.
It helps that I'm a Simpsons fan, of course. If you've never seen, or (Heaven forbid!) don't like, The Simpsons - whose remit, according to creator Matt Groening, is to "entertain and subvert" - much of it may be lost on you, but as a critique of modern society and popular culture, it's still a good read.
Sub-titled "How a cartoon masterpiece documented an era and defined a generation", the book focusses in turn on each of the main characters and what they tell us about our world, as well as dissecting the creative process and pointing out some of the clever-clever homages to old movies, some of which flash past in a moment and are all too easily missed. Some of the illustrative quotes and scene descriptions are almost as hilarious as the originals, and tiny details are blown up and deconstructed level by level.
Turner's analysis of 1990's North America is pretty sharp and inciteful, and his prose is suitably ascerbic and irreverent. He touches on family mores, punk rock and grunge, rampant consumption, media control, corporatism, environmental activism, religion and race, libertarianism, irresponsible advertising, the Internet ("Interweb") revolution and much else besides.
Who would have expected section titles like "Existential Angst and Cultural Criticism" or "Ironic Culture and the Sleek Surface of Modernity" in a book about a Fox cartoon series? Who would have expected to find an analysis of Michel Foucoult's comments on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon theory sandwiched in between a bunch of expletives and guffaws at the cartoon violence of the "Itchy and Scratchy Show".

Friday, October 19, 2007

Utopian Literature

Utopian Literature I have recently spent some time (while business is slack) creating and researching a website on Utopian Literature (
For some reason, ever since first discovering the genre as a teenager (introduced to 1984 and Brave New World at school) I have been fascinated by utopias and dystopias. But I realized recently, while looking something up, that there is not a whole lot of information on the subject available on the web.
So I thought I would cobble together some resources from various provenances, and list and briefly review the main examples. My contribution to posterity.

Rumblings from Québec

Despite an apparently weaker showing for Québec separatism recently than for many years, ominous reports keep trickling out of the province. In today's Globe and Mail alone, there are three such.
We learn than the Parti Québécois want to establish a "Québec citizenship" requiring an "appropriate knowledge" of French. While I find it difficult to believe that anyone would immigrate into Québec without a reasonable knowledge of French anyway, as much for their own comfort as anything else, Québec is not a legal nation and so cannot impose or enforce this kind of framework. Immigrants to Canada have to prove a working knowledge of French or English, and one has to assume that those with a working knowledge of French and not English are likely to end up in Québec, so what would be the point?
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe recenty waded into the ongoing debate (in Québec and elsewhere in Canada, but particularly in Québec) on what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" of minorities, by offering that "Quebeckers form a francophone nation in America, not a bilingual nation." Ho hum...
And then the Mouvement Montréal français (luckily not an organization with a great deal of clout) is insisting that Second Cup coffee shops call themselves "Les cafés Second Cup" within the boundaries of la belle province, on the grounds that French is being eroded by companies that have English-only names. This, clearly, is verging on the ridiculous, and conjures up images of Québec strip malls festooned with signs for "Le Burger King", "le Home Depot", "le Future Shop", etc. And what would be the appropriate translation for "Femme de Carrière", "Esprit" or "La vie en rose" (or for that matter "La Senza") in the rest of Canada? If French is so threatened by something of this nature, which I strongly doubt, then is it really worth protecting?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al Gore wins Nobel Peace Prize

What's with that?

Apathy and cynicism in Ontario

I don't really have that much to comment on, but I thought I should mark the end of the Ontario provincial elections with a short snide comment, as is my wont.
After an election campaign completely lacking in any drama or anything as practical as serious debate, all of 52.8% of the eligible voters bothered to turn out (even less than usual, and showing a continued downward trend). Apathetic and cynical, us?
So, yes, Mr. McGuinty and his merry band of Liberals were handily re-elected, but in actual fact only 22% of the eligible voters actually voted for them. Some mandate!
It was generally acknowledged that John Tory lost the election rather than Dalton McGuinty winning it, and most of that effect was over something as stupid as a mistaken call for faith-based school funding. McGuinty just had enough sense and professionalism to stay above the mud-slinging and negativism which characterized almost all the other campaigns.
Tory didn't even win his own seat, so it's probably just as well the Conservatives didn't have to form a government. Anyway, I find it difficult to take a Tory called Tory seriously, don't you?
The referendum on a possible change to the voting system was also resoundingly defeated, with inertia and the status quo being the most likely cuplrits there. Interestingly, if such academic what-ifs kindle your interest, if the suggested MMP system were to have been used for this election, there would now be 10 Green MPs and 21 NDP MPs, as compared to the actual 0 and 10 respectively, both parties registering a significant increase in their share of the popular vote, at the expense of the two main parties.
Ah, well....

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The "$47,680 Now!" campaign

One of the dafter news reports in recent weeks (and there has been plenty of competition!), sees the Royal Canadian Mint suing the City of Toronto for $47,680 over the use of the cent in the City's "One Cent Now!" advertising campaign.
Toronto's campaign for one cent of the six cents collected in federal GST to be used for municipalities (one of the dafter campaigns in recent years, quite frankly, but that's another story, as they say) actually started last February, but apparently the Mint have just realized that they are contravening some obscure law and, according to them, the City of Toronto owes them:
  • $10,000 for the use of the words "one cent" in the ads;
  • $10,000 for the use of the words "one cent" in the phone number (416-ONE-CENT);
  • $27,680 for the image of the image of a one cent coin on posters and printed materials.
Now, how daft is that!
If I were of a suspicious nature, I would almost believe that that were under instructions from their political masters. But even so, who would choose to make themselves appear totally ridiculous for the sake of $47,680?

Just add glass façade for a world-class city

The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto main gallery and one of the country's most important galleries, has decided that it is good policy to close for a year. Completely. All service staff have been laid off until further notice (read: we are expecting overruns, and have no idea when we might be re-opening), and thousands of works of art are being crated up for storage (there is no temporary exhibition space).
Arguably it has been closing gradually for some time, and my last couple of visits have been disappointing. But this is the big one. They have wheeled in a famous name (architect Frank Gehry), thrown millions of dollars of tax-payers' money at it (total cost: quarter of a BILLION), and converted it into a long-term construction site and traffic hazard.
As far as I can see, this is all in the interests of the buzz-word (or, rather, buzz-phrase) "world-class city", something Toronto has been fixating over for some years now.
Certainly it does not seem to be anything to do with rational economics. If they really believe that a new fancy glass façade will miraculously cause Torontonians to drop everything at the weekend to pay increased entrance fees to visit the art gallery, then they are naive in the extreme. Ditto with attracting additional visitors from New York, Phoenix, Tokyo or Berlin.
The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto's pre-eminent museum) has been going through the same process in recent years with the construction of the "Michael Lee-Chin Crystal". Wheel in a famous name (architect Daniel Libeskind), throw millions of dollars of tax-payers' money at it (total cost: MORE than quarter of a billion) , close down major segments of the museum over a period of years so that visits become disappointing trawls around construction tape, et voilá: world-class city! Or not.
Meanwhile, the city council is broke and services are closing down left, right and centre.
Maybe we should concentrate on getting things working for the residents first, and then we can use any left-over money for coddling visitors with glass baubles. Too radical?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Daddy, why is the sea salty?

Finally, I have a reasonably convincing answer to something that has bugged me for years (and had it printed at that!):
THE QUESTION: Landlubber Luke Mastin of Toronto wanted to know why the seas and oceans are salty (and very salty at that) but other large bodies of water, including the Great Lakes, are not.
THE ANSWER: Lakes are fed by rivers, which in turn are fed by rainwater. As rainwater passes through soil and around rocks, it dissolves some minerals, including salt, but contains these minerals in very low concentrations. However, while lakes are fed by rivers, they are also drained by them.
"The Great Lakes are not (noticeably) salty because water flows into them as well as out of them, carrying away the low concentrations of minerals in the water," writes Michael Moore of Toronto.
Eventually, this water, with its small load of dissolved minerals or salts, reaches the sea. "The oceans are therefore salty because water flows into them but leaves only by evaporation, leaving the minerals behind to get ever more concentrated," writes Mr. Moore.
Adds John Yandon of Ottawa: "If a lake has no outflow, it will become as salty, or more so, than the oceans. Some notable examples of salty lakes are the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the Salton Sea in California and the Dead Sea in Jordan."
And who says it doesn't pay to write into the papers?

The basket case that is Burma

If you were wondering what kind of conditions had reduced the people of Myanmar (also known as Burma...) to the kind of desperation that triggered the recent protests, the BBC recently did a good profile, which included the following snippets:
  • The Burmese military, which took over in the coup of 1962, have a complete stranglehold over almost all aspects of the economy, inlcuding internal transport, imports and exports, the rice trade and the civil service.
  • More than half of the country's annual budget goes on the armed forces.
  • The military live in a privileged, parallel world, competely removed from the squalor of the rest of the population, and many of the upper echelons of the armed forces are immensely rich.
  • Average income is around $300 a year, one of the lowest in the world (just for comparison, Canada and Western Europe's is around $40,000).
  • Health spending is around 2.8% (compared to a world average of 10.2%).
  • The black market rate for the local currency, the kyat, is 200 times the official rate.
  • The country is still subject to strict economic sanctions by the US and the European Union.
  • This August 15th, gas prices rose by 500% overnight and diesel prices over 100%, completely without warning, which more or less paralyzed the country and which was one of the main impetuses for the current protests.
Now, if they only had some oil, I'm sure the Americans would have been much more sympathetic to their plight...

Monday, October 01, 2007

"Please hang up now"

I thought I would, unusally, copy in its entirety a hilarious essay by Michael Fox of Vancouver about voice-activated phones which appeared in today's Globe and Mail. He says it so much better than I could, but I'm with him all the way.
Hello. Welcome to CALUS! Your call may be recorded for training or quality-assurance purposes. Your call is important and you have been placed in priority sequence. Please remain on the line and your call will be answered faster than by redialing.
Do not hang up, especially if you are calling from a cellular phone and you are on a by-the-minute plan.
While you are waiting for a representative from our client care team, you may choose one of these tunes: Press 11 for Bach's Meine Seltzer, meine Kopfschmerzen; press 12 for the a cappella interpretation of Chariots of Fire by the Bulgarian Women's Choir; or press 14 for Diana Krall's haunting rendition of Back in the USSR.
Hi! My name is Amy and I'd like to help you find the right person to speak with. Please tell me why you're calling at such an ungodly hour. You may say, "My phone line is down," or, "I'm having trouble breathing," or, "I locked myself out of my apartment." So tell me what it is you want.
Did you say, "My left arm is caught in the washing machine?"
Sorry, was that "yes" or "jay-sus!"
We seem to be having some difficulty understanding one another. Why don't you try talking when you've finished eating?
Sorry, I didn't get that.
If you know your party's three-digit extension, please enter it now. For a directory of our 5,629 employees, press 2 for first name first, last name last, press 3 for last name first, first name last, or press the star key now to enter the person's name using your telephone keypad.
That was an invalid number. Thank you. Goodbye!
Hello, welcome to CALUS! We've recently made changes to our menu to serve you better. Please listen carefully to the following three choices.
That is an invalid selection. We have recently made improvements to ... listen carefully to the following ... return to the previous menu by pressing the ... thank you and have a great day.
We're sorry, that number is ... no one can take your call at this time ... your call will be answered faster than by redialing. Okay, now you have been placed at the bottom of our priority sequence. Do not attempt to circumvent our telephone tree by dialling 0. That's why we recently made changes to our menu, to stop people like you from jumping the queue.
Let's start again. We've recently made changes...
Please hang up and try your call again.
Please hang up and try your call - you tried 0, didn't you. Do you think we'd go to all the trouble of constructing a direct-dial telephone menu if anyone could simply press 0 and get an operator? There are no operators. Only me. And I can go on for ever and ever, if you want to play that game. Now, please listen carefully ...
Welcome to ... we've recently made ... your call will be...
Press 0 one more time and you are really going to be sorry. If you require help at any time or you don't know which department to call, just say "agent" and our advanced voice recognition ...
Please hang up and try your call again.
Hi. My name is Mary-Lou, and I'm here to help you find the answers you need! You can say things like, "My cat threw up on the keyboard," or, "I'm five years old, " or, "Why is my phone bill $699?" or, "My goodness, there's a lot of blood, I think I need an ambulance," and I'll get you to the right department. All right then, let's get started. So, how can I help you today?
Sorry, I didn't get that. Speak slowly and clearly in unaccented English.
Are you saying that was not the right department? Do you think you know better than we do which department handles which complaints?
I'm sorry, but that is an anatomical impossibility. We seem to be having difficulty
understanding one another. Did you say you want a 10,000-volt surge down your land line?
Let's start over! If you require technical assistance with your phone line, dial-up or high-speed Internet, or home, office or mobile phone, if you have billing enquiries or if there's anything else you'd like to talk about, say "yes" now. For all other enquiries say "other."
Please say "yes" or "other" now.
We seem to be having difficulty understanding each other. Please stay on the line while I connect you with the next available agent.
Howdy, y'all, this is Chuck. I am pleased to be of help. You are very perceptive, sir. I am a real person. Actually, sir, you are quite right, my name is not Chuck. It is 3 in the morning here. I am having tea. Bangalore. Please be advised we are ADSL only, sir, not cable. OS X? Only PC, sir, only Windows 95. No Mac support, sir. Can you call back, sir, during business hours, 9 to 5, please. Our time. That would be 2 a.m. your time.
Or say "other."
All CALUS operators are busy. Have a nice day. Please leave a call-back number where you can be reached. Currently we are serving customers from January 2005. If you still wish to leave a message, please be aware there is a 10-second limit to all messages, starting now.
Your 10 seconds are up.
Please do not hang up and try your call again. Please hang up now.