Archive for August, 2008

We are cutting our carbon emissions by 5 tonnes.

August 27, 2008

On Sunday we are moving a ten minute walk (instead of a 45 minute commute) from where we both work – with two grocery stores between home and the office. And we’re switching to Good Energy.

What I like about them, despite the extra cost, is that I can be absolutely sure none of the profits from my “green tariff” will be used to build more coal, natural gas or nuclear plants. This is not the case with green tariffs from conventional suppliers. They promise you “100% green” energy, but while I was browsing suppliers yesterday, I discovered what that promise actually means. In almost every case, they buy from renewable energy sources (wholesale) the same amount of energy you pay for (retail). That’s it. And the profits are theirs to use (or pocket) as they see fit. Scottish Power pretends to offer a “100% green” tariff because they have a couple of dams up in Scotland. But dams aren’t all that green, besides which, the fuel mix for Scottish Power is 55% coal, 37% natural gas and only 6.8% “renewable” – which I assume refers to their dams – built between 1930 and 1936.

Of course those dams haven’t been sitting there for 80 years waiting for me to be willing to pay extra for “100% green” electricity. They were already in use and operating to capacity.  There’s no other way to do it with dams – if you don’t let the water out within a very particular range you will overflow or drain the reservoir.

And speaking of Scottish Power’s greed *cough* I mean green credentials, I wonder how it’s going with their subsidiary Pacificorp, in the US…

When PacifiCorp’s 50-year license to operate its six Klamath dams expired in 2002, stakeholders, along with local, state and federal agencies, assembled to participate in the processing of a new license application. The dams play a fundamental role in the decline of Klamath salmon by blocking more than 300 miles of historic spawning habitat and degrading water quality. Since the dams are poor power producers, offer no flood control and create reservoirs full of toxic blue-green algae each summer, there is strong local support for removing them.

At the same time that the Klamath dams’ license expired, PacifiCorp slammed irrigators with a sharp rate increase which for some families will result in a 1,200 percent increase in power bills. All of a sudden, farmers, fishermen, tribes and conservation groups began discussing how we could work together to have all of our needs addressed. Because our particular need is rather big – the removal of four dams, resulting in the largest river restoration project in America’s history – we are willing to work with farmers to address their needs at the same time

For its part, PacifiCorp remains defiant. The company seems more interested in gouging its own ratepayers than in making a responsible and sound business decision. That is to say that instead of working to ensure ratepayers get the cheapest out – dam removal – the utility would rather stick them with the excessive cost of bringing these outdated dams into compliance with modern environmental laws. Even installing ladders would do little to aid salmon recovery, because the degradation of water quality caused by the dams would remain. However, with at least a year left in the relicensing process, there’s still time for PacifiCorp to act responsibly and stop exploiting Native Americans, farmers and its own customers.

With Scottish Power, the “100% green” tariff appears to be nothing more than a cynical PR exercise.  All you get out of it is an opportunity to feel a bit better about your carbon emissions, while your hard earned money is siphoned off into new coal and nuclear plants, and to lengthy and expensive battles to avoid even the most basic environmental regulation.

Not so with Good Energy. They don’t deal in non-renewable energy at all. Yes, they are still shamelessly capitalizing on my consumer guilt, but the “green” they are selling is (apparently) real, not empty propaganda.

Anyway, I may not be blogging much due to packing and such, but when I return I will be in a much better moral position to shake my fist about environmental issues.

The Best Movie I Never Saw… Yet.

August 23, 2008

Looks like it, anyway. It’s in the mail, in a manner of speaking. Can’t wait!

Triathlon ain’t what it used to be.

August 22, 2008
Beijing Olympics photo of the day

Beijing Olympics photo of the day

Book Review: Armed Madhouse (Part 1)

August 21, 2008

As much as I love to condescend about the multiple social horrors afflicting my American neighbours – private health care, the highest per capita prison population in the world, economic policies that favour the rich by clobbering the poor, yada yada yada – I have to admit I LOVE American dissidents. They are innovative, expert practitioners of social unrest who understand free speech is worthless when wasted on bootlicking sycophancy.

Nevertheless, I picked up a copy of Greg Palast‘s latest book with scepticism. I had read Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed’s War on Freedom, which seemed at first glance to be packed with references, but when I finished the book and started fact checking it turned out the majority of the references were from a single source: Greg Palast. Just as single-source referencing sets off my alarm bells with global warming sceptics and GMO advocates, it’s only fair that I allow myself to be equally dubious when people I am generally inclined to agree with are sourcing narrowly. With my perspective thus influenced, I was fertile soil for suggestions that Greg Palast is a wing nut conspiracy theorist; suggestions that are never difficult to come by when researching the claims of popular dissidents. In fact, such smears are impossible NOT to come by.

I admit it; I get brainwashed too. I still can’t shake the feeling there is something tin hattish and questionable about Palast’s analysis of the documents that mysteriously fall into his hands, or those of his “research teams”, even though there is nothing particularly implausible about the whole “Dick Tracey meets Noam Chomsky” scenario that Palast puts forth. I don’t doubt the documents he references actually exist, the photos in the book are real, the conversations quoted actually took place and he really did surreptitiously record them. I work in a Freedom of Information office and send huge bundles of (redacted) documents off every day, fairly indiscriminately. My film school project was a mini-documentary about private investigators and their ingenious “surreptitious recording” techniques. I know enough about power politics from diverse enough sources to know his analysis is a much more clear-headed picture of current events than anything you will see on CNN, but all the same – Greg Palast, isn’t he that zany conspiracy theorist?

So there you go. Propaganda: no-one is immune.

But so what? In the shop, I set my doubts aside and flipped it open to a random page to see what Palast is on about, and the writing just grabbed me. Regardless of whether or not he is living in a dark fantasy world, I decided, Palast is absolutely brilliant. His writing is witty, exciting, irreverent, intriguing – more entertaining than a roman candle tossed into a gas-soaked pile of Politically Incorrect Guides. As if that wasn’t enough – the page I opened it up to revealed the book was specifically written with loo readers in mind, so that (as Palast puts it) it can be read in “short spurts”. What more did I need? I decided some books don’t need to be unequivocally “true” in order to be well worth buying, especially when you’re on the last few pages of Julian Caldecott’s Water and have a five hour late night train journey ahead of you.

The fact that Palast is a fantastic writer is fortunate, since it would be next to impossible for a layman to verify his sources over the internet on a slow day at work. Confirming that he actually has all the documents and recordings he says he has would require a personal visit with a team of forensic audiologists. On top of that I suspect, after my experience fact checking war on Freedom, that my threads of internet inquiry are likely to lead directly back to Palast’s website, or mainstream articles referencing him as the source (understandable, since he is an investigative journalist – if he was repeating “known knowns” there would be nothing to investigate). So my choices are a) take his word for it b) follow in his footsteps, file my own batch of FOI requests, record my own phone calls to the senior fellows at oil-funded think tanks and solicit my own army of disgruntled federal employees to pass me confidential documents, or c) just sit back in the privacy and comfort of my cosy green bathroom and enjoy a great book by a guy who regularly writes for the BBC, Harpers and the Guardian.

I’ve got one of Michael Moore’s offerings in the loo at the moment, but after a few chapters of Armed Madhouse I am beginning to think I can find a better use for Dude, Where’s my Country in there.

Note: This is “part 1” of the review because I’m not even halfway through the book. I would normally wait until I’ve actually read a book had some time to reflect on and integrate its contents before offering an opinion, but I just couldn’t wait. I consider this the excited buzzing about how awesome the new Batman movie is I heard during the intermission. I’ll write “Part 2” after the puzzle pieces have finished falling into place and the dust has settled.

What is the difference between me and Ken Ham?

August 15, 2008

I was watching Ken Ham brainwashing a mass of children on Youtube an hour ago and I was overcome by feelings of hysterical contempt.  I can’t stand religious jibber jabber.  As far as I’m concerned, I am the god of my own existence – I am the ultimate authority on all matters pertaining to my own experience of life, the dictator of my own moral principles, and I am responsible for my actions, beliefs and decisions.

Being a god demands the continuous absorption and integration of new information, especially information that conflicts with my perspective.  Everything must be taken into account, everything must find a place in the whole, every commentator gets a seat at the table.  When one is personally responsible for the quality of one’s own brief, beautiful and improbable experience of awareness, failing to contemplate multiple perspectives is malpractice of the highest degree.  It fractures the mind.  It sends vital aspects of human psychology scurrying into dark corners to escape the wrath of dominant, fixed ideas – from whence they take the reins of emotion and wreak holy havoc in complete anonymity.

I have learned that I can find the shadowy places where rejected perspectives lurk and expose them to the light by being on the lookout for an exaggerated emotional response to an abstract concept.  Like, for example, my hysterical loathing of Ken Ham for what he’s doing to those kids.  I honestly think the world would be a better place with all the young earth creationists removed – in fact, if I didn’t think the concept was a pitiable load of fanciful rubbish, I’d be as excited about the End of Days as they are!

My love has pointed out that the damage Ken Ham is doing to those kids is insignificant compared to the damage done by having parents that would send you to that type of event, and I agree – but I still hate Ken Ham.  If I met him I would be tempted to spit directly into his face.

I’m sure this is justifiable – I have a mass of clear-headed, rational justifications for my contempt – but lately I can’t silence this niggling  voice in my head that keeps pointing out I must be feeling exactly what fundamentalists feel when they think about people like me.  I believe in liberty, social justice, ecological integrity, the precautionary principle, moral relativism, evolution, education, critical thinking, unrestrained sensuality and intoxicants and my very existence is a living testimony to these beliefs.  I don’t believe in submission to authority of any kind, whether natural or supernatural.  How evil I must seem to them – an icon of everything that is wrong in the world from a fundamentalist perspective; an independent, free-thinking, educated, child-free, intelligent, morally aperspectival, drug using, multi-lingual, globe-trotting, sexually active unmarried female anarchist who hates cooking and hair dryers and loves power tools and diversity.  And my social circle is mostly made up of homosexuals, recovering drug addicts and foreigners.

So do religious fundamentalists hate me in exactly the same way as I hate them – as the negative image of my ideal world – or is there some kind of difference?

Dissident of the Month: Bev Harris

August 10, 2008

I first clued into the possibility that the US elections are questionable due to a tiny story in the New York Times a few days after 9-11. I was working in a mail room in an office building in Toronto. Many of the executives subscribed to US newspapers. Right up until the attack, the front page headlines were blazing with coverage of the court challenge, the aborted recount, the exclusion of large groups of voters from the polls and the unusual number of damaged ballots in Florida. Anyway, to make a long story short, in a tiny blurb buried in the middle of the paper, the New York Times reported that, in collaboration with other news organizations, they had commissioned an independent recount of the Florida ballots. The results were in, they said, but they had decided not to release them, since the most important consideration in America after 9-11 was unity. After a bit of reflection, it became clear to me the independent recount must have shown that Bush lost, since if he’d won, independent confirmation of his legitimacy would have helped rather than hindered the cause of American unity, right? It would have been big news.

Anyway, I became interested in the issue of electoral fraud in the US because of this curious little blurb. At that time there was not much out there. I dug up a few unverifiable fringe accounts of engineers and programmers discussing all the ways voting machines could be tampered with and some scattered reports of election irregularities, and then I lost interest.

Bev Harris, on the other hand, started out like I did but continued on to about page 15 of her google search (I usually give up around page 3), where she unearthed an unprotected Diebold FTP site containing, among other things, Diebold’s vote counting software, GEMS. She downloaded about forty thousand files and gathered a veritable army of programmers and analysts to look at them. Her research has culminated in a book, a large web community, and an HBO documentary.

In my view, Bev and her cohorts at Blackboxvoting.org proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the technology responsible for counting 80% of America’s vote has no security at all and can not be audited – and Diebold is fighting hard to keep it that way. Bev’s team of geeks have uncovered half a dozen ways in which election results can be tampered with. In an interview with Salon.com, she says “Once you know the steps, a 10-year-old can rig an election.”

Whether her efforts and those of others who have exposed the weakness of electronic voting technology pay off in 2008, only time will tell.

National Post: Liberal women doom their cause by refusing to procreate.

August 8, 2008

Peter Schweizer, in a National Post editorial, argues that conservative idealogues are destined to win the culture war because they make babies faster than liberals.

His argument is based on a tediously simplistic view of humanity where people can be neatly divided into two categories – “conservatives” and “liberals” – and an unspoken, obviously fallacious assumption the centre of the political spectrum is static. The statistics he uses to support his position come from “a 2004 US survey”. If these few factors don’t sound your propaganda gong, I don’t know what would.

I call bullshit.

I looked the man up. Sure enough, Schweizer is a research fellow at the libertarian “think tank” (a PR industry euphemism for “intellectual-sounding propaganda disseminator”) the Hoover Institution.

In his view, women who have been too busy contemplating social justice and overpopulation to get ourselves knocked up are just too selfish to do our civic duty and make babies like decent women should. Well I say you can go ahead and fuck right off, Peter. Why have babies of my own to advance my political agenda when I can win yours over with reason?

Surely liberals – a group that traditionally includes most of society’s activists, artists, musicians, homosexuals, philosophers, adventurers and visionaries – have ALWAYS procreated at a lesser rate than undereducated rednecks. And yet with every generation the centre of the political spectrum shifts mysteriously to the left. Slavery is gone! Women vote! Racial discrimination has gone out of style! Gay couples walk the streets unashamed! Boy I’ll bet that sure sucks for you, Peter. All that hard work getting your wife to churn out extra people to advance your personal political views and all we “liberals” need to do is write a few catchy folk songs and, sooner or later, the whole world sings along.

Why is an ostensibly “Canadian” paper disseminating American propaganda anyway? The least you can do is let us have us our own damn propaganda. Call up the Fraser Institute or something. Jeez.

Please, Fundie God, keep your flock out of my country, amen.

August 8, 2008

Please take a moment out of your day to pray that the Canadian border authorities give members of the Westboro Baptist Church the Ann Wright treatment when they try to attend the funeral of Tim McClean tomorrow.

They’re planning to try pretty hard, so it’s gonna take some hard praying!  A few anal probes might be in order – I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that’s where they’ve been keeping their banners and t-shirts.

Bill Hicks on Marketing

August 8, 2008

Degrees of Causality and Human Stupidity.

August 7, 2008

Lately I have been trying to think of a new way to rank human stupidity that takes into account that very clever people often make stupid decisions and simple people are very often wise. I think it has something to do with understanding multiple degrees of causality. Let me explain:

All events, however insignificant, are the result of unfathomably complex networks of cause and effect – labyrinthine relationships so convoluted they can’t be unravelled by the conscious mind. In trying to understand how the world works we have developed two basic approaches: “not thinking about it at all”, and “thinking about it a whole heck of a lot.”

Simple people tend toward the former, while clever people gravitate toward the latter – like poorly trained domestic dogs to the legs of seated strangers. Not only that, but when they finally figure something out, they go and DO stuff, which introduces a brand new factor of causality into the mix, thus complicating problems even more.

There is a reason clever people suck at being wise. I learned all about it reading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. In brief, the rational mind is crap at solving complex, non-linear problems. Oh, it’s great for adding up the grocery bill, but worthless when it comes to dealing with things like climate change or child poverty.

The rational mind can understand a few degrees of causality at most. After that it gets confused, frustrated and distressed. You can see evidence of this in the way many people harbour an irrational fear and hatred of the homeless. They settle on a single degree of causality – wilful laziness – and refuse to look further, into the dark realms of mental illness, bankruptcy, child abuse, the prison and parole system, drug addiction, the preposterousness of land being bought and sold, and all the interwoven factors that might cause a person in a capitalist society to become the ultimate symbol of social exclusion.

To one who fancies herself clever, trusts reason to open the door to understanding and fears her irrational mind, the world is a simple place. Bad things are done by bad people. Good people do good things. Water comes from the tap. Food comes from the grocery store. Petrol comes from the filling station. It can get much more sophisticated (ie. petrol comes from oil, which comes from the ground and is fossilised vegetation, etc.) but no matter how many extra degrees of causality you add to a single thread, it’s fundamentally the same type of thinking.

To a simple person who does not bother much with thinking – one who allows the subconscious to piece together a picture from the vast and complex web of causality in every event – water, food, and energy come from the void and the void is steeped in mystery. A simple soul is cautious not to mess with the unknown, for fear of interrupting the vital flow of water, food and energy.

These days clever people are solving all the problems of the world in a linear fashion, one at a time, rationally, with technology, research and innovation. At the same time, simple people – most of them far, far away from here – are growing food and saving seeds, as they always have, and as their mothers and grandmothers always have.

I can’t say whether I’m simple or clever myself, but I am pragmatic. One thing I understand about the preposterously complex problems of global warming and peak oil is that together they add up to a food shortage, especially in parts of the world that eat almost nothing but imported, petroleum-dependent food. Ie. all the parts I live in. So I sure wish there were more simple people around. Clever people are so busy thinking about how we are going to power our cars and transport our made-in-China brand names, they have forgotten to consider how we will feed ourselves.

WWII Dig for Victory ad from the UK

WWII "Dig for Victory" ad from the UK, circa 1942