Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Climate of the future?

Climate of the future? Here we see some of the (probable) future costs of climate change.

The hydrological cycle - evaporation / precipitation of water - speeds up due to a warmer atmosphere: more heat --> more evaporation and more water vapor in the air --> extreme precipitation events and flooding.

However, the situation in Ontario this year is a bit particular: a "perfect storm" says Dave Phillips of Environment Canada. Global Warming alters jet stream patterns which, in turn, can freeze artic air circulation patterns resulting in COLDER winter weather. If more snow falls, as it did this year, the conditions are set for flooding when those globally warmed spring days finally hit..

The flooding in parts of Ontario is "historic". Worst 1n 137 years, since the beginning of weather records..

Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

Book Review: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (W W Norton + Co, NY, 2000), 213 pages, introduction + varia. Rating 10 / 10

          I confess to a long standing fascination with the Old English epic of Beowulf, a Dark Ages warrior-hero who slays monsters and becomes warlord of the nordic Geats. As good king, Beowulf establishes a reign of (relative) peace and justice, finally, in old age, succumbing in mortal battle with a devastating dragon. Beowulf is certainly the origin of Britain's patron saint, George, the dragon slayer and the ancestor of modern avatars like Swarzenegger's "Conan, the barbarian".

         I've read the old poem, in translation, several times, in whole or part, but Heaney's is by far the most vivacious and lyrical. He breathes new life into the old bones to the point one forgets the poem is written in what by now a foreign language and not English.

         In Heaney's translation, the bard occasionally pauses, lifts his fingers from the harp, fixes us directly in the eyes and adds a few personal observations: the meaness of life, the value of honor - expressed as courage before the inevitability of death, or life's pathos as when an old man witnesses the execution of his son or the Geatish woman at Beowulf's funeral, madly prophesying the coming carnage as neighboring warlords reconfigure the regional power balance in the vacuum left by the great lord's passing.

         This is a powerful text rendered in traditional Anglo-Saxon "scop": two stressed syllables per half-line, cesura, alliteration across the cesura. Vestiges of the old language's phonetics must remain alive in modern English because the poem reads more naturally, more easily than "traditional" English rhyme patterns borrowed from the Latin languages. In my own experiments in poetry writing, I instinctively adopted this pattern - loosely - before I ever head of "scop". Heaney himself admits, "Part of me.. had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start". Readers of Gerard Manly Hopkins will recognize the rhyme scheme.

           At the beginning of the poem, Grendel, a monster who lives at the bottom of a lake or pond engages in nocturnal attacks on the mead-hall of the Danish warlord, Hrothgar, devouring his knights. Beowulf arrives and slays Grendel in hand to hand combat and then slays Grendel's mother who avenges her son's killing in more nocturnal raids. As Heaney notes, there is something viscerally "archetypal" about the poem. it speaks a truth we grasp - or intuit - through the language - or iconography - of myth, an X-rated fairy tale for adults one is tempted to say. Perhaps in the monsters and the fatal dragon of the end of the poem we encounter an avatar or projection of the society Beowulf lived in. The monsters mimic men: Grendel's mother is constrained to avenge her son's death as men are condemned to slaughter in interminable blood feuds.

"the poet had performed, a pleasant murmur
started on the benches, stewards did the rounds
with wine in splendid jugs, and Wealtheow came to sit
in her gold crown between two good men,
uncle and nephew, each of whom
still trusted each other; and the forthright Unferth,
admired by all for his mind and courage
although under a cloud for killing his brothers
reclined near the king" (lines 1159 - 1167)

        Indeed! "Uncle and nephew..STILL trusted each other". "..under a cloud for killing his brothers". This is the society of the blood feud, the vendetta, of honor killing.

        Beowulf, though a mighty warrior in combat, is held in esteem for his virtue, rising above or transcending the temptations such a society offers for violence and vindictiveness:

".. so ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades.." (lines 2166 - 2169)

         The Heroic Code is well summed by lines 1383 - 1389:

"Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
'Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.'"

        The reading of Beowulf with its glorification of violence - even if in the name of justice, stimulates reflection on the meaning, or relevance, of the Heroic Code in technically advanced societies like ours. A fictional example of such a reflection is the SF novel, Beowulf's Children by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes who question or examine the role of the Hero-Warrior in advanced societies. Their adaptation is set in the 24th century on the planet Avalon, newly colonized by humans.

        One may indeed ask if we need a new Heroic Code for the 21st century. This would be a personal heroism, not for personal glory and the "immortality" it confers but for the common good, the good of all humanity and unborn generations, even - given the state of our planetary ecology - in the service of Life itself.

        Myths often possess an internal psychological / philosophical consistency or unity. Beowulf dies childless. Why? A recognition that as an Ideal for a society founded on war, vengeance and the jockying for power of alpha males, Beowulf is simply too good to be true? Dying after the final battle with the dragon - released by human greed for the all prized gold - Beowulf laments,

"Now is the time when I would have wanted
to bestow this armour on my own son,
had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir
and live on in his flesh.." (2729 - 2732)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Justin T elected chief of Liberals - and the negative ad campaign begins

              Justin Trudeau, son of former PM Pierre Trudeau won the leadership of the federal Liberal party, yesterday, sunday, 14 april. Trudeau has a big job ahead of him! Potential liberal voters are splayed across a large part of the political spectrum from moderate left social activists to center right entrepreneurs. He has to avoid splitting the left of center and center vote with the New Democratic Party (NDP). Splitting on the left allowed Steven Harper and his team to win a majority in the last election.

               More challenging, is the negative momentum of the Liberal party in recent decades. The federal Liberals have become a party whose modes and models, whose language and analytical tools appeal to fewer and fewer people. Moderation, tolerance, individual liberty are ideas which move fewer people in these extremely conservative / reactionary times. One need only think of the rise of religiously oriented political parties and groupings around the world, from (?post?-)Arab spring Egypt to "conservative christian" America. Trudeau must somehow reach past the polarization to either recover the soul of the once great "natural ruling party of Canada" or, at the very least, succeed in "rebranding" it for a younger generation so it can compete as a political "brand" against the increasingly strident and activist Right.

               If Trudeau fails in either of these missions, the great old party may very well die as a political force on the federal scene. A more polarized Canada might emerge within a two party system: Conservatives versus the NDP (or whatever their successor - merging the remnants of the Left - choses to call itself). Such a Canada might be unrecognizable to us today. A large segment of the Liberals' right wing - the entrepreneurial sector - would swing over to the Conservatives. The "New Left Party", rallying the center-left forces, would probably radicalize, leaving a narrow, sparsely populated political center, a sort of political no-man's land where few dare to venture. The current climate of emnity and dirty tricks could intensify with unknown consequences. Today, one is justified in asking does a party of the center, like the Liberals traditionally were, have a place in the contemporary political scene?

                    As a person and candidate, Tudeau is engaging, sincere (one of his more endearing qualities), mediagenic and relatively youthful. He is of moderate intelligence and, apparently, a caring father. He makes the right noises on environmental issues. But does he have a vision? A vision of a better Canada in a better world? The reality is: the world is in terrible need of such men and women today. Down deep everyone knows this. 

               Our civilization is hurtling over the edge of an ecological / demographic abyss and we blindly follow madmen who urge us that naysayers are evil (or inspired by Satan himself). They foolishly preach that all we need to do is think of the economy (stupid!) and consume our way out of whatever crisis we happen to be in at the moment. (And we are stupid enough to listen..)

Denis Meadows: the apocalypse draws near

                One can obviously pick bones with Meadows and the Club of Rome regarding their timetable but the principle should be clear enough: you can't consume non-renewable resources at an exponentially increasing rate for very long. You will in short order suffer shortages. As a planet, a world, a species we need to get our population under control: first halt its growth then shrink it (and we must soon - very soon! - wake up to the fact that either we will shrink our global population voluntarily or Mother Nature will impose her harsher birth regulaltion measures: famine, plague and war). We urgently need to place our economic activities (our extraction, transformation, production and consumption of goods and services) on a renewable basis. We must develop and employ renewable energy sources with an emphasis on employing biological processes to do things we now use non-renewable resources for (biological systems are self replicating provided enough food and a conducive environment).

                Yes, so far Justin Trudeau makes the right noises on environmental issues but he has yet to formulate a coherent and mobilizing vision. In terms of Statesmanship, Justin Trudeau is called to put forth a Great Vision, an enobling vision to inspire Canadians to act in concert, as a society, to realize that vision of a Common Good. We might ask for example, what sacrifices would Canadian society be required to make to achieve a viable future for unborn generations? 

                A major role of any leader is to inspire people to make those sacrifices which need to be made for the collective good. Traditionally, these sacrifices have related to times of war, sometimes to economic or other emergencies. Does Mr Trudeau have the royal jelly to inspire people to the degree necessary to effect real change? Or is he merely giving us more yuppie greenwashing to make us feel good, so we can go back to consuming and (increasingly) chasing scapegoats..

                "Time will tell" as the old adage says. Mr Trudeau has, perhaps, several years to prove his worth as party chief for this challenging time.

                 An interesting side note: dirty tricks are starting early in the Conservative Camp.

dirty tricks start early!

                  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!  These guys have no shame. Consider. Mr Harper has installed a minister of science who, ostensibly, is a creationist. For those of us who think that, generally, creationism is bad science this is not good, not good.. 

Is this a creationist speaking??

                  And then there is the question of Mr Harper's intellectual honesty (or sanity!) which he himself managed to call into question with the following farcical position:

"Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,"

too weird for me to invent (do people BELIEVE this??)

                 And, of course, there is the long standing robocall scandal: during the last federal election, on voting day, non-conservative voters in several parts of the country received fraudulent calls, purporting to come from Elections Canada workers, telling them to change their voting station. This made for inconvenience and some people did not vote as a result (seniors with limited mobility, for example). While the robocalls scandal has not received the coverage - and angry action! - it deserves, some charges have been laid at the feet of a scapegoated underling.

Sona doesn't like being hung out to dry..

                                       Maybe - when you stop to think about it - it DOES make sense that these people would resort to dirty tricks so readily..

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Chrysotile asbestos saga coming to an end?

         The blog stats show that asbestos is one of the most popular topics. Why? - would anyone want to tell me..

          Soo.. We decided to respond to the popularity of the topic and provide a thumbnail sketch / history of the industry in Québec Province and an update on what is probably the death-knell of the industry in North America.

           The name "asbestos" covers several silicate based fibrous minerals used valued for their insulating properties. Unfortunaltely, with age, the fibers breakdown and release inhalable fragments. These fragments, suspended by air currents, pose a serious health hazard for miners, workers and inhabitants of buildings with aging asbestos insulation. Those exposed to the fibers show abnormally high rates of severe respiratory disease and a rare, usually lethal form of cancer.

            The use of asbestos is now banned in many juisdictions like the European Union and it has been placed on a list of dangerous subtances maintained by the United Nations. In late 2011, Canada's remaining two asbestos mines, both located in the Province of Québec, halted operations.
            In the context of asbestos mining in Québec, two categories of asbestos were recognized: "asbestos" and "chrysotile (asbestos)". The latter form of the fiber was held to be safer based upon research conducted at McGill University in Montréal. Unfortunately, this research has come under fire for "cherry picking": publishing results which favor the position held by the sponsor (the asbestos industry!)


            The present status of the industry in Québec? Not quite dead yet but on life support. And the newly elected Parti Québécois gouvernment of Pauline Marois is thinking seriously - very seriously - of pulling the plug. 

"Quebec's government appears to be on the verge of officially turning its back on the asbestos industry, according to comments made by the province's natural resource minister.
The ministry wants to end an 11-year-old policy of encouraging the use of asbestos in Quebec construction projects and is publicly questioning the implications of exporting chrysotile asbestos."


              These policy changes, if implemented, would seem to indicate the end of Québec's asbestos saga. 

"The future of asbestos mining in Quebec ground to a halt earlier this year after the newly elected government of Pauline Marois announced it would not honour a commitment of the previous government to lend the Jeffery Mine $58 million to restart production.
The government said instead it would rather put that money into economic diversification projects in the area.
At the end of March, the province's health minister announced that the government would make public a list of buildings that contain asbestos."

                The $58 million loan mentioned was the work of the previous Libéral government of Jean Charest, defeated in September of last year. Now of course begins the work of finding alternative sources of economic development for the Asbestos region, monies in short supply thanks to the Global Recession of 2008.

                   Personally, the thing I find the most disheartening about this saga is the support the Québec labor unions gave to the asbestos mining industry, a support which was based on flimsy "scientific" evidence. Only now, that the end of the industry is virtually certain, do they begin making proper noises: evidence leads to the consclusion that no usage of chrysotile can be assured to be truly free of risk. So we withdraw our support of the industry, blah, blah, blah. 

                  I think labor leaders should be, as francophones say, "militants". They should be infused with a moral mission which is to serve the common good, a good which includes the health and well being of their fellow workers in third world countries exposed to asbestos health hazards in conditions of unsafe workplace exposure. How is the worker to thrive - nay, survive! - if labor leaders fall to the "divide and conquer" stategy of multinationals?

internal blog links

this last link contains extended commentaries in the comments section.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Imperial Prime Minister: wither democracy?

             An interesting half-hour discussion this morning on the state of Canadian democracy, heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's morning radio program, "The Current". Recently social conservative backbencers have openly complained that the Prime Minister's Office is stiffling their right to represent their constituents on issues such as abortion law and sex selective abortion of girls reportedly practiced in some ethnic communities. They claim that they have been told that these issues are not welcome on the floor of parliament and will not be debated.

             Brent Rathgeber, a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) representing Edmonton, Alberta speaks on the first segment of the audio-clip (hit the "Listen" button of the link below). Rathgeber is not himself a social conservative but believes that fundamental principles of democratic governance are being violated by his own party. Conservatives, he claims, have traditionally stood for freedom of speech and freedom of open debate.

Conservative Backbenchers muzzled?

            The last segment, beginning around minute 16, is an interview with conservative pundit Andrew Coyne. Coyne has some interesting points to make about the general state of health of Canadian democracy today. Party discipline, he notes, has grown across all party lines in recent decades. But why? I have asked myself this very question quite a few times lately. Is Canada moving towards an American style presidential system and away from British style adversarial parliament? A recent article by Mr Coyne in which he compares the Canadian and Australian parliaments suggests this might be the case.

             Coyne concludes his article with the stirring lines:

"This did not begin with Warawa, in short, and it will not end here. The question is whether opposition MPs will join the fray. The shuttering of Warawa’s motion, after all, was an all-party affair: it was his motion this time, but it could be theirs next. There’s a fight worth having, here, but it isn’t Conservatives vs. Opposition, or pro-life vs. pro-choice. It’s for the freedom of all MPs against the dictates of a system that, as in no other democracy, has vested all power in the party leader."

              The distortions of the democratic process are everywhere if one takes the time and effort to look and see. In this blog we have examined recent efforts on the part of the Harper governement to silence scientific debate relating to the hazards of fossil fuel use (climate change in general and potential biohazards resulting from extracting and refining Alberta tar sands). See the internal blog links at the end of this article for links to these articles.

              In his interview on "The Current", Coyne described the perncious current practice - borrowed from the US? - of utilizing omnibus bills to ram through federal budgets without debate. Listen to the audioclip of the link below, Backbench MPs muzzled?, beginning around minute 16 for the Coyne interview. Obviously "pragmatism" or "efficiency" are invoked to justify this undemocratic practice: modern goverments have simply grown too large, too complex and too interconnected in their functioning to afford the luxury of longwinded debate..

Backbench MPs muzzled?

              The following article, published Easter Sunday in the New York Times by Canadian academic Prof. Thomas Homer-Dixon, sounds an alarm for citizen's on both sides of the border.

              Prof Homer-Dixon in a short, 8 minute, interview on the CBC newsprogram: "As it happens", 2 April, 2013. This spoken statement of his position, I find particularly eloquent.

             My own analysis of the state of democracy in Canada and the world is more "structural" and perhaps more pessimistic than conservative pundit Andrew Coyne's. I perceive the disenfranchisement of the citizen / the disempowerment of civil society as an inevitable byproduct of technocracy. One's actual starting position on the political spectrum appears irrelevant. Technocracy operates it centralizing of power and regulation of information flows whether one begins from the Left - marxist Communism - or from the Right - fascism and its antechamber, the modern corporation controlled State. Wherever one starts from, one ends up in the same place. Chinese taoist philosophy says that the tao (the nature) of water is to seek sealevel. All rivers flow to the sea. I see Fascism as the tao of industrialisation. "Republican values" - in the French revolutionary sense of "republican": liberty, equality, fraternity and representative government arose prior to the industrial reveolution (and technocracy). The Great Historical Question: would such "republican" values have risen if the industrial revolution had occurred in the first half of the 18th century instead of the first half of the 19th century..

              To cut to the chase."Every cloud has a silver lining". Bad things shake people up, forcing them to consider new and better ways of living, of doing things, of making a buck. Consider the New Economy we are entering in this dawn of a new century, the post peak oil economy. Cheap oil is running out. What is left will cost more and more to discover, extract and refine. Environmental impacts will worsen. This all looks bad for our energy junkie lifestyles, certainly. But the New Economy also offers the (potential) promise of reversing the trend toward antidemocratic centralization which industrialisation and technocracy have installed. If we play our cards right we will find within ourselves the wit and wisdom to grasp this opportunity to re-empower our local communities, our families, our lives and to offer our children a future in which hope still lives.

internal blog links:

Harper muzzles Conservatives' Right Wing?

Harper muzzles Environmental Science?

This link gives numerous internal blog links 
climate scientists speak out