Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Morgentaler legacy

            Controversial "abortion doctor" Henry Morgentaler dies at age 90. Dr Morgentaler's crusade for abortion on demand made him both a hated and a lionized figure on the Canadian cultural scene for several decades. In the mid 70s he defiantly opened an abortion clinic in Montréal which earned him 10 months in prision. Morgentaler's crusade is credited with legalizing abortion on demand in Canada. He did this by, effectively, forcing the hands of the politicians and the public to decide one way or the other: abortion will be recognized as a medical procedure in Canada or it won't.

             Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth introduced a motion last autumn which would open a parliamentary debate on the legal status of the fetus before birth: is the fetus a "legal" human being or not? Woodworth's motion was defeated 203 to 91 although slightly more than half of the conservative members voted for it. This has raised questions among some opposition members and the public: is there a fundamentalist religious "agenda" at work here? Are harcore social / religous conservatives engaging in a conscious program to reopen the abortion debate? There is some evidence suggesting they have launched an initiative to maintain constant pressure to reopen the question of the legality of abortion in Canada.

half of conservatives vote to open national abortion debate

              While such thinking obviously smacks of conspiracy theory, some observers feel it is waranted by the facts, at least as a "working hypothesis". Thus there has been a recent attempt to "rebrand" the pro-life option as a civil rights crusade for the rights of the unborn. Anti-abortion activists are portrayed in the same light and the same language as activists like Martin Luther King, jr or Nelson Mandela.

              Likewise, sex selective abortion of female fetuses in Asian immigrant communities was recently raised as an issue. This is an intelligent move on several fronts. It expands the potential audience for the prolife movement to embrace femisists on the Left and anti-immigrant sentiment on the Right (and, then, how many, "progressives" also harbor racist sentiments, avowed or not..) Thus,

"Recent studies have shown that the practice of aborting females in favour of males in happening in Canada," said Warawa, adding that polls show more than 90 per cent of Canadians believe the practice should be illegal."

                 This admission on the part of conservative MP Mark Warawa, a fundamentalist, is revealing. It shows that he is aware of the spin, the traction, his message has with the public. This is called "mainstreaming the Right". A wedge issue, such as sex selective abortion, which is broadly rejected by Canadians of all political stripes is used to lever open the abortion debate or, at least, to make it seem that pro-lifers are "normal", rational, decent folk just like everyone else.

               Since conservative parties around the world are linked with business, such clever, effective "product branding" is right up their alley. In the current dumbed down cultural atmosphere, this is more proof - if proof were needed! - that the Left doesn't stand much of a chance. It is dark time for progressives  and we will simply have to learn to suck it up and plan for brighter days.

               For those who think I am exaggerating about manipulation of anti-immigrant / racist sentiment, here are a few quotes lifted from an online article on sex-selective abortion.

A Simple Fix. Either stop them from immigrating to Canada or stop telling these third world people what sex the baby is. In BC it's against the law for anyone to know the sex of the baby because of this problem. The Chinese do this all the time, all third world countries do this all the time.  So the simple fix is to make it illegal to let anyone know the sex of the baby. Man our forefathers never knew the sex of the baby why do it now. If these pakies want to continue this grotesque tradition, DEPORT them all back to their country.

Couldn't be clearer that one.. :-0

"They should just sterilize them all and start deporting all Muslims and Canada would be a safer place to live and we would get our Merry Christmas back and our Canadian traditions back . Trudeau
ruin this Country with his imigration policy"

These two comments earned 31 approvals and only 1 disapproval from readers!
The latter reads like a Nazi propaganda text: sterilization and deportation!!

internal blog link



Monday, May 27, 2013

Yup, silly season has arrived, a bit early..

Mai, 2013 - tout un mois / what a month!

          There is a popular theory that (in nordic countries anyway) spring or summer is the silly season. Decompression after a winter spent cooped up indoors with lousy weather. Or vestiges of the mammalian mating season.. At any rate, the theory seems, some years at least, to hold true. This spring is one of those years.

          On the federal scene, political zaniness has gone into Warp Drive. True, the Haperites appear as tunnel-visioned and narcissistic as the Chrétien liberals ever were. But I've always felt that they were born for something bigger. And maybe we are just starting to see that today..

          It all began innocently enough when an audit revealed that four senators (including a Liberal) had claimed re-imbursements for a secondary residence maintained in the Ottawa region, claims which were not justifiable. The actual sums of money involved were not significant: $90,000 for high profile Conservative Mike Duffy, for example. But the affair, somewhat unpredictably, has morphed into a mushrooming scandal, fueled by Conservative ineptness and / or (perceived) underhandedness.

           Initially, senator Mike Duffy, a very popular Conservative fundraiser, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and quickly payed back the $90,000 auditors claimed he owed. Hoping of course, that the scandal would crawl off and just die under a rock. Critics, obviously, went ballistic: since when does repaying a theft exhonerate the thief from the crime? These folk wanted blood! (And Duffy, being a high profile type, made a tempting target - politics is a blood sport.)

           Then things went strange, very strange indeed. Nigel Wright, Steven Harper's chief of staff - now EX-chief of staff - "gave" Senator Duffy the $90,000 because Mike was short of pocket change. A noble act perhaps but most political pundits have admitted stupifaction at the political stupidity of such an act. It turns out that it may actually have been illegal as well. The RCMP is considering opening an investigation.

Strong grounds for criminal charges says ex-Mountie

              Legal niceties aside, "it does not pass the smell test", is probably the most cogent response I've heard so far. It doesn't look good, especially for a government elected on a platform of "Law and Order, transparency and responsible governement". It's starting to look like the same old political game again. Hence the apathy and cynicism of the young toward the politics in general which is always a danger sign for a democracy..

             So we have come to the point where gun totin', reformin' Clean Steven has to deal with his own Demons of Corruption (real or virtual). It's hard to say, I am happy or I am sad. I don't like Steven Harper, his ideology even less and his practice - his praxis - least of all. But personal preferences aside, it does seem that this type of Political Uncleanliness (for lack of a better term) has become endemic today. Observe, for example, the record breaking unpopularity of  President Hollande of France, down to 25% approval after less than a year in office. "his term so far been mired in protest and scandal"

Hollande's popularity - an all time low

           Yet, Hollande too was elected on a gun totin', reformin' agenda! True, he came from the Left of the political spectrum but the results seem pretty much the same: voter unrest, apathy, contempt for the political process. In France, as in Greece and other countries, political apathy and disengagement of the young is accompanied by the rise of extremist politics, from populist anti-immigrant parties to flagrantly racist political gangs to full blown "home grown terrorists" (radicalized Muslim youth or white supremecist neo-nazis). Fortunately, to date, we have not seen too much of this in Canada. 

          And let us not forget the incredible über-hypocrisy of the Chrétien Liberals with respect to their engagement on the Kyoto Greenhouse Gas Emission Accord.

" Canada has abandoned a long-standing reputation for environmental stewardship in favor of industry and, among other things, development of a controversial and emissions-intensive oil patch in Alberta known as the tar sands."

          When the Harper Conservatives finally pulled the plug, they were merely formalizing a policy of non-action on renewable energy instigated by the Liberals years before. Both parties play smoke-and-mirror games on environmental issues: they say one thing and do pretty much the opposite. The Conservatives are simply a bit more honest about what they are doing and their contempt for Nature as anything beyond a storehouse of "resources" to "exploit".

Canada and Kyoto Protocol adherence 

          Meanwhile in Québec, the Charbonneau commission grinds onward, investigating corruption in the provincial construction industry. This has led to several mayors being forced to resign in disgrace and the disolution of at least one municipal political party. Contracts with municipalities have been grossly inflated with kick backs to participating civil servants and political parties. And of course the Big Contractors grow fat, the Mafia takes its cut. 

New horrors from the Charbonneau Commission

         Thus residents of the Metro Montréal area overpaid for low quality asphalt used in road paving and repair. A cartel of contractors maintained prices well above fair market values, raking in a 30% profit margin when 8% was considered fair. 

         We wonder: will criminal charges follow these revelations? If so, what? One has no sense of what is coming next. One senses only we are living a time of flux, free falling. There is no proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel". There is only the sense of a "System" unravelling, unravelling, with unforeseeable political consequences..

         The disease we write of is not Canadian, of course. The whole world seems to be living a time of diminished leadership. Historical determinists will say that weak leaders are symptoms, not causes, of a bankrupt civilization which has lost its way. This may, in part, be true. At any rate, many commentators find modernity lacking in authenticity (the existentialists), in christian or humanist values, or common sense.

          Attempts to furnish correctives to the "disease of modernity" have not proven fruitful - not on the large scale, anyway. Western bourgeois societies have gone for "technological fixes" and "therapy". Such fixes may be "spiritual" in nature: Freud, the sexual revolution, feminism, the Drug Culture of the 1960s, New Age, religious fundamentalism.. or they may be "technological": psychotropes like Prozac or proposals for genetically re-engineering the human race so it will be more malleable to reason. Sometimes extremely radical, holistic political / social reforms are attempted such as the Communist and Fascist experiments of the 2oth century. To date, none of these correctives has produced lasting or convincing results. The craziness rises each year. So has the consumption of psychotropes, legal and illegal. Some commentators claim that the real problems we face - overpopulation and resource depletion - are not formulatable, cannot be encoded or communicated, within our present system of cultural values. This suggestion, I would argue, is not as radical as it might seem. Consider..

             Question: if environmental / demographic dangers are, in fact, real, why is the Green Party not ruling the country and by a big majority? It seems to me, there are only two possible answers here: 

1- the Club of Rome report: "The Limits to Growth" (1972) got it wrong. This is possible (but given empirical data and logical extrapolation of trends, not likely). Or

2- our current "democratic" Occidental civilization cannot formulate the correct set of questions to ask before we begin to address our real problems.

               Thus, we are, according to some serious thinkers, living a "civilizational crisis" (Edgar Morin: "La Méthode"), a time of transition from one mode of human-being-in-the-world to another. We are learning to use our powerful brains and the science / technology that emerges from them. The atmospherics, the zeitgeist are certainly fitting when compared to earlier times of transition / trouble.

internal blog link: caught-with-your-hand-in-cookie-jar-eh?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Updates: PEARL of Canadian arctic saved, cookie jar scandal unfolds

         In a surprising reversal, the Harper government has decided to refund the PEARL, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located in Eureka, Nunavut. The world renowned center will receive $5 million over 5 years. Originally we wondered why the feds cut the funding. A million dollars per annum is a lot of money to me, but chicken feed for the federal government. The move seemed calculated to silence opponents of the government's pro-oil industry stance.

         Recently though, the wind has changed direction a bit on environmental issues and especially regarding the economics of the Albertan tarsands. The US government is now making greener noises making it harder for the Harper government to justify its strident anti-environment / pro-business position. Opposition to pipeline proposals to pump tarsand bitumen south of the border is also gaining ground. Worst of all, shale gas and oil development in the US threaten to undercut the tarsand oil market with cheaper product. Finally, if all that were not enough, the depressed global economy also depresses oil demand, exerting downward pressure on prices. This is not good for the Alberta tarsand industry since it is difficult and expensive to extract and transform.

          In this context, one suspects strongly that the Harper government is trying to pretty up its image down south of the border: Canada wants to be seen as a friend of the environment. The goal of course is to make Albertan tarsand derivatives more palatable against rising environmentalist opposition and disfavorable market conditions. What the hell, $1 million is chicken feed and they need a positive image if they are going to get that oil to flow south.

              Then there is the cookie jar scandal: senators claiming money for maintaining a secondary residence in the Ottawa area.

internal blog link:

               Senator Mike Duffy, an important crowd drawer on speaking tours for the Conservative Party, has "resigned" from the Coservative caucus to sit as an independent senator. Perhaps he was forced to fall on his sword, the stench of scandal rising too high. Audits have now revealed that Senator Duffy was claiming senatorial expenses while campaigning for the Conservatives in 2011. In addition Senator Pamela Wallin, also implicated in the cookie jar scandal, has also withdrawn from the conservative caucus to sit as an independent until an independent audit clears her of wrongdoing. Exciting times in Ottawa..

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Caught with your hand in the cookie jar, EH?

           Senate rules allow senators to claim up to $22,000 per annum to maintain a secondary residence near to parliament in the Ottawa area. Conservative senator Mike Duffy and two other senators (one a Liberal) are in hot water in claiming the allowance while actually residing in Ottawa (and not in their claimed primary residence in their home province). The Duffy saga has indeed taken some weird twists in the last few weeks. Senator Duffy offered to pay back the $90,000 he owes the taxpapers, claiming ignorance of the rules on his part. It now turns out that Nigel Wright, PM Steven Harper's chief of staff payed the re-imbursement out of his own pocket, raising some fundamental questions of ethics in high places.

          From the pen of our favorite conservative journalist, Andrew Coyne. When your own best people start crying foul, you know there's got to be a problem.

          Coyne, I think, rightly analyzes the ethical problems raised by the Duffy affair. Was the Duffy bailout by Nigel Wright a loan? Then it should have been registered as an asset by Mr Wright. Was it a gift? If so, then under Senate rules, Duffy should not have accepted it. Either way the action was, as Coyne argues, stunningly stupid. (Or, are the players so assured of the passive compliance - or stupidity - of the public, they feel themselves immune: "little gods of the earth"?)

          Once again, it seems we are faced with the essential truth of the old adage: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Harperites were elected on a platform of Law and Order, responsible government and transparency. We've got Law and Order with the incessant tightening of regulations concerning immigrants, refugee claimants and unemployment benefits (most of these changes rendering the laws less accomodating or even mean-spirited). But where have the responsible government and transparency gone? Are the senators who claim expenses they are not entitled to behaving responsibly? Is the government being transparent in its release of information to the public? The very fact that Harper's right hand man, Mr Wright, bailed Senator Duffy out would have remained a state secret if it had not been leaked to the press. And who is responsible for this leak and why? 

          Under a government elected on a promise of transparent government, the atmosphere in Ottawa appears to some observers even murkier than it was under the Chrétien Liberals.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The future of Canadian Science at stake?

          A plea for fundamental scientific research from Nobel prize winning Canadian chemist, John Polanyi.

           Polanyi is here reacting against another false perception propagated by the neconservative ideology of the present government. This view holds that research is not good if it does not directly aid the business community's bottom line. The problem here is with the world "directly". Fundamental research is often a roulette game. If you hit big you hit BIG! Think about lasers..

           Much fundamental research, though, does not pan out or does not produce knowledge of immediate benefit. But neocon ideologues want immediate results.They can't see beyond the next quarter's profit margin. They seem to suffer from a kind of mental myopia, a short sightedness of vision.. meanwhile human demography, our planet's ecology, the climate, the resource base we live from, all go to hell in a handbasket. 

           The Haper government, true to its ideological roots, has announced a further re-visioning of the goals of Research Canada: science will be the handmaiden of industry. The cart will drive the horse..

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The hubris of economists

           A recent study by economists Reinhart and Rogoff concluded that large national debts inhibit economic growth (which in the neoconservative cosmology is the Moloch to which all goods of the earth must be sacrificed). Now, few papers submitted to peer review - as Reinhart and Rogoff's had been - are actually fully scrutinized under a magnifying lens: the researchers basic competence and honesty are assumed. In this case these assumptions appear to have been misplaced..

          University of Massachussetts (Amherst) doctoral student, Thomas Hendon, was assigned, as part of his course work, the task of "replicating" and critiquing a published paper written by professional economists. Hendon chose the Reinhart and Rogoff study. To his surprise he found numerous errors and - infinitely worse from the point of view of scientific objectivity - even "strategic" omissions: data that did not fit their theses were passed over in silence.

           To read student Hendon's report and critique, click on the link, in blue, "read Thomas Hendon's 'A critique of Reinhart and Rogoff' here"

           We can only conclude that this is another case of the hubris of the neoconservative establishment, so assured of itself in its high places of power. Objectivity and caution are thrown to the winds. All that matters is the ideology: Moloch - economic growth - must be fed at all costs. The ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles spoke of this state of spirit when he wrote:

            "The gods blind those they would destroy"

             What is particularly galling here are not the (apparently rather elementary) spreadsheet computational errors. These are bad enough indicating unprofessional attitudes and work ethic (although not rising to moral derelection). Rather what galls is the omission or deletion of "non-conforming data", those which run contrary to one's ideological preconceptions. The odor of moral dereliction is now in the air: economists, after all, do have pretensions of practicing a "science" and science, the last time I checked, is suposed to be motivated by a comittment to discovering truth through the "open and public" analysis of replicable data. Suppressing non-conforming data violates the basic demand of science for intellectual honesty, objectivity and transparency. That is my reading anyway.

             Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed several guests - from both sides of the fence - recently on the CBC program, "The Current". The following link provides access to the podcast.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What future climate?

             Climatologists speak of the earth passing through a series of "tipping points" or thresholds of rapid change into a new climatic regime. Past climate research indicates that these periods are times of intense climate instability. During the time the climate machine takes to "shift gears" into a new stable climate regime, regional microclimates will fluctuate wildly. There are signs this is happening today.

              Farmers are particularly exposed to the vagaries of climate change and weather. They need predictable weather patterns - that is, stable climate regimes - to planify seeding, irrigation, weeding, harvesting, drying, transport and marketing..

             Contemporary climate models suggest that the northern regions are more susceptible to climate change than lower lattitudes. This prediction now appears to be fufilled. Subarctic temperature rises exceed - often by far - those observed at midlattitues.

              Southern Saskatchewan province has been affected by odd weather for several years. Whether or not this is a lasting pattern or not, only time will tell. 

               Take this past winter for example. Climate change theorists like to point to increased winter "blocking" of jet stream patterns, caused (presumably) by global warming. The paradoxical result is a colder, stormier winter with more snow cover than usual. This, of course, is great fodder for deniers and "sceptics": "Gee! I thought they say the world is growing warmer and just look outside the window folks.." 

                Aside from the comic relief, such "increased winter blocking of the jet stream" could spell economic disaster for already strapped prairie farmers. The unusually heavy snow falls eventually encounter globally warmed late springs with incredibly rapid - and inhabitual - thaws and resulting flooding. Check out the short video below - impressive..

massive ice surge - Saskatchewan river 

                 Ice surges constitute a flooding risk (due to damming of watercourses) as well as direct risk of property damage if they surge ashore. In general, spring floods delay seeding which can be a problem in northern climates. Late seeding may reduce yields and increase the risk of frost damage at the end of the growing season. This is definitely a file to follow..

                 For a synopis of this spring's flooding in Saskatchewan:

                 The damages incurred by Saskatchewan's agricultural sector - to the degree that they are, in fact, caused by climate change - would constitute "hidden costs" of non-sustainable (fossil fuel based) development. These costs are, in effect, "hidden subsidies" to pollutors who get to damage life for others without having to pay compensation, install pollution abatement equipment or switch to more expensive, non-fossil energy based, production processes. Their non-sustainable economic activity is payed for by the misery of others. In the end, of course, since the ecosystem is a closed circle, someone pays: what goes round, comes round. And given the interconnected nature of the ecosystem, this eventually means everyone, rich or poor.

As a man sows, so shall he reap - Jesus, the Buddha, the Upanishads, etc

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Book Review: Ice Ages, solving the mystery

John Imbrie and Katherine Palmer Imbrie: Ice Ages, solving the mystery (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1979, 1997), 224 pages, index, bibliography, chronology, suggested reading.

Ice Ages traces the history of the discovery of past ice ages from the 18th and 19th century and the evolution of the "astronomical theory" of their causation.... The focus is on the Milankovitch hypothesis which relates ice ages to the amount of sunlight received in northern regions of the globe as different "parameters" of the earth's orbit - like the tilt of the earth's axis of rotation - vary systematically over time.
This is one of the very best books of scientific popularization I have ever read. Earth science research tends to ressemble the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, a point the authors themselves make. Unlike the physical scientist who conducts tightly controlled experiments in a lab setting, the earth scientist is a sleuth, stalking a smoking gun admidst the chaos, confusion and accident of the "real world". The Imbries are masters at exploiting this narrative quality of earth science research: one keeps turning pages to find out the next twist of the plot. Remarkably readable and conscise, I finished the book in three days of leisurely evening reading. The textual figures, abundant and well explained, are admirably integrated into the text as illustrative material.

Here is an example of a "grassroots" scientific hypothesis rising from the observations of nature of peasants and hunters living off the land. These men observed that movements of Swiss glaciers transported material and conjectured that in the past glaciers were larger and had transported material over distances where today no glaciers exist. Academic scientists, on the other hand, tended to defend the Biblical story of the Deluge which they held responsable for the ancient transport of debris, even into the high reaches of mountain ranges. It was only after a few big intellectual guns like Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz were won to the side of glacial expansion that the scientific establishment began to take the idea seriously.
The Imbries present an admirable synopsis of proposed causes for ice ages and the challenges these present to the researcher:

1- Variations in solar output. These are found to be too weak, accounting for a 1-2 C variations in temperature globally. Such variations do, in fact, correlate with the movement of glaciers over the past 1,000 years but are insufficient to explain full blown ice ages.

2- Passages of our solar system through clouds of "space dust". The hypothesis is internally inconsistent as it now stands. Some theorists argue that such a dust cloud would cool the earth by screening sunlight, others that the dust will stoke the fires of the sun and make it burn brighter!

3- Variations in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) content. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, capable of warming the earth by trapping heat in the lower regions of the atmosphere. The difficulty is finding a mechanism that could reasonably account for the observed glaciation / deglaciation cycle. Observations of past CO2 levels even suggests that CO2 variation is a response to - not a cause of - ice age temperature variations.

4- Volcanic activity. Dust and sulfate droplet clouds reflect solar energy but evidence of sufficient volcanic activity is not found in the sedimentary record to confim the hypothesis. The problem is, in part, technical: lack of sufficiently accurate, standardized measurement procedures.

5- Rise in land elevation leading to cooling. There is no credible mechanism that could account for such elevations.

6- Antarctic ice sheet instability. Two variations of the hypothesis exist. Either the ice sheet periodically breaks down filling the sea with reflective ice, triggering an ice age, or periodic increases in moist air flow over the pole cause the sheet to grow, triggering an ice age. There is no evidence for either variant of the hypothesis and for the second, no plausible mechanism is known.

7- Stochastic hypothesis, based on sophisticated mathematical models proposed by Self-Organization Theory. Small random variations in the functioning of the climate-machine occur more often than large ones do. Thus annual variations in temperature are greater between decades than for the years within a decade. If one looks long enough - hundreds of thousands of years - we will find natural random variations accumulating into ice ages. Since no particular event actually causes ice ages, it is a hard hypothesis to test! Science requires testable hypotheses based on measurable properties which obey causal laws. Until theorists tell us how to get around these restrictions, we must remain unconvinced..

8- The astronomical hypothesis based on variations in the orbital alignments of the earth in relation to the sun. Since the 19th century various mechanisms have been proposed to explain the onset and termination of ice ages. At present, a version of this hypothesis, proposed by Milutin Milankovitch in the first half of the 2oth century, is the accepted explanation.

Milankovich, a mathematician by training, proposed that the critical trigger for glacial expansion is the amount of solar energy (insolation) received by the northern hemisphere in summer. Insolation varies because of periodic variation in the "parameters" of the earth's orbit: 1- eccentricity ("ovalness" of orbit), 2- tilt angle of the axis of rotation and 3- precession (direction of the earth's axis of rotation measured at Spring Equinox).

The twentieth century proved crucial to the verification of the essential correctness of Milankovitch's theory. Technological and scientific advances led to the discovery of several natural chronologies or calendars which permited accurate dating of glacial advances and retreats. Among these were the discovery of reversals of the earth's magnetic field which are recorded in the orientation of magnetic mineral grains in lava flows. The sequence of reversals allows dating of the original lava flow. Radio-isotopic measures permited dating of past events: since radio-isotopes decay at a know rate, they provide a clock measuring elapsed time. An example is radio-carbon chronology. Carbon 14 is formed in the atmosphere as a result of cosmic rays. Carbon is absorbed by living organisms (in photosynthesis) but when the organism dies it stops ingesting carbon and the radiocarbon decays into inert elements. The amount of C-14 left in the remains of the organism gives a measure of the time elapsed since its death. Other, non-radioactive, isotopic measures of oxygen indicate the amount of ice trapped in glacial sheets. These various measures now provide the earth scientist with an amazingly detailed picture of the evolution of past climate and have permitted the verefication of the (modified) Milankovitch hypothesis.

We now know, for example, that at this time of the earth's natural history, our planet is subject to periodic ice age / deglaciation cycles. These last about 100,000 years, corresponding to the major "driver" of the cycle, the eccentricity of earth's orbit around the sun: the orbit goes from circular to slightly oval and back again in about 100,000 years. Ice age cycles are characterized by slow cooling followed by a rapid warming (deglaciation or interglacial epoch). The latter phase is transient, lasting on average 10 to 12 thousand years. A spectral analysis of the frequency of ice age / deglaciation cycles preserved in oceanic sedimentary cores has permited the isolation of four major periodicities, each corresponding to dominant periods of earth's orbital mechanics. The 100,000 eccentricity cycle is the most powerful driver, followed by a strong "signal" of 43,000 years from the obliquity (axis tilt) parameter. And lastly, two signals of 24,000 and 19,000 from the two components of the precessional period (determined by the direction of the earth's axis on the Vernal Equinox). Milankovitch's work has survived the test of time and is today the dominant model of natural climate change for recent geological history (last few million years).

But what about the future? Today there is much talk and (pseudo-)debate about human induced climate change due to the combustion of fossil fuels and the cutting of forests. Orbital mechanics teaches that the earth is now in a cooling phase, heading into the next ice age. Since cooling, unlike interglacial warming, is a slow gradual process, it does not make much sense to ask when, exactly, the next ice age is expected to begin. For this we would need a universal, standard set of criterions which have not, at present, been formulated. The depth of the next scheduled ice age, though, should be in about 23,000 years. The Milankovitch theory is confirmed by the fact that the warmest period of our current interglacial occurred several thousand years ago. After which, the earth began to cool off - despite minor cyclic rises probably due to variations in solar output. When we reach the 20th century though, things begin to fall apart and the theory no longer works. CO2 emissions have risen dramatically since the industrial revolution and these, claim the Imbries, are creating a "super-interglacial" warming which overides the naturally occurring cooling of the planet.

The first edition of the Ice Ages was published in 1979. The Imbries predicted that human-induced warming would become noticeable around the year 2000. Even more interestingly, fig 47 (page 185) shows a version of the (in-)famous "Mann hockey stick" rise in temperture purportedly caused by human produced CO2 emissions - yet Ice Ages was published decades before the hockey stick controversy erupted!

It's hard to fault this book so I give it a 10 on 10 rating. Since perfection is not possible on earth, I feel I must hasten to pick out some fault, however triffling. The only thing I could find was a certain wordiness in the last pages. John Imbries, one of the authors, is also a climatological researcher and a participant in the later phases of the verification of the Milankovitch hypothesis. In an attempt not to grandstand his colleagues when discussing his own part, he gives exhausting - and boring! - lists of researchers, educational institutions, funding agencies, etc. But even there, it seems he was acting from a laudable motive of intellectual fairness and honesty. A really good book for anyone wanting to initiate themselves into the mysteries of climate change from a scientific perspective.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

You gets what you pays for..

                Lest we all forget, the Harper Conservative governement was elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility in the wake of the Chrétien Liberals' financing scandals: federal monies were diverted to support the anti-separatist "Non" campaign in Québec, some of that money got further diverted into Liberal election funds and gifts to Liberal supporters. 

              It is therefore a bit surprising - ? shocking ? - to note that the Conservatives have - temporarily at least - lost track of $3.1 Billion earmarked for the "war on terrorism". 

Dang! Now where did those three billion smackeroos go..

                 The synopsis boxes on the right hand side of the above article are interesting reading, too:

"The national search-and-rescue system run by the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard is troubled by aging equipment and shortages of pilots and flight engineers. They are doing an adequate job now, but will face sustainability problems in the future."

              Part of the neoconservative ideology inspiring the Harper Conservatives is, of course, the "need" to constantly cut "government" and turn over everything to the private sector. The argument - ideologically, not factually, based - is that "government is inefficient". This argument, like all truisms, obviously has some validity but is overgeneralized to the point of absurdity by neoconservative ideologues to include even those functions and services which generate too low a profit margin when performed by the private sector. This is duh.. why they were put in the public sector in the first place! 

               Such services inevitably degrade in the hands of the private sector or, worse, end up excluding the very people who are most vulnerable and in need (poorer communities or segments of the population). The various attempts around the world to privitize potable water delivery are glaring examples of the failure of privitization to provide adequate essential public services. 

                Here, Canadian search and rescue services, is, perhaps, another example. Either society decides - hopefully democratically - that it wants adequate search and rescue services and then delivers the funding. Or isolated communities and governments are left to do as best they can. One can agree or disagree with either position but they are, at least, honest statements of alternative political positions. Anything "in between" is simply neocon hypocrisy and word-twisting. One the one hand, we praise "our boys and girls" in the military while providing them with inadequate - and therefore risky - equipment and manpower. This is not just hypocritical, it is immoral and criminal. Ideologues refuse to realize there are simply somethings governments do better. This lesson, learned during the 19th century, is now being unlearned by our contemporary "laissez-faire" ideologues. How long before the people wake up to the fact they are being short changed?

                The faulty logic in ideological overgeneralization of the "government is inefficient" argument is appalingly evident: yes, you may indeed save some money at the front end by privitizing a public function but the OVERALL costs to society as a whole, may actually rise exponentially. Programs to give welfare recipients SERIOUS occupational training cost the taxpayer money. But the ex-welfare recipicient who enters the workforce with qualifications is unlikely to fall back on the dole again. During their working life, they are likely to contribute several times, in taxes, the costs of the program that got them off welfare. They are also less likely to be a burden to the community in terms of health problems, substance or alcohol abuse, imprisionment or institutionalization for mental health problems. When one does full cost accounting, one often finds that a public service rendered by a public agent actually ends up costing society less than a privitized one. But such a position is not politically correct today..