Monday, December 31, 2012

The Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Major investors are beginning to sense danger from the fossil fuel bubble we're in and are demanding corporations divest their fossil fuel investments.   This spells trouble ahead, particularly for the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels and, yes, I mean the Athabasca Tar Sands.

The president of the business advocacy, Ceres, Mindy Lubber, outlines the powerful case for fossil fuel divestment.

We cannot simply accept Wall Street refrains that divesting is hard because fossil fuels are embedded in our economy, and are profitable to boot. Such thinking denies the ‘true’ negative costs of fossil fuels.

Many fossil fuel stocks have been profitable in recent years, but because neither the producers nor consumers pay to emit climate-warming carbon pollution into the atmosphere, those profits are grossly distorted. The consequences of a free license to pollute – including super storms, droughts and rising seas, for example – are borne by taxpayers, insurers and anyone in harm’s way. The economic costs of Hurricane Sandy and this summer’s historic drought eclipsed $100 billion, an amount equal to the combined annual profits of just three big oil companies, Exxon, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell.

Until there is a price on carbon, along with other clean energy policies, these profits will likely continue, fossil fuel consumption will keep rising and clean energy will struggle to compete on an uneven playing field.

 ...Investors should also address the inherent risks in any fossil fuel investment. An estimated 50-80 percent of the current market value of oil, gas and coal companies is based on unburned reserves; that is, resources that are still in the ground but which, if burned, would lead to catastrophic climate change and economic disaster. With a strong price on carbon, how much of those reserves will be left in the ground, in essence, creating liabilities that could take a big toll on shareholder value?

Given such profound concerns, it is clear investors cannot stand by idly. Many of them are already doing more to exert their influence to achieve a low-carbon world. Investors are filing dozens of shareholder resolutions with U.S. companies every year calling for action on strategies that lower their carbon emissions and boost their clean energy efforts. Many of these resolutions are focused directly on fossil fuel companies like Exxon, coal-fired electric utilities and hydraulic fracturing operators whose practices need cleaning up.

These investors are beginning to rebalance their portfolios by tilting their strategies toward clean energy and away from the riskiest high-carbon companies, especially coal. There are a growing number of funds and indexes focusing on clean energy and lower carbon companies.

But, most important of all, global investors are clamoring for strong low-carbon policies – in other words, a carbon price – that will catalyze the necessary massive shift of capital to clean energy. Global investor groups, including INCR, requested exactly this in a recent letter to major governments whose climate negotiators met this month in Doha, Qatar. They are looking for clear, concise and honest market signals.

The bottom line is this: There will be a day of reckoning when it comes to fossil fuels, and investors need to take far stronger steps to avoid the climate cliff. Fundamental shifts in investment are warranted, and investors must begin diverting capital away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy at a much faster clip. The societal costs of inaction on the climate are immense, and the risks are rising just as surely as the seas.

The reality is obvious.   We are living in a huge fossil fuel bubble but, within that fossil fuel bubble, lurks an even more volatile and potentially catastrophic, high-carbon fossil fuel bubble and Canada is caught within it.   As investors move capital to low-carbon energy alternatives, and there are plenty of them, the first to go down will be the high-carbon fossil fuels.   That puts Canada's Tar Sands squarely in the crosshairs.   We are tying Canada's economy and the future of our people to something that could blow up in our faces.

The Cheque Is In the Mail, Yeah Sure.

What if you got that old lie - from your insurance company?  Relax, that's almost sure not to happen but you might as well expect potentially big changes in your insurance dealings in the coming years.   Coverage is going to become more expensive and the range of risks covered is going to narrow.

The miners' canary is the United States where insurers are starting to hunker down.   Ceres looks at the "Stormy Future for U.S. Property/Casualty Insurers".

Today, rising losses related to extreme weather events are
significantly impacting the insurance industry and will
increasingly challenge the sector’s risk models and underwriting
capabilities. In coastal and non-coastal areas alike, U.S. insured
losses triggered by volatile weather events are steeply rising.
Extreme weather events cost U.S. property/casualty insurers
more than $32 billion in losses in 2011.  While 2012 insured
property losses to date are lower, the pattern of extreme
weather and associated economic costs are continuing.

These rising payouts come as insurers are simultaneously
confronting historically low investment returns and a sluggish
overall economy
. Even before the recent spate of underwriting
losses, the insurance industry’s overall financial performance,
as measured by average return-on-equity (ROE), lagged
significantly behind other industries.  The threat of rising
catastrophic losses triggered by increasing concentrations
of insured assets, along with a changing global climate,
present very real and significant challenges to the sector’s
financial future.

The implications of these rising loss trends are obvious for
insurance companies and their shareholders. Beyond just
declining profitability and returns, these increasingly visible
trends could undermine some insurer’s ability to manage
and, in some cases, even survive, future catastrophic,
weather-related loss events

Investors in insurance companies are not the only ones
affected by these issues. Extreme weather is already causing
more businesses and properties to be uninsurable in the
private insurance markets, leaving the higher risks and costs
to governments, taxpayers and individuals. In fact, since 1990,
total government exposure to losses in hurricane-exposed
states has risen more than 15-fold to $885 billion in 2011

Insurance sector losses and lackluster financial results have
even broader implications. Taken to their logical conclusions,
these trends could ultimately undermine our state, regional
and national ability to rebound from the shocks of natural
disasters. The state of Florida’s huge exposure as the “insurer
of last resort” for more than one million homeowners— a
situation triggered by insurers withdrawing from the state after
several devastating hurricanes—is living testament to this

An unintentionally hilarious aspect of this awful situation is that the same anti-tax, anti-government, Tea Party lunatics tend to come from those same places where the state is now the "insurer of last resort."   When it comes to insuring their homes against floods, tornadoes or hurricanes, that sort of intense socialism is just dandy.  Besides how can you rail on against that "global warming hoax" if you can't fix up your shack after the storm hits?

Tell Them All - We Want Our Canada Back

As the year draws to a close I fear for the future of our country.

Our degeneration into a petro-state has exacted a heavy price on Canada and our people and what we can hope to be in the difficult years that lie ahead.  It is as though we can no longer afford to do what is right and good.

We were once respected around the world for our fairness and commitment to peace and resolution.   Now we're respected in corporate boardrooms and on generals' plotting tables.  We have "stepped up to the plate" and joined the Big Boys in whacking the living Hell out of the little boys.

It passed my mind the other day that had today's Canada existed in the 60's, we, like the Australians, would quite possibly have joined America to war in Viet Nam.   And, like the Americans and Australians, we would have fought and killed an immense number of people to achieve absolutely nothing.

Nothing so much as that goddamned F-35 reveals this to be our mindset today.   We have become so enmeshed in American militarism that we are even willing to call this light attack bomber a "fighter."   Why do we call it a fighter?   Because that legitimizes the damned thing.   That means we don't have to acknowledge that we are becoming a nation of attackers.

The F-35 is NOT A FIGHTER.   A fighter does many things.  It patrols.  It defends airspace.  It supports troops in combat.   It is an interceptor, an air superiority fighter, a ground attack fighter and, when needed, a light bomber.   The F-35 is not an interceptor.  It is not an air superiority fighter.   It is not a ground support fighter.  It is a light, attack bomber.

When you buy the F-35 you effectively outsource your defence policy and much of your foreign policy to another country, in this case the United States.   It is, after all, only the USAF that operates that highly sophisticated and massively expensive support aircraft the F-35 will require should it ever be sent into combat.   These support aircraft - AWACS, JSTARS, Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball, Combat Scent and others such as F-22 stealth escort fighters and aerial refueling tankers provide the umbrella beneath which the F-35 will attack vital Chinese targets.   Did I say "Chinese"?

Curious, isn't it, that we're outsourcing our defence policy to a country, the U.S., that isn't walking but running away from our bitumen bounty and adopting that very country's aggressive military posture against another country that may be the last, best hope for our petro-state, China?   Nothing blatantly incoherent in that, is there?

But political coherence is only truly relevant in a democracy.   Non-democratic forms of governance, such as oligarchy, are less troubled by such things precisely because they serve a narrower and more fragmented set of constituencies.   Democracy is supposed to be about the people, now and in the future.   Oligarchy is about some people and the future is heavily discounted.

I'm convinced we have never endured a Parliament, on both sides of the House of Commons, less concerned about the future than what we have today.   They all embrace our nation's trade in the most carbon-intensive, ersatz petroleum on the planet.   They even call it "ethical oil."  It's about as close to ethical as the F-35 is to being a fighter.   But in our Brave New Canada these are mere trifles.   Reality need not obtain.

Parliament no longer stands with the people and, fortunately, the people no longer stand with Parliament.   We no longer stand with Parliament or the political classes that infest it.   In the minds of the majority of Canadians they're absolute rubbish.

Almost 90% of us support protecting the environment "even if this slows down economic development."   Out of 12-stated values raised by the pollsters, lower taxes came dead last.   Last, dead last.

The dreadful truth revealed by the survey was that federal politics is no longer about serving the Canadian people but targeting narrow segments of the population with vague messages calculated to manipulate their support.   The political classes have broken faith with the people and, by that perfidy, have forfeited their very right to govern us.

The opposition parties are cowering, feckless, afraid to break from Harper's Canada, even as the public makes plain that is what we want of them.   We don't want to be a petro-state.   We don't want to sacrifice our environment for the benefit of foreign fossil fuel companies and foreign fossil fuel markets.   We don't want to enlist in America's foreign legion.

We want our Canada back.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ralph Goodale's Plaintive Plea

When I read it my gut reaction was "So?"

"It" was an e-mail from Ralph Goodale warning that the New Democrats are on the verge of a first, out fundraising the Liberals for an entire year.   The Libs apparently need $100,000 to close the gap on the NDP, assuming there are no particularly generous New Democrat supporters writing cheques between now and New Year's Eve.

The way the plea was written you might have imagined the Red Army was massed on the gates of Berlin.

I like Ralph Goodale.   I think he's a fine and honourable man and a first-rate Parliamentarian.   Maybe that's why the party hands him their begging bowl every time they want a whip round.

But I kept coming back to "so."   So, just why are the Libs trailing the NDP in fundraising?   So, why are the Libs trailing the NDP in the polls?  So, why are the Libs still comfortable on the Conservative-Lite perch?  So, just what does Canada lose from having the Liberal Party wallowing in the cellar?

If the Liberal Party is in political penury they need to ask themselves what they're doing wrong and what they need to do to make things right with the voting public.   The Libs need to explore their role in the collapse of public faith in Parliament.  Jesus Christ on a Crutch!   A majority of Canadians now feel the path to political action is to take to the streets.

The majority of respondents said they supported grassroots protests, including the Occupy movement and the British Columbia referendum against the harmonized sales tax. People are looking at other methods of political participation beyond conventional parties, said Environics pollster Keith Neuman, in an interview discussing the poll on Canadian values conducted jointly with the University of Alberta.

Also, when it comes to taxes, the poll suggests politicians are out of touch with Canadian values, adds U of A’s Harvey Krahn, a sociologist who assisted with the poll. It was conducted from Oct. 2 to 14 with a sample size of 2,001 people.

Keeping taxes as low as possible ranked last on the list of 12 shared values identified by Canadians, yet politicians, including Alberta Premier Alison Redford last week, staunchly rule out increasing taxes even when the province faces a serious deficit, said Krahn.

There’s a disconnect between Canadians’ values and politicians on this issue,” said Krahn.

Ah, Oh, Hmmm.   There's a disconnect between Canadians' values and those of their politicians.  Golly, gee whiz - there it is.  Maybe that's why you've gone from Sussex Drive to Stornoway to Motel Six out on the Gloucester highway.   That's because you, yes you, have created a disconnect between your political values and ours.  We've made it clear.   We would actually prefer to take to the streets than to follow you and, with the likes of Trudeau, Garneau and Hall-Findlay, you're not showing any sign of changing.

So, sorry Ralph.   You're such a nice guy but I have to give you a pass.   Maybe a little more time in sackcloth and ashes might be just the thing to save the Liberal Party of Canada.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Last Time They Sent Panzers, Now It's Wheelchairs

This time Germany is lobbing geriatrics into foreign lands.

Growing numbers of elderly and sick Germans are being sent overseas for long-term care in retirement and rehabilitation centres because of rising costs and falling standards in Germany.

The move, which has seen thousands of retired Germans rehoused in homes in eastern Europe and Asia, has been severely criticised by social welfare organisations who have called it "inhumane deportation".

But with increasing numbers of Germans unable to afford the growing costs of retirement homes, and an ageing and shrinking population, the number expected to be sent abroad in the next few years is only likely to rise. Experts describe it as a "time bomb".

Germany's chronic care crisis – the care industry suffers from lack of workers and soaring costs – has for years been mitigated by eastern Europeans migrating to Germany in growing numbers to care for the country's elderly.

...Germany has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world, and the movement here has implications for other western countries, including Britain, particularly amid fears that austerity measures and rising care costs are potentially undermining standards of residential care.

The Sozialverband Deutschland (VdK), a German socio-political advisory group, said the fact that growing numbers of Germans were unable to afford the costs of a retirement home in their own country sent a huge "alarm signal". It has called for political intervention.

"We simply cannot let those people who built Germany up to be what it is, who put their backbones into it all their lives, be deported," said VdK's president, Ulrike Mascher. "It is inhumane."

Destinations range from the nearby Czech Republic to Hungary, Greece, Spain and as far afield as Thailand and the Philippines.

Update - There is something creepy about this business.   Sadly, but yes, it does have to do with the fact that it's Germany.   And it is a country that has a dark past of horrific expulsion of "undesirables".  Presumably those who will get shown the door, or boarded onto trains, this time will merely be the poorest of the poor but, still, it will be a group singled out for removal from society.   There is a real element of Social Darwinism that underlies the German policy.

The notion in The Guardian item that the German policy, "has implications for other western countries, including Britain," hints at a restructuring of societies in ways we have never envisioned.  What's next, Solyent Green?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas to All

The turkey is brining, preparing for the pan.   The pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce are next.  (Hint - if you want to tweak your cranberry sauce try substituting orange juice for the water and, as it cools, adding the zest of one navel orange.)

Christmas will be much different this year.   Just one gift each.   And, no, that doesn't mean a Porsche 911.   Under a hundred bucks.  I told my kids no presents for me this year.   It's too much of a nuisance to conjure up something I really need much less want for - oh, other than that Porsche 911.

And the tree is different this year.   For the past 30+ years I have been an avid collector of Christmas ornaments from around the world.   Most of it is really amazing quality, hand made stuff.  A lot of it is anything but inexpensive.  I have eight of those huge Rubbermaid containers full of these ornaments, each bauble carefully wrapped and stored in its original box.

This year we chose just three of those containers at random and chose to use just some of the ornaments within them.   The tree looks great.  My children have dibs on the ornaments.   Maybe it's time to begin doling them out.

Although I have long since parted company with the Church, I still have a powerful bond to the season, the friends and family part of it at least.   I think this year, less is going to be much more.

Merry Christmas to All.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Look Into the Cardboard Soul of Steve Harper

I think I understand Steve Harper's failure as a prime minister after reading parts of the transcript of his year-end interview with Global TV anchor, Dawna Friesen.

Harper stated the obvious, that his priority is the Canadian economy although he didn't quite say, "at the expense of anything and everything else."

The chilling part came when Harper discussed the future and fretted over 'getting it right instead of getting it wrong.'   There seemed to be a profound timidity, perhaps outright insecurity, on Harper's part that may explain his glaring lack of vision.  

Rather than dealing with the future, Harper has a wooden fixation on the present.   It's no wonder he (and, in fairness, many other Canadian politicians) cannot come to grips with the gravest challenges to young Canadians and future generations, inequality and climate change.   They simply lack the courage to deal with these issues and respond, instead, by simply turning away from them.

The Dream of a Global Deal is Over

Top German climate change scientists and advocates think it's pointless to continue the United Nation's annual climate change summits.

Several leading experts at internationally renowned institutes in Germany are demanding an end to the climate summit charade. It is time to begin confronting the reality of a warmer future rather than meekly insisting that global warming can be slowed without taking action to make that happen, they say.

The period characterized by "the UN's clever management of expectations" is coming to an end, says Oliver Geden, a climate expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "The expectation that the worsening problem would put pressure on the international community to find a solution has not been borne out -- and isn't likely to be."

"The dream of a global deal is over," agrees Frank Uekötter, an environmental historian at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. "An elimination (of the summit regime) would create space for new momentum."

...Silke Beck, a climate expert at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, blasts the summits for being little more than "symbolism" and says that the issue of global warming is "several sizes too big" for the UN process as it is now pursued. Hans von Storch from the Institute for Coastal Research at the Helmholtz Center adds that the process has transformed researchers into little more than "ushers in the political theater."

But what can be done? The answer given by many is a surprising one. The goal of limiting global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius has become much too central, they say, because it guarantees that the focus of the public debate remains almost exclusively on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Yet after two decades of failed negotiations, the 2 degree goal has likely already become unattainable. It's time to broaden the focus, they say.

The 2013 UN climate summit is to be hosted by Poland, Europe's "coal-aholic" and a country at war with efforts to salvage the world climate.

British Columbia' Climate Change Scourge - the Mountain Pine Beetle

A paper published in Nature Geoscience explores the lasting impacts that the mountain pine beetle infestation, fueled by global warming, will have on the province and, potentially, forests across North America.   Here's the abstract:

The present mountain pine beetle infestation in forests in British Columbia ranks among the largest ecological disturbances recorded in Canada so far. These recent outbreaks are thought to have been favoured by large-scale climatic shifts, and may foreshadow outbreaks of a similar magnitude in North American forests over the coming decades. The associated forest dieback could result in substantial shifts in evapotranspiration and albedo, thereby altering the local surface energy balance, and in turn regional temperature and climate. Here we quantify the impact of the Canadian pine beetle disturbance on the local summertime surface energy budget, using measurements of evapotranspiration, albedo and surface temperature, obtained primarily through remote sensing. We show that over the 170,000km2 of affected forest, the typical decrease in summertime evapotranspiration is 19%. Changes to the absorbed short-wave flux are negligible, in comparison. As a result, outgoing sensible and radiative heat fluxes increased by 8% and 1%, respectively, corresponding to a typical increase in surface temperature of 1°C. These changes are comparable to those observed for other types of disturbance, such as wildfire, and may have secondary consequences for climate, including modifications to circulation, cloud cover and precipitation.

American GunNut Strikes Again

This time it happened in Webster, New York.   Volunteer firefighters responding to a house fire were ambushed.   Two of the firefighters were shot and killed.  Gunman later found dead, apparent suicide.

Arms Race Update - Christmas Edition - China Rising

It's hard to know just how much America spends on its military but it is certainly upwards of $700-billion annually.

It's even tougher figuring out just how much the second-biggest spender, China, is pumping into its military.   The Chinese claim it's about $100-billion, others peg it at $160-billion, it could be even more.

Yet comparing Chinese military spending with American military outlays really is comparing apples and oranges.   For, while the United States does outspend China several times over, it's how that money is spent that actually favours China.

Washington seeks to maintain a powerful military presence in almost every corner of the planet.   The U.S. Navy and Air Force make this possible even where ground forces aren't particularly welcome.   The current focus is on the Middle East and the more recent "pivot" into Asia.   Even the most gung-ho American commander knows that a ground war in Asia simply is not an option.   This works to China's advantage, allowing it to focus on a narrower range of threats.

In effect, Washington "bleeds" its massive defence budget around the world while China manages to focus its spending on getting more bang for the buck mainly by closing the technology gap. 

Many of us still think of China as barely able to manufacture the crap that lines Wal-Mart shelves.   That's not just wrong, it's potentially dangerously wrong, according to an article from the Brookings Institute, Inside China's Secret Arsenal.

U.S. military hardware remains a generation ahead of any rival’s, but the Chinese have begun to close the gap. Consider China’s progress in building advanced warplanes. Until recently, American officials thought their F-22 and F-35 aircraft were the world’s only fifth-generation fighters (the name given to a class of stealthy fighter jets developed in the past decade, which are equipped with radar-evading features, high-performance engines and avionics, and networked computer systems). Then, on a 2011 trip to China, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates learned otherwise. While Gates met with Hu Jintao, his hosts “coincidentally” revealed the existence of an advanced new fighter, the J-20, by staging the inaugural public flight over the city of Chengdu. 

China's Even Newer, J-31
 Additionally, China is investing heavily in its navy. Today, the U.S. is the only country that can send aircraft carriers loaded with fighter jets to any corner of the globe. The PLA would like to change that. The Chinese have spent the past few years retrofitting a 65,000-ton Soviet aircraft carrier (which the PLA acquired using a fake travel agency as a front) with new engines and weapons including Flying Leopard surface-to-air missile batteries and automated air defense machine-gun systems. The ship, called the Liaoning, can carry approximately 50 aircraft, including the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark, a fighter jet that may be as capable as an F-18. China is also building stealthy 8,000-ton destroyers, along with nuclear submarines and amphibious assault ships.
...the PLA has more to gain by developing new technologies than by racing to match American sea and air power. China doesn’t have to amass a navy as powerful as the American fleet if it can make the seas too dangerous for U.S. ships to travel. To that end, the PLA is acquiring weapons such as mobile, truck-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles and radar-evading, ramjet-powered Sunburn cruise missiles, which tear toward their targets at Mach 2.5, giving defenses only seconds to respond.

China could also easily go after American vulnerabilities in space. More than 80 percent of U.S. government and military communications, which direct everything from soldiers in the field to precision missile strikes, travel over satellites. GPS satellites control the movement of 800,000 U.S. military receivers on everything from aircraft carriers to individual bombs and artillery shells. The system isn’t foolproof: In early 2010, a GPS “glitch” left almost 10,000 of these receivers unable to connect for days.

China’s most potent new capability, though, might be what the PLA has called “informationized warfare,” or cyber war. Just as the U.S. military has created its own Cyber Command, the PLA has assigned more than 130,000 personnel to cyber warfare programs. And while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned about a potential cyber Pearl Harbor, the greater threat might be the theft of U.S. government secrets and intellectual property. So far, operations thought to have originated in China have compromised sensitive networks in the State Department as well as computers involved in the F-35 joint strike fighter program.  

Meanwhile, Just Below the Surface, Canadian Discontent Builds

Canadians are quietly simmering.   A poll finds a majority of Canadians now support grassroots protests as a vehicle to force political action.

The majority of respondents said they supported grassroots protests, including the Occupy movement and the British Columbia referendum against the harmonized sales tax. People are looking at other methods of political participation beyond conventional parties, said Environics pollster Keith Neuman, in an interview discussing the poll on Canadian values conducted jointly with the University of Alberta.

Also, when it comes to taxes, the poll suggests politicians are out of touch with Canadian values, adds U of A’s Harvey Krahn, a sociologist who assisted with the poll. It was conducted from Oct. 2 to 14 with a sample size of 2,001 people.

Keeping taxes as low as possible ranked last on the list of 12 shared values identified by Canadians, yet politicians, including Alberta Premier Alison Redford last week, staunchly rule out increasing taxes even when the province faces a serious deficit, said Krahn.

There’s a disconnect between Canadians’ values and politicians on this issue,” said Krahn.

The poll also identified 12 basic values supported by more than 50 per cent of Canadians. At the top of the list, with more than 90-per-cent support was “having a political system that encourages average Canadians to let politicians know what they think” — a value that speaks to support for Occupy and other citizen movements, said Neuman.

When asked if Canada should be a country that supports gender equality, more than 90 per cent said yes. Also garnering more than 90-per-cent support were public health care and respect for all religions.

In the middle tier of values, 92 per cent said Canada should be a country with a social safety net, 90 per cent supported strict laws on crime, 88 per cent supported protecting the environment, “even if this slows down economic development,” and 85 per cent said all citizens should speak French or English.

If this poll is accurate it would seem to suggest that the opposition parties' shift to the right has been a monumental blunder.   Harper has certainly taken the country there but, unlike the Liberals and the NDP who compliantly followed, the Canadian people, it seems, have stayed put which could plausibly explain the public disconnect with federal politics and the growing support for dissent and protest.

This should be a lesson, especially to the Liberals now looking for their next leader.   With Trudeau,  Garneau and Hall Findlay parked so comfortably up Harper's bitumen backside, it's time the LPC came to its senses and finally embraced a good measure of progressivism.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mister Wizard Is a Dick

Holiday funnies from Mister Wizard - unless you're the kid

Sure, But It's All That Keeps the Bats From Escaping

Federal Court judge Luc Martineau isn't impressed by Harper Public Safety and Family Values minister Vic Toews.   The judge has given Toews 45 days to accept the transfer back to this country of a Canadian currently held in a U.S. prison.

The judge found that Toews resistance to the transfer "lacks reason", ignores "clear evidence" in support of the transfer and suggests a "closed mind."

That's about as close as a sitting judge could come to calling Toews "unhinged."   Then again, a closed mind is about all that keeps the bats from escaping  from Toews head.

NRA Booted From Pillar to Post

National Rifle Association boss Wayne LaPierre has sparked a backlash of anger and ridicule at his suggestion that the solution to schoolhouse tragedies like Sandy Hook is more guns at schools.

The response was forthright from editors and opinion writers. "CRAZIEST MAN ON EARTH" was the New York Daily News' verdict, noting that the "NRA nut blames everyone and everything EXCEPT the GUNS".

The New York tabloid is currently embarked on a campaign to get Washington to put in place a ban on assault weapons.

Its response to last week's tragedy is in directly opposition to that of LaPierre, who called for armed guards to be put in place at every school across the US.

"In Wacko Wayne's world, the only answer to death by guns is to flood the country with more guns and stand ready for the shootout. His zeal is worse than nuts; it's a peril to life and limb," the Daily News said in an editorial on the NRA press conference.

The New York Times likewise found it impossible to hide its contempt. In its main editorial, the NRA executive vice-president was attacked for his "mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant." 

In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant responded to LaPierre's NRA with this:

John Baird's Black and White World

Harper ForMin John Baird doesn't like ambiguity.   When it comes to foreign affairs he views the world as black or white.  No time for trifling shades of grey.  You're either a good country or a bad country and nothing in between.

In a wide-ranging end-of-year interview with Postmedia News on Friday, Baird said the federal government won’t tolerate excuses for those who engage in terrorist activities, and that Canada will continue supporting right over wrong.

He also offered no apologies for actions such as supporting Israel, condemning Iran or criticizing the United Nations — even if it means an added danger to Canadians travelling abroad with Maple Leafs on their backpacks.

“We cannot be afraid to take difficult decisions for fear of consequences,” Baird said.

Baird has a predictably infantile view of the world, failing to recognize that his world construct of black and white rarely reflects reality and even less often generates effective results.   

Condemning one country's wrongdoings and absolving the other's similar excesses is not a viable approach to dispute resolution but it is the only approach tolerated by the Harper government. 

Steve Harper and that Vision Thing

The most myopic prime minister perhaps in all of Canadian history, Stephen Harper, may have diagnosed his own affliction.

Shortsighted Steve, asked how his evangelist faith affects his decision-making, replied that he prays a lot "to ask for strength and vision."

Judging by how the self-proclaimed professional economist totally failed to see the 2008 global economic tsunami coming, maybe he needs to look elsewhere for vision.   In fact Steve's entire time in power has been marked by a singular lack of vision from Afghanistan, the Great Recession, and the F-35 fiasco to the Tar Sands bitumen cliff, Steve never sees the obvious coming.

The Massive Millstone Round America's Neck

Fanaticism dooms Americans.   As a people, Americans hold and are held captive by fanatical, irrational beliefs.   The most terrible of these is the common conviction that their Constitution is sacrosanct.

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland argues that tragedies like the Sandy Hook shootings lie squarely at the feet of Americans' obsession with their constitution:

To outsiders, the point seems so blindingly obvious: more guns equal more death. In Britain, where gun laws are strict, the annual number of gun-related murders stood, at last count, at 41. In the US the equivalent figure is just short of 10,000.

Whether it's Britain, Japan or Australia, the evidence is the same: strict gun control means fewer people die. American unwillingness to face this basic arithmetic – preferring to blame the mental health system or videogames or the "feminisation" of the classroom, as one conservative pundit did, or the absence of religious prayer in schools – the explanation of former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – rather than the most obvious culprit for all this gun violence, namely easy access to military-grade assault weapons, can drive outsiders to distraction.

 ...If you really want to know why the US can't kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don't even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you'll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.

It is indeed a sacred text. Despite, or perhaps because, the US is a country animated by faith, the "founding fathers" are treated as deities, their every word analysed as if it contained gospel truth. Any new idea or policy proposal, no matter how worthy on its own merits, must be proven compatible with what those long-dead politicians of the late 18th century set down – otherwise it's unconstitutional and can be thrown out by the supreme court, the high priesthood selected to interpret what the great prophets of Philadelphia intended.

...[The Constitution's] system of checks and balances is mathematically and beautifully precise in its determination to prevent unfettered, over-centralised power. It represents the unfinished business of England's own incomplete revolution of 1688. It's no exaggeration to say that this single document makes the US possible, cohering an immigrant nation with no common bonds of blood or soil around a radical idea.

But when the attachment to that text calcifies into a rigid dogma, danger beckons. Even the best ideals can become warped: note how the first amendment guarantee of free speech has allowed unlimited spending on TV campaign ads by anonymous corporate donors. In the case of the second amendment, a constitution designed to be a document of liberation instead imprisons the US, shackling it to an outdated rule that makes easy the murder of schoolchildren. Polls show a majority of Americans favour greater gun control, but the US constitution stands stubbornly in their way. The scholar Daniel Lazare describes America as "the frozen republic", chained to decisions taken when the right to bear arms meant the freedom to carry a musket. He wants the US to revamp its constitution, like most of the other countries of the world: "Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?"

...America need not be frozen. On the contrary, it was founded on the ideal that each generation is able to make the world anew.
If Americans truly want to see an end to horrors like the one that took the children of Newtown, they ought to heed the words of that great British-born hero of the American revolution, Thomas Paine: "The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also," he wrote. "Government is for the living, and not for the dead; it is the living only that has any right in it."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

When Beijing Comes Calling

The people of Morococha situated on a Peruvian hill called Toromocho aren't much to speak of.  Morococha is a shanty town for its 5,000 inhabitants or at least it was until Chinalco, the Aluminum Corporation of China, got a 35-year deal to mine the hell out of their mountain.

Chinalco, a "SOE" or state owned enterprise of the Communist Chinese government, figures it can get $50-billion worth of copper, silver and molybdenum out of Toromocho but the people of Morococha have to scram.

Despite a huge effort by the Chinese to build a new town six miles down the road, locals are sceptical. Last month, police ejected dozens of residents from a roadblock on Peru's central highway, which passes the town.

"All this move has created is fights and divisions," said Aina Calderón, a 67-year-old lifelong Morococha resident. "The company doesn't respect that some of us don't want to leave."

Razing a 4,000-metre mountain or building a town from scratch: it's hard to say which is the more remarkable feat about this endeavour, which better epitomises the good and bad aspects of the booming world. The Chinese mining giant Chinalco will start scraping the landscape next year, having bought the land for $860m and invested $2.2bn in the mine. The old town will be swallowed up by the opencast mine's crater, from which will be extracted 1m tonnes of copper, 10,000 tonnes of molybdenum and 4m ounces of silver every year for 35 years.

To its credit, Chinalco has built what sounds like a well thought out town for the people of Morococha.

Company officials say it is the most planned town in Peru. Carhuacoto has street lighting, green areas, a modern sewage system and a state-of-the-art waste-water treatment plant. It has a canal built to prevent the town being flooded if a nearby dyke collapses in an earthquake. It also has a police station, a health clinic, spacious, well-equipped primary and secondary schools and, rather amazingly, seven churches, to cater for faiths ranging from Roman Catholicism to Jehovah's Witnesses. The only thing it lacks, so far, is people.

Still, an $860-million return on $50-billion in mineral resources does sound pretty cheap.   Yet for the villagers their opposition seems based more on their demand for jobs than on relocation.

America's War on Basra and Fallujah Grinds On

And you thought America's war on Iraq was over.

Remember Basra?  Remember Fallujah?  They were two Iraqi cities that endured extensive fighting when American and Coalition forces moved in.  The guns fell silent years ago but the casualties continue to mount only now, instead of shrapnel wounds, the killers are cancers and birth defects and the finger is being pointed at the Americans love for "DU" or depleted uranium munitions.

US Tanks Rolling Into Fallujah
Though they are small, the graves are crowded so tightly together that they are almost on top of one another. They look as if someone had overturned toy wheelbarrows full of cement and then scratched the names and dates of death into it before it hardened. In many cases, there isn't even room for the birth date. But it doesn't really matter, because in most cases the two dates are the same.

There are several thousand graves in the cemetery, and another five to 10 are added every day. The large number of graves is certainly conspicuous, says Bin Said. But, he adds, there "really isn't an explanation" for why there are so many dead and deformed newborn babies in Basra.

Others, though, do have an idea why. According to a study published in September in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a professional journal based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, there was a sevenfold increase in the number of birth defects in Basra between 1994 and 2003. Of 1,000 live births, 23 had birth defects.
Similarly high values are reported from Fallujah, a city that was fiercely contested in the 2003 war. According to the Heidelberg study, the concentration of lead in the milk teeth of sick children from Basra was almost three times as high as comparable values in areas where there was no fighting.

Never before has such a high rate of neural tube defects ("open back") been recorded in babies as in Basra, and the rate continues to rise. The number of hydrocephalus ("water on the brain") cases among newborns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the United States, the study concludes.

...When DU explodes, it produces a very fine uranium dust. When children play near wrecked tanks, they can absorb this dust through their skin, their mouths and their airways. A 2002 study at the University of Bremen in northern Germany found that chromosomal changes had occurred in Gulf war veterans who had come into contact with uranium ammunition.

...In the United States, no major newspaper has yet published a story on the genetic disorders in Fallujah. Britain's Guardian, on the other hand, criticized the silence of "the West," calling it a moral failure, and cited chemist Chris Busby, who said that the Fallujah health crisis represented "the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied." Busby is the co-author of two studies on the subject.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The GunNutz' Response to Newtown? Turn America into a War Zone.

American gunnutz are slowly responding to the Newtown massacre and, predictably, their solution is to transform the United States into an Israeli-style War Zone.

Yes, if only your kids can grow up knowing that their survival depends on teacher's automatic assault rifle.   Jesus Christ on a crutch!

A World Mad for Coal

There's a big bright future ahead for coal and we'll pay dearly for it.

The International Energy Agency warns that, within five years, coal will rival oil as the fossil fuel energy source of choice.

Coal consumption is increasing all over the world – even in countries and regions with carbon-cutting targets – except the US, where shale gas has displaced coal, shows new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The decline of the fuel in the US has helped to cut prices for coal globally, which has made it more attractive, even in Europe where coal use was supposed to be discouraged by the emissions trading scheme.

Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the IEA, said: "Coal's share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade."

Coal is abundant and found in most regions of the world, unlike conventional oil and gas, and can be cheaply extracted. As a result, coal was used to meet nearly half of the rise in demand for energy globally in the past decade. According to the IEA, demand from China and India will drive world coal use in the coming five years, with India on course to overtake the US as the world's second biggest consumer. China is the biggest coal importer, and Indonesia the biggest exporter, having temporarily overtaken Australia.

The IEA report comes atop a study in Nature Climate Change that suggests we still have a chance of staying within the 2C target but that would require shutting down 65% of existing coal-fired power plants within the next 10 to 15 years.   In November the World Resources Institute reported that no fewer than 1,200 new coal-fired power plants are in planning or under development around the world, two thirds of them in India and China.

Garrison Keillor's Christmas Letter

Ah, yes. That time of year has arrived again. We have decked the halls and wrapped the presents. The shortbread lures us to the kitchen. And, as in years past, here again is Garrison Keillor's Christmas Letter. Merry Christmas!

"I love reading Christmas newsletters in which the writer bursts the bonds of modesty and comes forth with one gilt-edged paragraph after another: "Tara was top scorer on the Lady Cougars soccer team and won the lead role in the college production of 'Antigone,' which by the way they are performing in the original Greek. Her essay on chaos theory as an investment strategy will be in the next issue of Fortune magazine, the same week she'll appear as a model in Vogue. How she does what she does and still makes Phi Beta Kappa is a wonderment to us all. And, yes, she is still volunteering at the homeless shelter."

I get a couple dozen Christmas letters a year, and I sit and read them in my old bathrobe as I chow down on Hostess Twinkies. Everyone in the letters is as busy as beavers, piling up honors hand over fist, volunteering up a storm, traveling to Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Antarctica; nobody is in treatment or depressed or flunking out of school, though occasionally there is a child who gets shorter shrift. "Chad is adjusting well to his new school and making friends. He especially enjoys the handicrafts." How sad for Chad. There he is in reform school learning to get along with other little felons and making belts and birdhouses, but he can't possibly measure up to the goddess Tara. Or Lindsay or Meghan or Madison, each of whom is also stupendous.

This is rough on us whose children are not paragons. Most children aren't. A great many teenage children go through periods when they loathe you and go around slamming doors and playing psychotic music and saying things like "I wish I had never been born," which is a red-hot needle stuck under your fingernail. One must be very selective, writing about them for the annual newsletter. "Sean is becoming very much his own person and is unafraid to express himself. He is a lively presence in our family and his love of music is a thing to behold."

I come from Minnesota, where it's considered shameful to be shameless, where modesty is always in fashion, where self-promotion is looked at askance. Give us a gold trophy and we will have it bronzed so you won't think that we think we're special. There are no Donald Trumps in Minnesota: We strangled them all in their cribs. A football player who likes to do his special dance after scoring a touchdown is something of a freak.

The basis of modesty is winter. When it's 10 below zero and the wind is whipping across the tundra, there is no such thing as stylish and smart, and everybody's nose runs. And the irony is, if you're smart and stylish, nobody will tell you about your nose. You look in the rearview mirror and you see a gob of green snot hanging from your left nostril and you wonder, "How long have I been walking around like that? Is that why all those people were smiling at me?"

Yes, it is.

So we don't toot our own horns. We can be rather ostentatious in our modesty and can deprecate faster than you can compliment us. We are averse to flattery. We just try to focus on keeping our noses clean.
So here is my Christmas letter:

"Dear friends. We are getting older but are in fairly good shape and moving forward insofar as we can tell. We still drink strong coffee and read the paper and drive the same old cars. We plan to go to Norway next summer. We think that this war is an unmitigated disaster that will wind up costing a trillion dollars and we worry for our country. Our child enjoys her new school and is making friends. She was a horsie in the church Christmas pageant and hunkered down beside the manger and seemed to be singing when she was supposed to. We go on working and hope to be adequate to the challenges of the coming year but are by no means confident. It's winter. God is around here somewhere but does not appear to be guiding our government at the moment. Nonetheless we persist. We see kindness all around us and bravery and we are cheered by the good humor of young people. The crabapple tree over the driveway is bare, but we have a memory of pink blossoms and expect them to return. God bless you all."

Is Canadian Progressivism a Farce?

The topic came up recently in a discussion I had with a prolific and thoroughly progressive blogger who will go unnamed.   He lamented that he had become fed up with Canadian prog bloggers who seemed not terribly interested in progressivism at all and, by contrast, far less interesting than their truly progressive American counterparts.

I think his criticism is fair and accurate.   Many of us, I suspect, consider ourselves progressive by virtue of an affiliation with a particular party that once, in times now past, had been more or less actually progressive.   For them, progressivism was a default setting, anything to the left of the Conservatives.   If you were a follower of one of the other parties you were, by definition, a progressive.   Yet surely one doesn't follow from the other.

American progressivism operates outside of the country's governing parties.   That's because the Democrats are only slightly less distant from progressivism than the Republicans who, at times, act as though they would like to see progressives tried and burned at a stake.

What would a progressive Canadian political party look like today?  Among other things it would be championing causes like dismantling corporatism, scrapping the petro-state we have so foolishly become, and busting up the corporate media cartel to restore press freedom in Canada.   All three of these things are like malignant tumors metastasizing in Canada's body politic, eating away at our once cherished democracy.  A progressive party would be promising to redress inequality and not just inequality of income and wealth but, more importantly, inequality of opportunity - the real scourge that threatens the future for our kids and grandkids.  That means restoring and bolstering health care and public education, the very cornerstones to rebuilding a vibrant, robust middle class.  A progressive would be committed to restoring collective bargaining rights to our economy.  A progressive would release the ties that bind us to America's dead-end militarism.

I'm beginning to think I sound like David Lewis or Ed Broadbent yet I've always considered myself centre-left on social issues and decidedly centrist on everything else.   I don't think I've changed.  To confirm that I have gone back to read  Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, two Republicans and a Democrat, all of them exceptional American presidents who served at critical moments in their country's history.  Were they a gang of closet Socialists?  I think not yet we would have to move our non-Conservative parties of today well to the left to bring them into line with Abe and Teddy and Franklin.

As a progressive it seems obvious that we need a reformation in Canadian politics.  We need to even the keel.  That can't be achieved by Tony Blaired New Democrats transforming into Latter Day Liberals or by Liberals continuing to morph into Conservative-Lite.   That only keeps Canada listing to the right and there's no good for our young and future generations that can possibly come from this.

Our Plastic Oceans

A museum in Berlin is introducing Germans to a massive and growing problem, the sea of plastic forming in the world's oceans.  Here are a few photos from der Spiegel

At Sea

Berlin Museum Exhibit

It's Over for Assad's Syria

It's over for Syrian president Assad.  His key backer, Russia, has thrown in the towel.  The Russian defence ministry has announced it has sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean apparently to facilitate the evacuation of Russian nationals from Syria.

A flotilla of five ships - a destroyer, a tugboat, a tanker and two large landing vessels - is being sent from Baltiysk, on the Baltic Sea, to relieve ships that have been in waters near Syria for months.

A second group was sent from Severomorsk, on the Kola Bay in north-western Russia. At typical cruising speeds for such vessels, both groups would arrive on station around the start of January.

I wonder if the Russians have a stateroom reserved for Assad and his family?


Utah 6th Grader Takes Gun to School for "Self Defence"


Killing Off Old King Coal While There's Still Time

If we're to avoid runaway global warming, we have to get carbon emissions down into the mid to low-40s by 2020.   At the moment we're at 52 and trending upwards.   That is 52 gigatonnes, 52 billion metric tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.   That's where we're at this year.

A new report in Nature Climate Change finds that it might be possible to avoid the dreaded 2C warming if we can throttle back emissions to somewhere between 41 and 47 gigatonnes by 2020.

What does that sort of cutback look like?   It means shutting down about 65% of the world's coal-fired power stations over the next decade or two.   That's going to be tricky. 

A World Resources Institute report released in November accounted for 1,200 new coal-fired power plants on the books for construction in 59-countries with about two-thirds to be built in India and China.   The emissions from those new coal plants is expected to add the equivalent of another China to global emissions output.

It seems we have to come up with some sort of deal to keep those new coal-fired plants from being built and that is presumably going to mean coming up with economically viable, alternative energy solutions.

With Harper seemingly bent on massively increasing Tar Sands production, perhaps in a desperate attempt at resuscitating the moribund Athabasca resource, we're only going to be adding to the problem.   Ethical oil my arse.

The People's Republic of Athabasca?

Figuring out what's going on and what lies ahead for Old Beelzebub and his cherished Tar Sands is like casting bones and reading entrails.

For months there have been warnings that the Tar Sands were in trouble for a variety of reasons but especially because of the shale oil and gas boom that developed in the United States.  It only made sense.  Why invest in $70-a barrel Athabasca heavy crude when you could put your money into $50-a barrel U.S. prime, shale oil?  When word got out that America was sitting on a glut of shale oil and shale gas, Athabasca's fortunes worsened.

What were the politics behind Steve Harper's decision to approve China's takeover, perhaps bailout, of Nexen?   Who was Harper really working for - Nexen shareholders, Beijing, Alberta?  The real beneficiaries appear to be buoyant former Nexen shareholders, who pocketed a handy 60% premium on their shares, and the Communist Chinese Politburo who got their hands on 300,000 acres of prime Athabasca Tar Sands and other oil assets.

On a Friday afternoon, too late for the papers' news cycle, Harper announced the Nexen approval as a one-off deal, one time only, never to be repeated unless in "exceptional circumstances."   

Within days the Oil Patch boys were digging out the Very Pistols and firing rescue flairs into the sky that somehow spelled out - you guessed it - "exceptional circumstances."   They even got a report out claiming the lot of them were in exceptional circumstances that demanded SOE or state owned enterprise bailouts.

The report said something telling.   No one will touch us except the Chinese.   The Beijing government's capital, described as "abundant and patient", is the only game in town now that the Americans are taking their money elsewhere.  It sounds as though the Americans have lost interest in controlling the Tar Sands while China is still willing to pay a premium to achieve the same thing - control of Canada's major petroleum asset.  At this point, it's about control not investment.

Harper's options are bad and trending worse by the day.   Does he approve a Chinese rescue of the Tar Sands and cede control of Athabasca to Beijing?   Does he refuse and risk a possible devastating flight of private capital?   Does the federal government itself step in to bail out Tar Sands operators with high-risk investments of taxpayer dollars?   

The optics of Ottawa returning to the Tar Sands would be horrible for the Conservatives and would win them few friends outside Alberta.   Imagine Flaherty, having just said there's no money for Canada Pension improvements, then writing cheques for scores of billions of dollars to pour into our already sub-prime fossil fuel bubble.

Tar Sands development depends on two things - high world prices and an awful lot of investor confidence.   When you're the most expensive oil on the planet, investors need confidence in a healthy return.   When they see the Oil Barons taking to the lifeboats and firing flares into the night sky, it's not confidence building.  When the Barons admit they're "vulnerable" they're saying their ship is sinking.

When it comes to the vulnerable Tar Sands, Chinese State-Owned-Enterprises aren't like oil companies.    It's a bit like comparing a bank to "Payday Loans."   They'll put up money but its more than oil they're after in repayment.

Not only are the Tar Sands vulnerable, so too is Canada.   We're saddled with a prime minister who has an established track record of never seeing what's coming.  He can't read the signs, especially the warning signs.   The degree to which he was caught unawares by the 2008 global meltdown should have taught us everything we needed to know about Steve and vision.  Worse yet, the guys on the other side, the Chinese, have in abundance all the qualities that Steve lacks.  To them, Canada's leader is about as impressive as a won ton.

Prepare for boarding.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Laurier LaPierre Dead at 83

Quite an obituary - Canadian broadcasting pioneer, gay rights activist, Canada's first openly gay Senator, academic and educator - Laurier LaPierre has died at age 83.

Tofino's Humboldt Squid Mystery Solved?

It was mid-August, 2009 that hundreds of Humboldt squid, the terror of the Sea of Cortez, suddenly washed up on beaches near Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.   Nobody knew what to make of it or even how these creatures seemingly migrated from the Gulf of California to the cold Pacific waters of British Columbia.

The migration issue may still be unsolved but researchers believe they may have solved the mass beachings.   Apparently red tides make the mighty Humboldt high as a kite.

...a few intriguing clues suggest poisonous algae that form so-called red tides may be intoxicating the Humboldt squid and causing the disoriented animals to swim ashore in Monterey Bay, said William Gilly, a marine biologist at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif.

Each of the strandings has corresponded to a red tide, in which algae bloom and release an extremely potent brain toxin, Gilly said. This fall, the red tides have occurred every three weeks, around the same time as the squid beachings, he said. (The squid have been stranding in large numbers for years, with no known cause.)

...scientists have proposed that red tides that release a lethal toxin called domoic acid may be intoxicating the squid and disorienting them. But when researchers tested the stranded squid for domoic acid, they found only trace amounts of the chemical, Gilly said. 

The poisonous chemical mimics a brain chemical called glutamate in mammals, though domoic acid is 10,000 times more potent than glutamate. The similar structure means domoic acid can bind to glutamate receptors on neurons. In turn, the receptor opens channels that let calcium into the cell. At high levels the poison causes brain cells to go haywire and fire like crazy, so much that they fill up with calcium, burst and die.

Britain's Norman Legacy - One Thousand Years of Inequality

I first became aware of the Norman impact on Britain post-1066 when I learned of its effects on the English language.

Normans, effectively Vikings or Norse from France, settled in as a dominant socio-economic layer atop Saxon England.  They claimed the best of the best - of everything.

The Saxon peasant may have raised chickens but it was his Norman lords who enjoyed "poultry" (poulet).   The Saxon peasant herded cattle but his lord feasted on "beef" (boeuf) and veal.   Sheep from the field became "mutton" on his lordship's table.   Modern English is laced with these traces of Norman dominance over its Saxon people.  They all seem tinged with the elements of affluence and power (indict, jury and verdict for example).

An item in today's Guardian goes beyond linguistics to show how the Norman legacy remains prevalent in modern British inequality.

According to the author Kevin Cahill, the main driver behind the absurd expense of owning land and property in Britain is that so much of the nation's land is locked up by a tiny elite. Just 0.3% of the population – 160,000 families – own two thirds of the country. Less than 1% of the population owns 70% of the land, running Britain a close second to Brazil for the title of the country with the most unequal land distribution on Earth.

Much of this can be traced back to 1066. The first act of William the Conqueror, in 1067, was to declare that every acre of land in England now belonged to the monarch. This was unprecedented: Anglo-Saxon England had been a mosaic of landowners. Now there was just one. William then proceeded to parcel much of that land out to those who had fought with him at Hastings. This was the beginning of feudalism; it was also the beginning of the landowning culture that has plagued England – and Britain – ever since.

The dukes and earls who still own so much of the nation's land, and who feature every year on the breathless rich lists, are the beneficiaries of this astonishing land grab. William's 22nd great-granddaughter, who today sits on the throne, is still the legal owner of the whole of England. Even your house, if you've been able to afford one, is technically hers. You're a tenant, and the price of your tenancy is your loyalty to the crown. When the current monarch dies, her son will inherit the crown (another Norman innovation, incidentally, since Anglo-Saxon kings were elected). As Duke of Cornwall, he is the inheritor of land that William gave to Brian of Brittany in 1068, for helping to defeat the English at Hastings.

My early introduction into the language question left me convinced that Britain remains a foreign-occupied country.  This piece erases all doubt.

Europe's CCS Contest Falters - No Winner Emerges

The European Union is actively encouraging development of CCS or carbon capture and sequestration technologies.   The goal is to find a way to strip CO2 emissions from energy production, especially coal-fired power plants, and safely sequester (bury) the stuff deep underground.

The EU ran a contest, with more than a quarter-million Euros up for grabs, looking for viable CCS technologies.  Unfortunately none of the competitors met the requirements and no winner was declared.

Effective CCS options are considered a prerequisite for the future of coal energy, particularly Germany's reversion from nuclear to coal.

An Issue Tailor-Made for a Second Term President

Barack Obama can't lose on gun control.   The Newtown massacre has coalesced support for a crackdown on America's free-for-all gun trade.  Even the NRA is now lurking in the shadows, afraid to show its face.

What America needs most is a ban on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines that often go with them.

I have become a gun owner, again, fairly recently.  Just an ordinary, lever-action rifle, a plain Jane hunting rifle.  I bought it for predator protection on my motorcycle excursions into the forests up fire roads and logging roads.  It's easy to have an accident or breakdown that could leave you stuck for a day or two before you can get out.  That's a day or two you could expect to have to contend with bears, wolves or, worst of all, a cougar.  As they say, up there, you're definitely not the top of the food chain.

This process exposed me to today's civilian gun market and has it changed since I gave up hunting almost forty years ago.  Especially in the States the rifle of choice appears to be one of several variants of the Viet Nam war era, M-16.   The rifle wielded in Newtown was  a Bushmaster, probably a lot like this one:

Yeah, pretty scary.  I would not want this guy living next door to me.

It's the Republicans that stand to lose big this time.  It's time Democrats showed that, they too, can stand their ground.

Former Oldest Canadian Dies, New Title Holder Awaits Same Fate

As a newspaper reader it's grating when, every three or four months, there's an article published with a photo announcing the oldest Canadian has died.   You look at the photo, check out the age, maybe read on to find out where she lived (they're disproportionately women) and go to the sports pages.

Of course by the time the story gets into the paper the unfortunate subject is no longer the oldest anything.   The title passes automatically with the final breath.

We almost never know who becomes the newest oldest person in Canada at least not until they're not any longer.   That seems strangely perverse.  Maybe it's part of life in the post-Gzowski era.

Harper - Damned If He Does, Damned If He Don't.

Harper has a choice.   He can transform Athabasca into a state-controlled, state-run fossil fuel resource or he can kiss goodbye to his twisted dream of fossil fuel superpowerdom.

The Athabasca Tar Sands are running out of steam - literally.   There's simply too much shale oil and gas coming on line to make Athabasca bitumen alluring to new investors.   Without capital there won't be the major expansion of bitumen production Harper has hinged all of his plans, his dreams on.

It's not the first time Athabasca has floundered.   Many decades ago it seemed a sure thing with American Big Oil lined up to go in - until abundant conventional oil was discovered at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay and the Tar Sands were dumped.

Desperation and insanely high world oil prices breathed new life into the Tar Sands, aided and abetted by low royalties, deferrals, subsidies, labour concessions, tax breaks and deferred environmental obligations.   As avowedly free enterprise governments up the ante of corporate welfare to Tar Sands operators, the bitumen trade came alive.   Sure it was a conjuring act but it gave the appearance of wealth in abundance into the distant future.

The true future of the Tar Sands began emerging when science figured out the maximum CO2 carrying-capacity of the atmosphere if humanity is to have any chance of staying within the 2C danger limit.   We knew how much atmospheric CO2 was already up there.  A (maximum carrying capacity) minus B (what's already up there) equals C (the remaining usable capacity).

After running the numbers it was time to look at known fossil fuel reserves already logged into the books of the fossil fuelers.   Oopsie.  They had five times as much fossil fuel as could safely be burned.   That meant four-fifths of known reserves would have to be left in the ground forever or at least until we could come up with some way of siphoning atmospheric CO2 out of the air on mega-industrial levels.

Now if you've got five of something but you can really only sell one of the five then the actual value of that one-fifth really plummets.   You're in an economic bubble marked by vastly inflated prices.

The Tar Sands, however, is utterly dependent on bubble prices.  It's massively expensive to extract, upgrade, refine, and transport, even leaving the clean-up costs out of the equation.   And it's better only than coal as a high-carbon fossil fuel.  It's dirty, dirty, dirty which means costly, costly, costly.   Expensive and dirty, oh dear, not exactly big selling points in a market awash in fossil fuel.

Money knows the difference between a good deal and a bad deal.  Money follows the good deal.   That's where the recent revolution in American shale oil and gas production comes in.   That's the good deal against which Athabasca bitumen is measured.  American shale oil has a $20 a barrel advantage over Athabasca bitumen.  It's the competition.  It's the Prudhoe Bay of the 21st Century.

Suddenly America's once ravenous appetite for Athabasca heavy has waned.   For many good reasons the Americans like their home grown stuff better.  But their changing fossil fuel appetites translate into diminished capital investment in the Athabasca Tar Sands.

There's still money coming in to Athabasca but not nearly enough to fuel Harper's dream of massive expansion of bitumen production.  The Nexen shareholders must have seen the writing on the wall when Beijing came knocking, offering them a take-out deal.   They went for it, needing only the Godfather's blessing that Steve Harper sheepishly gave while promising the Canadian public this Chinese takeover business would never, ever, not ever happen again.   But those attuned to listen for weasel words caught Harper's qualification - no more Chinese government takeovers unless in "exceptional circumstances."

In yesterday's Financial Post, the Oil Patch cried "uncle" and pleaded "exceptional circumstances" for the whole damned Athabasca bitumen pit.   The message was blunt.  The Tar Sands are in trouble.   They've vulnerable.   They're in desperate need of "SOE" (State Owned Enterprise) capital.   They're pleading for government ownership only not Canadian, not that awful Liberal kind, but Chinese as in Communist China, the People's Republic Whereof.   Now there's an outfit Big Oil can deal with, the Beijing Politburo.

"The need for massive amounts of capital, skyrocketing costs, the exposure to oil price volatility, the technological and environment issues, the competition from shale oil, severe pipeline bottlenecks and political opposition in Canada and the United States are just some of the challenges which will ensure that ‘exceptional circumstances’ will guide most future government decisions regarding the oil sands,” Pierre Fournier, geopolitical analyst at National Bank Financial said in a report.

“The CNOOC-Nexen decision is an essential step in guaranteeing the future development of the oil sands. While significant challenges remain, the view that the Canadian government has effectively put an end to foreign SOE participation in the oil sands will not and should not survive the test of time.

So it seems Steve Harper has set Canada on a course to increased Chinese ownership, possibly eventual Chinese control, of the Athabasca Tar Sands.   Those who think that's probably not such a bad idea should explore how China cornered the Pacific Rim coal markets more than two decades ago.   Australia, Canada and others got suckered into that deal.  It all sounded really great until China achieved a market control position and was then able to drive down prices.   The Athabasca business seems eerily similar.

Like the National Bank analyst I can't see Harper saying no to the Chinese government takeover of Athabasca bitumen ventures.  He's already crossed the Rubicon.