Conservatives are importing American political cynicism

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Maybe I’m over-sensitive to this after living in the US for a few years, but this sucks:

When asked Wednesday what the government will do about pollution in Alberta’s oil sands, Ambrose said her government will do more than the Liberals.

From here: Canada needs massive effort to fight climate change: report

I hate the childishness of it. That’s what politics is all about in the US: making sure you appear to be just slighly better than the other party. That’s why most of the US electorate has tuned out and why in Washington it’s no longer a career-ending move to be caught accepting bribes, kickbacks, etc. Everyone does it and it’s public knowledge.

To the Conservatives: I don’t give a damn if you’re doing more or less than the Liberals. You weren’t sent there to try to be “just a little better.” You were sent there to do what’s best for the country, or at least what you think is best for it. Tell us what you’re going to do, your plan, not just “it’s better than X.” That implies you’re embarassed to say it, because you know it’s “not good enough.”

Further, step up on the Environment. Even though I’m not a Conservative I’d promise to vote for you if you made this your issue and took decisive action (assuming there was no completely crazy items in your agenda.) I say this because stopping global warming is the absolute definitive issue of our time.
Example: my opinion of Arnold has just changed quite a bit: State’s Greenhouse Gas Bill Signed

Iran, in perspective

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This is an interesting article putting the “Iran Crisis” in historical perspective.

What Iranians Least Expect

Most compelling is the recount of what happened with China in the 1960′s. China was very aggressive at the time and everyone feared this would only increase once they got nukes. People called for preemptive strikes, etc, but in the end the region stabilized, for various reasons described in the article.

Does this mean the world should let Iran get nukes? Of course not. But, it highlights that military intervention is not the best option. As suggested, if the West began to be seen as very open and accepting to the Iranian people, maybe this would speed up the eventual revolution in that country.

Transformation of America, part deux

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I’d like to follow up on the previous post, about the “transformation of America”. It’s interesting that Bush’s approval rating seems to have ticked up slightly since these secret prison admissions. Apparently most eligible voters don’t care that their country is running a global network of secret prisons where torture is well documented.

I guess that’s what is most surprising to me throughout all this. Throughout the past 100 years the US could mostly be counted on to stand for “the right thing,” at least publically. Sure, there was shady stuff going on behind the scenes, and sometimes non-benevolent reasons for doing “the right thing”, but it was still done.

Think of the image of the US with respect to WW2. They’ve gone down in history as the “saviour” of Europe and the Jewish people. With the first Gulf war the US was mostly seen as the standard bearer of the “good” countries battling the evil Saddam. When dealing with many countries, including China, the US has kept them at arms lengths supposedly, in part, due to their weak record on human rights.

Now, not to be melodramatic about it, but honestly – where do things stand now? The US is globally seen as the bully invader, repeated human rights abuser, etc.

The real question I have is: what is the average American thinking throughout all this? Most people seem generally disgusted by it, but nothing is happening. It doesn’t seem like the US population is generally willing to make a big stand on anything, except perhaps against something that doesn’t impact them at all like same-sex marriage.

I think part of it is not wanting to ditch your “lifelong” political party. But I think the larger part is continuing the trend of individual complacency. People sit complacently with their wealth (compared to world average) and sense of security. Perhaps they’re willing to justify anything in the pursuit of either of those 2 things.

I just wish we’d return to a US populace that was willing to stand, and make sacrifices, for “the right thing.” The world was such a better place then.

Radical Transformation

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“Right now, your government is doing things you thought only other governments did.” — Van Halen

For once, George Bush told the truth. And it was every bit as terrifying as we expected.

The recent revelations from the US that they have a network of secret prisons all over the world, where over 14,000 prisoners rounded up from the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq were subjected to daily torture for years on end and refused access to lawyers or the Red Cross, come as no surprise to most of us.

Rumours had been flying all over Europe about these prisons for years. We knew detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib was just the tip of the iceberg. We knew the military had conducted massive sweeps, arresting people at random off the street and shipping them off to places where the Geneva Convention, or any form of human rights, were ignored. We knew about the waterboarding, the sleep deprivation, the forced nakedness, the deaths of detainees during interrogation. We knew that the torture itself produced very little new intelligence because 70-90% of the prisoners were innocent. We knew, but it is still startling that all of this has been officially confirmed.

A radical transformation has occurred in the United States. There was a time when Saddam Hussein’s torture of Iraqi citizens was justification for regime change. Now torture of civilians is accepted as a legitimate military strategy. There was a time when using chemical weapons on crowds of innocent people would draw international outrage. Now anything is justified. There was a time when training young men for holy wars in religious camps was a hallmark of fanatics. Today, young Americans are being trained as Christian warriors, worshipping images of George Bush and preparing to die for their beliefs.

In just 5 years, everything about America has changed. The budget surplus of the 90′s was squandered on tax cuts for the rich. The industries America once dominated have moved overseas. Freedoms that were once taken for granted have been tossed aside. The progress made on environmental and social issues have been abandoned or willfully reversed. A society that once celibrated its diversity is again torn apart by intolerance. This is the utopia of George Bush, where the rich get richer and the rest blindly obey.

Cost of electric vehicles

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I recently had some discussions about the efficiency and cost of electric vehicles, which got me interested to find out more. I was a bit surprised to find out how much more efficient electric cars are.

The real factor for the cost is the fact that internal combustion engines are only about 15-25% efficient. This means that for one gallon of gas only one quarter of it gets used as energy to move the vehicle, the rest is lost as heat and friction within the engine. Electric vehicles are about 90% efficient. Electricity transmission is also over 90% efficient and the rest depends on the method used to generate the electricity.

It’s also interesting to look at the “fill-up” costs for comparison. Let’s ignore maintenance and part replacement costs for a minute. At todays prices it costs about $0.15/mile to drive an average gas vehicle. Similarly, at todays electricity prices it costs about $0.03/mile to drive an electric vehicle.

The “true total cost comparison” is fairly difficult between these two types of vehicles. The major drawback of the EV would be battery replacement, although apparently “modern batteries” are expected to outlast the vehicle. Assuming that’s partially true, and amortizing some percentage of battery replacement over the lifespan of the vehicle, the total costs probably come out in the ballpark of $0.20/mile for gas and $0.10/mile for electricity.

Cost makes the EV look attractive but there are other good factors as well. Since the EV is much more energy efficient the CO2 emissions are proportionally lower, in this case at the energy production site. Also, what I’ve always thought would be the big long-term advantage is the flexibility of the system. Let’s say the entire fleet of vehicles in the world were replaced with EVs right now. Immediately we’d get a large reduction in CO2 emissions and energy efficiency, even if fossil fuels are still used to power the electricity generation. Further, let’s say over the next 50 years the mix of renewable energy production becomes larger than non-renewable. Gradually, without any extra effort, the worldwide fleet of hundreds of millions of vehicles just became more efficient as a side-effect. 30 years from now if we suddenly realize the “dream” of massively efficient energy production, like fusion, all the vehicles in the world now run almost for free.

The flip-side of that would be leaving the worldwide fleet of vehicles based on fossil fuels. The time to take advantage of any gains in overal energy efficiency will take 10-20 years to realize since it involves replacing hundreds of millions of vehicles, rather than at the point of energy production.

Now, I realize that’s not going to happen so quickly, but it shows the upside potential of that scenario. If we do see some of the expected improvements in batteries over the next few years I think EVs make much more sense than fuel cells.

Some extra reading:

Battery electric vehicle

Electric Car Cost Per Mile

How Electric Cars Work

Ninja Marketing

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Last Friday, I went with some friends to the CD release party of a local Austin, Tx band called Cat Scientist. I had never heard them before but I had been told that there would be free drinks and free CDs, and I was not disappointed. Upon arrival we were given two drink tickets worth $4 each at the bar and were quick to use them. Then we went to for the free CDs. That’s when I noticed the event was sponsored by Camel cigarettes. In order to get the free CD, you had to fill out a survey about your favorite brand of cigarette. In exchange you got the free CD… and a free pack of Camels.

I quit smoking last year, at the advice of my doctor. I’d developed a terrible hacking cough that he told me wouldn’t go away until I quit completely. I hit rock bottom when I was coughing so violently that I could no longer smoke through the pain. I finally gave it up. And almost as soon as I did, my breathing returned to normal. Since then, I have allowed myself to bum a smoke here or there, usually in social situations, but not to buy a pack for myself. And all was fine and dandy, until Camel put that free pack of cigarettes in my hand.

They scanned our IDs with what looked like handheld barcode readers, I assume to verify that we’re of smoking age, but more likely to generate marketing statistics and mailing lists. I knew it was a marketing stunt, and probably a tax writeoff, but I rationalized that it would be wasteful, even rude, not to smoke those free cigarettes. When the box was finally emptied Wednesday night, I threw it away and vowed not to let Camel buy me back so easily.

Thursday night I found myself downtown again, on Austin’s famous 6th Street. Block after block of pool halls, shot bars and dance clubs. My colleagues and I didn’t intend much barhopping, we mearly went down there for dinner and a couple of afterwork drinks. Traffic was thicker than usual, due to this weekend’s football game between Ohio University and the University of Texas. 40,000 OU fans have flooded into Austin this week in support of their team. Add that to the 40,000 UT fans representing the home team, and that’s a lot of roudy jocks chugging beer and shouting fight songs!

While we’re sitting there, a guy walks over and starts making smalltalk. A few seconds later, he’s pulling free packs of cigarettes out of a backpack he’s carrying. Sure enough, he’s from Camel. He asks to scan our IDs with a similar handheld device, hands us our free packs and moves on to the next group. I wanted to say no, or to throw them in the garbage, but they were free!

How did they find me? I wondered. How did they track me down? Did they have a crack team of ninja marketers, lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce on me with more cigarettes whenever I tried to quit? That’s when I saw the genius of it. Regardless of the outcome of the game, 80,000 mostly college age football fans will jam 6th St. this weekend, drinking and rioting, and operatives of Camel will be right there, stealthily moving in and out of the crowd, handing out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of free packs of cigarettes.

I would never propose that Camel shouldn’t have the right to sponsor CD release parties or target sporting events for marketing campaigns. And I don’t deny the many opportunities they gave me to exercise self-responsibility. That’s the beauty of ninja marketing. A small army of deceptively cool college kids, paid generously to mingle and barhop, can market directly to the target demographic. The point is that cigarettes sell themselves. All they need to do is get you started.

In Memory of the Crocodile Hunter

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The big news distracting us from Iraq this week is the sudden passing of one of Australia’s favourite celebrities, Steve Irwin. For years, Steve entertained us by provoking every man-eating reptile he could find. We watched in awe as he, his wife and children flirted with venomous snakes and handfed raw meat to hungry carnivores. He was lauded as a conservationist, for bringing the great outdoors to our living rooms, then tranquilizing it and dragging it back. In his honour, I would like to be the first to nominate Steve Irwin for the Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he died doing what he loved, and the only surprising part was that he survived this long.

Steve illustrated an unfortunate fact about conservationism. Pristine, untouched wilderness has no value. In order to prevent the wholesale bulldozing, stripmining or dredging of natural habitats, there has to be human value to them. They need publicists and lawyers. The old adage, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” is no longer sufficient. Now you have to trapse through every acre of wilderness with a film crew to justify why we shouldn’t pave it all over and build condos. We can’t leave well enough alone.

Some economists have suggested that we put dollar values on such natural habitats, based on the long term environmental costs for their absense, and force developers to offset these costs somehow. But those are pipe dreams these days. The only value an endangered species has is that of a prop on a TV show. But at least that’s something.

Rest in peace, Steve.

Planning Ahead

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The recent month-long battle in Southern Lebanon between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Hezbollah militia was apparently sparked by the disappearance of a couple of IDF soldiers along the border. Despite more than a month of war, in which vast swaths of Lebanon were reduced to rubble, those soldiers are still being held by Hezbollah. Their spokespeople say now, as they did before the invasion, that the soldiers would only be released if there was a prisoner exchange.

Such incidents weren’t without precedent. Previous abductions had been resolved with peaceful prisoner exchanges. Yet this time, the reaction from Israel was a swift, organized and all-out assault. When cease-fires were suggested, the IDF begged for more time to route out more Hezbollah positions. It was no secret that the Israelis wanted Hezbollah out of Lebanon. What’s disturbing are reports that the US military helped to plan and supply this brief war. According to this article, all they needed was an excuse to put their plans into action.

During the summer of 2003, the Bush Administration turned its attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. While the rhetoric morphed day by day to make sense of this transition, hints emerged that a new Iraq invasion had been planned since day one. All they needed was a reason. At the time, we all referenced Wag The Dog cynically, guessing that this was some kind of political publicity stunt to boost Bush’s perpetually sagging popularity. How wrong we were.

In retrospect, we can see how the American military machine propelled itself across the middle east, from Afghanistan to Iraq, on a path toward Iran. If these adventures in the mideast are some kind of experiment meant to test the latest technology that a runaway military budget can afford, all it has proven is the overwhelming ability of modern weapons to produce civilian casualties with astounding efficiency. Targets can be selected quickly, by aerial surveilance, and airstrikes can be called in with improving precision. A single marine at a keyboard can kill more civilians today than a hundred in the field. Many buildings, bridges, roads and other infrastructure can be demolished in a single day of bombardment.

Yet all of these advancements work against the stated goal, to make the world safe from terrorism. Grieving civilians take up arms. Orphans become the next generation of suicide bombers. Terrorist organizations become freedom fighters and heroes. Citizens of democratic nations become terrorist sympathizers. I can’t imagine anyone claiming that this experiment was a success. But it must have seemed tremendously successful to them. The US military machine continues to steamroll toward Iran.