April 24, 2012

Political Minders are back

By BJ Bjornson

There’s a conference under way in Montreal to celebrate the recent International Polar Year, under whose auspices there was a major amount of scientific work completed in the Arctic. Given Canada is the host of said conference, I can’t help but be more than a little embarrassed by the antics of our Republican North party’s efforts to avoid having Canadian scientists say anything that might put the Canadian government in a bad light. Which, given we are talking about the Republican North party, would be just about anything the scientists say, so better to make sure they can’t say much of anything.

Government media minders are being dispatched to an international polar conference in Montreal to monitor and record what Environment Canada scientists say to reporters.

. . .

“If you are approached by the media, ask them for their business card and tell them that you will get back to them with a time for (an) interview,” the Environment Canada scientists were told by email late last week.

“Send a message to your media relations contact and they will organize the interview. They will most probably be with you during the interview to assist and record,” says the email obtained by Postmedia News.

It was also noted that recordings of the scientists’ interactions with the media will be forwarded to the media relations office in Ottawa.

There is more than a little bit of threat implicit in these instructions. As is the case most everywhere these days, austerity and spending cuts to offset the tax breaks our Conservatives lavished to their supporters were part of the budget the Conservatives are pushing through. Though they’ve been often tight-lipped about just where all of these cuts are coming, they do seem to be concentrated in areas such as environmental monitoring, food safety, support for minorities and the disadvantaged, and pretty much any other of the regular Con hobbyhorses that may interfere with their vision of a Conservative utopia by presenting unwelcome facts to the mix. Not all of the pink slips have gone out to the civil service quite yet, so the Environment Canada scientists performance at this international conference just may mean their jobs.

Although it is important to note that this latest outrage is part and parcel of the pattern the Cons under Harper have been implementing since they first came to power.

Last week, the Ottawa Citizen reported how a reporter’s simple question about a Canada-U.S. study on snow generated a blizzard of paper at the National Research Council. 

While a NASA scientist was free to pick up the phone and answer questions in a simple 15-minute interview, the NRC declined to let anyone speak with the reporter about the snow study. Instead 11 people in the Canadian agency eventually produced a list of equipment used in the study — information of little use in the story.

Environment Canada’s media office also often takes hours if not days to answer reporters’ questions, and to decide whether interviews will be granted.

I’ll leave the last word to Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria.

“It’s going from bad to worse,” says Weaver, a vocal critic of the way the federal government has been silencing and muzzling scientists in recent years. He describes the email instructions to the polar scientists as “unbelievable.” 

He also says the instructions are also “absurd” since anyone — including a journalist — is allowed to ask questions after presentations at scientific conferences. It is also common for the media to conduct impromptu interviews with speakers immediately following sessions to clarify details before filing stories on tight deadlines.

Having media minders take charge of arranging interviews and sending recordings to Ottawa is reminiscent of the way the Soviets used to send KGB agents to conferences with scientists during the Cold War, says Weaver. “It’s an affront to democracy.”

But then democracy is such a bother when an ideological agenda is at stake.

March 21, 2012

Team Romney scores an own goal

By BJ Bjornson

There really isn’t any better way to describe this quote from top Romney advisor Eric Fehnstrom when asked whether or not the radical far-right positions Romney’s been espousing during the primaries may hurt him come the fall regular election campaign.

Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again.

Forget for a moment that it has already been noted that it is actually far harder for a candidate to back down from their primary promises than a lot of people like to believe it is and remember that we’re talking about a candidate who has been doing his level best to convince the rabid Tea Party GOP base that despite his reputation as a “well-oiled weathervane”, he actually does really hold all of the ultra-right wing positions he’s been spouting and happen to directly contradict everything he’s ever done in public life outside of the campaign for president. Now, one of his advisors goes out and says that as soon as Romney has clinched the GOP nomination, he’s going to throw out everything he told the GOP base and start his campaign promises all over.

Romney’s opponents have to be laughing their assess off right about now at the great gift they’ve just been given. It probably still won’t help Santorum or Gingrich, but it has helpfully reinforced the single greatest weakness Romney has as a candidate; the fact that he appears willing to take any and all positions on an issue should it appear politically favourable at the moment, and the fact that it has come from his own advisor just makes it stick to him that much more.

March 13, 2012

Score one for Canada

By BJ Bjornson

Looks like Darth Cheney is afraid to take a little jaunt north of the border.

Former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney has cancelled a Canadian speaking appearance due to security concerns sparked by demonstrations during a visit he made to Vancouver last fall, the event promoter said Monday.

Cheney, whom the protesters denounced as a war criminal, was slated to talk about his experiences in office and the current American political situation at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on April 24.

. . .

Last Sept. 26, Cheney's appearance in Vancouver was marred by demonstrators who blocked the entrances to the exclusive Vancouver Club.

The activists, who at one point scuffled with police, called for Cheney's arrest for war crimes and booed guests as they arrived at the $500-a-ticket dinner.

. . .

Ruppert said the "thugs" put everyone at risk and forced Cheney to remain inside the club for seven hours until police were able to disperse the protesters and deem it safe for him to leave.

Remarkable what the prospect of a bit of inconvenience (which is really the most that Cheney would be facing in Toronto, war crimes notwithstanding) can do to scare off the privileged.

March 09, 2012

Your ignorance, their strength

By BJ Bjornson

I couldn’t help riffing off of Paul Krugman’s column yesterday which, like many of his missives, is pretty hard to argue with, and it’s his summation that makes for some good quotable material. After noting that there is little surprise in the Santorum wing of Evolution deniers disliking higher education, he then moves to the more business-minded Romney wing.

But what about people like Mr. Romney? Don’t they have a stake in America’s future economic success, which is endangered by the crusade against education? Maybe not as much as you think.

After all, over the past 30 years, there has been a stunning disconnect between huge income gains at the top and the struggles of ordinary workers. You can make the case that the self-interest of America’s elite is best served by making sure that this disconnect continues, which means keeping taxes on high incomes low at all costs, never mind the consequences in terms of poor infrastructure and an undertrained work force.

And if underfunding public education leaves many children of the less affluent shut out from upward mobility, well, did you really believe that stuff about creating equality of opportunity?

So whenever you hear Republicans say that they are the party of traditional values, bear in mind that they have actually made a radical break with America’s tradition of valuing education. And they have made this break because they believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt them.

Knowledge is power, and the powerful aren’t into sharing.

March 07, 2012

Because privacy is such an antiquated notion

By BJ Bjornson

I wish I could say this was unbelievable, but unfortunately I can see it as being far too common, and with an increasingly bleak outlook for those entering the workforce, the likelihood is that it will only get worse rather than better.

If you think privacy settings on your Facebook and Twitter accounts guarantee future employers or schools can't see your private posts, guess again.

Employers and colleges find the treasure-trove of personal information hiding behind password-protected accounts and privacy walls just too tempting, and some are demanding full access from job applicants and student athletes.

In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state's Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall.

. . .

Student-athletes in colleges around the country also are finding out they can no longer maintain privacy in Facebook communications because schools are requiring them to "friend" a coach or compliance officer, giving that person access to their “friends-only” posts. Schools are also turning to social media monitoring companies with names like UDilligence and Varsity Monitor for software packages that automate the task. The programs offer a "reputation scoreboard" to coaches and send "threat level" warnings about individual athletes to compliance officers.

A recent revision in the handbook at the University of North Carolina is typical:

"Each team must identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to and regularly monitoring the content of team members’ social networking sites and postings,” it reads. "The athletics department also reserves the right to have other staff members monitor athletes’ posts."

Now, I’m not all that impressed by Facebook’s privacy record in the first place, or Google’s after their latest changes, but this kind of thing is just beyond the pale. And I don’t care how “voluntary” they claim such things are. The mere threat that refusal to turn over or allow access means you get removed from consideration for employment or other activities is more than enough to make this a case of undue influence.

Hopefully these policies will get reversed, but it a measure of how far we’ve come that such a clear invasion of privacy would even be considered acceptable in the first place.

February 26, 2012

Syria Musings

By BJ Bjornson

I haven’t written about Syria before now since it didn’t appear that the situation there was going to spill over into an international issue in anything more than a rhetorical sense. However, the bleeding ulcer of the continued fighting and escalations has stoked additional calls for international, and often American-led, intervention of some sort. Greg Djerejian has popped up with a longish post (referenced by John below) that discusses three of the more notable of those calls. (Steve ripped through the one by Ann Slaughter Djerejian describes as the “sloppiest, almost offering up something of a parody”, over at the Agonist on Friday, which is worth the read.)

Djerejian does seem more persuaded by the third of the articles he mentions from the Financial Times’ Emile Nakhleh, mainly due to a fundamental point that the Assad regime is already doomed, and so “The longer the denouement, the bloodier it will prove. So why not act now?” While Djerejian agrees with that point, his reservations regarding the wisdom of intervention are worth quoting:

1) Unlike with Libya, the opposition do not yet control territorially contiguous areas of operations, making any effort to assist them far more complicated;

2) Syria’s strategic location in the Levant implicates far more complex regional dynamics implicating at minimum its immediate neighbors of Lebanon, Turkey (particularly with respect to Kurdish areas of Syria emboldened amidst the chaos to pursue irredentist claims), Iraq, Israel and, lest we forget, Jordan (heretofore a reasonably stable, reliable ally amidst the Arab Spring despite widespread dissatisfaction among its Palestinian majority with the Hashemite throne);

3) The relationship between Syrian opposition outside the country and inside is still tenuous and patchy, at best, so that attempts to recognize the Syrian National Council do not guarantee a positive, ‘bankable’ spill-over impact in-country given this still evident lack of cohesion;

4) Related to “3”, even the external opposition itself is far more divided than Libya’s was (at least at the conception of the Libyan uprising), largely a function of Syria’s more complex ethnic and sectarian make-up, and the same issues with lack of cohesiveness applies to the so-called Free Syrian Army within Syria (they are more simply a series of localized militias, if the local opposition itself generally has a more unified agenda, namely, for Bashar to be ejected from power, but then what, regarding preservation of consistent goals?);

5) Assad’s Army is larger than Gaddafi’s, and he will unfortunately also likely retain more loyalist units until the bitter end;

6) Assad enjoys large stock-piles of perilous chemical weaponry, we can suspect if his own skin is on the line in an existential end-game he may well employ same (once a war criminal it is a slippery slope of cascading horrors, and he has already well proved his despicableness), and/or there are risk presented by whom may gain control of these stock-piles were the regime to chaotically implode;

7) The prospects of revanchist violence and horrors are at least equal to Libya, but given the crazy quilt-work of villages, town and cities where such internecine horrors would unfold, could prove far bloodier;

8) The possibility that Lebanon were pulled into the mire of a full-bore Syrian civil war is very high, and the prospects of border instability will also greatly concern Amman and Tel Aviv (there are also Iraqi issues that would concern, not only Iran, but also elements of the Shi’a leadership in Baghdad);

9) The Russians have proven so dismal in their naked-self interest (historic client state relationship, arms contracts, the naval base in Tartous, etc) that one would have to be concerned about possible retaliatory machinations in the broader neighborhood if they over-step to defend their client; and

10) Turkey’s role cannot be seen as simply that of a Good Samaritan, while they are arguably the key player in the entire equation (of which more below) they will have critical interests regarding Kurdish minorities among other priorities that may not wholly gel with those of Washington, or those of the (rather juvenilely named conclave) ‘Friends of Syria’.

Even Djerejian notes that the above is far from a comprehensive list of the issues facing an Syrian intervention, even if he comes to conclusion that the Assad regime has crossed enough “red-lines” that the international community “must become more proactive in its approach.” The details of this approach are left vague beyond noting it will depend largely on what the Turks are willing to do insofar as a “safe haven” in northern Syria is concerned, but given he’s starting from a premise that the Assad regime is already doomed, the end game is clearly regime change, which remains a drastic action without any clear idea of just how much effort, time, and resources will have to be expended by the “Friends of Syria” to accomplish.

Iraq remains the default cautionary tale for those opposed to such interventions, but for myself, Libya, an intervention I supported, contains sufficient lessons for why a similar intervention in Syria is a foolish and counterproductive endeavour.

Start with the reservations Djerejian lists himself. At #1, it is not just that the rebels don’t control territorially contiguous areas of operation in Syria, it is that they don’t control much territory at all, and that the areas they do control are not of the kind to make a Libyan-style intervention very useful.

Libya is a country with a thinly populated strip of land along the coast, and the opposition took over control of a large swath of said land, including the second largest city, and had considerable support within the capital itself. The eastern front of the revolution in Libya was almost picture-perfect for airstrikes to play a decisive role, which they did, only to get swiftly bogged down when the terrain in question was the western mountains or urban battlefield of Misrata, terrain which more closely matches the Syrian situation. Add in the far more sophisticated Syrian air defences and the larger, more loyal, and far better trained and equipped Syrian military, and the difficulty of the operation increases manifold.

This is also where I have to question the fundamental point of Djerejian’s (and Nakhleh’s) argument, that the Assad regime is already doomed. The opposition to Assad is nowhere near as widespread as the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi was, nor has it accomplished anywhere near the level of success the rebels in Libya managed prior to the regime’s counter-attacks. That the Syrian opposition has continued to fight on in the face of such grinding defeats is remarkable, but given how much of a struggle it was for the better organized, supported, and widespread Libyan opposition to overthrow Qaddafi even with Western support, I am nowhere near as convinced that the Assad regime is staring into the dustbin of history at this point.

(As an aside to the above, the sheer tenacity of the Syrian opposition also calls into question whether or not the Qaddafi regime’s march east on Benghazi and Tobruk would have actually ended the rebellion against him or merely started a longer and more brutal insurgency as the repeated Syrian military conquests of rebel strongholds has resultantly spiraled into in Syria.)

Things grow worse regarding Syria from there. While Western media coverage of Libya has been mostly quiet since the premature back-slapping victory laps of those who had called for the intervention celebrating the defeat and death of Qaddafi, the country has hardly been all candy and roses in the aftermath, and while the spillover effects have been relatively minor to date, they certainly exist, and are causing serious issues in at least a couple of neighbouring states as returning pro-Qaddafi Tuareg mercenaries stir up trouble in their home countries.

Here again, Djerejian notes that the prospects for retaliations and internecine horrors are likely even worse in Syria than they are in Libya, and that Syria is starting from a more divisive opposition to begin with. And he also notes that Syria is far more strategically located than Libya, with spillover effects far more likely and disruptive.

Really, there isn’t a single neighbour of Syria’s that doesn’t have a stake in how things turn out. Israel has obvious security concerns related to their occupation of the Golan Heights and what kinds of actions a new regime in Damascus might pursue in relation to Israel overall, much as they’ve been concerned about a new Egyptian regime made up of parties less likely to overlook or accede to Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians in Gaza.

How the parties in Lebanon react is also an open question, and probably the most at risk for violence and turmoil to spill over thanks to the intertwined recent history of the two nations, likely causing even more Israeli concerns as a result.

Turkey has the Kurdish regions to worry itself about. Jordan’s stability during the whole Arab Spring is also at risk thanks to a new flood of refugees, and Iraq’s newly aggressive Shiite regime must be concerned that the many Sunnis who fled the cleansing of their neighbourhoods during the American “surge” may choose to return home and again challenge their authority.

Further, while Qaddafi had no real allies among the world powers and his isolation allowed for intervention to proceed without much opposition from non-Western powers, Assad and Syria retain some international backing, making an international consensus, and therefore bringing at least some legitimacy to the intervention, next to impossible.

Let’s face it, the Libyan intervention was a hard, bloody slog that has left behind a fractured state struggling to put itself back together and resulting in knock-on effects that have yet to play out. And at that, it remains the best-case scenario I can think of for a Western-style military intervention.

As a result, I see no way that an intervention into Syria will not cause far uglier consequences on every measure. On this, Iraq does provide a parallel worth considering. When one talks of the “red-lines” Assad has crossed that requires the international community to act, namely the level of death and destruction he has visited upon his own people, how do those acts compare in scale to the level of destruction the U.S. military visited upon the people of Iraq and in cities like Fallujah during their long occupation of that nation? You can’t argue from a moral high ground you don’t actually occupy.

Ultimately I don’t know what is going to happen in Syria, but given its strategic importance to numerous regional and international players, I suspect we’ll see enough meddling from the outside that the situation won’t be getting any better in the year to come than it has been during the one past. I can only hope the powers that be prove either intelligent or self-interested enough to keep the meddling from blossoming into overt intervention, since that will be the worst of all possible results for the people of Syria.

February 25, 2012

It’s easy to get pushed over when you’re already on the edge

By BJ Bjornson

An interesting new study out showing that the collapse of the Maya civilization was accompanied not by a severe drought, but rather a relatively mild constraint on their water supplies.

Now, two Earth scientists have carefully analyzed rock samples from the Yucatán, which revealed water levels in local lakes, as well as chemical traces that show likely rainfall over the decades of the collapse. What the scientists found was more evidence that the region suffered from drought during the typically rainy summers — but the drought was fairly mild. There were probably fewer hurricanes in the ocean driving rainstorms to land. In a paper published today in Science, researchers Martín Medina-Elizalde and Eelco J. Rohling call it "a succession of extended drought periods interrupted by brief recoveries."

Is it really possible that a mild drought, no matter how many centuries it lasted, could really topple an empire? After all, civilizations in Europe have endured everything from plagues to the Little Ice Age, and people did not abandon the cities.

Medina-Elizalde and Rohling suggest:

If these repeated episodes of drier climate had a significant role in the fate of the Classic Maya civilization, as suggested by archaeological evidence, then this would imply that the ecological carrying capacity of the Yucatán Peninsula is highly sensitive to precipitation reductions.

In other words, it's possible that it didn't take much of a drought to usher in a catastrophic series of crop losses or other environmental problems. And these problems, in turn, could foment dramatic social upheavals.

This is important for more than the Yucatan, which may see a repeat of such conditions due to Climate Change, because while we may not be entirely certain what the carrying capacity of the Earth is for humanity, in many cases we are already over-consuming what the planet can produce on a renewable basis, not to mention our drawing down of non-renewable resources. All of which is to say that even a relatively minor disruption could cause massive damage to our civilization as it did the Maya, and at the rate we’re going, the disruption Climate Change is going to cause will be far more than minor.

February 24, 2012

Lawsuit claims Obama can’t be president because he’s “mulatto”

By BJ Bjornson

It’s rare these days to find this much ignorance and bigotry all wrapped up together in one little package, well, broadcast publiclhy at least.

If we thought President Obama silenced all the birthers by releasing his long form birth certificate last year, think again. Apparently, some folks still have doubts and are taking it one step further: to court.

Tuesday, Gordon Warren Epperly filed a lawsuit in Alaska challenging President Obama's inclusion on the 2012 presidential ballot. What's Epperly's beef? Apparently, he feels Negroes and mulattoes can't be president because they aren't really citizens.

While this lawsuit, like all of the birther nonsense that has preceded it, will hopefully get laughed out of the court system, it is merely the most recent fringe example of what the “reasonable” opposition to Obama has been saying since he first came to power, Obama isn’t a “real” American.

They say that President Obama is a Muslim, but if he isn’t, he’s a secularist who is waging war on religion. On some days he’s a Nazi, but on most others he’s merely a socialist. His especially creative opponents see him as having a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview,” while the less adventurous say that he’s an elitist who spent too much time in Cambridge, Hyde Park and other excessively academic precincts.

Whatever our president is, he is never allowed to be a garden-variety American who plays basketball and golf, has a remarkably old-fashioned family life and, in the manner we regularly recommend to our kids, got ahead by getting a good education.

Granted, some of these attacks would be leveled at any Democratic President (and, if the recent GOP campaign is any example, anyone with a more progressive worldview than Attila the Hun), but the virulence of the attacks on Obama speaks to something deeper than mere ideological differences, something the outright racism of Epperly’s lawsuit simply makes explicit.

February 23, 2012

Well that’s rather anti-climatic

By BJ Bjornson

It appears that the superluminal neutrino results that had everybody excited for a few months may have a pretty mundane explanation.

What might have been the biggest physics story of the past century may instead be down to a faulty connection.

In September 2011, the Opera experiment reported it had seen particles called neutrinos evidently travelling faster than the speed of light.

The team has now found two problems that may have affected their test in opposing ways: one in its timing gear and one in an optical fibre connection.

More tests from May will determine just how they affect measured speeds.

Not that I was expecting that a century of physics was about to be overthrown, but I was kind of holding out hope that the explanation would be of a type that might throw light on some heretofore undiscovered phenomena and so enhance our knowledge of the universe.

Bad wiring isn’t going to do that, and so even though it was always the most likely explanation for the results, I can’t help but be disappointed now that said simplest explanation appears to be the right one.

February 21, 2012

Time to put Greece out of its misery

By BJ Bjornson

I swear that watching the ongoing Greek debt debacle is like watching some guy with broken legs in a wheelchair getting “helped out” by a bunch of thugs who proceed to break his arms and then demand he get rid of the “luxury” wheelchair to pay for his medical treatment. Every so-called bailout package, thanks to their ever-more-onerous austerity measures that will crash a weak economy even further, seem designed to make the situation worse rather than better.

And as bad as this latest deal is, it is merely another stopgap measure, since the numbers simply don’t add up.

The problem, of course, is that all the observers and “segregated accounts” in the world can’t turn Greece’s economy around when it’s burdened with an overvalued currency and has no ability to implement any kind of stimulus. Quite the opposite: in order to get this deal done, Greece had to find yet another €325 million in “structural expenditure reductions”, and promise a huge amount of front-loaded austerity to boot.

The effect of all this fiscal tightening? Magic growth! A huge amount of heavy lifting, in terms of making the numbers work, is done by the debt sustainability analysis, and specifically the assumptions it makes. Greece is five years into a gruesome recession with the worst effects of austerity yet to hit. But somehow the Eurozone expects that Greece will bounce back to zero real GDP growth in 2013, and positive real GDP growth from 2014 onwards. Here’s the chart:


Note that the downside, here, still looks astonishingly optimistic: where’s all this economic growth meant to be coming from, in a country suffering from massive wage deflation? And under this pretty upbeat downside scenario, Greece gets nowhere near the required 120% debt-to-GDP level by 2020: instead, it only gets to 159%. And to make things worse for the Eurozone, the report explicitly says that under the terms of this deal, “any new debt will be junior to all existing debt” — in other words, there’s no way at all that Greece is going to be able to borrow on the private markets for the foreseeable future, so long as this plan is in place.

Magic growth is about right, given Greece is being forced to find 325 billion euros in savings with a GDP that is only 220 billion euros and falling. And yet look at that chart! The cripple, being forced to even further cripple himself, is expected to make a miraculous recovery almost immediately! The wishful thinking of this scenario is simply mind-boggling.

This is what happens when you replace empirical evidence and critical thought with ideology, stupidity parading as sense. Unfortunately for the Greeks, the real world consequences of such are going to be quite painful indeed.



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