Thursday, December 25, 2014

Torture [EBP6].

This document has come to be known colloquially as the CIA torture report.


Merry Christmas!  This isn't at all a festive topic, but it's been on my mind lately, and I've stumbled upon some free time because the people with whom I am spending Christmas don't share my 07:00 start time.  Half an hour ago I discovered the hidden pickle ornament which shall entitle me to the "Pickle Present," when everyone else is awake, and now I'm bored.

Many nation states have tortured prisoners in an attempt to gain intelligence in the past, and I'm sure many will into the future.  Islamic State militants are currently torturing their prisoners using the "waterboarding" technique in an act of vengeance (though I'm sure they would have it framed as reciprocity).  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, United States operatives utilised what have come to be known "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" (EIT) which bear a striking resemblance to what the rest of the civilised world would call "torture."  I'm not going to get into the details, because that isn't the point of this post.

Torture is sort of a heavy topic, so here's a picture of a puppy.  This scruffy fellow's name is Sawyer.

In a move that I am going to applaud, the US Senate reviewed and then publicly disclosed the results the use of EIT, and it's not good (you can find a good summary here).  The long and short of it is that  it did not work nearly as well as had been hoped or represented by the CIA.  Frankly, this doesn't surprise me either.  Part of first year psychology classes includes the lesson that torture doesn't provide useful information because, when under that level of duress, people will say anything to make the pain stop.  This is more or less what was found by the Senate Committee, though the CIA asserts that a known courier to Osama bin Laden was named after the use of EITs on a detainee.

Torture makes for exciting television or movie storylines, and it seems to appeal to a "common sense" notion that hurting people will force them to give up useful intelligence, but in practice it doesn't really work.  Any careful organisation will enforce a "need-to-know" system in which most detainees wouldn't have any useful information anyway.  

That question remains, however, how do you acquire intelligence from a prisoner if not through torture?  They're not supposed to tell you useful information after all, so what do you?  Well, here's a novel, Chistmas-y idea: try being nice to them.  The most interesting sources which I have come across on this topic were in psychology lectures (which might be misremembered, it might be in the text), and in the book "The Defence of the Realm," the authorised history of MI5.  The only source I could easily Google can be found here, and mirrors what I've read elsewhere.  In essence, if you treat a person as hostile, they're less likely to co-operate with you.  If you tell them honestly that they are no longer a combatant (because they aren't), and if you express genuine empathy for their situation, they're far more likely to co-operate.  As mentioned in the source, Hans Scharff was an interrogator for the Luftwaffe in World War II.  He was so successful that some of his US prisoners were tried for treason after the war  because he had gotten so much information out of them.  That's how successful you can be when you don't act like the evil enemy you might be portrayed as.

When I come downstairs in the morning in Belleville (this was taken when I was recovering from hip surgery), Bailey comes to see me and we have a "chat."
It's also worth noting that, though the Republican Party does not widely condemn the use of EIT, prominent Republican John McCain does.  He specifically states that torturing detainees compromises "...that which most distinguishes us from our enemies.  Our belief that all people, even captured enemies, posses basic human rights."  He's absolutely correct.  Specifically now, when Islamic State militants are being condemned for their inhuman acts, it's difficult to maintain the moral high ground while actively torturing prisoners.  So going forward, let's all remember the Christmas spirit, and engage in the evidence-based practice of not torturing people.

"By the way," you might ask, while polishing your monocle, "why did John McCain come out so strongly against torture when the rest of his party did not?"  It probably has to do with the fact that John McCain was tortured in Vietnam.


Suggested reading/watching:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The ideal wedding ring.

What a couple hundred dollars' worth of machining and grade 316 stainless steel looks like.


My mind has been thoroughly wandering lately, and it settled upon an interesting thought experiment a while back: what is the ideal wedding ring?  It appears that I have followed CGP Grey's model, and got so excited about my idea that I wanted to talk to everyone about it, ran out of real-life people who would listen to me, and decided to talk to you, my dear, monocled, top-hatted, stylish, and not at all robot audience.

I'll start by saying that I don't actually judge the choice of wedding rings of others, different types and styles please the eye of the wide variety of people out there.  If your ring makes you happy, I'm happy you're happy.  That said, ladies, pay attention.  If you wish to lock up a man like me (and who wouldn't want that?), you'll need to consider the following.

The standard wedding ring is one or several diamonds mounted on a gold band, both materials of variable purity.  Diamonds specifically have an interesting series of characteristics upon which they are judged, and different impurities will impart different colours to the stone.  Gold, also, will have a variety of other elements present, and its purity is expressed in carats (or 'karats'), because what humanity really needs is another useless unit that could easily be expressed as purity by weight or atomic percentages.

Pictured: an affront to basic human decency and logic.  Source.
Diamonds specifically are a source of ire for me and fellow logical, beautiful man Rob.  To understand why, one must first appreciate many of the world's diamond mines are run by De Beers, a cartel which was close to a monopoly, and maintains generally shady business practices.  This includes withholding stockpiles of diamonds and limiting supply to create an artificially high price, flooding the market with diamonds similar to its competitors to drive them out of business, and keeping a limited, approved number of purchasers.  Generally, diamonds are not worth nearly as much as we pay for them because the supply is deliberately limited.

Further, the diamond ring as a wedding/engagement ring was a product of marketing in the early twentieth century.  Where wedding or engagement bands would often feature gemstones like rubies (because rubies are red, and red so obviously equals love), it was drilled into the consumer that diamonds were forever, and families were encouraged to purchase them to use as valuable heirlooms (despite the fact that the resale market is horrendous).  Young women especially were told to expect a diamond if the chap in question really loved her, and the films of the time ended up featuring many a luxurious diamond.

So diamonds.  They're not worth nearly what we pay for them, and the reason we expect them is entirely due to marketing.  And on the note of marketing, specifically that which says diamonds are forever.  Diamonds are less energetically stable than graphite (the stuff in your pencil), and over the course of the universe, diamonds will slowly but surely decay into graphite.  Not at all the symbolism you want in a wedding band.

Now, let's tackle gold.  Gold is known as a noble metal, it is quite unreactive and as a result can be found in veins underground in its natural state.  This is quite unlike the more reactive metals like aluminum (or aluminium, if we're sticking to IUPAC standards) which can be found almost exclusively as a mineral which requires refining to reduce to a metal.  Human beings have long prized gold for its shininess, the fact we can find it in its natural state, and its malleability (the pure stuff is very soft, which is why you see Olympic athletes biting their medals).  In fact, these all make gold useful for coins, and that's basically why we like gold so much.  Its resistance to corrosion and good conductivity make it useful for electronics, and it has some fringe uses in chemical catalysts, but that's about all the uses that gold has for us.  In an excellent episode of The Invisible Hand, they discuss the relative merits of gold and chickens as currency in a post-apocalyptic society.  A conclusion of the show was that gold is only valuable because it has been so intrinsically tied to coinage and worth for so long, its value is almost entirely ascribed.  Frankly, it might as well be a tulip for all the good it does us.

Aqua Regia.  Source.

An interesting consequence of gold's nobility is that very few things can dissolve it.  Aqua regia is one such acidic mixture, hydrochloric acid combined with nitric acid.  In fact, there's a neat story in that Wikipedia post about some Nobel Laureates fleeing prior to Nazi invasion.  A Hungarian chemist named Hevesy dissolved the gold medallions in aqua regia so that they wouldn't be discovered, and after the war he returned to find the solutions untouched.  The gold was recovered, and the medallions re-struck.  But I digress.  Gold dissolves in only a few things, and aqua regia is one of them.

This, of course brings me to the ideal wedding ring material: stainless steel.  Stainless steel is built on the foundation of steel, iron combined with just enough carbon to make it hard and durable.  Stainless steel is quite a hard metal, very tough, very durable.  This is combined with various amounts of chromium and molybdenum to protect it from corrosion.  Specifically, as steel undergoes corrosive attack, the iron will be eaten away with comparative ease, but the chromium and molybdenum will not.  They will remain and gradually build a resistant layer which will protect the integrity of the base material.  It's not unlike a marriage, really.  It's a bit vulnerable in the beginning, but it gets tougher and more protected the longer it lasts, the more tests it faces.

Axes titles say it all, really.  Source.

And, to deal with the idea of "forever."  Above is a figure depicting the average binding energy per nucleon (a proton or neutron) vs the number of nucleons in a nucleus.  You'll notice that right up at the top there, you have iron.  The long and short of this figure is how much energy is holding a nucleus today.  The elements at either side of the chart, hydrogen and uranium, are both nuclear fuels and will release tremendous amounts of energy, particularly when in bomb form.  Iron, however, will not.  Iron and nickel are two of the most stable elements in the universe.  Nickel is only slightly more stable, but apparently is less abundant because of the mechanisms which nuclear reactions follow.  Despite being more stable, it's easier for stars to fuse the elements into iron than nickel.  Isn't science neat?

So, let's talk about how long forever will be.  The universe will meet one of three ends: it will expand until it falls back upon itself; it will expand to a point where it eventually stops and rests; or it will expand into infinity for all of time.  My two cents is that the first scenario (the heat death of the universe), doesn't seem terribly likely given that the universe's expansion is accelerating.  The other two scenarios will end with the universe expanding and cooling until it meets an icy end.  The only way that iron is converted into a heavier element is if it is found in the heart of a star before a supernova.  Explosive star death is the source of all the elements heavier than iron, because energy is required to fuse these more massive elements.  As the outer layers of a star collapse upon its core, the tremendous heat will fuse the heaviest elements and the explosion will fling them outwards.  So unless your wedding ring finds itself in the heart of a supernova (unlikely), the iron from the steel will last into the most literal form of eternity that we can comprehend.

So what have we learned?  Diamonds are locked in an artificial market, will gradually decay into graphite, and are only strongly desired because of strong marketing.  Gold, similarly is only as valuable as it is because we lose our collective minds when we see sparkly things.  Even at the end of that episode of the Invisible Hand, they ask the proponent of gold for his thoughts after explaining the actual value of gold, and his answer basically amounted to "Well, if you're not going to use gold as a currency, what else are you going to use?"  Stainless steel, in contrast, is more than skin-deep beauty.  It is much tougher than soft gold, and it will last the test of time much better than gold.  And speaking from experience, the grade 316 stuff will resist even boiling aqua region for all its worth.  I've spent hours trying to dissolve small filings of it.  That's the kind of symbolism you want in a token of love to one another.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Sexual Harassment on the Hill. And the CBC. Probably everywhere, really.

Jian Ghomeshi at the Vancouver taping of Q.  Source.


Boy have things hit the fan lately.  Suddenly, and seemingly without warning on the 26th of October, Jian Ghomeshi leaves a rather lengthy post on his Facebook wall.  He claimed that a jilted ex-girlfriend was engaged in a smear campaign against him and that the CBC was groundlessly dismissing him after his faithful service on Q.  All because he has a taste for rough sex.

As it turns out, he voluntarily showed a photo to his superiors that proved he had caused physical harm to a woman, to the point that it had left marks.  The rumour mill is working overtime on this matter, and I would like to wait for the court proceedings (he is suing CBC for wrongful dismissal), until making my mind up.  That said, it appears that many women were harassed by Ghomeshi on the set of Q.  And, as an interesting legal note, under Canadian law it is impossible to consent to anything that will leave a mark, making anything he has done which left a mark a felony.

Not long after, a press conference was called on Parliament Hill.  Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, announced that he was suspending Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti for "personal misconduct" pending an investigation.  It soon came to light, though the source remains unknown, that they had been suspended for the sexual harassment of two female NDP Members of Parliament.

Criticism was swift and plentiful.  My first reaction, before I knew the allegations, was that Trudeau had jumped the gun.  The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone is, in fact, a thing that the Canadian judiciary is kind of big on.  Suspending the members before an investigation seemed premature at best.

It has since been revealed that the two MPs in question approached Trudeau with their allegations, which were supported by fellow Grit Craig Scott.  Trudeau approached NDP leader Tom Mulcair and discussed the situation.  They agreed that suspension would be the best course of action.  However, to protect the anonymity of the NDP MPs, the nature of the allegations would go unsaid.

As I previously said, and especially after the nature of the allegations were leaked, criticism was swift and plentiful.  However, it was not the kind I expected.  There has been a lot of criticism of the decision of Trudeau to "go public."  Megan Leslie and Nycole Turmel, NDP deputy leader and party whip respectively, reported that the publicity will re-victimise the women in question.  Leslie reports that Mulcair was made aware of the situation and asked the women how they wanted to proceed and respected their right to privacy.  Turmel echoed that women were not given their privacy.  However, one of the MPs approached Trudeau, and the rest of the story was set in motion.  

Trudeau reports that once someone approached him with this information that he felt a responsibility to act, and frankly I agree with him.  I'll briefly pause here and say it's easy for me, a male, to judge the situation from the outside and decide what's right and wrong.  I won't pretend to know what it's like.  Leslie suggested that possible alternative solutions would include things like ensuring that the female MPs in question would not have to work on committee with Andrews and Pacetti, or give them areas in which Andrews and Pacetti are not allowed.  This sounds to me like sweeping it under the rug.  Ignoring the problem in hopes that it will go away.  This is the sort of action that leads to the perpetuation of an alleged "old boys' club."  It is only by firm, decisive action that you challenge the culture of a place, and it is only by challenging a toxic culture that it might be changed.

Trudeau at wedding photo shoot.  Source.

At the very least, as Leslie pointed out on The House (excellent program, highly recommend), these events have prompted a national conversation on things like rape culture and consent.  It all seems obvious to me, but apparently we live in a society with a lot of idiots that don't understand how consent works, or that "no" does, in fact, mean "no."  For me, in brings to mind the ridiculous rant of Sun Media's Ezra Levant, in which he railed against Trudeau because of the photo above.   I'm not linking to the video because I don't think it deserves the web traffic, which is ultimately supporting him and his network financially.  Levant specifically asked how the new bride's father must feel, or how her husband would feel after this photo, and went as far as to suggest that Trudeau felt he was entitled to the droit du seigneur, which [allegedly] gave lords the right to have sexual relations and/or take the virginity of subordinate women.  Two things on that note: despite the fame of "prima nocta" in Braveheart, there is no evidence to suggest that such a law was ever on the books, let alone exercised.  Second, Levant did stipulate that he doesn't think Trudeau actually had sex with the bride, because that makes it better.

However, Levant never once mentioned the feelings of the bride.  He didn't seem to give a second thought to the idea that she is indeed a person, from whom consent was obtained before the photograph was taken.  He didn't even think that maybe all parties had harmless fun.  Probably because he was too busy with partisan hackery to think of the bride as a person, and I think that might speak to the larger issue in a distinct subset of our society.

I'll close here by pondering another of Leslie's points from her interview on The House. She mentioned that she has a colleague whose hair is constantly being touched, and that she never saw people going around touching the hair of her male peers.  My hair is long and curly, and I am often asked for permission to touch it.  I always grant it, to keep the glory of these luscious locks to myself would be profoundly unfair.  Perhaps in some cases, people like touching long hair and that's the end of it.  Perhaps we're getting closer to living in a country where we don't have to fear sexual harassment or even assault in the workplace.  Unfortunately though, the events of the past month would indicate we still have a way to go.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Income Splitting

Economist Kevin Milligan's take on income splitting.  Source.

Income splitting has been in the news lately, as happens with a lot of things I blog about.  The last time the Harper Conservatives were elected, a promise was made that as soon as the budged had been balanced, income splitting would be introduced for tax relief purposes.  For a campaign promise made almost four years ago, this is certainly stirring up a lot of controversy.

So for those of you wondering, income splitting has to do with taxes and tax brackets.  The more money you make, the higher a percentage of your income the government collects in taxes.  Now, in families with two working parents making different amounts of money, up to $50,000 was promised to be allowed to be "shared," or "given" to the lower-earning partner to lower the tax  burden on the higher-taxed partner.

In response to this promise, the graph at the top of the page was created.  Kevin Milligan, an economist I follow on twitter, proceeded to work out the tax savings based on primary earner v. secondary earner income.  As you'll no doubt notice, it pays off very well for those with one very high earner and one low earner (though the benefit is capped at $2000, but my understanding is that the details weren't widely known when Milligan first released the graphic).  That's the problem that a lot of economists and policy makers have with this plan.

His comments were measured and diplomatic, but set off a huge debate.  Source - CTV News.

As dutifully as he towed the Tory flag, Jim Flaherty himself mere months before he died started to publicly criticise this plan.  This is likely due to the fact that less a politician and more a public servant, in my opinion.  The source attached to that interview references a study out of the CD Howe institute which found that roughly 85% of Canadians would see no benefit whatsoever.  In fact, though I cannot remember quite who said it (though it sounds like something @MikePMoffat would post), an economist's tweet shortly after the scheme was announced went something along the lines of "It seems like the only people benefiting from income splitting will be university professors.  I'm hearing a lot of 'Oh yeah, it helps almost nobody but I'm going to save a BUNCH of money on my taxes!'"

Now, this income-splitting scheme only benefits 15% of Canadians, but that could be relatively harmless if we're hoping to lower the tax burden on the stereotypical nuclear family.  However, the reason that this plan ruffles so many feathers is that the price tag is pegged at about $2.5 billion.  Billion with a B.  To quote Rick Mercer, that's a lotta poutine.  And given that the Canadian federal government's expenditures in 2011-12 were roughly $217 billion, this would represent over 1% of the budget.  This also represents almost the entirety of the projected budget surplus, and it's a lot to transfer to already wealthier families.

Finally, the first cheque is slated to hit Canadian families next July, just before the next election.  This has been pointed out by almost all the analysts I've listened to, and it certainly seems politically convenient to say the least.


Edit: The benefit is capped at $2000, thanks, Mike!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Beer Store needs to die.

The only thing it's good for is hilarious photo-ops.  Source.

Most frequenters of my blog, [those attractive, be-monocled, top-hat wearing ladies and gentlemen] will probably realise that I like beer.  No doubt some of you know that I have been known to brew my own, seek out new and exciting brews, and sometimes indulge a little too enthusiastically.  It would then logically follow that, as with almost everything else in the world, I think about beer more than many would deem necessary or even reasonable.  It is due to this combination of borderline obsessive behaviour and my leisure reading that I have come to the conclusion that The Beer Store needs to die, and I hope you will too!

"Now why," you say, "would you want The Beer Store to end?"  Well, you attractive and intelligent reader, let me tell you how the Beer Store came to be.  It was the most magical time in the 1920s, Prohibition had been repealed!  But, in keeping with the Puritan-esque traditions, many were cursed with the fear that someone, somewhere, might enjoy themselves.  In fairness, many fathers were drinking away their paycheques at the local bar and/or beating members of their families, but it seems likely this was due to larger societal/social/psychological issues moreso than the fact that beer was available to people.  So, to placate those upset that beer was once again to be sold, in 1927 Ontario decided to found Brewer's Retail, a consortium of Ontario beer brewers that would sell their wares in a heavily controlled manner, similar to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.  Please note that Brewer's Retail is not a government-owned institution like the LCBO, but is owned by the brewers themselves.

Now, this made sense at the time.  The citizens demanded controls over the sale of beer, and Ontario brewers opened a retail system which would facilitate controlled sales.  However, about 90 years has elapsed and the situation has changed ever so slightly.  Whereas The Beer Store was owned by Ontarians to serve Ontarians, the ownership group has shifted via acquisitions to be 49% ownership each to Labatt's and Molson, and 2% ownership by Sleeman's.  Still doesn't seem that bad, right?  I mean, they're all Canadian brewers, right?  Wrong.  Labatt's is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson is the international Molson-Coors, and Sleeman's is owned by Sapporo.  So suddenly the ownership is spread over the entire globe and the profits from Brewer's Retail is not flowing back into Ontarian coffers unless you're buying beer directly from a local brewery.

Not surprisingly, politicians and writers alike have noticed this profound tomfoolery and called for an end to Brewer's Retail.  Again, unsurprisingly, The Beer Store has released Ontario Beer Facts, which makes the following [mostly ludicrous] assertions:

Pictured: An international conglomerate with a sweetheart deal soils its trousers.
On the first point: The Beer Store keeps consumer prices low?  Really?  Is that why Ontarians flock across the border to Québec to buy beer?  Even Wikipedia has an entry which points out that pre-tax costs are lower in La Belle Province.  And don't tell me that it's due to lower consumer demand, because a combination of anecdote and observation that Canadian francophones are no strangers to inebriation.  I can't see why the second point is valid either, private industry (particularly specialty stores), is perfectly capable of offering niche products to the masses.  And, with increased sales and lower prices, the tax revenue should go up for the province, as has been demonstrated by every other province that has privatised beer sales.  And increased sales to minors?  I'm not sure on that point, but I've seen plenty of convenience stores that check IDs quite rigorously for tobacco sales for fear of losing their license.  I have no reason to believe this would be any different.

The only thing good about The Beer Store is the recycling system, as they capture upwards of 90% of recyclable materials.  That said, I think Ontario should introduce a system like Alberta's Bottle Depot which encourages recycling of everything, not just beer or liquor bottles.

And, as a brief aside, I will tell you that some great resources to learn about beer are the Stuff You Should Know podcast on the subject, and a thoroughly enjoyable Future Chat webcast where the cousins Attrell and I talked about beer.  And, as I'm sure I mentioned there (or perhaps in a previous My Utopia post), I find it fascinating that beer is roughly as old as agriculture, and thus civilisation itself.  Therefore, I feel that beer should be the recipient of the ultimate grandfather clause in our society.  Beer used to be the source of clean drinking water, and some of our oldest texts contain instructions for brewing beer.  Beer has been so tightly bound with Western society that it should be nigh on a human right, and government intervention should be minimal.  Save of course for consumer regulations like the Bavarian Purity Laws of 1516, because regulations are a good thing.

In recent days, news has come out that rather than abolish the whole thing, the Wynne government might just increase taxation of Brewer's Retail so that their $700 million in annual profits might be reduced ever so slightly.  Frankly, I'm joining with the other voices which call for an end to this non-governmental monopoly.  Free the market and allow Ontarians to be awash in cheap, delicious beer.  Tax revenue will increase, Ontario breweries should see increased business and the world will be a better place.  Please enjoy responsibly.


Edit (2014-11-04): Since the comment in question appears to have been deleted (or not shared publicly) after I received a notification e-mail, I'll leave them anonymous.  However, they did raise a concern with my use of the $700 million figure, and it is now cited.  The study in question found the average price difference for a 24 pack of Molson Canadian to be $9.50 and extrapolated this towards the sum in question, which I grant seems like terrible methodology.  Another study discussed here says that the price gap is much lower when taxes are considered (about $3.34 as opposed to $9.50 with taxes considered, though that still seems a tidy profit).  However, the first study was sponsored by the Ontario Convenience Store Association (which would like very much to sell said beer), and the second study was funded by the multinationals that own Brewer's Retail.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Bigger, Better Canada Appendix I: Details and Maps [MUt3.1]

Proposed larger settlements (green circles) and infrastructure extensions (black lines) in the larger Development Corridor.


When I was in secondary school, I looked around at the global economic powerhouses and noticed a trend.  The ones I identified were the United States, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China.  I noticed that they were big countries, and had something that Canada did not: population density.  I hypothesized in my young mind that certainly Europe could become a larger global player if they formed some sort of economic union, and felt vindicated when I later discovered that the European Union was indeed a thing, though it had been conceived long before I had any such idea.  So I thought to myself that certainly Canada could become a larger economic power if her more northern climes were developed.  How?  My thought process was that, if a temporary tax-free zone were established, surely private industry would step in and establish the necessities.  It was awfully short on details, but in fairness I think I was 16 when I had this idea.

Naturally, when I found out about the concept of the Mid-Canada Corridor, I was quite excited despite having had the idea several decades too late.  This is the reason I was so disappointed after writing my last post.  There was so much more detail that I wanted to share, but I couldn't decide on how to present the information to you fine be-monocled, top hat wearing readers and still maintain some semblance of flow.  I had, in my opinion, given a hand-waving argument about available resources and given no specific detail on how it would be accomplished (not unlike my 16 year old self's argument).  Luckily, the authors of "Mid-Canada Development Corridor ... a concept" had given this thought and drawn many a pretty map.  Here, I shall share with you some maps and thoughts I didn't want to include in the last post.  It may look like a long post, but at this point in its composition, I assume it will be graphic-heavy and very a very readable length.

The two maps above are the economic impetus for the development of the corridor outlined at the top of this post.  You will notice that the mineral- and fuel-bearing rocks are quite complimentary.  I have heard how resource rich Canada is, but I had no idea that this was the extent of it.  Each of those minerals and fuels are economically important in their own way, and the exploitation of each would certainly bring wealth and prosperity to the region as well as the entirety of Canada. These two maps I view as the reason to establish the Corridor, or at least the economic reason.  Below, I feel the method of development may be established.

The road coverage as of 1967 certainly leaves something to be desired, but the rail networks seem to offer reasonable coverage of the Corridor, albeit mostly with single track.  Air transportation has excellent coverage of the Corridor and would be an ideal way to ferry people quickly.  With this ability to move people via air and freight by rail (and as I've previously stated, rail is great for freight), it seems reasonable to assume that settlement could be established easily enough.  It is also interesting to note that the Lakehead-produced report suggested use of cargo hovercraft to deal with over-land transport of lighter goods where there are no roads or railways, which is wonderful in all sorts of ways.

Easily one of my favourite written sections from the book.
That said, I feel that the aluminum airship (established with a large R&D contribution from the US government) could play a pivotal role in the development of the Corridor.  Recent articles from Gizmodo and the crew at Stuff You Should Know have touched on airships.  The article from Gizmodo discusses the development of an aluminum-based rigid airship which requires no runways and is capable of carrying 66 tons.  The SYSK podcast linked above discusses the ludicrous fuel efficiency of airships, capable of  crossing an appreciable fraction of the Earth's circumference with the same fuel it takes for a fixed wing aircraft to simply reach cruising altitude.  And, while we're here, welcome to Vodka & Equations!  It's the blog that scoffs at cargo hovercrafts while heaping praise upon modern-day dirigibles.

The last thing that would help development of the Corridor immensely is water.  Primarily, water is kinda, sorta necessary for human life.  One of those limiting factors when you're considering human settlement.  You will notice that the proposed corridor should have plentiful water resources, and should do nicely for providing drinking water so long as we don't treat it like Lake Erie.  I will also take this opportunity to draw your attention to the undeveloped hydroelectricity potential.  In keeping with the theme of things I've proposed which have, in fact, been discussed decades previous, it would appear that I was right in suggesting that Ontario should have potential hydro projects near James Bay should they prove necessary.  As previously noted in this blog, hydro power delivers phenomenal energy return on energy invested (roughly 100:1 according to whatever source I was reading).  Québec and other places uses such large energy sources to run aluminum smelters because of the incredibly intense energy demand because it is plentiful, reliable, and comparatively inexpensive.  It is terribly convenient that metal ores can only be smelted near hydroelectricity sources, and we happen to have both those things right there.

Another issue I'd like to briefly touch on is that of the native reserves in Northern Canada.  This is a wild guess on my part, but I feel as though part of the problem with the delivery of services, and thus the low quality of life, to many reserves is the fact that they are so far away from the major urban centers.  Perhaps if the Corridor were developed they would have an easier time getting social services and our reserves wouldn't be so horrific?

The picture at the top of this post indicates with green circles smaller established areas which could be dramatically expanded to serve further settlement, and I will briefly [with tongue firmly planted in cheek]  point out that it is awfully self-serving for a Lakehead publication to suggest Thunder Bay as a region of dramatic expansion.  The thick black line indicates possible extensions to existing infrastructure.  It also features existing usable road and railway, but I sincerely doubt that it is possible to pick out such small details.  Hopefully with these details outlined, my previous post will seem more feasible, at least economically speaking.  There's a lot of potential up there, we just have to seize the opportunity.

Oh, and I'm sure some switchgrass plantations wouldn't go amiss.  Those are great for all kinds of things.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Bigger, Better Canada [MUt3]

We can do it, but we'll have to go North.  Pack your snowshoes.


I've often described Canada's economic system as being "a kinder, gentler capitalism."  We have no doubt benefited from having a dominant superpower and its domestic market as a customer for our vast natural resources.  We have come from a group of fur trappers, loggers and miners to being an advanced economy as well as loggers and miners, thank you very much.  That said, for as much land as we have, Canada is only a nation of roughly 35 million people, leaving us as one of the least densely populated countries on the planet.

Historically, Canada's accomplishments have always looked best on a per capita basis.  We tend to punch above our weight as a people, and has given rise to the functional principle.  We are not a superpower, nor does it currently look like we will be one in the future.  That said, Canada may contend with the world leaders in key functions.  This is evidenced by our presence in things like the G7 nations, and our participation in world leading scientific and technological endeavours.  For example, you may take the Canadian Light Source pictured below.  It is a synchrotron light source (an excellent example of a big science thing).  I could go into the vast technical details, but it is extremely useful in a wide variety of applications from biological imaging to even construction materials.  Canada has one of only a handful in the entire world (which are this good), and it is the best used in the world based on access given to researchers and industrial partners/clients.

The Canadian Light Source, big science thing extraordinaire.

Our accomplishments are many and impressive.  I firmly believe that this is due to our unique combination of capitalism and kindness.  We grew out of a country whose winter alone would kill us unmercifully were we to not work together and take care of one another.  Our social programs help to ensure that many of the economically disadvantaged may prosper and thus contribute to an impressive economy.  Now imagine if there were more of us.  A lot more.

When Wilfred Laurier began his settlement of Western Canada, he envisioned a Canada numbering 60 million.  We... well, your monocles may drop in surprise at this, but we have thus far fallen short.  Currently, a good number to strive for would appear to be 100 million.  For the gaming-savvy, a variety of achievements might be unlocked at this level.  Canada's density poses a problem, because our markets are so few and far between and building the infrastructure to go between these urban centers is cumbersome and costly.  Militarily speaking, it also means that large sections of the country could be conquered by simply marching through it.  Services like health care and even internet in some cases are hard to deliver because there isn't enough of a market to warrant building the facilities.  Even economically, we have a very limited domestic market when you consider our economic output.  When a Canadian company wants to make something, it has to ensure that someone else will buy it.  It is hypothesized that a domestic market of 100 million people would begin to make us more independent of the rest of the world, and a people as economically prosperous as us would make for excellent consumers.

We are heavily concentrated at the bottom of our country, apparently clinging to the United States.  The article from the Globe and Mail linked in the paragraph above (and here, if you're lazy) makes excellent points on the matter, but I feel it falls short on an action plan.  The suggestion is that we massively boost immigration before developing countries reach economic prosperity and begin to experience shrinking populations.  These new Canadians would then go to existing cities, achieving a density which would alleviate our problems of sprawl and unlock tax bases which could fund truly inspiring projects.  However, this still leaves our major urban centers few and far between, and there's also the issue that these new Canadians would need something to do.

 To the north of our largest settlements, there exists mid-Canada.  It is not the far North, where trees refuse to grow and you have to be wary of the bears.  It is not the South, where the factories thump and farms flourish.  It is a land south of the permafrost, rich in natural resources and potential.  It is a vast corridor of potential wealth waiting to be unleashed.

As a centennial project [from which I am heavily borrowing], researchers at Lakehead University suggested the "Mid-Canada Development Corridor."  This has happened if only to a small extent in the intermittent period.  Fort McMurray is an example of what the corridor could offer, but larger and more extensive.  The idea would be to establish permanent settlements along mid-Canada that could take advantage of several natural resources to provide a diverse economic base and fuel development before other economic activities arise.  The hope would be that these larger communities would follow the example of settlement in Northern Ontario.  Roads were installed, logging camps were made which cleared out land and created income, eventually developing into permanent settlement.  Our nation's capital, Ottawa, originally started as a logging settlement.

This region of Canada is currently short on roadway coverage.  That said, there is good air and rail coverage.  This means that people may be carried by air until roads catch up, and there appears to be an extensive rail network which can provide efficient rail freight transport.  The majority of this corridor is the Canadian Shield and is rich in a variety of minerals as well as untapped hydroelectricity, which has a fantastic EROEI and would do very well for fueling both development and potentially the smelting of ore.  The only real exception to this is the Tundra and Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the primary resource are oil, natural gas, or both.  As an interesting note, it was proposed that these settlements could follow the example of Siberian communities which have gas-heated greenhouses to supply fresh produce in the winter.  That said, with enough timber around it might be easier to use rocket mass heaters for those greenhouses.

By developing this corridor, Canada would unlock both vast swaths of natural resources which currently sit untapped, as well as the pseudo-magical 100 million tax base to further fuel our development.  Remote communities would not be so remote, and could be better served.  Perhaps some countries would take our claims to the our Arctic archipelago more seriously.  Better yet, if our per capita wealth keeps pace as we continue to nurture and encourage every single Canadian, we could become an economic heavyweight and become a major player on the world stage.  A nation as great as ours basically owes the world more Canadians.  And then there's the fact that we already produce the world's best hockey players, and a larger population would allow us to be even more selective.  Think of the hockey.

If nothing else, think of the hockey we could have.


Update (2014-09-22): Part 2 of my Mid-Canada Ramblings may be found here.

N.B.  This may end up being a living document for a couple days.  I keep forgetting to add important details.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Washroom Graffiti: A Bellwether.

As long as we've been humans, we've been putting stuff on available walls. Source.


This will be a comparatively small post, but it's back-to-school season and I've been thinking about this particular phenomenon a lot.  Naturally, I'd love some [G+] feedback below because I am genuinely curious to hear your thoughts, but I assume the comments section will be a barren wasteland as per usual.

When I attended the University of Ottawa, for better or worse, I did not spend a tonne of time in Morriset Library.  However, when I had those marathon study sessions with my friends, or when I spent many consecutive days in there to study or work on a project, washroom visits became a necessity.  I would also like to pause here and congratulate my alma mater on keeping a proper coffee shop (i.e. Second Cup) in its main library.  While visiting these stalls, as with many stalls, one would find graffiti.  I'd say that I never gave it much thought, but frankly, the Morriset washroom graffiti was legitimately thought provoking.  Catalogued within those stalls were actual philosophical or moral debates, rebuttals below the original post and often in a different colour.   Sometimes they would be motivational slogans.  Often, because it was and is a bilingual institution, the commentary was in both English and French.  And once in the washrooms in the Marion basement men's room, there was a zig-zag line which was subsequently decorated with functional groups and ultimately the IUPAC name of the molecule which this drawing had become.

This picture is now everywhere on the internet, so I can't be sure of the original source.  But still, hilarious.

As with most interesting phenomena I come across, I discussed this with my friends.  That was the time at which I realised that this was not par for the course.  Having now attended Western University, I have also discovered that the overwhelming majority of graffiti at other institutions is not necessarily of the same calibre and is mostly homophobic slurs paired, ironically, with oftentimes vast and elaborate depictions of the male genitalia.  That said, it has been reported that there can be [extremely] encouraging messages left in the washrooms of Carleton (pictured below).  This raises several questions.  I wonder how much of Carleton's graffiti is more up-beat and how much is philosophical, as it seems to be a happy place, albeit an intellectual black hole as far as the anecdotes are concerned.  As I write that last statement, I can already hear the heated retort that "... well at least I don't speak French!"

Seen at Carleton by Rebecca Hay, artist and founder of the Just One Thing mental health initiative.

Digressions aside, this raises further questions for me.  Ottawa, Carleton, Wilfred Laurier, and Western are known by outsiders as: snooty and miserable; happy and a cognitive wasteland; happy party school; happy party school.  Their graffiti is thought provoking, motivational, homophobic slurs, and homophobic slurs respectively.  But what is the story elsewhere?  I highly encourage you to leave a comment below (so that all may peruse), with the perception of your school and the predominant graffiti you encounter.  Finally, should you find yourself looking at an institution at which to study, go to the washroom and enter a stall.  It could tell you a lot about the place.


Monday, September 1, 2014

"This could get ugly," or why Russia scares me.

Satellite imagery showing Russian tanks in Ukrainian sovereign territory.  Source.

I'll start by saying that this post might in fact be needlessly alarmist.  I'll also say that I might be hopelessly overreacting.  However, this blog was created as an outlet for my thoughts, and I plan to leave this post up in perpetuity in order to document my reactions and feelings from late August 2014.  Now, on with the hysterics.

On the 21st of August 2014, NATO released satellite imagery of Russian tanks in Ukrainian sovereign territory.  This was after an outright annexation of the Crimean peninsula almost immediately after the conclusion of the winter Olympic games in Sochi.  At the time, I likened it to the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.

Pictured: Hysterics.

In fact, I was so concerned about the situation in Crimea that, while high on pain killers the next day, I kept demanding updates on the situation in Crimea from a very patient nursing staff.  In both cases, the invading country cited a need to assimilate an ethnic minority and to protect them.  An excellent rebuttal to this was provided by a research associate who exclaimed "Seriously?  Why doesn't Ukraine march in to claim the ethnic Ukrainians in Saskatchewan?  That's a terrible argument!"

The western world has responded with economic sanctions.  In the face of this most recent incursion, threats of increased, more serious sanctions have been leveled.  I am not certain that sanctions will be enough, as Russia functioned just fine as the Soviet Union for several decades without help from the outside world.

I'm also reminded of a rant I had about five years ago at the Black Tomato in Ottawa.  Excellent beer selection on tap, should you find yourself in the Byward Market.  I had just been prodded on the subject of Russia, and I immediately launched into several reasons why I didn't trust the governing regime.  They came quickly and easily to mind.

Viktor Yushenko, third President of Ukraine. Source.

Yushenko was a politician aiming for the presidency of Ukraine on a platform of aligning Ukraine more closely with the West as opposed to its historically close ties with Russia.  The pro-Russian opponent won the election, but soon thereafter widespread allegations of election fraud abounded.  Ukraine actually underwent what is known as the Orange Revolution in the wake of the fraudulent election which ultimately saw Yushenko take the presidency.  However, Yushenko did not escape the election unscathed.  See his cheeks in that picture?  Those pock marks are the result of dioxin poisoning.  Mysterious circumstances surround this, but the perpetrators were pro-Russian if not actually Russian.  Also, on the topic of election fraud, here's a paper on detecting election fraud, and how the 2011 Russian election fits a model for systematic stuffing of ballot boxes.

Alexander Litvenenko.  Source.
Alexander Litvenenko was once an agent of the Soviet Union's spy agency the KGB.  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he became involved in the nation's security forces (or something, honestly I'm not really clear on it).  Then what happened?  Suddenly he became critical of the leadership, and was allegedly dismissed on direct orders from Putin.  Not long after, he defied an order not to leave the country and sought asylum in the United Kingdom.  While there, he became a journalist and started hurling accusations of corruption at the new Russian government, potentially attempting to blackmail some of the higher up officials.  Whatever the facts, it was bad enough that somebody wanted him dead.  That party got what they wanted.  Litvenenko ultimately died of Cold War-style polonium poisoning, leaving him the shell of a man you see above.

So admittedly one could never make a case against Russia on these two cases.  Anyone could have been the one to poison either of them, and not necessary due to Putin's actions.  However, one can begin to notice a trend.  You're critical of Russia, and things start going poorly for you.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia is currently the fifth deadliest place to be a journalist.  What's above Russia on that list?  Iraq, Philippines, Syria, Algeria.  So a couple active war zones.

The other cases that came to mind that night in Ottawa?  There's the issue that Russian fighters keep entering Canadian airspace and require an escort.  To wit: Russian aircraft thrice entered Finnish airspace last week.  Also?  That time that Russia cut off the gas supply to Europe due to a pricing dispute.  It's worth noting that the Ukrainian president which signed the deal that ultimately made the gas flow once more was indicted for abuse of power as a result of signing that deal.

I'd also like to point out that NATO appears to be chomping at the bit.  NATO was the authority who released satellite images of a Russian incursion into Ukraine.  NATO was also created as a mutual defense scheme to deter attack from the Soviet Union (or any other aggressor, but it's doubtful any other world power would choose to pick a fight with NATO).  Ukraine has also made an emergency decision to attempt to join the treaty organisation, and has asked for its assistance in driving Russian forces from its territory.  This is in stark contrast to their anti-NATO position which they have more or less solidly held since 2002.  But for now, the international community appears happy to stay with sanctions.

Frankly, I'm not sure Putin will cave to external political pressure.  He has proven himself to be an exceedingly strong leader and thus has a history of getting what he wants; I'm not sure anything short of military force will remove Russian military vehicles from Ukraine.  On the other hand, maybe economic sanctions will work.  Or will economic sanctions make Russia increasingly desperate?  We shall see.  Hopefully we'll laugh about this in five years, and my friends will be reading this article aloud as a method of amused derision.


P.S.  I really hope that was an appropriately placed semicolon.

Update: Russian fighters circle Canadian frigate en route to NATO exercise in Black Sea, reminiscent of Cold War-style behaviours.

Update (2014-09-11): Russian forces withdrawing!  WOOOOO!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Energy policy proposals; numbers are hard. [EBP5]

Spillway from the Robert-Bourassa Generating Station in Québec.  Source.


I don't know if any of you will remember this, but I sure do.  During the last Ontario election, I [perhaps mistakenly] recall hearing a lot of politicians calling for Ontario to shutter its nuclear plants due to cost and safety concerns in favour of importing excess energy from our neighbours.  Not only that, but The Star ran an opinion piece echoing what I had heard a lot: rather than expanding and upkeeping Ontario's nuclear generation capacity, we should simply shutter them and import low-cost hydroelectricity from Manitoba and Québec.

Now, on its surface this appears to be a reasonable proposal.  My intelligent, attractive, monocle- and top hat- clad readers will no doubt remember my praise of hydroelectric power based on the energy returned on energy invested.  As a result, the energy is indeed cheap comparatively speaking.  Further, our Francophone friends are exporting a lot of power to New England for less than we pay to generate nuclear power.  There is, however, one problem with this scheme.  There's not enough.

Source, retrieved 2014-08-25-21:30

At any given moment Ontario's nuclear plants, with some of the highest capacity in the world, are generating about 10 GW of power.  That's gigawatts.  To quote the great Rick Mercer, that's alotta poutine.  That's also GW, not GWh.  The -h suffix means "hours" and refers to the amount of energy that has been produced in one hour.  Your energy bill is usually on the order of kWh to refer to the amount of energy that has been used in a few months.  So Ontario is outputting that amount of nuclear power almost constantly, every hour of every day.  That amounts to around half of Ontario's generating capacity, but it will frequently represent a larger fraction of the actual generated energy because of the variable nature of hydro, wind and gas plants.  At the moment shown above, it is sitting at 57% of generated energy, though this is an off-peak hour.

If we look to another Wikipedia page, we can see that the sum total of Québec's energy exports in 2011 amounted to 26,763 GWh.  Based on quick, dirty, back-of-the-envelope calculations, if we took all of that energy at a rate of 10 GW, it would only replace Ontario's nuclear reactors for 112 days.  That's not even a third of a year.  I suppose rough approximations would indicate that that means it's only exporting about 3 GW of power at any given time.  This also assumes that you could convince our neighbour to stop exporting to New England altogether and allowing Ontario to be the exclusive purchaser.

So Québec does not generate enough hydroelectricity to replace Ontario's nuclear reactors.  "But wait!" you shout, slamming your fist on your desk, or perhaps grasping at your forehead, "Manitoba!  Surely Manitoba could help!"  Well, perhaps that's true.  I'll admit, before checking the numbers I was not optimistic, Manitoba not being known for heavy industry or other energy-intensive applications.  As it turns out, my doubts were well-founded.  Manitoba's current hydroelectric capacity is on the order of Québec's exports, as near as this page would suggest.  In 2012, Manitoba's hydroelectric generating capacity was 5485 MW, or just over 5 GW.  In fairness, Manitoba has no need to produce a lot more power unless they want to export, as it would appear that they are meeting over 90% of its demand with hydro alone.

So that we're clear, if Québec diverted all of its energy exports to Ontario, and Manitoba diverted the entirety of its hydroelectricity to Ontario, it still would not be enough to replace Ontario's nuclear generating capacity.  And, while I've got you, I should note that a lot of the drive behind hydroelectric development is from environmentally-conscious types.  It should be noted that all types of energy have an impact, and [as friend-of-the-blog Jeff P. pointed out to me] hydro is no exception.  A reservoir usually needs to be flooded when a dam is installed, which leaches water-soluble chemicals into the water, at least temporarily throwing the local ecosystem out of whack and potentially killing its inhabitants en masse, or negating its usefulness for things like irrigation.  And that's just the nutrients.  The American eel is, conservatively speaking, near-extinct in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers because they have been turned into pink slime by turbines.

Not nearly as cute as it is threatened.  Source.

Manitoba, as it turns out, is also planning a large number of developments along the Nelson River, which could double its generating capacity in the future.  This is not unlike how Québec wound up with such a large generating capacity, in the 1960s and 1970s they built several large hydroelectric generating stations near James Bay (just off Hudson's Bay, into which the Nelson River drains).  It would appear then, that if Ontario truly wants to replace its [big, scary] nuclear generating capacity with hydroelectricity, more needs to be developed within Ontario.  The problem with that is that, as I understand it, all the commercially viable hydroelectric sites in southern Ontario are already developed.  To generate enough to replace its nukes, Ontario might in fact have to turn to the Arctic watershed as Manitoba and Québec have done, Ontario also having access to James and Hudson's Bays.  It would take a lot of transmission lines to get the power from the North to its southern markets, but that is the nature of these things.  Ontario needs to decide as a province whether it wants to continue with nuclear power or develop cheap hydroelectric capacity where possible.

It would likely take decades of investment, like in Québec, but could potentially be worth it with the promise of cheap power in an industry-heavy province currently struggling with high energy prices.  Sure would have made a nice post-2008 Keynesian* stimulus project.


* Keynes proposed that stimulus projects should focus on public infrastructure because even if the spending failed to stimulate the economy as hoped, at the very least you'd be left with things you needed anyway.