Whither democracy?

February 26th, 2015

SF author, Charles Stross, has been working on some near-future SF recently and thinking a lot about what could happen in the next twenty five years or so. He’s not optimistic. Start at the beginning, work your way through his train of thought, and see how you feel.

  1. We’re living in an era of increasing automation. And it’s trivially clear that the adoption of automation privileges capital over labour (because capital can be substituted for labour, and the profit from its deployment thereby accrues to capital rather than being shared evenly across society).
  2. A side-effect of the rise of capital is the financialization of everything—capital flows towards profit centres and if there aren’t enough of them profits accrue to whoever can invent some more (even if the products or the items they’re guaranteed against are essentially imaginary: futures, derivatives, CDOs, student loans).
  3. Since the collapse of the USSR and the rise of post-Tiananmen China it has become glaringly obvious that capitalism does not require democracy. Or even benefit from it. Capitalism as a system may well work best in the absence of democracy.
  4. The iron law of bureaucracy states that for all organizations, most of their activity will be devoted to the perpetuation of the organization, not to the pursuit of its ostensible objective. (This emerges organically from the needs of the organization’s employees.)

The Canadian government’s war on science

February 25th, 2015

I knew it was bad, but the extent of the current Canadian government’s war on science is appalling.  John Dupuis, Science Librarian at Steacie Science & Engineering Library, York University, Toronto, has done us all favour by compiling what he calls a “brief chronology” of our government’s ideological hate campaign against evidence-based decision making. I wish it was brief; sadly, it’s not.

As is occasionally my habit, I have pulled together a chronology of sorts. It is a chronology of all the various cuts, insults, muzzlings and cancellations that I’ve been able to dig up. Each of them represents a single shot in the Canadian Conservative war on science. It should be noted that not every item in this chronology, if taken in isolation, is necessarily the end of the world. It’s the accumulated evidence that is so damning.

Most of the items come from various links I’ve saved over the years as well as various other media articles I’ve dug up over the last week or so. This series at The Huffington Post has been particularly useful as has this article at the Wastershed Sentinal.

A long list of various environmental programs that the Harper government has discontinued or slashed funding to is here. I haven’t found individual media stories about all of them, so they aren’t in the list below. If you can help me find stories about some of those programs, etc, please let me know. As well, some stories are treated multiple times, with perhaps an initial story telling the big picture or introducing a large series of cuts and later stories fleshing out details.

Tracing the roots of English

February 24th, 2015

English is a complex language, as anyone who has tried to learn it as an adult will testify. In my case, trying to learn Old English as part of my English literature studies was almost enough to drive me to Esperanto. English is a language of assimilation, and its roots go very far back.

Now linguists are digging back almost 10,000 years to discover the origins, not just of English, but most European languages.

Historical linguists can reconstruct many words of proto-Indo-European from their descendants. For example, there was probably a word “kwekwlos,” meaning wheel, which is the ancestor of “kuklos” in classical Greek, of “kakra” in Old Indic and – because K shifts to H in Germanic languages – of “hweohl” in Old English, itself the ancestor of wheel in modern English.

From the reconstructed vocabulary, the speakers of proto-Indo-European seem to have been pastoralists, familiar with sheep and wheeled vehicles. Archaeologists find that wheeled vehicles emerged around 4000 B.C., suggesting the proto-Indo-European speakers began to flourish some 6,500 years ago on the steppe grasslands above the Black and Caspian Seas. This steppe theory, favored by many linguists, holds that the proto-Indo-European speakers then spread their language to Europe, India and western China, whether by conquest or the appeal of their pastoral economy.

This theory was challenged by Colin Renfrew, a Cambridge archaeologist who proposed in 1987 that the languages had been spread by the Neolithic farmers who brought agriculture to Europe. Under this scenario, the homeland of proto-Indo-European was in Anatolia, now Turkey, and its speakers started migrating some 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

The end of privacy in Canada

February 23rd, 2015

It seems that our supreme leader is bent on forcing Bill C-51 through Parliament with little debate. I’ve not made any secret of my distaste for Mr. Harper and his government – I think he is the worst prime minister in the history of this country, and in his tenure he and his government have managed to dismantle three generations of social progress. Now he is hell bent on turning this country into a defacto police state.  Michael Geist has a good analysis of what’s in Bill C-51 and the consequences for Canadian’s freedoms:

At this early stage, I can say that I am concerned with the breadth of the new authorities to be conferred by the proposed new Security of Canada Information Sharing Act.  This Act would seemingly allow departments and agencies to share the personal information of all individuals, including ordinary Canadians who may not be suspected of terrorist activities, for the purpose of detecting and identifying new security threats.  It is not clear that this would be a proportional measure that respects the privacy rights of Canadians. In the public discussion on Bill C-51, it will be important to be clear about whose information would be shared with national security agencies, for which specific purpose and under what conditions, including any applicable safeguards.

Roach and Forcese dig further into this issue, concluding that the information sharing provisions are excessive and unbalanced. There is much to digest, but the privacy concerns largely come down to three linked issues:

  • First, the bill permits information sharing across government for an incredibly wide range of purposes, most of which have nothing to do with terrorism (“It is, quite simply, the broadest concept of security that we have ever seen codified into law in Canada.”).
  • Second, the scope of sharing is remarkably broad: 17 government institutions with the prospect of cabinet expansion as well as further disclosure “to any person, for any purpose.”
  • Third, the oversight over public sector privacy has long been viewed as inadequate. In fact, calls for Privacy Act reform date back over three decades. The notion that the law is equipped to deal with this massive expansion in sharing personal information is simply not credible.

A more detailed look at each issue follows below. The cumulative effect is to grant government near-total power to share information for purposes that extend far beyond terrorism with few safeguards or privacy protections.

If you think I’m overreacting, read this. And this.

Some interesting news on climate change

February 22nd, 2015

If you’re not liking this winter this much, either because you’re shivering your butt off in the east, or praying for rain in the west, I don’t have good news for you. A recent study indicates that the jet stream pattern that’s been causing so much distress is likely caused by loss of sea ice in the Arctic and may be permanent.

This is where climate change comes in: the Arctic is warming much faster than elsewhere. That Arctic/mid-latitude temperature difference, consequently, is getting smaller. And the smaller differential in temperatures is causing the west-to-east winds in the jet to weaken.

Strong jets tend to blow straight west to east; weaker jets tend to wander more in a drunken north/south path, increasing the likelihood of wavy patterns like the one we’ve seen almost non-stop since last winter.

When the jet stream’s waves grow larger, they tend to move eastward more slowly, which means the weather they generate also moves more slowly, creating more persistent weather patterns.

In another development sure to cause controversy, a scientist whose papers have often been cited by climate change deniers has been found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry. That in itself wouldn’t be an issue, if he’d disclosed funding sources to journals when he was submitting papers.

or years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.

But newly released documents show the extent to which Dr. Soon’s work has been tied to funding he received from corporate interests

Hard times at Borderlands Books

February 22nd, 2015

Update: Good news. Borderlands Books will remain open, at least this year, thanks to an outpouring of support from the community.

It’s always sad to see a bokstore close, and especially sad when it’s a city’s main science fiction and fantasy bookstore. Recently, the owner of San Francisco’s Borderlands Books  announced that the store would close in March. The cause wasn’t the usual – a big rent increase or competition from chains or Amazon, but the city’s new minimum wage bylaw, which would raise the minimum wage from eleven to fifteen dollars an hour in three years.

The New Yorker profiles the store and its owner and goes into some detail about the reason for the closing. It’s an interesting article that looks at the cost of balancing social justice with the hard economics of a small business.

Beatts ran the numbers on the minimum-wage increase early last year, when people started talking about putting it on the citywide ballot. In November, the measure passed overwhelmingly, but Beatts kept quiet about how it would impact his store; with the holiday season approaching, he didn’t want potential customers to get confused and think that the store had already closed. Then, in January, the first phase of the minimum-wage hike went into effect, raising wages to more than eleven dollars an hour. Beatts had considered some options for staying open—taking donations, selling memberships that would include special benefits, finding benefactors to buy real estate where Borderlands could operate rent-free—but found none of them to be workable. Nor could he raise book prices, the way a restaurant might hike menu prices or a clothing store might raise the prices of dresses; people expect to pay the price that is printed on a book cover, and, while he could charge more, he didn’t think that would go over well. And he didn’t want to continue on in the knowledge that the store wouldn’t be viable once the minimum wage had risen beyond a certain point. So, on Sunday, he announced his plan to close, and the reason for it. He said that he wanted to be transparent with his customers, but he also hoped to make the city aware of one consequence of the minimum-wage increase, with the hope that it might compel local lawmakers and the public to more seriously consider the impact on small businesses before passing policies like this in the future. (Although he supported the minimum-wage increase, in principle, he would have preferred a two-tier system, in which bigger retailers—measured by number of employees, or sales, or some other factor—would pay a higher minimum wage than smaller ones.)