Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Humble Report from the Court of Moscouia

It's been a long time since university for me - more than ten years now since I started, and six since I was tossed out of those halls by the scruff of the neck while desperately clutching to a piece of paper that talks about conferring and degrees and rights, privileges and obligations. Certainly long enough for me to have forgotten a deal of what I did there; nevertheless, I still have the essays.

Essays! The bane of many a student from high school forward. I never had much of a problem with them; hell, I write mini-essays every other day now. Some days, though, it's difficult to come up with an interesting idea in the time I have before I have to shove off to work... days such as today. As I sorted through my folders and files, I came across one that hadn't been modified since March 12, 2003; a 2000-word essay for my second-year Russian History course.

Ordinarily I might balk at posting one of my old essays online. Not only are academic essays frequently dry, but the issue of lazy-ass students trawling the internet or just buying from essay mills is a wide-ranging problem that I don't want to contribute to. This, however, isn't an ordinary essay - it's not often you're given the opportunity to write in the style of a sixteenth-century English ambassador to the court of Ivan the Terrible.

Nor is it the sort of thing that would really pass unnoticed if some student tried to submit it out of the specific circumstances that called for its creation. Since it was as much a creative work as it was an essay - trying to write in as much of an Elizabethan style as possible was a challenge, and the internet in 2003 had far less in the way of easily-found resources on that matter than the internet in 2012.

Unfortunately, I can't remember what sort of mark I got on this. I know I didn't fail, though.

As per the request of her most Gracious and Just Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth of England, the following Report on the nature of the Russian commonwealth and lands has been compiled and submitted by her most humble Ambassador to the court of Ivan IV Groznyy, Emperor of the Russian lands and people. It is my supreme Hope that you will find the material within this Report pleasing, although I regret that I cannot relate my Discoveries in a more detailed manner. A land of great Diversity and Natural Wealth is Russia, and I will Endeavour to relate all about it for the edification of your Majesty.

The lands of Russia, or Moscouia as it is on occasion known, comprise a Realm far larger in physical extent than any Sovereign of Europe, though the Russian people are spread Thinly and inhabit a land that is not known for its Bounty of harvests. In particular the Zamoskov’e region, in which a Majority of Russian farms may be found, the soil is Frozen for five months of Winter and the peasantry is thereby forced to Forage in the manner of common Beasts for sustenance, lest they succumb to Starvation.

Despite its scattered Population, Russia boasts a number of fine Cities and Towns, most of them in proximity to the great river Volga, which for Centuries has been a conduit of Trade of which English merchants have only begun to take Advantage. The chief Cities, beyond the seat of the Tsar’s court at Moscou, are Nouogrod, Rostoue, Volodomer, and Plesko, all of which were absorbed into the greater Dominion of Moscouia under the able Rule of Ivan IV’s grandfathers. Nouogrod in particular is an important Community, as even as recently as a Century ago it formed the center of a great trading Empire that did eager business with the Merchants of Europe.

The traditional political situation of Russia, until its recent Unification under the Grand Princes of Moscou, saw the lands Divided under the rule of multiple Kings and Princes. The current Dominance of Russia by Moscou’s lords owes mainly to this Fragmentation which gave Ivan’s ancestors the opportunity to unite the lands by force of Arms; Ivan himself claims the title Sovereign of All the Russias, but has of late taken advantage of this Title to press his claims of Territory against the crown of Poland-Lituania.

Much of Russia’s history can be considered attempts to rise above the poor Bounty that nature hath granted it. Its first true Kingdoms emerged from Wilderness Towns less than five Hundred Years ago, at a time when your Majesty’s predecessors ruled over Affluent Christian Nations that experienced much Trade and Worthwhile Intercourse with one another. Due to the difficult nature of Survival in Russia, and the lightness to which it was Peopled, these primitive States had a very difficult time rising above mere Subsistence and Barter rather than developing a Civilized Economy and state of Administration.

Not all of Russia’s failings are of its own responsibility, however; with the exception of Nouogrod and other Isolated Towns, the entire land had the Misfortune to fall under the Crude and primitive Whip of the Mongols, or, as the Russians know them, Tartars; while Christian Europe was blessedly spared their Sword, the Towns of Russia were forced to live for two Hundred Years or more under a Pagan Tyranny. They existed as Tributary states to the Mongol kings in their capital city of Sarai, and it was only by Cheating their Overlords through the Tax-collecting authority they had been given that Moscou was able to first gain Primacy in the community of Russian States, then unite them by Force and eject the Tartars from their illegitimate Conquests.

Much of the recent history of Moscou has been centered around expanding opportunities for Trade between Russia and the affluent Kingdoms of Europe. The city of Nouogrod had for some Years been the center of Mercantile Pursuits in the Russian Lands, dealing with Poland, Lituania, and other Nations around or with access to the Baltic Sea. The princes of Moscou inherited the knowledge for conducting effective Commerce from their Tartar overlords in the Golden Horde, which for many Years now has been fully subjected to the Russian Will; the great Livonian Wars, which have only within the last Year come to a conclusion, were waged partially to secure access to the Baltic, now under the domination of Sweden and Poland. The Russians’ main port of Archangel, on the coast of the northern White Sea, is far removed from shipping traffic and is a Dangerous destination to attempt from any European Harbor. It was by little more than Chance that Richard Chancellor’s ship chanced upon any form of Civilization there thirty Years ago.

The domains of Russia are currently under the rule of the Emperor Ivan IV Groznyy, a Russian word which may be taken to mean fearsome, and carries with it the Suggestions of patriotism and Majesty befitting a monarch. His name is Well-Deserved, for he is a most Imposing man and carries himself at state functions with a most Magnificent and Regal Bearing; though renowned for his Intelligence Ivan is likewise Feared for a sometimes cruel and Merciless Manner. He is a pious Man, as much as one can be in a Land that lacks true knowledge of G O D, and as Emperor is charged with Defending the Orthodox Russian Faith, much as your Majesty defends the True and Noble Anglican Church. However Intolerable this may be to the Traders which do business in his lands, the fact remains that so long as we English have refrained from Criticizing their Beliefs, or attempting to Convert them to the True Worship of Christ Jesus, they have Welcomed us and saved their Ire for the Catholics who cannot bear to be Silent.

The practice of Religion is of supreme Importance to the common people of Russia; unlike in England or other enlightened European domains, the Russian people define themselves not by loyalty to a Sovereign but by their submission to the Orthodox Faith and the supremacy of Constantinople. Even in this Practice, however, the Russians are primitive, for many of their Priests are near Illiterate and hardly capable of Comprehending even the universal Word of God. They hold in Respect saints they call iurodivyi, a word that can be taken to mean “fools in Christ,” and in particular I have heard Stories of one Nikola of Plesko, who helped to spare that City from the wave of Confiscations and Executions visited upon Nouogrod by Ivan, from which that once-great City still has yet to recover. Moreover, in their Arrogance some Russians consider them the Sole and Natural Rulers of the Christian Realms; I have seen a letter by Philotheus of Plesko wherein he wrote that, save for Russia, “all Christian states are drowned because of the unbelievers” and that the Tsar of Moscou is “the only tsar for Christians in the whole world.”

The organization of the Russian government is that of Tyranny, most unlike the wise and welcomed rule of your most Gracious Majesty, and lacks knowledge of all the Laws needed to maintain a Just and Civilized State. The word of the Tsar is absolute, and has been for as long as the princes of Moscou have ruled the Russian lands. The rule of Law in Moscou, such as it is, is based upon the Sudebnik legal code, which in itself is no more than a Mechanism appealing to Traditional Beliefs which would permit the Emperor to concentrate a greater degree of Power in his hands and in the hands of his Court. Ivan IV is a ruler in the mold of the ancient Emperors of Rome, and indeed traces his Ancestry back to Prus, the supposed brother of the great Augustus Caesar. In his court he has surrounded himself with men of noble Status, known as boyars, who are Descended from an antique Corps of bodyguards and Cavalrymen.

These boyars are drawn from forty-six of the finest Noble families in Russia, and the Advisory Councils of Ivan’s court are staffed by them in a Hereditary manner. Though subject to the Will of the tsar, these nobles form the Foundation of the Russian Government and its Institutions. The boyar Duma, as the noble council is known, has been given Responsibility for advising the Tsar on matters of State and presiding over major Appeals to the Judiciary, and also on Occasion served as a military Planning council. Though in past Generations the boyars of Moscou enjoyed privileges which in our enlightened homeland of England are mere fading memories, with the Territories granted them ruled without Restriction save those Dictates of the Tsar and the local Peasantry the property of their Lord, recent reforms have Hardened the Tsar’s hand in this matter. This owes mainly to Ivan’s desire to further Unify his realms and to Concentrate authority in the court of Moscou, and he has of Late begun demanding Loyalty and Obedience from his nobility, uprooting them from their ancestral Lands at his whim, and taking a far more active Role in the Administration of these lands.

I have previously said that Ivan has gained a Reputation as a fearsome man, and to elaborate, I have come across Accounts of the recent Past which justify this Perception. Ivan has long had a problem with Traitorous Nobles, with some going so far as to abandon their oath of Loyalty and Defecting to the crown of Poland-Lituania. Though Ivan demonstrated his power Swiftly and Surely, stripping those nobles whom he had reason to believe were disloyal to the throne of their lands, and Forcing others to take monastic Vows. However, even this Action was not enough to convince Ivan that the problem of Treason had been solved, and so acting of his own Accord he embarked upon a most Unusual measure.

In 1565, scarcely twenty-eight Years ago, Ivan grew tired with the Traitors he believed populated the government of Moscou, gathered together his most Trusted advisors and departed the city to a second court and personal Domain north of the city. This institution was termed the oprichnina, which controlled Territory as far North as the White Sea, and served as a duplicate of the Government and Administration in Moscou, but personally controlled by Ivan himself. This oprichnina saw armed men traverse the countryside, terrorizing peasants and killing those suspected of Treason, though many were killed for no reason at all. Ivan eventually returned to rule from Moscou, but the Countryside paid a high price for his Perception of Treason.

Despite such complications of Politics, Russia remains an Attractive land to England’s merchants and traders. By taking Advantage of the great River Volga, to which I have previously alluded, our Traders can access the great markets of Persia and Arabia without traveling those Routes of which the Spanish and Portuguese have long assumed Control.21 Ivan is also greatly Enamored with the Greatness and Prosperity of your Kingdom, and as you may recall, once requested the hand of your kinswoman Lady Mary Hastings. Our Muscovy Company was given exemption from customs payments, as an Enhancement to Trade, and for all its ills Ivan’s oprichnina was steadfast in protecting the Company’s interests.

The native Commodities available for Trade in Russia are Varied. In spite of an unforgiving Climate, Russian Farmers produce a great deal of wheat, rie, barley, oates, and other Crops. It is also quite rich in Furres, and produces pelts of the Blacke fox, Bever, Wulverins, and many others in great quantity, goods which are greatly sought after in the Marketplaces of Turkie, Persia, Georgia and other nations. I have, as of late, heard reports that the adventurer Ermak has conquered parts of the khanate of Sibir, presenting the Prospect of an even Richer trade in Furres in coming Years.

My most Gracious and Glorious Sovereign, it is my supreme Hope that you have found this humble Report on the nature of Russia pleasing. Though it may be far from the Enlightened Centers of European Civilization, Russia is nonetheless Willing and Eager to develop bonds of Friendship and Understanding with our Nation. It is a Marginal land, but one of Promise, and I would hope that your Majesty will, in your Wisdom, maintain these commercial Ties to Russia and so benefit the rulers and the people of both.

Loyal I Remain to Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth of England,

Ambassador to the Court of Moscou, in the Year of our Lord Fifteen Hundred and Eighty-Three.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Photo: On the Off-Ramp

It's not often that I'm in a position to take highway photographs. There's not much of a highway system here in British Columbia, and I don't drive anyway. In Ontario it's different; in the Greater Toronto Area, the highway network is one of the ways that the region keeps moving. GO Transit is another one of those means, and without it the whole area would grind and wheeze as two hundred thousand people looked for other ways to get where they need to be.

Here, a GO Transit bus turns off Highway 401 in what are yet farmlands just west of Mississauga.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Was A Preteen Star Trek Hat Kid

You never forget your first - convention, that is. Back in the day, before the ubiquity of the internet linked fan communities from coast to coast and continent to continent, conventions were the prime mixers of fans and the places where fandoms were anchored. I didn't get the chance to attend Rustycon 29 in Seattle last week like I'd intended, thanks to western Washington being choked with snow, but on this grey and dismal New Westminster Sunday I thought I'd write a bit about my first convention, or at least the little of it that I can remember.

Today it's called Polaris, but twenty years ago it was known as Toronto Trek, being Toronto's preeminent Star Trek convention. In retrospect it's no surprise that this was my first intersection with the convention sphere; it was only because of my age and situation that the next time I crossed paths with that world wouldn't be until ten years later at Anime North. It was one of the many Star Trek conventions that had sprung up in the twenty years following the first such convention, back in 1972, when the syndication of the original series had allowed Star Trek fandom to retain its vitality. My mother took me there, and considering that we had shelves of Star Trek tie-in novels that constituted my first real look at the science fiction genre as well as the entire original run of Star Trek on those Columbia House VHS tapes, there's nothing surprising about that either.

let's see what this galaxy-class starship can do when it's in the middle of a hollywood warehouse

I don't recall very much about the convention itself. This would have been in the summer of 1993 or 1994, making me eleven years old at the most, and with both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine fresh on the airwaves, it was energetic. I recall that it was busy, and there were a lot of cast and crew from the series in attendance. What I recall most strongly was a "stump-the-audience" event, because I won it.

The way it worked, to my recollection, was this - if you were in the audience, you could stand up and ask a trivia question related to Star Trek, and if nobody could answer it you won a prize. I'm not sure how much advance notice I had of the way it worked, but it was enough to formulate a plan: win by asking the most obscure question I could find. Fortunately, for that, I had the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. I'd read it again and again at home so I already had a fair idea of where to go, and I still remember the question I came up with when the event runners called on me.

"Where," I asked, "was the Starfleet Type 15 shuttlepod manufactured?" This was something that had never been stated on screen, ever, because really it's completely irrelevant, and in the days before on-the-fly smartphone access to Memory Alpha it would have had to come down to someone in the audience having memorized the section of the Technical Manual dealing with shuttlecraft and shuttlepods.

When the time ran out, no one had answered correctly - so I won! I had stumped the audience and I got to go up to the front to pick my prize. From what I remember and what was retold, there were two choices up there. The first was a complete soundtrack for the then-new Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on compact disc, and the second was a Deep Space Nine baseball hat.

So which one did I want, they asked?

"Umm... I don't think we have a CD player at home," I said. I certainly didn't, not at that point, but at that age I would have had only the vaguest notion of what a CD player even was - all the computer software I was familiar with at the time came on floppy disks, and when it came to music it was still the era of records and cassette tapes in my experience. "So I'll take the hat."

We did, of course, have a CD player at home. I was just totally unaware of that. I imagine that whoever ended up getting the CDs was thankful that I'd chosen the $10 hat instead. I don't know what happened to that hat - it disappeared sometime during the '90s, and I've never seen its like again.

Nevertheless, it was worth it. If nothing else, I suppose it was a significant learning experience for me - the first time, to my recollection, where I'd ever posed a question that a whole bunch of grownups couldn't answer. That's an incredibly empowering feeling for a kid, a big step on the road to independence and adulthood.

To answer the question: the Starbase 134 integration facility at Rigel VI.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Photo: Trolley on a Mission

I never saw trolleybuses until I moved to Vancouver, and here they're all modern and top-of-the-line with digital displays and so on. San Francisco is one of the five other cities in North America that runs a trolleybus system, ant its aren't quite as new; buses such as this one on the 14 Mission route were delivered in the early 1990s and still mount the old-style signs, which I found to be a faintly strange juxtaposition in the modern day. It's just that in my experience, practically everything has gone digital by now.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Newt Jumped Over the Moon

Nobody expected much from Newt Gingrich. His own name, so easy and so frequently mocked or just mistyped as "Gingrinch," is one of the strangest in modern American politics, and up until a week or so ago almost everyone was in agreement that he would soon drop out of the field of view as Mitt Romney relentlessly powered toward the Republican nomination. Gingrich's win in South Carolina changed all that, gave the Gingrinch that Stole Congress vast new potential - if not necessarily to win, then at least to be a serious competitor in the race. Personally, I find it preferable to Santorum getting spread around everywhere.

Mostly, though, Gingrich seems to have been running on the platform that he's not a super-capitalist, job-destroying corporate raider like Mitt Romney supposedly is. That may have got him enough traction in South Carolina to clinch the primary there, but it's not the sort of stuff that gets people talking. That had to wait until January 25, when in the Space Coast city of Cocoa, Florida he made a speech of the sort that I'd long since given up hope on hearing from a politician.

"By the end of my second term," Gingrich said with incredible optimism, "we will have the first permanent base on the Moon, and it will be American."

Not the sort of thing you usually hear coming from American political candidates, even in the context of fishing for Space Coast votes. It's the sort of bold, optimistic, triumphalist claim that feels completely out of place in the twenty-first century that we've stumbled into; it feels more like something out of the twenty-first century that we were looking forward to back in 1985 or so. A base on the moon!

Predictably enough, he's taking flak for it from all sides. The most common reaction I've found on Twitter, repeated again and again and again, is a variation of "will he be the first one to go there?" Jon Stewart took the plan to task, but since the video's on Hulu I can't find out what was actually said. However, it seems like the most common response is a mocking one, that the concept of a lunar base is in itself ridiculous or some kind of impossible dream. I'll admit that, yes, Gingrich's plan is possible.

Possible in that it does not contravene any currently-known physical laws, much like it's possible for me to quit my job tomorrow and walk to Halifax.

The way to the moon is a difficult one.

In particular, what I've noticed being picked up in the media is 13,000, Newt's magic number. The Huffington Post framed it as an integral part of his plan, that Newt is aiming to put not just a lunar base up there by the 2020s, but a colony thirteen thousand-strong. This is a bit of a misreading, I think. He does not actually state that he wants a base of that population to be done at that time; he's talking about a "Northwest Ordinance for Space" he apparently proposed early in his political career, about how when the American population of the moon passes 13,000 they would be able to petition Washington to form a new state.

That sort of population is another one of those things that is technically possible, but in the same way as me swimming the Atlantic from Halifax to Bordeaux and then walking from there to Vladivostok is technically possible. I was curious about it, so I ran the numbers using the SpaceX Dragon crew capsule, which will likely be the backbone of American spaceflight in the near future. The Dragon has a crew capacity of seven, so in order to have a 13,000-strong colony on Luna by January 19, 2021, the end of Gingrich's second term, there would need to be one thousand, eight hundred and fifty-eight launches.

Put another way, that's one launch a day every day for more than five years, starting in December 2015. Realistically, though, it would be considerably more than that, as that schedule of launches just leaves eighteen hundred capsules on the lunar surface and thirteen thousand people with no support systems whatsoever. The required cargo launches would vastly, vastly exceed the personnel launches, and in order to meet that schedule the first of thousands of Falcon 9 rockets would probably have to lumber off the pad next Tuesday. I don't think SpaceX has that kind of spare manufacturing capacity hanging around, though it would work wonders for economy-of-scale rocket production.

Even that ignores the political realities of a territorial claim on the moon. You can't do it, at least not under the current framework of space law. The Outer Space Treaty prohibits all national territorial claims to celestial bodies; presumably, one of the motivating forces of this was to throw up roadblocks to the crew of a successful Soviet moon mission establishing the Lunar Soviet Socialist Republic. I could understand ignorance from Romney or Ron Paul on this sort of thing, but I'd expect Gingrich would at least be aware of the Outer Space Treaty.

The biggest issue is, in the end, the fact that this is literally the worst time in history for the United States to seriously contemplate building a moonbase. At no time since the development of spaceflight has its economic and social situation been listing so severely. As alluring as the concept is, I have to admit that this is not the time for it. Here's hoping that as the years roll on, it won't just slip further out of reach.

Ultimately, though, my primal response to the news was this: god dammit, why did it have to be Newt?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Photo: Back to Front

If you're aboard one of the white Mark II SkyTrains, no matter how busy it is there's one seat in each car that will usually be one of the last to be taken; the back-end seat, with an inspiring view of the other car. I'll admit, I can understand why people would think sitting there by choice is a bit off - you've got nothing to look at but the person in the next car.

Unless, of course, nobody's sitting in the equivalent seat in the next car. Which means you get to look at the interior of the next car. Inspiring, no?

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's Just a Jump to the Left

There must be something in the water at Toronto City Hall, or at least whatever Rob Ford and his steadily dwindling circle is drinking. Yesterday morning Hizzoner da Mayor of Greater Etobicoke went on AM640 talk radio, and I guess he may have been hungry from his new "rabbit diet" so he went and shoved his foot right in his mouth and chewed on it for a bit. By which I mean he made another statement that says "really? This man is actually the mayor of Toronto? This isn't just some extended joke like Vermin Supreme's presidential campaigns?"

So far I haven't encountered a recording or transcript of the broadcast, so I don't know the context in which Ford made his statement; though I'm hard-pressed to think of a context Rob Ford would be speaking in that would legitimize it. Nevertheless, here's what's got me all wound up today - his characterization of five of his particularly strident opponents in Toronto City Council as being "two steps left of Joe Stalin."

In some respects this both is and is not a surprise - it is because you would expect that basic standards of professional decency would dissuade you from openly likening your opponents to one of the worst dictators in history, yet it isn't because come on... this is Rob Ford we're talking about here. It seems like the man barely has a filter between his brain and his mouth. I would not be shocked if his thought process was something along the lines of "Stalin was a communist, communists are left-wing and bad, my opponents are left-wing, therefore my opponents are as bad as Stalin."

Though to be honest I cannot imagine Rob Ford ever using the word "therefore."

It's been too long since I brought this flag out, but at last its hour has come around again.

Some people - most likely the scattered remnants of Ford Nation - might be asking what the big problem is. It's certainly simple to find statements like that in newspaper comment threads. If you want to see the problem, just turn it around. Imagine that Adam Giambrone, say, was Mayor of Toronto today, and he referred to Rob Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Denzil-Minnan Wong as being "two steps right of Adolf Hitler." He would have been burned to a crisp within hours, and rightly so. The front page of the Toronto Sun would not have been dominated by the "dead baby found in suitcase" story that it actually is today. I still remember the "Giam-boner" Sun covers after those emails came out a few years ago - in that sort of scenario, I have no doubt that the Sun's front cover would feature a picture of him with a toothbrush mustache photoshopped on.

The fact is that neither scenario is okay. Both dictators committed horrible crimes against their people and against humanity - for Stalin, look no further than the gulags or the Holodomor - and one of the only major differences is that we were never actively at war with the Soviet Union, so we're not accustomed to looking at Stalin through the "bad guy" lens. For Ford to attempt to tar his opponents with the brush of a dictator not only speaks volumes as to his evidently profound lack of historical awareness, but the content of his character as well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Photo: Snowbirds in Motion

Here's another one from the upper deck of New Westminster's downtown parkade, just after the big snowfall. The birds weren't all hanging out on the railing - in particular, the crows were poking around fresh litter and a discarded McDonald's bag looking for anything that could be classified as food. They probably had more luck with the litter. Of course, there are also the gulls; there are always the gulls.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Taking Chances, Making Mistakes, Getting Messy

A lot of people, it seems, have come to believe that the world is a fundamentally just place where good things happen to good people and if something bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it. It's called the Just World Fallacy and it's been with us for as long as can be remembered, because the alternative is living in a world where bad things can just happen to us no matter how much we've tried not to be an asshole. A great deal of people have would have difficulty living in this kind of world; nevertheless, one of the earliest lessons children learn is that life isn't fair.

So there are some mixed messages, of course. Not enough to keep plenty of people convinced of the notion that life is fundamentally fair, that if someone has an advantage it's because they earned it honestly, and if someone charges into a run of bad luck they obviously did something to justify it coming down on them.

This sort of thinking is particularly widespread in the United States, and at no time is it as visible as in the Presidential campaign season. I came to consider this earlier this weekend, when I encountered an article about the modern American political divide in the Toronto Star - specifically, the part hearkening back to a September debate, where Republican candidate Ron Paul was asked about the hypothetical situation of a healthy 30-year-old dude who elected not to hold medical insurance, only to suffer a serious accident that left him needing intensive care for six months.

"But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?" Wolf Blitzer asks. The transcripts and videos I've found don't cover Ron Paul's response; for the purposes of this I'm not particularly interested in what he had to say. What I'm more focused on is the audience's response, members of the peanut gallery hooting and shouting yeah, that society should let that person die.

Because it was his own fault, you see. So the fallacy goes.

Do justice, and so on.

What concerns me is that it's a distinction that would be lost on a lot of people, or could be made to be lost by those in positions of authority who have an interest in making it lost. Right now in the United States, I imagine there are some people who could get health insurance but don't feel the need; I imagine there is a far, far greater number who could get health insurance, but feel that buying food and paying rent is more important. But because of the idea of the Just World, there are those in society that agree that those people should die because obviously they made the wrong choices, made too many mistakes, or otherwise they wouldn't be there.

Yet the world isn't just. Bad things happen to good people, and society is not on an even keel. There must be as many reasons why people believe otherwise as there are people who believe otherwise. Just a recognition of that, a rejection of the fallacy, by more people could do a lot to correct the sort of inequities the world faces today. Even if you think that society should allow a person to die for one simple mistake, that doesn't take into consideration the messes that come whether or not you want them to.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Photo: Mast in the Mist

The banks of the Fraser River looked rather different after the snowstorm last weekend, and what looked like mist clung tenaciously to the Surrey and Annacis Island shores. There wasn't any ice afloat at that point, though, so navigation went on as normal - I caught the tug Harken No. 6 heading west. Is it just me, or does that boat have practically no freeboard?

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Why of Climate

I've never quite been able to wrap my head around what the deal is with particularly vociferous climate change skeptics, and why they think the way they do. Note that I'm not talking about the average person here, who most likely has only encountered very limited information and has drawn their conclusions based on their own observations and what they get from the media. The folks I'm thinking of here are more those who are, to put it bluntly, wild-eyed about it, ranging from furious notes in newspaper comment threads to sending death threats to climate scientists.

The idea that it's just about the money doesn't ring true to me. Sure, some opposition I've encountered is predicated on the notion that climate change was made up by scientists so that they could get more grant money - yes, I actually did encounter someone claiming that - or that it's just another tax grab. Personally, I'm curious as to how or whether these arguments will change once we start getting ice-free summers in the Arctic, but I don't think it's really explanatory of what's going on here. A lot of the talk seems to be particularly emotionally charged.

Whatever's going on, it's something I'd like to be able to understand, so that I can take it into account in my own thinking. Besides, if you have any hope at all of getting an argument of yours through to someone else, you need to know where they're coming from. What may be a slam-dunk argument for you could just be a rubber ball bouncing off a concrete wall when used on someone else. So it's something that I do think about, off and on - the question of the manner in which some people reach the conclusion that climate change is bunk.

My latest theory - for some people, at least, it may be based on a mix of weather and humility.

A snow-covered tree in downtown New Westminster - January 15, 2012.

I'd intended to be in Seattle right now, attending a convention and exploring the Emerald City during the rainiest time of the year. Instead, earlier this week four inches of snow fell on the city, and while that's essentially nothing for eastern cities that know well the cold touch of winter, here in the Pacific Northwest winter means rain and lots of it. Those four inches of snow represented a substantial chunk of Seattle's total yearly snowfall average, and it played merry hell with transportation around the city. In particular, Wednesday's afternoon Vancouver-Seattle run of the Amtrak Cascades was cancelled because of weather issues, leaving me high and dry in the Lower Mainland, and it wasn't until today that normal Cascades service started to resume along the length of the route.

It's not a shock that this happened, though, when you know why - the jet stream, a powerful air current that's one of the prime governors of Canadian weather, bent to the south and allowed a sustained blast of cold Arctic air to rush in over the Pacific Northwest, transforming the usual rain into freezing rain and snow. The jet stream was likewise the proximate cause of the unseasonably mild and dry December experienced across North America, because it stayed far to the north and kept the arctic air bottled up tight - this is why cities in Alaska have seen more than four meters of snow pile up so far this winter.

Seeing things such as this, then - weather patterns at the mercy of air currents, cities paralyzed by forces of nature - is it any wonder that some people have trouble accepting the notion that humanity is a prime influencer of the climate? Look at the English language, for example - "force of nature" is just another way of saying "something that cannot be stopped." We're accustomed to thinking of nature as something above us, beyond us, that we're powerless to control.

That may be so, but the failing here is just because we can't control something, that doesn't mean we're unable to influence it. One of the prime notions of climate change is that by adding heat, and thus energy, to the system of nature, we are potentially influencing it in a negative manner. Nature will still barrel on, wholly heedless of us, but the danger is that it will barrel on in a new direction, one in which we're not used to dealing with. That's what the big uncertainty is here - we have no idea precisely what dumping all this energy into the system will do. We've unintentionally begun a grand climate experiment with Earth as the laboratory... but it's not a scientifically rigorous experiment, unfortunately.

There's no control group, you see.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Photo: Victoria Street Sunset

Say what you will about how the Pacific Northwest isn't equipped to deal with snow in winter, the fact of the matter is that once it's done and the skies have cleared, what's left generally looks a lot better than the usual dreary puddles. For me, a winter without snow isn't much of a winter at all, and more like early November but several months long. When snow's around, it makes things around it seem just a little bit brighter.

After the first series of snowfalls last weekend, I took this shot looking along Victoria Street in New Westminster. Looks a lot brighter than what we'd have got after a rain to me.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Trouble With TransCanada

Think of it as the circulatory system of the Alberta tar sands. The Keystone Pipeline System, which presently connects the petroleum town of Hardisty, Alberta with refineries in Illinois, is one of the main ways by which all that synthetic crude oil is shipped out of Snow Texas. It's been in the news recently thanks to dickering over the Keystone XL. This extension of the pipeline, in the works for the last few years, would run south to the United States Gulf Coast, where the oil could be refined and loaded directly onto tankers - much like how the Canadian government wants to ram the Northern Gateway Pipeline through the British Columbia upcountry, to be loaded onto tankers in Kitimat for shipment to China. The difference between the two is that since Keystone XL passes through the United States, it's the United States government that decides whether or not to let it pass.

After what seemed like an eternity of back and forth, with people in town halls speaking out for it or against it, environmentalists trying to raise the word against and the oil industry attempting to stack the debate in its favor with things like the "ethical oil" claim, the State Department yesterday denied TransCanada the necessary Presidential Permit to build the Keystone XL. Among its opponents, cheers and celebration all around.

TransCanada, of course, was ready for this contingency, and didn't waste much time in shooting back - though in this case "shooting back" takes the form doing pretty much the same thing they already did, since they're just re-applying for the permit. What really got me about this is the memetic angle they're using in their pursuit of the Keystone - though, to be honest, it's not really surprising in light of the "ethical oil" angle. In fact, according to them the Keystone XL is the democratic choice, because otherwise American oil will come from "countries who do not share democratic values Canadians and Americans are privileged to have."

TransCanada CEO Russ Girling put it bluntly, saying that "the U.S. will continue to import millions of barrels of conflict oil from the Middle East and Venezuela" without the pipeline - wait, WHAT? Did he seriously just utter the words "conflict oil" with what was presumably a straight face? I know exactly what he's trying to do here, draw a line connecting oil from the Mideast and Venezuela - in other words, current American rivals - with the conflict diamonds of Africa, mined in war zones and sold to finance wars or revolutions or insurgencies.

I found the sheer cheek in that statement to be despicable - how dare he? Sure, Saudi Arabia isn't exactly a hotbed of democracy and Hugo Chavez has spent the last thirteen years steering Venezuela onto a course that doesn't simply parallel the United States. Neither country is currently involved in a war or experiencing an armed insurrection. They just aren't assured providers, the way Canada is. Venezuela and Saudi Arabia can always take their balls and go home. Canada, thanks to the decisions of the last twenty-five years, lacks that option. Canada is trapped in an American orbit with insufficient delta-v to achieve escape velocity.

I wouldn't be as irritated about this, I suspect, if it wasn't so transparent on TransCanada's part. A society-wide push for "ethical products" would, if done correctly, do a lot of good for worker's conditions and the health of the North American economy; I mean, is it even possible anymore to buy something that wasn't made in some Pearl River Delta factory sweatshop, the sort of place where workers are threatening suicide over the conditions? For some things, like consumer electronics, it pretty much is impossible. Focusing just on "ethical oil" is a particularly narrow view, where "ethical" does not mean "the right thing to do" so much as it means "the right thing to do for those with an economic stake in the tar sands." The way I see it, an honest appraisal of ethical oil would include strong actions to minimize the use of it and switch over to other sources of fuel, because isn't it ethical to minimize the environmental impact we're going to leave our successors? Isn't it ethical to ensure that future generations have access to the same resource we did, so that they can get good things out of it as well?

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is vastly out of step with the modern world, "ethics" and all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Quaff Review #19: Eel River Açaí Berry Wheat Ale

It seems like all this açaí berry stuff came out of nowhere in the last five or so years; I certainly never heard of it while I was in university, but now it's got to the point where the net is full of scams pumping the supposed healing and energy-giving qualities of the berry, scams that give your decidedly non-açaí berry-related workplace telephone number as the cancellation line. They come from the South American açaí palm and are a key food source in the Amazon region, to the extent that açaí palm groves are starting to rebuild damaged portions of the rainforest.

So it should come as no surprise that someone's taken this Brazilian "wonder fruit" and mixed it into a beer. Specifically, it's the Eel River Brewing Company in Fortuna, California - well, technically Scotia, California, a nearby census-designated place - that's done it. Their Açaí Berry Wheat Ale is the first product of theirs I've seen on any shelves in British Columbia, but that's all right, since it's also the first beer I've encountered that contains açaí. I'm pretty sure that that, in itself, was a major component of the marketing for this particular beer - allowing it to sell itself through people doing a doubletake at the label. It's something you expect in health juice drinks that cost $10 per bottle and go on and on about how much of an antioxidant it is, not a $3.50 bottle of beer.

In fact, the label doesn't give much space to anything else. Aside from the government warning that comes standard on American beer labels, there's just the basic refund notes and beer information - 12 fl. oz., 4.0% alcohol by volume, and its organic certifications. That last one isn't exactly surprising, though - the bottlecap is given over to a USDA Organic logo, and it appears that every last beer in Eel River's lineup is organic. No notes about the beer itself, why they made it this way, and so on; their website isn't much more helpful, and spares only a sentence describing it as "a light-bodied wheat ale... a flavorful mix of pomegranate and berries" before launching into what foods it's best paired with and what awards it's won.

I didn't look up the website until I started writing this, and so when I drank it I was coming in with no preconceived notions to the extent that I couldn't even remember if I'd tasted açaí berries before. I picked it up to ring in 2012, and yet I didn't get around to drinking it until January was at least a week old.

The first thing I noticed was that for all of its ingredients, the scent of this beer is dominated by it being a wheat beer; I found the smell very similar to KLB Raspberry Wheat Beer and generally unlike most other beers. The wheat likewise dominated the taste at first though was quickly overwhelmed by the açaí which, to my tastebuds, seemed rather like blueberries. While strong, the fruit taste didn't take over the beer but merely supplemented the wheat.

In body, this was a smooth, non-viscous, somewhat watery beer, though no less flavorful because of that and by no means weak. Still, with 4% alcohol content it's not particularly strong either; call it welterweight. It's the sort of beer to be enjoyed rather than simply consumed - go with something cheap like Rainier or Lucky Lager if that's all you're looking for. It's a good beer to accompany a good relax.

And if you've been wondering, it's pronounced "ah-SIGH-ee." Portuguese, you see.


Previous Quaff Reviews

Monday, January 16, 2012

Photo: This Bird's Got Places to Be

There were three crows and a seagull chilling on the parkade railing after the snowfall, keeping a calm watch over the Fraser River and presumably looking for something to eat. I was setting up a shot of all of them when they started to take off, one after another, in a flurry of feathers and snowflakes. This crow here was the last to take flight, and I still can't believe I got to the button in time. Usually when I try to capture a crow in motion, I'll get a few tailfeathers at one end of the photo if I'm lucky.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's "Due to the Dead," Not "Do to the Dead"

It's a simple truth of life that no matter how pure and good something is, you can easily find someone standing against it - a task that has become far, far simpler with the ubiquity of the net. The natural corollary is that there is nothing so coarse and vile that you won't be able to find someone cheerleading it. Case in point - the recent storm surrounding the video that made its way into the world, depicting United States Marines in Afghanistan pissing on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. This is undoubtedly something that has happened times uncountable in the long and bloody history of humanity, but it's not often that the world gets a direct window on it - and just because it's been happened time and again, it doesn't make it any more excusable.

There's a little thing, after all, called having respect for the dead. After all, when the crew of RML 497 recovered the body of Obermachinist Pigorsch in the North Sea during the height of the Second World War, they didn't urinate on it - they buried it at sea in sight of Europe. War is a notoriously dehumanizing thing, and it's through even small courtesies like paying proper respect to the dead that people involved in it can keep from having the abyss swallow them.

History, however, has amply demonstrated that the abyss is plenty hungry in Afghanistan; take the First Anglo-Afghan War, for one example among many. What it hasn't had so much opportunity to show is people back home standing up and applauding barbaric actions - and yes, that's exactly what I think this is, a barbaric action. Pissing on the corpse of a dead fighter is something I'd expect from some grunting Visigoth tearing down the walls of Rome. I goddamn well expect better than that from a member of the United States Marine Corps. People today are supposed to stand above that sort of base revenge - sure, everyone stumbles from time to time, but this is more like throwing oneself off the edge.

Like I said, though, you can always find someone cheerleading for something, no matter how heinous. So it goes with this. Recently Dana Loesch, editor-in-chief of the CNN-contributing news blog Big Journalism, used her talk radio pulpit to argue in support of pissing on the dead. I found coverage of this on Little Green Footballs, a blog that incidentally has changed a vast, staggering amount since I was in university, along with the audio itself on YouTube. Listen to it. Since I don't listen to talk radio myself, particularly conservative American talk radio, I have no idea how "fringe" this is, or even if it is. Certainly the idea that "progressive" is a pejorative term has been spreading slowly but steadily through the American right wing since 2008.

"Can someone explain to me if there's supposed to be a scandal that someone pees on the corpse of a Taliban fighter? Someone who's part of an organization that murdered over three thousand Americans?" she asks, rather rhetorically. "I'd drop trou and do it too. That's me, though."

In situations like this I find it somewhat difficult to fully come to grips with the other person's thought process, mainly because we're hammering at the same situation from two vastly different perspectives. In her subsequent defense against "the usual mob of progressive haters," which I suppose applies to me now as well, she chooses to defend herself by saying, "In my Twitter timeline yesterday progressives called our military 'killers, kids, barbaric trash, murderers...'" and that because the same people didn't raise a stink over the Air Force dumping some cremated partial remains of dead soldiers into a landfill, their arguments are automatically invalid.

That last one is a horrid thing, disrespect for the dead - but disrespect of a different sort, one that should be dealt with a different way. Yet it's not material to the subject at hand. Loesch's defense is a scattershot attempt to discredit the people who disagree with her - which isn't really surprising; she evidently believes from what she's said and written that there was nothing wrong with Marines pissing on dead Taliban fighters, and so she doesn't see any reason to justify it. At least, that's what it seems like to me.

Still, it remains a bad thing, an intensely negative thing, something that's worth being called a scandal no matter how much people like Dana Loesch argue. To see why, simply turn it around - consider a situation where a bunch of Taliban fighters killed some US, or Canadian, or any ISAF troops, pissed on their corpses, and the video got out on YouTube. Would people like Loesch still be saying that this wasn't a scandal? Not likely. If the reverse happened the right-wing blogosphere would be on fire.

"I’ve seen more outrage towards our troops over this incident than I have ever seen towards the Taliban themselves who’ve beheaded soldiers (American and Afghan), raped and tortured women, sent out suicide bombers, and carried out horrific attacks," Leisch wrote. Allow me to be blunt in response.

We expect that sort of thing from the Taliban.

We expect our people to FUCKING BE BETTER THAN THAT.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Photo: The Sort of Snow I've Known Before

Finally it's starting to look like a real winter; last night, the first snowflakes of 2012 fell on New Westminster and across the Lower Mainland. It kept up all through the night and is still coming down as I write this, though more softly than before. Nevertheless, the snow I've encountered since moving out west has just been a pittance next to what growing up in Central Ontario taught me was "normal." Take this photo, for example - taken on December 1, 2003, it's one of the oldest in my files, a view from the window of my old university apartment as the snow comes down around the intersection of Charlotte Street and Aylmer Street North in Peterborough, Ontario.

You don't see many GM New Look buses like that around anymore, either.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Popping the Hood, Checking the Bucks

Vancouver transit riders have been able to breathe easy for a while when it comes to fare hikes - after all, there haven't been any since 2010. It's a much preferable situation to the one which prevails in Toronto, where fares have gone up twice in the last two years, most recently from $3 to $3.10, because fare increases aren't irritating enough on their own without throwing dimes into the mix. Still, even though the fares have held pat, the costs of living and operating haven't, and so earlier this week TransLink applied to raise transit fares in Metro Vancouver in 2013, subject to approval. If approved, a one-zone fare will go from $2.50 to $2.75, while two- and three-zones would be increased to $4.25 and $5.50, respectively.

2013 is a ways away yet, but there's already grumbling in the comment threads. I noticed one person for whom this increase was the last straw, that thanks to TransLink they'd be putting their car back on the road and nuts to them. It's not an unexpected result. One thing Toronto papers repeat time and again as TTC fare increases loom is that each increase will drive a certain percentage of riders back to their cars. Fair enough; everyone has their breaking point, and some people only merely tolerate transit. I know that my view of it certainly isn't universal. Encountering comments like that, though, of people fulminating against a few more quarters every day, made me wonder about the economics of getting around with four wheels instead of on the train - whether a car would make economic sense for me, so that I can have a better understanding of the people who do use them.

For this hypothetical, my assumption is that one day I wake up and have decided to reinvent my life. The first priority is, of course, to buy a car since I currently have none. For this I consulted Craigslist, and found someone selling a 1997 Honda Accord for $2,700 - it's within what I would imagine to be my price range, so I'm using it here. For the purposes of figuring out the cost, I'll assume that it's bought outright.

One advantage of purely hypothetical car purchases off Craigslist is that you don't have to worry about ornery sellers or unwelcome surprises under the hood.

According to the US Department of Energy's Fuel Economy website, the '97 Accord gets 22 miles per gallon, which works out to 9.35 kilometers per liter. Not the greatest mileage, but not the worst either. From my apartment in New Westminster, it's about twenty kilometers to my workplace in downtown Vancouver by Google Maps - which interestingly enough quotes a travel time of thirty-three minutes, actually slightly longer than my SkyTrain commute; must be all that traffic on the Kingsway. Thus, my travels to each work shift would consume 4.27 liters of gasoline, which resolves to 21.35 liters per week and 85.4 liters per month. The '97 Accord has a 64.45 liter tank, so with that consumption pattern I would need to refuel once in the first month.

When I entered the job market back in 2000 I started out as a gas monkey, pumping fuel at a full service station along Highway 400 in south Barrie. Prices then, even for the premium fuel, were far lower than they are today, which may be another one of the reasons why so many people of my generation are re-evaluating the value of car ownership. According to VancouverGasPrices.com today's average gasoline price is $1.29/liter trending upwards. At this price, my fuel cost to get to and from work per day would be $5.50 - the cost of a one-way three-zone ticket in 2013 if TransLink's request goes through. This resolves to a monthly cost of $110.16, which is effectively equal to my $110 two-zone FareCard.

Looking at those numbers, some people might say that the car makes economic sense - I wouldn't have to cram myself into a train packed full of Canucks fans heading back to Surrey, for example - but that would be disingenuous. Fuel isn't the whole story here, no matter how much some people are tempted to read it as that. My car would have to exist somewhere while I was at work, after all - so I consulted three EasyPark lots in the downtown core. The cheapest, Lot 3 at 535 Richards, would cost me $15 per day with my shift, and the one under the Pacific Centre would be most expensive at $29 per day. Going with the least expensive option of these takes my effective daily transit cost to $20.50 - at that rate, I'd spend the cost of my FareCard in six days. Plus, at home there's costs to consider - my building charges $10/month, I believe, for the use of one of its spaces.

Then there's insurance. I can't put down an honest dollar figure here, as I have never held my own car insurance policy. I'll just have to leave that as a significant but undefined number. The same with maintenance - a fifteen-year-old car could just as easily purr like a kitten or need a $2000 cough suppressant.

With those numbers, then, my transit cost to work comes to $410/month - a significant portion of my pay; it would in fact work out to be my second-largest monthly expenditure after rent, though since the charges would come in ones and twos scattered throughout rather than in one lump sum, it would probably be easier to look past. Yet that's not the whole story, either. For the purposes of this hypothetical I replaced my commute only, trading my regular SkyTrain use for car use. I regularly use the SkyTrain and bus system on weekends or vacation days to get places around Metro Vancouver; I imagine it would be the same if I had a car, and that would just send the dollar amount ticking upward again.

So, for me at least, would a car make economic sense? It appears that the numbers reflect the conclusion I've held for along time, which is hell no!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Photo: Bike Lanes Make Me Hornby

I recall, a year or so ago, that it was a rather big thing in the media when the City of Vancouver installed separated bike lanes along Hornby Street; in particular I recall business owners along Hornby claiming that the lane would put them out of business because of the loss of parking spots that had to be removed to make room for it. Similar arguments are being raised now in New Westminster regarding the bike lane along Columbia Street. From where I've been standing, it doesn't look like the openness to bicyclists and pedestrians has been that damaging.

This is them, the Hornby bike lanes, looking south from the foot of the street. I can't take credit for the title - I saw it on a line of T-shirts that Vision Vancouver had around the time the lane was completed.

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