Cluster Bombs

I'm in a riled up mood this week because some countries think they're too big to promise to play nice. Neighbour to the South, why are cluster bombs so important to your National Security that you can't join with other nations to ban cluster bombs? Land mines, too, while you're at it. And, oh yeah, why do you have to plant long-term poisons from depleted uranium on your various battlefields? And yes, those are your allies not your enemies who are backing away from these various harvests of death and asking you to do the same.

Does "Yes We Can" apply to those things as well? Can't we (the citizens of Earth) abolish the ownerless slavery these things inflict on the people who live around the battlefields where this evil troika have been deployed? I hope so. I sincerely hope so.

If Programming Languages were...

Cars or Religions. The best use of a car metaphor in my view, was in Neal Stephenson's classic essay, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" (wiki, Neal). And then there was the classic "If operating systems drove your car..." (which is getting hard to find, but not impossible).

I know. I know. It's all brain noise. But it amused me, even where I disagreed with the way he described his categories. For the record, I use C, C++ and python I've begun to play around a bit with erlang. I'm beginning to be surrounded by C#-of-borg minions but I was just as amused to see no entry in either list for Objective-C. Let me see if I can come up with one.

Objective-C as a religion would be whatever is believed by children of a couple where one is from a Jewish and the other from a Christian background. Neither is very religious, and only periodically remember that, "oh yeah. It's Passover. I was going to stay away from the ham for Passover."

Objective-C as a car would be like a Fiero. Nice sporty exterior and sometimes it can run really, really fast. It's not so great on the corners, though and if you park it in one place for too long, there are oil stains on the ground.


John Nash on the Economy

I was intrigued to read this critique of the structure that the economy has used in developing over the last few decades. I wonder if it's worth wishing that we take these steps back from insanity? What would it do to my house debt? I've always scratched my head as to why it was to my overall benefit to live in an economy where I had to re-negotiate my mortgage every few years. And now John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) says the same thing. Is that "Great Minds"? or "Fools"?

That said, if there's going to be a 30 year mortgage, I'd rather it got counted back from when I first bought a house and not from now. John Maynard Keynes' economic theory always reminded me of William Aeberhardt's (in how they matched with common sense, not in their details, you understand). It's nice to see someone who's earned the right to say so out loud agreeing with me.


I thought I was dreaming

The evening was winding down and I saw something so ridiculous that I thought I must have been dreaming. I thought I was seeing a youtube-quality doctored video on my (not connected to the internet) TV of someone throwing shoes at George W. Bush. I was only sure that it wasn't a figment of a tired imagination this morning when I saw it mentioned on multiple news sites. So I guess I wasn't dreaming.

Who would have thought that anyone would want to throw perfectly good shoes at a duck? I mean, how do you retrieve them? And what effect would the water have on really goo shoes (mixing the metaphor here)? And isn't "the target" lucky that it wasn't (a more competent) Richard Reid in that press corps! But there's a more serious side: the level of contempt displayed by throwing shoes (and I didn't realize this until I saw the main page at the BBC this AM) is pretty high. The rest of the world have been in a much bigger hurry to say good-bye to the 43rd and greet the 44th president of the US. I wonder if B. H. Obama would get flying shoes if he happened to go to Iraq? I suspect not now. It will be interesting to see if it turns out to be likely as his term in office proceeds.


Gwynne Dyer on The Future of Tibet

The latest article on Tibet (part of which is known as Xizang Autonomous Region) from Gwynne Dyer finishes with a question:

Or do you think I am being too cynical?

Gwynne, I'm very much afraid that the answer is no.

You shouldn't have lowered the GST... No, wait! Lower it some more!

In the continuing drama of economists critiquing Canadian government economic policy in the midst of economic turmoil, it's amusing to hear the contradictions. Earlier this week, and for months past, various economists have called the lowering of our Goods And Services Tax (what many other countries call a VAT, but it's unfortunately not included in sale prices) irresponsible on the part of the government. Suddenly, yesterday, some economist was reported as saying just the opposite. In the face of our tough economic times it's felt that lowering the GST will help us spend our way out of a recession. Me, I'm not so sure either way. But I chuckled to hear the dissonant voices, not even sure that it isn't the same voice giving a different message.


Michael Ignatieff: Not Canadian Enough

Send Dr. Ignatieff to the UN, back him in a bid to become Secretary-General, let Harper co-opt him as Secretary of State for External Affairs or Minister of Finance. He's bright and accomplished, pragmatic and shrewd. But he's not Canadian enough to be Prime Minister. Shortly after his undergrad years in Toronto, he left the country and largely stayed away until it was time to pull out the knives on Paul Martin's political career.

He never had to live through the near-dissolution of confederation and deficits spawned by Trudeau. He didn't have to struggle through the interest rate spike in the 80s and the economic turmoil it caused here in Canada. He wasn't here for the recession of the early 90s and he hasn't experienced the changes (good or bad) that were wrought here by the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement or the later NAFTA.

If you want a Prime Minister whose academic record is prestigious and impeccable, Dr. Ignatieff is your man. But why not be concerned that he is gut-familiar with what it means to be Canadian today, and how we got here -- familiarity that can only come through living through it at first hand. Dr. Ignatieff's record has qualified him for many things, president of the IMF for example, but I don't believe it's the kind of background we need in a Canadian Prime Minister.


Fifteen Minutes of Fame, yet again
It's visible right now, here, but I'll quote it in case it disappears. The title of the page is "We Heart Robots" but the question was, "Who's your favourite animated character?" This was my answer:
Mr. Incredible is my favorite. What a parable for modern fatherhood?
Always feeling responsible for everything.
Often feeling utterly dis-empowered
In conflict by default with those closest to him.
Wanting to protect them but unable to.
Always looking back wistfully to the good old days when we were gods, could do many things and did so, always in the best of causes.

If only I were a Super, then maybe I could fulfill some of the dreams I share with my overweight-father animated counterpart.
I don't own a police scanner and I'm not an adjuster for a corrupt insurance company (is that a tautology?) but that's how I feel, so much of the time...


Meme alert: "The stain is on the move"

Today's Dilbert is in serious danger of engendering a new meme, if it isn't already one.


Quote Jests...

Those who know me in person, know me as one who commits creative mis-quotation. In fact, I often call myself the Quote Jester. Which is itself a jest in a quote from the title of an instrumental number by Phil Keaggy not to mention being a misquotation of "Court Jester".

So, here's my misquotation for the day. "There's no quote like a mis-quote."

And if you want to exercise this noble art, you can do it yourself by tacking a simple phrase to any stative sentence, which is a misquotation from the BareNaked Ladies' song, "If I Had A Million Dollars." It goes like this:

"I went out and got a library book -- but not a real library book, that's cruel."

Obviously there are some situations where it's funnier than it is in others. I am not responsible for inappropriate uses to which you may apply this idea.


Letter to cbc.ca about archive format

I just sent the following note to cbc.ca regarding the file format of their archive material. Maybe this is a pointless rant but it would be nice not to have to funnel their WMV content through some other tool before being able to watch it. The "At Issue" segments tend to be worth catching if you want to stay on top of what's what in Canadian politics.

I noticed this awhile ago but I've never thought to mention it until now. I am gradually moving to a Microsoft-free computing life at home and all the video at www.cbc.ca/national/archive is only playable on Microsoft Media Player.

What would prevent the CBC from using a user-platform independent format for this archive footage? I would really appreciate it if it were some technology (flash? like youtube and google video) that didn't require me to use a particular supplier's software in order to view it. I do have MS-machines in the house. I would just rather not have to use them for this if I didn't have to.



Good-bye Bertie

So the on-going scandal of dodgy campaign financing in Ireland has come to an end that could have been predicted ages ago. How corrupt was Mr. Ahern, really? And if he was corrupt, how corrupt was he compared to other politicians whose career started at the same time or before as Mr. Ahern's career?

I have the handicap and advantage of not actually being from Ireland, so I can't continue either of those conversations except as a listener -- and I'd love to hear some pithy, non-polarized opinions from people who know better than I on either of them. I feel happy for Bertie that he can still have his little jaunt to the States before he goes. I think I have a small notion of how important that is for him and for his country. I'm even gladder that the Good Friday accords don't look like collapsing just because one of the leaders' hands appear unclean.

But in listening to this story unwind, I couldn't help wondering if he's no more than a victim of surviving from one era of accountability standards into the next? I'm not denying that Bertie was corrupt. The details from the Mahon Tribunal has made this much clear: corruption happened. And worse, he was consistently economical with the truth and forgot too many of the details, whether inadvertently or not (the old "Incompetent or Crooked?" question rears its head).

My mixed feelings on the outcome lead me to wonder if, when financial/political accountability measures become more concrete, more rigorous, if the people would be better served (with the longevity of their most senior, most experienced leaders) if such laws included riders of amnesty and/or some kind of owning-up commissions -- with penalties like this only exacted for those who don't make a clean breast of the past. I have little faith that the laws are capable of keeping the politicians and their funds honest -- but I am sure that without the freedom to own-up with amnesty I feel they are likely to be even less effective. Further, I fear that the more stringent the measures are, the more creative corrupt politicians and power-purchasers will get in the buying and selling of influence.


Bernanke gives color to J. R. Saul's analysis of economy

Within the last few months, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the now 16-year-old Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul. I had begun to see hints of one of Saul's central assertions echoed in the rescue of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase with the help of the American Federal Reserve. I don't have my copy to hand right now but let me reiterate the thoughts:

In 1992, Saul wrote that we had then been in a near-20 year depression that was being hidden and shuffled out of view by pushing it around through manipulations of currency exchanges and interest rates. He went on to support that statement with a lot of facts which, all taken together, made a startling picture. I found that picture to correspond closely enough with reality that it has made sense to keep watching events in order to see if the evidence continues to pile up in its favour, or in contradiction. For myself, it also seemed to be a compelling interpretation of the on-going movie: rollicking cascades of currency crisis here; market "correction" there; and any number of other dashes of the Electronic Herd of stampeding gnu. Thomas Friedman called them just a commonplace of globalization in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. But if you look at the forces that keep the gnus running it soon becomes apparent that few of their movements fail to be started, turned or stopped by the acts of various governments and regulatory bodies. Who wants the malaise to set in where you are? Keep it moving with interest rate changes, tax cuts, import concessions, anything! The facts have continued to fit Saul's picture better and better all the time.

Now it struck me that the way in which Bear Stearns had been prevented from collapsing looked like another case of the hiding the depression and that force of déjà vú just came crashing down with this story. In it, Bernanke is reported to admit that preventing the US from slipping into a depression is exactly what he had in mind when he made the deal to rescue Bear Stearns. That rescue was made possible only by very deep manipulations of the Bear's value and by moving the remaining sub-prime risk on its books around in a most creative fashion. Suddenly this story has moved from being a hint that Saul was right to a full-blown case in point. What is now a nearly 35 year malaise has just been shoveled around for another swing about the pole.

I'm just not sure anymore whether to hope that the problem is like a tetherball, capable of endless swinging about the pole, or a maypole that will eventually wrap itself around the pole with nowhere left to swing. Can we stop the ball in ways that are non-destructive and re-invent things, or will things really have to get to a destructive "no-rope-left" state before this situation can be put on some other footing? And will we find out before or after I've retired? before or after my kids are up to their eyeballs in mortgage, marriage and parenting? Time goes fast, learning goes slow...


The Penny: "It's not a priority for us now" Whaaa...?

Dear Mr. Flaherty,

Regarding Private Members Bill, C-531.

Sir, I was stupefied by the summary dismissal the press is reporting you gave to the idea of discontinuing the one cent coin. "It's not a priority for us now," sounds alarmingly like, "We didn't think of it, so we won't consider it now."

I am not an NDP voter, so I have no party-axe to grind. This is an issue of common sense. The thing that will attract the voters your party will need in order to gain majority status is an ongoing exhibition of common sense, which in this case will lead to a lack of common cents.

Save our money! Don't spend any more on circulating a coin that has become entirely annoying and totally pointless. Let wire transactions continue to the nearest cent but let our pockets grow a little lighter -- and release a little bit more copper for the whole world to benefit from. (see this article from Scientific American as referenced at slashdot).

Good ideas are worth looking at no matter who had them first. Please give this one more than passing notice.


Arthur N. Klassen etc. etc.

cc: Hon. Pat Martin, MP for Winnipeg Centre,
Hon. xxxxx xxxxxx, MP for my home riding


Discontinuing the Penny

To the Hon. Pat Martin, MP for Winnipeg Centre

Dear Mr. Martin,

In regard to your private member's bill to discontinue the penny, thank you. This measure is about 5 or 10 years late and should have been entered into
consideration around the time the $2 coin, what I call the doubloon, was introduced. The cost of all that copper to Canada should give it all the impetus it requires. That force is only strengthened by the moral dubiousness of hoarding copper this way when there is not enough of it in the world for everyone in the world to enjoy our lifestyle. What should it matter that the bill comes from an opposition bench? Wisdom should be commended regardless of the source.

Retaining the $0.01-precision for wire transactions and rounding up or down to the nearest multiple of 5 cents on cash ones is at least a partial return to the common sense that BC exhibited before confederation. Back in the day, political rhetoric here said that BCers were not so niggling as to figure things out to the nearest 100th of a dollar and pennies were routinely discarded in the Rockies by BCers on their way home from the money-grubbing east. That such an attitude has taken this long to even begin to resurface is a sad commentary on the rarity of common sense.

I wish your bill safe and swift passage.


Arthur N. Klassen etc. etc.

cc: Hon. xxxxx xxxxxx, MP for my home riding

I had a nightmare last night

I turned on the TV briefly last night to watch the beginnings of The Trojan Horse on the CBC and the sight of the Stars and Stripes over Ottawa's Peace Tower, even in a piece of fiction, felt like a knife through my heart. It got too violent for my taste in evening family viewing pretty quickly, but I confess I am both attracted and repelled by the idea of watching it. I'd like to see how the whole story plays out but if I do see it, I'm going to dread every view like that one, not to mention grieve its possibility in advance, even when the reality is still so very unlikely..


Headline Puzzle from January answers...

Maybe I should just give up. Oh well... here are the answers from January 5. The headlines were


The key was "STORAGE", the setting was "CDROM" and the hat was "RETRIEVE".

Peut-être je suis mais un poseur...ank


"The mercury in one CFL bulb can contaminate 1000 gallons of water"
Recently, in an internal company bulletin board, someone posted this link, citing the title and asking "Is it true?"

My answer was, let's do the math.

How much mercury is in a bulb? According to wikipedia, anywhere between 1 and 12 mg. The best models seem to have limited it to 1mg but there is a limit in place of no more than 6 mg, so let's assume that we're talking about 6mg.

1000 US Gallons of water is 3890 L, 1000 Imperial Gallons of water is 4540L. Typically gallons nowadays refers to US gallons, but let's make it 4000, just in case (makes the later math easier, even if it's not a fair mid-point).

4000L has a mass of 4000kg. 6mg in 4000kg is 1.5 parts per billion by mass.
According to this link, the American FDA's "Maximum Contaminant Level Goal" for mercury, a cumulative neurotoxin, in drinking water is 2 parts per billion.

So, as usual, this kind of a headline looks like a little late-breaking hysteria. Mind you, if enough of the bulbs have 12 mg, that would be 3ppb which would fail the (arbitrary?) MCLG. Where the "safety line" actually is is probably a matter for debate that gets very political very quickly. Like, did you know that crematoria are a prime source of airborne mercury pollution? Years of dental fillings, all going up in smoke...

All that said, ever since the fad of CFL bulbs started taking hold, aside from my complaint that they don't emit enough light and what light they emit tends to be too cold, I have wondered aloud quite often where the infrastructure for safe disposal of expired bulbs was. A rhetorical question, I know. But then, such infrastructure must grow fast enough to take up the slack. Given the likelihood that "incorrect recycling" of CFLs is going to mean concentrations of mercury in landfills, I wonder how the neighbours of the various dumps in the western world are going to feel about those dumps becoming mercury magnets, alongside all the other wonderful things they've taken in over the years?

This stuff has all got to be solved a different way. Wish I knew what that way was...


The Return of the Headline Puzzle! #3

I missed last week's deadline in a good cause. My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary -- away from any computers, in a lovely place across some water from where we live (I'm being coy about it because I may want to use it for a future headline puzzle).

Two weeks ago, I posted a puzzle whose solution was...



The new puzzle is this:






Happy solving!


Kenya :: Rwanda -- the comparison was inevitable

A newspaper in the cafeteria caught my eye, running this story from the Globe and Mail (our Ontario paper that tries to masquerade as a national one). I was wondering how soon people would start to compare Kenya today with Shake Hands With The Devil Rwanda. Ouch.