December 31, 2012

Using the term “Mother Gaia” unironically

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:07

In the Globe and Mail, Gordon Gibson discusses the “Church of Green”:

Religions have certain characteristics. They consist of a body of belief based on faith (as, for example, in God). This faith is not to be challenged, distinguishing religions from other belief sets. Scientific theories, for a counterexample, must always be questioned. Not so with religion. Unwavering faith is the hallmark.

Religions of the sort decried by Mr. Bouchard have high priests who can speak ex cathedra and gain immediate belief. David Suzuki, Al Gore and Amory Lovins, among others, have this otherworldly gravitas. They have their religious orders. Just as there are Jesuits and Benedictines, there are Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

Religion has an enormous usefulness to many individuals. But there’s more. Religion is, by its nature, absolutist. Because it embodies the Truth, one should not deviate. Of course we all sin, but deliberate tradeoffs are not permissible. It’s not allowed to do a little bit of evil to become a little bit rich, and especially not great evil for great wealth.

Such absolute rules can work fine for individuals. They can do as they wish and take the consequences. It’s where religion is imported to govern the doings of the collective — of a society — that the trouble begins.

[. . .]

Now, no one could argue against the need for great weight to the natural environment. The difficulty comes in agreeing — or not — to tradeoffs. If we take an absolutist position, we humans are rather bad for the planet, so we should all do the decent thing and stop having children.

This was Mr. Bouchard’s point. His issue in Quebec was “fracking” to produce natural gas. The current “religion” in Quebec is that fracking is bad, just as in B.C. pipelines are bad. Among true believers in both cases, absolutism reigns. The badness is self-evident; the projects must not proceed. You can’t trade a little evil for a little wealth — there must be zero chance of harm.

Railroads see traffic boom as pipelines are delayed

Filed under: Business, Economics, Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:53

The increase in railroad traffic from handling shipments of shale oil is having a very positive effect on the rail companies’ bottom lines:

Energy companies behind the oil boom on the Northern Plains are increasingly turning to an industrial-age workhorse — the locomotive — to move their crude to refineries across the U.S., as plans for new pipelines stall and existing lines can’t keep up with demand.

Delivering oil thousands of miles by rail from the heartland to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts costs more, but it can mean increased profits — up to $10 or more a barrel — because of higher oil prices on the coasts. That works out to roughly $700,000 per train.

The parade of mile-long trains carrying hazardous material out of North Dakota and Montana and across the country has experts and federal regulators concerned. Rail transport is less safe than pipelines, they say, and the proliferation of oil trains raises the risk of a major derailment and spill.

Since 2009, the number of train cars carrying crude hauled by major railroads has jumped from about 10,000 a year to a projected 200,000 in 2012. Much of it has been in the Northern Plains’ Bakken crude patch, but companies say oil trains are rolling or will be soon from Texas, Colorado and western Canada.

The Spartathlon, a long distance run for true masochists

Filed under: Europe, History, Sports — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:16

In The Economist, a look at a running event in Greece that attracts only the most obsessive of long distance runners:

This year’s Spartathlon, which took place in late September, was the 30th. Its heritage goes back much further. The most famous ultra-marathon in history was that run by Pheidippides, an Athenian who made the journey to Sparta in 490BC. His mission was to ask the Spartans for their help in fighting the invading Persians; Herodotus, a historian, records that he reached Sparta on the day after he left Athens. (The Spartans were celebrating a religious festival, so could not offer help until after the Athenians had dispatched the Persians at the battle of Marathon.)

Herodotus did not appear particularly taken by Pheidippides’s feat of endurance. Since his “Histories” also includes tales of ants bigger than foxes, it probably seemed rather unimpressive. But in 1982 his terse description sparked the interest of a British air-force officer and long-distance runner called John Foden, who wondered if it really was possible to run from Athens to Sparta and arrive the next day. With four other officers, Mr Foden decided to see for himself; after 36 hours’ slog they arrived in Sparti, as the town is now called.

Racing through history

That achievement inspired the organisation of the first Spartathlon a year later; the race now ranks as one of the world’s classic ultra-marathons. The Spartathlon’s allure has two sources. The first is the difficulty of finishing it. Any race that is longer than a marathon can call itself an ultra-marathon, but no self-respecting ultrarunner gets excited about finishing, say, a 48km course. The most talked-about events in the calendar are the ones that look most incomprehensible to the average person.

Take the Barkley. This 161km trail race in Tennessee forces runners to makes climbs and descents of 18,000 metres each inside 60 hours. The Barkley has been going since 1986, and in that period only 13 people have managed to finish the course within the cut-off time. Badwater is another race that derives kudos from insanity. The 217km course in California runs from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in temperatures of 50°C and above. (“Nudity is specifically not allowed,” say the rules.)

The Spartathlon cannot claim such extremes. It is not the hilliest race, nor the hottest. But it combines lots of different tests. There is the heat of the Greek day, then the plunge in temperatures when darkness falls. There are climbs, too: the route includes a series of ascents, among them a 1,200-metre mountain pass negotiated in the dead of night. Above all, there is the relentless pressure of the clock.

Vikings beat Packers, earn rematch in first playoff game

Filed under: Football — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:48

I’d craftily planned our entertainment arrangements so that our guests would be arriving just about at the end of the game … and then the league changed the game time so that our guests would be arriving at kickoff instead. So I didn’t get to watch the game yesterday (and tried to not obsessively check my iPhone every minute for updates…)

After jumping out to an early lead, the Vikings hung on to win by a final score of 37-34, on a last-second field goal from rookie Pro Bowler Blair Walsh. The injury bug which had stayed away from the Vikings most of the season made an unwelcome appearance with Antoine Winfield and Harrison Smith both having to leave the game due to injury.

Adrian Peterson nearly broke the NFL’s season rushing record set by Eric Dickerson in 1984, finishing just 8 yards short at 2,097 (he broke the 2,000 yard barrier in the second quarter of the game). All that, and he’ll still probably be snubbed for the MVP award because that is informally confined to quarterbacks only (it’s a very rare year that a non-quarterback wins, and Peyton Manning is having a fantastic season…)


December 30, 2012

The patron saint of Anarchy

Filed under: History, Russia, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:33

Another article from earlier this year looks at the fascinating career of Prince Piotr Kropotkin (who I really only knew of as a fictionalized minor character in L. Neil Smith’s books):

Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species sparked major battles. The most famous may have been between science and religion, but there were disputes within science as well. One of the most heated was whether natural selection favored cooperative or competitive behaviors, a battle that still rages today. For almost 100 years, no single person did more to promote the study of the evolution of cooperation than Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin traveled the world talking about the evolution of cooperation, which he called “mutual aid,” in both animals and humans. Sometime the travel was voluntary, but often it wasn’t: He was jailed, banned, or expelled from many of the most respectable countries of his day. For he was not only the face of the science of cooperation, he was also the face of the anarchist movement. He came to believe that his politics and science were united by the law of mutual aid: that cooperation was the predominant evolutionary force driving all social life, from microbes to humans.

[. . .]

One of the perks of being the top student at the Corps was that when he completed his studies in 1862, he had first choice of any government appointment. To the utter amazement of his friends and the bewilderment of his father, he requested an appointment in the newly annexed Amur region of Siberia. The odd choice caught the attention of Czar Alexander II, who inquired, “So you go to Siberia? Are you not afraid to go so far?” “No,” Peter replied, “I want to work.” “Well, go,” the Czar told him. “One can be useful everywhere.” And so, on July 27, 1862, he went.

Kropotkin’s adventures during his five years in Siberia were the stuff of movies. He crisscrossed 50,000 miles of the region, often “lying full length in the sled … wrapped in fur blankets, fur inside and fur outside … when the temperature is 40 or 60 degrees below zero …” His job was to inspect the dreaded prisons of Siberia, full of not just criminals but political agitators. He did so dutifully, but with disgust. The border of Siberia, he wrote, should have a sign like that from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” The rest of his time was devoted to learning more about anarchist philosophy (often from anarchist leaders who had been banished to Siberia) and, most importantly, studying the natural history of animals and humans there.

Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low — but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”

H/T to Derek Jones for the link.

The Gross National Happiness hoax

Filed under: Asia, Economics, Government, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Remember the brief flicker of media interest in replacing the Gross National Product measurement with something called Gross National Happiness? It didn’t seem to catch on, which is fortunate, because the poster child for GNH is Bhutan:

Mainstream economists and almost all national bureaucracies around the world use measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP) to measure and track economic activity. These measurements are evidence-based. Hard data is aggregated and analyzed to come up with a picture of a national economy that is accurate and reliable. Based on such data, sound economic and development policies can be formulated. Not so for the Kingdom of Bhutan — a country ruled with an iron fist by its northern-based Buddhist Drukpa monarchy and elite with a transparent façade of democracy designed to obscure the true state of affairs in that country.

Having engaged in a massive ethnic cleansing campaign against its Lhotsampa minority of Nepalese origin from the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s, Bhutan’s leadership prefers to use the amorphous and malleable measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to claim that their citizens — at least the ones that were not forcibly evicted from the country — are among the “happiest” in the world. Being a wholly subjective measure that utilizes no quantifiable data, GNH has been creatively utilized as a propaganda tool by the Drukpa leadership to project an image of Bhutan as a country of smiling Buddha’s. Little do most outside observers know the dark underbelly of this seemingly innocuous portrayal. It willfully ignores the history of ethnic cleansing and institutionalized racial intolerance against Lhotsampas inside Bhutan that continue unabated to this day.

[. . .]

With its record of ethnic cleansing and intolerance, it is morbidly amusing to hear propaganda that Bhutan is some sort of mythic “last Shangri-La,” a land of harmony and peace. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. The charade of ushering in a constitutional monarchy in the last few years and the ascension of the charismatic 31-year-old Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk has led to a fresh burst of official Bhutanese propaganda expounding the unique nature of their happy people and of Gross National Happiness in general.

Hugh Trevor-Roper on the “invention” of Scotland

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:33

In the Telegraph, Adam Sisman reviews a book by Hugh Trevor-Roper (an old article from 2008, but still of interest):

Trevor-Roper was repelled by Scottish nationalism’s appeal to atavistic tribal loyalties. He knew that historical myth, however innocently concocted, could have unforeseen, even pernicious, consequence; the romantic fantasies of Goethe and Wagner had fired the imagination of the Nazis.

Trevor-Roper believed that ‘the whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth’, and he took it upon himself to address some of these myths in this book, largely written in the 1970s, but set aside while still in draft. His former pupil, Jeremy Cater, has skilfully edited the text and has added a useful foreword.

The Invention of Scotland identifies three overlapping myths that have shaped the self-image of that proud nation.

The first is the political myth of the ancient Scottish constitution: that pre-medieval Scotland had been governed by a form of limited monarchy. Time after time this anachronistic notion has been torpedoed; but after a while it has always resurfaced. To this day, the Declaration of Arbroath is brandished by patriotic Scotsmen as their equivalent of the American Declaration of Independence, albeit written in the 14th century.

[. . .]

The third myth is that of traditional Scots dress, which Trevor-Roper shows to have been got up, largely for commercial purposes, in the 19th century.

The kilt was devised by a Lancashire industrialist as a convenient form of dress for his Scottish employees; while the clan-based differentiation of the tartans was the invention of two brothers calling themselves the Sobieski Stuarts, who in 1842 published their Vestiarium Scoticum, an elaborate work of imagination which served as a pattern-book for tartan manufacturers.

[. . .]

A chapter entitled ‘The Coming of the Kilt’ traces what Trevor-Roper calls ‘the Highland takeover of Scotland’. In the 19th century ‘the apparatus of Celtic tribalism’ would be assumed by the Scots aristocracy, ‘those whose ancestors regarded Highland dress as the badge of barbarism, and shuddered at the squeal of the bagpipe’. The apotheosis of this tendency would come when George IV paraded in Edinburgh wearing a kilt of ‘Stuart tartan’: disguising himself, snorted Macaulay, ‘in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of 10 as the dress of a thief’.

“We Have Passed The Point Of No Return”

Filed under: Economics, Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:22

Zero Hedge recommends that everyone listen to outgoing Congressman Ron Paul’s analysis of the fiscal cliff negotiations:

In a little under three minutes, Ron Paul explains to a somewhat nonplussed CNBC anchor just how ridiculous the charade that is occurring in D.C. actually is. This succinct spin-free clip should be required viewing for each and every asset-manager, talking-head, propagandist, and mom-and-pop who are viewing the last-minute idiocy of the ‘fiscal cliff’ debacle with some hope that things will be different this time. “We have passed the point of no return where we can actually get our house back in order,” Paul begins, adding that “they pretend they are fighting up there, but they really aren’t. They are arguing over power, spin, who looks good, who looks bad; all trying to preserve the system where they can spend what they want, take care of their friends and print money when they need it.” With social safety nets available to rich and poor, there is no impetus for change and “the country loses,” but Paul concludes, the markets are starting to say “there is a limit to this.”

Win or lose against the Packers, 2012 has been a good year for the Vikings

Filed under: Football — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:56

Jim Souhan explains why today’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers is big, but won’t spoil the season if the Vikings can’t pull off the win:

The Packers will play at the Metrodome/Mall of America Field/Future Demolition Site Sunday in the biggest game for the Vikings franchise since their epic loss in the 2009 NFC title game in New Orleans, and the biggest game at the Dome since the Vikings whipped the Cowboys in the ’09 division playoffs.

[. . .]

It’s a big game because a victory puts the Vikings in the playoffs and dents the Packers’ aura of divisional invincibility, but in a lot of ways it’s more dessert than main course. In a lot of ways, the Vikings already have reached their goals for the season.

Four months ago, the Wilfs didn’t know whether Leslie Frazier could succeed as a head coach. Now Frazier is in line for a contract extension. While the Colts’ duo of Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians has helped revitalize their franchise, they’ve also won in a mediocre division and because the team tanked last season, while Frazier has had to slap a lot of mortar and super glue on his roster to win games. Frazier is as deserving as anyone of coach-of-the-year votes.

[. . .]

Four months ago, the Vikings coordinators were unproven, and a threat to Frazier’s job security. He had replaced Fred Pagac with the highly anonymous Alan Williams, and had invested great faith in Bill Musgrave’s ability to salvage Christian Ponder and establish a power-running offense. Williams has coached a defense that stuffed San Francisco and Houston, and Musgrave and his assistants have found creative ways to open holes for Peterson while coaxing competent play down the stretch from Ponder.

Four months ago, the schedule offered a few easy victories but threatened to crush the team down the stretch. It was hard to find any analysts outside the organization who believed that this team was capable of more than six or seven victories, or of surviving December. They enter Sunday’s game on a three-game winning streak, with their victory at Houston last Sunday providing their most impressive road victory since Brett Favre beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in 2009.

December 29, 2012

Your past will indeed come back to haunt you

Filed under: Gaming, Gaming, History, Personal — Tags: — Nicholas @ 10:00

Long ago, in the days before personal computers were ubiquitous, there were “zines” (short for magazines, correctly reflecting both non-professional status and less-than-totally-serious content). There was a wide variety of zines for all sorts of interests — rather like the back corners of the internet today, except they were physically distributed using the post office (and therefore had to stay within certain boundaries to be safe). Clive and I used to publish a zine for postal Diplomacy:

Infidel 11 cover
Download PDF
Infidel 12 cover
Download PDF

If you want to read ’em — and I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you didn’t — you can download a PDF of each issue from Doug’s Diplomacy and Eternal Sunshine. You’ll note that it was a much more innocent time then, as we not only listed our own contact information, but that of many others through the game listings and other parts.

Doug only has issues 11 and 12 available, but they’re a generous representation of what the rest of the production run was like: amateur, laboriously assembled, totally ignorant of both copyright and appropriate credits, and full of in-jokes that nobody aside from the production team would hope to understand (except the “Skulking Cavorter” column: even the publisher and editor had head-scratching moments over that, but it had a noisy fan club among the subscribers). It was a lot of fun to do, and once we ceased production I found I missed it a lot (but not enough to get back into doing it again). I published a few other zine-like things over the next few years, but didn’t get back into a regular publication schedule until I started the blog.

So, thanks to William Plante for digging up these musty relics and bringing them to my attention.

Here you go, Chicago Bears fans: your temporary Green Bay Packer fan application

Filed under: Football — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:16

Courtesy of Bear Goggles On, a fan publication for Chicago Bears fans.

Packer Fan Application Form

For those not following the NFL playoff picture, Chicago needs help from Green Bay — in the form of a win over the Vikings — to qualify for the last NFC wildcard spot.

December 28, 2012

This week in Guild Wars 2

Filed under: Gaming, Gaming — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:01

My weekly Guild Wars 2 community round-up at GuildMag is now online. With Wintersday still ongoing (and the real-world holiday season at the halfway point), there aren’t quite as many blog posts, videos, podcasts, and fan fiction from around the GW2 community (but enough to keep you busy for a while if you want to get caught up).

The new Zero-Sum era of American politics

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:18

P.J. O’Rourke offers some mild congratulations to President Obama for a few accomplishments during his first term, then explains why the way he won his second term is a bad thing both for the United States and for the rest of the world:

You sent a message to America in your re-election campaign. Therefore you sent a message to the world. The message is that we live in a zero-sum universe.

There is a fixed amount of good things. Life is a pizza. If some people have too many slices, other people have to eat the pizza box. You had no answer to Mitt Romney’s argument for more pizza parlors baking more pizzas. The solution to our problems, you said, is redistribution of the pizzas we’ve got — with low-cost, government-subsidized pepperoni somehow materializing as the result of higher taxes on pizza-parlor owners.

In this zero-sum universe there is only so much happiness. The idea is that if we wipe the smile off the faces of people with prosperous businesses and successful careers, that will make the rest of us grin.

There is only so much money. The people who have money are hogging it. The way for the rest of us to get money is to turn the hogs into bacon.

Mr. President, your entire campaign platform was redistribution. Take from the rich and give to the . . . Well, actually, you didn’t mention the poor. What you talked and talked about was the middle class, something most well-off Americans consider themselves to be members of. So your plan is to take from the more rich and the more or less rich and give to the less rich, more or less. It is as if Robin Hood stole treasure from the Sheriff of Nottingham and bestowed it on the Deputy Sheriff.

But never mind. The evil of zero-sum thinking and redistributive politics has nothing to do with which things are taken or to whom those things are given or what the sum of zero things is supposed to be. The evil lies in denying people the right, the means, and, indeed, the duty to make more things.

You’ve all seen marching bands, but have you ever seen a dancing orchestra?

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:07

Movement and Music: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

H/T to Paul Wells for the link.

The Military-Industrial Complex leads to “a bloated corporate state and a less dynamic private economy”

An older article from Christopher A. Preble, reposted at the Cato Institute website:

The true costs of the military-industrial complex, they explain, “have so far been understated, as they do not take into account the full forgone opportunities of the resources drawn into the war economy.” A dollar spent on planes and ships cannot also be spent on roads and bridges. What’s more, the existence of a permanent war economy, the specific condition which President Dwight Eisenhower warned of in his famous farewell address, has shifted some entrepreneurial behavior away from private enterprise, and toward the necessarily less efficient public sector. “The result,” Coyne and Duncan declaim, “is a bloated corporate state and a less dynamic private economy, the vibrancy of which is at the heart of increased standards of living.”

The process perpetuates itself. As more and more resources are diverted into the war economy, that may stifle — or at least impede — a healthy political debate over the proper size and scope of the entire national security infrastructure, another fact that Eisenhower anticipated. Simply put, people don’t like to bite the hand that feeds them.

And that hand feeds a lot of people. The Department of Defense is the single largest employer in the United States, with 1.4 million uniformed personnel on active duty, and more than 700,000 full-time civilians. The defense industry, meanwhile, is believed to employ another 3 million people, either directly or indirectly.

What’s more, these are high paying jobs. In 2010, when the average worker in the United States earned $44,400 in wages and benefits, the average within the aerospace and defense industry was $80,100, according to a study by the consulting firm Deloitte. And 80 percent of that industry’s revenue comes from the government.

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