The Nuclear Fusion Family

July 18, 2008

Recently, a Korean nuclear fusion research facility succeeded in creating plasma from hydrogen.  In fact, they were the second to produce plasma.  A Chinese facility also did it, in 2006.  This is a big step on the road to developing nuclear fusion as a viable source of clean, safe energy in the future.  It’s expected that there will be nuclear fusion reactors producing electricity by the 2040s.

Unlike nuclear fission, fusion does not result in radioactive waste.  It also doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.  That means it will be an integral part of a sustainable energy future.  Korea and China are partners in the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, an international initiative to develop nuclear fusion as an energy source.  The list of ITER partners includes almost every industrialized country, except Canada.  Besides Korea and China, there is the EU, the US, Japan, India, and Russia.  Why Canada has not decided to pursue this is beyond me.

The government touts our new identity as an energy superpower, so why aren’t they investing in the energy source of the future?  The day will come when nuclear fusion and other sources replace harmful oil and gas powered plants, so why not be a major player in the new fusion industry that will emerge?  That would help maintain that energy superpower status.

The government also talks of significantly reducing greenhouse gases by the middle of the century.  Why not invest in a technology that will help make it happen?  By not being a part of this, it looks like they aren’t interested in expediting the development of a clean energy alternative because they rely on oil revenue.

Could it be that the cost is prohibitive?  No.  The KSTAR facility in Korea cost about $307 million.  Surely an energy superpower like Canada, which is doing quite well relative to other industrialized countries these days due to strong fundamentals and high commodity prices, can afford to develop a technology that will change the world for the better and secure its position as an energy superpower for probably the entire century.  Think of how much oil and gas revenue will come in over the next thirty-five to forty years until electricity from fusion becomes reality.  The costs pale by comparison.

We shouldn’t stop at fusion, either.  With energy and commodity prices as high as they are, we are in a luxurious position.  We should be investing in science and national projects that will challenge Canadian industry to develop the technologies and industries of the future, and raise our profile in the world.  The more successes we have, the more top scientists and success-oriented people we will attract, which will result in more successes.  This kind of success spiral will result in ongoing, sustainable economic growth as new technologies find applications in the consumer marketplace as well as in industry.  Think NASA.  The economic benefits from its Apollo program were enormous.

This is our opportunity.  Let’s take it.

The Ethics of Food vs. Fuel: Just Politics as Usual?

May 30, 2008

A couple days ago, the federal government decided to require all gasoline to contain 5% ethanol.  This more or less parallels existing policies in the U.S. and in European countries.  But is following in their footsteps the right, or even best, thing to do?  Is it the ‘Made in Canada’ environmental policy Stephen Harper promised, for that matter?

The announcement went largely unnoticed because the media and opposition were more interested in reporting and following up on the fallout of the Bernier affair (double entendre entendree).  It was given only a passing mention on the news with no examination of the logistics or implications.  This is despite the fact that the same media had been reporting on the growing global food crisis for the previous few weeks.  Those reports revealed that one of the causes of the crisis was the shift of much agricultural production away from food to fuel.  Food, particularly corn, that was being produced for food is now being used to produce ethanol.  This has resulted not only in a huge spike in food commodity prices, but also in food being taken off the ground in front of the hungriest people in the world (let’s face it – they don’t have a table to take it off of).

To add insult to injury, the economics and environmental benefits of ethanol production for fuel don’t even make sense.  It actually requires more than a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of ethanol.  So, instead of burning 5% more gasoline in your car and adding that much more carbon emissions to the atmosphere, an ethanol refinery will spew out even more emissions to produce the cleaner burning replacement fuel.

So, who benefits from this policy?  Well, farmers do, to begin with.  They benefit from high commodity prices that make farming more profitable than usual.  These are good times for Canadian farmers, relatively speaking.  Our unsubsidized farmers are not only able to make a decent living, they are also investing in new productivity enhancing equipment and machinery that will allow them to continue to survive and compete on an unlevel playing field against subsidized farmers elsewhere.

The government also benefits.  The optics of doing something tangible about global warming boosts their credentials in the eyes of voters.  All those happy, prospering farmers are voters, too.  Let’s not forget that this is a minority government that could, in theory, fall at any time.  In practice, of course, that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to any time soon.  Whether you voted for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives last time or not, you have to give him credit for keeping a minority government alive for three years when, statistically, they last only eighteen months.  In fact, this one will probably see out a full term, unless opposition leader Stephen Dion does something out of character.  The accomplishment is even more impressive when you recall how self-defeating and fractious the newly re-merged Conservative party was a few years ago.  When the day comes that he is no longer Prime Minister, a struggling company might do worse than to hire Harper as their CEO.

Regardless of when the next election comes, a lot of farmers and ‘armchair environmentalists’ will probably remember this decision.  That increases the government’s chances of winning a majority.  The decision to require ethanol content in gasoline may prove to be not so much about a sustainable environment, as a sustainable government.

The Suburbs Downtown and Downtown in the Suburbs

May 20, 2008

Vancouver’s downtown condo development market has been very successful.  Developers sold the lifestyle and the convenience.  “Walk to work”, “It’s like the suburbs downtown” are common selling points.  The problem is, condo developers have been so successful they’ve driven up the cost of property so high it discourages commercial property development.  Office projects can’t or won’t compete for prime locations downtown, or what few locations are left.  The condos have taken over downtown.

That has created a commercial office space crunch downtown.  Office vacancies are down to just two percent, the lowest in decades.   It also creates an interesting reverse flow situation where, while people are moving downtown into their new condos, the new office developments have largely been in the suburbs.  Wouldn’t it be an interesting twist if all those people who moved downtown so they could walk to work ended up commuting out to the suburbs to get to the office?

This might be a good time for a major office tower development downtown.  A two percent vacancy rate now, combined with the added interest in Vancouver that will likely follow the Olympics in 2010 should make for good market conditions.  It would take a couple years to complete, so the timing would be right.  The slowdown in the residential real estate market should also get some developers to look to the commercial property sector.

Vancouver could use a high profile office tower downtown.  The Shangri-La, the new multi-use tallest building in the city that is nearing completion, already makes a great addition to the skyline.  A new, even taller, office tower that stands out in both scale and form would add even greater definition.  What’s missing from the skyline is an iconic building, something instantly recognizable that people around the world will see on TV and know is in Vancouver.  It would raise the profile of the city, internationally.

If Vancouver wants to remain the commercial heart of Greater Vancouver, the city should think about trying to get an office project going and zoning to make sure there will be more in the future.  Otherwise, the amusing reverse commute situation could actually happen.  Who knows?  It may seem unlikely now, but maybe even Surrey could develop a downtown commercial district on some of its less attractive land.  They are already clearing out the crackheads and removing some houses with drug connections.  Then there’s that awful junkyard sitting on prime riverfront property.  It has the growing population and land to rival Vancouver.  It will probably have more people within twenty years.

Is Vancouver going to just sit back and let it happen?

New Humanist Symposium (#19)

May 12, 2008

The new Humanist Symposium blog carnival is out, including a post contributed by myself.  It’s all about life from a humanist perspective.  You can find it at:

http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2008/05/humanist-symposium-19.html

Well done, L.C.

Do Canada’s Leaders Have the ‘Nads?

May 10, 2008

The stink being raised in Quebec over Governor General Michaele Jean talking up Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations this year highlights Canadian politicians’ lack of vision and leadership.  There are two objections that Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and others raise.  I disagree with one but agree with the other.

Separatists are offended by the idea that Ms Jean and the federal government are calling the celebration a Canadian celebration.  They say it is a Quebec celebration.  This is the one I disagree with.  Quebec is part of Canada and Quebec’s history is part of Canada’s history.  I studied it in school, too.  Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain made Canada possible.  They discovered and founded a French colony, not an independent country.  So, it is every bit as much Canada’s history as Quebec’s.

Where I agree with the separatists is their complaint that the Governor General represents the British queen.  This is a national embarassment that I wish the rest of the country would want to remedy as much as some Quebecers do.  As the queen’s representative, she is a reminder that we don’t even have our own head of state.  Separatists see the link to the British crown as a constant reminder of the capture of New France by the British about 250 years ago.  This is one of the biggest problems they have with the rest of Canada.  They think of the rest of us as the British conquerors and colonizers.  Why can’t we feel that humiliation and decide to do something about it?  I mean, really, borrowing someone else’s head of state?  Are we an independent country or not?  The separatists know they want to be one.  Maybe if the rest of the country felt the same way, we could get on the same page and move forward as one.  As one joke goes, Quebec can go as long as it takes the rest of us with it.

They aren’t the only ones who are offended and think we should have our own head of state.  When I was living overseas in London, I was asked several times why we didn’t “go with the Yanks”.  They don’t understand why we would maintain a link with them.  They were often offended to hear that the queen has the title Queen of Canada.  “What?  Now their taking our queen?”, they would say.  They don’t want to share her with us.  She’s their head of state.  Every country should have its own head of state.  They think like a country.

By contrast, a lot of people in Canada still want to share their head of state rather than have one of our own.  They think like colonials.  Many of these people are British immigrants or recent descendants of them who don’t want to let go.  Some may be descendants of United Empire Loyalists who cling to British roots partly out of bitterness over what their ancestors endured at the hands of their former neighbours.

This attitude is holding us back as a country.  Not only does it give separatists something to complain about, it permeates our political and business leadership.  Colonial style thinking is still widespread.  Fitting into others’ plans is the easier option than conceiving and executing our own.  Sending raw materials to bolder countries that know what they want to do with them is easier than making and marketing products.  Arguably, we’ve even been lazy about that.  I don’t agree with everything in it, but, as Andrew Cohen wrote in ‘While Canada Slept’, we don’t export to others so much as allow them to import from us.  If we still cling politically to our colonial connection to Britain, economically we look a lot like an American colony.

Letting go of mummy’s apron strings would go a long way towards alleviating the resentment felt by many separatists.  It would be a good investment in national unity.  It could also result in a new attitude and outlook among our political and business leaders – one that puts us first.  Maybe then, if we stop clinging to the past, we will start thinking about and planning for the future.  Maybe we could see leaders emerge with a vision of the future that extends beyond the next election.  Maybe we would see some forward planning, with short, medium, and long term goals.  They might even think about where this country could be at the end of this century, for example – long after they’re gone.

Vision.  Goals.  Planning.  Going your own way.  Takes balls.  Do we have ‘em or not?

Life by Proxy

May 4, 2008

A couple nights ago, there was a story on the news about the little McCann girl who went missing in Portugal.  This one took a different angle.  It looked at it from the point of view of a Canadian clergyman who was assigned to the Anglican church in the Portugese town where it happened, a few days after the tragic event.

In the course of the story, the minister’s wife spoke of how she and the entire congregation prayed constantly for the little girl’s safe return.  They’re still waiting and praying.  She then asked, “How can so many people pray for the same thing and it not happen?”  If ever a question answered itself…  It was screaming out.  I wanted to scream it out.  “Because there’s no one on the receiving end of the prayers, of course!”

How she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see it is beyond me.  Why millions of others can’t see that prayers aren’t answered is beyond me.  Everyone in a competition can pray for victory, but only one will win.  Millions have prayed for loved ones to come home from wars who didn’t.  Other people will survive complicated surgeries or be found by the police, but these are the results of human actions, not  prayers.  I guess people really are that desperate.

At best, praying for someone is extending good wishes and hopes by proxy, albeit an imaginary one.  But, why channel good wishes through a third party?  Why not give them directly?  It expresses the sentiment you feel and, ultimately, is more sincere.

Prayer could actually be seen as a selfish act.  It makes the person praying feel better.  It does nothing for the target of the prayers.  There was even a study done in Europe recently that monitored results for people who prayed and those who didn’t.  It made no difference.

I was going to say, “At worst, prayer is a selfish act”.  Then I remembered another news story that demonstrates it can be worse.  If any of you are thinking praying can’t do any harm, think again.  Remember the story of the girl who died because her parents chose to pray for her rather than take her to a doctor?

If you want to help someone or extend your good wishes, do it in the real world.  Send them a card or letter.  Phone them.  Tell them face to face.  Take them to the hospital or feed them.  Contribute to a fund or charity (one that does practical things rather than convert people and pray for them).  You might just give them a little comfort, rather than yourself.  You might even save their life.  Praying won’t.

New Carnival of the Godless is out

April 28, 2008

No time to write because I have to do my taxes.  In the meantime, the new Carnival of the Godless is out, including a post by yours truly.  You can find it at:

http://www.nmmng.co.uk/4814e44f

Great job, No More Mr. Nice Guy.

Showdown: Law of the Land vs. God’s Law

April 24, 2008

The arrest of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs in the U.S. for forcing an underage girl to marry an older man, and recent removal of young women and children from the sect’s temple compound in the belief there may be more underage girls who have been married off, have again raised the question of when the British Columbia and federal governments will finally act against a similar sect in Bountiful, BC, led by Winston Blackmore.  It’s no secret that the Bountiful sect practices polygamy and that polygamy is illegal in Canada.  Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham has written extensively about the goings on in Bountiful.  It’s featured on local TV news in Vancouver from time to time and, occasionally, there’s a story about it on national news broadcasts.

So, why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?  They’re afraid.  They’re afraid any prosecution will fail because it will violate the Charter of Rights.  They may, by extension, be afraid of being sued for violating someone’s rights.  You see, whoever drafted the Charter included some stuff about freedom of religion, as opposed to freedom of views on the subject of religion, that could be construed as meaning there is no higher principle than one’s religious values.  The result is that BC’s Solicitor General, Wally Oppal, has been waiting for months – although it seems years – for advice as to whether or not prosecution would be constitutional.  I hope he gets it soon and, if it wouldn’t be, that changes will be made to the Charter.

The core conflict was summed up by one of the American sect members in a televised interview with the CBC a couple nights ago.  He said it doesn’t matter if the girls are underage.  He pointed out that the Book of Mormon instructs him to take many young women.  He then made the definitive statement, “When it comes to an issue of whether I choose to obey the law of god or the law of the land, I choose to obey the law of god.”  That is the situation in a nutshell.  Do religious rights supercede secular laws or are they subject to secular laws?  Do secular laws supercede religious rights or are there different laws for different people?

If we allow different laws for different people, how will we decide who gets special treatment and who doesn’t?  There have already been some special, and controversial, exemptions on religious grounds upheld by the courts.  Sikhs in the RCMP can wear turbans instead of hats, for instance.  On the other hand, a request some years ago by a muslim group to allow the use of Shar’ia law within their own community was denied.  That would seem to represent a precedent.  The underlying principle was that you can’t have a group of people enforcing a different set of laws.  There has to be one set of laws for all the people.  I like underlying principles.  They are something you can build on.  They are a solid foundation.

There is nothing stopping the BC government from laying charges under the current laws of the land.  Polygamy is illegal.  If the members of this particular religion want to challenge the charges under the Charter of Rights, let them.  Let it be decided by the courts.  One of two things will happen.  Either the principle that secular laws supercede religious rights will be firmly established, or the opposite will be.  If it’s the latter, I’m sure enough people will be sufficiently reviled by their Charter of Rights upholding polygamy and the partnering of young girls with old men that some changes to the Charter may actually be possible.  The changes would have to make it clear secular laws come before religious codes, that there are principles that outrank religious belief.  Those changes could even accommodate atheists and agnostics, recognizing their equal rights.  If things go really well, maybe we could even lose those opening words recognizing that there is a god.  They only serve to snub non-believers, after all.

What is the BC government afraid of?  Is it the legal costs?  Are they really going to allow some religious nuts to flout the law to save a few million dollars in legal fees?  Is it the constitutional issues?  Are politicians really so afraid of constitutional talks that they’d allow archaic traditions that exploit young girls to go on in a country that prides itself on, and, in many ways takes its identity from, being progressive?

Once again, the issue appears to be leadership.  No doubt the BC and federal governments will adopt a wait and see attitude.  Wait for the Americans to do something and see what happens.  I say go after them.  If they challenge under the Charter, fight them.  Dare to establish a precedent and a principle.  If the Charter is flawed, change it.  Bring it on.

New Carnival of Cities (April 23, 2008)

April 23, 2008

The latest edition of the Carnival of Cities is up.  It includes a post written by me.  You can find it at:

http://blogs.bootsnall.com/Seafarer/carnival-of-cities-for-23-april-2008.html

Great job, Sheila.

Star Shaped Pegs in Maple Leaf Shaped Holes

April 22, 2008

I find it embarrassing that many Canadians know more about the American political system and landscape than their own.  Even worse, and what makes me mad, is that many – maybe most – Canadians apply American politics to their own country.  They associate certain Canadian parties or candidates with American parties or candidates they like or dislike and, based on a perceived similarity, choose who or what to support accordingly.  They don’t think in terms of Canada, and what’s good for it.  They don’t think about what we are or what we need.  They assume a direct correlation and don’t stop to think that we are a completely different country with different political problems to solve, different priorities, and a different outlook.

This is influenced by, among other things, the fact that we are at different stages of development, or political and economic maturity.  The U.S. is at its zenith.  They are the only superpower in the world, at the moment.  Canada is still in its ascendancy, or adolescence.  Obviously, a superpower at its zenith and an up and comer have different needs, outlooks, and priorities.  For one thing, when you’re on top it can seem that the only way is down, so you act to prevent or delay the inevitable downfall.  You tend to look at the world in terms of perceived threats.  You look over your shoulder.  Right now, China’s ascendancy is looking like a threat to American dominance.  By contrast, when you’re growing and developing you tend to look to the future, and new goals and opportunities.  This outlook could be seen by a superpower as not being in line with their interests, especially if you happen to share a continent with them.  By assuming and applying American views, we often work against our own ambitions.

The U.S. became independent about ninety years before us and in a completely different manner.  They fought a revolution, striking out on their own immediately.  Canadian independence came in stages, starting with Confederation in 1867, then our first independent declaration of war in WW1, then the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the first Canadian passports in the 1940s, and repatriation of the Constitution in the 1980s.  The final step of letting go of the apron strings and ending the symbolic relationship with the British monarchy to establish a Canadian republic – specifically, a secular republic – is one I’m looking forward to.

Here again, however, perceptions of American parallels interfere with true perceptions of Canadian realities.  Historically, any movement in Canada for full independence has been called a republican movement because the result will be a Canadian republic.  Unfortunately, when most Canadians hear the word ‘republican’, they think they hear ‘Republican’.  They apply American politics to Canadian politics and think a movement for a fully independent Canada would lead to Prime Minister George W. Bush – or something like that.  Most Canadians tend to dislike the American Republican party and its policies.  That probably explains why the American right wing media often portrays us negatively.  Those same Canadians tend to associate the Conservative party with American Republicans.  However, it is the Conservatives who are most commited to maintaining the links with the monarchy.  So, Canadians’ perceptions of the possibilities for their own country, and desirability of them, are skewed by inappropriate and inaccurate application of American models to Canada.

Canada is not at its zenith.  At times, though, it seems like we’re not even trying to get there.  We aren’t planning for our own future success.  No one seems to have a vision for the future beyond selling raw materials to the Americans and, now, the Chinese.  If we’re going to think like Americans, why don’t we think about building our own successful nation?  Why don’t we become a powerhouse?  If, as a certain book store chain said, the world needs more Canada, shouldn’t we let it know we’re here?  To do that, shouldn’t we be a bit more proactive?  Wouldn’t we then stand a better chance of having a positive influence in the world?

How’s this for a start – if the world needs more Canada, doesn’t it need more Canadians?  Then we’ll be a bigger market.  Bigger markets can produce bigger companies.  Bigger companies are more visible and have a better chance of expanding to other countries rather than being acquired by foreign companies.  They can become global players, creating wealth at home and spreading Canadian values abroad.

We need leaders who are bold enough to move us forward.  That may mean choosing a more difficult path.  It may mean standing up to those who may think our own path is not in their interest.  Unfortunately, our political leaders follow public opinion and tell people what they think they want to hear, regardless of whether the public’s opinion is an informed one or not.  I haven’t heard of a really fresh idea in Ottawa in about forty years.  And, where do the public get their opinions?  Very often from American media.  Just as unfortunate is the fact that our business leaders tend to be market followers rather than market makers.  The easy money is in exporting logs and oil and metals – let the Americans do the hard part.  Leaders are supposed to lead.

American socio-political models just don’t apply to Canada.  They debate whether to have a national healthcare system.  We’ve had one for decades.  Yet, many Canadians vote for the Canadian party they associate with the American struggle to get what we already have, when what we really need is a few of those big companies that keep buying us up.

We won’t realize our full potential until we stop applying current American views to current Canadian situations and Canadian goals.  We have to start thinking of, for, and about ourselves.


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