Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Layton on Natives

I saw Jack Layton talking about his promises to implement the Kelowna Accord with First Nation Peoples this morning on Newsworld.

The most important part is pretty well summed up by this quote from the NDP website:

“These platform commitments are different than many election platform planks,” Layton said. “They are not promises about what New Democrats will do for you. They are what New Democrats will do with you.”

No grand plan, no big centralized reforms. Layton emphasized that the First Nations have a lot of problems, but they are already coming up with their own solutions. Government's role is just to help out in whatever way the First Nations want, even implementing different plans in different areas. I'd add that staying the hell out of their hair if that's what they want would also be a good committment to make.

This is probably the best idea a non-Native leader has suggested in a while. Too many people on both left and right have grand, social-engineering proposals they want to implement on status Indians across the board. Privatize reserve land, no, regulate its use better, change the way band councils can spend money, cut them off altogether. And nothing has really worked.

Trying to protect First Nations people from themselves is a paternalistic, insulting and ridiculous strategy doomed to fail. My father once told me a story about a Native farmhand he knew in Saskatchewan in the early '60s. Every year this guy went to the Calgary Stampede, like a lot of other people. And he'd come back and everyone would say "Hey, what did you see at the Stampede?"

And he'd say, "Oh, not much, I spent pretty near the whole day in the bar."

And everyone would laugh. They knew he was kidding. Because back then, Indians weren't allowed to drink in bars in Canada.

Give them back more land, more control over their natural resources, and let them do what they want with it.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Good News in Health Care

I'm tempted to just make this lead from the entire post:

Patients who normally would have waited an average of 47 weeks for an orthopedic consultation were treated in under five weeks.

But it doesn't tell you the how of the this story from Alberta, and the how makes all the difference. For years we have been pounded (especially by Albertans) with the message that efficiency can only be reached through competition between free-enterprise health providers. Public health care is a doomed, bureaucratic mess and will never be redeemed.

Well, kiss my ass, capitalism. It turns out that focussed efforts by people who understood the problem worked, and incredibly fast.

The Edmonton Journal reports that several factors were key to the improvements. The number of surgeries performed in each operating room was raised to three or four, instead of just one or two.

As well, surgeons worked with a team of nurses and physical therapists to move patients through the system quickly and get high-priority cases done first.

Alberta's Health Department contributed $20 million, mainly for additional staff and operating rooms. The speedier surgeries did not result in other health services being delayed or cancelled.

When the project was announced last year the health system was disconnected, with "silos" of services – like diagnostics and orthopedic surgery – being designed around that particular service, rather than around the patient.


The average wait times seen within the pilot project are even lower than the new national standards announced by provincial and federal health ministers last week.

By creating a flow-through process based on what the patients needed, the care got faster. I know a lot of people who have waited around for various surgeries, ranging from cancer to joint problems, and it's always a story of lurching from your GP to a specialist, to a variety of waiting lists. With this program, everything needed for a specific problem is hived off, and you just jump from diagnosis to imaging to surgery on a quick little timetable. That diagnosis-imaging-treatment series can easily be applied to many other procedures too, no doubt.

Good news all around, no matter what kind of health care you want.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Thoroughly Disturbing

Reading Pharyngula, I discovered this link to a posting about a truly immoral crossbreeding experiment. Apparently, a Soviet biologist artificially inseminated several chimps with human sperm in an attempt to create hybrids. Supposedly, this would prove that men and apes shared a common ancestor, and thus deal a blow to religion, a.k.a. the opiate of the masses.

Of course, if Christians had been breeding horses and mules together, I'm not sure why a human-ape hybrid would cause more doubt. And during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that women who gave birth to deformed and mentally challenged infants had slept with animals. There are several famous "calf-people" and "sheep people" from the history of England, who usually came to tragic ends at the hands of their ignorant peers. It seems like the question of whether a humanzee would be significant to anyone's religion would rely more on the particular theological interpretation given to the hybrid.

Fortunately, none of the inseminations produced a child, and attempts to find a human female volunteer willing to carry a humanzee child to term also came to naught. The entire experiment has the stench of Leninism, the notion that individual humans (or humanzees) are just interchangeable parts who may be sacrificed for the greater good of International Socialism. Considering that it would only be a few years later that the entire Soviet Union would be forced to reject genetics in favour of the worthless Lamarkianism of Lysenko, it's only surprising that the entire episode hasn't been erased from history.

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

H.P. Lovecraft

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Battle of the Tax Plans!

In the opening stretch of the federal election campaign, it looks like tax cuts, or the lack thereof, are being set up as one of the big issues.

In the blue corner, we have Stephen "No Charisma thanks, I'm an Economist" Harper, weighing in at about 99 MPs, maybe less a few right now. He's offering to cut the GST from 7 to 5 per cent across the board. This would, of course, be good for the poor. At least a little bit. Consumption taxes hurt people with less money far more than they hurt upper income earners. When I was making less than $30,000 a year, I still had to fill up the gas tank of my car, paying that seven per cent on every litre. The guy next to me at the pumps, filling his $100,000 pick up with dual rear wheels and a hemi, had to pay the same, of course. But it hurts less when it comes out of a $150,000 annual salary.

In the red corner we have Paul "Foreign Registered Companies" Martin, offering cuts in income tax, particularly in the form of a hike in the basic exemption rate. Most of the Liberal tax cuts over the past six or seven years have been targetted at (for lack of a better term) the middle-middle classes and the upper middle classes. This one is aimed at the lower middle classes - also known as the people who haven't seen much good come from the Liberal government as it cut the hell out of housing and social programs over the past decade.

In the orange corner (oh, how they longed to get Red as their colour!) we have Jack "I Have a Nifty Moustache" Layton and his plan, which is: no tax cuts. This is probably the hardest to sell, but he's proposing to dump that money back into health care and the above-mentioned slashed social and housing programs.

So which one is actually the best plan for Canada, keeping in mind that I'd really rather see the entire economy overhauled for the benefit of the poor.

Harper's plan seems pretty good at first, because the GST is a regressive tax. But poor Canadians who file income tax, the working poor, already get GST rebate cheques four times a year. So there's already some built in tax relief for the lowest levels of society there, leaving out the homeless. The Liberals are yelling about how their plan is better because you get the money back whether you spend money or not, which isnt' exactly the point. Anyone who works has to spend money on basic goods, many of which are taxed under the GST.

The Liberal plan is slightly better. Of course, they've added in a package of corporate tax cuts as well, which the NDP forced them to drop during the last session and switch to spending the money on social programs.

If I were an economist, I could probably work out which plan would leave the "average Canadian" with more money in his/her pocket at the end of the year. But I favour the Liberal over the Conservative plan slightly because it isn't designed to directly encourage spending. There's a psychological element at work here. If things are ever so slightly cheaper (and two per cent isn't much of a savings) you hardly notice, and live your life much as before. If you get a nice hefty rebate on your taxes next year, and you pay less in the next year, you can consider what to do with the lump of money you suddenly have. Save or spend, whichever you like. And Canadians really need to save more money. Hopefully some would choose that.

However, I ultimately go with Jack Layton's plan, in the short term. Barely. Tax relief for the poorest working Canadians is something the NDP should seriously consider for the future. But for now, there's a hell of a lot that needs to be done on the social front. My home town, of barely more than 115,000 people, has seen the number of homeless jump from about 17 to 54 in the last three years. And that's just the official numbers. That's directly linked to cuts in social services, housing and welfare. For years, the provincial and federal governments have skewed the economy to benefit the biggest mass of voters, the middle aged home owners of the middle and upper-middle classes. They've done very well. The economy is roaring along. Unemployment is very low.

Imagine what they could do for the poorest, if they tried?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Alternative Economics: Usufruct Zones

A few weeks back, I wrote a brief piece about how usufruct could/should work in a society with a different conception of property law. I made the assumption that it would be some sort of anarchist society, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

There are currently hundreds of millions of people around the world who live their lives by the unwritten laws of usufruct property. They're squatters. For the most part very poor, they live primarily in slums around the major cities of the world's poor nations. They have no land title. They have no deeds. And they don't have the kind of political power that allow them to manufacture such evidence of property. Remember, every title deed we now have is, essentially, a fantasy given force by a mixture of commonly held custom and government force.

Some economists have recently suggested that the best thing we could do for squatters (some of whom have built entire fairly nice squatter cities) is to give them title to their land. It would give them the ability to borrow against a new source of capital and help them to better themselves. This is, in fact, a good argument. But consider an alternative.

We could designate some areas as usufruct zones. Outside, normal property law would hold, thus pacifying the property-owning powerful. Inside (on land that nobody else wants anyway) usufruct would be the law of the land. With usufruct recognized by governments, the occupiers would have the advantages of ownership, including the ability to borrow against their new property. More important, they would have much greater security than they now enjoy.

This idea could have its greatest impact in the poor world, but don't discount the benefit it could give to people in the west, either. Remember, there are squatters aplenty in every western city, but they tend to take over vacant houses rather than building their own. Remember the people who work full time but have to sleep in their cars because they can't even afford rent. Or the homeless people, pitching tents and building shacks in ravines, being moved along constantly by the police.

We would have to give up a lot of control over usufruct zones to make them work. Building codes would have to be lightly enforced, if at all. But remember, well-built structures are in the best interest of the inhabitants. They'll get there eventually, if we give them a chance and time. And if we don't, then they'll still be living in tents in ravines, or sleeping in their cars. Which would you rather have, someone with a solid, if tiny, home of their own and clear ownership through occupancy, or someone who doesn't dare to own more things than he can carry in a shopping cart, and who doesn't know where he'll spend his next night?

Friday, November 18, 2005

What's Black and white and going to court?

Eight criminal counts.

Up to forty years in prison.

Conrad Black in an orange jumpsuit and leg irons.

I'm so happy I could almost cry.

There are few people on earth who need humbling more than Black, and I'm actually confident that he will go down for this. David Radler has copped a plea and will testify against his old buddy. Radler knows where all the bodies are buried, in the mess that was the Hollinger shareholder robbery scheme.

Not only is Black a thief, but he and his wife are two of the biggest aristocratic robber barons of the modern world. They openly despise those lower than them in the social and economic hierarchy. Reading a number of Black speeches and essays back to back, you see the word "envy" appear startlingly often. Black seems to believe that any criticism of him, whether of his business practices, his editorial policy, or his literary endeavors, is motivated by envy of his wealth and position.

For the record, I do not envy Conrad Black his wealth, his lifestyle, or his silly ermine-fringed red cape and title. I dislike his politics intensely, I despise his arrogance, and I am repulsed by his grasping need for public adulation.

I want nothing from Black, except for him to go away, and shut the hell up.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Elegant Decay

I admit, I'm strange in a lot of ways. There's the weird politics, the dinosaur fixation, the thing where I write SF and fantasy. But those are shared with a lot of people, including at least a few I know. My fascination with decaying and abandoned human structures doesn't seem to be that widely shared.

So I was excited to find the featured entry on Wikipedia today is about Dogpatch USA, an abandoned theme park in Arkansas. It was based on the Lil Abner cartoon characters, opened in the late 1960s and initially did well. It started struggling soon, went through ownership changes, bad management, and eventually was killed off by competition and the fact that kids don't know about Lil Abner anymore.

There's something really beautiful about nature reclaiming human structures. The dead buildings are haunting as they slowly merge back into the landscape. Check out these pics, apparently taken by a couple of urban explorers who braved the terrifying No Trespassing signs to take a look.

I've never explored abandoned places, beyond a few empty lots near my home. I'd like to someday.

Friday, November 04, 2005

In other news: Not all US congressmen are morons

The ridiculous Kelo vs. New London decision has just been gutted by the US House of Representatives. This is some of the best news that has come out of the states since, well, since Scooter Libby was indicted. Or since Bush's approval rating dropped again. It's been a good week.

Background: The Kelo case was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision handed down earlier this year. Mrs. Kelo owned a house that was, I believe, former Army Base housing she had bought years earlier in New London, Conneticut. It wasn't big or fancy, but it was bought and paid for.

The New London civic government decided they wanted a big pharmaceutical plant to be built on the site to generate jobs/tax revenue. They tried to kick Kelo off her land to complete the package and give the land to the developers. The developers and government (hereafter refered to as "the asshats") dragged the case all the way up to the Supremes, who decided that community betterment (read: tax revenue and corporate profits) trumped any rights an individual might hold. Nice one, guys. Way to fight creeping totalitarianism there.

But the House has ganged up on the decision. From

Conservative defenders of private property and liberal protectors of the poor joined in an overwhelming House vote to prevent local and state governments from seizing homes and businesses for use in economic development projects.

The House legislation, passed 376-38, was in response to a widely criticized 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court last June that allowed eminent domain authority to be used to obtain land for tax revenue-generating commercial purposes.

That decision, said the House's third-ranked Republican, Deborah Pryce of Ohio, "dealt a blow to the rights of property owners across the country."

The bill would withhold for two years all federal economic development funds from states and localities that use economic development as a rationale for property seizures. It also would bar the federal government from using eminent domain powers for economic development.

It now goes to the Senate, where Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced similar legislation.

I love the fact that it's bipartisan, and I suspect both sides aren't as far apart as private property vs. protecting the poor. If the poor actually managed to get a little bit of private property, it damn well needs to be protected.

Cyborg Eyeball!

Well, not quite. But it is pretty damn nifty. Via Future Feeder, an implantable miniature telescope has been developed and is in phase two and three trials. That's human volunteer trials.

The device is designed for people with age-related macular degeneration, in which the centre of vision is degraded and only the peripheral vision is left. From the rather scanty information on the website, it looks like it's not anything like a complete cure. You get one telescope implanted in one eye, to give you back some centre-of-field vision. The other eye is left alone to provide peripheral vision (is it damaged in the eye with the telescope?).

This implies an interesting stage somewhere between a disability and a complete cure. I imagine that with so many other small, implantable devices, like cochlear implants for the deaf and camera/brain implant combos to provide a version of sight for the blind, we are entering a new stage.

The rather awkward phrase "differently abled" has been tossed around for some time to describe people who used to be called disabled or handicapped. It might be more appropriate for people in this new middle ground of technology-mediated ability ranges.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Alternate Economics: Usufruct

It sounds like an artificial sweetener (Mmmmmm. Usufruct (tm) has all the great taste with just half the calories!) but it's actually a different way of looking at property rights.

Most people never think about where property rights come from, and when we have an alternative view of property slapped in our faces, it can knock us right down. Think about the stereotypical hippie character in some bad '60s movie screaming "Property is theft!" What the hell does that mean?

I always thought it was a socialist/Marxist thing until I started reading about anarchism a year ago, and discovered the phrase sprang from the pen of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to call himself an anarchist. He also wrote that "property is freedom," because he knew about consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds.

What he was getting at, in those simple little phrases, was that he, and most anarchists and socialists since him, don't agree with the way property rights exist in our current society.

Thought experiment: You own one (1) acre of land. By what right do you own it? Well, you bought it from the guy who owned it before you. And he from the person before him, and so on. But in North America, those chains of ownership aren't very long. Eventually, we find someone who settled empty land, or actively swiped it by kicking out/killing the natives. And in Europe or Asia or Africa, you see the same chains of ownership, interupted by occasional theft by men armed with rifle, musket, matchlock, halberd, broadsword, gladius or pointed stick, as appropriate to the era. All land occupied by humans was stolen from other humans at some point or another, and the paperwork was filled in later to make it look like a legal sale. It hardly seems like a reliable basis for a system of ownership, does it?

To replace this system, usufruct has been suggested. Simply put, it means you own what you use. When you stop using it, you cease to own it. If you find unused land or resources, you can start using them yourself. Murray Bookchin, an eco-anarchist, put it this way:

"the principle of usufruct, the freedom of individuals in a community to appropriate resources merely by the virtue of the fact they are using them. . . Such resources belong to the user as long as they are being used. Function, in effect, replaces our hallowed concept of possession."

Usually, radicals like to scream slogans like "Property is Theft!" without explaining what they would replace our current system with, which is just bad public relations. If you think about usufruct, it doesn't seem that bad. You live in your house, play lawn darts in the back yard, plant a little garden? You own it, and the community will support your ownership of it, either through some sort of free-market court system or a voluntary jury. The same goes for your car, your wristwatch, your iPod, your dog, your socket wrench set, your collection of small bits of string in the junk drawer.

If you rent an apartment or a basement suite, congratulations! You now own a portion of the building, and are essentially a member of a condo association or part owner of a home. If you are a landlord, you are SOL. If you're lucky, the new owners will hire you as the maintenance guy.

But how do you establish a claim? How long does it last after you wander away? What if you want to go on a six-month trip cataloguing butterflies in Brazil, and when you come back you find that some dirty hippy has moved into your house, because you weren't "using" it? This is one of the thorniest problems of usufruct, and I suspect it could only be worked out, somewhat imperfectly, by trial, error, and the creation of widely-acknowledged custom or common law.

Probably the easist way would be to estalbish community claims offices, like the offices that monitored and licensed gold panners in the 19th century. If you find a vacant house, the first thing you do is wander down to the office. Is it really vacant, or has the owner just forgotten to mow the lawn, or gone on vacation for a few months? If it is vacant, register your claim and move on in. To cement your claim, you should, as Locke urged and old American common law had it, mix a bit of your labour with the land. Fix the place up a bit. Mow the lawn. Plant some carrots or tulips. After a week or a month, the claims officer will wander by, see what you've done, and put a check mark next to your name. Home filled, usufruct-owner in place. (Anarcho-capitalists would no doubt see the claims office as a free-market, for-profit business, possibly with several competing officers, and the collectivists would much rather see a community effort to register property use/occupancy, but it amounts to the same thing in the end.)

Practically, the biggest hurdle to usufruct is probably cultural. We are very used to seeing property as a concrete thing that can be picked up and put down, left alone, but which is still attached as if by invisible threads to its owner. The idea of property without an owner is frightening for some people. A few decades ago, some anarchists in Holland started leaving white bicycles around Amsterdam for anyone to use and then leave when they were done. The police kept seizing them as "stolen property."

The neo-conservative view that private ownership of every resource would provide a better degree of stewardship than any kind of government or communal ownership also rears its head in this discussion. I really can't say just how ridiculous I find this idea. Let's leave aside the fact that a corporation with a five-year financial plan could easily strip mine or clear cut land to fulfil short-term shareholder demands, and look at the example of public parks. I mean small, community parks, with swing sets and a few sports fields. Would you rather they were owned by a private individual for profit (lots of billboard ads, or pay parking, or even paid admission) or by the park users? Sure, there would be lots of free riders, but a community parks group could probably handle keeping things in order pretty well.

In my final note, I'll say that many right anarchists and libertarians believe in something much like the current property rights system. But without a government and police force to enforce property rights, usufruct would become the only method of property distribution. Any private security force that defended someone's right to forbid use of unoccupied land would be a de facto government. And any collectivist group that walled off a section of "their" community "for future use" and stopped others from encroaching would be doing the same thing. And don't think people wouldn't try it.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Alternate Economics and... The Apprentice?

This is a quasi-rant based on something that has been bothering me since I caught the last few episodes of The Apprentice's first season.

The Apprentice is supposedly a paen to all-American capitalist entrepreneurs (you know, the kind the French don't even have a word for). But the way the show is structured betrays every ethos it supposedly upholds.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of bosses. For those who haven't seen the show, every season starts with two teams (men vs. woman, college grads vs. high schoolers, etc.). The teams are given a task, a deadline, and a budget or the materials to pull off their goal. They compete head to head, and the losers have one team member fired by Donald Trump.

Each team has a leader, the "project manager," who is selected from within. There are no real guidelines for how to select the PM, and in the past it has usually been a process of self-nomination. Typically, each team member tries to take at least one try at it, and a few times, I believe there has been a vote on who should be PM.

The PMs tend to act like bosses, whether good or bad. But they aren't bosses, obviously. They only govern by consensus. If it was a real workplace, they would have power over their fellow workers. They could fire them (can't do that here) could theoretically cut their wages or withold future raises (no one's getting paid), could demote them or put them in the smelly cubicle (but there'll be a new leader next week, no penalty can hold). In fact, the groups undertaking the tasks could more accurately be called (gasp!) cooperatives. They tend to be deficient because everyone is trying to act like a boss, however. They only really know how to behave hierarchically, and everyone is trying to demonstrate "leadership." On some teams, there is a real problem of too many Pizarros, not enough conquistadors. In general, the teams that have the least amount of power politics and personal clashes do the best.

The only power a PM has, even theoretically, is to bench a troublesome team mate for the duration of the task. However, they seldom resort to this, usually giving their more useless/irritating colleagues the scut work, like ordering lunch or sweeping up.

The teams tend to stumble forward because all the members share two collective aims. The first is to win the task of the week. The second is to find a victim to blame if everything goes pear shaped. More often than not, the PM of the losing team gets the boot for "poor leadership," which is sometimes obviously true, and sometimes less so.

Having demolished the notion that The Apprentice is organized like a real capitalist workplace, let's look at that Horatio Alger myth that is so prominently displayed in the advertising. The word leadership has taken such a beating on this show that it could stand in for Ed Norton in Fight Club. But none of the Apprentices are actually trying to become entrepreneurs through the show. They are trying to win a position below someone else - someone they'll likely never surpass in wealth and power. They're gutting each other week after week to reach the highest peaks of middle management.

I was going to refer to this as a kind of feudal system (King Trump, with his privy council of George and Carolyn) but what it really reminds me of is the system of patrons in 18th Century France and England. It was largely expected that to advance in life, one needed a wealthy and powerful patron. And once men rose to a high enough station, they returned the favour to those below them, often their children, nephews or the sons of their friends, creating a massive old-boys network. It seems that this system has returned to the land that spawned the self-made millionaire. Now, you don't make your money with sweat and innovation. You become successful by being close to success. That kind of elitism is more disturbing than any form of capitalism, which is why it's dressed up as "leadership."

One final note: I used to like The Apprentice. It's not that I'm a big fan of the economic system it (supposedly) represents, but I like watching people work together to do something in competition. In the first two seasons, most of the tasks were based on who had the most money at the end, a nice concrete basis for a win or a loss. Who sold the most ice cream? Who got the most money out of a mobile kiosk selling anything they could think of? Now, the show has devolved into product placement hell. All the challengers are public relations or ad based, and they revolve around creating some bullshit tie-in product or marketing campaign. The contestants, who may or may not be good business people, suck at these jobs, because by and large they aren't creative at all, much less for a living. Watching them make asses of themselves shilling for Dairy Queen or Best Buy is just sad.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Rule of Law on the Final Frontier

I've recently started watching Battlestar Galactica on DVD, and despite my early reservations (it is a remake of one of the cheesiest SF shows ever) it's actually pretty good. It's no Firefly, that's for sure, but the mini-series/pilot was pretty well written, very well acted in places, and it had some compelling fight scenes and space battles.

So yesterday, I rented the first disc of the actual series, and watched four episodes. The first two were quite good. The third, Bastille Day, was a bit of a dud. And it brought up an issue that shows up with alarming frequency in SF, and is usually handled badly. No exception here.

Bastille Day is about a prison riot. The fleet of about 50,000 people is running out of water, thanks to some sabotage in the previous ep. They've found an ice moon, but mining it will be labour intensive. They need workers. For some reason, the Commander Adama and President Roslyn decide that prison labour will be just the ticket. (The 40,000 or so civilians on passenger liners and cargo ships were busy, I guess.) There happens to be a transport ship of convicts that made it into the fleet. The labour will be voluntary, and the prisoners will earn "points" towards their release by participating. (Interesting aside: the prisoners were on their way to parole hearings. Some of them should, in all likelihood, already be released by this point. Nice of the powers that be to offer them "points towards release.")

When Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama and a few other crew and civilians go on board the prison ship to make the offer, they are ambushed and captured by the prisoners. The jailbirds are being led by a terrorist/freedom fighter called Tom Zarek. There is much bloviating among the cast members about which category he falls into, and it seems from their exposition he blew up a government building, with people inside. So I'd say he falls more on the Timothy McVeigh side of the ledger, whether he was standing up for his oppressed people or not.

(As a side note, Zarek is played by Richard Hatch, one of the stars of the original Battlestar Galactica. He couldn't act then, he can't act now. It's like watching a block of wood. Why, why couldn't they have stuntcast Dirk Benedict instead! Give us cheese!)

To this point, my response to this episode is "Eh." I've seen this plot, or a variation of it, several times before on SF shows and military/cop/politicial dramas. Star Trek: TNG and DS9 used the Maquis for this particular plot device, on Babylon 5 the Martian colonists sometimes filled this role. It gives the writers a chance to talk about when you cross the line from a just rebellion to terrorism.

Unfortunately, the writers almost always give in to the need to make things simpler. The lead bad guy usually turns out to be either A) a snake who only wants personal aggrandizement or B) an ideologue so warped that he is willing to destroy anyone and anything to get his way.

Bastille Day has it both ways. From Television Without Pity, here's part of the episode recap where Apollo realizes Zarek's "plan" just as commandos storm the prison ship.

In the control room, Apollo realizes, "You want them to storm the ship."

The Marines begin to cut through the hull of the Astral Queen.

Apollo continues, "You don't want elections, you don't want your freedom -- you want a bloodbath." He says that Zarek's been forgotten for twenty years, and that this is a chance to "go out in a blaze of glory."

The Marines enter the Astral Queen and move past a prisoner that they've already tied up and gagged. Before he could sound the alarm. Gee, that was lucky.

Zarek enters full-on crazy as he declares, "Once Roslyn uses Adama's soldiers to massacre the people on this ship, prisoners and hostages alike, the people in the fleet will never, never forgive them. The entire government will collapse." Yay?

Real world freedom fighters, even real world terrorists, usually have much more transparent aims than this. They're pretty up front about what they want. Even al Qaida openly acknowledges that they're trying to spark a big war between the evil, nasty, secular west and purified Islam. But in TVland, everybody's got some weird, psychological, hidden motivation.

Anyway, Apollo saves the day, interestingly, by saving Zarek from getting his brains splattered by a sniper. (Usually writers kill these terrorist characters off.) Apollo then promises free elections, and leaves the prisoners in charge of their ship, taking off the crew and guards. It's the first novel thing this episode has done. Then Apollo has to go explain himself to the higher ups, including his father, the military commander.

The Prez is stuck on the idea of holding elections within a year. Apollo notes that former President Adar's term is over in seven months, and according to the law, there should be elections then. Adama growls that Apollo sounds like a lawyer. Apollo clenches his jaw and says that he has sworn to defend the law, and that the law says there should be an election. He adds, "If you're telling me [that] we're throwing out the law, than I am not a captain, you're not a commander, and you are not the president. And I don't owe either of you a damned explanation for anything." And once again, I love their different reactions to this. The Prez looks rueful, but like she agrees, as she says, "He's your son." And Adama just looks infuriated as he rasps, "He's your advisor." He glares at Apollo for a second and says, "I guess you finally picked your side," before leaving. Which...yeah, I don't know. The side of the law? Stupid laws!

It's a better ending than I was expecting. The convicts will mine the ice, voluntarily. They're dependent on the rest of the fleet for food resupply and protection from the Cylons, so they have a powerful incentive to not attack anyone else.

But the final explanation of why Apollo did what he did left me cold. I actually think that you should do what's morally right regardless of the law. But this kind of thinking, that the rule of law should always trump everything else, shows up in a lot of modern culture, from the West Wing to Star Trek. It implies that all laws are just and wise, which history (and the present) shows is simply not true. And there is another undercurrent, as exemplified by the final scene, that also bothered me.

The Prez is reading the book she got from Adama when Apollo enters her quarters. Apollo wants to explain that he wasn't being disloyal to her, and the Prez says that she admires his principles. Then she asks him to sit down, and after a slight hesitation, she tells Apollo that she has cancer. She swears Apollo to secrecy, saying, "Whether or not I survive this, it is of great importance to me that there's a future for the people. And I fear that knowledge of my illness will erode hope." Apollo assures her that she can trust him.

An ongoing subplot, never shown, is that there are riots in the civilian ships over water rationing. The military characters mock the civilians for their lack of discipline. Then the president decides to hide her illness, because the common people couldn't handle that, either. And the higher ups are hiding the fact that the Cylons have human-appearing infiltrators. Zarek doesn't tell his own supporters about his ultimate plan.

The ultimate lesson seems to be that the mass of people are too stupid and panicky to deal with the whole truth. In television, where the viewer ultimately has the most knowledge, we are invited into this elite club of the powerful. We assume ourselves to be as wise and calm as the leader-characters we watch. When in reality, 99 per cent of us would be on the outside.

Ironically, this episode about democracy has become a powerful example of elitism and anti-democratic thinking. The most disturbing thing about this is the fact that I can think of a number of other examples of similar plots on a variety of television shows.

Compare and contrast that with the plot of Serenity, or with the X-Files. Mulder, Scully and the Lone Gunmen were always trying to fight against just this sort of top-down, authoritarian secret-hoarding. Just like we should be in real life. The masses are not that stupid. Arguing that they are is just one short step from thinking that they shouldn't be able to make any decisions for themselves - like who to vote for.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Lost without a plot

And now for something completely different.

My girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) sent me an e-mail a while ago mocking the first two episodes of Lost that have aired so far this season. I'm reposting most of it here, because it's too damn funny not to share.

Some background: we both loved the first half-dozen or so episodes of Lost. It has a great premise, fine actors, a novel setting and it set up some great mysteries in the first few episodes. One of our favourite scripts was written by David Fury, late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and other fine shows.

Well, David left. The mysteries showed no sign of being resolved. Ever. The scripts started showing signs that the writers were actively resisting revealing any information. Characters concealed things from each other for no reason, didn't bother to question strange events, and otherwise began acting like morons. Executive producers JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof relentlessly hyped every disappointing episode like it was the second coming of Robert A. Heinlein. We, the viewers, became embittered by about episode twelve or fifteen.

Here, then, is proof that out of bitterness can come comedy.

JJ Abrams: Whoohoo, thank goodness we figured out was in the hatch before the season premiere.

Damon Lindelof: A scottish guy!!! Viewers will never see that coming, and it will totally change everything.

New writing intern: umm, guys! I’m sorry to interrupt all the back patting and high fiving, but I’m working on the script for episode two and I have some questions.

JJ: Fire away young apprentice! And remember, this year’s motto “Everything happens for a reason!”

DL: That motto is so great! With a motto like that people will totally be able to see why Lost is the best television drama ever!

Intern: Right. Well, it’s great that there was a Scottish guy in the hatch, and that he has some weird connection to Jack.

DL: Jack is the most heroic and admirable character you’ll ever see on television. Viewers will not believe the amazing twists we have in store for Jack this season.

Intern: So what the writing staff needs is a bit more guidance, like for example who is this Scottish guy, why is he in the hatch, and what affect or connection will he have with the rest of the characters?

JJ and Damon stare blankly at the intern. The sound of crickets chirping can be heard faintly in the background. After several awkward moments JJ burst out laughing and points at the intern.

JJ: Good one kid! You really had me going there, expecting “answers” to all those complicated “questions” Seriously, if we gave you that much information now, you’d have enough to go write four...maybe five seasons worth of episodes.

Intern (counting to ten in his head before speaking): Well what should I do for episode two then?

Sound of crickets...then finally...

DL: Episode 1 totally rocked. Viewers must have been completely on the edge of their seat when they saw it. Couldn’t you just make another one that’s like episode one only, you know, different?

Intern: I think the viewers might notice it’s the same.

JJ: No, no...I think Damon’s on to something here. What we should do is go back to the point when we blew the hatch, and then show all that stuff...Kate falling down the hatch, Locke going after her, Jack going after Locke, the big reveal when Jack confronts the Scottish guy...yeah, we’ll show all that stuff again...only...from a different character’s perspective. Yes, and we’ll cut it in with lots of shots of “Wet Sawyer” on the raft, cause that ladies like that kinda stuff.

DL: Me too! Er, I mean, “Wet Sawyer” that really brings in the ratings.

Intern: You mean you want me to make the Hatch plot exactly the same as last week, only show it from a different character’s perspective, and you want me to end on the same note of Jack recognizing the Scottish guy?

JJ: YES! Exactly! That’s what we experts in the writing world call parallel construction. You’ll understand when you have a bit more experience, kid

At this point JJ picks up one of the five emmys his show “won”, and wiggles it in the intern's face.

DL (unable to take his eyes off the statue): Oooh, shiny.

Intern: So which character’s perspective then?

JJ: Kate, the viewers love Kate.

DL: Kate is the best female character ever seen on television. The stuff that happens to Kate this season will totally change everything you ever thought you knew about her.

Intern (sighing): Do you think maybe I could throw in a polar bear attack or something. For umm, the audience members who are less interested in the hatch plot?

JJ: A polar bear? Like a real one?

Intern: Yes, like in the pilot. That episode totally kicked ass, and is the entire reason why I applied to work here.

JJ: And lucky you, after the hasty retreat of twenty other more experienced writers, your dream has finally come true.

DL: I just don’t understand why we can’t keep staff writers. Lost is the best show on television, we won five emmys.

JJ: Now kid, getting back to this polar bear idea. I’m thinking, no. No more “real” polar bears, but how about you throw in a stuffed polar bear somehow. That’ll drive all those loons out there that think we have continuity absolutely crazy. And we need the continuity nerds to keep waging war against the bitterness brigade, otherwise our entire fan base is going to be watching Veronica Mars by November.

Intern (very quietly): I like Veronica Mars. I hear the writers over there have a Show Bible.

DL: Oh, and throw in the numbers, people love the numbers.

Intern: Throw them in how? What do they mean?

JJ: Mean? Kid, you’ve got a lot to learn. The numbers don’t have to mean anything, people just have to think they mean something to give them meaning. Understand?

Intern: No, not really.

JJ: Well, just put them on something, or have the characters say them, it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re in there somehow.

Intern: All right, so just to summarize, I write last week’s hatch plot again, only from Kate’s perspective. I throw in some “Wet Sawyer”

JJ: Makes sure he breathes heavily a lot too. You know, like sex sounds, only have him making them for another reason.

Intern: Okay...and I throw in a stuffed polar bear, and the numbers. Is that all? It sounds like a very full episode, maybe we could drop the flashbacks for this week?

JJ (swinging his emmy menacingly) Kid, if yours wasn’t the last resume left in our selection pile I’d fire you right now for saying that. We are NEVER dropping the flashbacks. They’re our staple.

Intern: So, who should we flashback this week?

JJ (shrugging): Ahh, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter really.

JJ picks up a dart from his desk and throws it at a target on his wall that has all the Lost characters' names clearly marked.

JJ: Michael it is then.

Intern: What would you like the viewers to learn about Michael through the flashbacks?

JJ: Learn...through the flashbacks?? No, no. Just cover something viewers already know about Michael. If we introduce too much new information in one episode viewers will become confused. Oh, and you want to end on a high note so have something really exciting happen in the last five minutes. Don’t make it too obvious though.

Intern: Exciting, but not obvious?

JJ: Make it happen to Jin, off screen of course, and then Jin can come running up to some other characters and start babbling in Japanese about the exciting thing. The other characters, and the viewers, won’t have a clue what’s happening, they’ll just know it’s exciting!

Intern: Jin’s Korean, not Japanese.

JJ: Really? Huh. Well, whatever.

Intern (through gritted teeth): Great. Well this has been informative. Hey listen, you’re both big time Hollywood celebrities, would either of you happen to have Rob Thomas’s phone number?

JJ (pulling a card out of his giant rolladex): Of course, I know everyone in the biz.

DL: Are you going to call him and brag about how you’re working on Lost, the best drama that’s ever been on network television? Winner of five emmys and voted Entertainment Weekly’s choice for hottest drama of the year?

Intern (backing out of the office with the card clenched in his hand like a life preserver) : Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

As the intern exists, JJ pulls out some silver polish and he and Damon get to work polishing their emmys.

DL: Are we going to work on the scripts for the sweeps episodes today?

JJ: Naw, let’s just shine our emmys.

Aw, shucks

Blinkit has some nice things to say here about my writing and my chances of winning the 3 Day Novel Contest.

Thanks for the kind words, Barry. I'm hoping the zebra puts in a strong showing, too. Maybe if I can at least make the short list, it'll be easier to sell the story.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Only $10 million!?!

For months, I've been jumping up and down like a little kid who needs a trip to the potty, waiting for the film version of Firefly to hit theatres. One of the worst things about the wait was that there were several opportunities to see Serenity early, and I missed them.

There were pre-screenings all over North America... but I didn't get to see any. My boss gave me a two-person pass to see the movie the Wednesday before it opened... but I couldn't make that, either. I gave it to my brother, and he assured me it was great.

Now, I've finally seen it, in a theatre full of Firefly and Joss Whedon fans. And it was damn good. If you haven't seen it yet, stop reading this and go directly to a movie theatre. It has almost everything a great summer movie should have, and that I didn't see in any of the actual summer blockbusters this year. It has great action - chase scenes, bar fights, acrobatics, kung fu moves, shoot outs. It has hilarious dialogue, some of the best, sharpest jokes Joss has written since... well, since Firefly was cancelled. It has a great cast, who are allowed those small, subtle moments of emotion that so few film makers bother to capture in this kind of a movie. How many action movies can you name where the camera lingers just a moment longer after the dialogue ends in a scene, to capture the sad quirk of a mouth, or for that perfect beat of comic timing that drives a punchline home? How many movies can you name where you not only liked the dialogue and the chase scene, you liked the dialogue during the chase scene?

From here on, there are spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

The film also has one of the better science fiction plots I've actually seen in a while. Most SF in film and television is mining from two veins: The Matrix and The X-Files. Even seemingly original shows like Lost can be summed up as "It's like X-Files meets Survivor!" Joss has gone back a bit and is working from the older vein of space opera, a genre that has been worked over pretty thoroughly by the Stars (Wars and Trek) and needed a good kick in the pants.

In Star Trek, the heroes are authority figures, military officials and scientists with ranks, government backing and rules to follow. In Star Wars, they are chosen ones, mystical warriors with destiny guiding them. Firefly goes completely against both grains, giving us a gang of bank robbers and smugglers, the losers and scum of human space, who nevertheless have functioning moral compasses. Well, except maybe for Jayne.

Here, it's the villain who represents authority, order and government. The Operative reminded me both of the Soviet revolutionaries and of hard-right American Cold Warriors. He has a bright future in mind, and he's given up on a conventional morality so he can make it happen. Every society generates people like this: willing to violate society's own ethical codes, justifying their evil as for a greater good. (In his use of a sword and careful diction, he's also the most Jedi-like character in the film. Not sure if that's a deliberate comment on Star Wars, or just because killing people with swords is cool.)

The central mystery and premise of the film is also one that is (for an action movie) remarkably well thought out. It also gives us the origin of the Reavers, about whom there has been much speculation among fans.

The ending, in which the Operative survives and (almost) changes sides, is also a typical Whedon touch. He loves to undermine our expectations, making us look at character and plot in a new way. It doesn't have to be the same as everything else you've seen, he seems to be saying. The fact that little is resolved, that the real power brokers remain off stage, and that the final victory is as much moral as it is actual, is also typical. You can't just fly in and blow up all the bad guys with one well-placed missile. Changing the worlds is, and always will be, a work in progress.

And there are the shocks. The death of Shepherd Book didn't surprise me much at all. The other death was quite a kick to the head. I sure didn't see it coming, and I had the classic moment of "that character's okay, right?" Even though having a six-inch thick spike through your heart usually does not denote good health.

Now, some minor quibbles. The relationship between Inara and Mal almost felt tacked on, and her appearance halfway through the film could have been confusing for some people who had never seen the televison series (although it had some damn funny dialogue). The change from a series of solar systems to one solar system in the film seemed like pointless retcon. And from a logical point of view, why didn't the Reavers trash the surface of Miranda, or kill the passive 90 per cent of the population? Why are they not all dead from fighting with each other? Why did they all go into space in the first place? But from the point of view of a two-hour movie, these are really very small problems. (War of the Worlds wishes its problems were this small.)

I think the movie will benefit from much re-watching, and I plan to start that later this week. Now you should go see it again too. After all, we can't let it stay at just $10 million profit!

Happy Birthday, Tyrant Lizard King!

Today it has been 100 years since the discovery of the first Tyranosaurus Rex fossils. I have to admit that I've never really been a fan of the T. Rex as much as many people are. I guess I'm just not as impressed with it's label as the biggest land predator that ever lived. I like the quirky, little dinos a bit better, like Troodon. And my favourite big theropod is probably the Ceratosaurus, with its three horns.

Check out the Hairy Museum of Natural History for lots more info, including the first published illustration of the beastie standing next to a human skeleton for scale. It's in the famously discredited "kangaroo" pose.

T. Rex is still pretty damn interesting, despite being passed in the biggest theropod sweepstakes by Giganotosaurus, and possibly by Charcharodontosaurus and Spinosaurus. Researchers have just found what may be preserved soft tissue inside the bones of a T. Rex fossil. Whether this is really preserved blood vessels, proteins or what have you, or merely an artifact of the way the fossils were being prepared will no doubt be fought over for years, but it puts the big guy at the forefront of research again.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Alternate Economics and SE2

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about alternate economics, and I’ve been meaning to write a bit about Georgism, which is one of those fascinating neither-right-nor-left ideas that appear up from time to time.

And then a few days ago an e-mail popped into my home in box that really reminded me of my favourite form of Georgism, the environmental kind. The e-mail was from my two-jobs-ago life as a reporter for the (sadly departed) Sterling News Service. It was from a city councillor in Abbotsford, reminding me that Sumas Energy 2 was about to appeal the ruling of a National Energy Board panel, and...

I can see you’re going to sleep out here, so let’s speed up. Sumas Energy 2 (aka SE2, aka the fucking thug polluters) wanted to build a big, natural gas fired power plant just south of Abbotsford, in Sumas, Washington State. It would pump out smoke, most of which would have drifted north across the line, and aggravated an already smoggy little atmospheric bowl, full of crap that drifted east from Vancouver.

Now, the SE2 fellows are wily capitalist running dogs. They bought cheap land that was too far north to connect easily to high tension wires anywhere in Washington State. But there were wires just a few klicks over the border. They’d run a power line across and connect to a B.C. Hydro substation, no problem. Hell, Abbotsford’s a real conservative town, full of free enterprise, gun loving Christians (and some Sikhs and assorted others). Surely they’d welcome a power plant!

Ummmm... it turns out that the thing conservatives are most conservative about is the health of their children. This was the result. (Note: I didn’t write that story for the National Post. I wrote it for Sterling, which supplied copy to CanWest, which owns the Post. Yay, convergence. And this was back when it was just a right wing rag, not a shitty right wing rag with no sense of shame or decency.)

So, in the saga of SE2, the intervenors finally won the day. The NEB decided that the costs of the project (smog, asthma, lots and lots of angry people screaming for their blood) somehow outweighed the benefits (a tiny number of jobs to build the power line, a trickle of tax revenue). Until the appeal started. At the Supreme Court.

What the hell, those of you who have stuck in this long are asking, does this have to do with Georgism?

Georgism (quick, possibly error-filled summary follows) is a single-tax idea created by the 19th Century newspaper editor Henry George. He noticed that when land was cheap for the taking, around San Francisco, there was a rough equality of wealth. When land became expensive, and was bought up by speculators, some became rich and others poor.

George decided that land was fundamentally different from other real property. As Georgists say, they aren’t making any more of it. You can own a building, an iPod, or a car outright because it is the product of human labour. But according to Georgists, the outright ownership of land is immoral. Land belongs to the community, and to future generations. The products of human labour belong to those who made them.

George therefore proposed that land be the only thing taxed, based on its value. Land could still be occupied and no one would be tossed out of their house or business, but anyone who hogged land would be penalized for it, financially. The proposal was aimed at penalizing anyone who tried to speculate in land, and at allowing the poor, with their apartments and small lots, to pay less tax and keep more of their income. In theory, it could largely side-step the rent-seeking nature of capital, and avoid Adam Smith’s dictum that rent extracts the maximum amount of profit from its tennants.

George’s books were a publishing phenomenon in the late 19th Century, and his ideas were incorporated, in a watered down form, into legislation in a few countries.

Over the years, Georgism has been expanded into other aspects of the world’s natural resources, everything from mineral rights to the radio spectrum. BC’s stumpage and logging tenure rights system was re-written during the Dave Barrett government of the 1970s by a left-leaning Georgist, and it reflects the principles reasonably well.

So why can’t we apply Georgism to, at the very least, environmental law? SE2 is an example of why it would be a great idea.

Currently, most countries impose limits on emissions of various compounds, such as sulpher dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. You can spew as much as you want, as long as it’s below X amount. And a lot of firms, accidentally or by deliberate negligence, release more in the certainty that the fines will be less than the cost of upgrading or fixing the problems.

These compounds are not good to breathe, period. Imagine if we taxed industry based in large part on what kind of crap, and how much, they were dumping into the atmosphere and water? Two companies, side by side, each with the same number of workers and the same wages, could be taxed very differently. If one of them has smokestacks, it pays for the scientifically estimated costs of the lung diseases, asthma, emergency room visits and damage to the ecosystem it will cause. The other, zero-emission business pays nothing in environmental taxes, and is only taxed on the amount of land and water it uses.

With the taxes indexed down to the dollar based on emissions, there is no getting out of paying, no minimum level of pollutants. Stop polluting, you pay less, period.

A large part of the taxation system should be moved into the Georgist domain, to provide a spur to efficiency and green business. We’d all pay some of our Georgist fees for driving CO2 spewing cars, too. Switch from eight cylinders to four, pay less.

(The difficulty, of course, is in calculating the tax level. We would have to use the best science available, but it will no doubt be somewhat inaccurate. Companies and communities will need the right to appeal the taxation levels. But we also have to beware of junk science and paranoia. And should the money go the feds, the provinces, the cities, directly to the citizens or to a mixture of several?)

Switching to a Georgist system overnight would be an incredibly hard sell, but when you tie environmental costs directly to the taxation system, I think it would win easy acceptance from Canadians from both the left and right of the spectrum. It would certainly appeal to the conservative, free-market citizens of Abbotsford.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Shape of Things to Come (Undone)

A few predictions for the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the coming weeks, months and years. I expect to get fewer than half of these right, but I'm sure it will be the most cynical half I hit bang on.

1. Contracting scandals. These have almost started already, with more Iraq-style no-competition, guaranteed profit contracts handed out to the usual suspects, Bechtel and Halliburton. (The beauty of the Bush administration is that there is no longer a need for direct bribes to sway the government toward a particular course of action. The government and the kleptocrats are one and the same; they are two wheels of the same train, locked in parallel by greed and self-righteous ideology.)

2. A lack of mainstream reporting on the worst abuses. CNN and especially Fox News will ignore or downplay many aspects of the disaster. These strange stories - about people prevented from leaving New Orleans by armed police, about white British tourists being spirited out of the Superdome at night, about armed guards preventing the poor from "looting" food and water - will mostly appear, uncorroborated, on blogs and marginal internet news sites. There they will fester and become indistinguishable from the conspiracy theories and myths that have already arisen. The public will slip ever further into mistrust, paranoia and magical thinking. Eventually, some major American newspaper will confirm many of these tales in a serious investigative piece; it will win a Pulitzer and will be read by less than one tenth of the people who believe the dikes were blown up to kill blacks.

3. Americans will be completely unable to talk about the issue of class, using the word race instead. The word "poor" will almost always be followed by the word "black" in commentary on why there was no proper evacuation plan. There will be no discussion about how to amelitorate poverty, or about what this strange lack says about the American psyche.

4. There will be no serious attempt to clean up the environmental mess left behind during the current administration by either the state or federal government, unless it seems necessary for the convenience of developers.

5. Money to compensate those who lost their homes will be logjammed so thoroughly by the bureacracy that many people will sell their compensation rights to private corporations at pennies on the dollar. The speculators will reap a massive windfall when the feds pay up.

6. Most of the land in the poorer sections of New Orleans will be declared uninhabitable. The remnants of houses will be bulldozed and a massive, government sponsored effort to clean up the site will be made. After hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, along with billions more on improved flood control, the land will be sold for a fraction of its value to politically connected developers. New Orleans will, as Billmon has predicted, become a Disney version of itself, designed to suck in tourists. This time, the poor will have to live outside the city proper, on land that is not so well protected from flooding.

7. Refugees, especially the poor, will be treated as though they are idiotic, criminal children. The camps they have been dumped in will include curfews, lockdowns, searches and as many petty, humiliating procedures as possible to remind the inmates it is their fault they were in the path of a hurricane.

8. No one will be prosecuted for malfeasance. The worst offenders won't even lose their jobs.

I really, really hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Evil Monsters Savaging the Poor, Again

I just read, via Lenin's Tomb, this first person account by a woman who made it out of New Orleans after being trapped there for several days. She was airlifted after armed police refused to let her and several hundred others walk out of New Orleans.

All week, I've been wondering why people simply didn't walk down that highway that leads past the Superdome. Doesn't that go out of town? Does it dip under water somewhere? The news anchors didn't even speculate. Apparently, the roads out were blocked off by the cops, who didn't want to deal with poor, black refugees in neighbouring counties.

If this is true - and there are enough similar stories showing up on BoingBoing and other sites for me to give it a lot of credibility - then the authorities have actually caused almost every problem since the levies broke. The crime, looting, starvation, dehydration, abysmal living conditions, the strange new refugee relief centres that are run like POW camps, all seem to have been made worse or actually caused by a desire for total control, at gunpoint, of the disaster.

Why on earth did any New Orleans cops, under the mayor's fucktard orders or not, stop saving people to shoot at looters? The city was fucking destroyed, is preventing someone from swiping ten pairs of Levis really going to make up for that? Here's the thing: private property does not trump human life, ever. Property is a damned illusion, saving the living is all that matters.

None of the people responsible for this idiocy will ever really be brought to justice. This is one of the days when it sucks to be an atheist. I can't even relish the thought of Bush, Cheney, the FEMA Horse-Twit, et al, burning in Hell.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Iron Man of Words!

Woo hoo! I did it! I finished a substantial, coherent manuscript for the 3-Day Novel Contest! It's 37,500 words! It doesn't suck! I'm awesome!

I signed up just in time, weeks after actually printing and filling out the application form (those who know me, especially my wise and beautiful girlfriend, will not be surprised by this). Then on the day before the contest, I got more and more anxious. I couldn't possibly finish a novel. I could, but it would suck. It would suck and I'd be so tired I'd sleep for 24 hours after it was finished.

I was sitting at the computer, almost bouncing up and down in my chair for the last five minutes before midnight Friday, staring at the blank MS Word file. The my watch alarm went off and my fingers dove for the keys like starved weasels darting for scraps of rancid jerky.

For those who don't know it, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been around since 1977, and is therefore a year older than I am. It is based on the honour system, and anyone can enter, from anywhere in the world. The rules are simple: write a novel, on any subject, during the three days starting at 12:01 a.m. the Saturday before Labour Day, finish at 12:00 a.m. the following Monday. Outlines are allowed, and notes, and research, but every phrase in the novel has to be crafted during those three days.

I've so far only published two stories, but I knew I was capable of writing fairly clean first-draft copy, and of writing it fast. Speed, indeed, is one of my main talents, and I sometimes wish I had been born during the golden age of the pulps, when it was an asset that trumped style and characterization nine times out of ten. My outline was simple, just four sheets of paper on which I had scribbled the outlines of my main characters and a sketch of the first few chapters (and I lost the piece with the chapter outline before I started).

Still, it went amazingly well. The first morning, after 12 a.m., I wrote until about 4:30 a.m. and then staggered off to bed to sleep. I woke up at 10:30, started filling myself with tea and mini-Cokes and using caffeine to stave off the next collapse. That turned out to be a bad idea. The headache started around noon and faded in and out all day. By about 8 p.m. I'd fallen into an extended break from the writing that lasted until 11 p.m. I finally decided I just needed more sleep, or the writing wouldn't start again, or wouldn't be any good when it did. I set an alarm for 8 a.m. the next morning and slept almost nine hours.

I woke up, sans headache, and feeling a hell of a lot better. I kept myself to about half the caffeine ration of the day before, made myself some tortellini and vegetable soup around 2 p.m. and generally tried to act like it was a normal working day. My productivity was as good as when I had been panicked on day one, and I was able to look at my own work with a much cooler eye. By the end of the day, when I stopped writing at about 10 p.m., I had more than 20,000 words saved. Another night of decent sleep, up at 7 a.m. the next day, and another productive, pain free day.

From the middle of the afternoon on the last day, I knew I would finish with time to spare. The climactic chapter was finished by 2:30 or so, and I stopped writing for three hours. Then from 5:30 to 10:40, I finished the 1500 word epilogue and tackled the task of editing the whole thing, making sure there were no glaring errors or dropped plot threads. I also punched up the language and characterization where possible. This added about 1,500 words to the manuscript. I didn't get up during the last stretch except to go to the bathroom, and when I was done, my brain felt like mush. But it was triumphant mush!

In general, I have to say that the contest was not nearly as hard as I had expected. And it was a hell of a lot of fun. I love writing, and a long uninterupted stretch during which no one would bother me, call me or drop by to do nothing but write was like a blessing from the gods.

Now what? Well, it goes into the mail today or tomorrow to the judges. I apparently won't hear back from them until about December. (But I need feedback now!) The winning prize is a publishing contract, second is $500 Canadian cash.

I'm not going to get either. Let's be clear, by Tuesday afternoon (which I took off work) I was already thinking of all the things I could/should have done in the novel. But even if I had worked myself harder, had forsaken sleep, had jammed caffeine pills in my mouth, I don't think I'd have written a winning book.

The thing is, I'm a genre SF and fantasy writer. I don't write stereotypical stuff, I hate ordinary military space opera and elf-quests alike, but my work is strongly plotted stuff. I've tried to develop a strong style and to build up great characters, but what got me going on this book, as on any story, was a really cool central idea, one only possible in fantasy.

So, as I told my girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) I don't think it will get selected by a panel of non-SFnal judges. It's like bringing a zebra to a horse show. It may be the finest damn zebra there is, but that's not what they're looking for. There's never been a straight up SF or fantasy winner of the contest.

Of course, if by some miracle they do choose me, I'll be happy to eat crow.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Abandoned to live in the world's largest toilet bowl

I put up - and quickly removed - a post this morning wherein I speculated that the main cause for so many deaths from Hurricane Katrina was that many Americans are too stubborn, mistrustful of authority and ill-educated to actually heed the warnings.

Surfing to a number of other Katrina-related blogs, I quickly realized I was wrong. No doubt a small number of people didn't leave New Orleans for those reasons, but they seem to be in the minority, judging by what relief organizations are saying. Apparently, almost everyone left in the city was too old, sick and/or poor to leave.

Check out a few websites with the evacuation plan for New Orleans. Listen closely for the voices telling you about the government buses taking people out of the city, about the evacuation efforts by the city, the state, the feds...

(sound of crickets)

The state trooper website for Louisiana contains numerous route maps on how to get out of town, but if you don't have a car, there are few options. Most of the people who faced the worst part of the storm were poor and a majority were black.

And now martial law has been declared to control rampant looting. Here's a recipe for civil order: take the poorest 10 to 20 per cent of the population of an already violent city. Add a major catastrophe. Take away electricity, drinkable water, and food. Add the fact that police are mostly busy pulling people off their roofs. Looting, you say? What a fucking surprise.

How much money does it cost to pluck people, one at a time, off of their rooftops with a helicopter? Compare total cost to the fuel, drivers and rental costs of using school, city and charter buses to offer anyone who wanted it a free ride out of the city. Not only is compassion better, it's a hell of a lot cheaper in the long run.


Here's a link to the rescue-worker e-mail, referenced on a number of websites and reproduced at

And speaking of buses, now that a significant portion of the city's voting public might drown in the Superdome, they appear to be available. From CNN:

In New Orleans, authorities prepared Wednesday to evacuate about 25,000 displaced residents who've been stranded since Katrina struck and transport them to the Houston Astrodome.

Texas officials offered to open the giant, mostly disused domed stadium as a shelter for people displaced by the storm. (See the video of the governor's plan to help the stranded -- 3:09)

Most have been staying at the Louisiana Superdome, another domed stadium which was designated a refuge for people who could not evacuate the city before the storm roared ashore on Monday.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The grasslands of Barsoom

I've just finished rereading The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes. It was actually better than I remembered. As my girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) says, it's a great little action-adventure SF story. But I have one little nitpick, which is actually common to a lot of other SF, both of the hard and soft varieties.

A brief synopsis: A band of 200 colonists has travelled in cryogenic suspension to a nearby habitable, earthlike planet and established a colony on an island. They are attacked by a strange critter they call a grendel - built like a Komodo dragon, it can move as fast as a cheetah, bite like a shark and has tail spikes like a stegosaurus.

The colonists kill the first critter after losing some of their number, then slaughter every one of the creatures on their island. But they didn't understand the grendel reproductive cycle. The fish-like critters in ponds and rivers are actually immature grendels, tadpoles of a sort. By removing all the adult grendels, the colonists have sent a signal for every one of the thousands of juvenilles to grow up into fierce adults. And the final battle is on.

My nitpick doesn't concern the grendels, which are great creations. They can supercharge their blood with an oxidizer that lets them move like the Flash, but also overheats them, forcing them to stay near cold water. And their reproductive strategy is based on real Earth animals.

The problem is with the background biology, which is simplistic and essentially a rip off of Earth's.

The planet of Avalon has grass, flowering plants, bushes with berries and fruits and trees, small mammal-like critters and flying pterosaur-analogues. All of the plants are primarily green, apparently using chlorophyl to photosynthesize. But how likely is it that we'll find all those things on any planet?

How long has grass, that ubiquitous plant, been around on Earth? Maybe 30 million years. The producers of the Walking With Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts series have bemoaned the fact that they couldn't film anywhere with grass for any of the Mesozoic segments, and about half of the Tertiary segments. And grasses evolved from flowering plants, which didn't turn up until the late Jurassic, and didn't become common until the mid-Cretaceous.

There's a fabulous article that goes into all this in much more detail, along with the origins of a terribly addictive South American plant, here.

On another world, the notion that the gymnosperm to flowering plant to grass transition would happen exactly as it did here is fairly absurd. There would likely be whole plant-like species that wouldn't correspond to any known family. And why would they be green? If they struck on a molecule a bit better than chlorophyl (plants only convert about 2 per cent of the sun's light to energy) they would be dominant on their world - in shades of red, blue, orange or purple, perhaps.

So it's particularly galling to read a hard science fiction novel that so lovingly creates an alien animal, but ignores the other elements of the alien biosphere. Sure, it may be that Niven, Pournelle and Barnes just wanted to get on with the meat of their story, and who can fault them for that? But a few elements of the story betray a lack of understanding of the randomness of evolution.

In one chapter, a scientist character has trapped a few furry, mink-like critters, and decides that because they are fur covered and look like mammals, they most likely nurture their young with milk. But there's no reason to expect that on another planet, it won't be the scaly, lizard-looking creatures that give birth to live young and suckle them, and the furry ones that lay eggs and then run off, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. A few advantagous mutations here, a bit of chance there, and wild combinations are possible.

I'm now looking forward to reading Beowulf's Children, the book's sequel. If I remember correctly, it includes a lot of interesting animals as the characters explore their planet's mainland.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lucas, Scourge of Fans

I had a terrible vision last night. I saw George Lucas, risen supreme and spreading his evil among other creators! The horror!

What evil? The suckness that was Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and (to a slightly lesser extent) Episode Three: Anakin the Whiny Child-Killer?

Those were bad, but not evil. If we had to denounce and hound people for being evil, Jerry Bruckheimer would have been thrown into a pit of molten lava years ago, and he would never have lent his name/cash to The Amazing Race, the only watchable reality show.

Nope, the evil (or perhaps EVIL) that emanates from Lucas is his obsessive recutting of his own movies. The first three episodes were famously "improved" for their second theatrical release just before Phantom Menace. Then he recut them again for release on DVD, adding in Anakin, Poster Boy for Infanticide, in the scene of Jedi ghosts at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Not as well known is that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were altered between the theatrical release and the DVD release. Minor changes, but Lucas couldn't even leave them alone for the six or seven months between releases. That's not a quirk, it's not artistic dedication, it's a pitiful addiction to an editing suite and CGI technology. I can clearly picture George peeling back his neck-flab-supporting turtleneck sweater to jam a coaxial cable directly into is spine. His nervous system connects to the edit suite and his eyes half-close in delicious, meddling bliss. "Yessss," he hisses, his voice soft as Jabba's skin, "where shall we add more flying objects and blobby alien critters today. You can never have enough background detail..."

Who could be infected next?

Quentin Tarantino: Spends next six years creating the directors cut of Kill Bill. After adopting some adorable orphans, decides it's "a little too violent" and replaces slicing sword noises with fuzzy animal squeaks. Blood recoloured green, blue and purple and edited to imply the movie is nothing but an extended Jello fight. Bill Cosby added to push Jello angle.

Joss Whedon: Instead of crafting new works, creates an extended re-release of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD. Because Buffy's outfits now look dated, hires a fashion design house to change her appearance, including hair cut and make up, to stay current. The project starts again every six months, resulting in a new re-issue.

The Estate of Jimmy Stewart: It's A Wonderful Life re-written to provide the happy ending at the 90 minute mark, because who wants to sit through the downer of the last 30 minutes before getting to everyone singing Auld Lang Syne? In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's filibuster ends when he is stoned to death by Republicans. "How dare he attempt to block the appointment of righteous judges!" yells Bill Frist, in a newly added cameo. In Harvey, Rob Schneider added as the loveable invisible rabbit, making raunchy gestures and oggling Stewart's elderly aunt.

Steven Spielberg: After becoming a creationist, re-writes Jurassic Park to confirm with biblical chronology. "We're recovered DNA from creatures that went extinct in the Flood!" the scientists exclaim. Self-righteous mathematician is eaten early on (the only good change) and children defeat the velociraptors by praying to Baby Jesus. Then Spielberg removes all the guns from E.T., replacing them with walkie talkies.

No, that's too ridiculous to ever happen.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Primacy of History

I'm currently a bit more than halfway through Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson, a much-praised new SF novel just out in paperback.

It's written as a regretful memoir by Sir Robert Bruce, an officer who takes part in the military campaigns of Consul Issac Prophet Fitzpatrick, an Alexander the Great obsessed military and political genius, in a strange, semi-feudal future. The world has reverted to steam after Fitzpatrick's people, the Yukon Confederacy, used EMP weapons to end the Electronic Age. The Yukons have technological superiority in the form of steam-powered fighter and bomber aircraft and the only working satellite network, their Chinese and Turkish Empire enemies have them vastly outnumbered. With war about to break out, it seems certain there will be a huge slaughter, possibly on both sides.

But the novel is also presented as a real historical document. It has an introduction and footnotes provided by a self-righteous and cranky editor, who gives us many of the insights into the Yukon culture. (Despite their name, they aren't from the modern Yukon. They are essentially the descendents of white, mainly Protestant North American farmers, and there is more than a little in their history that suggests they are descended from a militia movement.) The editor provides us with much of the exposition about the history of the period, which seems outlandish, and is definitely self serving. He is a defiantly unreliable second narrator for the book.

It also provides a pessimistic tone to the whole book: we know in advance that we can trust Robert Bruce more than the editor, and that Fitzpatrick is as much a monster as he is a conquering hero. But Judson lets us know that the future will gloss over those crimes, and see only the shining boy-emperor.

It's a brave narrative choice; essentially writing a future in which Hilter or Stalin has won and is remembered for centuries as a great and wonderful man.

I'm looking forward to see what happens next; we know that Fitzpatrick is assasinated, but when and why is a mystery.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Evolution: Threat or Menace?

That might as well be the headline in the National Post today. The actual lead in on page one is "Relgious right's theory of 'intelligent design' has Harvard interested. A3" and in large block type, "Darwin Who?"

While I appreciate the quotes around ID, it's highly misleading, making it sound like Harvard is doing a serious investigation of creationist nonsense. The truth is the exact opposite, as the A3 headline on Steven Edwards column reveals: "Harvard aims to prove Darwin right." The university is launching a study on the origins of life - a subject that is not exactly the same as evolution, although obviously closely linked to it.

Edwards hasn't really written much of an opinion piece here, it's really just the same back and forth he-said she-said nonsense that most writers toss out when writing about ID versus reality. But at the end he takes a groundless shot at Harvard researchers.

Harvard, meanwhile, is confident of the results of its study even before it begins.

"We start with a mutual acknowledgement of the profound complexity of living systems," David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at the university, told The Boston Globe.

"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

But statements like that can only open the door to further criticism from the Religious Right, which will surely argue that declaring the result in advance is hardly scientific.

Edwards, you are a goddamn moron.

Scientists do not perform experiments with no expectation. Roughly, the system goes like this: "X is a well-known fact, repeatedly proved. Based on that, I theorize that Y is also true, and will test it with an experiment." In other words, expectations (not "delcaring the result in advance," which is not what Liu said) are perfectly normal in science. The difference between scientists and others is that when the results are unexpected, they accept that their first ideas were wrong, and change their views.

Creationists and proponents of ID, on the other hand, attempt to fit facts to their preconceptions.

It's also noteworthy that if Harvard really were doing basic research into evolution - as the headlines imply - it would be the biological equivalent of going back to check if gravity really exists, and works the way thousands of physicists have already checked and documented. Yet this kind of work is now made necessary by the loud squealing of creationists and their pet politicians.

Other possible future headlines for the Post:

"Is Earth Round? Princeton profs meet with Flat-Earthers."

"The Four Humours Reconsidered. Oxford doctors taking medieval medicine seriously; leech stocks soar."

"Phrenology the new Kabbalah! Madonna endorsement convinces science that bumps = personality!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Five Fun Tricks With Democracy

It's back to school time, and somewhat later than that, it will be back to Parliament time for all those fresh-faced little MPs in Ottawa. They're so cute, with their slanders and partisan ranting! But in between their red-faced yelling matches and self-righteous scrums, they'll be thinking up new ways to improve our democracy and give Canadians more power over their lives.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

In case they actually want to improve things, here are a few suggestions I've been thinking over recently. In descending order:

Number 5: End land speculation with a Lockean property law.

Currently, we're in the middle of a construction and housing bubble. Don't deny it, you all know it's true. And one of the causes (and the effects) of the bubble is land speculation. There are a lot of properties sitting empty all over the Lower Mainland, where I live, because the owners are waiting for a rezoning that may or may not come, or because they're simply holding on to the land until the price hits their sweet spot.

This means that rents and land prices are driven artificially high because of the scarcity. So why not follow old English common law, which allowed squatters to take possession of any land they lived on for a year and a day unchallenged? We could switch that around, and say that if a property owner does not live on or improve his property for a year and a day, he forfeits title. The next person who improves the property (plants a garden, fixes up the house) would be the legal owner. Condos could revert to the ownership of the strata council. Let common law and the courts decide what constitutes "improvement." This would force landowners to either start developing or sell their properties before the year was up, cutting down on speculation somewhat.

Number 4: Take control of the GG's office away from the PM

Currently, there's some ridiculous controversy about whether the new proposed Governor General is a seperatist. Let's all take a deep breath and remember that, unless wearing a big Admiral Nelson hat and a jacket with lots of braid can sway thousands of voters, this does not matter very much. The GG has a few theoretically important duties to play in our goverment, but the last time one took part in a major way was in the 1930s. If we really need the post, let's open it up to the public.

There are a couple of ways we could do this. First, we could make it completely random. If you're on the federal voters list, your name goes into the (Admiral Nelson) hat, and if you are picked, you get a luxurious one-year stay in an Ottawa mansion.

Alternatively, we could hold a lottery, $10 a ticket, winner drawn in a national TV special, and the money pays for the official duties and mansion upkeep. (This option is my favourite.)

Or we could elect them directly. Boring.

Number 3: Give municipal goverments control of environmental policy

All politics are local, and all environmental issues, doubly so. I spent a long time, when I was with the now-defunct Sterling News Service, covering the biggest enviro issue of the last decade in Abbotsford. This was the infamous Sumas Energy 2 power plant proposal.

Background: Sumas Energy 2 (SE2) was an American firm. It wanted to build a gas-fired power plant just a stone's throw south of the Canada-US border. Because there are no high-tension power lines on the US side nearby, it asked for permission to run a line across the border and connect to the BC Hydro substation in Abbotsford.

The locals went absolutely batshit. The Fraser Valley is a big bowl, surrounded by mountains, which traps bad air. The SE1 plant had been bad enough, this was the limit. They organized mass rallies, protests and bus trips to speak to US regulators. When the matter came before the National Energy Board in Canada (who could control approval of the power line), they sent more intervenors than had ever registered, for the longest public hearing the board had ever held. The process was dragged out for years, and finally, the locals won.

By the skin of their teeth, by a decision by an appointed, quasi-judicial body that wasn't accountable to anyone. Why can't local goverments make decisions based on environmental issues? It's not that I trust local goverments to be greener than provincial or national goverments, but they are a lot easier to sway. Because they are a lot easier to toss out of office if they disobey the will of the people. And you can find them and yell at them in person.

And it was just ordinary people who fought SE2, not radical greens. I saw an incredibly embarassing sight during a big anti-SE2 rally once. A lawyer for the Sierra Club gave a very well-received speech, then tried to get the crowd to join him in a "There ain't no power like the power of the people" chant. They didn't get into it. It just sort of petered out. The crowd was just middle-class, mostly Conservative voting middle aged people. They didn't want to be identified as some sort of environmental crusaders. But they didn't want their kids breathing more smoke. Local issues can get people fired up in a way that ideology can barely touch. If local goverments could veto developments on environmental grounds, it would give enormously more power to citizens.

Number 2: Democratized Courts

We need to make it cheaper for people to reach legal agreements. With divorce, child custody and small claims matters, we could simplify people's lives a lot if we just let them reach their own settlements any way they wanted.

A lot of family-court matters aren't acrimonious, or need at the most a bit of mediation, but lawyers and expensive court time are still necessary. Why not simply have a system where a judge, justice of the peace or other court official could simply ratify any agreement brought to them by two or more parties?

If you've solved the problem on your own, you write down the agreement, swear before the official that all parties agree to the terms, then sign it. Done. Adversarial problems without an easy resolution could still use the court system. Outside the system, you could use your cousin Bernie as a mediator, or a private mediator.

For small claims, some lawsuits and even minor crimes such as vandalism, this system could work well.

Number 1: More Direct Democracy

There are so many ways we could do this, at the municipal, provincial or federal level. Probably the easiest would be to give the public a veto on any new law passed by the goverment. If enough signatures appear on a petition, a referendum is held on whether the law should be repealed. Or new laws could be passed by the same method - and not overturned by Parliament, but only if courts found they violated human rights.

To make things cheaper, we could hold the votes annually, say every October, rather than randomly whenever a petition passed the threshold. I suspect if people were voting for specific health care initiatives, to legalize pot, or to streamline gun control, turnout would be better.

And hey, it'd be a pretty good replacement for the senate. The "chamber of sober second thought" should be extended to the whole country.

Obviously, other people could come up with their own list of five changes to the way we govern, and every one of them would be different from mine. And I don't actually expect any of my recommendations to be accepted, at least not in my lifetime. But the important thing is that thinking about changing goverment something every citizen should do on a regular basis.

Our government is not set in stone. It is just a tool we use to guard our rights and keep ourselves healthy and prosperous. We should change it for the better.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Please give me some delicious FrankenRice!

Two interesting and seemingly unconnected news stories appeared this week, both to do with plants and genetics.

First, scientists with the Rice Genome Project have successfully decoded the complete genome of rice, the world's single most important food crop. This is actually far more important in the short term than decoding the human genome. Messing around with human genetics is both difficult and ethically dodgy, depending on what you want to do. Rice is just rice.

Unless it's... a Frankenfood! Oh no, we're all going to die! Evil, evil scientists are going to put weird GENES in our foods, and contaminate our crops, and we'll have weird allergic reactions and immune system failures and the Frankenfoods will run rampant, destroying the ecosystem and killing baby seals and selling crack to preschoolers!

Oh, and the second important news story? Apparently, the most famous "genetic disaster" ever, never even happened.

According to the National Post (yeah, I know they suck, but this is just a simple story) the infestation by man-made genes into Mexican corn crops has turned out to be a myth. One of the major fears of genetic engineering opponents has been that new genes will be cross pollinated from modified plants into neighbouring, unmodified plants, or possibly into completely different species. A paper in Nature apparently showed it had happened.

Now, a new Ohio State University study has found exactly nothing. From Science Daily:

Over the two-year study, the researchers gathered more than 153,000 seeds from 870 maize plants in 125 fields in Oaxaca . They sent these seeds to two commercial companies in the United States that can test for very low concentrations of transgenic material in maize seeds.

The researchers were looking for traces of two key transgenes – one or both of which are found in all GM maize crops. Test results showed no evidence of the presence of either transgene from any of the seeds.

So where did they go?

Transgenes that were present in Oaxaca prior to this study simply may not have survived, Snow said. Modern GM varieties may not be very hardy in Oaxaca, even if they can mate with local plants and gain a degree of hardiness that way.

Or they weren't there in the first place. Nature has apparently disowned the study that first showed the transgenes were there, and other studies showed transgenes, but haven't been published.

But watch if anyone ever admits to this. I fully expect the Oaxaca "transgene disaster" to crop up again and again Frankenfood literature for decades. Also note what is not present in any of these stories: a threat to human health. There is no mention that the genes harmed anyone who consumed the corn, even while they were allegedly present in the crops.

This is one of the few areas where the modern left and I really part company. I love science. I don't fear genetic engineering. Many people do, and for completely irrational reasons. There are a lot of ways we could screw things up with genetic engineering, but putting genes for drought resistance or extra vitamins in crops isn't one of them. In fact, genetic engineering could be one of the best ways to help the world's poor and malnourished, by boosting crop yields. If we made subsistence farming just 20 per cent easier, it would affect the lives of billions of people. We could start by preventing people from going blind with golden rice 2.

Even if we completely banned genetic engineering (which would be deeply stupid) we could still use the genome sequencing of rice to improve crop varieties. We could use it to identify and breed for specific genetic traits, and then clone large numbers of super-successful plants that include already existing genes for things like sumbergence tolerance or high yields. Even this, the Luddites will likely oppose. Because it has to do with genes, and genes should be left alone.


Genes are just another tool we are learning how to use. We will, hopefully, learn to use it responsibly, as we have so many of our other tools. If we don't, it won't be the fault of science, but of human fallibility.