Friday, July 29, 2005

Cute little dead baby dinosaurs!

Big news from the world of paleontology on Thursday, as the oldest intact dinosaur embryos ever found have been described, and by a Canadian scientist.

The embryos are those of Massospondylus, a prosauropod that lived about 190 million years ago in the lower Jurassic period in what is now South Africa. The eggs were apparently dug up decades ago, but it was only recently that they were handed over to the University of Toronto and Dr. Robert Reisz to crack open.

There are plenty of pictures of the open egg around the internet, including one here, at the Chicago Herald's website.

Now, even if there was nothing special about these little guys, this find would be neat. It's not just the oldest dinosaur embryo ever found, it's the oldest find ever of any vertebrate embryo. But there is something special about the critters. They have big heads, short necks, no teeth and they seem to have walked on all fours. Adult Massospondylus definitely had teeth (nicely shaped for cropping tough Jurassic ferns and other vegetation) and probably walked on two legs.

This means we can infer a parental relationship between parent and offspring. From the Chicago Herald and Dr. Reisz: Some of the embryos were clearly ready to hatch, he said, but they have no teeth, “and that suggests to us that some form of parental care was required … not just protecting but active feeding.”

How the adults fed the infants, and how long, we may not know until the skeletons of infant Massospondylus in a variety of developmental stages are found. That will likely be never, given the paucity of the fossil record. But we can make some guesses, based on other dinosaur finds and the behaviour of living animals. And the speculation is almost as much fun.

Did the adults disgorge half-digested plant slurry for their offspring to lap up? Or did they create "crop milk," a kind of protein-rich goop that some modern birds use to feed their chicks? Did the young stay in nesting colonies, within the confines of a dirt bowl, or did they follow the adults like modern hoofed mammals?

It also has massive implications for the way we view sauropods. There have already been discoveries that indicated that ornithopods (Maiasaura) and theropods (Oviraptor) brooded their nests and took care of their young. But sauropods have been seen as more primitive. We know they didn't have feathers, because skin impressions of sauropod embryos have been found in Argentina.

But if prosauropods cared for their young, then sauropods certainly could have. But how? They grew larger than any other land animal, and their young hatched from eggs no larger than soccer balls. How did a massive Argentinosaurus, the largest land animal we know of, take care of something considerably smaller than its own head? Something it could crush, by accident, and not even notice?

I love science. So many fun questions yet to answer.

Here are some more Massospondylus images at

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

In Celebration of Marsden's Vanishing

I hereby declare a day of celebration. Rejoice, fellow citizens, the great beast that stalked the nation's newspaper, (no, not that one, the other not-as-good one) has vanished.

Lo, these past few months have been a trial for readers. Great was our fear as each Wednesday drew nigh, and we trembled like the Geats in the mead hall at the approach of the Grendel. For we knew that the morn's new light would bring no joy, but only another column by Rachel Marsden.

Yes, that Rachel Marsden. The one who claimed her swim coach raped her (he didn't) who stalked two other people, who worked for Gurmant Grewal, who posed for Republican Babe websites and calenders, who was a servant of the Dark One himself, the one known as O'Reilly.

But for two weeks now, her column has not appeared. The Canadian Cynic has noted her passing with glee, and the possibility that it had to do with this column, which appeared on her website but not in the Post. It's not really worth reading, as it's just boilerplate Muslim-bashing bullshit. The only thing interesting about it is that she seemed to think a paper, even one as right wing as the Post, would run the damn thing.

Perhaps we are premature. Perhaps Ms. Marsden has simply been put on the bench for a time by the Post, and she'll be back once she has moderated her venom output.

Or perhaps she is incapable of moderation. From the column in question:

Islam is a religion of peace. Right—and Paris Hilton is a virgin. But “moderate” Muslims—an oxymoron if ever there was one—would have us trying to reconcile the completely irreconcilable.


Evidence suggests that Muhammad was like the Courtney Love of prophets: Lacking Jesus’ crowd-pleasing talents, he resorted to the seventh century religious equivalent of microphone tossing to make a name for himself—picking up his sword and wreaking havoc on everything he could in the name of Allah.

Even after Muhammad’s death, his “peaceful” followers spent the next hundred years murdering their way to a geopolitical empire.


Western democracies have to wise up to the fact that “tolerance” of Islam is as much about "freedom of religion" as allowing your kids to trash your house while you're away on vacation.
[Iguanodon interupting here. This sentence doesn't even make sense, really.]

Maybe Canada can start with deporting all the card carrying Islamic terrorists, rather than giving them asylum here.

Then before any new immigrants set foot in Canada, they should be required to correctly answer the following question:

What do you do with an infidel?
a) Kill him
b) Fidel? I thought this was Canada!
c) Make her the newest Liberal Cabinet Minister in charge of Democratic Renewal

As I've written before, Marsden isn't even a talented writer. Frum may be a poor choice for a columnist (would you respect as independent the columns of a guy who was actually on Bush's payroll? That's like hiring a Catholic priest to write objectively on religious issues and... oh, wait, they did that too...) but he can at least string a column together.

Marsden can't even follow the standard conservative pattern for Muslim-bashing. You're supposed to acknowledge that Christians haven't been without blame, that Europeans have in fact killed a lot of people in the name of their god too. Reading this kind of bullshit makes me want to smite someone with the jawbone of an ass.

But I should not be upset. Today is a happy day. For she is gone, driven out into the wilderness, where we can only hope she will starve. Or perhaps be arrested for stalking.


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Cheap solar power

I found this the other day, via Future Feeder. There have been a number of interesting breakthroughs recently in solar panels, but if this one pans out it could be the Big One. Because solar power has always worked, but this makes it cheap.

PYRON SOLAR INC., an R&D company in La Jolla, California, developed in cooperation with BOEING-Spectrolab a novel system to convert sunlight into electricity. This revolutionary design is a low-profile floating system with short-focal-length lenses concentrating direct sunlight by 400X onto photovoltaic cells. These advanced multi-junction cells produce 800 times more electricity than conventional non-concentrating cells the same size. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed 37.3% efficiency. With these modified space-age cells, PYRON developed a truly 21st-century, Earth-friendly generator, an innovative system with numerous positive implications for the sustainability of global-scale power and a solar-hydrogen economy.

Yeah, yeah, nothing special, just typical alternative-energy company press bumf. But farther down, there's an interesting number.

System Price: The extremely high efficiency and the low material requirements make the new system competitive with conventional power plants. For large Pyron power plants a calculation shows that the price for the high-tech parts including the cell and the material for the low-tech parts will be only  $1.24 per Watt.

For comparison purposes, a website that describes and sells a number of currently available models gives this as a good per-watt price:

The best current deal on new 50 watt solar panels is about $4.25 a watt--$212 for a 50 watt panel, in quantity.

Interesting, and very hopeful.

Alternate Economics: Venture Communism

I'm of two minds about the name of this idea. First, I have to say I really love the name. A name with that much cognitive dissonance wrapped up in just two words brings joy to my heart. "Yeah, I'm a venture communist," you can tell your friends, and enjoy their slack-mouthed gawping. Describe in detail how you have acquired capital and land for the people's revolution, how your wealth has increased based on your labour-currency, how sharp business practices will lead to the worker's paradise.

On the other hand, there are existing groups that could be described as venture communists. The first one that comes to mind are party officials in the People's Republic of China. You know, People's Army officers who run karaoke bars or munitions plants for their own personal aggrandizement and profit. Nasty bastards, in other words. Perhaps a new name could be found to distinguish venture communism from Chinese free-market dictatorship.

On to a quick analysis! Here's venture communism in the words of Dmytri Kleiner, who apparently invented it:

Venture Communism is an investment model designed to be a form of revolutionary worker's struggle. The Venture Commune is a type of voluntary worker's association, designed to enclose the productivity of labour and enable the possibility of the collective accumulation of Land and Capital, which, in the endgame, will eventually allow the workers to buy the entire world from the Capitalists.

I have to give him points right off the bat for not calling for a violent revolution. That has never been particularly successful for leftists, at least as far as avoiding horrible tyranny is concerned. Here's how he sees it working.

A Venture Commune is a joint stock corporation, much like the Venture Capital Funds of the Capitalist class, however it has four distinct properties which transform it into an effective vehicle for revolutionary worker's struggle.
1 — A Share In The Venture Commune Can Only Be Acquired By Contributions Of Labour, and Not Property.
In other words only by working is ownership earned, not by contributing Land, Capital or even Money. Only Labour.
It is this contributed labour which represents the initial Investment capacity of the Commune.
The Commune Issues its own currency, based on the value of the labour pledges it has.
It then invests this currency into the private enterprises which it intends to purchase or fund, these Enterprises thus become owned by the Commune, in the same way that Enterprises which receive Venture Capital become owned by a Venture Capital Fund.

I assume that, at least in the early going, this new currency will have to be in the form of stock, or otherwise translated into "real world" dollars. After all, it's unlikely that the commune will be self-sufficient right off the bat. Workers will still need national currencies to pay rent, buy food and gas, etc. Indeed, Kleiner seems to acknowledge that a bond issue will be necessary in his second point.

2 — The Venture Commune's Return On Investment From Its Enterprises Is Derived From Rent and Not Income.
As condition of investment, the Enterprise agrees to not own its own
property, neither Land nor Capital, but rather to rent Land and Capital from the Commune.
The Commune, unlike a Venture Capital Fund, never takes a share of the income of the Enterprise nor of any of its workers.
[But isn't rent a share of income?]
The Commune finances the acquisition of Land and Capital by issuing Bonds, and then Rents the Land and Capital to its Enterprises, or an Enterprise can sell whatever Land and Capital it acquires through other means to the Commune, and in turn Rent it.
In this way Property is always owned Mutually by all the members of the Commune, however all workers and the Enterprises that employ them retain the entire product of their labour.

The last two points of Kleiner's strategy involve rules for keeping communes from exploiting workers: anyone who works for a commune must be offered membership (although he says nothing about whether people could refuse, I assume so, and thereby freelance) and notes that members get one share and one vote each in the running of the commune.

Will it work? Hell if I know.

Let me say that there are fewer obvious flaws with this system than with many socialist schemes. Through the fact that there can be multiple enterprises under a commune, and presumably multiple communes as well, the system has some elements of decentralization. That's good, because a heavily centralized system has problems determining prices accurately. But is there a danger of this if one enterprise within a commune is set up to support another enterprise? Possibly.

The bigger problem is: who would invest their starting capital in something based only on labour? Where do you start accumulating the capital, both physical and human, you need to make something like this work? Starting very small, with existing co-operatives of half a dozen workers or so would probably be the way to go. But that would result in a very small amount of "labour pledges" and a correspondingly small amount of investment power. And I doubt Warren Buffet is going to shift any of his money towards venture communism any time soon.

Another problem is the fact that the current capitalist system does provide some security for workers at newly-formed ventures. The capitalist's borrowed money is on the line, and if the business fails, the workers are unemployed, but at least they have the money they were paid. (Unless they're, say, Russian miners, and haven't been paid in months.) If a venture commune fails, the labour-based currency its members have accumulated is worthless, and can't be exchanged for national currencies.

Still, I'd like to see someone try it. It might crash and burn spectacularly, or it might actually work, at least a little bit.

There seems to be no one currently trying this system out. There's little info on Kleiner available on the net, except for the fact that he appears to be something of a troll.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Free as in speech AND beer

Clearly, this is the greatest innovation in open source ever. It's free beer.

Well, the beer isn't exactly free. It's a beer recipe, created by a bunch of half-mad Danes (is there any other kind?) in Copenhagen. They call their new recipe Vores Ol, and they've got an English-language web page explaining what they've done and why.

Essentially, they picked beer for an open source experiment partly because of the famous "free as in speech, not free as in beer" quote. Now anyone can make their Vores Ol (Our Beer), including major international breweries. But, no one can prevent anyone else from making the recipe, and any modifications to the recipe must also be made open source. The whole thing falls under a Creative Commons copyright.

There's been open source software for years, but now the really exciting work is starting. Open source manufacturing has the potential to really change the way we make everyday items. Especially if you combine open source with rapid prototyping technology, also known as 3D printing and fab labs.

Ever seen Monster Garage or American Chopper? Have you noticed how those guys can modify or rebuild a car very quickly, given the right tools? What if the tools were cheaper, almost ubiquitous, and the designs and instructions for building the cars themselves (or dishwashers, toasters, CD players) were available for free as open source plans on the Internet? How would manufacturing change if any group of moderately skilled people with enough space and a little spare time could build their own consumer goods, cheaper than current market value?

We're still a long way from there, and there's lots of time left for this vision to fizzle and die. But if it comes even partly true, it means a real democratization of the making of things, of the industrial process itself. Probably there will be two major obstacles (beyond the technological) to this change. The first will be economic: will small scale production ever be able to outstrip the advantages enjoyed by major corporate manufacturers? I think, while we may not be there yet, the answer in the long run is definitely yes. The second will be one of personal choice. If people would rather buy something and have it simply arrive, they will never develop a culture of personal construction.

More likely is an intermediate world. Look at sites like Zazzle or the Make Blog. On Zazzle, you can simply buy t-shirts or postage stamps created by other people, but you can also create your own designs, and share them with others through the site. Make Blog has so many additions, of everything from software hacks to home-made air conditioners, that it's hard to keep up with all the stuff people are sharing. Most of the stuff on Make Blog comes in the form of mods, changes to existing mass-market products.

For now, let's all raise a glass of free beer, and hope for a future of personal design and manufacturing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Empire of the Prophesied Prince-Dragons

Theodore Sturgeon, one of the greatest SF and fantasy authors of all time, came up with a simple law years ago. The story goes that he was responding to a fan letter (or debating a lit professor) and was asked why he wrote science fiction, which is often so bad.

"Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. That's because ninety percent of everything is crud," he said.

However, discerning the crud from the good stuff takes a lot of effort. Most readers must do a hasty triage when standing in the SF section of our bookstore or library. Do we take this book home and give up time and/or money for it? Or do we chuck it and re-read Ender's Game or China Mieville's last novel?

To help in this, I have come up with an informal word-list that I've been carrying around in my head for some time. I start reading the dust jacket or the back of the book, and as soon as I hit one of these words or phrases, I stop reading. In the middle of a sentence, quite often. Back the book goes onto the shelf.

Now, there are exceptions to this list. You will note that if it was applied across the board, I wouldn't be able to read J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Issac Asimov and any other number of the greats of SF and fantasy. But that's part of the point. Those greats blazed trails. We should be blazing our own, not following in their well-worn footsteps almost a century later.

Here then, is an incomplete and sure to be updated list of Crud Words:







Bold new interpretation of the Arthurian myth!


Galactic Empire

Ancient prophecy

Ancient runes

Quest (especially if the quest is foretold in an Ancient Prophecy, written in Ancient Runes)



...of Pern

Dark sorcerer threatens the land of...

Ancient curse

Lost prince/princess

Prophesied saviour of the land/his people/fluffy bunnies

Post-apocalyptic artificial intelligence, now out of control!

...experiment in genetic engineering, out of control!

That's all I can think of for now, although I'd note that the same rule applies to covers. If there's a tough, cyberpunkish looking mercenary type holding a big gun or a dragon with a guy on his back, there's a good chance it's crud.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Last Thoughts on ParEcon

I suspect ParEcon will go down in history as an interesting annecdote, like the attempt to apply Social Credit in Alberta, although even less successful.

Many of its elements are laudable, even practical. Workplace and consumer democracy are easily doable on some levels, and the notion of balanced job complexes is at the very least worth trying. But as the scheme grows more complicated, the Rube Goldberg nature of ParEcon becomes apparent. The most obvious is the method of controlling the market by committee, even though supply and demand will still determine prices.

However, the side of ParEcon I find most distasteful is the way every purchase must go through a consumption committee. Albert has attempted to build in some safeguards, saying that people can buy anything they have the consumption credits for, buying it anonymously if they don't want their neighbours to know. They say this solution to the "sexy lingerie problem" will allow for normal purchasing.

But it implies that all your money is not yours. Even if they must give it to you, your money, your wages, reside in the hands of a committee. It's as if you had to go to your bank every time you needed groceries and hand them your shopping list to have it approved. It also seems to disallow impulse purchases. Fine for a car, not so great if you decide you want an ice cream cone on a hot day. I can only assume that this would slow down production and distribution of goods, with many items piled up in warehouses awaiting shipping.

Worse, how does the IFB handle prices for goods which have a highly uncertain quantity and are then highly perishable? Fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh fish from limited runs both vary tremendously in quantity and quality, and if a central board needs to mediate between all the possible buyers and sellers to determine a price, how much rots on the vine or spoils in the hold of a ship?

It also took me about five minutes of serious thought to figure out how to cheat the system, at least to the extent of buying drugs, guns or explosives. (See above, re: anonymous purchases.)

All in all, ParEcon is fascinating, but flawed. If Albert repairs and revises it in the future, I'll be interested in his work, but for now I'd rather not live in his world.

Friday, July 15, 2005


Participatory Economics, aka ParEcon, is an attempt by academic Michael Albert to create a new economic system more or less from scratch. While he draws on a long history of other political/economic systems, this one is really all Albert's own. You should definitely check out the ParEcon info on ZNet to get a better explanation than I'm about to give; Albert and his comrades have also written two books on the subject.

In brief, ParEcon is a system of largely decentralized socialism. I'll let Albert speak for himself quite often here, anything in [brackets] is my own comment.

Albert's description of the job-side of ParEcon sounds at first, very much like a system of cooperatives or simple worker-owned and managed factories. That's not terribly revolutionary; there are some of those already around the world.

Production would be carried out by workers’ councils where each member had one vote. Everyone would be free to apply for membership in the council of their choice, or form a new workers’ council with whomever they wished.

The far more radical part is how the work would be done. Albert wants to see people take up "balanced job complexes" rather than simply filling one job slot or narrow set of duties. There would still be specialization, he emphasizes, but every effort would be made to make sure that everyone does some of the empowering, useful work and everyone does at least a little of the scut work. So everyone has to sweep the floors, at least some of the time. This is actually a pretty good idea. It would certainly put doctors and janitors on a more equal social footing if the janitor was training to do some light nursing tasks, and the brain surgeon had to help clean the toilets once a month.

Albert also suggets that people should be paid based solely on effort and need, not on the specialization or market demand for their job. So the brain surgeon and the janitor make the same amount of money as well, unless one of them is putting in more hours. People should also be paid for increasing their education and skills training, which would at least partly offset the lack of a higher wage in encouraging people to learn and become more economically useful. So far, it seems a little hippy-dippy to me, but possibly workable. Then we get to the consumption side.

Every individual, family, or living unit would belong to a neighborhood consumption council. Each neighborhood council would belong to a federation of neighborhood councils the size of a ward or rural county. Each ward would belong to a city consumption council, each city and county council would belong to a state council, and each state council would belong to the national consumption council.

Ummmm... okay. Explain further, please.

The participants in the planning procedure are the workers’ councils and federations, the consumers’ councils and federations, and an Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB). Conceptually, the planning procedure is quite simple. The IFB announces what we call “indicative prices” for all goods, resources, categories of labor, and capital stocks. [And how do they arrive at these in the first place? Based on the market values that existed before ParEcon? Unknown.] Consumer councils and federations respond with consumption proposals taking the indicative prices of final goods and services as estimates of the social cost of providing them. Workers councils and federations respond with production proposals listing the outputs they would make available and the inputs they would need to make them, again, taking the indicative prices as estimates of the social benefits of outputs and true opportunity costs of inputs. The IFB then calculates the excess demand or supply for each good and adjusts the indicative price for the good up, or down, in light of the excess demand or supply. [So it's a centrally planned free market, then? Strange.] Using the new indicative prices consumer and worker councils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals.

Essentially the procedure “whittles” overly optimistic, infeasible proposals down to a feasible plan in two different ways: Consumers requesting more than their effort ratings warrant are forced to reduce their requests, or shift their requests to less socially costly items, to achieve the approval of other consumer councils who regard their requests as greedy. Workers councils whose proposals have lower than average social benefit to social cost ratios are forced to increase either their efforts or efficiency to win the approval of other workers. As iterations proceed, proposals move closer to mutual feasibility and indicative prices more closely approximate true social opportunity costs. Since no participant in the planning procedure enjoys advantage over others, the procedure generates equity and efficiency simultaneously.

It seems like an extra layer of effort has been slapped over the rough and ready market system of pricing. Admittedly, with no excess profit being accrued by capitalist owners, prices might more truly reflect the pure labour cost of the goods, but there are other schemes that have proposed similar ends with a lot less paperwork and more reliance on the market. And we already know that the market can set prices with reasonable accuracy based on supply and demand. But Albert doesn't like markets at all.

What about markets? First, markets misprice everything by accounting for only the wills of buyers and sellers and leaving out attention to impacts beyond buyers and sellers, such as from pollution (cars), health effects (cigarettes), and behavioral effects (liquor), etc. [I'll agree that negative externalities aren't taken into account, but by throwing booze in, it feels like Albert is being a thought policeman, here. If people harm others or misbehave while drunk, they can be restrained or punished. If they use alcohol responsibly, they need no restraint.] Positive wider impacts aren’t accounted for either. Second, markets induce buyers to try to sell dear and induce sellers to try to buy cheap, thereby imposing anti-sociality. Each tries to fleece the other. [But for most things, there is no fleecing involved. Sellers try to get the most money that others will part with. If they try to "fleece" by overpricing, other sellers of the same goods can enter the market and sell things cheaper, but still to their own gain. This does not, of course, apply to natural monopolies like land, water and sewage services and cable TV.] With markets, the pursuit of surplus compels accumulation for the sake of private profit and not for meeting needs. Each unit must compete with the rest by cutting costs, and, to do that, quite rationally each unit hires a layer of managers to impose austerity on workers while themselves being isolated from austerity. Markets produce the corporate division of labor and, in the absence of owners, coordinator rule.

But it seems like there is a coordinator involved, in the form of the IFB. It seems this group is a sort of facilitator or court system for the economy, in which case it has no real power except to arbitrate disputes between producers and consumers. If it does have real authority, on its own, to set a final price, then it will be the real ruler of this new system. That is somewhat worrying.

In a debate with socialist George Monbiot, Albert insists that it will be impossible to cheat in a ParEcon system (no black market) and that everything will be done through cooperative negotiations, which seems to imply a lack of final authority. While this is laudable in terms of attempting to avoid dictatorship, it does have a certain pie-in-the-sky ring to it. I'll give the final word here to Monbiot

You talk of "attaining parecon" much as Buddhists talk of attaining Nirvana, and I fear that this is what it is: a system which describes how human beings OUGHT to live, but not how they could or would. I'm sorry Michael. I really wanted to believe it could work, I really wanted to place parecon among the possible worlds we could inhabit. But a system which takes no account of human weakness is a system which might work for another planet, inhabited by the good and pure beings we ought to be. It cannot work for ours.

Alternate Economics, part one

I was recently, in my guise as a reporter, at a gathering place of politicians, waiting for a meeting to start. As usual, I had brought a book, in this case, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Nothing special, just the Penguin Classics edition with the first three books out of Smith's five. I was ploughing through book two at the time, and I still have to read book three. Two of the politicians, as is their way, cruised past to say hello and ask what I was reading. They had never read it. One of them had not heard of it, didn't know what it was about, didn't know who Adam Smith was. When they asked, I had to give the ridiculously short and inaccurate answer: "He invented capitalism."

Now, these are certainly reasonably intelligent politicians who were asking (believe me, I've met the other kind). And they're not atypical. Most modern politicians, whether federal, provincial or municipal don't have a solid grounding in the classics of economic theory. Like most people throughout history, they tend to fall into the is/ought fallacy (things are like this because it's the way they should be) and their entire ambition is to make minor changes to the system.

It wasn't always this way. Before the Second World War, liberal capitalism was just one ideology that fought tremendous intellectual battles with socialism in its many forms. But everything went to hell for socialism. Lenin turned the Soviet state into a horror show, Stalin improved on his bloody work and then Russia spent 50 years falling apart. Mao was just as bad, Pol Pot was so far gone into the depths of savagery that he had his ass kicked by his supposed ideological comrades from Vietnam. Most of the other socialist states were simply puppets of the larger powers.

So, it became increasingly clear that at least one kind of socialism, the centrally planned economy in which the state controls and owns all the capital, doesn't work. I would argue that even if it did work, the only way to force it on people is through a dictatorship, so it's immoral in any case.

Unfortunately,the death of central planning and state capitalism has been hailed as the ultimate victory for free market capitalism, in its current form. Francis Fukayama and others have spilled a great deal of ink insisting that this is the end state of society, that representative liberal democracy and capitalism will last essentially forever.

As a science fiction writer, I can't help but roll around on the floor laughing when I read this kind of crap. I'm sure that in the 1300s, priests and princes said much the same thing about Christian feudalism. Even as merchants and free towns were springing up, unwittingly beginning the process that would lead to the rise of capital power. Before feudalism, the Roman Empire would last eternally, and the Roman Republic before that. Political and economic systems fall apart and change because they are superseded by other systems, sometimes systems that couldn't have existed before because of the social or technological state of the world.

This seems like as good a place as any for a quick description of what capitalism actually is. Hold tight, because this will be so compressed that it is bound to overgeneralize.

In capitalism, individuals or groups own capital goods, which are any items (factory machinery, farmland, clothing stores) which are used to generate money. The capitalist buys these goods either with money already in hand or borrowed from another source, then expects to see a profit by increasing the value of goods which move through his possession. For example, a farmer buys seed, farm implements and hires labourers. He must sell his crop for, at minimum, the cost of the seed, the tools and the wages of the workers. Whatever is left over, the surplus, is the profit of the owner of the capital.

There are two other sources of money in a modern capitalist economy: rent and wages. Rent comes from land (and also, some would argue, from lengthy copyrights and patents) wages from labour (drivng a bus, teaching, "would you like fries with that," etc.).

To be successful, capitalism has to operate in a relatively free market (the two concepts are not exactly the same thing) where individuals can buy whatever consumer goods they want and invest their funds in any capital goods, subject to the law.

Socialists (an almost uselessly broad term) have raised several major objections to capitalism. The primary one is that of surplus value created by workers. If you work for a successful company, you must be doing more work than you are being paid for, or there wouldn't be a surplus value for the capitalist to take home. To again oversimplify, socialists believe workers themselves should own the "means of production," the capital goods of factories, farms, land and stores. They could then receive all the benefits of their hard work. The standard rejoinder is that without the incentive of profit, there would be no entrepreneurship or innovation in business. And innovation drives the system forward, making goods better and cheaper.

Capitalism is one way in which people distribute goods created by labour. But it is built on a number of assumptions about the way the world works. Each time one of those assumptions changes, it tests capitalism. Someday it will likely meet a test it cannot pass, and a new, hopefully better, economic system will emerge (it could be a worse system). There is no way to know exactly when or how this change will occur. However, I'm going to spend some time in the next few weeks (or months) taking a look at some of the ideas that are actually floating around about other ways of running an economy. Those will include a few flavours of anarchism (anarcho-capitalism to anarcho-communism), Georgism and Libertarianism. But I will start with a theory that has been created specifically to replace modern capitalism, called Participatory Economics, or ParEcon.

I hope to write my thoughts on this later today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Green Taxes

Kevin Carson, the writer of the fine Mutualist Blog, has responded in a brief post to one of my questions about green taxes. The discussion of green taxes is a really worthwhile one, especially as ICBC is considering switching to a system at least partially based on mileage. It could be a real improvement on the current flat-fee system, and help consolidate town cores, boost car pooling and transit ridership and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the air.

I'm sure some people will complain that it won't cut down on driving at all, but that's garbage. When cities switch to metered water supplies, there is always a decline in use. The situation is exactly parallel.

If nothing else, it would be fairer than the current system.

Freedom and Kings

Last night I finished watching King Arthur, last year's not-so-hot Clive Owen-Keira Knightly sword and arrow epic.

Except for one ideological quibble, my entire review could be summed up as: meh.

Yes, it was somewhat more historically accurate than previous Arthurian movies/books/video games/plastic sword-and-helmet sets. Arthur is a Romano-Briton officer who leads a troupe of Sarmatian cavalry near Hadrian's Wall just as Rome is abandoning the British Isles. He fights the Picts (called Woads here), then teams up with them to fight the Saxons. Fine so far. And nobody cuts someone's head off like Clive Owen.

But the story is really, really dull. Surprisingly so, given all the carnage. I can usually just sit back and enjoy that kind of thing, but the screenwriter seemed intent on sucking all the joy out of every fight by having the characters be miserable about it. A beheading is much less interesting if it follows a dull, lengthy speech.

The movie also fails on several minor but damned irritating levels.

First, everyone has been made up in Road Warrior drag. Leather, long hair, beards (there are several knights who look just like Sam Roberts) and a strong sense that none of them have been near a bath in some time. Hey guys. These are Romans. They loved to bathe. Every small to medium town had a public bath, and elite soldiers could certainly have afforded the fees.

There is the continuing hilarity of the fact that no one in Hollywood knows what peasants do. We see them several times, standing in the background in (uncultivated) fields (of grass) waving around a bunch of agricultural tools. That one has a billhook, this one has a rake, that one has a hoe... what are they doing? Where are the plows, the hedgerows, the gleaners, the stooks of wheat, the storehouses of grain? Nowhere to be seen. This always reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's scene of anarcho-syndicalist peasants: "Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here." That's what farmers do, apparently, pile mud on top of mud.

The villains are cardboard cutouts, with silly pro-wrestler facial hair. You can tell their leader is bad, because he often kills his own henchmen. Even though, in a north-Germanic culture like the Saxons, killing off people would result in either a demand for a blood price, or a really nasty feud. Chieftains like Saxon leaders led coalitions of clans and tribes, not passive, subservient masses of arrow fodder.

The worst thing about this movie, however, is the way it over- and misuses the word freedom. For this, someone should have been punched. Hard.

Arthur, Lancelot and others are constantly yammering about freedom. About how that's what they're fighting for, what they want, what is being denied to them, etc. It's frankly pretty boring, but the worst part is that there is no real understanding, anywhere in this film, of what freedom actually is.

First off, the Sarmatians actually do seem to have a good idea of what they want, and it's simply to be released from their military service. They've been in saddle for 15 years for Rome. No bloody wonder they want out. But what does Arthur keep talking about it for? He's a patrician member of Christian, late-empire Roman society. Even if he has an interest in ancient Greek philosophy (where the notion of freedom and liberty may have come before his eyes) he won't have a modern conception of freedom. Rome, at this point, had been an empire for almost half a millenia. Democracy in Europe was dead, in any form. Is Arthur talking about freedom of speech, of religion, of movement, from want, free trade, free beer? Can't be freedom from the Saxons, because they kill everybody. Freedom from Rome? They're leaving.

Freedom is simply used as a rallying word, an emotionally loaded term the writer tossed in to give a gloss of modernism and nobility to a story about people with swords butchering each other. In so doing, he debases the word itself.

Arthur only becomes king by implication, and his real power is never clearly explained. But the end of the film is a classic power image, Arthur and Guinevere resplendent and surrounded by adoring throngs. Where's the freedom here? Will Arthur be a better ruler than the cardboard villains he's just fought off? Possibly. But there's never a mention of letting people choose their rulers, or letting them choose not to be ruled at all. There's no mention of what rights Arthur might grant to the people that the Saxons won't.

And there is no mention, of course, that the Saxons, Angles and Jutes are the ultimate winners. Arthur's defiance, according to the best historical guesses, was that of a warlord who managed to hold off the Germanic migration for about 70 years. Then they continued to land, invade, fight, farm, trade and intermarry with the locals. Until they were conquered themselves by French-speaking vikings (the Normans). Who would, within a few generations, be the cause of a political crisis that would lead to the Magna Carta. A piece of paper that asserted, for the first time in feudal England, that kings did not have the right to do anything they wanted to their subjects. A document that lead, through many cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings into the modern concept of liberty and real freedom.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Minor fixes

I've just changed my settings so people can post anonymously. As Dr. Wally said, it was previously set so that only other blogger users could comment. My fault, I'm still new to this.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

A Study in Scarlet

The phrase "walls spattered with blood" has been stuck in my head all day, since I heard it during an interview broadcast on CBC radio this morning. It comes from London, of course, and describes a building near the double-decker bus that was blown apart as part of the four bombings.

Bush and Blair have already made their typical "stay strong, we'll get 'em" speeches. So, should I pick Iran or North Korea in my "Which Country Gets Bombed to Jelly" pool?

Here's the thing: if there were natural justice, the bombers would find themselves skinned alive and left in a pool of acid for a few years. There's no natural justice, however. There's just us, as Terry Pratchett says.

Therefore, I wish to call not for Rambo, not for Chuck Norris, not for Steven Segal or any other third-string action hero response. We don't need to blow up a country for this. We don't need to bomb anything. We need a detective, not a lunatic with a headband, oiled pecs and a thousand rounds of ammunition. We need Sherlock Holmes.

Because the people responsible need to be brought to justice, or as close to it as we can come in an imperfect world. Find them. Track them around the world. Use science and informants and make deal with lesser members of the networks. Have them arrested and deported to face a British court. Put them in jail.

Bush doesn't do this very well. Four years after Sept. 11, 2001 his intelligence service is still a mess. There have been reforms, but they seem to amount to naught but paper shuffling. Their best information comes from torture, either outsourced through quasi-friendly dictatorships or domestically, in Guantanamo Bay. (Guantanamo! For all you sleep deprivation, dog menacing, music blasting, threatening, punching, tazering needs.) And information from torture, especially torture of low ranking bozos and Ottawa-resident engineers, tends not to be terribly reliable. Snap a pair of electrodes to my nuts and I'll be telling you anything I think you want to hear before you get close to turning it on. Yes, as a matter of fact I am a Republican. And I love those Olsen Twins!

What if we find the evildoers (oh, such a wonderful word, so much abused by the Twit in Chief) and they're in an unfriendly nation, that won't give them up? Do we bomb then?

No. No, no, no. You do not get to kill innocent people because the folks in their goverment are fuck heads. If that was true I'd be allowed to kill Americans, Brits, Canadians... well everybody, really. First, you apply diplomatic pressure. Second, you get charges laid against the suspects in an international court. Third, if you can't get them out any other way, you kidnap them Mossad-style. If that isn't possible, you wait. Better to wait, and hope for something to change, then to charge blindly ahead and waste hundreds or thousands of lives.

Not that anyone in the White House will take this advice. They're already getting out the tubes of pectoral oil and strapping on their head bands.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Overheated rhetoric

Last night I was listening to the radio, and twice I heard reports that "British Columbia's economy may be overheating."

What? Overwhating? What the hell does that mean?

Here, for the confused, is a handy translation. It means too many people have jobs, and big business would like it if there were more unemployed people around.

See, unemployment rates are now the lowest in BC since 1981 (coincidentally, the year before a massive recession that, among other macroeconomic effects, put both my parents out of work for two years). When there are low unemployment rates, competition for JOBS is changed to competition for WORKERS. This, as we all know from reading our Adam Smith, leads to higher wages. It's the simplest supply-demand example in the world.

Now, again according to Mr. Smith, this situation can't last forever, for two reasons. First, there will be a point at which employers can't afford to raise their wages any more, because they would lose all their profits. Second, more workers will come to an area of high wages and high employment, thus increasing the labour supply and reducing wages (or at least keeping them stable).

So why is it a problem that the economy is getting overheated? Isn't this a good thing? Business is still making money, and workers are better off.

Well, business doesn't think like you and I do. They have to answer to their shareholders, a notoriously fickle and lemmingesque group of entities, which expect a certain level of return. Or, if they have no shareholders, their personal calculation of profit most likely includes a new boat or cabin they want to buy. If their profits fall bellow this pre-set mark, someone is unhappy. And shit rolls down hill. So the economy doesn't have to actually crash for employers to start rolling their crap down on the heads of wage workers. It's just passed some magic, invisible but unmoveable line that none of us down on the bottom rung will ever see.

On a more abstract level, employers don't like periods of protracted wage growth. Workers can get the feeling that maybe they're entitled, not only to a living wage, but to good treatment. In this kind of environment, with high demand, workers can drop their tools and leave if their boss calls them a moron. Hey, there's another job right across the street. And when the business cycle whiplashes back, as it inevitably will, workers may still feel like getting respect. They may even form a union to try and protect their gains. Can't have that.

To be fair, there are some real constraints, especially in the construction industry. Many contractors sign agreements to get the work done at a certain cost, and have to overspend to finish the work even if, say, the price of steel or the wages of a specialist pipefitter double after they sign the deal. But these problems are temporary and don't affect too many people in the economy as a whole. Unemployment does.

So, if employers start calling on the goverment to hike interest rates, thereby throwing cold water on the economy's face, what they are really asking for is higher unemployment. Which is the government's problem, and costs business nothing. It does cost everyone else, however, in the form of higher crime rates, child poverty, drug use and the sheer psychic frustration felt by many thousands of useful people with nothing useful to do. Oh, and we have to pay higher taxes or see more services dumped to pay for the longer dole lines.

Adam Smith suggested, at the end of the first book of The Wealth of Nations, that goverments should always take a long, hard look at any suggestion brought to them by capitalists. Because, as he astutely realized, when things are good for capitalists, they are actually bad for almost everyone else.

The economy cannot keep moving at the pace it is. The Asian currency purchasers and the housing boom have pushed it far beyond where it should be. And we should make preparations - individually and as a society - for the inevitable morning after the drunken binge. But for business, the prime beneficiary of this boom, to start talking about "overheating" is hypocrisy of the highest order. If they make any move to restrict or reduce wages, or to increase unemployment, we should each of us find the nearest guy in an expensive suit and give him a swift kick in the balls.

It's only fair, that's what they're trying to do to us.