25 February 2011

The Tea Party splits Republicans

One of the intriguing aspects of the Tea Party phenomenon in the United States is not how Tea Partiers' views depart from those of most Americans but how they depart from those of most Republicans. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre showed that on a wide range of federal spending issues, including education, the environment, health care and energy, non-Tea Party Republicans agreed much more closely with Democrats than with their Tea Party colleagues.

On the environment, for example, 68 per cent of Tea Party Republicans felt the federal government should spend less whereas only 23 per cent of non-Tea Party Republicans felt that way as did only 12 per cent of Democrats. There was a particularly sharp divergence on education, with only 26 per cent of Tea Partiers believing the feds should spend more compared to 64 per cent of non-Tea Party Republicans and 78 per cent of Democrats. On Social Security and Medicare, Tea Partiers favoured less spending rather than more by a ratio of two to one while non-Tea Partiers, like Democrats, strongly favour more spending.

The Tea Partiers are loud, greatly aided and abetted by the shouters on Fox News of course, but not all that convincing apparently with only 43 per cent of Republicans supporting them. Perhaps because their tale, to quote Macbeth, is one "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

22 February 2011

Calgary 5th most livable city in the world?

I suppose I should feel flattered. According to The Economist, I live in the world's fifth most livable city—Calgary. Furthermore, of the top ten most livable cities, three are Canadian: Vancouver is number one, as always, and Toronto number four. Nice to see the Economist thinks so highly of us, but I admit to a certain skepticism.

I feel quite attached to my home town—I choose to live here, after all—but is it really more livable than Montreal? And, according to the ranking, the top city in the U.S. is Pittsburgh (29th overall). Pittsburgh? Not New York or San Francisco?

And most suspiciously, out of the Economist's top ten, eight are in English-speaking countries. The other two are European—Vienna and Helsinki. Only two out of the ten most liveable cities in the world are in Europe? None in, for example, Japan? That impressively prosperous, clean, crime-free nation?

The Economist Intelligence Unit analyzes 30 factors to establish its rankings, including stability, health care, culture, environment, education, infrastructure and personal safety. Sounds thorough enough, but the results seem curiously biased.

Oh, and the least desirable city in the world to live in? Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. Thank you, Mr. Mugabe.

U.S. vetoes its own policy

The United States, we are led to believe, is opposed to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. If this is indeed the case, we are left wondering why it vetoed a UN resolution last Friday that would have condemned illegal settlements beyond the Green Line and demanded an immediate halt to all settlement building. American opposition to the resolution was underlined by President Obama spending an hour on the phone with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on Thursday urging him to block the resolution. Needless to say, he failed.

The U.S. was alone its veto. The 14 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, reflecting the broad support for the Palestinian-backed draft which had about 130 co-sponsors.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice insisted the United States did not want the veto to be "misunderstood" as support for continued Israeli settlement construction. "For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region," she said. "Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace."

If that is truly the American position, then Ambassador Rice needn't worry that Obama's humiliating plea to Abbas and the American veto will be misunderstood. They will be clearly understood for what they are: another example of the Israeli tail wagging the American dog.

One might be sympathetic to Obama. Israel probably has more influence in Congress on this issue than he does. Rallied by the Israeli lobby, House leaders from both parties had been putting pressure on Obama for weeks to veto the resolution. So it is understandable that Obama genuflects to Israel. Nonetheless, it is sad to see the president embarrass himself, and it is even sadder to see American foreign policy driven more by donors than diplomats.

18 February 2011

Quantifying climate change with the aid of citizen science.

Although we know we are causing climate change, we have only understand the results in a general way. We knew it would cause more extreme weather but not how it related to any specific event. Sea levels rise, dry areas get dryer, wet areas get wetter and so on. Climate effect we could determine, weather not so much. Now scientists are zeroing in on local weather events. Using sophisticated computer models, British researchers have estimated that global warming made the floods that devastated England and Wales in 2000 two to three times more likely to happen. The leader of the work, Myles Allen of Oxford University, had a particular incentive—his home was one of those flooded. That year the U.K. experienced its wettest autumn since 1766, the year record-keeping began.

This advance in climate science has great potential. It should, for example, aid in lawsuits against major polluters. According to barrister Richard Lord QC, a British expert on climate litigation, "Showing that the chance of an event occurring has increased by say 100% or 200% gives you a much better chance of showing causation. It gets you around one of the legal obstacles." Lord suggested such lawsuits, already being attempted in the U.S., could be used if countries are unable to establish international regulations adequate to control greenhouse gas emissions and the damage they cause—a whole new world of making polluters pay.

Running the models, simulating actual weather versus what it might have been without  greenhouse gas emissions, is enormously demanding of computer time and therefore potentially very expensive. The researchers got around this problem by soliciting the assistance of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and their computers. Citizen science, so to speak. Taking advantage of the Climateprediction.net project, they used 40,000 years of computer time donated by members of the public.

"Climateprediction.net," in its own words, "is a distributed computing project to produce predictions of the Earth's climate up to 2100 and to test the accuracy of climate models." If you would like to get involved, and you have spare capacity on your computer, go to http://boinc.berkeley.edu/ to get the BOINC software and choose (from among many projects) to attach to the Climateprediction.net site. The models will then run quietly in the background. Letting your computer do the work while you barely lift a finger, you can become a citizen scientist and make a significant contribution to dealing with climate change, humanity's biggest challenge.

11 February 2011

Egypt's revolution and China's drought—a frightening connection

The Egyptian revolution has captured the world's attention like few events in recent years. Where, the world wonders, will it lead? Another event, receiving rather less attention, may help answer that question.

China is facing a massive drought, the worst, Chinese authorities believe, in 60 years, in some parts of the country in 200 years. China has long been self-sufficient in grains, but a third of the wheat crop is now threatened. This could mean China entering the world market, and China has enough currency reserves to outbid just about anybody. If this happens, the price of wheat, already up 35 percent since mid-November, could soar.

And what does this have to do with Egypt? A great deal actually. As China is the world's largest producer of wheat, Egypt is the world's largest importer. The Egyptian revolution, like the Tunisian, is driven in no small part by the high price of food. With the Chinese in the world market, that problem could be greatly aggravated. Even if the revolutionaries gain their major goal, the implementation of democracy, they may not be able to resolve one of the greatest grievances of the Egyptian people. Above all else, people need food. If neither dictator nor democrat can provide it, what then? Chaos?

The world should be praying for rain in China. If it doesn't come, revolutions in the Middle East may intensify and spread well beyond that part of the world. Booting out a few corrupt dictators may prove to be the easy part.

10 February 2011

American science teachers reject science

Evolution is about as much a fact as we can know a fact, and if you don't understand evolution, you can't understand life on Earth. That is why the U.S. National Research Council recommends teachers describe in a straightforward way the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology.

American teachers are, it seems, largely ignoring the advice. A recent survey showed that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the Council's recommendations. Thirteen per cent advocate creationism thereby, according to the federal courts, violating the First Amendment to the Constitution. The other 60 per cent simply avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor creationism, even though creationism is faith, not science, and there are about as many creation theories as there are peoples.

If American science teachers are having trouble with evolution, we can't help but wonder how they are doing with the big science question of today—climate change, another inconvenient truth that attracts irrational denial. Anther survey is in order.

08 February 2011

Symbols, the immigration guide, and Canadians' love of Medicare

Not only do Canadians love their health care system, they consider it the most important symbol of Canadian identity. So says a recent Environics survey. They ranked it above the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the RCMP, the flag and all other contenders.

This is not what the new guide for immigrants, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, would have us believe, or rather have our new citizens believe. In its list of Canadian symbols, it overlooks Medicare. (The first symbol mentioned in the guide is the Crown, a symbol the Environics survey ranked last.) Indeed, the guide never uses the word anywhere and mentions our health care system in only one sentence.

The Environics survey result is consistent with other surveys that show when Canadians are asked what gives them pride in their country they rank health care fourth after our democracy, our quality of live and our caring/humanitarian outlook. Health care also figures largely, of course, in quality of life and a caring/humanitarian outlook.

One could reasonably argue that if you don't recognize the importance of Medicare to Canadians, you can't understand Canadians. And yet our guide for immigrants essentially dismisses it. Hardly a proper introduction to this country.

04 February 2011

Why Israel should support democracy for its neighbours

That Israel should be suspicious of democracy for its Arab neighbours is not surprising. The Arab peoples harbour a deep hostility toward Israel, both for its colonial imposition on the area and its treatment of the Palestinians. Consequently, any Arab government that legitimately represented its people, i.e. a democratically-elected government, could be expected to reflect that hostility. Israel, therefore, prefers to deal with tyrants.

Former Israeli foreign minister Moshe Arens once said, "Peace you make with dictators," believing that only strongmen could end conflict and guarantee security. This may work in the short term, but if Israel wants security in the long term, it will have to come to terms with 80 million Egyptians, or at least a solid majority of them, not just with one man, no matter how powerful he is. Relying on a dictator just identifies him with Israel, increasing hostility toward both. One of the chants heard on the streets of Cairo this past week has been, "Mubarak, go back home to Tel Aviv."

Living with a democratic Egypt would present a challenge for Israel but, on the other hand, democracies are much more stable and much less likely to invade their neighbours than dictatorships. Israel and its friends crushed the result of the 2006 election in Palestine, and that has hardly brought greater security to Israel or peace to the region. All it did was expose the hypocrisy of Israel's friend's claims to want democracy in the Middle East.

Israel has itself been a model of democracy. Its oppression of the Palestinians and its antipathy toward democracy for its neighbours does it no credit. Both its principles and its long-term security demand better. A good start would be welcoming democracy in Egypt.