Monday, 31 December 2007

Sunday, 30 December 2007

High Bear Nation

They're culling polar bear populations in the Canadian territory of Nunivat. (A 'Territory' is a state which is too tiny or broke to be a Province.) There are too many polar bears in the area; overall, there are five times the number there were in 1960. The one that keeled over photogenically for Al Gore's movie was doing Canadian park rangers a favour.

I don't care enough about polar bears or climate change to write a whole spiel about it; I really wanted to call this post 'The Winter of Our Discontent', but found out that the hoary phrase has the opposite meaning to the way it's usually used. So I settled for a bad pun and found some news to back it up, hence my first paragraph.
"Now is the winter of our discontent" is taken completely out of context. It really goes like this (my line breaks):

is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer
by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried. Our bruised arms hung up for monuments; our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,"
RICHARD III the discontent is the active bit, while the winter is just enlisted as an illustration, the weaker part of a metaphor. Instead of saying that the situation is cold and depressing, it says that bad, uncertain times are over. It's the hunchback schemer Richard opening the play by saying, yay, my brother's the king so things will be OK now. (And yes, that says "alarums".)
Laurence Olivier does it best, shown here. He snaps the lines with a clipped, bat-faced bitterness.

My curiosity was piqued, so I went looking for other Shakespearean mis-takes.

"Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war."

This is from Julius Caesar, and by itself suggest a kind of gung-ho '300'-style martial enthusiasm. That's not really the case. Here's the context:

"Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial."

Antony gives the speech after Caesar has been assassinated (a word Shakespeare invented). He's horrified by the very real possibility of a hideous, wholesale slaughter in the wake of Caesar's death.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Merry Xmas from the colder climes

How To Get A Canadian Work Visa

Canada has tons of immigrants from all over the world. More people want to move to America, but their immigration policies have grown more and more difficult, and their officials meaner and weirder since 9/11 (metal detectors, shoe searches, bizarre questions, passport surrender, bomb-proof windows for all clerks, even in New Zealand). But Canada is the pleasant neighbour to the north and is crying out for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses (with some qualifications).
Note that with all the ways listed below, you're supposed to have about CAD$4000, but they usually don't bother to check. (This can be access to Visa credit, or money sitting in your account at the time which you'll transfer back later.)
The easiest way is to be young. If you're under 31, you can get a Working Holiday visa, which allows you to work in any field anywhere in the country for one year. Generally it's easier to get if you're from a English-speaking OECD country like Ireland or Australia. This is a fairly rapid rubber-stamp kind of deal. Companies like STA Travel package this deal for you with a lot of hand-holding that can save you time and hassle. (They deal mainly with college kids who want to work the ski fields for minimum wage.)
The next way is to be educated and experienced. Applying for the Skilled Worker visa falls under a points system you can find the test here (overview here). This visa is expensive to apply for ($1000+). Generally if you speak English, have a qualification and 3+ years experience in one of these fields, you'd expect to make it. Bonus points for having a well-qualified partner, too. This visa makes you a Permanent Resident. It takes at least six months to complete.
There's a loophole for some trades, because there's a great need for them in some provinces. For Alberta, they are shown here. These fields are called 'Occupations Under Pressure' and visas for people who work in these fields are much cheaper and faster.
Yet another way is to rock on up and grab a visitor visa on your way in, then get a job and apply for a temporary work visa once you've got a job offer. This takes "four weeks" (note quotations marks). You could just start working and get your money back-paid once your visa is approved, but this requires collusion with your boss, and most Canadians are pretty straight-arrow.

The whole list of ways is shown here. Most are specific to business types or whole families though. If your English is weak or highly accented you'll have a harder time finding a job than if you're from England or America, but generally Canucks are accepting and interested in travellers.

Oh, and bring a pair of these:

Friday, 21 December 2007

Calgary in pictures

Back when the weather was in positive figures I took a few shots, walking around Calgary with fresh eyes. After you've been somewhere a few months you tend to take things for granted and let details slip into the background. These were taken when my eyes were open, aware, slightly alarmed, gently optimistic, and not covered in two inches of snow and whatever the hell it is they put on the roads that turns it into brown, sandy sludge.

While 7th Ave is a blasted wasteland of train tracks and homeless drug dealers, 8th Ave--shown here--is a pedestrian arcade, filled with restaurants, clothing stores, museums and malls. It is called Stephen Avenue for a few blocks, then it goes back to being called 8th. The walkway above street level is part of the +15 system, as walking outside will, for six months of the year, turn your jacket into a frozen spinnaker.

Since the oil boom began, Calgary has transformed from a shitty cowtown like Hamilton into something more like a Christchurch/Auckland combo. Construction is everywhere; what's not being torn down is being put up. This is the information centre at the base of the Calgary 'Tower'.

A few miles to the east from where I live is a strip of old-school stores, pawn shops, porn shops and fast food outlets. This sign has borne a missing letter for at least a month.

Near the local library is a Chinese supermarket, full of 2-lb packs of MSG, unrecognisable soft drinks and this stuff. Did you know New Zealand made liver spread? Or that other countries wanted it? Or that Australia is competing with us in this red-hot market? Or that Canada imports enough that packaging is printed in French and English? This is a day of learning for you, I can tell. These facts probably pushed other, useful ones out of your brain.

Preserved Duck Eggs will set you back four bucks. Personally, I'd go with the liver spread and save $1.50.

Calgary Zoo, which is on an island, has buffalo. Whereas the city of Buffalo in New York state has no buffalo. Suck it, America! Where's your God now?

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Oh. Canada.

Canadians are cheesy. There's no getting round it, they're cheesy as hell. It is as though all of the camp counsellors of the world got together and made a country. It's not the campy Go-Team-Go of cheerleaders, or of the irrepressible boy with a copy of '1001 Jokes For Kids.' It's a low-level blinkiness, an innocent and bland happiness which sits, with spongy solidity, imperceptible below the surface. It is lacking in irony, in the direction of Americans. It is pleased to help, in the direction of Scandinavians. It is mired in underdog self-consciousness, in the direction of New Zealanders. It mixes all these things together, and like all the colours of paint mixed together yields something very difficult to name.
Canada would be the perfect labrador. Pleased, but confused about being pleased. Inoffensive and co-operative. Slightly too big to be completely in control of all its parts. Happy to guard the door all night without a single thought about what burglars might be like.

The short day here reveals to me my own out-of-whack body clock. The sun has risen by 10 and is starting to set by 3. The night is interminable. I sleep from 4am-8am, then not again until 7am the next day, rising at 6pm. I may sleep at 2, or 7, or 12. Under the dopey gaze of the dim northern light, all things are equally possible. I read endlessly, and write, and follow thoughts down the rabbit hole. The timelessness of my existence introduces an incredible dexterity, an infinite amount of freedom.

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,
were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet, II,ii.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Fight The Power

Arnold Schwarzenegger, during his time in office, has made most progress with environmental reforms. One of the changes in California is the formation of a 'hydrogen highway', a series of gas stations which service hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. There are seven (stations, that is). In a year there will be eleven. The Governator, who owns more Humvees than that, had one converted to hydrogen-hybrid--though I suspect he uses up most of the power driving to and from the gas station.
Hydrogen is an extremely common naturally-occurring element, but is expensive to extract. The cheapest way is using natural gas for steam extraction, which uses more natural-gas-power than it returns in hydrogen-power. Another way is to use electrolysis to extract hydrogen from water, which uses three times more power than with gas.
You can extract hydrogen via electrolysis yourself with just a 9-volt battery, a glass of water and two thick pencil leads. Connect the leads with wire to the battery terminals. Place them in the water; one will bubble with oxygen, the other with hydrogen. (How can you tell? Set the bubbles on fire, that's how.)
Added to the problem is that the countries with the largest natural gas reserves are Qatar (by Saudi Arabia), Iran and Russia. Great.

Money channeled into bio-fuels like ethanol made from corn or soybeans are seen as a pork-barrel sop to Iowa, a politically crucial state. Apart from the long-standing government subsidy scheme that allows unprofitable farming to continue in perpetuity, serious questions have been raised about whether the world actually needs more high-fructose corn syrup. Other crops such as sugarcane and switchgrass yield more ethanol per acre at lower prices, but none are price-competitive with the stuff that comes out of the ground. Except oil from algae.
It's not sexy, but algae farms yield more oil per acre than other crops by orders of magnitude. Ten million acres would equal all oil imports to America. By way of comparison, cotton covers 10m. acres, soybeans 60m. and corn 70m (1992 figures). This would not address the environmental concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, but it would cut down on the number of expensive, unpopular wars.

A lot more money is being channeled into renewable energy sources. Generally the more reliable the source, the more money is spent, China being the prime example. The Three Gorges Dam will be the largest generator of its kind in the world, as will the Maglev wind turbine (that's the monstrosity below). It's 500 times more powerful than any other wind turbine in the world. The $53m. construction began in November.

A theologian interviewed in Slate magazine yesterday said that without a religious system of belief, we would have no basis for hope; nihilism would presumably sap our wills and we would hang our heads, leave litter in the streets, and sleep with our grandmothers. But I think that to build a better society, faith in God has negative effect. Religion has a way of disempowering us, always looking up and out for vague divine assistance. Those who believe that we have one life to live, and that what we do now is where meaning comes from, will do more to build, solve, create and reinvent than those merely passing time and tracts. And that seems like a reason to have hope for the future.

Shooting My Mouth Off

I watched an episode of 'Bullshit!', a quasi-documentary show debunking popular myths, about gun control in America. As a lily-livered liberal, a few of their more gung-ho statements stirred me into the only action intelligentsia are capable of: I researched.
Americans divide themselves along a fairly well-demarcated line of urban Democrats and rural Republicans. The Dems have abortion, education, outrage and cheeses; conservatives have tax cuts, flag-waving monoculture, and Jesus. And guns. But their guns are different to the guns that kill people. Their guns are new, and legal, and part of a deep-rooted frontier tradition. The NRA lobbies against gun laws as a holy crusade. Because they're not shooting people.

America has a high murder rate (with all weapons) per capita; as a national average, the same as the city of Belfast. Other countries are higher (South Africa 1200%, Russia 500%) but most are lower (Portugal 50%, Australia/UK 38%, NZ 26% Austria 2%).

45% of murders are whites killing whites.
40% of murders are blacks killing blacks (from 13% of the population).
Males commit 90% of all murders.
Over 60% of victims are known to the murderer.

Two-thirds of murders in America are shootings, half of which are with handguns.

80% of workplace killings in America are shootings. Most of these are taxi drivers and store owners; you are twice as likely to die driving a cab as a policeman is in his regular duties.

Beer & Bullets A study showed that 85% of murderers were liquored up at the time. Other studies show that victims had as often been drinking (47%) as not, though just 30% of gunshot victims.

A note on capital punishment: Since 1900, approximately 15,000 prisoners have been executed; this is less than the number of murders in the lowest year since 1955. Amnesty International estimate that 23 were innocent.

A note on Calgary: If Calgary were part of America, it would be the third-safest large city in the country, behind El Paso and Honolulu.

Looking at the ebb and flow of countries with high murder rates since about 1970, there are very definite trends. At that time, the high rates were among small islands that were still experiencing violence as a way of life. Then in the early 1980's South America, Iran, Mexico and America (in the cities) began to take off. Cocaine, heroin, poverty/disparity, poorly-guarded borders, corruption. Now it's South Africa in its reconstruction and Moscow leading the table. The same influences; seeds for chaos and violence.
America is violent in patches. Washington D.C., practically a city-state, has been at the wrong end of statistics for decades, yet just across the Potomac River in Virginia the numbers plummet. Clearly there is America 'A' and America 'B'.
But on average, the murder rates are far, far higher than in countries like Switzerland with its 35% gun ownership rate. There's an attitude in America about what justice looks like... it's very punitive. "Lock 'em up and throw away the key." "Bring it on." "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." "Shoot first, ask questions later." "You can have my gun... when you pry it from my cold, dead hands." An argument is far more likely to turn deadly in America than in, for example, Britain, where the assault rate is higher. You hit someone but you don't shoot them. And in Switzerland, few of the trends I mentioned earlier exist: poverty? Disparity? Heroin? Corruption? Not really.

So how can America solve its bad-gun problem without affecting good-gun ownership? Perhaps by building a more equitable society. This runs counter to the culture, however. Few will pay higher taxes to prevent their neighbour from growing up to be a thief; they'd spend their money on security instead. They already believe that there are bad people lurking around the city/country/world who wish them ill beyond all rationality. Time to look out for me and mine. Honey, get my gun.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The Pleasant Middle ground Between 'Zany' and 'WTF'

Fletcher Hanks. Career: 1939-41. That is all.

Sunday, 16 December 2007


Click on this image to see the full size if it's not weird enough already.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Ho Ho Ho Homo

My roommates threw a Christmas party this evening. The last two days have seen the house turned inside out, shaken, vacuumed, dusted, beaten, mopped, cleaned, tidied, reorganised, de-furred, festooned and fussed over, then put back together in several styles, each more festive than the last. The floors sparkle, the pillows sit up proudly, the sinks shine; even the toilets have a manic gleam. I am observing a homosexual Christmas.
I arrived home to find the party in half-swing. An unknown crooner's rendition of 'Silent Night' drizzled from the stereo while gays of all stripes sipped their Diet Cokes and chatted about the decor, which Martha Stewart herself would find hard to fault.
I talked with a lesbian who found love in Lethbridge, a mo majoring in math, and a gay guy from Manitoba who does exactly what I do. But with highlights.

I Has Solid Numbers.


Tuesday, 11 December 2007

What Can Kill You In 2008?

The site lays out a graphical display of what kills people, averaged over a year.

Reminds me of a stat I heard last week: the American population in Iraq has a lower mortality rate than the American population in America (I guess there's not as much McDonald's over there) unless--and this is very specific--you're a Hispanic in the Marines.

Both of these things reinforce the idea that there are things that we think are dangerous; then there are the things that are actually dangerous.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Uh, What's That?

I thought it was cool.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Junk In The Trunk

Our genes are full of germs. This is a good thing.

Junk DNA outnumbers useful DNA in every cell in our bodies four to one. Over our evolution we have picked up billions of pieces of genetic information which does nothing for DNA's main job: building the proteins which hold us together. Where did the trash come from?
Viruses, like HIV, have existed in myriad forms throughout evolutionary history. They are nothing on their own -- they can barely be called 'life' -- so need a host in order to survive and photocopy themselves. Some of these viruses had the ability to infect the sex cells, and affected a sperm or egg in a small enough way that the offspring survived. The virus moved in and became part of the genetic code, passed on in perpetuity.
Jared Diamond's book,"Guns, Germs, and Steel" makes the point that all epidemics through recorded history originated in animals. Diseases that were harmless to, say, chickens or monkeys became transmittable to humans and took our system unawares, as we had no established defense. Did you know that gorillas can't get AIDS? If you were to inject a gorilla with HIV, its body would fight it in 80 different ways. In a chimp, 130 ways. You see, after parting ways on the evolutionary tree, the higher apes contracted a virus that humans did not: the PtERV virus. Because viruses evolve one thousand times faster than the systems they are attacking, gorillas (or at least the ones that survived) carry genetic material from 80 variations of that virus. This genetic information may have been useless for a long time, but if a gorilla was in a Sudanese ghetto it would be breathing pretty easy right now.
The irony is that a previous virus (TRIM5a) protected pre-humans from PtERV. Now we don't get PtERV to protect us from HIV.
We've got all this genetic baggage that we carry around, and every so often it comes in useful. It's junk in our trunk. It shows where we've been, what battles we've fought, what we're prepared for. Scientists are fossicking through the human genome and reviving these long-dead viruses to look for clues about how to fight current diseases. (This isn't as tough as it sounds; a team of biologists was able to make a polio virus from materials available via mail-order.)
HIV/AIDS is the main focus in applied virus research. There are many reasons for hope, the first of which is that our species has faced many, many deadly viruses in the past, as evidenced by our genetic burden. Another is that viruses reproducing is like Homer Simpson building robots: most of them don't work, and even fewer can make copies of themselves.

For more information, here's a link to a New Yorker article. (It's about 5000 words.)

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Ahhhh, Go On

Well, I'm convinced.

Our Little Sandbox of Freedom

I read an interview with Noam Chomsky [link] about personal freedom and how power is distributed in society. The most striking thing I took from it was the idea that our concept of freedom, our range of options, is limited by imaginary constraints. He gives the example of a New York Times writer who is criticized for pandering to the powers-that-be. The writer angrily responds that he writes precisely as he pleases, about what he pleases. Chomsky points out,"he writes anything he wants -- which is absolutely true. But if he wasn't writing the things he did he wouldn't have a column in the New York Times."
Is it wrong that one writer's predilections map precisely with the message needs of a newspaper? Probably not. But it's a good example of how our own concept of our range of freedom to choose is revealed to be narrow.
The implication, of course, is that anyone in the employ of the American military-industrial/media-corporate complex is limited in their view and pursuing an agenda at odds with 'true' freedom. A major theme of public intellectuals like Chomsky is to remove the veil and demonstrate that a far wider range of thoughts and moral codes are possible and entirely valid.

If there's one thing about Chomsky that irks me, it's the blithely self-assured way that he states his position, as if it were beyond all dispute. Given that the position that he takes on most issues is to the left of Che Guevara, the overall impression is that of Woody Allen crossed with a drill sergeant.