Climate change in Canada: some ups, some downs

Some snippets from a recent Climate Action Network Canada newsletter:

Inequality is bad: left-wing dogma, or common sense?

The Australian Centre for Independent Study (CIS) recently claimed, in an article purporting to debunk “six social policy myths“, that an “egalitarian orthodoxy”, i.e. a systematic and biased belief that inequality is bad, “shapes the public policy agenda in all sorts of ways without people even realising it.”

This is a little bit like claiming that a “democratic orthodoxy” likewise pervades the public policy agenda. Sure it does, but is that so bad? Not everything is “up for question”, and I suggest that the ideal of equality (however that is interpreted) is not up for radical questioning. This is essentially what C.S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man: to question such things is to place yourself outside the “tao” or the canon of traditional morality (which sounds very conservative, but isn’t actually) and to set yourself up as a nihilist.

In any case, there are lots of reasons for thinking inequality is bad. Among them are those offered last fall by U of T professor of Philosophy and Political Science Frank Cunningham (What’s Wrong with Inequality? – published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)) and, somewhat randomly, Daron Acemoglu et al’s Theory of Military Dictatorships, in which they argue that inequality is a serious threat to the emergence of democracy.

This last item echoes the findings of the CIA State Failure Task Force, which examined state failure over the last 50 years and found that the main predictor was high infant mortality and that while democracy lowers the risk of state failure (akin to Amartya Sen’s suggestion that democracies do not suffer famines — a bit overstated, but generally true), poor democracies are still very vulnerable to state failure.

Back when men were men, and calculators weighed five tons

Original Babbage Difference EngineCharles Babbage was a 19th century chap, credited with having invented the first mechanical computer, and was also the father of Ada Lovelace, considered by some to have been the first computer programmer (avant la lettre).

In 1991, London’s science museum created a working replica of his original Difference Engine (as it was called, a name which served as title for a decent SF/detective novel by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson), and now a model based on Babbage’s Difference Engine #2 is set to be unveiled in May.

The first recreation weighed 3 tons, and #2 is set to weigh in at a healthy 5 tons.

The guy in the photo is not Babbage, but looks sufficiently crazy to have designed a 5 ton calculator.

Report: most countries will fail to meet Millennium Development Goals by 2015

According to the recently published Global Monitoring Report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), most countries will fail to meet the goals by 2015, despite many countries being on-track to halve extreme poverty by that time.

The authors of the report propose a 6-point plan to further efforts to meet the goals, including integration of the development and environment agendas, and more and better aid. They also suggest that the currently somewhat bleak situation could be addressed if “advanced” countries lived up to their commitments as part of the 2002 Monterrey Consensus in which they committed to, among other things, foreign official development aid (ODA) at a level of 0.7% of GNP.

Canada’s ODA expressed as a percentage of GNP is currently about 0.3%; the last time it even came close to 0.7% was in the mid 80s, when it hit 0.5%. According to the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the federal conservatives’ 2007 Budget took no significant steps towards increasing ODA to 0.7%.

In related news, a recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that Canadian youth spend a higher proportion on foreign aid than the government does. In fact, they spend 5% of their income on donations to charitable organizations that work outside of Canada. The comparison is inexact, but still this is pretty amazing.

So much for the stereotypes about selfish and lazy youth. A Statistics Canada study last year found that, on average, Canadian youth do 7.1 hours of paid and paid labour a day, accounting for both weekdays and weekends. That’s a 50 hour week.

US war robots in Iraq aim guns at human masters

Kind of makes you feel all warm and fuzzy insideDespite this minor setback, people in the US military were able to keep their cool, and not come to extreme conclusions like, “maybe we shouldn’t put guns on robots.”

Though these friendly looking little guys were pulled from operation, there is no indication that the MQ-9 Reaper airborne wardroids (aka bringers of death from above) have been retired.

As usual in the US military, clear heads prevail.

*UPDATE* apparently this was a bit of an internet hoax, and the guns did not in fact accidentally aim at humans… according to the defense contractors who made the robots–whose credibility, incidentally, I do not doubt for one instant. Anyone who is wise enough to put guns on semi-autonomous robots is surely to be unquestioningly trusted.

UK scientists further discredit link between climate change and solar activity

Following evidence last year from Mike Lockwood at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK that there was no link between the sun’s magnetic activity and global temperatures, the “sun activity” theory received a further blow from research findings by a team from the University of Lancaster.

The U Lancaster team found “no significant link between cosmic rays and cloudiness in the last 20 years,” leading them to endorse the IPCC, who last year stated that since the 1970s, the “contribution of humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions has outweighed that of solar variability by a factor of about 13 to one.”

What is RSS?

The fact that RSS has been around since 1999, yet we still feel the need (and with good reason) to put “what is RSS?” next to our RSS feed buttons (at least, on websites for less technologically-included audiences) suggests that something’s amiss.

As Brian Clark at Copyblogger says, “the public at large either doesn’t care about RSS, or doesn’t know they’re using it”. Does this mean we should try harder to promote RSS, or rather that we should stop worrying about explaining it so much and trust that people who will benefit from it will, in general, begin to take advantage of it?

I was at an online marketing for non-profits session the other day in which the presenter explained RSS as a technology that “emails news to your homepage.”

At the time, I thought this was wildly inaccurate (which it is), but really, does it matter all that much? The outcome of that session will probably be that some people who are interested will go explore RSS more and maybe ask their tech people to look into it, and others to whom the idea didn’t appeal will let it slide for now.

The fact that most explanations or RSS fall largely on deaf ears probably means we should stop trying to push RSS per se, and present it in ways that make it as easy to understand and as simple to use as possible — without feeling the need to nail down exactly what it is, how it’s different from/similar to Atom, or whether it means “RDF Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication”.