Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mein Land


One of the questions I've been asking myself for the past decade or so is an ominous one:

Given Europe's 2000-year history of dealing with internal population transformations, migrations and discontent, should we be worrying about a pogrom? Or should we be worrying about a civil war?

The difference, I suspect, will have a lot to do with critical mass; and the warning signs - if history, again, is any guide - will likely be things that will be easy to see in retrospect, but almost impossible to detect in advance.

Almost impossible.  I use that word advisedly, because every now and then, you get a hint.

Here's one:

You're all big, innerwebz-savvy kids, so you can go look up the song and its lyrics, and their translation, all on your own.

What you should really do, though, is watch the video.  It's goofy, funky...and absolutely terrifying.

Yeah, okay - so that's not surprising for Rammstein.  But listen to the lyrics, watch the video - especially the last quarter or so - and then ask yourself the above question one more time:

Pogrom?  Or civil war?  Once you've got an answer, you can decide how to prepare. 

Happy happy fun time?  Or ammo and canned goods?

Your call.


Impossible things


For years now, I've been a fan of Failblog. With the possible exception of Mark Steyn's punditry, it does a better job of blending the sublime with the ridiculous than just about any other site out there.

But I had to take issue with this photo:

Actually, not so much with the photo as with where it was posted: under "Win".

It's not a "win", people. Sure, it's a great picture of SST ENDEAVOR...but it's a picture of America's last operational space shuttle being delivered to a museum.  To put it another way, a couple of weeks after Neil Armstrong died, and 40 years after a human being last walked on another planet, America parked its last manned space launch vehicle forever.  The US government couldn't build a Saturn V rocket right now if it tried.  Think about that; it's like saying Chrysler couldn't build a 1968 Plymouth Fury.

Okay...maybe that's a bad example. They probably couldn't.

What that picture really signifies is that America is out of the manned space travel business, which - given that every other space programme in the world has only ever been a half-arsed attempt to copy America - is pretty much the same as saying that mankind is out of the manned space travel business.  Sure, there are robots on Mars, and lots of stuff like Cassini flying around the solar system (and out of it) - but even in the unmanned realm, the most extraordinary successes, like Voyager, are decades in America's past.

Maybe the death of manned space travel was inevitable. Is exploration really a necessity, or is it a luxury? Should the brokest nation in the history of human civilization not place its priorities elsewhere - like, for example, getting its fiscal house in order before spending billions to shoot a select few to tromp around Mare Tranquilitatis again (or, heaven forfend, Olympus Mons)?

Or is manned space travel one of those activities the ancillary civilizational benefits of which outweigh the costs? Is it le beau geste - the technological, the emotional, the moral equivalent of Caesar standing alongside the Rubicon and saying Alea iacta est? Is it a challenge that draws us onwards? Do we need a destiny to strive for?

I don't mean to suggest that we should aim for L5 colonies and lunar settlement and Martian terraforming; not just now, anyway.  But we need that challenge. Carl Sagan, a prisoner of the Cold War, used to say that a human future in space was our only defence against the possibility that we might destroy ourselves. I'm not that apocalyptic about it; I simply think that we need a challenge. Without a challenge, a civilization stagnates and festers. From a challenge comes shared purpose, and from shared purpose comes a sense of destiny.  For England, it was Empire; for America, it was serving as the democratic ideal. Hell, for the Soviets it was world socialism (at least until the West's economic karma ran over their dogma).  Bottom line, we need a goal; something unusual, something glorious even, to strive for. We need something inspiring to work towards. Not a mishmash of feel-good sociocultural gobbledegook of the sort peddled by Obama and his band of free-spending vandals and wastrels; not pastel sunshine, happy unicorns, or (as Steyn puts it) a "far distant horizon where educated women and fire-breathing Imams frolic and gambol side by side around their Chevy Volts". That's an image of America as a low-rent rest home, where the disabled half of the population squats in cheap wheelchairs staring blankly at Honey Boo-Boo while the other half spoons pabulum into their mouths.  That's not a vision, but a nightmare; a purgatory of cultural senescence that is far more destructive (and, terrifyingly, far more likely) than the shower of plasma and neutrons that had Sagan quaking in his boots.

No, we need something more than that, a greater purpose to draw us onwards; something grander and more inspiring to work towards than the vital goal of sacrificing the livelihood of the present to achieve a statistically immeasurable decline in the rate of increase in sea levels. We need something to struggle for that's not merely difficult, but that's impossible.  Why impossible? Because we're humans, that's why. Isn't "you can't do that" the most annoying thing you've ever been told? Doesn't it make you want to head right out and do "that", whatever "that" might be?  Doesn't the word "impossible" just...well, doesn't it just piss you off?

The White Queen famously told Alice that she sometimes believed six impossible things before breakfast.  When Rev. Dodgson wrote those words, balloons were common, but human flight was an impossibility.  Half a century later, courtesy the Wright brothers, it was not only possible, but routine; but rocket-powered flight was impossible.  Ten years after that, thanks to Robert Goddard, rockets weren't impossible anymore, and ten years later they were being used as weapons of war; but pushing a human past the speed of sound certainly was. Twenty-two years after Goddard, the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager, but putting a man into space and bringing him back was impossible.  Fourteen years after Yeager, man was exceeding the sound barrier by several factors, and Yuri Gagarin went up and came back; but it seemed impossible that man would ever walk on the Moon.  Only eight years after Gagarin, Neil Armstrong took that first historic step.  That was forty-three years ago.

That's five impossible things, and we're just getting started.  We've visited every planet in our neighbourhood and our robot servants are patrolling the most promising one, looking for signs of water and life. Our emissaries, bearing our greetings, are on their way out of the solar system - the most primitive and inefficient form of interstellar communication imaginable, but the first one we could achieve, and so we did it.  We did it.

The shuttles were great, but enshrining them is like enshrining a bus or a dumptruck. They were not the tools of glory. Those will be the next ship - the one that takes humans to Mars, or to the asteroids, or to Ganymede or Europea or Titan. Or somewhere else.

So yeah, it's a nice picture of Endeavor.  But Endeavor was a UPS truck. It was a service van.  I want to see the next Flyer, the next X-1, the next Saturn V.  I want to see the next Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.

Endeavor is what was.

I want to know what's next.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

25 November 2011 – China’s coal rush

"Never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake."

- N. Bonaparte


"Son, a Russky don't take a dump without a plan."

- Admiral Joshua Painter (Fred Dalton Thompson), The Hunt for Red October


For most of 2010, carbon shares on the EU carbon market were trading at well above  €15/tonne, which is astronomical compared to the $0.05/tonne that US carbon shares crash-landed at a year ago, leading to the closure of the Chicago Climate Exchange.  Over the past few months, however, the European carbon market decided to follow its US counterpart and began a long, slow thundering in.


According to Bloomberg, that's the last 12 months.  Last summer, carbon shares peaked above €17/tonne, then plunged along with other shares when the European debt crisis started to gather steam in June, and continued to decline through the autumn.  Over the last two days, though, they plunged again.  Since May, they've lost nearly 60% of their value.

What happened over the last two days?  Well, unless you've been living in a hole or watching the mainstream media (sorry, I guess that's redundant), you're probably aware that an anonymous poster dumped another pile of emails stolen or otherwise acquired from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU).  Those who follow such things have dubbed this release "Climategate 2.0", and the collection doesn't disappoint; once again, some of the biggest names in the alarmist camp of climate science feature prominently, and are shown to be engaged less in science than in trying to figure out how to make science serve a political end. 

Don't take my word for it; go and read them if you like.  As always, the data speak for themselves.

Why does this matter?  Well, because the Durban climate talks are going to begin next Monday.  The email dump came just a few days before the Conference gets underway, just as the first dump (that launched the original "Climategate" and immortalized the phrase, "Hide the Decline!") came a few days before the Copenhagen climate talks began at the end of 2009. 

That's a little red meat for the conspiracy theorists out there.  Here's some more:

Nov 15-18, 2009: US president Barack Obama visits China
Nov 19, 2009: Climategate I emails released
Dec 2009: Copenhagen climate talks

Nov 19, 2011: US president Barack Obama visits China
Nov 22, 2011: Climategate II emails released
Nov 28, 2011: Durban climate talks begin

Is there an Obama-China-Climategate connection? To quote Dash Parr's gluteally-wounded teacher in The Incredibles, "Coincidence?  I think NOT!"

The China-climate angle is important, because what I really wanted to talk about is what we can expect from China next week.  It's funny how China keeps alternately being referred to and ignored in discussions of global warming climate change global climate disruption.  Last month, I attended a Centre for International Governance Innovation meeting entitled "China's Global Impact, How Canada Should Respond".  In the six hours I sat there, the word 'China' was used hundreds if not thousands of times, only slightly more frequently than "climate change" and "partner".  The word "communist", however, wasn't used once, not even in the context of the fact that the "Chinese Communist Party" is the state's governing entity, and has been for close to sixty years.  The ther term never so much as came up.

What was mentioned, though, was China's clear and unequivocal dedication to environmental stewardship.  One of the presenters, whom I shall spare identification (Chatham House rules and all that), claimed to have met with numerous Chinese government officials "at the Deputy Minister level", all of whom swore to him that China was merely waiting for the US and other industrialized countries to act to reduce carbon emissions, after which Beijing would immediately take draconian action to reduce China's own carbon emissions.  The speaker repeated this claim at least twice more during his presentation, and again during the lunch.

At this point I could cite chapter and verse to point out that China surpassed the US last year as the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter, and that the gap has exploded as the recession digs into US industry (as of right now, China produces 23% of the world's emissions to the US's 18%).  I could mention the legendary statistic that China, in addition to building nuclear power plants and planning to expand its wind generation capacity from 12 to 100 GW over the next eight years, is building "one coal-fired generating station per week".  I could mention that China is becoming a motorized society faster than any other on Earth.  I could also mention that 300,000,000 Chinese citizens have yet to benefit from any of these advances, so all of these changes are going to be going on for a long time - long after, in fact, China's carbon dioxide emissions have left US emissions in the dust, and have surpassed those of the rest of the world combined.  I could mention that China emits more CO2 in a month than Canada does in a year - and that the increase in China's emissions alone over the next year or so will surpass Canada's annual emissions.  We could return our entire country to the Stone Age tomorrow, and a year from now global CO2 emissions would be unchanged.  Except it wouldn't because in the Stone Age folks still burned wood to cook their mammoth burgers and, you know, survive winter.  But I digest.

Anyway, I don't need to mention all of that because we all know it, right?  And besides, it's all good, because just as soon as the US and Canada and Russia and France and Japan and Germany and Italy and whomever agree on a plan to reduce carbon emissions, China's going to jump right on board.  They'll get with the programme, and throttle those CO2 emissions...right?

Or maybe they won't.  Maybe they'll do what they've been doing for the past 20 years - bide their time, talk the talk, and watch in bemused astonishment as their strategic adversaries simultaneously a) work to hamstring their domestic ability to produce electricity and therefore support industry, b) create regulatory environments that force companies to move to China in order to be able to make a profit, c) rack up huge amounts of consumer debt to buy from those (now-China-based) companies the same products that until recently had been made at home, while d) enjoying a social safety net that is unsustainable from the now-shrunken tax base and must therefore be propped up by purchasing truly astronomical quantities of debt...from China.

But wait - China must be sincere about the whole "carbon reductions" thing, no?  After all, they're increasing their wind power capacity by a factor of seven over the next 9 years!  Okay - let's run the numbers.  Suppose they go whole-hog and deploy the full 88 GW of wind generation capacity.  At a capacity factor of 25% (the statistical average, although few wind farms ever manage to sustain that), that means they're actually likely to get about 22 GW of actual generating capacity.  At 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year, that translates to 192,720 GWh.  In 2008, the US produced 1,985,801 GWh of electricity by burning coal, and this generated 2,001,806,000 tonnes of CO2, for a ratio of 1008 tonnes of CO2 per GWh of electricity produced (statistics from the US Energy Information Administration).  Assuming China's coal-fired electrical generating plants are as thermally efficient as US plants (and they aren't), this means that China's planned wind deployments should save 192,720 x 1008 = 194,273,269 tonnes of CO2.  That sounds like a lot; after all, Canada's annual emissions in 2008 were 544,091,000 tonnes of CO2.  So you might argue that if China completes its planned wind power deployments by 2020, they'll be able to save an annual amount of CO2 emissions equal to about 35% of Canada's annual emissions.  That's good, right?

As of last summer, China was planning to build 234 GW of coal-fired generating be completed by 2016.(See the figure below, and note A)  At a capacity factor of 90%, that's 1,844,856 GWh per year.  Yes, you heard right - between 2011 and 2016, China is already planning to increase its existing electrical generating capacity by roughly as much coal-fired electrical generating capacity as exists in the entire US

Take a close look at that graphic, and think about the fact that all US existing and planned coal-fired capacity is in red and yellow, whereas all of the blue and green belongs to China.  Moreover, the US is taking coal plants off line.  Now...who's got a "coal problem"?

(Source: Erik Shuster, “Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants”, National Energy Technology Laboratory, 12 July 2011)

So that 192M tonnes of CO2 they're saving by installing wind turbines ends up amounting to less than 10% of the 2B tonnes of CO2 emissions they'll be adding from new coal-fired generating stations.  And the new coal stations are going to come on line much more quickly than the turbines.  They're already pouring the cement.

What's my point?  They say that diplomats are folks who are sent abroad to lie for their country.  With an entire United States-worth of coal-fired generating stations due to come on-line by the last year of the second Obama Administration, just how credible are China's claims that they're "just waiting for the US" to take meaningful action to reduce GHG emissions before taking the plunge themselves?  And if the US is willing to further hamstring its economy through regulatory action...why get in the way?  Why on Earth would the Chinese interrupt their enemies while they're making a mistake?

By the way, those wind turbines they're planning to deploy?  Each one contains between 600 and 1000 kg of neodymium-iron-boron magnets.  Hitachi owns the patent on NdFeB magnets, and they used to be made in the US, by companies like Magnequench.  The problem was, after the early 1990s, when Molycorp - the US's only producer of neodymium - declined due to regulatory pressures to renew the license for its mine at Mountain Pass, California, the only remaining source of neodymium was the mine at Baotou, China.  So, in 2000, Magnequench moved its NdFeB magnet facility from Valparaiso, Indiana to China.  Shortly thereafter, Vacuumschmeize, a German NdFeB magnet producer located in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, relocated to China. They were followed two years later by Hitachi Magnetics, which in 2005 relocated its Edmore, Michigan magnet production facility to - you guessed it - China.  Today, nearly 90% of all NdFeB magnets are produced in China.  So even if the new wind turbines are a complete waste of time and money, the money's being spent in China, and the time being wasted is that of salaried Chinese workers.

It's almost like they've got a five-year plan or something.



Friday, September 21, 2012

14 November 2011 – Electrical Balancing Acts


And the better the wind turbines work, the worse for the grid:

Thanks to a flood of subsidies unleashed by Angela Merkel’s government, renewable capacity has risen still further (solar, for instance, by 43 per cent). This makes it so difficult to keep the grid balanced that it is permanently at risk of power failures. (When the power to one Hamburg aluminium factory failed recently, for only a fraction of a second, it shut down the plant, causing serious damage.) Energy-intensive industries are having to install their own generators, or are looking to leave Germany altogether.
Wind power - "renewables" in general, with the sole exception of hydroelectric power - is an unmitigated disaster, and one that would not have occurred without heavy government subsidization. It proves an old adage: that whatever sort of behaviour you subsidize, you inevitably get more of. Germany's renewable energy sector is performing so grandly that Germany is planning on vastly expanding its coal and gas-fired generation in the coming years.  And I'll bet you dollars to donuts that Merkel's hasty and ill-advised post-tsunami "no nukes" pledge won't last another year. Japan has already backed away from theirs.

It's an ironic lesson - that for a modern industrialized society, from a perspective of grid management, getting any more than a tiny proportion of electricity from intermittent and inherently unreliable "renewable" energy sources is quite simply...unsustainable.

Of course, the United States, thanks to Barack Obama's policy of using EPA regulatory action to effect fundamental policy changes (like his maniacal and grotesquely unscientific jihad on carbon dioxide) that he could not achieve through legislation, is going in precisely the opposite direction:

Look, folks, I am in this field. I have been for more than 30 years. Losing 36,000 MWs of the most cost-efficient generation capacity in the US is a disaster. You have no idea how bad the increases are going to be. They will be disastrous to the individual energy consumers and apocalyptic to large users – those who create jobs.

I shudder to think of what this is going to do to grid reliability as well. A lot of those coal plants help support the grid during disruptions. They regularly provide both energy and MVARs (Mega Volt-Ampere Reactive) that keep the grid from collapsing when large loads are added or lost. (That’s about as simple as I can make it and still be understood.) Losing these stabilizers will make it very hard to hold the grid. I pity the load dispatchers.

Trust me, people, this is a very big, very bad thing that is happening as a direct result of Barack Obama’s war on coal.

Funny how it always comes back to November, doesn't it? If you think the last four years were bad for our cousins to the south, just imagine what will happen once Obama is no longer constrained by worries about re-election. I'm still not convinced that Obama is deliberately trying to destroy the United States of America, but I keep coming back to the same question: if he were, what would he be doing differently?  As Conrad Black put it so succinctly Friday last,

If this administration is re-elected, Canada, as it has for the entire mighty spectacle of the inexorable rise of the United States, will have the ring-side seat for a disaster.

Amen. Let's hope the adults seize the wheel, jettison that clown and his cronies, and start the long, hard slog of putting America back on the road to sanity.



If strategic analysis areas of interest could be represented by a Venn diagram, one of the most interesting areas of overlap would, oddly enough, be in electrical grids.  I've written about grid structures and problems before, but the subject is worth thinking about at length.  The average grid in Canada and the US these days accepts power generated both from traditional (thermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear) and 'green' (wind, solar, biomass and so forth) sources.  Thermal generation from coal, oil, and natural gas evokes Middle Eastern nations, Islamism, terrorism, environmental damage, sulphur dioxide emissions, acid rain, China's exploding power demand (and its equally exploding coal-fired generating capacity), health problems, the 'Asian Brown Cloud', oil tankers, oil spills, drilling moratoria, pipelines to the US, pipelines to the west coast, wildlife preserves, aquifers, and a host of other topics.  Hydroelectric generation engages questions of rainfall and snowfall, melt dates, water levels, water usage, droughts, irrigation, sedimentation, critical infrastructure protection, species preservation, and massive civil engineering projects.  Nuclear power engages proliferation concerns, supplies of uranium ore, enrichment technologies, Iran, nuclear weapons, nuclear wastes, nuclear waste transport and storage, regulatory issues, more terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, leaks, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, arms control, arms reduction, pre-emptive strikes, Russian collaboration, and (once again) the Middle East.  And 'green' energy sources involve so many ancillary considerations that there's no point trying to list them here.

This is why it's fascinating to take a look at where all of these factors come together - in the massive minute-by-minute balancing act that's necessary to keep a large electrical grid system operating in the face of complex and shifting loads, supplies, and environmental factors.  Forbes recently published an article looking at how the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages water flow on the Colorado River and powers a large part of the US Pacific Northwest, manages to keep the power supply available and balanced. 

The article can be found here:

It's a great example of engineering hoo-rah (the author had me at "five-ton circuit breaker"), and worth a read for that reason alone; but from a strategic analysis perspective, one of the graphics in particular caught my eye.  It was this one:

That's one week in the life of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA - not to be confused with bis-phenol A, the chemical that's had legions of nervous nellies chucking their plastic kettles out for the past decade).  It's the week that took place exactly one month ago, to be precise [ACTUALLY, 14-21 OCTOBER 2011 - ed.). 

That graph tells us a whole lot of really important things.  The first thing it tells us is that electrical demand - the scarlet line - is actually incredibly predictable.  There's a fascinating lesson here.  At its most basic, nuclear fission is random chance; but if you assemble enough, say, uranium atoms in one place, they demonstrate statistically predictable behaviour.  Same with people.  You or I can decide whether or not to flip a light switch on or off; it's a matter of personal choice, and your choices (and mine) may be utterly unpredictable.  But if you assemble millions of people, their behaviour - for example, in consuming electricity - starts to become statistically very predictable.  As the scarlet line shows, there are predictable demand surges in the morning, as people are preparing to go to work, and in the evening, as they make dinner and perform other chores; and there are predictable declines in demand: a shallow one at lunch time, and a much larger one over night.  Moreover, those demands don't vary greatly from workday to weekend.  If it weren't for the day notations on that chart, you'd be hard-pressed to tell Friday from Saturday.  It's easier to make out Monday and Tuesday by the early morning peaks - although it's interesting to note how that peak, which starts off high on Monday, declines daily through the week, until the Friday morning peak is within a few percentage points of the Saturday morning peak. I guess that's not really surprising, is it?

The brownish-red line is interesting, too.  That's thermal generation, and most of the time it's remarkably steady.  This is because thermal power plants, all of which are basically steam turbines, operate most efficiently when they operate at continuous output.  Boilers, after all, have to be brought up to operating temperature, and take time to cool down.  Some thermal plants - small, gas-fired turbine plants, for example, which are basically jet engines hooked up to generators - can start up and ramp down quickly, but doing so tends to be costly in terms of fuel.  Imagine powering your house by generating electricity from a jet engine; actually, those of us who worked in ADATS units don't need to imagine it, because each ADATS vehicle had a jet engine hanging off the front of it, and burned 1300 litres of diesel every 24 hours just to keep the lights on.  It's effective, but it's not cost-effective, to start up and stop in response to unpredictable shifts in demand.  As a rule, thermal plants work most efficiently, and get the most electrical power out of the heat content of their fuel, when they maintain continuous, stable output.

The blue line - hydro plants - are the exact opposite of thermal plants.  Hydro power is pretty much the most efficient source of generation on Earth.  It's essentially solar power, with the motive force for electrical generation provided by potential energy brought to us courtesy evaporation, condensation and precipitation.  The water is stored behind dams, and can be released through turbines to generate kinetic energy (in the form of spinning turbines driving generators to push electrons through a wire) pretty much at will.  Hydro power is extremely responsive, able to ramp up and down in a matter of minutes to respond to changes in demand and supply.

The green line is the wild card in the deck.  That's wind power.  The BPA has about 3500 MW of wind power installed, roughly equivalent to about 2000 large turbines.  That green line tells you everything you need to know about the complexities that government-subsidized wind farms have introduced into the grid management equation.  On the 14th and 15th of last month, the BPA's wind turbines were basically flatlined.  On the 16th, there was a brief spike in production.  The turbines put out a little bit of power - about a quarter of the installed capacity, which is par for the course for wind turbines - over the night of 17-18 October.  And then, on the afternoon of the 19th, Gaia cut loose and the wind productivity soared. 

Look what happened to the rest of the grid.  In the space of about an hour, electrical generation from wind turbines went from nothing to about 85% of nameplate capacity - and in that same hour, demand actually fell, by about 200 MW.  Thermal plants were running as usual, providing baseline power, and hydro plants, being the most flexible, were going through their daily double-hump routine to take care of the morning and afternoon demand surges.  Just before lunch, when demand was falling, wind power production exploded, dumping 3000 unneeded MW into the grid.  Hydro generators had to be shut down as quickly as possible to avoid catastrophic oversupply (which can trip circuit breakers and cause wide area power outages); and because that wasn't enough to stem the flow of power, even thermal plant output had to be scaled back, greatly reducing efficiency.  And then, five hours later, as the wind died back down to nothing, hydro and thermal plants had to be brought back on line.

The problem is that while we can predict demand with reasonable accuracy, we never know when the wind's going to blow, or how hard, and when it's going to stop blowing.  This means that wind power can never be a replacement power source; it can only be a supplemental power source.  And because it's entirely unreliable, you cannot afford to take a single MW of conventional production off line unless you feel like explaining to Missus Miggins why she can't boil water for tea.  Moreover, because wind power is an unpredictable, supplemental power source, your grid system has to be flexible enough to be able to accept unpredictable injections of power - which means that your conventional production capacity has to be rapidly scalable both up and down.  As the graph and the BPA experience demonstrates, this is a costly and technically challenging problem, principally because power generation has always been designed to operate continuously, because that's what's most efficient.

It's funny, isn't it, how whenever policy and ideology bump up against the real world, the resulting problems are ALWAYS 'costly and technically challenging'?

And if you think managing the northwest power grid is complex now, wait until 2013, when BPA is supposed to have twice as much wind capacity installed - 6000 MW, if current plans don't run headlong into looming fiscal realities.  If 6000 MW of wind power were to suddenly come on line at a time of low demand, the rest of the conventional generators would have to have the capability to drop to virtually zero output in a matter of moments - and to then come back on line as soon as the wind died down.  If you need a visual image, think about a Nascar race with 50 competitors on the track, moving at full speed, inches away from each other, and a rule that requires the marshal to always have between 49 and 51 cars on the track, no more, and no less.  Now, without warning, 25 more cars come in from an injector lane, moving at full speed, and the race marshal has to get 25 of the original competitors off the track in a matter of seconds, without letting anybody bang into each other.  And then think about what happens if the new arrivals suddenly off-ramp without warning, and the marshal has to feed an unpredictable number of the original drivers back onto track, ensuring that the total number of cars never gets outside of the 49-51 mandatory total.

If that sounds impossible consider the fact that it's far too restrictive an analogy, because the energy of the moving electrons that the BPA grid handles every minute is roughly equal to the amount of kinetic energy of about 21,000 stock cars moving at 200 km/hr.

I'd say that's quite a balancing act.

What's the strategic analysis angle in all this?  Well, many of the proponents of wind power are selling it not only because of its supposed environmental advantages (on that point, you might want to google "China cancer city"), but as a solution to the problem of "energy dependence" for the US.  Really?  Only 18% of the petroleum imported by the US last year came from the Persian Gulf (25% came from Canada); but 75% of the world's supply of neodymium-iron-boron magnets (the key enabling technology for the newest generation of direct-drive wind turbines) and 60% of the world's supply of samarium-cobalt magnets (the key enabling technology for older, geared wind turbines) comes from China - which also, not at all coincidentally, produces 97% of the world's supply of neodymium and samarium.

It's almost as if the US government asked itself whether it wanted to be 18% dependent on Saudi Arabia for its energy needs, or 97% dependent on China, and settled on the latter.  Come to think of it, that's kind of a balancing act too, wouldn't you say?



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

9 November 2011 – Mapping the Twitterverse


I thought I'd direct your attention to a fascinating study the results of which, in my humble opinion, are as beautiful as they are useful.  Check this out:

That's a map of the worldwide prevalence of languages used in Tweets.  Mike McCandless extracted the compact language identification software from Google Chrome, and Eric Fischer applied it to Twitter, generating a geolinguistic map of the global 'Twitterverse'.

Apart from the sheer beauty of the result (which in my opinion is a function of the simplicity of the approach and the fact that it is 100% based on empirical data), the cartographic output gives folks like us oodles of food for thought.  Take a look, for example, at the North American map:

It's pretty easy to understand the concern about the future of the French language in the midst of an otherwise almost entirely Anglophone continent, non?  At the same time, look at the US, and try to see how many different languages (colours) you can pick out, particularly in urban areas.  Nowhere else on Earth are so many languages represented in such intermingled proximity.  Incidentally, this map also demonstrates just how little of Canada's population - or at least the Twittering part of it - lies more than 100 km or so from the Canada-US border.  At the extreme left edge of the map, you can see how El Paso, Texas, is virtually all English-speaking, but also how, just across the Rio Grande, Juarez, Mexico, is entirely Spanish-speaking.  And why is everybody in Bermuda Tweeting in what appears to be either German or Swedish?

Now take a look at Northeast Asia:

Japan and the ROK are both pretty wired, aren't they?  No surprises there.  China's not far behind, though, although the Twittering seems to be largely confined to urban areas along the coast.  It's also a non-surprise that North Korea is an electronic wasteland.  In fact, it's interesting how much this map resembles the map of electrification I sent around some time last spring.  It's also interesting to see all the Russky Tweeters in Vlad and the Kuriles.  You can just see the Bonin Islands at the bottom centre, and at the bottom left, Taipei at the northern tip of Taiwan; I wish we could see more of it.

Now take a look to the north of Japan; there are a bunch of isolated, unilingual bright spots.  You know that's ocean, so what can they be?  There are some islands there – is that what we’re seeing?  Or is it something else?  Clusters of light spots where there isn't any land are probably groups of ships with multiple Tweeters aboard.  Are we seeing Korean and Japanese fishing fleets in the Sea of Japan?  But then there are also long, straight lines of dots (you can see many of these south of Japan). What makes those lines? My guess is we're seeing the electronic ghost of individual Tweeters travelling aboard international airliners.  How cool is that?

Now for the gold – Europe:

That has got to be one of the neatest things I've ever seen.  Look, you can see the Dutch!  And the Danes!  And the three Baltic countries! And the Catalans, for crying out loud!  You can see how thinly the former Soviet satellite states are "informationized" on an individual basis as compared to Western Europe (and Western Turkey!)  You can see how population patterns in Russia and the Ukraine follow the coasts, the rivers, the main cities, and the highways connecting them.  You can see how Corsica compares to Sardinia!  You can just barely see northern (Turkish) Cyprus, and the first hints of the Greek-speaking southern half of the island.  You can see what a horrid linguistic muddle the Balkans are.  And you almost can't see North Africa at all, although Tunis and Algiers stand out; that sort of makes you wonder to what extent the “Arab Spring” really was driven by modern communications technology, as opposed to telephones, newspapers, and word of mouth.

You can see the mountains between Portugal and Spain that Wellington and the lads had to struggle over in the Peninsular War, because they're still sparsely populated - but you can see how densely populated the Alps are!  You can see how England is almost totally blanketed by Tweeters!  And how the North Sea, the Med and the Bay of Biscay are full of Tweeter-bearing ships, but the Black Sea and the eastern Baltic, not so much.  And even cooler, you can see how it's almost impossible to make Switzerland out at all, because when you look at it in terms of language, it might as well be split between France, Italy and Germany.  Same deal for Belgium; Wallonia blends into France, and Flanders blends into Holland.  The notional, national borders are entirely invisible when you look at countries on a linguistic basis.

There are some weaknesses in this sort of approach.  Returning to the world map for a moment, one wonders about the sub-Continent; why is densely-populated India so short of Tweeters?  At this point you realize that you’re only seeing the shadows of English tweets; the software apparently doesn’t detect Hindi.  Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran are likewise nearly blank, because Persian, Pathan, Dari and so forth are similarly not being picked up.  Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

What else could we do with this sort of capability?  Look back at the world map up top for a second.  You can see the Canary Islands, but Africa is almost nonexistent.  What can we learn from that?  And could you use this capability for military purposes?  If you can make out a single Tweeter aboard an aircraft over water, I wonder if you could follow the movement of groups of soldiers or sailors by tracking their Twitter signature?  Would a 10,000-man US Army division full of iPhones, iPads, Blackberrys and the like show up on this sort of graphic?  Would you be able to see a US CVN with 6000 madly-Twittering crewmen and women aboard?  How about a Marine Amphibious Group afloat?  What would someone expecting an attack make of a big blotch of English Tweeters (with, say, 10-15% Spanish Tweeters mixed in with them) in the middle of the South China Sea?

Here's the link to the site where I found these graphics, "Strange Maps":

The original pics created by Fischer can be found here:



We just decided to go

I was three when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.  My grandmother went to Cape Kennedy in 1970, and amongst other things, she brought back a set of mission photographs - 8"x10" prints of the best photos taken during the Apollo 11 launch, the mission, the Moon walk, and the return to Earth.  I remember looking at them as a kid, certain and sure that one day I would walk on Mars.  Sure enough, in fact, that I entered a contest in 1977 sponsored by the Ontario Science Centre to design a spaceship to travel to Mars. I won a couple of free passes.  I was eleven, Star Wars had just been released, and it was less than five years since the last man had walked on the Moon.

In December, it will have been 40 years since the Apollo 17 astronauts came home.

I still have those pictures. This has always been my favourite one:

Why, you ask? Simple - because although we know that it's Neil Armstrong in the suit, we can't see his face. I kind of like that anonymity; the fact that all we know is that there's a human being walking on another planet (and of course, thanks to the shoulder patch, that it's an American). Neil Armstrong, who may be the most self-effacing celebrity humanity has ever known, lived his whole post-Apollo life that way. While everybody else in the world looked at him, he seemed to spend his time trying to highlight the half-million or so folks who enabled him to walk on the Moon.

And that's why my favourite line about the Apollo program has never been any of the factual stuff that anyone said - Armstrong's quote, or the line on the plaque that says "We came in peace for all mankind."  My favourite line comes from the movie Apollo 13, where Tom Hanks, playing Jim Lovell, is talking to his wife while Armstrong is hopping around the lunar surface:

From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon.  It's not a miracle; we just decided to go.

We just decided to go.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A man

 Retired Alberta firefighter saves lives of grandkids before dying in fiery crash
CALGARY - Retired Alberta firefighter Les Toews saved two more lives -- the lives of his grandchildren -- before dying in front of his own children Friday evening.

Toews was one of three people killed when two pickup trucks collided head-on just after 6 p.m. on Hwy. 21, south of Three Hills, about 130 km northeast of Calgary.

One of his sons was also in the vehicle -- the other, a firefighter, was one of the emergency responders to arrive at the scene.

The 69-year-old Linden-based firefighter was trapped as both vehicles -- a southbound truck pulling a utility trailer and a northbound truck pulling a horse trailer -- erupted into flames, Sgt. Patricia Neely, of the Beiseker RCMP, said.

"He was trapped but he managed to manoeuvre to reach the children in the back and assist in getting them out the driver's side window to their father, who had managed to get out the other side," she said.

"The grandfather handed the children through the window to the father." 


 That, friends, is a man.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

2 November 2011 – Ridley on pseudoscience


A quick note this week to introduce a very thoughtful lecture on "scientific heresy" by Matt Ridley, a British scientist who has published numerous books in the fields of genetics, human society, and the philosophy of science.  I've copied the first third of the lecture below, though in my opinion the whole piece is worth a read  (the full piece can be found here:

Ridley's list of "lessons" is particularly useful.  I won't spoil it for you.  Here it is.

It is a great honour to be asked to deliver the Angus Millar lecture.

I have no idea whether Angus Millar ever saw himself as a heretic, but I have a soft spot for heresy. One of my ancestral relations, Nicholas Ridley the Oxford martyr, was burned at the stake for heresy.

My topic today is scientific heresy. When are scientific heretics right and when are they mad? How do you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Let us run through some issues, starting with the easy ones.

Astronomy is a science; astrology is a pseudoscience.

Evolution is science; creationism is pseudoscience.

Molecular biology is science; homeopathy is pseudoscience.

Vaccination is science; the MMR scare is pseudoscience.

Oxygen is science; phlogiston was pseudoscience.

Chemistry is science; alchemy was pseudoscience.

Are you with me so far?

A few more examples. That the earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare is pseudoscience. So are the beliefs that Elvis is still alive, Diana was killed by MI5, JFK was killed by the CIA, 911 was an inside job. So are ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, the Loch Ness monster and pretty well everything to do with the paranormal. Sorry to say that on Halloween, but that’s my opinion.

Three more controversial ones. In my view, most of what Freud said was pseudoscience.

So is quite a lot, though not all, of the argument for organic farming.

So, in a sense by definition, is religious faith. It explicitly claims that there are truths that can be found by other means than observation and experiment.

Now comes one that gave me an epiphany. Crop circles.

It was blindingly obvious to me that crop circles were likely to be man-made when I first starting investigating this phenomenon. I made some myself to prove it was easy to do.

This was long before Doug Bower and Dave Chorley fessed up to having started the whole craze after a night at the pub.

Every other explanation – ley lines, alien spacecraft, plasma vortices, ball lightning – was balderdash. The entire field of “cereology” was pseudoscience, as the slightest brush with its bizarre practitioners easily demonstrated.

Imagine my surprise then when I found I was the heretic and that serious journalists working not for tabloids but for Science Magazine, and for a Channel 4 documentary team, swallowed the argument of the cereologists that it was highly implausible that crop circles were all man-made.

So I learnt lesson number 1: the stunning gullibility of the media. Put an “ology” after your pseudoscience and you can get journalists to be your propagandists.

A Channel 4 team did the obvious thing – they got a group of students to make some crop circles and then asked the cereologist if they were “genuine” or “hoaxed” – ie, man made. He assured them they could not have been made by people. So they told him they had been made the night before. The man was poleaxed. It made great television. Yet the producer, who later became a government minister under Tony Blair, ended the segment of the programme by taking the cereologist’s side: “of course, not all crop circles are hoaxes”. What? The same happened when Doug and Dave owned up; everybody just went on believing. They still do.

Lesson number 2: debunking is like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.

In medicine, I began to realize, the distinction between science and pseudoscience is not always easy. This is beautifully illustrated in an extraordinary novel by Rebecca Abrams, called Touching Distance, based on the real story of an eighteenth century medical heretic, Alec Gordon of Aberdeen.

Gordon was a true pioneer of the idea that childbed fever was spread by medical folk like himself and that hygiene was the solution to it. He hit upon this discovery long before Semelweiss and Lister. But he was ignored. Yet Abrams’s novel does not paint him purely as a rational hero, but as a flawed human being, a neglectful husband and a crank with some odd ideas – such as a dangerous obsession with bleeding his sick patients. He was a pseudoscientist one minute and scientist the next.

Lesson number 3. We can all be both. Newton was an alchemist.

Like antisepsis, many scientific truths began as heresies and fought long battles for acceptance against entrenched establishment wisdom that now appears irrational: continental drift, for example. Barry Marshall was not just ignored but vilified when he first argued that stomach ulcers are caused by a particular bacterium. Antacid drugs were very profitable for the drug industry. Eventually he won the Nobel prize.

Just this month Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel prize for quasi crystals, having spent much of his career being vilified and exiled as a crank. “I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying.”

That’s lesson number 4: the heretic is sometimes right.

What sustains pseudoscience is confirmation bias. We look for and welcome the evidence that fits our pet theory; we ignore or question the evidence that contradicts it. We all do this all the time. It’s not, as we often assume, something that only our opponents indulge in. I do it, you do it, it takes a superhuman effort not to do it. That is what keeps myths alive, sustains conspiracy theories and keeps whole populations in thrall to strange superstitions.

Bertrand Russell pointed this out many years ago: “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”

Lesson no 5: keep a sharp eye out for confirmation bias in yourself and others.

There have been some very good books on this recently. Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain”, Dan Gardner’s “Future Babble” and Tim Harford’s “Adapt”* are explorations of the power of confirmation bias. And what I find most unsettling of all is Gardner’s conclusion that knowledge is no defence against it; indeed, the more you know, the more you fall for confirmation bias. Expertise gives you the tools to seek out the confirmations you need to buttress your beliefs.

Experts are worse at forecasting the future than non-experts.

Philip Tetlock did the definitive experiment. He gathered a sample of 284 experts – political scientists, economists and journalists – and harvested 27,450 different specific judgments from them about the future then waited to see if they came true. The results were terrible. The experts were no better than “a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.

Here’s what the Club of Rome said on the rear cover of the massive best-seller Limits to Growth in 1972:

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.”

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts", said Richard Feynman.

Lesson 6. Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future. Experts are worth listening to about the past, but not the future. Futurology is pseudoscience.

The rest of Ridley's speech examines the consensus position on climate science from a perspective of attempting to determine how much of what is widely accepted as scientific fact is in fact pseudoscience.  While Ridley acknowledges that there has been some evidence of faults in the camp of the critics (the "heretics", as he calls them), those flaws, he argues, are dwarfed by the scientific sins of the proponents of the "warmist" position.  Moreover, he argues, the sins of the warmists against science are more important because they, and not the skeptics, are the ones who hold in their hands the levers of public policy:

The alarmists have been handed power over our lives; the heretics have not. Remember Britain’s unilateral climate act is officially expected to cost the hard-pressed UK economy £18.3 billion a year for the next 39 years and achieve an unmeasurably small change in carbon dioxide levels.

At least sceptics do not cover the hills of Scotland with useless, expensive, duke-subsidising wind turbines whose manufacture causes pollution in Inner Mongolia and which kill rare raptors such as [the] griffon vulture.

At least crop circle believers cannot almost double your electricity bills and increase fuel poverty while driving jobs to Asia, to support their fetish.

At least creationists have not persuaded the BBC that balanced reporting is no longer necessary.

At least homeopaths have not made expensive condensing boilers, which shut down in cold weather, compulsory, as John Prescott did in 2005.

At least astrologers have not driven millions of people into real hunger, perhaps killing 192,000 last year according to one conservative estimate, by diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel.

When pseudoscientists are handed the reins of power, Ridley reminds us, the results are rarely pleasant.  The Lysenkoist version of genetics was favoured by Stalin, resulting in millions of deaths by starvation during the forced collectivization of the peasantry, and setting the Soviet biological sciences back by two generations (a blessing in disguise, perhaps, given the Soviets' dogged pursuit of biological weapons despite having signed the BTWC).

And eugenics - the pseudoscientific doctrine much beloved of early 20th Century intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw - was widely praised, and in fact became state policy in places like Nazi Germany, with appalling results.  60,000 "genetically unfit" persons were sterilized in the Untied States between the 1920s and 1970s.  Eugenics even became policy in Canada.  Tommy Douglas, the hero of Canadian socialism and darling of the Canadian left, who in 2004 was voted "the greatest Canadian", advocated state use of genetics in his 1933 masters' thesis, which was entitled "The Problems of the Subnormal Family", and in which he advocated "sterilization of the mentally and physically defective."  Forced sterilization of "mental defectives" indeed took place in Canada; in Alberta, for example, between the passage in 1928 of the province's eugenics-inspired sterilization statute and its abolition in 1972, 4,725 sterilizations took place.  All in the name of a spurious pseudoscientific doctrine. To paraphrase Ridley, the cerealogists might be kooks, but unlike the eugenecists, no government has ever cited cerealogy as justification to take a knife to your 'nads.

History demonstrates that there can be horrific social and international costs when pseudoscience is permitted to gain a stranglehold over public policy.  All the more reason for those of us who style ourselves "scientists" to eschew pseudoscience in favour of the real thing; and all the more reason, as Ridley argues, not to be afraid to be dubbed "heretics" when our professional ethics oblige us to call B---s--- on pseudoscientific nonsense whenever, wherever, and in whatever shape it rears its ugly head.



Thursday, September 6, 2012

27 October 2011 – Giant shoulders

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.


- Issac Newton, from a letter to Robert Hooke, 5 February 1675


I don't often find myself feeling positively giddy, but while we spent most of yesterday thinking about how to do science better, something positively monumental happened: 
The Royal Society put its entire journal archive on-line for free.

The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - the first peer-reviewed scientific journal in the history of the human race - was first published in 1665.  Since then, the Society has published more than 60,000 papers, representing some of mankind's most monumental and world-altering scientific achievements.

Want to read what Charles Darwin had to say about the marine origins of Scottish roads?  Here you go:

Or a theory of tides, extracted by Edmund Halley (yes, the comet guy) from Newton's Principia?  Le voila:

How about what happens when you fly a kite in an electrical storm - a trifling piece by a Mr. B. Franklin of Philadelphia?

Or perhaps you'd like to read this funky little monograph:

That one was written by James Clerk Maxwell - a modest man who, like Newton, acknowledged that he was standing on the shoulders of giants.  Maxwell's shoulders proved broad enough to support Rutherford and Michelson, Einstein and Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, and everyone else who came after him.  Maxwell is all but unknown outside the physical science community, but that paper is the foundation of the modern world.  And now it's online, the way it was originally published.  For free.

There's no point in gilding the lily.  Here's the search engine. 

Go have some fun.




Wednesday, September 5, 2012

20 October 2011 – The dangers of citation

NOTE: As of today, 5 September 2012, Bill C 51 had not progressed beyond introduction and first reading in the House of Commons. The government has not reintroduced it.

According to a ruling issued yesterday, the Supreme Court says it’s okay to use footnotes, but not citations.
...yeah, maybe I should back up a little.  Back in the last session of the 40th Parliament (the one that ended on 26 March 2011), the government introduced Bill C-51, entitled “An Act to amend the Criminal Code, the Competition Act and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Act”.  The short title of this bill was the “Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act”.[Note A]  Obviously, it died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved.
One of the controversial aspects of the bill was that Clause 5 would have altered the Section 319(7) of the Criminal Code.  This part of the Criminal Code deals with hate speech and hate propaganda.  At present, Section 319(7) contains definitions applicable to this section of the Code, and includes the following language:


« communiquer »

“communicating” includes communicating by telephone, broadcasting or other audible or visible means;[Note B]


Clause 5 of Bill C-51 proposed changing this definition to the following:


5. The definition “communicating” in subsection 319(7) of the Act is replaced by the following:


“communicating” means communicating by any means and includes making available; [Note A]


This, I think you’ll agree, significantly alters the definition of “communication” as it currently stands.  The lawyers who prepared the legislative summary of the Bill for the Library of Parliament thought so, too.  In reviewing the Bill, they had this to say about Clause 5:

Clause 5 of the bill provides that the offences of public incitement of hatred and wilful promotion of hatred may be committed by any means of communication and include making hate material available, by creating a hyperlink that directs web surfers to a website where hate material is posted, for example. [Note C]

There is a significant difference between publishing hate speech in a book or on a website, and merely calling attention to the existence of hate speech through use of a footnote.  Back in August, I wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice - in my capacity as a private citizen, naturally - to express my discomfort with legislation that equates what amounts to a footnote with full-throated approval.

A hyperlink is not approval, it is not “dissemination”, and it is most certainly not “making something available”.  It is a citation, pure and simple.  Under the proposed legislation, if I were to hyperlink to a website that does promote hatred in order to indicate my disapproval thereof, I would be guilty of an offence.  More insidiously, if I were to link to a website that someone were to subsequently object to for any reason whatsoever, I would also be guilty of an offence. 

Much to my surprise, I received a long letter back from the Justice Department.  The text and tone of the letter didn’t surprise me all that much (I’ve written several dozen Ministerial Inquiries myself, many to people who might - also - be described as ‘cranks’), and the arguments employed did nothing to allay my concerns:


Clause 5 proposed to update this definition to state that communicating means communicating by any means and includes making available.  While it is true that providing a hyperlink would fall under this definition in certain circumstances—as it would under the current definition of communicating in subsection 319(7)—providing a hyperlink alone is not enough to commit either of these two hate propaganda offences.  As the previous paragraph shows, many other elements must be proven before a person can be found guilty.  The amendment merely described the manner in which a prohibited statement could have been made.  It would not have determined whether a statement was of a prohibited nature, or whether a communicator had the necessary guilty mind to commit the offence.  The necessity to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of a guilty mind for these crimes is an important safeguard that protects freedom of expression.  For example, in the case of R. v. Keegstra, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the crime of “wilfully” promoting hatred against an identifiable group means “intentionally” promoting hatred.  This excludes the reckless or negligent promotion of hatred from the scope of this crime.  These stringent requirements already exist in the Criminal Code and would not have been changed by the amendments proposed in former Bill C-51. 


It is also worth noting that the crime of wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group contains several defences found in subsection 319(3) of the Criminal Code, which further limit the scope of this crime.  For instance, the fact that a statement is true is a defence.  So too is the communication of statements that are relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which is for the public benefit, where the person reasonably believed them to be true.  None of the defences would have been affected by the amendments proposed in former Bill C-51.


There are a number of things about this response that should ring alarm bells.  First, if the current definition of ‘communicating’ in subsection 319(7) would capture hyperlinks (presumably under the definition of ‘visible means’), then why was it deemed necessary to update it at all?  Second, and more importantly, the legal defences against a charge of hate speech - whether a statement was of a prohibited nature, whether it is true, and whether a ‘communicator had the necessary guilty mind’ - are all matters that can only be elicited in the course of a trial.  In other words, the presumption of the legislation is that the ‘truth will out’ during the prosecutorial process, and that only someone who is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have “wilfully” or “intentionally” promoted hatred will be convicted.  Maybe that’s true – but it’s irrelevant.  As folks like Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn can attest, even if you are ultimately acquitted, the process is the punishment.  It cost Ezra more than $100,000 to be acquitted after having been the subject of a frivolous and vexatious complaint of hate speech.
Consider openly anti-Semitic speech for a moment.  What is the substantive difference between a footnote citing Mein Kampf or the Koran, and a hyperlink that ‘makes available’ the same grossly objectionable material?  Both books are available in on-line text format from Project Gutenberg. From a pragmatic perspective, providing a URL is certainly more convenient to the reader, as it allows him to check references with the click of a mouse button rather than a trip to the library.  But neither a footnote nor a hyperlink necessarily imputes approbation or even concurrence on the part of the author.  Bill C-51 would make it a crime, for example, to provide a hyperlink to Deuteronomy 25:17-18, because the text incites the reader to violence against an identifiable group, the Amalekites; it encourages the Israelites to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.”[Note D]  Is citing the Bible (or the Torah) really hate speech?  I use this example deliberately, because “Amalekite” has resurfaced in the past century in some extremist rhetoric in connection with everyone from Zionists to Nazis to Palestinians, in circumstances that, under Canadian law, would doubtless be considered hate speech – but does this mean we can’t cite the Bible?
Needless to say, an overly strict interpretation of what constitutes “publishing” hate speech would be a problem for professional academics.  How, for example, could one of us write an analytical report on Islamic extremism if it were an offence to footnote the source material necessary to provide scholarly support to our analysis?  How could we write about some of the more pernicious aspects of Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany, or Communist China, if we had to worry about citing references that could potentially be deemed as being “hateful” with respect to an “identifiable group”?
Well, this is where the Supreme Court comes in.  Yesterday, the SCC issued its decision in Crookes v. Newton, a case that bears directly on the question of what references, especially hyperlinks, are, and what their status is in legal terms.  Basically what happened is that the respondent, Newton, owned a website that discussed, amongst other things, free speech and the internet.  On his website were a number of hyperlinks, including two that linked to articles elsewhere on the internet that Crookes alleged were defamatory.  Crookes sued not the original author who wrote and posted the allegedly defamatory articles, but Newton, for “making available” defamatory statements, arguing that creating hyperlinks to the articles amounted to “publishing” the defamatory content.  
The original trial judge dismissed the complaint, concluding that hyperlinks are analogous to footnotes, and that merely referring to defamatory material without repeating it does not constitute publication.  A majority of the appellate court upheld the trial judge’s ruling.  And the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal…but the arguments advanced by the Court in doing so were not entirely comforting.
The majority decision was written by Justice Abella, with concurrence of five other members; the remaining members provided amplifying remarks.  The summary of the majority decision is as follows.  I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting relevant passages.


    To prove the publication element of defamation, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant has, by any act, conveyed defamatory meaning to a single third party who has received it.  Traditionally, the form the defendant’s act takes and the manner in which it assists in causing the defamatory content to reach the third party are irrelevant.  Applying this traditional rule to hyperlinks, however, would have the effect of creating a presumption of liability for all hyperlinkersThis would seriously restrict the flow of information on the Internet and, as a result, freedom of expression.


    Hyperlinks are, in essence, references, which are fundamentally different from other acts of “publication”.  Hyperlinks and references both communicate that something exists, but do not, by themselves, communicate its content.  They both require some act on the part of a third party before he or she gains access to the content.  The fact that access to that content is far easier with hyperlinks than with footnotes does not change the reality that a hyperlink, by itself, is content neutral.  Furthermore, inserting a hyperlink into a text gives the author no control over the content in the secondary article to which he or she has linked. 


    A hyperlink, by itself, should never be seen as “publication” of the content to which it refers.  When a person follows a hyperlink to a secondary source that contains defamatory words, the actual creator or poster of the defamatory words in the secondary material is the person who is publishing the libel. Only when a hyperlinker presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content, should that content be considered to be “published” by the hyperlinker.


    Here, nothing on N’s page is itself alleged to be defamatory.  Since the use of a hyperlink cannot, by itself, amount to publication even if the hyperlink is followed and the defamatory content is accessed, N has not published the defamatory content and C’s action cannot succeed.[Note E] 


I’m sure you’ve spotted the Trojan Horse in this argument.  In paragraph three of the summary, the Justices argue that if a hyperlinker “presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content”, this should considered “publication”.  In the text of the decision, the explanatory paragraph reads as follows:


[42]      Making reference to the existence and/or location of content by hyperlink or otherwise, without more, is not publication of that content.  Only when a hyperlinker presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content, should that content be considered to be “published” by the hyperlinker...[Note E] 


This is, in my view, extremely problematic.  It means that while you can provide a footnote to potentially objectionable material, you cannot cite that material in your own papers without making yourself liable to a charge of defamation (or hate speech).  In other words, you could write “Hitler, in Mein Kampf, accused Jews in vile terms of using adverse societal conditions to advance a social democratic agenda”, and then provide a hyperlink to the text (for example, at Project Gutenberg); but according to the Court’s interpretation, no matter how disapprovingly you do so, you could not cite the actual relevant passage (“A cold shiver ran down my spine when I first ascertained that it was the same kind of cold-blooded, thick-skinned and shameless Jew who showed his consummate skill in conducting that revolting exploitation of the dregs of the big city.” [Note F]) without making yourself liable to a charge of “publishing” hate speech.  Indeed, according to Bill C-51 and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of what “publication” means, arguably, by citing that passage, I’m guilty of contravening the Criminal Code.  I'm equally guilty for citing Deuteronomy's rabid hatred against the Amalekites.
So according to the SCC, footnotes are not “publication”, but citations are.
Is this really what the Criminal Code’s provisions against hate speech are supposed to be about?  How in heaven’s name are we supposed to be able to conduct research and analysis into the darkest and most repellent corners of the human spirit without holding the bile and venom of those who seek to destroy us up to examination?  Whatever happened to “sunlight is the best disinfectant”?  Sure, there’s obviously no “intent” in my message to communicate, publish, or otherwise convey “hate speech” - but according to the SCC decision in Crookes v. Newton and the legislative changes proposed in Bill C-51, if someone were to complain about that citation, the only way for me to prove that my intent is academic rather than pernicious would be via a trial that could cost me a hundred grand and more in legal fees.  All it would take would be a complaint.
Is this the future of scholarship - one where academics seeking to practice their profession in good faith must face a choice between courting calumny and financial ruin, and deliberately eschewing any subject that might potentially attract an allegation that an “identifiable group” has been defamed?  Is restricting our work to bland, inoffensive, irrelevant subjects and publications the only way for us to succeed in an environment of institutionalized hypersensitivity?
And are these stupid questions in a country where our “fundamental freedoms”, including freedom of speech, are described in section 2 of the Charter, while the government’s right to impose “reasonable limits” on those freedoms is described before them, in Section 1?
Anyhow, the government plans to reintroduce Bill C-51 in the current session of Parliament.  Anybody working on a subject where your research is likely to lead you to hard truths about an “identifiable group” might be well advised to think hard before you cite those hard truths in your text.  It might be safer to simply refer to them in an innocuous, noncommittal and pathetically content-free footnote.  That's the safest course to take in today's hypersensitive Canada.



A)    []

B)    []

C)    [ library_prb&ls=C51&Parl=40&Ses=3&Language=E&Mode=1#a8]

D)    []  Note: according to the Ministry of Justice, providing this link would constitute a violation of the Criminal Code provisions against hate speech as amended by Bill C-51 because the material at the other end of the link incites hatred against Amalekites.  Be warned.

E)    []

F)    []