News from the Catholic Church

It’s official. The demand for exorcists is higher than ever, and a group of priests and assorted hangers-on at a Roman Catholic university in Rome have identified the source of the problem: it’s the Internet’s fault! With modern communications, it seems, it’s easier than ever for at-risk youth to find information on Satanism and thus expose themselves to the cruel threat of diabolical invasion.

One learned hierophant informs us that ‘people who are possessed by Satan vomit shards of glass and pieces of iron, scream, dribble and slobber, utter blasphemies and have to be physically restrained.’ What’s more, he adds, ‘[T]he sex abuse scandals which have engulfed the Church in the US, Ireland, Germany and other countries, were proof that the anti-Christ was waging a war against the Holy See. He said Pope Benedict XVI believed “wholeheartedly” in the practice of exorcism.’

Now, I call that a neat trick: invent an invisible enemy called Satan, then blame him for your own sins. To my mind, what he describes sounds more like a conflation of (a) legitimate mental illness, necessitating psychiatric care, with (b) the entirely justified reaction of a young person at the approach of a Catholic priest. Keep trying, fellas (and they are all fellas): Get enough people to swallow this stuff and your glory days will be back before we know it.

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Things I came across: Week of March 28, 2011

I’m going to start keeping track of cool, fun, interesting, terrifying and/or random things I come across and posting them on a regular basis. Here’s the first collection.

  • An eight-year-long thread (and still going strong) of ER docs, nurses, students, paramedics and others who live in the world of emergency medicine, venting about their mostest favouritest patients. (It’s not heartless, just a coping mechanism.)
  • Infographic: How to have a rational discussion. By itself it’s not going to change anyone’s mind. However, if you’re ever roped into in a conversation with someone who thinks there’s an actual debate to be had about vaccines causing autism (hint: they don’t), or the reality of the Apollo moon landings, it’s a useful way to gauge how badly they’re wasting your time. As a reasonable person, you will, of course, be making a conscientious effort to follow the rules and reach the “Congratulations” box fair and square. If the other person does not follow the rules, you’re fully justified in cutting off discussion and declaring them the loser.
  • From 1905 to 1916, there was a hockey team right here in Canada called the Windsor Swastikas. Not the Windsor I live in, thank God, the one in Nova Scotia. Wikipedia helpfully notes “the Swastikas chose their name as at the time the swastika was a symbol associated with luck and success.” Today, even though the Town of Windsor’s website bills the place as the “Birthplace of Hockey”, the team is mysteriously nowhere to be found on the site.
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Fire in Detroit

Woke up this morning to see a plume of smoke stretching across my entire view:

Apparently it’s a plastics-recycling warehouse on fire in Detroit. That would account for the thick black smoke. As I write, it’s been burning for four hours with no end in sight — low water pressure in the area is making the firefighters’ efforts pretty feeble, seemingly. I just hope nobody’s hurt.

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The cutting edge of beer technology

Guinness drinkers who drink at home will be familiar with the little plastic ball that rattles around in the can after you crack it open and pour out a pint of dark creamy goodness. If you’ve ever wondered what that thing is for, wonder no longer. I’m not sure how I’d feel about it being replaced by a credit-card-sized piece of filter paper, though. Why wouldn’t it turn to mush and make my beer into a cellulose shake?

Bonus: this guy has made a collection of neat YouTube videos about all kinds of everyday technologies and how they work. Here’s one about pop can pull tabs that seems beer-applicable as well.


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To knock some sense into them

Here’s a nice little meme from the past couple of weeks: Motorists, who feel their progress is being hindered by non-motorists, taking matters into their own hands and plowing into crowds of people.

That’s the corner of Tulip and Iris in Summerville, South Carolina, where a couple of weeks ago a mother driving her kids to school encountered a group of students walking in the road who wouldn’t get out of the way and decided to hit the gas. She struck four kids, aged 12 to 14, one of whom was sent to hospital. She was later quoted as saying she wanted to “knock some sense into them”.

Around the same time, in Brazil, a man driving with his 15-year-old son found his car surrounded by a group of slow-moving bicyclists at an event to promote bicycling as a sustainable form of transportation. He was caught on video deliberately accelerating into the group of cyclists, at least three of whom were taken to hospital for their injuries. Mr. Richard Neis said he felt he and his son were threatened as people pounded on the roof and even broke windows.

I agree with Mr. Neis that people should be able to get from one place to another without feeling threatened by their surroundings. Likewise, anyone who’s tried to walk in a car-oriented area without sidewalks, or ridden a bicycle on a six-lane thoroughfare because sidewalks are off-limits, knows how harrowing (and sometimes fatal) it can be, so he has my sympathy. In a lot of ways it would be a relief to live without a car, but if the cost is second-class citizenship, for the moment that’s still too high for me.

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From the halls of Montezuma, to…

So maybe you noticed the price of gas just went up again? Christine was stonkered enough to post a WTF on Facebook last night: 121.6 cents per liter! The reason is pretty simple: Muammar Qaddafi isn’t busy just murdering his own citizens, markets are worried that he also has his loyalists blowing up pipelines to send a message to Libyans that they face a choice between him and ruin. There isn’t enough spare capacity around to replace a shortfall, so: up goes the price.

A couple of weeks ago I calculated how much a $1,000 e-bike would cost in equivalent fuel consumption, and came up with two years’ worth. That number now stands at one year, nine months and ten days or so. Put another way, at the former price of $1.08 per liter, that e-bike is the equivalent of 926 liters of gasoline. Now it’s only 822 liters. Do I hear 700?

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The energy/climate crisis sidles closer…

Well, well. Jeff Rubin, the Globe’s resident energy pessimist, latched on to the same WikiLeaks revelation that I did: the former head of the Saudi oil company, Aramco, told the U.S. embassy that the company has been overstating its estimated oil reserves by around 40 percent. This means that Saudi Arabia is running at maximum oil production now, and has little to no room to maneuver to meet any increase in demand. That is a pretty harsh brake on world economic growth.

And it gets better (and not in the optimistic, Dan Savage sense — no, this is the ‘worse’ kind of ‘better’). Shell Oil has released a world energy-usage forecast that suggests a serious crisis by 2020, in which governments

force their populations to reduce driving, use less electricity, and pay an extremely steep increase for what they do consume. There will be a massive, decade-long economic slowdown, and geopolitical power will shift dramatically to energy-producing nations, the company said.

Read the whole article to get the full effect. Sounds peachy, doesn’t it? For added flavour, take a look at just one of the graphs, taken from the report itself (PDF). The first shows their projection of the total world energy supply, and where it will be coming from:

Notice the ever-increasing amounts of coal, oil and natural gas they think we will be consuming. Now, here’s their estimate for CO2 emissions:

Shell envisions carbon emissions levelling off around 2030 while burning of fossil fuels continues to climb. The secret ingredient is carbon capture, in which CO2 emissions are either pumped into geological or underwater formations, or else mineralized, instead of being dumped into the atmosphere. Doing this with existing coal-fired plants requires expensive retrofitting and transport of the waste carbon, while new plants would likely be built as close as possible to a storage location. In either case, the efficiency of power generation goes down and the price of the energy goes up. What’s more, none of this is likely to happen before a price on carbon, routinely demagogued as “cap and tax”, starts making us deal with the real costs of our activities. I’m afraid the greediest and most short-sighted among us will just have to be mugged by reality before we see any real action.

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The new energy crisis is about to go wide

Since moving to my new apartment, I occasionally drive to or from work on the north service road, and there’s an impressive new solar panel out in front of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 773 office, next to the bus depot. About the size of the footprint of a small house tilted on its side, it’s mounted on a frame that lets it swivel around and face the sun at all times of day. I have to wonder how much it cost, whether it returns much electricity to the grid, and whether it will be possible to manufacture many more like it as it becomes increasingly obvious that world petroleum supplies are approximately as high as they are ever going to get, and can only go down from now on. We’d better hope so.

The IBEW’s one solar panel sounds a lot like the ones a developer is planning to emplace out in Woodslee. According to the Star, each of the planned 68 luxury houses in this development will have its own 10-kilowatt sun-tracking solar installation, the same capacity as the IBEW’s, and will sell electricity back to the grid at 80.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Times ten kilowatts, calling an average day 12 hours long, that suggests a ballpark revenue of $96.24 per day (probably less when it’s cloudy) per panel. The article is silent on what percentage of their, no doubt generous, incomes the prospective owners will be spending driving petroleum-fuelled SUVs to and from their fine new exurban McMansions. Of course, they would seem unusually well-placed to drive the new breed of electric or hybrid-electric vehicles instead. It’s a pity they’ll be living on what used to be productive agricultural land, though.

The peak oil issue has been bubbling along under the surface for a while now, largely the province of cranks and doomers, but my feeling is that it will finally become the front-burner issue that it needs to be before much longer. The latest U.S. diplomatic cable to be released (thanks, WikiLeaks!) makes it clear that the American government is perfectly well aware that oil, or at any rate cheap oil, is going away. The fact that you never hear any of them discuss it tells you all you need to know about the likelihood of a magical solution appearing anytime soon. But it’s simply a fact that just the current, sluggish recovery from the Great Recession has driven oil back up into $100-a-barrel territory. In other words, world oil supplies are so tight that even economic growth as disappointing as we’ve seen has nonetheless pushed the price of oil past the red line. Even today’s supine corporate media, packed from top to bottom with careerists trained from infancy to look out for themselves and not rock the boat, have to get the message sooner or later. They’ll finally start asking the right questions, and government officials will have to act like they have some kind of plan.

To this point, the closest any federal U.S. official seems to come to addressing this deadly serious, looming crisis is Barack Obama’s recent announcement of a push for a $53 billion plan to build high-speed rail. It’s nice to think that the White House is on top of things, that they foresee the sharp reduction of air travel and large-scale motoring that will result from super-expensive oil, and this is their way of getting ahead of the problem. It would be even nicer to think that, after years of delay and denial, this will finally shame Canadian governments into bringing something similar to the Québec City-Windsor corridor. But given today’s political climate of denial, greed, short-term thinking, and relentless partisan chiselling, I’m not expecting spectacular breakthroughs in most people’s understanding of their own, enlightened self-interest.

Just look at who Torontonians voted in as their new mayor. The city and province had come together on a far-sighted plan to ensure mobility in Ontario’s biggest city. Given the realities of our energy future, a commitment to light rail was only sensible and a resident of car-addicted Windsor, where either you own an automobile or you’re a second-class citizen, could only look on with envy. Then Rob Ford was voted into office by the megacity suburbanites with a mandate to stick it to the pinkos, and his very first act was to kill the plan. A generation from now Torontonians will curse his name as they blow out their energy budgets trying to heat and cool their homes and struggling to get around using increasingly unaffordable private vehicles and overburdened public transit. For now, though, they (and we) are stuck with this yahoo.

Economics runs on substitutions: if there aren’t enough trees in the tropics to provide all the rubber you need, you want someone to invent artificial rubber, or plastics, and so forth. The thing is, not only is there is no substitute for energy except more energy, but not all energy is created equal. The solar, wind and even nuclear energy projects going up everywhere nowadays are very nice and all, and we’re certainly better off with the electricity they provide than without, but the fact is that you can’t base an industrial civilization just on electricity. You can’t build bridges, ships or tall buildings without coke to smelt steel. You also can’t do the kind of long-distance shipping the world economy currently relies on without bunker oil. There may be a future for limited-range motoring using electric vehicles, but long-haul trucking and especially aviation need highly energy-dense liquid fuels like diesel, gasoline,  and naphtha- or kerosene-grade jet fuel to get anywhere. (Exactly how would an electric “jet” work, anyway? Jet engines function on combustion, after all. Not to mention that batteries are a lot heavier than jet fuel for the amount of energy they hold. On the other hand, once you packed enough batteries into a plane to fly from, say, Toronto to Vancouver, it would probably run very quietly. I’m sure the passengers would be impressed – both of them.)

What are the realistic prospects for replacing oil as a source of liquid fuel? Corn-based ethanol is a waste of time, an artifact of U.S. agricultural subsidies that in energy terms gives back no more than the fossil fuel inputs needed to produce it. Algae biofuels seem to be a more realistic possibility, with the advantage that they are effectively carbon neutral. Algaculture can use fresh, ocean or waste water (and doesn’t spoil fresh sources), doesn’t need to displace agricultural land, and according to the U.S. DOE could replace the U.S.’s current gasoline consumption using just one-seventh of the land area currently devoted to growing corn. That sounds doable to me.

Whatever the case, we had better get off the stick. We are much closer to the resource limits of our planet than most people realize, and we keep grasping for more. Food hoarding is beginning to be a serious concern, and there’s reason to believe that the main thing that prompted the uprising in Egypt is a renewed spike in the price of food. A lot of the world’s oil supply goes through the Suez Canal, which could turn the Egypt situation into a worldwide resource war very quickly. We’re witnessing the beginning of a situation that is likely to be with us for a very long time, creating the very conditions that will make dealing with it that much harder.

At the other end of the north service road, near Jefferson, is Scooter Pro. Like their competitor, Scoot-A-Long of Windsor, they sell e-bikes that produce zero emissions (other than their manufacture, obviously) and cost about 25 cents worth of electricity for a day’s riding – or would, if my electricity use weren’t included in my monthly rent. Compare that to my car, which consumes 8.8 L of fuel per 100 km (city). That comes to 1.83 L for my daily commute, round trip. At the current price of $1.08 per liter for regular gas, that’s effectively $2 just in gas (not counting insurance and maintenance) to get me to and from work on four wheels. At that rate, a thousand dollar e-bike would pay for itself in under two years, assuming I rode it every day, rain or shine (dubious, I admit). On the other hand, it would extend the life of my car, and give me an alternative while the gasoline side of this equation is only going to get worse. Nothing’s written in stone, but don’t be too surprised to see me tooling around on a shiny new electric bike once the weather warms up!

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Sand art is not as easy as this guy makes it look

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Basic, Intermediate, Advanced

Okay, try this:

  1. Go to the Google home page ( Click where it says Advanced Search. You’ll get a bunch of options for the kind of search you want to do.
  2. Look for their new Reading Level feature. Click the dropdown and choose “annotate results with reading levels”.
  3. Then go to the line “Search within a site or domain” and type the address of a site you’re interested in. Let’s start by entering and click the Advanced Search button. Here’s what I got:

Looks pretty reasonable for a general-interest newspaper. What about their main rival, the National Post? Let’s see:

Hmm, ever so slightly more demanding than the Globe? Perhaps that has something to do with their jailbird founder’s well-known fondness for verbal orotundity. Let’s have a look at a couple of sites I frequent, from low:

To high:

There’s a site called arXiv where scientific papers are published. How are they doing?

Whew, 100% advanced! I’d be worried they weren’t doing their job otherwise. Finally, this new version of my blog doesn’t seem to have been counted yet, but how does the old one stack up?

Woo-hoo! Right down the middle, baby! This brow is too high, while this one is too low, but this one is juuust right. 🙂

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