United Nations Day

Perhaps because the International Peace Garden has struggled to finish a conference centre suitable for the occasional negotiation, the United Nations remains the foremost headquarters for global diplomacy. It began with a treaty in San Francisco, signed on this day in 1945, and the hope was to build a lasting institution for global peace.

When viewed through the lens of its flashy New York Headquarters, the UN gives a not-entirely-inaccurate impression of being byzantine and ineffective. Even allowing for its successes, has to assign it some responsibility for failing to solve its own problems, let alone the world’s.

To start, there’s a democratic deficit in the UN that ought to be resolved by a planetary parliament. Without any clear mandate or enforcement powers, General Assembly resolutions have all the impact of a wet paper towel.

The UN is incapable of levying even the sparest of taxes — say, 0.7%, to support its development goals in impoverished nations. It is not anywhere near the heartbeat of global trade; it is in fact totally bypassed by regional blocs, the WTO and other multiparty agreements.

The United Nations Security Council is a fossilized remnant of the 1940s global power structure. Done over again today, it would not be Britain or France with Security Council seats, but Germany, India, Brazil.

And yet, there is no organization that is doing more to help refugees, the malnourished, the undereducated, the war-torn. No other NGO matches the scope of its humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts. The UN is at present, doing its best, playing second fiddle on a shoestring. Whether its next 70 years are glory or infamy depends entirely on how the global community repairs this impressive international institution.

Scotland vote due soon

scotlandOn the 18th, there’s kind of a big thing going on in Scotland.  If I were voting, I’d be voting “yes” — Yes for Scotland, Yes to Europe, Yes to Social Justice.

From all accounts, it’s clear that Independence is not going down to a yawning defeat as suggested mere weeks ago.

Certainly, Scottish independence is not without pitfalls. The most troublesome problems Scotland faces are economic — forced by British intransigence to choose between sharing a currency and travel area with Britain or with wider Europe.

Scotland must also decide the fate of revenues from its oil production — production that won’t go on forever, but money that perhaps can if properly managed.  Like Alberta and North Dakota, Scotland is a subnational entity buoyed by a valuable but ultimately unlasting resource.

Before the Canadian Alliance put an end to western alienation, Alberta once talked of secession. Heck, there’s been a loon or two promoting independence for North Dakota. What makes Scotland different is that it had, and never lost, a sense of nationality. To be a Scot is to be someone unique and recognizable in the world. The United Kingdom, even after hundreds of years, is still a union of crowns, unlike the vague and impersonal ties that bind other federations.

The values dissonance between England and Scotland was perhaps best expressed in the most recent elections, where the victorious Conservative Party won exactly zero seats. The government interacts with Scotland through the coalition participation of the centre-left-centre Liberal Democrats, who despite breakthrough success in the campaign ended up forced to lackey an agenda they barely tolerate.

David Cameron’s government has had the distinct privilege of making its own coalition partner irrelevant, and soon, perhaps, of breaking up the country itself. Getting the UK into yet another messy war is probably exactly the excuse Scotland needs to say “No thanks” to the status quo.

You might ask, why do I support Scottish Independence when I would hardly be euphoric about, say, independence for Québec?  The simple answer is Europe.  The European Union is a place where nations can pursue individual identity and still participate in economic federalism.  One need only look at the slow breakup of Belgium to see that the EU has made small unions of dissimilar peoples in Europe obsolete.  Yeah, Europe has problems too.  Bigger problems.  Bigger solutions.

By contrast, une République Québecoise would look almost exactly like the province of Québec looks today, but tangibly worse for individual freedom and welfare.  In a best case scenario, Québec would lose its equalization payments and freedom of movement, to say nothing of the effect on the rest of Canada (say, losing French-language radio in cities like Regina).  Plus you can’t wear poutine like a kilt.

Net neutrality is the only option

Will the FCC embrace the “not on my lawn” philosophy and stand behind Internet Service Providers that choose to monetize any statistic they develop, and allow ISPs to dictate the terms on which they will allow other speech on their private networks?

Will the FCC embrace the “net neutrality” philosophy, designating Internet service as a common carrier, and require Internet Service Providers to move its customers’ data without favour or prejudice?

“Not on my lawn” surrenders control of everyone’s speech to private interests, and would deeply violate the public spirit of the United States of America. The answer that the average American citizen, small business, and non-profit would give is resoundingly in favour of net neutrality.

John Thune selling out the Internet

Our neighbours seem to have much stronger opinions about Net Neutrality than North Dakota’s Senators:  You have Al Franken on one side, defending the open internet in defiance of his old bosses at Comcast, and then you have John Thune in South Dakota signing on with the pay-to-play crowd, yukking up about “opportunity” while showing off to FCC Commissioners the kind of small businesses that won’t be able to afford access to the marketplace if regulations allowing ISPs to double-dip go forward.

“Net neutrality” isn’t something new — it happens to be the way the Internet has always worked.  What has changed is that certain ISPs want to change the rules of the game, count things they shouldn’t and charge people they shouldn’t as many times as they please.

Dalrymple triangulates on Carbon Dioxide

It’s not surprising that a quixotic quest against federal environmental regulations would be a top priority for the people that benefit from the oil trade in North Dakota, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right.

Governor Dalrymple is at least not claiming, like some on the right, that Carbon Dioxide isn’t a pollutant at all.  But he talks of heel-dragging on the issue.  Short-sightedness on the consequences of carbon regulations is easy when you’re used to a narrow business model, but drill, pump, refine, burn has nearly run its course.  Yet, if people stop burning Bakken crude in their gas tanks, it will still be saleable to the chemical industry, as stock material for plastics and pharmaceuticals.

A recent study suggests that moving to practice and policy on carbon-based energy that will keep CO2 levels under 450 ppm is only going to cost the global economy about 0.06% of annual GDP.  If public policy can provide the right incentives and penalties, the big CO2 generators can clean up their act, without really stopping them from being  big money generators.

Inspiration Mars ought to do sample return

1390604225-526809A sample return mission is the best bet for adding science to Inspiration Mars, Dr. Mike Gaffey said at the UND Space Studies Colloqium on January 27.

Inspiration Mars is the ballyhooed effort lead by space tourist Dennis Tito to fire a pair of astronauts straight to Mars, around, and back.  The ambitious space shot would blast-off in January 2018, followed by a 7-month cruise.  The craft would speed over the night side of Mars in August 2018, then splash down back home in May 2019.

In the cruise phase, onboard detectors could help gather information on solar and cosmic radiation, including being a help in locating the source of fleeting gamma-ray bursts.

For Martian science, the ship will just be moving too fast!  Most Mars missions are robotic probes that can spend months to carefully study something.  In just a handful of hours, the best bet would be to scoop up as much dust and upper atmosphere as possible from the vicinity of Mars.

For the biggest value of the mission, Gaffey points to the human factor: the stunning potential of humans seeing the sun set and rise over a new world — and the teachable moment that will come if an intrepid pair manage to circuit the Red Planet just 55 months from today.