Monthly Archives: January 2014

Singin’ for Freedom: Pete Seeger

American icon Pete Seeger died Monday, January 27, 2014.

Author and filmmaker Silver Donald Cameron wrote this newspaper column about Pete Seeger in the dark days of 2001, and F&O re-publishes it here, free of charge, with Silver Donald’s kind permission. An excerpt:

silver_donald_cameronIn June, 1969, I was rattling away at my old Remington manual typewriter when my five-year-old daughter Leslie wandered into my workroom.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m writing a letter to Pete Seeger,” I said. I was hoping that Seeger would consider a benefit concert for The Mysterious East, a dissident magazine in Canada’s Maritimes that I helped to edit. At five, Leslie already knew and loved Seeger’s music, especially his children’s album Strangers and Cousins.

“Pete Seeger? Really?”


“You tell Pete Seeger,” she said gravely, “that I’m having my birthday — and he can come!”

Click here to read Pete Seeger: Farewell to a Giant, in F&O’s Loose Leaf salon.



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On the science of handedness and brain symmetry

A new science piece in Expert Witness looks at handedness and brain asymmetry, once regarded as unique to humans — but  widespread among animals, and a factor in language and tool use. An excerpt:

Figure 1

Photo: jenny cu ,

Although it may be the absence of asymmetry rather than its reversal that can be linked to problems of social or educational adjustment, left-handed individuals have often been regarded as deficient or contrarian, but this may be based more on prejudice than on the facts. Left-handers have excelled in all walks of life. They include five of the past seven US presidents, sports stars such as Rafael Nadal in tennis and Babe Ruth in baseball, and Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest genius of all time.

Left Brain, Right Brain: Facts and Fantasies by Michael C. Corballis,  republished under creative commons licence from the science journal PLOS Biology, is part of our “Expert Witness” occasional series, by experts in their field.


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Rethinking bias, left or right

“It’s a popular refrain that the facts have a left-wing bias,” writes Natural Security columnist Chris Wood. “But that doesn’t make the progressive left immune from the same sort of selective consciousness its members so quickly denounce on the right. Empiricism is demanded of the goose, while the gander indulges its own versions of evidence denial.”

Wood’s new column, Follies to the right, follies to the left, tackles “left wing” perspectives on contentious issues such as nuclear power and GMO foods. An excerpt:

chris1A plurality of American Republicans believe people have existed in exactly their present form since being created from mud one day 6,000 years ago. They share with Canada’s Conservatives and Australia’s Liberals the view that science, which got lasers and flight and iPhones right, have it wrong about the climate. Canada’s Conservatives are so disdainful of empirical evidence they’ve been purging the country’s science libraries.

So far, so familiar, and so stupid. But here’s the thing: many shibboleths of the supposedly progressive left are no more defensible in the light of actual evidence and informed judgements. If evidence is to be our guide, the left needs to be rethink its gag reflex over …

Log in to read Wood’s column.*

*F&O premium works, including commentary, are available for a $1 site day pass, or by subscription.

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Follies to the right, follies to the left

Published January 25, 2014 

It’s a popular refrain that the facts have a left-wing bias. Sometimes. But that doesn’t make the progressive left immune from the same sort of selective consciousness its members so quickly denounce on the right. Empiricism is demanded of the goose, while the gander indulges its own versions of evidence denial.

Certainly the ability to stare facts in the face and not see them is strikingly evident on the political right—particularly in the United States but in other parts of the Anglosphere and beyond it as well.

A plurality of American Republicans believe people have existed in exactly their present form since being created from mud one day 6,000 years ago. They share with Canada’s Conservatives and Australia’s Liberals the view that science, which got lasers and flight and iPhones right, have it wrong about the climate. Canada’s Conservatives are so disdainful of empirical evidence they’ve been purging the country’s science libraries.

So far, so familiar, and so stupid. But here’s the thing: many shibboleths of the supposedly progressive left are no more defensible in the light of actual evidence and informed judgements. If evidence is to be our guide, the left needs to be rethink its gag reflex over:

Genetically-modified Organisms

Humans have been genetically modifying other organisms for centuries: that’s why modern-day corncobs are 25 cm (10 in) long, and examples retrieved from archaeological sites in Mexico, where maize originated, are only about 10 cm (4 in) in size. We’ve just been doing it through time-consuming selection of natural variability: letting nature produce random mutations, and keeping the ones we liked. Nature, of course, has always done this; that’s why among our strands of ‘human’ DNA are large shreds that our ancestor creatures co-opted from other life forms over the millenia. Now scientists can go to the source and do quickly by design what nature used to do at random, but the result is about the same — only more useful and a lot faster.

Does that produce Frankenfood? No more than the kilogram or so of non-human DNA roaming around each of our bodies makes us Frankenpeople. Among the scientific bodies that have reviewed the evidence and declared food from genetically-modified plants or animals as safe as ‘conventional’ foods are: the United States National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the Royal Society of Medicine, the European Commission (yes, even in the face of ordinary Europeans’ hostility to GMOs) and the French Supreme Court, after hearings on the subject. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences even found that genetically engineered crops reduced the use of pesticides and herbicides, and “have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”

Nuclear Power.

I know: Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island. Awful. And used fuel: what to do, what to do? But let’s compare safety records with the other forms of significant energy supply on offer, and be honest about that used-fuel problem. To take the second first: the problem is not how to dispose of used nuclear fuel, it is the persistence of reflexive local opposition that has made every materially feasible site to do so politically radioactive.

As for comparative risk, capturing energy incurs costs across any number of dimensions, from the 24/7 racket of a fracking site outside your bedroom window, to the loss of a traditional homesite under the creeping waters of a new hydro-electric reservoir, to climate change. But for a back-of-the-envelope comparison, let’s just look at the number of people who die from the production and distribution of some of our main sources of energy.

The most deadly single energy-related accident of all time was the result, not of nuclear or petroleum or even coal generation, but of hydro-electricity. Usually one of the most stable and renewable of energy sources, hydro can devastate when the dams used to produce it break — as happened in China in 1975, when a flash flood from a ruptured reservoir killed some 170,000 people.

Fossil fuel-related accidents routinely post death tolls in four figures.

Coal mining accidents killed more than 5,900 Chinese in 2005, and another 4,700 the following year (the country celebrated a new low in coal-mine deaths in 2012: a mere 1,384 fatalities). The 47 people who died when an oil train slammed into Lac Mégantic, Quebec, and exploded last year, were a tiny fraction of the more than 1,000 who lost their lives when an oil pipeline burst into flame in Nigeria in 1998.

Swiss researchers, collecting data from both OECD and non-OECD countries, estimated that between 1969 and 2000, the fossil-fuel (coal, oil, natural gas and liquid propane) supply chain killed an average of 1,600 people every year. Most of those deaths were in the last quarter of the survey period, suggesting that actual annual figures may now be higher.

The confirmed death toll to date of all three nuclear calamities is under 60, all from Chernobyl. A handful of Fukushima first responders have reportedly died from non-radiation-related injuries. Epidemiologists estimate that radiation from Chernobyl may cause some 4,000 further future premature deaths. A speculative estimate has suggested a quarter that number of early-onset fatal cancers from Fukushima—fewer than the number of additional deaths as a result of hustling 150,000 people out of the evacuation zone around the damaged plants. All in, perhaps 6,600 mostly future early deaths and 1,660 actual ones (1,600 of those among Fukushima evacuees) over 35 years.

Roughly the number of people who die from fossil fuel production and delivery every 12 months. (I won’t get into the additional reality that all three of those nuclear plants were early models, dubiously managed, while nuclear design has, like everything else, moved ahead over time.)

High-voltage power transmission lines

High-voltage power transmission lines attract complaint both on aesthetics and the grounds of fringe science. But decades of experience with high-tension wires strung across the world’s most crowded landscapes have failed to provide credible evidence of significant health effects apart from occasional inadvertant direct contact with conductors. Meanwhile, if we are going to enlist substantial renewable energy production from intermittent sources like wind, wave and sunshine in our round-the-clock power grid, we have to be able to move it from places where it is being generated to places where it is needed. These are often widely separated. Electrical transmission is by far the safest way to get that energy from place to place—even if it ruins your view.


On this subject, both left and right have blind spots. Those on the ‘free-market’ right exaggerate their ideal’s perfection, and overlook the evidence that markets have demanded regulation ever since Hammurabi laid down the rules for hiring oxen-drivers in the clay tablets of Babylon. But too many on the left treat the very idea of markets as the work of the devil, demonize business indiscriminately and denounce trade as inherently destructive.

They forget that trade is a defining human behaviour. Millennia before the limited liability partnership, indigenous North Americans were swapping fish grease for flint and decorative feathers for ceramics along trade routes that ran from the top to bottom of the continent—the ‘globlization’ of their day. We developed markets in prehistory because they demonstrably excel at filling needs in real time at the lowest cost and greatest mutual benefit. We will need this ability more than ever in an era of volatile food supply and increasingly acute scarcity of other critical resources (the current temporary natural gas bubble notwithstanding).

None of these — GMOs, nuclear power, transmission lines or markets — are without flaws or hazards. But the evidence for their usefulness and relative safety deserves an honest appraisal. At least as honest as the one that progressives on the left demand from the right on subjects like climate change or evolution.

Copyright © 2014 Chris Wood


Comments on Facebook discussion thread

References and further reading:
The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, The National Academies of Science.
Chernobyl: the true scale of the accident. The World Health Organization.
Severe Accidents in Fossil Energy Chains: Individual Chain Results and Aggregated Evaluations. Peter Burgherr and Stefan Hirschberg, Paul Scherrer Institut, Switzerland.



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Coups threaten Thailand’s controversial leaders

Government and politics are in such turmoil in Thailand that some citizens are even re-thinking its one-person-one vote democratic structure. International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe looks at the history and recent reasons for clashes between the protesting “elites” and the rural voters who are behind its leadership. An excerpt of Manthorpe’s new column:

Manthorpe B&WNot only Thailand’s generals, but also its judges, are manoeuvring to oust beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from government. The Constitutional Court today provided a legal opening to postpone an election set for February 2, which Yingluck called to reaffirm her mandate after months of anti-government demonstrations, and which she would almost certainly win. There was, however, a slight hesitancy in the ruling of the Constitutional Court, unlike six years ago when it twice brought down governments loyal to Yingluck’s elder brother and former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra ….

Read the column, Thailand’s PM Yingluck faces judicial as well as military coup,  here.*

*F&O premium works, including commentary, are available for a $1 site day pass, or by subscription.

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On corporations and democratizing prosperity: McNiven

The word “corporation” has lately been vilified in polarized political discourse — but not so long ago, it was the political “left” that championed corporations, writes Thoughtlines columnist Jim McNiven. “Democratizing prosperity would have been virtually impossible without ‘freeing’ the corporation, he argues in his new column, The Logic of Incorporation. Excerpt:

McNiven for F&O bioThe great French historian, Fernand Braudel, saw capitalism in its basic form as the injection of capital between the actions of buyer and seller. This is both simple and profound. It explains the difference between a farmers’ market and a supermarket. In the former, the producer/seller and the buyer meet face-to-face for the exchange. In the latter, the producer sells to an intermediary, who then may process, transport and resell the good to a supermarket chain that, in turn distributes it and resells it once more to the final buyer. Capital is used to conduct the producer/buyer economic relationship at a distance …

Jim McNiven’s Thoughtlines column is available to subscribers, or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Roe V. Wade: a selction of American reporting on abortion


On the 41st anniversary of the United States’ Roe v. Wade court case, legal battles over abortion in the country still rage. ProPublica compiled some of the more interesting takes on the topic and the broader issue of women’s rights. Go to the ProPublica page to leave comments or suggest contributions.

by Blair Hickman, Christie Thompson and Kara Brandeisky, ProPublica

Thirteen Charts That Explain How Roe v. Wade Changed Abortion RightsThe Washington Post/WonkBlog, January 2014 If you’re pressed for time, this WonkBlog piece traces the last 41-plus years in the US abortion wars in an easily digestible format. Especially eye-opening are the charts that show the extent to which abortion has become a class issue, concentrated among low-income and minority women.

Interactive: The Geography of Abortion Access, The Daily Beast, January 2013 Where is the closest abortion clinic? Find out with this interactive map that plots the location of the 724 clinics in the United States. (724, as of January 2013).

The Rise of DIY Abortions, The New Republic, December 2012 As states attempt to restrict access to abortions, some women have turned to the Internet to find the abortion pill. But without a doctor’s guidance, women can face medical complications or accidentally violate state abortion laws. This is the story of one woman who faced criminal prosecution for a DIY-abortion gone wrong.

Side Effects May Include Death: The Story Of The Biggest Advance In Birth Control Since The Pill, Huffington Post, December 2013 This piece explores whether company executives who marketed Nuvaring knew that a healthy clinical trial patient developed a life-threatening blood clot while on the contraceptive and whether they had bargained with the FDA to downplay the risks.

My Abortion, New York Magazine, November 2013 Twenty-six women tell their personal stories of abortion.

Winning Roe v. Wade: Q&A with Sarah Weddington, TIME, January 2013 The woman who argued for legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade was 26 at the time. Years later, she discusses her thoughts on abortion issues today.

The Evolution of a Justice, New York Times, April 2005 An excellent look at the history of the legal battle over abortion, and the evolution in the thinking of the Judge who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade 2013 Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

The Accidental Activist, Vanity Fair, February 2013 As Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey became one of the lasting names in the abortion debate. But a trove of documents discovered by journalist Joshua Prager suggests that McCorvey wasn’t driven so much by a passion for women’s rights as by her own self-interest. This piece explores the life of Jane Roe.

Abortion Clinics Close at Record Pace After States Tighten Rules, Bloomberg News, September 2013 Since 2011, nearly 1 in 10 U.S. abortion clinics have stopped performing the procedure. Bloomberg provides an explainer showing how budget cuts and legislation aimed specifically at clinics, not doctors or hospitals, has driven many to shut their doors.

Gambling with Abortion, Harper’s Magazine, November 2004 (paywall or pdf) Journalist Cynthia Gorney breaks down one of the biggest battles in abortion legislation in recent years: the fight over the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The federal law, signed by George W. Bush, criminalizes any doctor who performs a late-term abortion by extracting an entire living fetus from a mother. But how did this one specific method of abortion become the target of federal legislation? The answer is a fascinating story of politics and public perception.


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On faith and humanity in a Kenyan slum

I first heard Sheldon Fernandez talk about volunteering in Kenya in 2008, when we were both attending a Creative Writing course at the University of Oxford. I especially never forgot his story about his young student in Kangemi. Now, I’m glad that F&O is able to publish his essay about the experience, My Last Day in Kenya.

The piece concerns his time spent working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. He was there under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), assisting with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but he also had the opportunity to work with school children. On the very last day of his trip, Fernandez discovered some hard truths. An excerpt:


© Sheldon Fernandez 2008

Faith is out in front, leading the way in her plain grey T-shirt.

“An unusual, but appropriate name for a social worker,” I’d told her when we’d first met. Her reply had been flat that day.

“My parents were religious,” she shrugged indifferently, but in time we’d nurtured a respectful relationship.

Accompanying us is nine-year-old Melvin, a boy I’ve taught for the past six weeks in the slums of Nairobi. Like most things he does, Melvin paces dutifully in silence, a heavy and distracted air about him. It’s my last evening in Kenya and we’ve been hiking for forty minutes, a trip Faith assured me would take only fifteen. By now I’ve acclimatized to the contradictions of slum life: the ecstatic smiles of malnourished children and idyllic terrains that cradle rusted tin homes. Africa may be the Continent of Darkness, say the local priests, but only then do you appreciate the light.

The essay is published, public and free of charge at Fernandez’s request, in the Loose Leaf salon in F&O’s THINK section.

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Energy: riches and shackles


Oil rig in Alberta, Canada. Photo by Greg Locke, Copyright © 2007

The Law of Conservation in physics says energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. But lawless politics have no such constraints — and here the role of energy  has ceaselessly expanded, and come to dominate economics and polarize politics.

F&O introduces our first theme: Energy. Throughout 2014 our journalists will, in words and images, examine how we harness energy to run our material world – to feed, clothe, transport and shelter ourselves — and consider the ways in which our energy choices both enrich and shackle our lives and prospects.

The first line-up of our Energy reporting, commentary and photography is here.

Posted in All, Current Affairs, Gyroscope

Newfoundland and Labrador premier resigns

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier, Kathy Dunderdale hugs her finance minister and interime leader, Tom Marshall, after announcing her resignation in St. John's, Newfoundland today, Jan 22, 2014. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier, Kathy Dunderdale hugs her finance minister and interim leader, Tom Marshall, after announcing her resignation in St. John’s, Newfoundland today. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

By Greg Locke

Only three years after becoming Premier and two years since a decisive election victory, Kathy Dunderdale is stepping down as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s most eastern province.

First elected to the province’s legislature in 2003, Dunderdale came to power in November 2010 when Danny Williams’, one of the most popular premiers in Canadian history, stepped down and appointed her as Premier and leader of the province’s Progressive Conservative Party. As leader she won a significant majority in October 2011 over long-time rivals, the Liberal Party, and the up-and-coming, left-of-centre New Democratic Party. This secured her party’s third major election win.

Since then she’s had a fast ride downhill ride. Two years of polling numbers show a trending descent to a current all-time low of 20 percent approval ratings, down from the ludicrous 80 percent  afforded her predecessor, Danny Williams. Polls suggest her personal popularity is worse:  Dunderdale has been named the least-liked current Canadian premier. This is remarkable considering that Newfoundland and Labrador has one of Canada’s few hot economies, with big revenues coming from the oil and mining industries and their major projects in Labrador and offshore oil on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the north Atlantic ocean.

But while politicians, operatives and pundits are all reading the Red Rose tea leaves for the signs, the reality is her manner and tone simply didn’t catch on with the public. Some in the business of politics are saying she just had a communications problem, but the problem is a lot deeper than they are able to think. Communications is just the harbinger of a greater ill.

Despite having record GDP numbers, that “booming economy” is not translating into jobs.  The offshore oil industry does not generate many jobs and what goes into government coffers bypasses the local economy on the streets. With the province still recording very high unemployment numbers (officially at 11.1 per cent last month, which misses those who already left or are no longer seeking work), that many are still forced to migrate, mostly to the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, is a sore point with the voting population. (See Mexicans With Sweaters – subscriber access).

As the government and business organizations trumpeted the booming economy and the province’s elevation to the coveted Canadian status of a “Have Province,” the citizenry received a mixed and hypocritical message, as the conservative government continued to cut funding for education, health care and the public service.

The final straw in the public’s view seemed to be a recent massive province-wide power blackout and weeks of rolling black-outs that left some 400, 000 people without electricity at one point, not because of extreme weather, but due to poor equipment maintenance planning by Nalcor, a provincial crown energy company. Dunderdale’s seeming  lack of concern, compassion or leadership on this issue turned off a lot of people including members of her own party caucus who, facing a general election in less than two years, seemed to be in tune with the public in thinking it was time for a change.

Dunderdale opted to depart before a palace coup.

Another one bites the dust.

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