Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic turns two years old today!  Two is my favorite thing that happens when you add one thing to another thing!


S'been a fun blog to maintain.  Although I've been maintaining an online blog since 2002, this skeptic blog was a new thing, so I was a little unsure how long it would last.  I mainly started this blog to offer a Canadian skeptic voice (two years ago there was only a small handful out there), and to learn how to write a little better.  Looking back at my writing from those early days, I can at least be certain that I've accomplished both goals reasonably well.

Over the last two years, my skeptic and science activities have granted me some notable highlights, such as...


1) Having one of my photos featured at Bad Astronomy
2) Having several of my photos featured at the new planetarium in Sudbury, Ontario
3) Having some of my writing posted at the JREF and Grassroots Skeptics
4) Two appearances on Skeptically Speaking (One, if you exclude my technical difficulties which demanded it being dropped from the podcast version)
5) An appearance on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
6) Giving a talk at a recent Toronto Skeptics in the Pub

Most meaningful for me in this journey has been my role as Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic North. I've spoken about it at great length in numerous other outlets, and my feelings of fondness for it are well-known.  I'd like to point out that it was primarily this blog that helped me meet most of the Skeptic North team!  I'd like to thank a ton of my colleagues and to name names here, but I won't, at the risk of accidentally excluding anyone.  You all know who you are, and I owe you each a tremendous debt of thanks (and beer....or ketchup chips).

Those of you following me on Twitter may have noticed that I've been posting "Classic" entries.  It was really just my subtle lead-in to today's post.  The ones I've been posting are the entries that have gotten the most attention, or the ones that I happen to like the best:
1) Some health care lies about Canada
2) When I was accused of anti-Semitism and threatened in private.
3) How to NOT learn the piano
4) Libertarian education gone-fail
5) Why Green is the best colour in the world (actually one of my favourite entries)
6) NASA, and the Commodification of space
7) When I fought with my old University  (and learned more about academics than I cared to)
8) Bored of Atheism
9) My Top 10 Astronomy shots of 2009
10) Exposing a Vancouver homeopath

Okay, that's enough ego-stroking for now. 

I want to thank everyone who has been reading this blog, and to those who have taken the time to write me over the past two years.  I can't get back to all of you, but I promise that do read every one that I receive.  Since launching Skeptic North, I've not had nearly as much time to update this blog like I used to.  I will keep the blog alive and active, so thanks for sticking with me! 

You can follow me on Twitter, or stalk me on Facebook. You can see some of my astro (and other) photography on Flickr, or see me rock out on Youtube.

I don't know what my next two years are going to be like, but I'll do my best to keep making entries worth reading if you keep coming back.

Thanks to everyone!



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I've been following Kevin Smith's career since just after Mallrats (when Chasing Amy was a thing to look forward to).  I, like probably most of you, are fans of (or at least familiar) with his work.  Smith has always been the champion of the geek community (back when geeks really were social outcasts), and of people not born with the fortunate genes for physical prowess.  He's the exemplar writer who has truly lived up to the lofty ideals of what a meritocracy should be: it's not supposed to matter how big, fast, strong, rich, or handsome you are, because if you're clever and civil enough, you can rise up and thrive. 

 
Smith and ?uest Love.  Goddamned awesome.

I've also hated airlines.  Oddly enough, I've never flown before (I've driven over 20 hours to get to Halifax, and I'd be happy to do it again), so I can't relate any airliner horror stories that I'm sure many of you have.  I just hate airliners, or rather one single airliner, and for entirely unrelated matters.  As such, I have decreed that all airliners behave the same way: cheap, evil, and inconsiderate.  Despite the billions of dollars of taxpayer bailout money, the airline companies find new ways to charge every extra hair on your body, and have near carte-blanche control when it comes to their own corporate law-enforcement.

Southwest Airlines tried to pull that crap on Kevin "Too-Fat-for-the-Sky" Smith.  Some people have been on the receiving end of Smith's wordsmithing in the past, and the results have always been captivating for those hearing the story.  Smith never tells a story out of malice, it's just that storytelling comes as naturally to him as sitting on my couch comes to me.  Southwest made the mistake of not only giving Smith a story to tell, but they also made him mad .

As you've all heard, by now, Southwest Airlines may be well on their way for the worst PR disaster in airliner history.  PZ Myers, the most read science blog on the planet, mentioned it...and you all know how PZ can amass an uprising if he wants. But that pales in comparison to the BBfuckingC making it a story

I remember being on Twitter (p.s. follow me!) the evening that he was putting up with the abuse and humiliation from Southwest and thinking, "Oh man, the SModcast is going to be GREAT!"  And it was better than I expected: Smith became absolutely unhinged as he heaped an hour and twenty-five minutes of scorn and derision on a company that deserves it.  I can't put it into better words than Smith himself, so you should really take the time to listen yourself.

In frantic damage control, the Southwest Airlines Twitter account has been actively trying to make nice.  Also, the Southwest Airlines blog is also offering up many apologies (and a few lies, such as the supposed attempts to call him on the phone, which Smith has denied).  I found the "Customer of Size" policy to be particularly....interesting.  If they're going to make overweight people feel embarrassed and have to buy an extra ticket, then short people like me should be able to get a discount and sit in the human-equivalent of a compact spot (are you listening, airlines?).

The one question that I still have left over is this:

Why the hell does Southwest airlines even HAVE a blog?  I know this is web 2.0 and everyone has a blog these days...but....FFS!
 
Pictured: Blogger

And a followup:  What kind of sad-sap actually READS the blog of an airline company?  And who follows them on Twitter?

Whatever.  I could care less.  Congratulations, Southwest Airlines.  You lost every customer service prize imaginable.  Smith has already immortalized this on his hugely popular podcast, and will likely tell this to every Q&A, campus, and radio speaking engagement that he has for years to come.  I hope you, and every company that treats human beings like ATM machines, at least learned something from this.



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This Space For Rent?

As Phil Plait already discussed on his blog, Barack Obama unveiled his plan for the NASA budget.

Phil is well-experienced and qualified to discuss the implications of the budget and I pretty much agree with everything he said.  In summation:
1) The Constellation Program was unready and overbudget and needed to be canned.

2) There is a tremendous increase in the budget that emphasizes science.
3) The functioning life span and scope-of-science of the ISS gets extended.
4) Private companies (such as Space X) will be able (it is planned) to launch humans into space before the existing shuttle program is retired....meaning that there will be an uninterrupted flow of people being sent to space, without having to pay the Russians or the Chinese for a lift.
5) The Moon and Mars plans are, once again, a huge question mark.

There is one thing that Phil left out of his analysis, and it's a decidedly political angle.  Yes, Phil did talk about the Congress and the right-wingers that lay within who will probably mangle the proposed budget to within an inch of its life, but I'm not talking about partisan politics here, as valid as that discussion may be.  There is more to politics than a partisan angle: there is an issue of political economy to this budget that I find a mite-bit distressing.

Commodification of Space?  Maybe...


What is commodification?  In short, it is the process by which a *thing* gets transformed into a commodity.  The *thing* (a good or a service) in the process of commodification may or may not be traditionally considered a sellable or tradeable commodity.  In other words: taking a free (or absurdly cheap) thing, and turning it into a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Just about anything can, and has been, commodified:
Damage to the environment? Check. A company can literally buy and sell the ability to pollute.
Your own health? Check.  Think about how many people can't afford to see a doctor in the United States.  I won't bother providing any links in this regard.  Hopefully, you all know full-well that as it is today, access to good health is not a right but a privilege in the United States (and the situation is getting worse in Canada, but that's the topic for another post).
Land? Check.  Think about that for a moment: the very earth you walk on is owned by someone else.
Air?  Check.  Didn't think that someone would have the audacity to sell you the air that you breathe, huh? Right now, it's a pretty harmless flight-of-fancy for the worried-well and the worried-rich, but I wonder what will happen when/if our air becomes too toxic to breathe safely (pure speculation, I'll freely admit).
Water? Check. The commodification of water has had a particularly sobering effect in Latin America, where bottling companies have been hard at work trying to get the local governments to make it illegal for citizens to have access to drinkable water that is not produced by their company.  It sounds absurdly unlikely, doesn't it? But Bechtel tried it in Bolivia, (where it would have been illegal to even collect rainwater!) and other companies tried it in various parts of the United States.  In all water-commodification cases (that I could find) the efforts have failed (do to popular opposition, or in the case of Bolivia: armed revolt and violence), but I have little doubt that some company somewhere will heartily convince a government that only their corporate water should be made legal.

My friends, the invisible hand of the "free market" will not only gently nudge you into capitalist complacency, but it will also strangle you for every dime it can. 

What does this have to do with the Budget?

Maybe nothing, and I certainly hope so.  But....

The cost of sending anything into space is, well...astronomical.  Just sending a single litre of water costs $11,000!  Ostensibly, having a private space industry that is capable of heavy lifting could be seen as a way to download the costs of lift, which then would free up funds that NASA could then dedicate to science (especially at the ISS and for space telescopes).  This may be where the story ends, and I hope it does:  I'm all for a government/civilian partnership when it comes to space exploration/habitation, especially if it means that we (and by "we", I'll remind that the Canadian Space Agency is intimately tied to NASA) won't have to rely on partnerships with less-than-friendly states that have similar capacity (Russia, China).

However, due to the axing of Constellation and the Ares programs (however scientifically necessary it may have been to do so), there is currently no-clear indication of when the NASA will have its own means to get people into space again.  The idea of having a private company as being the only American resource for heavy-lifting into orbit is a little unsettling in this light.  If the private companies continue to offer human-to-space travel for cheap to the government (NASA), what motivation will the government have to start its own program?  I'm sure that NASA will try and figure out new ways to send people into space, but without that fire under their ass (ha!), NASA is not exactly known for doing things it doesn't immediately have to.



The reason why this is important is because NASA, though it is civilian-operated, is still part of the government, which makes it owned by the tax-payers.  It is directly accountable to the President, Congress, and the citizens who are footing the bill.  The good thing about having a public space program is that it *can* operate at a financial loss, because the government can bring other financial sources to bear in order to fund it.  NASA is not a private company, and so its motivations and aims are meant to benefit the United States of America.

Space X, however, as admirable and groundbreaking a company as they may be (and they deserve tremendous credit for their engineering success, and I truly wish them well), they are a private corporation.  This means two very important things need to be discussed: 1) They are accountable not to civilians, but to their shareholders, and 2) Since they are accountable to the shareholders, what happens if the company starts to operate at a loss?  They will have to make, and maintain a profitable space-industry. And that, my friends, is how the commodification of space begins.

Space X can easily increase the bill for sending anything up into space, and what is NASA going to do? Use their own vehicles? Nope, they'll be long dead and buried.  Ask the Russians or the Chinese?  Better hope they don't charge through the nose either, and that their vehicles are safe! Space X would have unprecedented private access to low-earth orbit, and there would be next-to-nothing preventing them from using their rockets to appease their shareholders who only exist to see profit (and could care less about science or progress).  I'm not suggesting that the U.S. would let Space X use their rockets for military purposes (the militarization of space is currently illegal by both international and U.S. law), but the U.S. government would be helpless to prevent whatever privatization and surveillance endeavors that Space X decided to rent their rockets out to.

I kind of expect that most of this apparent doom-and-gloom will not come to fruition.  But I think it's important to compare a two-tiered space program with an increasingly two-tiered health program in Canada.  Private health clinics can charge whatever they want, and they can pay their doctors whatever they want.  If you need to see a doctor for a non-emergency (especially a mental health issue), you could spend your life-savings to see a private specialist, or you could sit on a 2-year waiting list to see a specialist in the public sector.  Private clinics are sapping away the specialists from the majority of Canadians who can't afford private health care, resulting in a specialist shortage.  This means long waiting lists (the doctors are, in effect, abandoning the poor in favour of the rich), and healthcare is mainly reserved for those who can afford a private clinic (which is not most of us). 

Similarly, if for-profit corporations (which is, all corporations) can charge whatever they want for their services (and if they're the only ones launching loads and people into space, they certainly will charge whatever they want.....no pretense of free-market competition applies here), they can also pay whatever they want.  I don't think it's too unreasonable to assume that with the promise of huge paychecks, they may lure in a large number of former-NASA scientists and engineers, furthering NASA's problems.

I think it is reasonable to assume that with the increasingly unequal power and capability balance being tilted in favor of private interests, the access of the general public and of science will take a tremendous back-seat, favoring those means which show a hefty return.  Space itself will be effectively owned and operated by companies not entirely unlike Haliburton, Coca-Cola, Bechtel or Monsanto.

Believe me, I really hope I'm wrong here.  But history shows that when a for-profit system is pitted against a non-profit government entity with fewer resources, the people never win: money does.  I honestly don't know if I want this budget to pass: the long-term, big picture costs may simply be too great.

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Ever wonder why your wrist starts to act up for no apparent reason (despite what should be obvious because you sit at your computer for 8 hours a day)?  How about that crick in your back from the chair with no lumbar support?  Are you concerned that the word "therapy" has entirely too many pseudo-scientific practitioners stealing the word to suit their own needs? (Though I fully support Futurama-Therapy)

Well, Close Personal Friend Of Steve (tm), and Skeptic North colleague (Associate Editor) Kim Hebert has created a blog just for you!  Well...and for me too...don't bogart my internet! It's for everyone, really, and I'm happy to do my meager part to help get the word out there about the blog. 


I've had many therapy-related questions for Kim  (such as "what is the difference between physiotherapy, recreational therapy, and occupational therapy?", and "if I want to target fat-burning in one particular area but I can't do X because of a prior injury, what might I want to try?"), and she's been very helpful.  I've no doubt this blog will be a regular resource for me (and I hope you, too!) and I love seeing another "science-based X" added to the panopoply of skeptic blogs.

For those of you who saw my talk at the Toronto Skeptics in the Pub, this is what I was talking about:  This is why we have experts in our community: they're becoming increasingly free to do what they're expertise is in!

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