The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

This is supposed to be a good idea?

So now they want to make it safer to search the web while driving, by making the whole thing voice-activated. After all, driving takes no mental effort, so it would be perfectly safe for people to "use their driving time to work".

Robots and Men in Space

In a comment to the previous post, rebeljew writes:

I read in Robert Park's newsletter "What's New" that it will only save 4.5M, but that the administration is looking to apply more budget to the manned Moon/Mars initiatives. He feels that is an ill devised scheme as he does not think manned missions will yield anything worth the costs. Agree?

The manned vs. robotic debate is one of long standing.
In terms of science return, it's pretty clear that robotic missions give more bang for the buck. They may be more limited, but they are much cheaper. After all, you don't have to protect fragile lifeforms if you send a robot, and you certainly don't have to worry about bringing it back.

The main benefit of manned missions is the flexibility inherent in having people there. But this has never really been demonstrated that strongly since the only manned exploration missions were the Apollo series, and they were certainly aimed more at politics than science. After all, only a small fraction of moon walkers were trained scientists. It isn't clear that the current proposal isn't more of the same sort of boondoggle.

That said, there is something to be said for a manned space infrastructure. As Robert A. Heinlein famously wrote, "Once you get to Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system." The problem is that the further implementation of this concept is probably better defined in the science fiction literature than in either the President's or NASA's current visions. We were supposed to already be past this stage by now. Something went wrong somewhere, and the initials SS are a hint.

Friday, May 27, 2005

News from the outer solar system

A Lag B'Omer roundup.

The venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft is now officially on the way out of the solar system. Data in 2002 controversially suggested that it had reached the termination shock where the velocity of the solar wind becomes subsonic as it encounters pressure from interstellar space. Now, new observations from Dec 2004 conclusively show that the spacecraft is now in the heliosheath beyond the termination shock. This now allows scientists to estimate the location of the actual boundary of interstellar space. Voyager 1 may cross this point as soon as 2014. There still will be enough power to send a message back. But, funding for the mission is set to end this year, so no one may be listening.

Who ordered that? Newly released Cassini observations of S1/Titan have identified an odd spot on the surface. This might be some indication of recent geological processes on the surface, but at the moment they're baffled.

Another body that would float: In the 27 May 2005 issue of Science Anderson et al. show, based on Galileo and Voyager data, that JV/Amalthea's density is 857 +/- 99 kg/cubic meter. Ice is 930, and water even more. Unlike Saturn, Amalthea's longest dimension is only 125 km, so there would be no problem finding a body of water large enough to float it in.

Finally, in the historical reconstruction department, Nature published this week a series of papers with a model of how the outer solar system ended up arranged the way it has. The trigger was when the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn briefly entered a 2:1 resonance (2 Jupiter orbits per Saturn one). Resonances are notorious for mixing things up. The result of this one appeared to be to flip Neptune out past Uranus, collecting all sorts of rubbish along the way: Pluto and its companions in the Kuiper belt. What didn't get captured got flung around all over the place, accounting for Jupiter's Trojan companions, and the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Canada: Revised Constitutional Conventions

Her Excellency, The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada,
The Rt. Hon. Paul Martin, Jr.,
The House of Commons

By their actions, and inactions in May 2005,
Hereby tentatively establish the following revised conventions to the Constitution of Canada

1) "Confidence" votes are limited to either votes on budget bills, or must explicitly mention the word "confidence", and in any event, are only confidence votes if so designated by the government.
2) Defeat on all other motions, even if they clearly demonstrate that the government lacks control of the House, are henceforth merely "Procedural".
3) A defeat on such a Procedural motion may be followed by a Confidence motion, but a nine day gap is sufficiently soon.
4) It is in order for the government to resort to any means to secure support in the interim.
5) The reserve powers of the Crown are abolished.
6) The government need not secure the confidence of the House of Commons, so long as it maintains the confidence of the popular media and the voting public.
7) The confidence of the voting public is to be established by a poll on the following question: "Do you want an election now?"
8) (Presumptive) The above revisions only apply if the Perpetual Natural Governing Party is in power. All the old conventions will still apply should any other party manage to temporarily gain power.

[It is ironic that the notion of a confidence motion has narrowed so suddenly and drastically now that the Liberals have a minority. Previously, the concept was so broad that every vote was considered to be a confidence vote, lest unruly backbenchers get out of line and vote against the government. Remember the vote on the Hepatitis C compensation?]

[This, I hope, will be the last posting on this topic for a while, assuming I can rid my nostrils of the stench.]

[UPDATE: Related thoughts at The Monarchist]

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Waiting for the end

Andrew Coyne writes in yesterday's National Post
I had thought the feeling of nausea that washed over me at the news was one of disgust. I now realize it was vertigo. The bottom has fallen out of Canadian politics. There are, quite literally, no rules any more, no boundaries, no limits. We are staring into an abyss, where everything is permissible.
Is it a constitutional crisis if no one understands it is? A government without the support of a majority of Parliament has spent billions it has no legal authority to spend and dangled offices that are not in its power to bestow, in hopes of recovering that majority.

Mark Steyn:
Unlike King/Byng or Sir John Kerr firing Gough Whitlam, what makes this a constitutional crisis is that there’s no crisis: Parliament votes, and Martin shrugs; Martin fiddles the math, and Canada shrugs. And the chaps at The Ottawa Citizen think the big question now is: “Is there room for moderate, urban conservatives in the new Conservative Party?”

And our current Governor General shrugs too.

All we are left with is the hope for one or two honourable MPs to do the right thing and put this dicatorship out of our misery. What do we have? Several MPs falling ill over the last 24 hours. And an MP who is polling his constituents as to whether they want an election. As if that were the issue.

The damage to the Canadian polity has been done. The door has been opened, and, if Paul Martin doesn't walk through it, someone in the future surely will. If the government falls today, some hope remains for repair. Especially if they are soundly defeated at the next election. Let them win today, or at the election, and Canadians, happily bribed with their own money, will have to settle for a perpetual Liberal dictatorship.

UPDATE: From David Warren, after the vote:
At the end of a second week of disgrace in Parliament, I can find no upside.

The Canadian constitution was overthrow.

But as a people, we have proved incapable of connecting the dots between our national decline, and the bottomless corruption of our legal and political order.

I will leave it there. For what point can there be in a writer continuing to bemoan something that is simply lost? The dignity and decency of Canadian life had been leeching away, for so long, that we are now past writing any “lament for a nation”. The Canada of which I was once so proud now sleeps with the worms.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Landing on Titan

The folks responsible for the Huygens lander have now pieced together some mosaics from the images the DISR instrument took on the way down. I find the large-scale stereographic projection to be the more impressive of the two in that it is easier for the untrained eye to interpret. The trained eyes at ESA clearly interpret the details in terms of liquid methane rains and sub-surface seepage flowing down to the lakebed.

The 13 May issue of Science contains a series of papers with early results of the Titan investigations. One discusses the interesting similarities between Titan's atmosphere and the Earth's. The more digestable press release is here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Stronach Crosses

I wasn't going to post today on Canadian politics. Really. But...

Nine days is a long time in politics. More than time enough to teach that horse to sing. Or to find the right person's price. Now there is the distinct chance that a government that lost a string of non-confidence votes, that in all honour should have resigned last week, will survive. As with the sepratists, the only vote that counts is the one they win. So hundreds of years of parliamentary tradition are pushed aside for political expediency. Unchecked tyranny.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

This is how democracies end

As we contemplate the state of Canadian democracy in view of the crisis in Ottawa, it is worthwhile contemplating the referedum being held in BC on Tuesday in connection with the general election there.

The current BC Government fulfilled an election promise to review the nature of the voting system in the province. In a quite unique proceeding, they set up a Citizen's Assembly to discuss whether BC ought to change from first-past-the-post, and if so, to what. The membership of the assembly was chosen at random from an interested subset of the BC electorate and spent weekends over the better part of a year to learn about voting systems, to discuss them, and to devise a new system. Ultimately, they decided that a change was necessary, and recommended their "BC-STV" system.

This variant of the single-transferable-vote works with multi-member ridings. The voter gets a list of candidates and ranks them as desired. The counting is somewhat complicated, but the upshot is that the results will be closer to proportionality than at present. The voting requires some thought, but that is required to give control to the voters, rather than the parties. In some systems, the party sets the order of the candidates, but here it is the voter's choice as to which candidate he prefers. The Assembly listened to the voters, and gave them what they thought the people of BC wanted; real control over the Legislature.

It goes to a vote on Tuesday and requires a 60% overall positive vote and majorities in 60% of the ridings to pass. If you believe the UBC Election Stock Market (scroll down), it hasn't got a chance of passage. And if it doesn't, the reason will be the over 60% of British Columbians know very little about it, and probably don't care.

Citizen apathy is the greatest danger democracies face. If British Columbia turns down the chance for a more-directed say in the election of its legislators, then they deserve to have plenty more Legislatures like the last one (77 of 79 seats for the Government). And they can stop complaining about it.

In the same vein, the Globe and Mail is running with this meme about "angry Stephen Harper not sitting well with the electorate". The issue isn't that Harper is angry. He has every right to be angry. Red-hot-flaming furious. No, the scandal is that most Canadians aren't angry. That the newspapers seem to think that what's important are polls showing that most of the people polled "don't want an election now". That the media seems to thing that the reactions of focus groups to political talking points are important. That even when the election takes place, 40% won't even bother to go and cast their simple, one mark, first-past-the-post ballot. That Canadians don't understand the workings of their own governance.

In Ukraine, in Lebanon, in Iraq, the people there understand what is at stake in a democracy. But complacent old Canada? Rob us blind. We don't care. Bribe us with our own money. We'll vote for you again. Deny the fundamental workings of the Westminster system. Game the confidence of the House. Whatever.

Democracy fails when the citizenry no longer cares enough to know what is going on, to know how the system ought to work. If we can't figure out anything more complicated than a first-past-the-post ballot, if we can't recognize that the governement has lost the confidence of the house unless the word "confidence" is expressly used, if even the Governor-General can't see it, or won't do anything, then democracy in Canada is dead and it is time to hang out an advertisement for a dictator.

If you're in BC and you care about democracy, vote YES. Meanwhile, contact the Prime Minister, contact the Governor-General, write your local paper. Get angry.

(Also read David Warren's cogent comments on the situation.)

UPDATE: Things may not be as bad as all that in BC. As Andrew Coyne points out, things are looking up for a YES victory, and from the grass-roots level.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Current situation predicted by RCAF

For further evidence that the 38th Parliament has descended into farce, let me recall a Royal Canadian Air Farce episode from a good long time ago. This was back when they were on the radio. One week, it must have been during the 1979 election, they had one of their show-long sketches. The election had been held. The Liberals and NDP on one side, and the Tories and Social Credit (yes, that's how long ago this was) on the other had exactly the same number of seats. The balance of power was held by the Independant Member for Kicking Horse Pass. Hilarity results. No, the Governor-General did not have to intervence.


As a further indication of the Liberal Government's lack of control of the House, and endless depths of fraudulent duplicity, consider the only business to have been transacted in the last three days. In the face of impending non-confidence motions, three bills have been unanimously hustled through all remaining stages in the House and booted on to the Senate. In the case of the first: No debate. No committee hearings. No amendments. In the words of the motion
deemed read a second time and referred to a Committee of the Whole, deemed considered in Committee of the Whole, deemed reported without amendment, deemed concurred in at report stage and deemed read a third time and passed.

Bill C-45, An Act to provide services, assistance and compensation to or in respect of Canadian Forces members and veterans and to make amendments to certain Acts. This bill revises veteran's benefits.

These next two were sitting at report stage and were amended:

Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, the DNA Identification Act and the National Defence Act The rush here is to get the bill in place before an infamous sex offender is released from prison, so as to have her DNA on record.

Bill C-40, An Act to amend the Canada Grain Act and the Canada Transportation Act Required to implement a WTO ruling against Canada in order to prevent US retaliation.

Having passed the House in a rush, how are the Liberal Senators dealing with these?
C-45 was sent to committee.

The other two will be first dealt with next Tuesday, if the Senate keeps to its usual practices, and the 38th Parliament hasn't been dissolved.

Three more promises the Liberals have no intention of fulfilling.

UPDATE: Yesterdays Senate proceedings have been posted. Bill C-45 was reported back out of committee unamended, passed at third reading and given Royal Assent. The other two bills are on the order paper for Monday, when, unusually, the Senate will sit, assuming we don't have a dissolution before then.

UPDATE 2: The premise of this posting seems to be incorrect. The Senate is dealing with these cases with extra speed. Both C-13 and C-40 were given second reading on Monday 16 May and sent to committee. Judging by the way C-45 was dealt with, I expect both bills to be reported back quickly for third reading and royal assent before Thursday's endgame.

UPDATE 3: Completely incorrect. Indeed they were.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Resign or be Fired

The situation in Ottawa has gone past farce and into travesty. The Liberals have lost three confidence votes in as many days. It is long past time for the Governor General to invoke the Reserve Powers and give him the sack. Outrage Canadians should write the Governor-General at and urge her to do her job, politely and respectfully of course, before the entire Canadian polity becomes unsourced.

UPDATE: I got a nice, neutrally-worded, response from the Governor General's office. Three paragraphs: 1. Thanks for the e-mail. 2. It would be inappropriate to speculate on what the GG's going to do. 3. If you haven't already, tell the PM what you think, complete with a link to the PMO's website. Signed by one Yonatan Lew.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Confidence vs. Procedure

The Liberals are trying to claim that the motions in amendment to the concurrence motions are "procedural" in nature and are not motions of confidence. The Conservatives have moved that:
the First Report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, presented on Thursday, October 28, 2004, be not now concurred in, but that it be recommitted to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts with instruction that it amend the same so as to recommend that the government resign because of its failure to address the deficiencies in governance of the public service addressed in the report.
Their argument seems to be that the motion is only an instruction to the committee to amend the report so as to call for the government's resignation, and that it would not be until the committee presents its amended report, which is then concurred in, that the government would be defeated. Now the notion of confidence is a slippery thing, but a look at the Canadian historical record suggests that the government's position is nonsense.

Only 4 Canadian governements have been defeated on non-confidence motions. The 1974 Trudeau minority and 1979 Clark minority both fell on sub-amendments to budget motions and promptly resigned. Similarly, Diefenbaker was defeated in 1963 on a Supply motion. The only other case was Meighen's (yes Meighen) government in 1926, to which I'll return.

But what about King's 1926 government you ask? Well, that is the clearest precedent, and the one the Tories are relying on. The 1926 version of the Liberal government was embroiled in a scandal regarding the Deptartment of Customs and Excise. On 18 June 1926, a special committee reported on their investigation (Journals of the House of Commons, 1926, p. 444-9). On 22 June, the Conservatives moved concurrence in the report and proposed an amendment calling on the committee to be called back into existence, and to amend their report in terms that amounted to censure of the government. Unlike the present case, it did not explicitly mention confidence, or call for the government to resign, but stated inter alia (Journals, p. 461) that:
  • Governement ministers had been involved in what was going on at Customs and Excise and had used their influence
  • Their failure to take prompt and effective remedial action is indefensible
  • This practice is detrimental to the best interests of the country
King fought the amendment by proposing a sub-amendment to remove the censure. It was defeated on 25 June . A further series of true procedural motions, i.e. adjournment etc., were defeated that day until he finally managed to adjourn the House (Journals 475-481). On 28 June, after attempting, and failing, to get a dissolution from Governor-General Byng, he resigned. King clearly felt that the amendment was a matter of confidence. When it became clear he would lose, he resigned.

There was a similar case in November 1873 when the government of Macdonald, mired in the Pacific Scandal, resigned rather than face a motion of non-confidence. Mackenzie became Prime Minister and immediately prorogued parliament, but did not request dissolution until the following January.

What of our fourth case of non-confidence? After King's resignation, Meighen agreed to become Prime Minister, and, in accord with the conventions of the day, promptly resigned to face re-election in a by-election. But he wanted to get certain bills passed, so he didn't prorogue, but appointed the rest of the Ministry as Ministers without Portfolio, which didn't require resignation and re-election. King wouldn't stand for it, and managed to pass a motion censuring the government as improperly constituted. Confidence was not mentioned explicitly. Meighen promptly requested dissolution, which Byng had to grant.

There are two other cases of interest to the Liberals. In 1983 the Trudeau government was defeated in Committe of the Whole on a clause of a tax bill. They ignored it. More relevant to the present case is that of the February 1968 defeat of the minority Pearson government at third reading of a tax bill. Pearson chose not to regard this a confidence vote, since the bill had been passed twice before, but immediately introduced the following motion:
That this House does not regard its vote on February 19th ... as a vote of non-confidence in the Government.
No other business was attended to until this motion had been decided. The Liberals won, and that was the end of the matter.

If the amendment to the concurrence motion passes, the Martin government's only option to immediate resignation is a motion like Pearson's. But that will only delay the inevitable. If he does neither, than he should expect a call from the Governor-General.

FURTHER: One thing that ought to be mentioned is that the amendment instructs the committee to do something. I don't think it has the option of refusing without being in contempt of the House. This negates the Liberal's whole "2-stage" approach to the question.

Blank Cheque Act

Jack Layton Bribe Act?

NDP Prop Up the Governement Act?

Slush Fund Act?

What We Thought of Later Act?


An Act to authorize the Minister of Finance to make certain payments

Whatever you call it, this is one remarkable bill. As the name states, it permits the Minister of Finance to spend up to $2 billion of 'excess' surplus. The spending power isn't limited though. It is allocated as follows (clause 2.(1)):
a) for the environment, including for public transit and for an energy-efficient retrofit program for low-income housing, an amount not exceeding $900 million;

(b) for supporting training programs and enhancing access to post-secondary education, to benefit, among others, aboriginal Canadians, an amount not exceeding $1.5 billion;

(c) for affordable housing, including housing for aboriginal Canadians, an amount not exceeding $1.6 billion; and

(d) for foreign aid, an amount not exceeding $500 million.

Here's the fun part 2.(2):

The Governor in Council may specify the particular purposes for which payments referred to in subsection (1) may be made and the amounts of those payments for the relevant fiscal year.

Since (3.) the Governor in Council (i.e. Cabinet) can do just about anything with this money, how much do you want to bet that a large fraction will be required for "public advisement" of the Liberal largess?

Desparate times call for desparate measures, I guess.

But this is what happens when you lose sight of the true reasons for why you are doing what you are doing. Without a firm grounding, the doing becomes an end in itself and, in the end, the doing will end too. The only problem is that in this case, ending the end requires the cooperation of the electorate. Well, first a majority of the House of Commons. First chance is when the last order on this page of today's Order Paper get's called ~5:30 PM EDT. Meanwhile, the Liberals are denying that this is a confidence matter. The crisis is upon us.

UPDATE: Hansard for yesterday is now up. Looks like things got pretty lively. It reminds me of the last days of the Frank Miller government in Ontario, but that is a topic for another time.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Yom Hashoa

Bluke articulates a discomfort I've long felt towards these communal Holocaust commemorations. My father is a survivor. He was 11 when the war started, and his family escaped from Lodz before the Germans set up the ghetto there. He was in various camps after the village they hid in was reduced. He used to tell me stories about his experiences during the war as bedtime stories. Not the horrible stuff. More his various attempts to gain a little more food, to make life a little easier. His father, a'h, died in a boxcar as the Germans shuffled them about in the last weeks of the war, but his mother and sister survived. My grandmother a'h had a number tattooed to her arm. To this day, dealing with the government gives me the shakes. At any time, in the back of my mind, they are coming for me to drag me off to who-knows-where. So, it isn't like I'm ignoring history.

But I've never felt comfortable participating in these ceremonies and commemorations. Even before becoming observant, something just didn't feel right about them. Is it that they were too focused on all the death? "They wanted to kill us just because we're Jews." Remembering that becomes the total of Jewish existence. Well, that and buying Israel bonds. Germany and Israel. Death and..., more death? And marches. March of the Living. Walks for Israel. How did marching become a mitzvah?

So I sit them out. If the point of the exercise is to remind the world that we're still around, well I don't need to go, a couple of times a year, to listen to speeches at the town Holocaust memorial to do that. Let me take the bus with a yarmulke and tzitzis. Let me cancel my classes for Chol HaMoed. Let them see me with my Jewish children. And let them stand around memorial sculptures and think about hate and death. I've got better things to do.

Reserve Powers of the Crown


On How to Convert a Political Crisis into a Constitutional Crisis.

CTV is reporting that even if defeated in an obvious non-confidence motion, the Liberal government will ignore the result and continue to govern.
On Thursday, the Speaker of the House endorsed a Conservative Party effort to hold a vote of confidence in the government by May 18.

The Tory-sponsored motion asked the Commons Finance committee "to recommend that the government resign."

But House Leader Tony Valeri shrugged it off, saying the motion is only a procedural matter that has no binding effect on the government and that the Liberals would not step down from power if it should pass.
The pundits are baffled. What is to be done? Can the Liberals actually get away with this?

Of course not. They have simply fogotten their Eugene Forsey. The answer lies in two words:reserve powers. In the reserve powers of the Crown lie the final line of defense against tyranny in the Westminster system. Ultimately, if a government goes rogue, the Crown's reserve powers allow the Queen, or her Governer-General in the Canadian case, to dismiss the Prime Minister. All she has to do is find a caretaker Prime Minister who is willing to agree to request a dissolution and I'm sure Stephan Harper would be willing to go along with this scenario.

The situation is not so far-fetched. The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis provides an example of just this mechanism in action. G-G Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and appointed Malcolm Fraser in his place, provided Fraser would pass supply (the trigger to the crisis) and request a dissolution. This he did, and went on to win a handsome majority.

UPDATE: The Speaker's ruling (including a summary of the arguments on the point of order) is now online.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Hiatus ended

I'm back after a Pesach hiatus. I've got some new posts brewing on various topics, but workload will determine when they will appear. Meanwhile, the Cassini people have released a bunch more images from the latest flybys of Titan and Enceladus. The latter is sufficiently intriguing that the spacecraft will be passing much closer to the surface on the July 14 pass.

HST celebrates its 15th anniversary in orbit with some new pretty pictures.

The death watch on the Liberal government in Ottawa continues. Lots of fun political strategems in play as the Tories try to bring down the Liberals and force an election. They're hoping that Canadians will finally have lost their ability to hold their noses and elect the patently corrupt Grits. (The linked article refers back to the famous King-Byng affair of 1926. Note that under current rules Meighen would likely not have gone down immediately to defeat. In those days, ministers, on assuming office, had to resign and stand for re-election. Byng had the constitutional right of the affair, but King was the master politician of his day and played the public beautifully in gaining reelection.)

Round about the time things may come to a head in Ottawa, the election in British Columbia will be held. This is the first under BC's fixed election date law. At the same time, a referendum on the plan to move to a new election method will be held. If passed, the next BC election will be the first modern Canadian experiment in proportional representation.