You’re invited

On March 17 and 18 I’ll be helping host the Economic Education Association of Alberta annual conference on “Meeting the Climate Change Challenge.” We’ll be gathering in Calgary to talk about the science, the policy choices and the rhetoric surrounding the alarmist vision of disastrous man-made global warming, not because the environment isn’t important but because thinking sensibly is.

We’ve got a great lineup of speakers and panelists, which you can see here, including my talk on “The Environment: A True Story”.

So register now and join us in March for a compelling discussion that dispels myths and cuts through shrill rhetoric to make sense of this crucial issue.


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When Twitter met toaster

In my latest National Post column I explore Bruce Schneier’s warning that the Internet of Things is desperately insecure, and suggest that it’s strange to run so much risk for so little genuine benefit.


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Your Lovely Spire is Toppling – It Happened Today, February 13, 2017

To me, gothic architecture is proof that modernity is too smug by half. Nothing we have built is remotely as beautiful as this pinnacle of medieval artistry and engineering, and very little even tries. Which is especially amazing given the advanced materials and techniques we possess that means very little of our construction falls down through overly ambitious design. Unlike, say, the spire of Ely Cathedral which bit the mud on February 13, 1322.

Many years ago I read a splendid engineering book for the lay person called Structures, or, Why Things Don’t Fall Down. And I can honestly say I have never looked at the world the same way since. I have been evaluating everything from bridges to docks to sausages and blades of grass differently since reading James Edward Gordon’s 1978 classic. And it helped me appreciate how in the high Middle Ages clerics, builders and designers overcame the natural tendency of stone to sit in sturdy piles including in the early medieval Romanesque style, and sent it soaring into the heavens through innovations critically including the flying buttress.

Mind you, I have also never forgotten his statement that as builders became more and more ambitious, the question with the cathedrals was increasingly not whether the nave collapsed but when. There are things you just can’t do with stone. Including our Peace Tower, incidentally. Much as I like it, there’s an element of deceit there because it relies on steel to assume a shape stone cannot take or, more precisely, cannot retain.

Back to Ely Cathedral, a Saxon abbey from 672 AD subject to such unwelcome attention of various Vikings that it had to be refounded in 970, and was then gradually demolished and rebuilt by the Normans. (Oh, and can I mention that Abbot Simeon, put in charge of the major Norman project, was 89 when he took the abbot’s job and 90 years old when the work began? Not everybody died young and squalid in those days.) Meanwhile the church just kept getting more and more magnificent as the years went by, beginning Romanesque and ending Gothic, and eventually they overreached. But the result can teach us a lot.

The original plan was for a “cruciform” tower like that at Winchester. But a lot of things can happen in a couple of centuries especially if you’re building a vast stone cathedral in damp wet fenlands. Like the ground settling ominously as you go. And then your crucial cruciform tower tumbling down in ruins. Which it did beginning late on February 12.

After various observations not all of which may have conformed to the ideal of monastic life, those in charge decided rather than putting it up again and warning people not to linger in it they would instead create a unique octagonal tower that is not just broader and stronger but also a spectacular achievement that still draws visitors seven centuries later.

So yes, the Middle Ages had spectacular artistic vision and a bold willingness to experiment, to dare, and to adapt in response to failure with yet more brilliant innovation. I do not think anything we build today will even be around in 700 years, let alone be worth looking at if it is.

Let us not jeer lightly at this magnificent civilization and its sublime buildings from our office cubicles, brutalist concrete highrises and plastic suburbs.


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Seven Came Up, Sort Of – It Happened Today, February 9, 2017

February 9 is a nice anniversary for people who like nuclear missiles. Because on this date in 1959 the first ever ICBM became operational, the R-7 Semyorka, at Plesetsk.

Yes, you are correct. It was a Soviet weapon. Indeed the reason people panicked over Sputnik, itself a harmless little beeping satellite, wasn’t just that the dang Russkis seemed to be getting ahead in the knowledge economy of the 20th century so American students would have to hit the math books harder or be outproduced and left in the dust. (Yes, that chestnut is getting a little stale; can you go into a frenzy over “STEM” in schools?) It was that precisely the same technology that could put a satellite into orbit could also take a nuclear warhead up there and then release it onto an inexorable unpowered downward “ballistic” course toward, um, your house.

Now it is true that once both superpowers developed reasonably reliable launch-on-warning rockets it created a balance of terror that kept the peace. Absent nuclear weapons I think it is inconceivable that there would not have been a third conventional war in Europe by the 1980s. And there was a certain wilful embrace of neurosis by intellectuals in the 1950s with the imminence of nuclear annihilation as a bit of an excuse. But that’s about all I have to say of an encouraging nature here.

The R-7 is a classic Soviet story in many ways including that its name was always classified so it was code-named SS-6 Sapwood by NATO. (The Soviets always refused to give the names they used for their missiles during strategic arms talks, manifesting a fetish for counterproductive and offensive secrecy that made their general mantra of “trust us” through clenched teeth exceptionally ludicrous.) Apparently they called it by its GRAU index moniker “8K71” when in a formal mood whereas “Semyorka” means “the seven” so R7 Semyorka is a bit of redundant unnecessary repetition of the same thing again. (If you’re wondering, GRAU is the Russian acronym for the Main Missile and Artillery Directorate of the Ministry of Defence, for Glavnoye raketno-artilleriyskoye upravleniye.)

The “Semyorka” was a bit of a beast, weighing 280 metric tons, 112 feet long and burning kerosene plus liquid oxygen. It took 20 hours to prepare for launch, its massive launch system could not be hidden from US spy planes, and it could not stay on alert for more than a day. And it wasn’t very accurate or reliable. In fact it was never deployed operationally although it did get Sputnik up there and led to a family of rockets that got the Soviets into space although never to the moon and in fact failed more often than they succeeded for years.

It didn’t help that the R7s were in Plesetsk, which even Russians might consider to be in the middle of nowhere and with inclement weather unfriendly to construction and machinery. (It’s about 500 miles northeast of Moscow.) But basically the Semyorka was hugely inexpensive, worked really badly and scared other people into making better weapons of their own and regarding the Soviet government as hostile and mindlessly belligerent.

So not a nice anniversary for the rest of us.


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It’s a Gas – It Happened Today, January 29, 2017

On this date in history in 1886 one Karl Benz became a hero of entrepreneurship and then, I suppose, a massive ecological villain when he patented a gasoline-powered car. People like me have long praised the automobile as a classic private solution to a pressing public problem, the increasingly intolerable fouling of cities and destruction of forests by… the horse.

I know, it sounds a bit silly. But major cities were being buried in horse poop, drowned in horse pee, and afflicted with tens of thousands of dead horses a year. And more and more forest land was being cleared for pastures to grow the hay all these creatures consumed.

If government had taken charge of the problem, there is no telling what disaster would have ensued. Instead entrepreneurs created a new form of transportation, less picturesque in ways that make me genuinely sad but enormously more efficient and effective. You could not have cottages for the middle class if we all had to take horse carts to them, nor supermarkets or indeed almost any facet of modern life. You could also not have carts that play what was once quaintly called “high fidelity” music, heat your seat and protect you from the elements while a gentle push of your foot accelerates you to 100 km/h. And now that we have seen modernity in all its horror, maybe future waves of technology can allow us to decentralize, slow down, and get back in touch with nature external and internal while retaining some of the gains like, say, laptops that can edit video. Just to pick an example at random.

Of course today the reaction is likely to be that by inventing the gas-powered car Benz (yes, of Mercedes-Benz) played a major role in dooming the planet and its inhabitants to climate change that will drown, fry or otherwise exterminate us all. But even if one grants that he’s about as much of a benefactor to humanity as, say, Sauron, surely we can at least draw the lesson that if we want alternatives to current technology including fossil-fuel-dependent vehicles and power plants, we are far likely to get dynamic, unpredictable, astoundingly effective solutions from the private sector than from central planning.

In turn they may raise new dilemmas over time to replace the ones they solve. But it sure beats government intervention, which reliably creates new messes without fixing the old ones.


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When Skhug met plancha

In my latest National Post column I condemn the whole concept of food trends and “cutting-edge flavours” in favour of the retrograde notion of liking things that taste good.


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The Great War Remembered – and printed

With the 100th anniversary of Canada’s great victory at Vimy Ridge fast approaching, I’m delighted to announce that the book version of my documentary The Great War Remembered is now available for purchase.

The First World War was the defining event of the 20th century, shaping the modern world in ways we still feel very strongly today. Modern technology and logistics created unprecedented slaughter, and partly as a result the long, bitter, bloody conflict undermined faith in Western civilization. But it was a necessary war and the Allies did win it, with pivotal contributions from Canada, which “found itself” in the war and especially at Vimy, not just as a nation, but as a free nation determined to defend liberty under law.

It is appropriate that we remember the costs of the war and lament the loss and the missed opportunities. But we should also remember, and celebrate, the determined spirit that stood up to aggression on behalf of a way of life well worth defending even at this terrible cost.

Order your copy today and take a timely, fresh look at an often misunderstood conflict central to the modern world.

p.s. American and international shoppers should purchase directly through Amazon.

p.p.s. We also have the Kindle version available, here.


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