Friday, May 8, 2009

Venus charts the mysteries of BC's coast

Deep under the coastal waters of British Columbia, a $10 million dollar science project sponsored by the University of Victoria and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation is earning a reputation as the most advanced underwater observatory of its kind in the world.

The Venus Project, the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea, is a system of monitoring devices and cameras that is helping research scientists and amateur oceanographers from around the globe expand their knowledge about the murky and little understood underwater world, the project's executive director told a rapt audience at a recent Wednesday luncheon in 15th Field Artillery Regimental Hall.

"It's very easy to put a telescope up and map Mars, but it's not so easy to see into the oceans," said Adrian Round, a former naval officer who heads the Venus Project. "Seawater is opaque to most magnetic imaging techniques, including light and radio waves."

In fact, scientists know more about the surface of Mars than they know about the ocean depths, said Round, a former commander of Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. For example, while a dozen men have walked on the moon, only three people have made it to the furthest depths of the Mariana Trench, the ocean's deepest point.

The Venus Project consists of three monitoring stations, called nodes — the first at a depth of 100 metres in the Saanich Peninsula, and two others, at 170-metre and 300-metre depths, near the mouth of the Fraser River in Georgia Strait - each fitted with an array of underwater microphones (hydrophones), high definition cameras and a variety of chemical and other sensors.

The first node, located in the Saanich Peninsula, was chosen because of its unique anoxic environment, where oxygen levels near the surface can fluctuate by an order of magnitude in just 15 or 20 minutes and most of the deeper water has no oxygen at all.

At the mouth of the Fraser River, along the steep sandy slopes that separate the shallow river delta from the deeper ocean waters, the sensor are paying particular attention to the impact of seismic activity.

But the scope of the Venus Project has expanded greatly since it first went online three years ago. "This is a fascinating facility that has turned out to be far more useful than we planned," he said.

Probably the best-known science experiment associated with Venus is its investigation into the mystery of the floating feet that have been washing up along the inner coastline of B.C. In an attempt to learn how long those feet might have been in the water, a researcher from the University of Victoria sank freshly killed pig carcasses beside the station, and then watched as marine predators stripped the flesh down to the skeleton in less than four weeks’ time.

The research is revealing secrets about the decomposition of flesh in a deep ocean environment and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has agreed to fund the next round of pig carcass experiments.

The Venus Project was first envisioned in 2003, after a ship-based monitoring project was set up to look at an underwater volcano 200 kilometres off the coast of Vancouver Island. Today, Venus is the largest of three cabled underwater laboratories in North America, although the U.S. has recently committed itself to building a $400 million underwater observatory by 2013.

Round said Venus is proving that cabled observatories are far superior to their ship-based counterparts because they eliminate or lessen five of the biggest limitations to the work: battery power; data storage area; speed and efficiency of communication; the ability to take continuous samples; and weather.

But the most unique aspect of the Venus Project is the fact that virtually all of that data collected, more than two terabytes to date, is relayed to the project's base station on Vancouver Island, where it is streamed, in real time, 24-7, onto the Internet for all to see. Round describes the website as offering "interactive 4D experiences."

Available at the website, the information includes data on temperatures, acoustics, acidity, oxygen levels, current speed and direction, as well as a wide selection of photo galleries, Round said. The high definition cameras are turned on almost daily, and are good enough to allow researchers to count the hairs on the legs of passing crabs and lobsters.

So far, the website has attracted the attention of 19,000 users from 18 countries, ranging from working scientists and students to amateur researchers of all ages. Users can also sign up to obtain a password that offers the opportunity to link directly to the ethernet and participate in some of the experiments.

While the project is turning heads today, there were some dicey moments when the four-centimetre-thick fibre optic cable was first laid down in the Georgia Straight. Originally set to take place in September 2006, Round and other project organizers were told in March that they would have to finish their work by May, four months ahead of schedule.

The elaborate cable operation began in the "thick gelatinous ooze" near the Iona sewage outfall and used a ship equipped with GPS tracking and eight thrusters to help hold the vessel in place while the eight-kilometre sections were spliced together, a procedure that required staying within three metres of a given spot for up to 24 hours through all phases of the tide.

Then, when the ship was ready for the final splice, the cable was found to be 100 metres further from shore than expected. The entire operation was put on hold for two months, while Round and the crew worked out a plan to finish the work using a shallow water barge and three tugboats.

"We actually succeeded, and we had 30 metres to spare on a total 40 kilometre cable," Round said. "It's also where I got most of my grey beard."

And the discoveries never stop. Venus has confirmed the presence of 50 metre sand dunes that travel down the length of the Saanich Peninsula, and a colourful sponge reef has been found along the Fraser Ridge. For the first time, this fall, the project will also help track the migration of juvenile salmon out of the Fraser River.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Canada treads new path in Afghanistan

April Fools Day saw sparks flying inside the lecture room of the 15th Field Artillery Regimental Hall, and it wasn’t because of some kind of bad joke between old army buddies.
The special guest speaker at the regular Wednesday luncheon was the recently returned Commander of Task Force Kandahar, Brigadier General Denis Thompson, and the topic was The Struggle for Kandahar: Canadian Soldiers Making a Difference in Afghanistan.
Throughout the 90-minute talk, it was apparent that some in the small crowd of military officers, reservists, government officials and others were simply not buying the official story – that Canada is achieving its military objectives in Afghanistan and helping to rebuild a stable state in one of the most war-oppressed regions of the world.
But the general who worked his way through Cyprus, Germany and Bosnia before his Middle East deployment was adamant. Any comparison of the Afghanistan mission to historical Canadian military operations was “completely irrelevant,” he said.
“We’re nation building,” he said unapologetically. “We’re trying to make Afghanistan look like it did in 1970, before the Communists arrived.”
Canada and its NATO-led International Security Assistance Force partners are fighting to support the elected Afghan government, to help the spread of human rights, and to rebuild the Afghan national police and other security forces so they can stand on their own, Thompson said.
“We are not engaged in suppressing the Afghanistan population,” he answered sternly to the vehemently stated claim that Canada has only a “pitiful” number of troops in the country and that up to 200,000 soldiers will be needed to “wipe out” the Taliban.
Homegrown political criticisms notwithstanding, Thompson said the Canadian military operation has the support of both the United Nations and the duly elected Afghan government, and with recent political changes around the globe, countries such as India, Russia and Iran have also recently joined the discussions to bring political stability to Afghanistan.
In fact, Thompson said part of the ongoing confusion at home over the mission lies in the fact that Canada is not in battle against the Afghan people, but instead, against a small contingent of religious extremists who are benefiting from an influx by angry young men many of whom have been caught up in the civil unrest in their homelands, most notably neighbouring Pakistan.
And with six years of practical on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, Thompson said Canada is learning new and successful tactics that are not found in traditional military manuals, books or official doctrines.
Probably the most important aspect of the evolving mission is training the Afghan national police to take over security operations for the country, Thompson said. Canada has already training about 1,000 officers around Kandahar City, but the entire province needs about 4,000 local police before the region can be considered independently secure, he said.
But there is still a long way to go. Currently, there are a mere six security personnel for every 1,000 people in the general population, and ISAF is trying to bring that number up to 20 per 1,000. Recent American deployments will help improve those numbers, but the real solution will only come when the Afghan police are ready to take on that role themselves. “There is no end date, there is an end state, and the international community understands that,” Thompson said.
Another big problem is the entrenched narcotics industry, with Afghanistan having 90 per cent of the world’s poppy fields, largely centred in Helmand province. Although the price of opium has fallen 50 per cent over the past year, Afghan farmers are still reluctant to switch to alternative crops, such as the 750 tonnes of wheat donated by Canada, because of the loss of profits that can be made from the illegal trade. “Afghanistan needs an Elliot Nash,” Thompson said in reference to the famed Untouchables police squads that brought peace to Chicago in the 1930s.
One pending change that Thompson predicts will have a long-range positive impact on reducing the insurgency is an agreement with Pakistan to install biometric scanning at the porous main border crossing with Afghanistan, where no customs office currently exists and few passersby are refused entry unless they are carrying weapons or narcotics.
Military innovations are also helping. One recent change that has boosted Canadian moral and helped reduce the number of potential injuries was the arrival of the first helicopters to transfer Canadian troops to the field, and allow Thompson to log more than 16,500 kilometres during his nine-month deployment in Kandahar province. The ISAF is also making good use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the north of the country.
Surprisingly, Thompson said Afghanistan has a growing number of helicopters and Hercules-style transport planes of its own, and will have a bigger air force than Canada by 2012. When asked if that meant the Afghan troops were better equipped than our own, he clarified by saying it was a matter of quantity, not quality.
But there are setbacks. When asked if the recent proposal of the Afghan parliament to impose Sharia law and limit the rights and freedoms of Afghan women, would have any impact on the troops, Thompson noted that Ottawa was quick to go on record as being “vehemently opposed” to the loss of human rights. But he also noted that there is little the Canadian military can do with something that is fundamentally a political dilemma.
Another setback was the change in Taliban strategy to a campaign of harassment of against the populace, political assassinations, such as the killing of the first female police officer in the country, and the growing use of Improvised Explosive Devices. Thompson does not believe that strategy will help the Taliban gain the support of the Afghan population.
Thompson also downplayed criticisms Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is rampant among the returning soldiers. “The truth is, in war, everyone sees horrific things,” he said. “But you can equate PSTD with obesity. If you’re five pounds overweight, you can do it yourself, but if you’re 100 pounds overweight, you’re going to probably need some medical help.
“We’ve done a lot to educate our officers and NCOs to recognize the signs, and when they see it, they get the soldiers the help they need.”
Thompson surprised many with his closing statement on the three primary enemies of the Afghan people – illiteracy, corruption and the Taliban. “Illiteracy, to my mind, is the most important,” he said.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Just parsing through

Prorogue. It’s an interesting word. And it’s top of mind for many Canadians this week as we wonder what’s happening in our perplexing parliament.
Not even listed at, prorogue is a British Parliamentary term that defines a situation when the Prime Minister arbitrarily postpones a vote rather than face the impending wrath of the House of Commons.
Let’s look at its etymology. Most online sources indicate this word comes from the Middle English term “prorogen”, and was derived from the Anglo-French “proroger”, and originally take from the Latin term “prorogare” meaning to “ask before”.
Now, I’m no scholar, but I have a different theory.
Doesn’t the Greek prefix “pro” mean to “be in favour”? And doesn’t the Anglo-Saxon term “rogue” translate into “scoundrel”?
Could it be “pro-scoundrel”?
Frankly, considering what’s happening in Ottawa this week, I think most Canadians would view my definition as being closer to the truth.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Canada First Coalition for Christmas

Oh, what a fascinating time to be a Canadian.

After years of declining interest in politics and government in general, Canada's three opposition parties have found a way to forget their long-held animosities and work together to oust the pro-American Conservative government. We could be living with a European-style coalition government by Christmas.

While the Tories are doing their best to pooh-pooh the idea, they seem to forget that Coalition Governments are indeed quite legal, and have historical precedence in Canada. All it takes is for the opposition parties to vote non-confidence in the Tories, and then convince the Governor General that they have a workable cabinet.

While it sounds fantastic, this plan just might work. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and one-time NDP Leader Ed Broadbent are both working on behalf of the Coalition, and they have helped send the Tories into full retreat mode.

Sunday may have been the most extraordinary day in Canadian politics for more than a century.

It started when the Tories foolishly released a surreptitious recording of an NDP caucus conference call, wherein Jack Layton made some kind of apparent confession (?) about cooperating with the Bloc Quebec.

While youthful Tory pitchman Pierre Poilievre feigned outrage over Layton’s remarks, NDP deputy leader Thomas Muclair of Montreal made mincemeat of Harper’s parliamentary secretary by describing the recording as a “illegal interception of a communication” and a blatant breach of the criminal code. High profile criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby is on the case.

Reality, and their own impending doom, seemed to dawn on the government around mid-afternoon, when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told CTV’s Craig Oliver that the government would introduce its budget, complete with stimulus package, in the final week of January. Cynics will note the conveniently coincidental timing with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the new American president.

So why has this happened, and is it really just a power grab by the opposition parties, as described by the now floundering Conservative government?

I think not.

Remember, this is the same Conservative government that has spent the past three years negotiating ‘deep integration’ and the little known Economic Security and Prosperity Partnership with the Bush White House. Those talks continue with the new Democratic-led U.S. government which has announced its intention to be far more protectionist that its Republican predecessors. Obama and his new team no doubt look to the free-trade-loving Conservatives as a natural partner.

Dion, Ignatieff, Rae, Layton and Duceppe deserve kudos for standing up for Canadian independence, which I hope is the real crux of what is happening in Ottawa today.

As the Americans ramp up their ‘USA First’ trading plan (watch CNN’s Lou Dobbs for a good outline of things in store for America’s trading partners), even some Tories are having serious doubts whether their apparently utopian ideal of a continental free trade zone can succeed, and whether it is even a good idea anymore, given the stated objectives of the new administration in Washington.

But back to Ottawa, and the matter at hand. I would feel a lot more confident in the future of this Coalition proposal if proposed cabinet ministers had his or her budgets ready to go on the day they announce the deal. These people have spent years trying to get into government, let's see how much homework they've done.

I also hope the Coalition shows a little leadership and brings in a somewhat smaller cabinet than the record-setting 38 Tories recently appointed by Harper. If a Coalition wants to prove their leadership, they need to show at least some restraint, especially in regards to their own themselves.

Indeed, there is still the possiblity that these coalition talks are nothing more than the convenient merging of several different power grabs at the same time and place. I hope not.

And the jury is till out on whether this coalition will succeed or not. Personally, I think it's a wonderful thing to see three of our political parties learning to work together in Parliament. Let's hope the Tories either join the discussions, or get out of the way.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Peacenik supports Afghan “war”

Welcome to my blog. Get ready to be upset, read a few rants and raves, and hopefully, maybe even a few breaking news stories.

First, a little bit about why I view myself as a ‘peacenik’ who supports Canada’s ongoing military involvement as part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

I have this apparent contradiction despite my eminently respectable resumé as a pacifist and peace activist. As early as the 1980s, I volunteered as a press release writer for the New Westminster End the Arms Race committee – during those heady days when 100,000 people attended the annual Peace March in downtown Vancouver. As a student journalist, around the same time, I served as a Canadian University Press Western Region Human Rights Coordinator. Furthermore, I am a proud 11th generation descendant of Quaker pioneers – Quakers being the religious denomination that created the ‘conscientious objector’ status for people who oppose spending their tax money on the military. (For the record, I am not a practicing Quaker, and do not withhold tax money for the military. This is, after all, just the history part.)

More recently, I have generously donated to Amnesty International, (giving monthly when I last had a regular paycheque) and writing about issues of importance to groups such as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (I also volunteered for the CCPA’s predecessor, Pacific Institute for Policy Alternatives, but that would just be more history).

So, with a background like that, why do I support this “war” in Afghanistan?

In a general sense, I have always believed that violence should only be used as an absolute last resort. And, for me, that means violence can only be used when responding to, and when attempting to stave off, an even greater violence. This attitude first expressed itself in 1985, when I was a wide-eyed youth delegate at the NDP national convention in Ottawa, where I abstained from voting on something that almost everyone else voted for – a demand for Canada’s immediate withdrawal from NATO. To be honest, I was conflicted on the subject, even then. I have a distant relative who once held a fairly high post in that organization, and I considered myself fairly well acquainted with the topics of peacekeeping and peace-making thanks to some substantive college-day research into arms reductions and disarmament treaties between World Wars One and Two. (By the way, every new peace treaty signed during that time allowed for greater arms buildup and deployment than its predecessors. You’ll note that this is quite similar to today’s world where international peace agreements are very often ignored and blatantly violated. I’ll try to blog about this stuff later.)

More recently, in an attempt to put my lofty ideals into more practical outlets, I joined two somewhat military-related associations, the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and the Vancouver chapter of the Royal United Service Institute, the latter of which I am an associate member. (Did I mention my family connections?)

So much for the background. Now the meat and potatoes.

Specifically, my support for the “war” in Afghanistan is predicated on what happened on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent American decision to go to war against Iraq. As someone who watched more BBC (former paid subscriber) and Canadian news than the American networks, it was obvious to me that the U.S. government was about to embark on a potentially catastrophic military campaign against a nation that had absolutely nothing to do with the vicious and deadly attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. I’m no 9-11 conspiracy theorist, but I truly believe that through a long series of mistakes and neglects, even preceding the election of George W. Bush, the U.S. administration simply let down America’s guard and allowed a small group of uneducated and otherwise poorly organized religious zealots to make a one-in-a-million strike against their sworn enemy.

The U.S. needed to respond, for sure, but why a war in Iraq when the terrorists were known to have been largely of Saudi origin, and trained in Afghanistan?

Knowing that the consequences of an ill-advised invasion of Iraq could very easily be catastrophic for the world, I hoped for some kind of counterbalance to prevent the conflict from escalating into World War Three. I felt some relief when former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien stuck a pin in the ever-expanding Iraq war balloon by deploying our troops to where the real enemy was located – Afghanistan, that impoverished and ancient country where international disputes and geopolitics have absolutely no meaning for the peasants and farmers who have been treated as peons and pawns by every imperial power on Earth since the dawn of western civilization.

I also breathed a sigh of relief when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that his country’s military take over military operations from the Americans in the Shia-controlled southern Basra region of Iraq. If the British played their cards properly – and they did – they could (and did) prevent the situation from escalating into a region-wide war, and avoid the animosity and involvement of the Iranians and their bellicose leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whom I always considered to be a Muslim equivalent to George W. Bush.

And please, don’t get me wrong. I do not support waging a war against the good people of Afghanistan. My support for the ISAF is entirely predicated on the fact that this is NOT a traditional military operation, but a humanitarian campaign and a peace-making initiative. Even today, Canada is not at war ‘against’ Afghanistan, we are at war ‘in’ Afghanistan against the Taliban and other extremist and terrorist organizations that wish to enslave their own people, widen their influence and do mortal harm to anyone who stands in their way.

Canadian Forces are in Afghanistan at the request of that country’s democratically elected government, and our main role is to provide security for those civilian and international agencies that are doing GOOD WORK such as building new schools, hospitals, roads, electricity and water supply systems. Should those good works be successful, and there is every indication that they can be, and if we can avoid turning Afghanistan into the world-wide conflagration that was once threatening to engulf Iraq, Canada will be in the enviable position of proclaiming itself at the vanguard of protecting human rights, and helping to rebuild a nation that has already been devastated by centuries of war and exploitation.

Those are indeed noble goals that are well worth supporting.

But my opinion on Afghanistan will be much like my other opinions – it will change over time as circumstances warrant. Today, I support the timelines and recommendations laid out in the Manley Report, the principles ensconced in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms, and our national commitment to the innocent people of Afghanistan.

Indeed, Afghanistan is not the only place in the world that could use Canada’s practiced and expert military hand, and I might even see myself one day supporting a greater role for our nation’s military in protecting and enhancing human rights in other parts of the world. Hmm, I wonder, ...