A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BLOG] Some Friday links

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  • blogTO notes an upcoming group photo of prominent Toronto musicians.
  • Centauri Dreams speculates about the sort of starship a Kardashev II civilization would build.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze has a couple of papers noting the interactions between hot Jupiters and their parent suns.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on Russian nuclear submarine advances.
  • Joe. My. God. notes that same-sex marriage in Slovenia is safe and observes the advance of civil unions in Italy.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes how revitalizing neighbourhoods can lead to complicated politics, politely put.
  • Marginal Revolution considers ways to improve the allocation of water in drought-hit areas like California.
  • The Numerati’s Stephen Baker wonders if Apple might be able to regain its lost customers.
  • Torontoist approves of a Haitian restaurant in a Scarborough strip mall.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the complexities of language policy in the former Soviet Union, looks at the institutionalization of Islam in the Crimea, and examines the issues of self-identifying Ukrainians in the Russian Far East.

[PHOTO] Melting ice, Church and Wellesley

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Melting ice, Church and Wellesley

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Assorted

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[BRIEF NOTE] On how the Germanwings crash shows how much we depend on trust

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The news today that the crash in the French Alps of Germanwings Flight 9525 was almost certainly caused intentionally by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was the talk of much of the world today. News media around the world, and investigators in Europe, are already dissecting the life of one apparently normal young man who not only decided to kill himself but to murder 149 other people. Why did he do this?

When I first heard of the plane’s odd course yesterday, its calm preprogrammed descent into a cold mountainside, I thought of William Langewische’s November 2001 article in The Atlantic examining the 1999 crash EgyptAir Flight 990. That plane, too, was intentionally crashed by its pilot, one Gameel al-Batouti. The consensus seems to be that al-Batouti killed hundreds of people because of personal problems, the consequences of reprimands from his employers at EgyptAir ranking highly. What will we find out about Lubitz?

This intentional crash, this mass murder, seems to have created a certain sense of unease. Philip Gourevitch’s essay in The New Yorker, “A Bewildering Crash”, caught the reality that, from the perspective of victims and non-victims alike, this seemed almost a random occurrence. These people died for no reason, and nothing could have been done to prevent this.

They could have been any of us, anywhere—whoever flies or rides a train or takes a bus or in any way entrusts her life to strangers, as we all must regularly and routinely to get through this world. That sense of investment in calamity—it could have been me—is true, of course, of accidents and targeted acts of terrorism as well. But to be told that a scene of mass death is the result of an accident or terrorism is to be given not only an explanation of the cause but also an idea of how to reckon with the consequence–through justice, or revenge, or measures meant to prevent a recurrence. After the massacre at Sandy Hook, we could at least dream of gun control. But the story of Lubitz, suddenly in control of a plane flying all those aboard to their deaths, offers us only a cosmic meaninglessness and bewilderment.

It would almost be more comforting if the Germanwings crash did turn out to be some sort of terrorist attack, after all, if this terrible action can trace its roots to some sort of dark conspiracy. It would almost be nice if, as seems quite possible, this wasn’t the action of a single man who had a single bad morning and decided, kilometres above the ground, to commit mass murder. Then, there would be a proportionality between the act and its origins. Things would match up. As things stand, as James Follows observed earlier today, there really is very little that can be done to prevent future occurrences of this sort.

But then, this sort of thing is common in all catastrophes of this kind. Look at September 11th conspiracy theories, particularly the ones alleging the active involvement of the American government. Yes, it would be a terrible thing if there was a conspiracy by powerful people in the United States to destroy two skyscrapers at the cost of thousands of lives in order to manipulate global politics, but at least the terrible outcomes of 9/11 would seem to have proportionately weighty origins. The reality of 9/11–the fact that a couple dozen men working on a shoestring budget directed by people on the other side of the planet could wreak such havoc, could change the world–demonstrates how fragile our civilization is.

If Germanwings 9525 means anything, it is as an illustration of the reality that modern globalized civilization relies on the good will of its members to avoid catastrophe. Knowing about this fragility is unsettling, I grant, but it’s rather better to know about this than to remain in ignorance. We need to be prepared.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2015 at 3:47 am

[MUSIC] Eurythmics, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

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I had a minute-long snippet> of the Eurythmics’ cover of the Smiths’ song “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” years before it was officially released on CD, an extra on the 2005 reissue of We Too Are One. (Audiogalaxy was superb.)

Morrissey’s lachrymose lyrics fit squarely into his classic mold.

Last night I dreamt
That somebody loved me
No hope, but no harm
Just another false alarm

Last night I felt
Real arms around me
No hope, no harm
Just another false alarm

So, tell me how long
Before the last one?
And tell me how long
Before the right one?

The story is old, I know
But it goes on
The story is old, I know
But it goes on

Oh, goes on
And on
Oh, goes on
Goes on

The below video places the Smiths’ original version against the Eurythmics’ cover, and then against a third cover by Eddi Reader, Clive Gregson and Boo Hewerdine.

I argued back in 2005 that the Eurythmics’ performance was a better version of the song than the original, and I stand by that argument. There’s a sense of urgency, in Lennox’s vocals and the inexorable sweep of the music forward into despair, that just isn’t present in the more languid original.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2015 at 3:03 am

[LINK] “Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives”

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Savage Minds hosts an essay by anthropologist Sarah Besky talking about the importance of the ethnographic writer’s awareness of place and movement.

Why should we care about how (or whether) one can “get there from here”? Perhaps because, as Kirin Narayan reminds us, “Reading transports us.” She frames the project of writing place with a question: “How do ethnographers enhance this journey so that readers glean facts about a place and something of the feel of being there?”

The “arrival trope” is, of course, the most common of ethnographic devices. I have one. You probably do, too. But the arrival trope has been rightly criticized for fetishizing the state of finally being somewhere (else), ready to begin anthropological fieldwork. We probably all recall Malinowski’s directive to “Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight.”

This impulse to recount arrivals speaks to the fact that ethnographic narratives are at heart concerned with movement—from place to place.

The primary means by which I move from place to place, both in the field and closer to home, is walking. When I work in Kolkata, the act of winding my way through pedestrian congestion, in and out of markets, and through that city’s metro, is a constant sensorial overload. When I write about Kolkata or Darjeeling, I use the local equivalents of the “wicked huge Radio Shack” to draw readers into these movements—and importantly the sensations of these movements. As Alex Nading has argued, “trailing” the movements of people and other creatures can be a way of carrying place seamlessly from fieldwork into narrative.

When I write about place, then, I close my eyes and re-imagine walking. This is less visualization exercise and more constructive daydreaming. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do I get there from here? How many Dunkin Donuts (or their Himalayan or Kolkatan analogues) do I pass on the way? I find that on my first couple of drafts, these descriptions are way overwritten, but with more editing, place starts to tighten, and even serve to bolster historical and theoretical elements of books and articles as well.

Wonderful writing on writing, this.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 26, 2015 at 10:36 pm

[LINK] “Norway’s sovereign wealth holds lessons for Canada”

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CBC News’ Susan Ormiston describes how resource-wealthy provinces like Alberta, and perhaps Canada as a whole, should learn from the example of Norwegian prudence.

Norway today sits on top of a $1-trillion Cdn pension fund established in 1990 to invest the returns of oil and gas. The capital has been invested in over 9,000 companies worldwide, including over 200 in Canada. It is now the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world.

By contrast, Alberta’s Heritage Savings Fund, established in 1976 by premier Peter Lougheed, sits at only $17 billion Cdn and has been raided by governments and starved of contributions for years.

“For the last 10 years, when nothing went into the Alberta fund, and we put a lot of money aside, the profit went out of Canada,” says Rolf Wiborg, a petroleum engineer who recently retired from Norway’s public service.

Wiborg, who studied at the University of Alberta and worked for a Norwegian oil company before joining Norway’s Petroleum Directorate, says the key to success has been Norway’s ethos of sharing and a commitment to never waver from that goal.

“We don’t change our policies in Norway, with changes in the oil price – you can’t do that,” he says. “Lougheed’s government in Alberta knew that, they made policies and then they left them behind.”

Oil and gas make up 25 per cent of Norway’s GDP, so the recent plunge in oil prices should have set off alarm bells in Oslo. Thousands of workers have indeed been laid off, but parliament is not painting a dire forecast for 2015.

Much more at the link.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 26, 2015 at 10:31 pm

[LINK] “Venezuelan doctors face tough choices as economic crisis worsens”

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MacLean’s hosts Hannah Dreier’s Associated Press article noting that one casualty of Venezuela’s ongoing economic collapse is modern medicine.

Oncologist Gabriel Romero performs hundreds of life-saving surgeries a year, but he no longer takes pleasure in his work.

That’s because he believes that many of the mastectomies he does on some of Venezuela’s poorest women wouldn’t be needed in a normally functioning country. Doctors say they are being forced to return to outdated treatments because the socialist country’s economic problems make it impossible to ensure the proper running of radiation machines in public hospitals, where patients receive free treatment under Venezuela’s universal health care.

“You don’t feel comfortable with it, because you’re making a decision that goes against your professional judgment,” Romero said recently after seeing patients in the grubby basement clinic at the Dr. Luis Razetti Oncology Center, at the foot of a Caracas slum. The hospital’s only linear accelerator machine, the more modern of the two kinds of radiotherapy devices used in Venezuela, has been broken since November.

“We’re practicing medicine from the 1940s here, and we know that’s not right,” Romero said.

The challenges facing doctors are just one reflection of an economy battered by widespread shortages. The recent crash in global oil prices, which account for 95 per cent of Venezuela’s exports, is creating a cash shortage that makes it difficult to buy imported goods, such as parts for medical machines. Also depressing economic activity is 68 per cent inflation and a currency crisis that has seen the value of the local Bolivar plunge 46 per cent this year on the closely-watched black market.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 26, 2015 at 10:29 pm


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