A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for January 2006

[BRIEF NOTE] A flashback from the past?

Is Stephen Harper my generation’s Joe Clark?

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2006 at 9:03 am

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[BRIEF NOTE] Update on Weale

Anyone who was interested in the story of David Weale, the UPEI instructor who offered to give students in his over-large class a passing mark of 70% if they stopped attending in order to reduce crowding, may be interested to know that he has been dismissed from his position. A good thing too, I’d say. Humblebub at Island Musings says what I’m thinking now.

Yesterday we were considering the requirements for a new group of ‘hires’. “Well, I guess we can remove the university requirement”, someone said, “they might have been in Weale’s class or the other classes he (Weale) referred to”.

David Weale has diminished the value of the product that his employers sells. He should be dismissed. Just as I would be dismissed if I willingly diminished the product that my employer sells.

Note that no one seems to be calling into question David Weale’s quality of instructing – that, by all reports is superb. The quality of teaching, is not the point in what seems to have become a very polarized and overemotional debate. Consider the pragmatic facts.

For the record, I disagree with Peter Rukavina’s argument that any publicity is good publicity, at least in the end when the pros and cons of a publicized embarrassment are tabulated. Even if the argument does hold water–even if UPEI’s reputation has been well-served by its portrayal as an academic institutuion with excessively large class sizes–does it therefore mean that nothing should be done? This is especially true when, in a recent interview for an article in The Globe and Mail, Weale was almost embarrassingly incoherent.

A self-described rabble-rouser, who admits that he likes to “mix it up,” Prof. Weale appeared genuinely mystified by the widespread condemnation of his offer. He said the university and faculty association statements smelled of hypocrisy.

“It’s optics,” he said. “They just want to send out this message about how strict they are about standards, when, goddammit, I was the one who was fighting in that class for standards.”

When asked whether what he did was wrong, he grew impatient, launching into a critique of “our so-called merit-based society,” adding it rewards the privileged.

“I was saying to the students: ‘This is an act of grace and it’s a good thing in life to accept grace.’ It’s not a good thing to think that you have to earn everything, because that’s an illusion.”

Luck — not effort — plays the largest role in who succeeds in our society, he said.

“It’s often because of good luck, the family they were born into, the genes they were born with. So when you establish a society totally of merit and credit, it just suits the privileged. And it always works against the underprivileged.”

Was it fair to offer students a credit for no work? “Fair always depends on your perspective,” he said. “Is it fair for students to do nothing in a class and get a credit? No, it is not fair. I’ll admit that. Now, is it fair for students who have paid $450 and who want to learn about the content of the course to be jammed into a classroom that is greatly compromising the learning situation? Is that fair to them?”

Best to end it. Fear not, this won’t harm Weale’s career: He’ll still have a proud record of describing and defending traditional Island values. Weale can coast on that. Arguably he has.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2006 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Assorted

[REVIEW] Casanova

The plot of the new film Casanova could well have been provocative as well as entertaining. Imagine if the ardent desire for seduction and companionship demonstrated by Heath Ledger’s Giacomo Casanova had been merged with the articulate proto-feminism of Sienna Miller’s Francesca Bruni somehow, perhaps by arguing that Casanova’s techniques of individualized seduction could come to full fruition only if he could treat with a fully auonomous woman. The plot didn’t do that, as it happens, the result being a film that looks nice and has some entertaining scenes but that doesn’t hang together.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2006 at 11:34 pm

Posted in Assorted

[LINK] Two meditations of note

  • james_nicoll has recently speculated (1, 2) about the possibility that red dwarf stars might actually be fairly hospitable stars for living worlds, though low-mass ones. Mars and Titan (and the Galilean worlds?) may be more typical representatives of the galaxy’s class of high-density planetary bodies than the Earth. This has obvious implications for the sorts of life that develop on these worlds.
  • jackwalker is currently undertaking an extended synopsis of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Putnam’s identification and analysis of social capital and its mutations is classic. jackwalker‘s useful synopsis is helping to bring out the potential causes for the trends identified by Putnam, and shortly, to suggest possible solutions.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2006 at 11:21 pm

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[LINK] The birth of standardized sign language

Jonathan Edelstein has a fascinating post over at his blog about the troubles of the deaf caught up in the 18th century British judiciary system. How could they testify when, in the absence of any standardized sign language, no one knew what they wanted to communicate?

Sign language of a sort has existed since time immemorial, with deaf people developing signals for communication with family members and co-workers. Because these signals were not standardized, however, they were understood only by the user and those who knew him personally. Moreover, these sign languages extended only to the things the users needed to say, and might be useful for work or household matters but utterly useless to plead to an indictment or understand evidence at trial.

In those cases where deaf witnesses could read, it was possible to swear them in and put questions to them in written form, as was done in the 1742 housebreaking trial of Magdalen Swawbrook. The report of Swawbrook’s trial notes that, “the prosecutor being quite Deaf, he was sworn by a written Copy of the Oath, which he pronounced, and the Questions were all put to him by Writing.” (As it happened, the prosecutor was also Swawbrook’s father; his reason for swearing out a criminal complaint against his own daughter is not recorded, but the matter was irregular enough for the jury to acquit.)

Other deaf defendants were able to make themselves heard with the aid of family members or hearing witnesses, or through obviously understandable gestures. William Smith, a “deaf and dumb” man tried for highway robbery in 1797, was interpreted for by his brother, and James Saytuss’ indictment was explained by a former servant. In 1718, Sarah Dean, who was tried for theft, “signified by Signs that she found the Pocket book and Note in the Street.” Dean’s defense was aided, however, by the testimony of several witnesses who could hear and who corroborated her account through speech.

What happened when the first standardized systems of sign language came into play, I’ll leave to Jonathan to describe.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2006 at 11:27 pm

Posted in Assorted

[BRIEF NOTE] The Pros and Cons of Licensed Torture

Jazon Kuznicki at Positive Liberty linked to an interesting post by one Jim Henley regarding the legalization of torture.

Okay, here’s the scenario: Terrorists have planted a nuclear weapon in a major American city and if you don’t stop it millions will die. If you have any sense of honor at all, wouldn’t you give your own life to stop that? Most of us would say yes, wouldn’t we? What about prison? If you could save them at the cost of spending years in prison, maybe even the rest of your life, wouldn’t you have to make that choice? As bitter as the years might be, could you live with yourself knowing that you allowed a nuclear holocaust just so you could live out your own days in comfort and freedom? Fair? No. But what kind of man or woman worth the gametes that got them going could look someone in the eye and say, “I could have prevented it, but I would have suffered.”

So if it’s ticking bombs that worry you, what do we need laws permitting torture for? Do the crime, save the lives, then do the time. Leave possible pardons aside. We are hard men for hard times and we want hard make-believe conundra.

Don’t talk to me about the suffering you’d bravely inflict on someone else. Tell me the cost you yourself would pay. Those are the “tough choices.” Next time the subject comes up, ask your interlocutor to make one.

Henley was quite right to discern that the people who argue for the legalization of torture aren’t hoping to let it happen, but rather that they want government agents who engage in torture to be allowed to do so without suffering legal consequences. Myself, I tend to agree with the opinion of Mrs. Tilton at A Fistful of Euros, who has written about the case of Wolfgang Dascher, a high-ranking Frankfurt am Main police officer who threatened a kidnapper with torture in order to try to save the life of his victim. After Dascher’s conviction and light punishment, Tilton concluded that this outcome, combining the punishment necessary to maintain the rule of law with a lightness suiting the highly unusual circumstances, was the best one possible.

By extension of this principle, I can imagine that one day Canadian government agents may indeed resort to one sort of torture or another–perhaps Ignatieff’s permissible duress?–to try to save lives. I would also hope that, after the lives have been saved and normality’s return, these agents would then be prosecuted for the crimes that they permitted. The words of the character of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons-“when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide”?–come to mind, as well they should.

The only problem with this fine principled argument is that the people who will be doing the torturing can’t be expected to like the necessity of their post-torture harakiri. Ignatieff warned, in his brief supporting a careful and tentative legalization of torture, that if something like this doesn’t happen then instead of banning torture we’ll see it hidden by our law enforcement agencies. “We got this information carefully through our intelligence division,” and someone a body is dumped with weights into a distant lake. I wonder if he has a point.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2006 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Assorted

[MUSIC] Kent, from Sweden

One of pompe‘s much-appreciated birthday gifts was the Swedish band Kent‘s latest release, “The Hjärta & Smärta EP”. I can hear why they’re such a big band in Norden.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2006 at 9:14 pm

Posted in Assorted

[LINK] Abercrombie & Fitch in Toronto

The impending opening of several Abercrombie & Fitch stores in the Greater Toronto Area coincides with bklyndispatch‘s linking to a surreal Salon profile of A&F founder Mike Jeffries and seems to have led another person to make a post in the toronto community carrying the full uncredited text of said Salon profile under the subject heading of “Boycott Abercrombie & Fitch”. What a bizarre man; and yet, how late-modern-capitalist his store is.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2006 at 8:54 pm

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[MUSIC] Bryan Adams, “Summer of ’69”

Even though I’m not a Bryan Adams fan of such, his international hit “Summer of ’69” still makes me want to play air guitar as I sing along with everyone else in earshot.. The <a href="http://www.bryanadams.com/onlineshop/library/lyricsarchive-Summerof69.htm”>lyrics do play a role, what with their nostalgia about missed chances and the joys of young adulthood and summer romance and all.

Oh when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Ya – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

[. . .]

Standin’ on your Mama’s porch
You told me that you’d wait forever
Oh and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life
Back in the summer of ’69

Man we were killin’ time
We were young and restless
We needed to unwind
I guess nothin’ can last forever – forever, no

And now the times are changin’
Look at everything that’s come and gone
Sometimes when I play that old six-string
I think about ya wonder what went wrong

It’s Adams’ guitar that’s the clincher, aklmost audibly crunchy and wonderfully loud, perfect texture for his hoarse vocals. I love this song for reasons having nothing to do with Adams’ Canadianness.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2006 at 8:51 pm

Posted in Assorted

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Why demographic determinism is silly: The Spanish example

Back in July 2003, The Economist warned that “Spain’s population may droop from 40m to 37m.” The prediction of a 10% decrease was conservative, since another source reported in The Guardian in 1999 claimed that Spain’s population might decline by 9 million people by 2050, down from 40 million to 31 or even 30 million. Responsible for this remarkable shrinkage was Spain’s very low fertility rate, one of the lowest in the world with only 60% as many children born as needed to sustain the population. The reality of a very low fertility rate leading to rapid aging and eventually net population decline was known for some time, but little seems to have been done to try change things, like (for instance) subsidizing childbearing women heavily as in France or Sweden. The inevitability of a Spanish population set to start shrinking shortly was taken for granted, indeed regularly made a point of political debate, often in ways supporting the poisonous Eurabia meme. As a single example, writing in 2004 Asia Times‘ Spengler claimed rather ridiculously that “[h]alf a millennium after the Reconquista, when Spanish Catholicism expelled the country’s Muslims and Jews, Spain has no choice but to ask the Muslims to return and take possession of its land by stages.”

This trend reversed itself quite recently, not because of a baby boom as in France but rather because of an entirely transformed pattern of migration. One of the poorest countries in Cold War non-Communist Europe, well into the 1980s Spain was a major source of immigrants. As Nieves Ortega Pérez wrote in a February 2003 article, “Spain: Forging an Immigration Policy “, at Migration Information, only in the 1990s did Spain–stable and democratic, with a growing and job-hungry First World economy–start to become a major destination for immigrants.

In 2001, resident foreigners in Spain accounted for 2.5 percent of the total population, and saw one of the largest annual increases in their numbers (23.81 percent) in recent years. The biggest communities of resident foreigners were Moroccans (234,937), Ecuadorians (84,699), the British (80,183), Germans (62,506), Colombians (48,710), French (44,798), and Portuguese (42,634). These figures reflect the increasing size of the traditional Moroccan community, as well as the trend of increased immigration from Latin America. The fact that neither of the top two nationalities was an EU country, as had been the case just five years ago, brings Spain more in line with the tradition of immigration from third (i.e. non-EU) countries, a tradition also visible in other European Union countries

The scale of this immigration has grown sharply in the three years since Pérez wrote. At present, the Spanish population has grown at Third World War to reach a total of 44.5 million including 3.7 million immigrants, 8.5% of the population. Although different sources disagree on the national origins of this immigrant population often conflict subtly (1, 2, 3), they agree that there are a half-million each of Moroccans and Ecuadoreans, followed by Romanians and Colombians, and then by a long list of migrants from outside the First World coming from countries as diverse as China, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and the Philippines. The result? The International News Alliance recently featured an article translated from El Pais.

At the beginning of the decade, demographers calculated there would be a stagnation, followed by a regression, in the growth of the Spanish population, which would not exceed 41 million people in the year 2050. The recent acceleration of the influx of immigrants has been the reason why the latest figures show a Spanish population of 44 million: 3.6 million more than in 2000. In 2004, the last year whose figures have been collated, the population grew by 900,000 people, 700,000 of whom were born outside Spain: 23 percent more than the previous year.

The result is that Spain, which used to have one of the lowest percentages of immigrants among the EU countries (two percent in 1998), now has the fourth highest, at 8.5 percent. Until not long ago, data on immigration was often received with alarm, underlining only the potential risks, especially if the economic situation ceased to be buoyant. Now the accent is more on the energizing effects it has on economic growth, as well as on the rejuvenation of the population pyramid, which moderates the previous trend to a rising percentage of inactive citizens. The change in the panorama is complemented by a higher birth rate among immigrants than Spaniards.

[. . .]

We are looking at a phenomenon comparable to the demographic change caused, first about 1900 and then after 1950, by internal migration from rural, agrarian Spain to the industrialized regions, headed by Catalonia, the Basque Country and Madrid. The difference is that in those days most of the immigrants shared the religion, language and customs of the people in the receptor regions, while they now come from very diverse countries and cultures – posing integration problems. Moroccans, followed by Ecuadorans, are the biggest immigrant communities, at about half a million each. But one novelty is immigration from Eastern Europe, especially Romanians, who number more than 300,000.

No, Spain is not becoming Islamized, save in the sense that in a decade’s time it will have a community of a million or so people of Moroccan background who will be at least nominally Muslim by religion, and that–judging by developments in the whole of the Maghreb–these immigrants will become parents to proportionally only slightly more children than their non-Muslim counterparts. Long a multinational state, Spain is now a melting pot in the bargain. This will be interesting.

Within the space of a decade, Spain’s population composition has changed radically thanks to a population increase of almost 10%. No one saw this wave coming, but this came nonetheless and transformed things radically. Given this single compelling example, it seems if nothing else prudent not to trace out population curves out to infinity.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2006 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Assorted