A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for August 2006

[URBAN NOTE] More on the Minsker Synagogue

Kensington Market‘s Minsker Synagogue has suffered, on top of a long-term trend for Jews to move north along the Bathurst Corridor, the after-effects of a disastrous 2002 fire. Today’s Toronto Star paints a hopeful picture for the synagogue’s revival under the tenure of Cleveland-born rabbi Shmuel Spero.

Inside the synagogue, with its creaking floors, wooden pews and stained glass windows, Spero has gathered an eclectic bunch. Young and old. Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Rich and poor. They’re all a part of this congregation.

Spero wanted to work at Anshei Minsk for one reason. “I liked the idea of involvement in Jewish outreach in a downtown setting.”

Outreach means helping urban Jews become more connected to their religion. More than 100 Jews have started observing the Sabbath since Spero joined Anshei Minsk.

But that’s only part of what outreach means to Spero. He offers counselling “for life problems,” he says.

He encourages students and out-of-town visitors to eat a meal with the congregation on Friday nights. “We had people from the AIDS conference here,” he says.

He also welcomes homeless Jews to participate in synagogue life. “These gentlemen come and they sit with everybody else during (prayers), during classes, during meals. And they’re as much a part of the shul as anyone else,” he says, using the Yiddish word for synagogue. “It affects them. It enables them to grow as people.

“A synagogue like this has to really be a synagogue centre. A centre is a place where people feel comfortable to come for … prayer, education, and … to socialize,” he says.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2006 at 7:08 pm

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[URBAN NOTE] We all want attention

Well. This explains that toronto posting.

A section of downtown Toronto shut down amid a bomb scare this afternoon will reopen around 4:45 p.m., police said.

The incident occurred when a man enetered a cab and said he had a bomb.

The Emergency Task Force, bomb disposal unit and trained negotiators attended the scene at Bloor and St. George Sts., where the man remained in the cab from about 1:40 p.m., said Staff Sgt. Kevin Suddes.

“We have a report form a cab driver that picked up a fare (that) a male adult in the taxi said to him that he had a type of bomb,” said Suddes. “The taxi driver parked the taxi cab and then called 911.”

The taxi driver was no longer in the cab, Suddes said. The type of bomb the man said he has was unknown.

Bloor St. was evacuated and blocked off to traffic in all directions at St. George as trained negotiators talk with the man in the cab, Suddes said.
The man was eventually taken to hospital and there was no bomb, police said.

When I passed by at 4:30, the taxi cab in question was still hitched to a police tow truck, and yellow police tape and onlookers abounded.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2006 at 6:55 pm

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[URBAN NOTE] Bay Street

Last night, I went with the boyfrend on an enjoyable walk about Bay Street, Toronto’s financial district, heading at least as far as the famous intersection of Bay and King that’s the effective capital of Canada’s banking industry. Many enjoyable things were done, including catching elephants visiting their watering hole and racing chairs down the platform of King subway station.

Spontaneity works quite nicely, I’ve discovered.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2006 at 3:29 pm

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On those messages from the heavens

The problem with Dr. Paul LaViolette‘s recent book Decoding the Message of the Pulsars: Intelligent Communication from the Galaxy is that it’s so compelling. Might pulsars in fact be actively manipulated extraterrestral communications beacons? This might be so.

While scientists continue to work on the complex and perplexing mechanics of pulsars, most of them are not inclined to view them as potential alien transmission devices. The broader scientific community does however support the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) initiative. The support that SETI enjoys is likely due to the fact that it represents something of an agnostic view of ET. Its primary goal is to detect signs of intelligent alien life, scanning the skies for electromagnetic waves in the hope that we can pick-up the signals of an alien civilization within our giant galaxy. But this method is riddled with difficulties and assumptions about the aliens themselves. For instance, there are the impracticalities of transmitting radio signals due to the power required to send a signal over vast distances, as well as determining what frequency to use. And just what are we supposed to be listening for exactly? And as for the aliens, assumptions abound! Their technologies would need to be relatively comparable to our own. They would also need to be living in a time period coinciding with our own civilization’s existence – a big ask, considering the age of the universe compared with the age of humanity. And these aren’t the only assumptions and limitations associated with the SETI project, but they’re enough to give you an idea of the difficulties involved.

The idea that pulsars are an alien engineered form of galactic communication isn’t greeted with much enthusiasm by the scientific mainstream. But scientific uber-maverick Paul LaViolette, author of The Talk Of The Galaxy, who has a background in astronomy, climatology, and systems theory, claims that the more we learn about pulsar signals, the more mystifying they become. Some of this strange behavior includes the intricacies of pulse sequencing observed by researchers that cannot yet be accounted for. Part of the problem may lie in the fact that observations of pulsars do not coincide with the models we’ve created. Astrophysicist Gerry Zeitlin, an advocate of LaViolette’s work and firm believer in the status of pulsars as communication beacons, states that: “Out of some twenty different proposed theoretical models of possible sources of these pulsing signals, astronomers settled on the ‘neutron star lighthouse’ put forward by Thomas Gold in 1968.” If LaViolette is correct in his idea that pulsars are galactic markers created by an alien civilization, then this analogy of pulsars as lighthouses, at least functionally, may not have been far off the mark.

I altogether lack the scientific training to be able to independently evaluate LaViolette’s claims. I was skeptical of the sorts of people and publishers praising the book, but that was unfair. My internal alarms were turned on definitely only when he began talking about the structural similarities between pulsar distribution and crop circles, and about the “Mylar mirrors” that famous French ufologist Jacques Vallée was reputedly kept from talking about. Um, yes.

The merits of LaViolette’s arguments have been widely questioned, with a seeming consensus that LaViolette is a classic example of a pseudoscientist. This, the considered evaluation and dismissal of a certain set of arguments made badly, is a good thing.

Well, mostly. LaViolette seems to be the most visible person making claims about pulsars and SETI, and I worry whether LaViolette’s lack of credibility will unfairly colour people’s judgements as to the overall plausibility of possible SETI-pulsar connections. I’d be rather surprised if there were actual connections between extraterrestrial civilizations and pulsars, but it seems at least superficially possible that one might exist elsewhere without having to throw in galactic civilizations of unmatched power sending secret messages to Earth that get intercepted by shadowy government agencies. Perhaps I’m being premature, but these vast networks never sounded plausible even when I liked watching The X-Files.

Why is it that these possibilities attract the same sorts of people as these conspiracies?

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2006 at 1:25 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Not this sort of apocalypse, at least

Gamma ray bursts were first detected by the American Vela satellites, deployed in Earth orbit in the 1960s to detect nuclear weapons explosions on Earth. Bursts astonished astronomers of the time by their sheer power: the most powerful bursts manage to convert nearly a Solar mass into gamma rays in the space of a few seconds. Current astronomical theories suggest that gamma-ray bursts are product either of the collapse of supermassive Wolf-Rayet stars into black holes or of the collisions of two neutron stars orbiting in a binary.

Gamma-ray bursts are relevant to people on Earth because of their exceptional power. The brightest gamma-ray bursts, GRB 990123, was briefly as bright as Neptune despite being roughly twenty trillion times as far away from Earth. That gamma-ray burst took place 9.6 billion light years away. A less powerful burst has been proposed several years ago as the cause of the Ordovician mass exintction 443 million years ago. If, for whatever reason, that gamma ray burster had been stronger, Earth almost certainly would have been sterilized. Might bursts, some wonder, explain the apparent and mysterious lack of extraterrestrial civilizations? (And what about us in the future?)

Fortunately it seems that we don’t have to worry about death coming from the stars in that way. Via alexpgp, Space Daily reports that we in the Milky Way Galaxy seem to be safe. Maturity counts for much.

Reporting in the May 10 online issue of Nature, a team of astronomers said they analyzed 42 long-duration GRBs – those lasting more than two seconds – using the Hubble Space Telescope. They discovered that the galaxies in which the bursts originated tended to be small, faint and misshapen. Only one burst occurred in a large spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way.

In contrast, supernovae – also the result of collapsing massive stars – were found in Milky Way-sized spiral galaxies roughly half of the time.

The results indicate GRBs form only in very specific environments, which tend to be different from those found in the Milky Way.

“Their occurrence in small irregulars implies that only stars that lack heavy chemical elements (elements heavier than hydrogen and helium) tend to produce long-duration GRBs,” said lead author Andrew Fruchter of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

This means long bursts occurred more often in the past when galaxies did not have a large supply of heavy elements.

Galaxies build up a stockpile of heavier chemical elements through the ongoing evolution of successive generations of stars. Early generation stars formed before heavier elements were abundant in the universe.

The astronomers also found the locations of GRBs differed from the locations of supernovae – which occur much more frequently. The GRBs were far more concentrated in the brightest regions of their host galaxies, where the most massive stars reside. Supernovae, on the other hand, seem to occur throughout galaxies.

“The discovery that long-duration GRBs lie in the brightest regions of their host galaxies suggests that they come from the most massive stars – perhaps 20 or more times as massive as our Sun,” said co-author Andrew Levan of the University of Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom.

Massive stars abundant in heavy elements are unlikely to trigger GRBs, because they may lose too much material through stellar winds emanating from their surfaces before they collapse and explode. When this happens, the stars retain too little mass to produce a black hole, a necessary condition to trigger a GRB.

I’d much prefer for there not to be any anomalous Wolf-Rayet stars or neutron stars on collision course hidden in the centre of our Galaxy. There aren’t any, of course. Right?

Written by Randy McDonald

August 31, 2006 at 12:25 pm

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[POLL] Will Belgium last?

From United Press International, hyperlinks within added by me:

The political leader of Flanders says Belgium is an “accident of history” and only its king, soccer and beer have any value.

The Telegraph reported that Yves Leterme started a brouhaha when he made the comments about a nation that is increasingly divided between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north, and the French-speaking [Walloon] south, with Brussels as a bilingual international city in the middle.

The Telegraph said Leterme sniped that years of devolution had eroded the kingdom to the point where Belgium “now amounted to nothing more than the king, the national football team and certain brands of beer.”

He added that the 175-year-old Belgian nation was “an accident of history with no intrinsic value.” The country was created in 1830 when southern provinces broke away from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Strictly speaking, Leterne is of course correct. The Belgian state can trace its ancestry back centuries, at least as far back as to the Hapsburg Netherlands and before that to the lands of the Burgundians, even (if you want) back to the Celtic Belgae. That said, Belgium is very much a product of contingent circumstances. Even as late as the 1830 Belgian Revolution, things could have gone differently: the France of Louis Philippe might have managed to partition the Netherlands’ southern provinces with Prussia and the rump Netherlandic state, or the Belgians might have been able to take Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and the modern Grand Duchy of Luxembourg from the Dutch state, or the Dutch might have managed to reconquer their southern provinces. The ten-province, three-language, three-region Belgian state that exists now is very much a product of generations of constant effort.

It may all come to naught. The major problem facing the Belgian state is the confrontation between the self-governing regions of Flanders and Wallonia. The gallicization of Brussels and the growth of Francophone communities in Brussels’ periphery is an issue of note, as is the dependence of the post-industrial economy of Wallonia on massive transfers from Flanders, as is the growth of Flemish nationalism. Little unites Belgium’s peoples, and much divides them.

Flanders and Québec are roughly of a size, but the Flemish–most unlike the Québécois in Canada–form a majority of Belgium’s population. If, frustrated, they opted for independence, the viability of a rump Wallobrux state consisting of Wallonia and Brussels is eminently open to doubt. The rattachistes favouring the annexation of Francophone Belgium would be happy. (I’ve heard little said of the likely French attitude towards the annexation of economically troubled areas with a total population. France doesn’t need an East Germany, not in its present state. Might it want one? Different story.)

I’m agnostic on the question. My readers, now, likely are not. At least three are living in Belgium right now. I’ll throw the floor open to all of you: A poll!

Written by Randy McDonald

August 30, 2006 at 6:57 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Who do you talk with?

Last week, Canadian Conservative parliamentarian Jason Kenney attacked opposition MPs who visited Lebanon and suggested that negotiations should be opened by Hezbollah. After comparing Hezbollah to the Nazi Party, Kenney denounced their bias.

“Their idea of a balanced approach is one where Israel is always wrong,” Kenney said at the press conference. “This represents a totally irresponsible approach to foreign security policy.”

More recently, it has come out that Kenney delivered a speech at a rally organized by the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq.

Conservative MP Jason Kenney is coming under scrutiny for his appearance at a rally organized by supporters of a banned terrorist organization.

This comes two days after Kenney, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, condemned fellow parliamentarians for their comments about another terror group.

A photograph of Kenney at an April rally, organized by the Committee in Defense of Human Rights in Iran, appears on the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the Toronto Star reported Thursday.

The council is the political wing of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which is one of the names used by the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq.

The Mujaheedin-e-Khalq is an armed Iranian rebel group formally designated as a terror group by the governments of Canada, the United States and the European Union.

After being expelled from Iran by the young Islamic Republic, the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq went on to ally itself with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, staging attacks on Iran in conjunction with Iraqi forces and then, after it was easily fought off, establishing training camps in Iraq that did double duty as prison camps for dissidents within the movement. Many American neoconservatives wanted to cultivate the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq as an alternative government for Iran, proving the truth that you shall know them by their works. The best thing that can be said about a Mujaheedin-e-Khalq government in Iran, at least after reading the relevant reports from Human Rights Watch and other organizations, is that it would collapse quickly, long before it could ensure that everyone received their special Kool-Aid rations.

What’s the difference between the two movements? The Mujaheedin-e-Khalq is a terrorist group with a vile ideology with no influence on the ground; Hezbollah is a terrorist group with a vile ideology with plenty of influence on the ground. Talking to the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq yields nothing since the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq can provide nothing. Talking to Hezbollah, however unpleasant a task, can yield quite a bit. If North Korea is a plausible diplomatic actor, after all … But then, ideology always obstructs vision, doesn’t it?

Written by Randy McDonald

August 30, 2006 at 6:00 pm

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[REVIEW] Paul Monette, Borrowed Time

Paul Monette‘s 1988 Borrowed Time, a memoir of the last years that he spent with his partner Roger Horwitz before the latter’s death from AIDS, is typically cited as one of the most important works in early HIV/AIDS literature. Certainly it’s a well-written book, and certainly it’s a sad book, but for the longest time it confused me as to why this is the only book from that literature from that time that makes me cry. Then I remembered Margo Lanagan and her masterly “Singing My Sister Down”, and realized that Monette manages to capture the terrible pain of a prolonged departure so masterly. Reading Borrowed Time, one follows Monette as he gets used to having less and less of Horwitz as his AIDS progressed, eventually retreating, attenuated, to the margins of consciousness. Still, even at the end when Horwitz was about to pass, there was still so much of him there, that the moment of final separation is unbearable.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 30, 2006 at 2:53 pm

[MUSIC] Jessica Simpson

I’ve heard Jessica Simpsons’ latest album. All that I can say about it, and all that you need to know about it, is that she never should have covered “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”. It’s just one of those things.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 30, 2006 at 2:39 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] It’s a new age

Sunday evening, as I mentioned in my previous post, I hung out with heraclitus for the first time in six months. Fun was most certainly had, talking about a whole variety of topics. Most of these topics seemed to relate in one way or another to the ways in which communities manage to constitute themselves, in both the ancient and modern worlds (Greek age-related homosexuality, for instance). Overall, our conclusions were pessimistic; it wasn’t coincidental that that very day, Henry Giroux‘s article in the Sunday Star, “The politics of disposability” was published, talking about the biopower in the modern United States.

With its pathological disdain for social values and public life, and its celebration of an unbridled individualism and acquisitiveness, the Bush administration does more than undermine the nature of social obligation and civic responsibility; it also sends a message to unwanted populations: Society neither wants, cares about, or needs you. Katrina revealed with startling and disturbing clarity who these unwanted are: African-Americans who occupy the poorest sections of New Orleans, those ghettoized frontier zones created by racism coupled with economic inequality. Cut out of any long-term goals and a decent vision of the future, these are the populations, as Bauman points out, who have been rendered redundant and disposable in the age of neoliberal global capitalism.

Katrina reveals that we are living in dark times. One of its most obvious lessons — that race and racism still matter in America — is fully operational through a biopolitics not unlike the kind described by scholar Achille Mbembe as “necropolitics,” in which “sovereignty resides in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who may die.” Those poor minorities of colour and class, unable to contribute to the prevailing consumerist ethic, are vanishing into the sinkhole of poverty in desolate and abandoned enclaves of decaying cities and rural spaces, or in America’s ever-expanding prison empire.

Not that the United States is that distinct, not in the context of growing hysterical anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, say, or in the ability of Estonians to tolerate HIV so long as it’s concentrated among Russophones, or in the disposability of the Chinese peasantry, or in the many, many other ways in which people nowadays are willing to overlook wrongs done to others so long as these others are inconvenient. If they disappear, well, who’ll notice? I can only hope that Canada won’t succumb; hope, mind, not believe with any degree of wholeheartedness.

“Oh, you little sick little fucks,” as Tori Amos sang back in the innocent days of 2001 on Strange Little Girls, that album presciently released on the 17th of September of that year, “yes, it’s the beginning of the new age.”

Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2006 at 11:58 pm

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