A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for November 2007

[URBAN NOTE] Thórarinn Ingi Jónsson, idiot

Thórarinn Ingi Jónsson, an Icelandic student at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design, has recently managed to get himself into quite a bit of trouble thanks to an “art project” that went horribly wrong, as Iceland Review explains.

Icelandic art student Thórarinn Ingi Jónsson caused quite a fuss in downtown Toronto this week when he left a phony bomb in an art gallery as part of an art project. The gallery was cleared and police closed streets in the city center.

“I created a sculpture from wood and paint that looked like a bomb at first glance. I then recorded two videos on a cell phone that show a blast,” Jónsson, who is studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, told Fréttabladid.

“The day I was supposed to show my final project I went to the gallery and placed the sculpture next to a bench with a note saying it wasn’t a bomb,” Jónsson continued. Then he went back to his class to show his artwork and only found out later how much trouble it had caused.

“I haven’t heard from the police but I spoke to the college’s lawyer before I started making the artwork,” Jónsson said, adding the Canadian media has been rather negative towards his work, saying it can hardly be categorized as art.

Jónsson is not bothered by the negative coverage. He explained his work was inspired by Marcel Duchamp who placed a toilet in an art gallery. Jónsson said his work is also a reference to modern times.

“This wouldn’t have been such a big deal before September 11, 2001. Everything has changed since then. The timing of the work is therefore important,” Jónsson concluded.

In an interview with Torontoist, Jónsson further explained his actions.

Yesterday at about 4 p.m., Jonsson walked into the ROM with the fake bomb inside a bag. Attached to the bomb was a note that read “This is not a bomb.” Jonsson thought that the note meant he wasn’t breaking the law: he had been advised by an OCAD Student Union lawyer before installing the piece, he says, against spreading false news, and told that he should not attempt to deceive people about the bomb’s legitimacy. (That’s why, for instance, one of the descriptions for the videos he later uploaded read: “Fake footage of the fake bombing at the Royal Ontario Museum capturing the fake moment of impact.”) Though Jonsson intended to leave the pipe bomb outside of the bag out in the open in a “noticeable spot,” “almost like a presentation,” he says there were “too many people around,” and he decided to keep the sculpture inside the bag, placing it on the right-hand side of the ROM’s Bloor Street entrance with the declarative note visible on top.

“I went a bit down the street, as soon as I came out of the gathering,” he told us, “and I dialed up the ROM and they asked for an extension and I hadn’t really thought that far, so I typed in some random last name and I ended up reaching some girl at some office at the ROM and I simply told her: ‘Listen there’s no bomb by the entrance to the museum,’ and then I hung up.”

Jonsson went straight from the ROM back to school for 5 p.m. to give his presentation of his final piece, where he “revealed the extent of the project.” People in his class, he says “were really impressed with the extent I went to.” Worried that there was a possibility of legal action, he hadn’t told his professors about the piece until the night it was installed.

When Jonsson got back home, he uploaded the videos he’d recorded earlier that day to YouTube (to an account that featured other videos––like the one of Osama Bin Laden on the roof of the World Trace Center watching as hearts pour out of the building and Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me” plays––that Jonsson says are “completely unrelated”). Then, he e-mailed the addresses of them to several news organizations.

“I didn’t really expect it go so crazy.”

Unfortunately for him, quite apart from forcing the cancellation of a CanFAR AIDS fundraiser that was being held at the Royal Ontario Museum that night, it looks like he has indeed managed to get himself into quite a bit of trouble.

Jonsson, a third-year student at the Ontario College of Art and Design, was released after $33,000 was posted as a cash bond by three separate sureties. Jonsson is an Icelandic citizen and must surrender his passport to police within 24 hours of his release and reside with one of the sureties, who is a clinical psychologist and friend of the family living in downtown Toronto.

[. . .]

Toronto Police Det. Leslie Dunkley said the criminal charges Jonsson faces could land him up to four years in prison, if he’s convicted.

“It’s a very serious offence,” Dunkley said. “We take it seriously and we don’t want to encourage it.”

The judge imposed a publication ban on evidence presented at the bail hearing Friday morning.

As part of his conditions of release, Jonsson must also stay away from the ROM property, he cannot possess any explosive devices or imitations of explosive devices, he cannot possess illegal weapons and he must go to counselling as directed by his surety. One of the sureties, the wife of a retired Honorary Council of Iceland, posted $25,000 of the total.

The very best that can be said for Jónsson is that at least he wasn’t into the sort of performance art that involved joking to airport security in the United States about his shoe bombs, and that Canada lacks a Guantanamo. (I’m honestly just a bit unsure as to whether the last might be a bad thing in this case.)

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2007 at 4:57 pm

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[URBAN NOTE] They had to fall

Light flakes of snow, falling slowly, greeted me as I left my apartment. I understand that the snowfall was heavier later in the afternoon, but I think that the snow has stopped and suspect that, unlike last week’s dusting, this snowfall might stay. It looks like my part of the northern hemisphere is finally on the wrong side of the solar system’s snow line again.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2007 at 4:49 pm

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[LINK] Some Friday links

  • Over at Alpha Sources, Claus Vistesen argues that recent trends in trade and currency fluctuations suggest that Europe and Japan won’t be able to replace the United States as the engines of the world economy. Instead, emerging economies of note like the BRIC countries and others like Turkey may take up that role.
  • Meph at ‘Aqoul places the Gibbons affair in the context of class and religious tensions in Sudan, arguing that the teddy bear charges constituted an attempt to mobilize international Muslim solidarity behind Sudan and strike a blow at ideologically-suspect upper classes. This failed, badly: “[T]the real perception is of a joke of a regime that really has no perspective. The frustrating thing is that in the absence of a closer examination of the aforementioned issues, Muslims are being portrayed as primitive grunting zealots. Again.”
  • Cabalamat’s Phil Hunt goes after the eminently go-afterable Melanie Phillips. If only she was consistent in her claims and actions.
  • Via Boingboing, news from Andrew Stroehlein at ReutersNet that the Chinese are very unhappy with the treatment of the teddy bear in the Gibbons affair, who is apparently a native of Guangzhou.

Condemnation also came from countries that have traditionally been closer to Khartoum in the recent past. After mass protests in Beijing in which the Sudanese flag was burned, China recalled its ambassador to Khartoum, and its foreign ministry issued an unusually harsh statement.

“This bear was born in Guangzhou, and we consider the actions of the Sudanese government an attack on all Chinese plush toys”, it read. “The teddy bear must be released unharmed immediately.”

A source within China’s permanent representation to the UN, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his country was drafting a new Security Council resolution that “would be so tough, it would make the Americans and the British seem like the champions of sovereignty”. He said they wanted to give the UN/AU hybrid force for Darfur a revised mandate to “shoot anything that moves as long as it’s connected to the government.”

But a police spokesman in Khartoum defended the state’s actions, saying, “This bear has committed a most serious offence. The Sudanese government must be firm in demonstrating that it can easily divert the world’s attention away from its failure to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and its continuing instigation of devastating chaos in Darfur.

  • Centauri Dreams examines new ideas about how to manufacture working laser-launched solar sails, in the fictional tradition of Robert L. Forward.
  • Joel at Far Outliers has posted some interesting excerpts from a study on a mixed language spoken in Japan’s Bonin Islands in the generation after the Second World War.
  • The Glory of Carniola links to an amusing 1970s-vintage audio guide to Slovenia’s Postojna Cave.
  • You read Francis Strand’s How to read Swedish in 1000 difficult lessons, right? Good for you!
  • Via Joe.My.God, news that US GLBT television broadcaster Logo is broadcasting a new reality dating show featuring MTF transsexual Calpernia Addams
  • At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum condemns the Sudanese government’s misuse of language in the Gibbons affiar, while Bill Poser points out that Muhammud and its variants, while commonly used as personal names throughout the Muslim world, aren’t used in Turkey.
  • Alex Tabarrok posts a libertarian argument in favour of treating marriage like any other contract, in a return to what he identifies as the traditional pre-19th century view of marriage.
  • Norman Geras touches upon the time-honoured question of how diasporas should relate to parent states in his criticism of the Israeli plan to recruit Soviet Jewish immigrants from Germany in order to avoid said immigrants’ assimilation: “The encouragement of Jewish immigration to Israel shouldn’t be undertaken in a spirit that would treat Jewish life elsewhere as intrinsically problematic.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2007 at 9:45 am

[BRIEF NOTE] The Gillian Gibbons case

The ongoing international drama about British teacher Gillian Gibbons, arrested in Sudan after she let her pupils give a class teddy bear the name “Muhammad,” began innocently enough.

Gibbons, who joined Unity in August, asked the class of mostly seven-year-olds to name the toy.

“They came up with eight names including Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad. Then she explained what it meant to vote and asked them to choose the name.” Twenty out of the 23 children chose Muhammad.

Each child was allowed to take the bear home at weekends and was told to write a diary about what he or she did with the toy. The entries were collected in a book with a picture of the bear on the cover, next to the message “My name is Muhammad,” said Boulos.

Boulos said the first he knew about the course was last week when he received a phone call from the ministry of education, saying a number of Muslim parents had made formal complaints.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Khartoum said it was still unclear whether Gibbons had been formally charged. “We are following it up with the authorities and trying to meet her in person,” he said.

Boulos said he had decided to close down the school until January for fear of reprisals in Sudan’s predominantly Muslim capital. “This is a very sensitive issue,” he said.

“We are very worried about her safety,” he added. “This was a completely innocent mistake. Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam.”

Unity, an independent school founded in 1902, is governed by a board representing the main Christian denominations in Sudan but teaches both Christians and Muslims aged four to 18.

It has managed to escalate quite significantly since then, as a cursory scan of news sources (1, 2, 3) shows. It’s well-known that names have power, but as Christopher House points out in his blog at The Telegraph, the different language communities around the world have different taboos around naming–the personal Jesus might well seem odd in the Anglophone world, perhaps like Chris in the Hispanophone world.

Even so, the scale of the reaction seems odd–it’s hard to imagine how a teddy bear named by children could cause such a level of offense. How could this happen? Jon Brown at the Liverpool Echo explains much of this in the context of the politicized nature of religion in Sudanese society..

[R]eligion is a battleground in Sudan.

It is the fuel that sustained a long-running civil war between the ruling Muslim Arab elite in the north and the largely Christian African rebels of the south. It can also be a flag of convenience for those seeking advantage over political or tribal foes.

So perceived insults to the faith and the Prophet Mohammed can be exploited as weapons in the always-simmering cauldron of Sudanese politics, while religious fervour may be brandished as a symbol of political allegiance as well as one of faith.

Gillian Gibbons’ only error, I suspect, was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and to be caught up in a wider, more dangerous game of jockeying for power.

That’s not to say that there wouldn’t have been Muslims genuinely offended by her actions.

But nothing in Sudan is ever quite what it seems.

I think that Brown’s explanation can be extended further, to a global scale, to explain the divide that seems to be emerging between the self-identified West and the self-identified Islamic world. We can have grand civilizational clashes of in true Huntingtonian style, but we can have them only if we want to. Little things, sufficiently magnified out of proportion by political authorities and media alike, can help create the preconditions for a much broader confrontation. After all, in Yugoslavia, all that it took was one soccer riot in Zagreb to push Serbia and Croatia towards war one year later. What will happen to Gibbons? And what will happen after her?

In the meantime, the reaction from the Sudanese themselves to this, the latest of their government’s many missteps, seems to be that the government has wildly overreacted to a simple mistake by someone unfamiliar with Sudanese culture. One can only hope that the comment made by a Sudanese commenter at a pro-Gibbons Facebook group will be taken as the final word by all this.

“The worst part, by far, is that neither we nor the media are able to shrug this off for the foolishness that it is and insist on making a mountain out of a molehill,” posts Hatim Yahia.

“Let’s see, on the one hand we have global warming, continuing poverty, HIV, famine, war and generally death in all forms, but no we’d rather talk about this lunacy instead.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2007 at 11:59 pm

[LINK] How do the candidates rate?

Once, someone at the group blog Postive Liberty–I think it was Jason Kuznicki–wrote about the problems associated with the involvement of foreigners in American domestic politics, this involvement being motivated by the United States’ extensive if n ot overwhelming presence in so much of the wider world. Sometimes this involvement can produce disastrous consequences, as the possibly disastrous effect of The Guardian‘s anti-Bush campaign in Ohio shows. The only thing that I qualified in saying–indeed, safe in saying–is that future American administrations should have as little influence from post-Trotskyites neoconservatives as possible. (Hail President Clinton?)

Well, that and that Elf Sternberg’s presidential candidate website survey is hilarious. “John McCain. Bold. Maverick. Black. With a none-to-subtle silver star in a mililtaresque wingding. Lots of blue, not a lot of red. Good Web 2.0 sensibilities where needed, limited flash, reliable javascript. A thoroughly solid website, but weak on the jingoism we’ve come to expect from McCain. Is this man not a true American? Still, I like the site, even if it doesn’t look campaign-y.”

Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2007 at 11:48 pm

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[MUSIC] Metric, “Dead Disco” (Kylie Kills Remix)

The below fan remix video of Canadian indie rock band Metric‘s single “Dead Disco” appeals to me, not only for the faintly mournful yet danceable musical Kylie Kills remix but because the video’s creator managed to match the song up with a Finnish disco dancing instructional video quite effectively.

I don’t know for certain what the song is actually about–“Dead Disco”‘s lyrics are, like most Metric lyrics somewhat cryptic–but I’m guessing it’s about resignation to the impossibility of radical change or innovation in a world where everything has been done.

Skip town. slow down
Push it to the east coast
Step down turn around
Push it to the west
Need less, use less
We’re asking for too much I guess
Cause all we get is…

Dead disco
Dead funk
Dead rock and roll
Everything has been done
La la la la la la la la la la

Granted that the lyrics are kind of depressing, they don’t interfere with the music of with this remix (and the original song, of course). I can easily imagine it to be a good come-down song, the sort that a DJ might play at teh end of a set when the club’s about to close down and everyone’s tired.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2007 at 5:44 pm

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[LINK] “The political economy of Myanmar/Burma”

Over at 1948, Nicholas takes a look at the Burmese political situation in his ongoing series, “The political economy of Myanmar/Burma” (1, 2). He concludes that given the problematic nature of both military intervention and sanctions, a “policy of economic engagement seems like the most reasonable course of action, backed up with strong targeted political sanctions.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 27, 2007 at 7:03 pm

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[URBAN NOTE] It must have been love

While in the Mappins jewellery store in the Scarborough Town Centre, I heard a saleswoman and the male half of a couple talking while the female half walked away.

– Are you interested in that ring?

– I’d like to have it but no one loves me enough.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 27, 2007 at 6:55 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Mehrnoushe Solouki

While listening to the CBC Radio program Q yesterday afternoon, I learned about the case of Mehrnoushe Solouki. Ms. Soulouki, as it turns out, is a permanent resident of Canada, a dual citizen of France and Iran, a filmmaker student at the Université de Québec, and a detainee in Tehran who is in pre-trial detention on charges of making anti-regime propaganda. The story that she told Q‘s host Jian Ghomeshi on yesterday’s broadcast dovetails completely with Radio Free Europe’s report.

It all began in December 2006. Solouki arrived in Iran to film a documentary about the burial traditions of Iran’s religious minority communities, such as Armenian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.

Solouki says the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance granted her a research license. She says the authorities were told in advance of the locations where she wanted to film, and that they were aware that the subject dealt with the cemeteries of Iranian minorities.

The authorities therefore had prior knowledge of her planned activities — they were not taken by surprise. “The bureau in charge of minorities affairs at the Culture Ministry coordinated all this,” Solouki said. “[By that] I mean coordination between the ministry’s press office and its minorities bureau.”

But while filming, Solouki says she stumbled on an area at the Khavaran Cemetery on Tehran’s outskirts that caught her attention. She described it as “totally different” from the other parts she had filmed. Asked whether she was referring to a mass grave of people summarily executed in 1988, she said, “Yes.”

How many people were buried there has never been established. However, estimates by Iranians and outsiders generally point to more than 2,800 killed, with their bodies buried in different areas around the country, not just the Khavaran Cemetery. Most were opposition leftists and mujahedin members taken from jail and summarily executed. Solouki says the authorities may believe that she intended to make a film critical of the mass executions, which took place in the summer and fall of 1988.

On February 17, police stormed Solouki’s residence in Tehran and arrested her, saying they had learned that she had filmed the mass graves. Solouki says her documentary at the time had yet to be filmed, and that none of the equipment seized from her gave any indication of the film’s content. So she is accused, she says, of harboring “presumed intentions” to produce antiestablishment propaganda.

Her interview left me with the decided impression that she was quite brave in wanting to reveal this past atrocity of the Iranian regime. While I mostly agree with imomus‘s opinion in his 2005 essay “You will not invade Iran” that a foreign invasion of Iran would be both a crime and a mistake, wrecking a relatively functioning society and imposing a worse tyranny on Iranians than the one they currently suffer, the Islamic Republic is still a polity marked by oppressions petty and great. It should be made to fall, certainly peacefully and by Iranians themselves.

The interview also left me with the impression that she was quite terribly naïve, both about the willingness of the Iranian regime to have this past atrocity exposed and the ability of her French citizenship to protect her from reprisals. How could she imagine that the Iranian regime would let her film and ask questions about a mass grave containing the bodies of thousands of victims without doing something to her? Earlier in her ordeal Solouki did receive some good news, in that prison officials told her that they didn’t want a repeat of the situation of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian who was tortured to death while in custody, but that has to be counterbalanced against the news, posted on the Free Solouki weblog, that she’s currently suffering from infections secondary to wounds inflicted by a motorcyclist who ran her down.

The Islamic Republic needs living Iranians to challenge it. Iran doesn’t need more martyrs. Here’s to hoping that, despite her best efforts, Solouki won’t become one of the latter.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 27, 2007 at 6:40 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Canadian football and Canadian nationalism

This weekend, the Canadian Football League Grey Cup is taking place in Toronto, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers face off in the Rogers Centre, formerly known as the Skydome. It goes without saying that this, the penultimate event of Canadian-rules football is a fairly huge sporting event, even though Toronto’s not that much of a football town. That’s part of the reason why it’s a minor irony that, as people in Buffalo quite fear, the owner of the Buffalo Bills might sell the team to investors who’ll set that team up in Toronto. Certainly, that’s a possibility that wouldn’t surprise the CFL’s commissioner.

“All of the tea leaves are indicating that it’s shifting,” [CFL commissioner Mark] Cohon said Friday in his state of the league address during Grey Cup week in Toronto. “You have guys like Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum and Phil Lind, very powerful Canadians who are interested, you have an owner Ralph Wilson in Buffalo who has said, ‘When I die, my estate will sell the franchise,’ [and] you have the Bills interested in marking Toronto as part of their territory.”

“I’m not sticking my head in the sand. That would be the worst thing for the CFL commissioner to do. So I think there’s a real potential.”

Cohon’s comments mark the first time the CFL has taken such a definitive stance on the issue.

The commissioner also said an NFL team in Toronto would threaten the CFL in southern Ontario, a key region for the league.

Cohon hopes that should the NFL bring a team north, it will do so in partnership with the CFL.

The NFL’s Buffalo Bills announced in October that they are seeking approval to play one pre-season game and at least another regular-season contest at the Rogers Centre in Toronto as part of the team’s plan to develop its market outside western New York.

The move sparked speculation that the Bills are eyeing Toronto as a potential permanent home in the future. But the team remains adamant that its plan to play in Toronto is not the first step in relocating north of the border.

As Cohon warns, a Toronto Bills team might well take market share away from the Toronto Argonauts, with serious implications for the two teams’ viability. That might be why Torontonians don’t seem very enthusiastic about this possibility–it turns out that Canadian-rules football and the CFL are seen by many Canadians as a non-trivial marker of Canadian identity.

It has long been believed that what defined the CFL to most people was the distinctiveness of its rules when compared with the American four-down variety. Instead, the CFL’s most compelling quality seems to be rooted in its identity and the notion that being a CFL fan or supporter is in some small way an expression of being Canadian.

Football is unique as the only sport defined so clearly as either Canadian or American by its rules and the history of two games that have evolved separately. That history, along with the CFL’s rivalries and its regional representation, seems to resonate most with fans.

“An institution like the CFL is unique,” said Steve Bunn, a doctorate history student at York University and devout member of argos-suck.com, a website for Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans. “There is, of course, [NHL] hockey, but the Americanization of that is well known. In regard to finding anything comparable to the CFL in Canada as a Canadian cultural and historical institution, you have to go outside sport and look at something like the Hudson’s Bay Co. Like the CFL, it’s something that in its best years turned a meagre profit, but the value of it isn’t measured in dollars.”

I don’t pretend to know how this story will resolve itself. Maybe the Bills will move north; maybe Toronto will set up its own NFL team; maybe the NFL will stay in the United States. This news story is interesting inasmuch as it illustrates the serious tensions which exist between the two realities of Toronto’s increasing embeddedness at the heart of a sort of eastern Great Lakes conglomeration of metropolises and Toronto’s confirmed Canadian identity. Which strand of identity will give way first?

Written by Randy McDonald

November 24, 2007 at 1:27 pm

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