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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for March 2008

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] If only all terrorists were like Canada’s terrorists

The accused in the 2006 Toronto terrorism conspiracy are about to face trial.

These 18 very unfortunate young men are certain to face an uphill battle, what with one accused being quoted (on audio and video tape recordings gathered by informants and police) as hoping for a series of terrorist attacks on a “much much greater on a scale [than the 2005 London subway bombings]…you do it once and you make sure they can never recover again.” Some of the components of this spectacularly ambitious scheme include the occupation of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre headquarters in downtown Toronto, the explosion of a truck bomb in Toronto’s Bay Street financial district, at least one drive-by shooting massacre somewhere, and the occupation of the Canadian federal parliament buildings in Ottawa with the aim of holding the complex and its inhabitants hostage in exchange for the release of Muslim prisoners and a Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan. (The press reports at the time weren’t clear on whether or not the plotters planned to decapitate Prime Minister Stephen Harper from the get-go or if they wanted keep him alive as a hostage.) The new “Rome,” the released transcripts quote people as saying, needed to be destroyed at whatever the price.

This sort of radical sentiment does dovetail with quotes from news articles back when the story broke in June 2006, revealing how at least one of the wives of the accused went on the record in an online forum that she detested the country.

When it came time to write up the premarital agreement between Zakaria Amara and Nada Farooq, Ms. Farooq briefly considered adding a clause that would allow her to ask for a divorce.

She said that Mr. Amara (now accused of being a leader of the alleged terror plot that led to the arrests of 17 Muslim men early this month) had to aspire to take part in jihad.

“[And] if he ever refuses a clear opportunity to leave for jihad, then i want the choice of divorce,” she wrote in one of more than 6,000 Internet postings uncovered by The Globe and Mail.

[. . .]

Ms. Farooq’s hatred for [Canada] is palpable. She hardly ever calls Canada by its name, rather repeatedly referring to it as “this filthy country.” It’s a sentiment shared by many of her friends, one of whom states that the laws of the country are irrelevant because they are not the laws of God.

In late April of 2004, a poster asks the forum members to share their impressions of what makes Canada unique. Nada’s answer is straightforward.

“Who cares? We hate Canada.”

Despite all of these seemingly damning statements, even as the story broke fundamentalist-linked imam Aly Hindy went on the record in 2006 as saying that he thought that the plotters weren’t being serious, that they were just posing.

Aly Hindy, a hard-line Toronto-area imam who says he knows nine of the 17 alleged plotters personally, says he believes that if there was talk about a beheading plot, it was the kind of empty, though menacing, bravado that he has often seen in messages posted in radical Islamic Internet chat rooms. “I just think these people were bulls–ting,” said Hindy, who told NEWSWEEK that of the nine suspects that he knows, he believed only “two or three” may have seriously considered violence. Those two or three were much more interested, Hindy claimed, in going to a place like Afghanistan to fight jihad than launching attacks in Canada (all 17 suspects are reportedly Canadian citizens).

There might be something very little to that. The alleged conspirators organized a “training camp” in rural Ontario that, as a lawyer for one of the defendants said, was so badly organized that attendants had to use the washroom in a (stereotypically Canadian) Tim Horton’s coffee shop for want of sanitary facilities of their own. There does seem to be some uncertainty as to whether these alleged conspirators, for all their dislike of Canada and Canadian policies, were actually making plans or simply talking wildly amongst themselves, and the role of informants in leading to the arrest of these men has been questioned. Overall, these men seem to have demonstrated a very nearly funny inability to actually be competent terrorists. They weren’t even sure who the Canadian prime minister was.

Suspect X: “What happens, what happens at the Parliament?”

Suspect Y: “We go and kill everybody.”

Suspect X: “And then what?”

Suspect Z: “And then we read about it …”

Y: “We get victory!”

Z: “And take uh Paul um, what’s his name … Paul loser

Y: “Paul Martin”

X: “Yeah.”

Y: “Nah I wish he had won, guy.”

Z; “What you … What you talkin’ about?”

Y: “Now it’s the other guy. …Harper.”

Yet for all these uncertainties and all their incompetence, these men are almost certainly screwed. Deciding to attend terrorist training camps with the apparent intent of killing quite a few people is a profoundly bad and stupid thing to do at the best of times. Now? These many are lucky that Canada doesn’t have the death penalty.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 29, 2008 at 2:50 pm

[LINK] “Police Close Off Lhasa’s Muslim Quarter”

From the Associated Press “Police Close Off Lhasa’s Muslim Quarter”:

Police closed off Lhasa’s Muslim quarter on Friday, two weeks after Tibetan rioters burned down the city’s mosque during the largest anti-Chinese protests in nearly two decades.

Officers blockaded streets into the area, allowing in only area residents and worshippers observing the Muslim day of prayer. A heavy security presence continued in other parts of Lhasa’s old city as cleanup crews waded through the destruction inflicted when days of initially peaceful protests turned deadly on March 14.

It was not clear why the area was cordoned off, although rioters had targeted businesses belonging to Chinese Muslim migrants known as Hui, who control much of Lhasa’s commerce.

The Times of London, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC carry more mentions, mostly parenthetical, about recent anti-Hui violence in Tibet. As well, Alexander Berzin provides an overview of the history of Islam in Tibet, while Wikipedia provides serviceable overviews of Tibetan Muslims and Hui.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2008 at 9:14 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Chinese population futures and the economy

Over at Demography Matters, my co-bloggers Edward Hugh and Claus Vistesen have produced a couple of interesting pieces on how China’s unique demographics will impact Chinese economic growth. Edward in “China’s Inflation and Labour Shortage Problem, It’s The Fertility Stupid!” outlines how, in the face of a growing shortage of young workers with consequent rising wages feeding into price increases labour shortage, inflation is rising and might create an unmanageable situation.

Obviously China can still get considerable growth by relocating the existing workforce across sectors to more productive ones. But the end of the labour intensive low economic value growth must now surely be in sight, and the big question is can China sustain inflation-free growth of the order of magnitude we have been seeing in recent years, bearing in mind that much of the recent growth in many of the higher growth developed economies – the US, the UK, Ireland, Spain – has been very labour intensive. My feeling is that it can’t, this is why all those exhausted canaries swooning in Latvia have been so useful, and that we will see a slowdown in China which will not simply be cyclical, but rather structural. Possibly the moment of inflection (or tipping point) here will come around the time of the Olympic Games.

Elsewhere, Claus in “China’s Demography and Economic Development” examined how the cohorts of young Chinese are steadily shrinking, thanks to several decades of below-replacement fertility triggered by China’s one-child policy and the natural fertility decline evidenced by increasingly educated and urbanized populations around the world. China may be at serious risk of facing with central and eastern Europe, trying desperately to move desperately up the value chain beyond labor-intensive products while avoiding the large-scale emigration of Chinese workers to other countries. He worries that the consequences of this for the global economy could be severe given China’s very high and growing profile in the international economy.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2008 at 5:12 pm

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[LINK] Some Friday links

  • Alpha Sources’ Claus Vistesen takes a look at the parlous state of the Icelandic economy, caught–like many central European states–between “a large current account deficit coupled with high inflation at a time when the housing bubble and consumer credit boom.” Will it be a hard or a soft landing?
  • Phil Hunt at Amused Cynicism wonders why religion should be privileged over other belief systems when it comes to matters of conscience.
  • Centauri Dreams has two interesting posts on the Saturn satellite system, one on Titan’s apparent subsurface water, the other on the discovery of relatively warm water and organic compounds being emitted by Enceladus.
  • Edward Lucas compares Tibet to the Baltic States. Tibet’s biggest advantage, he argues, is that the Balts never had anyone like the Dalai Lama as their leader.
  • Invisible College defines “The Rule of Law, in a Nutshell”.
  • “Who Were the Indo-Europeans?”, Language Hat wonders. There is the non-trivial question or whether or not they existed as a group, but the comments are fun regardless of your stance.
  • Peteris Cedrins at Marginalia commemorates the 59th anniversary of the Stalinist deportations from Latvia and the other Baltic states, actions which particularly targeted the current and future leaders of those countries.
  • J. Otto Pohl links to a collection of documents recording atrocities committed against Sudeten Germans during their 1945 expulsion from Czechoslovakia.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2008 at 1:50 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Ethnic conflict and language in Taiwan

The recent Taiwanese presidential elections have ended in victory for the broadly pro-China Kuomintang party’s candidate, Ma Ying-jeou. An Asia Times article touched upon an interesting theme of ethnic conflict in Taiwan.

In perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Taiwan’s election, Ma has repeatedly said in presidential debates and other occasions that he is Taiwanese – something unusual for a president candidate from any country to have to do.

“I grew up eating Taiwanese food, drinking Taiwanese water … I am Taiwanese,” Ma said in a nationally televised debate with Hsieh. “I’m willing to sacrifice all for this land and its people.”

If Ma is elected, he will be the first KMT president since the DPP ended a half-century of rule by the KMT by winning the 2000 presidential election. And it would be the first time the majority longtime Taiwanese had elected a president who is not a native Taiwanese, but from the waishenren or immigrant minority. To political analysts like Kou, it would be a sign of progress in Taiwan’s march towards democracy.

“The biggest problem with Taiwan’s democracy is the problem of ethnicity – the fact that some voters are concerned more with a candidate’s ethnicity, not whether he has done a good job or not,” Kou said. “If Ma is elected, it means voters don’t care where you’re from anymore – you still have an opportunity, as long as you do well. If not, you will be voted down in four years. That’s an improvement.”

I’ve been aware of the interesting sociolinguistics of Taiwan, with Taiwanese (the local brand of Min Nan Chinese) being a marker of identity closely associated with Taiwanese nationalism, often contrasted with the Mandarin imported by Mainlander refugees in 1949 and afterwards, complicated by interesting demographics, (perhaps a (relatively young) quarter of the population does not speak Taiwanese and a smaller (and relatively older) minority similarly lacks fluency in Mandarin, while the south of the island evidencing more fluency in Taiwanese than the north). This is the first time, though, that I’ve heard of the conflict between these two language-defined groups being characterized as ethnic conflict.

This Taiwanese clash raises the interesting question of whether similar things will happen in China. James Follows has observed that in the southern boom-town of Shenzhen, Mandarin has displaced Cantonese as the most widely spoken language. Might regional elites or mass political movements in non-Mandarin-speaking China mobilize on behalf of their regional languages?

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2008 at 12:17 pm

[LINK] “In Babel of Tongues, Suriname Seeks Itself”

Simon Romero’s article in The New York Times “In Babel of Tongues, Suriname Seeks Itself” surveys the language situation in the South American country of Suriname.

Walk into a government office here and you will be greeted in Dutch, the official language. But in a reflection of the astonishing diversity of this South American nation, Surinamese speak more than 10 other languages, including variants of Chinese, Hindi, Javanese and half a dozen original Creoles.

Making matters more complex, English is also beamed into homes on television and Portuguese is the fastest-growing language since an influx of immigrants from Brazil in recent years. And one language stands above all others as the lingua franca: Sranan Tongo (literally Suriname tongue), a resilient Creole developed by African slaves in the 17th century.

So which language should Suriname’s 470,000 people speak? Therein lies a quandary for this country, which is still fiercely debating its national identity after just three decades of independence from the Netherlands.

“We shook off the chains of Dutch colonialism in the 1970s, but our consciousness remains colonized by the Dutch language,” said Paul Middellijn, 58, a writer who composes poetry in Sranan Tongo.

Nevertheless, Mr. Middellijn said English should be declared Suriname’s national language, a position shared by many Surinamese who want stronger links to the Caribbean and North America. “Sranan will survive because nothing can replace it as the language of the street,” he said.

The position of Dutch in Suriname reminds me somewhat of the position of French in Canada, that last language spoken by seven or eight million people in a hemisphere populated by hundreds of millions of speakers of English, Spanish and Portuguese. The comparison quickly fails on the grounds that Dutch isn’t a first language in Suriname and–honestly–Dutch isn’t nearly as much of a world language as French. A creeping normalization of Suriname’s creole language of Sranan on the model of Haiti’s normalization of Haitian Creole, even as English steadily displaced Dutch as a language of wider communication, is probably in the cards for Suriname.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2008 at 12:12 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Death from above

Browsing Wikipedia in the aftermath of Saturday’s linkage to articles on the brightest gamma-ray burst ever discovered, I came across an interesting link to the star WR 104, located about eight thousand light years away from the Earth. WR 104 is a binary star, both components of which are Wolf-Rayet stars, relatively evolved, quite hot, and quite massive stars that shed their mass quickly though not always quickly enough to avoid going supernova. As it turns out, WR 104 might actually threaten Earth with a nearby gamma-ray burst–Bad Astronomer has more on WR 104’s specialness.

GRBs are a special type of supernova. When a very massive star explodes, the inner core collapses, forming a black hole, while the outer layers explode outwards. Due to a complex and fierce collusion of forces in the core, two beams of raw fury can erupt out of the star, mind-numbing in their power. Composed mostly of high-energy gamma rays, they can carry more energy in them than the Sun will put out in its entire lifetime. They are so energetic we can see them clear across the Universe, and having one too close would be bad.

Enter WR 104. The brighter of the two stars might, just maybe kinda possibly, be ready to go GRB on us. It’s not at all clear if it can, and there is reason to believe it can’t (young stars like this one tend to have characteristics that make it very hard for them to form an actual GRB). Also, even if it does blow up that way, the beams are a double-edged sword; yes, they pack an unbelievable punch, but they’re narrow. A GRB would have to be aimed precisely at us to damage us, and the odds of that are pretty low.

Except that for WR 104, it’s possible the star does have us in its sights.

The only way to know which direction a potential GRB’s beams will blast out is to look for some signs in the system of symmetry; a disk of gas, for example, would orbit the star’s equator, so the poles of that disk would be the direction the beams would follow. WR 104 does have a feature that allows us to determine its orientation — a vast spiral of material being ejected from the system.

[. . .]

The thing to note is that we really are looking at this spiral almost face-on, more-or-less down the pole of the system (it appears to be tilted by about 12 degrees from face-on, but it’s difficult to measure, and could be tilted by anything from 0 – 16 degrees — [Dr Peter] Tuthill’s technical paper has details). It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s close enough to make me wonder.

If the brighter of WR 104’s stars were to explode and if its axis points towards the Earth, it could well irradiate the Earth. The impact wouldn’t be planet-destroying so much as mass extinction-causing, between the high-energy radiation that would bathe the Earth and the muons that would impact the Earth at relativistic speeds and do something (we’re not entirely sure what; the computer models aren’t complex enough). We have, in short, a reasonably plausible cosmic apocalypse in WR 104 A.

Tuthill’s page on WR 104 is here, while the abstract and pre-print of Tuthill et al.’s “The prototype colliding-wind pinwheel WR 104”, available in the 1 March 2008 issue of Astrophysical Journal, is available here. He also is kind enough to provide a page linking to some of the press coverage of WR 104.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2008 at 11:52 am

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Written by Randy McDonald

March 25, 2008 at 7:33 pm

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[LINK] Some Saturday links

  • Boing Boing and Centauri Dreams both react to the very recent gamma ray burst GRB 080319B, an explosion so bright that it would have been briefly visible to the naked eye despite the fact that it occurred 7.5 billion light years away.
  • Crooked Timber’s John Holbo links to his sprightly new edition of Edward E. Hale’s 1869 classic short story “The Brick Moon”. (Yes, I think Holbo is the person who came up with the word “brickpunk.”)
  • Douglas Muir at Halfway Down the Danube describes the various problems with Armenia’s genocide museum.
  • Language Hat covers a recent report that linguists have found links between Siberian and North American language families, with many of the linguists involved popping in to comment on their own or on others’ theories.
  • Finally, James Nicoll has linked to an interesting report about a collection of science fiction writers including Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and David Brin who are offering their services to the government of the United States as freelance advisors. Among their ideas is Niven’s that “a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.”

Written by Randy McDonald

March 22, 2008 at 11:10 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] No, the government didn’t do it

One of the many controversial statements of Jeremiah Wright, minister to Barack Obama and the man whose controversial YouTubed statements may well cost Obama the presidency, is the claim that the HIV virus was produced by the American government as a weapon to kill off black people.

Slate has assembled “The AIDS Conspiracy Handbook”, outlining a few of the major scholia, although I find Wikipedia’s page AIDS conspiracy theories somewhat more appealing, with its open-source goodness. The idea of HIV being seeded into unknowing populations has come up with surprising frequency, both among gays and among blacks. If, as the line of argument goes, a government is unhappy with the disruptive presence of a particular group or groups, what might it do if it could ensure that these groups just … went away? The infamous Tuskegee syphillis experiments, in which poor African-American men infected with syphillis were not only left in the dark about their infection with obvious consequences for their partners and their children, but were denied access to the cheap and effective penicillin cures available after 1947, frequently comes up and might be part of the reason why this idea is popular in urban American neighbourhoods today.

It goes without saying that there are numerous problems with this argument. If (as seems quite likely) large numbers of cases can be traced back to central Africa in the 1970s, and if (as is certain) few scientists imagined that retroviruses even existed until the 1960s, how was HIV discovered by these uncannily smart government scientists? Either genetic engineering advanced much more rapidly than we were told in the decade after DNA’s discovery, or someone was astonishingly astute in discovering a viral epidemic that spread unnoticed a couple of decades before anyone noticed that, wait, the unusual diseases that had been popping up were becoming still more common. Non-falsifiability aside, I have to gently suggest that this conspiracy theory demonstrates altogether too much faith in government omnipotence.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 20, 2008 at 11:58 pm