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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for March 2008

Protected: [NON BLOG] Talking about faith

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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

[LINK] “Fleeing doctors threaten Iraq’s health”

“Like South Africa in the ’70s, the best, and most needed, keep departing,” the one-line introduction at the Andrew Chung’s article from The Toronto Star earlier this week says, only–it seems–things are much worse than that.

It was a cool spring day in Baghdad. Dr. Rafid al-Nassar and his wife, Dr. Rasha al-Manahi, were venturing out of their house to buy groceries, when gunmen in dark balaclavas drove up in a jet-black Daewoo.

In an instant, they had him on his knees and tied his hands; then they were dragging al-Manahi to the car. Both doctors were screaming, knowing she was about to be kidnapped. Luckily he’d been able to put down their 1 1/2-year-old son in the melee.

As they were pushing her into the car, a neighbour, a former Iraqi soldier, emerged from his house, firing a gun into the air.

“He tried shooting to the sky to make them afraid, so they left us,” says the 33-year-old al-Nassar. “But they kicked her in her back and her face, and me as well.”

Then they sped off.

That was the moment, in 2005, when they realized it was time to leave Iraq. They abandoned the country, leaving everything, for Jordan, where they applied to the United Nations as refugees, and to Canada as immigrants.

Three weeks ago they arrived in Toronto, and are living in a small apartment in North York. They now have two children, and heavy hearts. “I feel sad because many people are dying every day,” al-Nassar says. “My job is to be there to help the Iraqi people but I can’t because I have a family and I don’t want them to die.”

Faced with a kind of Sophie’s choice, Al-Nasser became one of thousands of doctors and specialists to leave Iraq since the invasion, which began five years ago this week. The extremism, violence, and sectarianism that has sprung up since is well established. But one of the most tragic legacies has to be the emptying of the kinds of people Iraq needs the most.

Some 70 per cent of Iraq’s most qualified doctors have left since 2003, according to estimates of the Iraqi medical establishment. Among the highest qualified “consultant” doctors, 80 per cent are gone.

[. . .]

Canada’s diaspora is quite small. The 2006 census pegged the number at 33,545, half of them in Greater Toronto.

At the urging of friends or family, some doctors came to Canada, where they are trying to settle while balancing a sense of guilt for abandoning the country they love.

Canadian Medical Association data show there are now 139 Iraqi doctors in Canada, compared with 85 in 2003. These figures reflect only where the doctors graduated, however. Some suspect this is an underestimate because Iraqi doctors very often train in Britain or the United States.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 20, 2008 at 10:42 pm

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[LINK] “China’s new intelligentsia”

Thanks to K. for pointing me to an interesting article in Prospect Magazine, Mark Leonard‘s China’s new intelligentsia”. There, he discusses his encounters with China’s growing think-tank population and their significance for future models of political economy.

We are used to China’s growing influence on the world economy—but could it also reshape our ideas about politics and power? This story of China’s intellectual awakening is less well documented. We closely follow the twists and turns in America’s intellectual life, but how many of us can name a contemporary Chinese writer or thinker? Inside China—in party forums, but also in universities, in semi-independent think tanks, in journals and on the internet—debate rages about the direction of the country: “new left” economists argue with the “new right” about inequality; political theorists argue about the relative importance of elections and the rule of law; and in the foreign policy realm, China’s neocons argue with liberal internationalists about grand strategy. Chinese thinkers are trying to reconcile competing goals, exploring how they can enjoy the benefits of global markets while protecting China from the creative destruction they could unleash in its political and economic system. Some others are trying to challenge the flat world of US globalisation with a “walled world” Chinese version.

Paradoxically, the power of the Chinese intellectual is amplified by China’s repressive political system, where there are no opposition parties, no independent trade unions, no public disagreements between politicians and a media that exists to underpin social control rather than promote political accountability. Intellectual debate in this world can become a surrogate for politics—if only because it is more personal, aggressive and emotive than anything that formal politics can muster. While it is true there is no free discussion about ending the Communist party’s rule, independence for Tibet or the events of Tiananmen Square, there is a relatively open debate in leading newspapers and academic journals about China’s economic model, how to clean up corruption or deal with foreign policy issues like Japan or North Korea. Although the internet is heavily policed, debate is freer here than in the printed word (although one of the most free-thinking bloggers, Hu Jia, was recently arrested). And behind closed doors, academics and thinkers will often talk freely about even the most sensitive topics, such as political reform. The Chinese like to argue about whether it is the intellectuals that influence decision-makers, or whether groups of decision-makers use pet intellectuals as informal mouthpieces to advance their own views. Either way, these debates have become part of the political process, and are used to put ideas in play and expand the options available to Chinese decision-makers. Intellectuals are, for example, regularly asked to brief the politburo in “study sessions”; they prepare reports that feed into the party’s five-year plans; and they advise on the government’s white papers.

Later in the article, he suggests that a wealthy China might pioneer, in opposition to the Western model of multi-party democracy with most parties converging towards similar policies in election, a political model wherein the roles of elections are minimized and “public consultations, expert meetings and surveys [made] a central part of decision-making.”

Leonard exposes some interesting arguments, and there is a lively discussion at the magazine’s blog. I’m left wondering whether or not this decade’s talk of a supercompetitive “China model” is any different from the 1980s’ talk of a supercompetitive Japanese model (PDF format)? Still, it’s well worth reading.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 20, 2008 at 10:36 pm

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[LINK] More on Iraqi refugees and Canada

Earlier, I’d written about Canada’s apparent lack of interest in developing a large-scale plan to take in refugees from Iraq despite the precedent of Canada’s earlier admission of tens of thousands of boat people a generation ago. Today, the Canadian government has announced that it will in fact increase its intake of refugees fleeing Iraq.

Canada will accept up to 2,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Iraq this year, more than twice as many as came in 2007, federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley announced Wednesday in Vancouver.

“What we are doing now is a very big step forward,” she told reporters at a news conference at the offices of the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia. “We can hold our heads proudly on the world stage for what we are doing now.”

The announcement came on the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion. Ms. Finley said the new initiative was in response to an urgent appeal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the international community to accept more refugees from Iraq.

[. . .]

Those coming to Canada will be among those most at risk, according to the UNHCR criteria, Ms. Finley also said.

The United Nations agency considers factors such as whether a person was subjected to torture or severe persecution, the extreme risks posed to women and children and whether medical requirements were not being met. “We work very closely with UNHRC,” she said, adding that the international agency identifies the priorities for resettlement, not Canada.

Ms. Finley dismissed the suggestion that the Canadian government should direct its efforts to helping displaced persons where they were, in order that they could return to Iraq when the conflict subsides. The first choice is resettlement in their own country, she said. “That is why not as many Iraqi refugees have been placed in the last few years,” she said.

She also rejected the suggestion that Canada should take in more Iraqi refugees. “On a percentage basis, we are one of the top in the world,” she said. Canada has been very generous, she added. “We’ve taken a leadership role.”

The United Nations agency has reported that more than two million Iraqis have fled to neighbouring countries over the past five years. Canada was among the top three countries for accepting refugees from Iraq last year. Canada resettled about 3,000 Iraqis during the first four years of the conflict.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 20, 2008 at 4:38 pm

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[LINK] Some population links

  • The Exchange Morning Post reports that in 2004, 1.1 million Canadians lived in other OECD countries, mostly those like the United Kingdom and Poland with long-established migration links.
  • The Taipei Times announces that the Taiwanese government is trying to boost the country’s very low TFR. Curiously enough, not only does Taiwan host four hundred thousand foreign spouses (my guess: overwhelmingly women), but more than one child in ten is born to “cross national families.”
  • The Miami Herald carries the news that 2007 was the second year in a row in which Cuba’s population declined, thanks to a below-replacement fertility, the rising death rate characteristic of an aging population, and emigration (nearly 5% of the country’s population has left since 1996).
  • Over in Spain, Romanian immigrant Costel Busuioc has won what seems to be the Spanish equivalent of American Idol.
  • The head of the International Organization for Migration has suggested that the fixed-term work contracts that the Gulf states extend to migrants is something that the West should copy.
  • Finally, Sweden’s English-language The Local explores the phenomenon of Dutch migration to Sweden in the fetchingly titled article “Dutch ditching dykes for Dalarna”.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 19, 2008 at 6:25 pm