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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for July 2008

[URBAN NOTE] Bravery or foolishness?

Not a half-hour ago I was biking westerly home on Bloor Street West in the early night, without a bike light or even bright-coloured clothing. (I know; I’ll get the first and wear more of the second.) Still, my handsignals were visible, the cars were respectful (just as I was, I think, respectful of them).

It’s on this trip that I saw, travelling east around Bloor and Bathrust, a unicyclist pedalling, backpack on back and light on the hardhat on his head. He seemed to be doing quite a good job of keeping his balance.

I felt midly envious of his panache, as if nothing was at all unusual about this sight.

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Written by Randy McDonald

July 31, 2008 at 10:32 pm

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[REVIEW] Nadeau and Barlow, The Story of French

The Story of French, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, is the sort of book that I wish was better than it is. It aspires to be an informative book combining a histoy of the development of the French language with a survey of its future. The fact that this title received a mention in the International Herald Tribune review of ‘s recent tome The Story of French shows the non-trivial impact that this book has made among laypeople interested in the dynamics of international language change.

As the authors demonstrate, contrary to the arguments of some the French language remains a vibrant international language and is in fact facing a hoepful future. French, they point out, is the first language of more than seventy million people living in some of the wealthiest countries in the world (France, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium), but it is a second language deeply entrenched in Africa. In place like Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, and even French/English bilingual Cameroon, French or a French-based creole is superceding local languages. Beyond Francophone Africa, as one of the major Africa vehicular languages it seems to be gaining a foothold outside in South Africa.

The authors also make the very important point that la francophonie was triggered not by France but rather by Francophone societies on the periphery of France, as a result of of a Québec government that wanted to boost its own international profile, a Canadian federal government that wanted to keep track of Québec, and of Francophone African governments which wanted to diversify their international relationships. The institutional francophonie is in the authors’ increasingly being joined by a popular francophonie, based on the sharing of popular culture (literature, music, film, Internet) and best practice (education, governance, health care, technology) between different Francophone communities.

The problems with the book? Sometimes, the authors make exaggerated claims. Nick Gillespie’s review makes some points.

Languages tend to rise and fall with the economic and cultural powers that speak them and no one is expecting France to be a major player in the centuries to come. While there’s no doubt that, at least for now, French “offers a counterbalance to the influence of English,” it’s unlikely that the language will prosper as the planet’s economic energy shifts more toward Asia and Latin America.

Look instead for today’s language of global hegemony, good old American English, to counterbalance the influence of Mandarin and Spanish in the not-too-distant future.

In my opinion Gillespie significantly underestimates both the prospects of the French language and the economic possibilities of Francophone Africa and France. Equally, Nadeau and Barlow are a bit too enthusiastic in promoting the prospects of French as a fully-fledged world language capable of taking on alongside Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It might be better to compare the situation of the French language with that of Portuguese: two large and relatively wealthy countries that includes the vast majority of first-language speakers, smaller countries with significant numbers of first-language speakers, and a considerable number of second-language speakers in recently decolonized territories. Portuguese–at least in Angola–like French, is gaining ground as a first-language in urban areas in Lusophone Africa. For whatever reason, they chose to be boosters instead of neutral observers, speaking to a particlar committed market perhaps instead of trying for something more neutral.

In addition, the authors also come up with some howling mistakes. African democracy is not an oxymoron; Berlin was not founded as a Huguenot refuge; Africans do not speak pidgins; the atrocities of Leopold II in the Congo Free State are not allleged. These and serious errors if not outright slurs errors really distracted me from what was otherwise an interesting enough book.

And in the end? The Story of French is a worthwhile read, but I’d be exceptionally critical in regards to many of its background assumptions and claimed facts. Alas, this book does not provide the definitive English-language statement of the Frenh language. I just wonder when that book will come.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 31, 2008 at 6:12 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Russia 2010 in 2008

During my recent trip to Prince Edward Island, I was able to come across Yergin and Gustafson’s 1993 book Russia 2010, an attempt to come up with scenarios to plot and react to some of the major possible trajectories of post-communist Russia. How does it stand up, fifteen years later? (I know that I should wait another year and a half, but still.)

The book begins with an overview of the different influential factions within Russia at the time: the mafiya, the government at various levels in conflict with each other conflictual levels, the military, other post–Soviet states, and so on. The authors then go on to product several scenarios.

  • Muddling Down sees continued government chaos and economic decline, as the government proves itself incapable of either promoting economic growth or providing things like a social safety net or a non-degraded physical environment. In this environment, political radicals become popular, private businesses gradually emancipate themselves from a weak government, and relative freedom prevails.
  • The Two Headed Eagle sees a growing consolidation of state on law-and-order principles, using the excuse that crime among with ethnic minorities poses a serious threat. A new centralized and centrist government develops, with an awkward and half-hearted transition to a modern capitalist eocnomy with balance. During this period, confrontations are avoided with Russia’s neighbours, and the foundations for a more liberal social order are laid down
  • The Time of Troubles scenario witnesses a radical weakening of the central goverment, with different republics and regional federations gaining power. Eventually, nationalist reaction prompts a reconsolidation of Russia.
  • The Russian Bear scenario sees a military coup and constitution of a militantly nationalist and authoritarian government that prompts international severance of economic relations with West. The regime eventually transforms into someething like the Two Headed Eagle, but at the expense of Russia’s trajectories.
  • The Chudo scenarios sees a Russian economic miracle, as by 2000 the fear of mass unemployment and collapse of in the old economy is happily overcome by the investment of private capital–under friendlier regulations–in the economy and the growth of an export economy. Towards the end of thie book’s period, the Russian economy starts to grow at 9% per annum, thanks to strength of high-tech industry and applied science along with growing consumer demand.

What happened? Russia spent most of the 1990s in the Muddling Down scenario, in fact having a worse time than Yergin and Gustafson predicted (they predicted Russia’s doldrums would end in the mid-1990s, when they actually ended in the late 1990s). After Yeltsin’s resignation, judging, looks like combination of Two-Headed Eagle with Chudo. The economic growth predicted in Chudo was based much more on higher valued added exports than on natural resource exports, though, but conflict involving ethnic minorities, particularly in Chechnya but also in the wider North Caucasus.

The authors also come up with a number of wildcard scenarios. Some of them are incorrect. Russia, for instance, is not, has not, and will not fight a missile war with Iran over Azerbaijan. They still come up with a couple of hits.

  • In one of their wildcard scenarios, the authors are correct in estimating the scope of Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic orrectly estimates the general scope of the disease (a million HIV-positives by 2010 and three hundred thousand dead) but substantially overestimate the impact of the virus on Russi society. There are, so far as I can tell, no panics, no masssacres of ethnic minorities or gastarbeiter, nothing equivalent to (say) the stigmatization of Haitians in the 1980s.
  • Similarly, the authors predict both problems in bilateral Russian-Ukrainian tensions and within Ukraine between Ukrainophone and Russophone
    areas. Orange revolution, anyone? The authors also seem to underestimate the extent to which a common Ukrainian identity exists among both language groups. Again, this is a fair misjudgement of the situation given the appearance of Ukraine’s fragility.

Finally, the authors make the interesting assumption that Estonia’s Russophones can be mobilized when he predicts the evolution of an almost Cyprus-like partition of Estonia into a Russophone northeast and the rest of the country. These Russophones, divided and relatively disadvantaged, aren’t posing a threat to the integrity of the Estonian state. In Georgia, however, Russia is involved in supporting the Abkhazian and South Ossetian autonomists. Georgia’s fragility was evident at the time of the book’s publication, yet the authors missed this.

Russia 2010 has the standard mixture of ill-footed guesses, but overall it was quite interesting to read this book and see how the authors did or did not predict our world fifteen years later. As a minor fan of futurology, I think it worthwhile reading if only for the way in which the authors lay out their assumptions.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 31, 2008 at 5:18 pm

[LINK] Some Thursday news links

  • Reuters reports on the latest round of Cypriot reunification talks. The decision of the leaders of both sides to initiate the talks is hoepful, but is this likely to end in something, I ask my readers with more knowledge in this drawn-out affair?
  • Hugo Chavez and King Juan Carlos of Spain appear to have made up, some months after last November’s spat when, Chavez, after Chavez accused former Spansih prime minister Aznar of being a fascist, the King told Chavez to shut up.
  • The Globe and Mail‘s Mark MacKinnon writes about the irony that the bulldozers that Israel uses to demolish Palestinian homes and wreck their livelihoods are now being used against Israelis.
  • More and more frequently of late news comes out of massive job cuts and layoffs in the Canadian (actually, Ontarian) auto industry. This will do wonders for the cities surrounding Toronto–Oshawa comes particularly to mind.
  • Turkey’s ruling and quite popular AKP party has been saved from being banned, which is quite good for Turkish democracy and still allows some faint hope of Turkey getting into the European Union along with Latveria. The Wall Street Journal has a quite interesting article on the ongoing political tensions in Turkey, making a convincing argument that Turkish secularists’ devotion to Ataturk is almost as much of a religion as Islam.
  • The blog IBEX Salad suggests that the economic health of a nation can be guaged by the cost of being smuggled into that coutnry. (The price of illegal migrants to Spain has dropped by half.)
  • Finally, the extensive tract of forested land in British Columbia bought by German noble His Royal Highness Duke Carl Herzog von Wurttemberg after the Soviet invasino of Czechoslovakia, has been bought up by an environmental group that wants to operate it as a nature reserve.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 31, 2008 at 11:24 am

[PHOTO] Randy at night


randyatnight
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

A picture of me, taken on the evening of Saturday, the 26th of July.fmcdpei

Written by Randy McDonald

July 31, 2008 at 10:48 am

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] What kind of war will Canadian soldiers fight, in the end?

While promoting his new book last year, In the Line of Fire, on an international book tour, Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf managed to trigger a minor controversy in Canada last week when he criticized the heavy press coverage of Canadian military casualties in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf told CBC Tuesday that the Canadian military casualties from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan have been insubstantial compared with those suffered by Pakistan.

Musharraf brushed off the suggestion that his government was endangering Canadians and other troops in Afghanistan by not doing enough to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their sympathizers.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf told CBC’s Carol Off on Tuesday that his government is doing all it can to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and that Pakistani military losses have been much more substantial than those suffered by Canada.

“We have suffered 500 casualties [1000 as of April 2008],” he said. “Canadians may have suffered four or five.”

[. . .]

Musharraf said any nation, such as Canada, that enters a war-torn area must be prepared to suffer casualties or get out of the operation.

“You suffer two dead and you cry and shout all around the place that there are coffins,” he said. “Well, we have had 500 coffins.”

The sentiment of indifference–towards foreign dead, true, but possibly also his own–might explain why Musharraf was the one who not only started the badly-planned and potentially catastrophic Kargil War of 1999. It might also explain recent events within Pakistan.

U.S. forces struck a suspected al-Qaeda hideout inside Pakistan Monday, exposing growing tensions between the allies over Pakistan’s inability to deal with militants in its tribal regions.

The attack, believed to have killed a top al-Qaeda chemical and biological weapons expert, came as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani arrived in Washington in an effort to reassure Americans of his country’s efforts to eradicate the militants based in Pakistan, who are believed to be feeding the rising insurgency in Afghanistan.

While U.S. President George W. Bush praised Pakistan as a “strong ally and a vibrant democracy,” yesterday’s military strikes – the latest in a rash of such U.S. interventions – drew a quick rebuke from Pakistan’s army, which warned they “could be detrimental to bilateral relations.”

The attack also came a day after a senior United Nations envoy suggested that Pakistan’s intelligence agents may have been involved in recent attacks inside Afghanistan.

As Mr. Gilani sought to present an image as the head of a freely elected government in a budding democracy, a drama back at home cruelly laid bare the limits of his power. As he left for Washington over the weekend, Mr. Gilani had issued a surprise order that placed Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Service Intelligence agency under firm civilian control, by handing command of it to the Interior Ministry.

[. . .]

The military, however, refused to accept the change, as did President Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief, and the order had to be reversed within hours.

“The notification came as a surprise and we informed the government of our reservations,” said Pakistan army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas. “The ISI is basically responsible for external intelligence, only around 10 per cent of its work is internal security.”

Carol Off accused the above Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence of masterminding the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings. Bernard-Henri Lévy would be in general agreement with this suggestion, as expressed in his rather frightening Who Killed Daniel Pearl?.

Back in January, the Canadian Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion suggested that NATO make a diplomatic intervention in Pakistan to install border controls that would prevent Taliban forces to move back and forth across the (contested) Durand Line with impunity. That seems unlikely to happen, especially with the tack of Pakistan’s current government. Is the region going to experience a nasty scenario, whereby United States attacks on Pakistan soil and Pakistan’s government remains willing to allow Tablian forces free egress (and recuits and arms and sundry?) on its territory? If so, should Canada really remain involved? I doubt that Canadians have much stomach for that sort of conflict, whether it becomes a low-level sort of thing or not (crushing defeat, by one side or another).

What are your thoughts on this situation?

Written by Randy McDonald

July 30, 2008 at 7:27 pm

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[REVIEW] Clarke and Baxter, A Time Odyssey

I’m definitely on the record as wishing that there is as little life outside of Earth as is possible. The news of Mars’ barrenness initially reassured me that complex organisms aren’t necessarily likely to develop; news that there is likely an abundance of Earth-like worlds in the Milky Way has done the opposite. Why? I’d like to believe that humans are one of the galaxy’s elder species, the others existing somewhere else, in the Galactic Center or the Norma and Cygnus Arm or some globular cluster orbiting far above the plane of the galaxy, far far away from our little Orion Arm. I’d be just as happy to believe that David Brin was right in predicting that most Earth-like worlds are oceanic worlds, incapable of producing the sorts of land-based species incapable of producing the complex technologies, like fire, necessary for spaceflight. Why? Just like H.G. Wells, I’m quite aware of the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines, or Canada’s First Nations, or the Mapuche of Chile, or the Khoisan of western South Africa, or …

That’s why I was interested in reading A Time Odyssey, Sir Arthur C. Clarke‘s three-volume collaboration with Stephen Baxter, that and the fact that these three are the last of Clarke’s novels published before his death. The series is what Clarke called an “orthoquel” to the themes of 2001, a revisiting of his themes of a great ubercivilization in particular his mysterious monoliths and od-like powers. Clarke’s decision to choice Baxter as collaborator, Baxter having written (among other cheerful novels) the Xeelee Sequence in which successive challenges from increasingly powerful alien civilizations cruelly dominate humanity, should be enough to give the casual reader some idea as to the nature of the god-like civilization this time. Beginning with Time’s Eye, and continuing with Sunstorm and Firstborn, humanity is faced with successive challenges. The series revolves around Bisesa Dutt, a British soldier on UN detail who is sucked into a bizarre alternate version of Earth, a slices of Earth built up from different snopshot slices of the world taken at different times in its recent history. (That’s how Alexander the Great gets to fight the Mongols of Genghis Khan, for example.) Who did all this, and why? Well, that would be completely spoiling the series.

How are they? I quite enjoyed the novels’ increasingly vast and complicated scope, intricately constructed piece by piece. On the other hand, people who want science fiction with non-unidimensional characters probably should look somewhere. I’ve always liked to think that Clarke’s characters had a certain amount of dimensionality to them, but Baxter’s? I’d never accuse that worthy idea-rich man of that. Chacun à son goût, I suppose.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 30, 2008 at 7:00 pm