A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for February 2009

[FORUM] What’s the biggest non-crisis news item in your world?

The global economic crisis, with its scope and depth, is arguably be the most notable ongoing event in the world. What, in your estimation, is the second most important event in the world, or locally, separate from the economic crisis?

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Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2009 at 4:29 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] German civilian dead, 63 years later

A recent article in The New York Times, Nicholas Kulish’s “Facing German Suffering, and Not Looking Away”, examines the recent discovery of a mass grave of ethnic German civilians in the Polish city of Malbork and its implications on the perception of the Second World War.

Until then, Malbork was the German town of Marienburg, and the authorities believe the dead men, women and children buried together here were inhabitants of the city, along with refugees from places farther east, such as Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, fleeing the devastating Soviet counterattack that would eventually capture Berlin. Several dozen of the skulls have bullet holes, which prompted speculation of a massacre when the first bodies were found last October, whereas now the talk centers on cold, hunger and most of all typhus, which was rampant at the time.

Europe has more than its share of mass graves, a reflection of the extraordinary scale of violence of the previous century. But throughout the Continent the public is far more used to Germans as perpetrators rather than victims, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Germany itself.

Yet there are signs in the former German territories such as Malbork that an understanding of the human suffering, in particular of civilians, is beginning to gain traction, balancing slightly the long-held grudge of collective guilt toward the German aggressors who began the war.

“We cannot be indifferent to what has happened here,” said Radoslaw Gajc, 30, a native of Malbork and a city worker who right now is assigned to removing the bodies. “It’s clearly very important, and we approach it with great seriousness and respect,” he said, adding that he had lately been studying up on the end stages of the war.

“It’s something that has really led to a lot of interest in the Polish public, and even a lot of compassion for the people who died,” said Fritz Kirchmeier, spokesman for the German War Graves Commission, who traveled with a colleague to Malbork to discuss with city officials on Thursday plans either to move the bodies to an existing graveyard or to build a resting place in town. The German war graves authority in November began to bury German soldiers killed in World War II in a graveyard in the town of Cheb in the Czech Republic.

[. . .]

After World War II more than 12 million ethnic Germans, and by some estimates up to 16.5 million, were uprooted across central and Eastern Europe, and more than 2 million are believed to have died or been killed in the often violent process. The mass grave here was dutifully reported in the German news media, but in the usual muted fashion, because discussions of German suffering provoke strong responses among the victims of Hitler’s aggression and smack of revanchism to a public sensitive to the complex web of memory and guilt.

[. . .]

The mass grave in Malbork came to light purely by accident, as construction crews were preparing the site for a planned luxury hotel. The construction is part of a larger plan to redevelop the area, including building a new modern fountain, complete with music and lights, that has workers tearing up the streets downtown just a stone’s throw from the grave.

Indeed, the bodies were not hidden in a forest or farmer’s field far outside of town, but right there in the historic center, directly in front of one of the largest tourist attractions in Poland. At first, workers found only about 70 skeletons, which were then interred in a local cemetery. Then a rainstorm washed away more of the soil, revealing several additional bones, including another skull. A systematic search for remains began, and as of this week just over 1,900 had been found.

Because the dead were buried naked — with two small pairs of eyeglasses the only personal effects found among all the bodies in the grave — it is unlikely that the exact identities of the victims will ever be known. But the local archaeologist in charge of the site, Zbigniew Sawicki, said in an interview that they were all but certain that the bodies were those of Germans.

Giles MacDonogh‘s After the Reich details the sustained indifference of the Western Allies and the Soviets to the suffering of German civilians–one French opinion poll revealed that something like 85% of the poll hoped that the Soviets would be sufficiently rigourous with the German population in the areas they occupied, for instance–and the general extreme hostility of people in formerly German-occupied countries justifed most anything. My review of Sidonia Dedina’s The Liquidator highlighted how the sufferings of Czechs under a Nazi occupation that was relatively benign compared to what went on in Poland combined with historical suspicions of the of Germans led to the rapid expulsion of 95%+ of Czechoslovakia’s ethnic German population. This was typical across central Europe. Even in the Netherlands, there existed a non-trivial movement in the Netherlands to annex swathes of northwestern Germany and expel the people who wouldn’t fit in.

Does anyone have any thoughts as to how these mass deaths of Germans will fit into the popular perception of the Second World War in future generations? I suspect that people will cleave to the thesis of Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World, that the world wars of the early 20th century can best be seen as a massive catastrophic spasm that produced victims on all sides.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2009 at 7:40 pm

[LINK] “This is the day for getting upset aka What Italy means to me”

Earlier this week, annafdd had an interesting post, “This is the day for getting upset aka What Italy means to me”, examining Wikipedia’s biased article on Venetian language/dialect. The article, overaccentuating Venetian’s distinctiveness and underplaying the numerous (and growing) links of the language and its speakers with standard Italian, gets dissected with style and in detail.

This makes it sound like Italian was created a bit like Esperanto – somebody (probably Petrarca, Dante and Boccaccio, and we’ll get to this order later) sat around a table and wrote a bunch of rules and compiled a lexicon. If only. It would be a much easier language to learn if it had gone that way.

Dante took the first step when he chose to write the Divine Comedy in his vernacular. The novelty was not that he wrote in vernacular – several other people had done so as far back as the thirteen century, and Dante himself had written poetry in vernacular. This wasn’t remarkable – plenty of people were doing the same around him. (Well, it was indeed remarkable, but not as new).

Dante’s act of defiance was to write a philosophical treatise in verse, that dealt with the highest matter concievable, the nature of the universe and his idea of theology, philosophy and government, and he did not chose Latin. Dante had already written very influential books in Latin, including a treatise on the necessity of a new language. But using the language of the riff-raff to talk about God? That was revolutionary.

His success was so overwhelming that nobody after him seriously questioned that whatever language this mostly theoretical nation, Italy, was going to speak, it was going to start from him. He was popular among learned people, and he was popular among the riff-raff. His poem was read aloud to adoring crowds, and memorized.

What Petrarca and Boccaccio did was born of another age, in which the democracy Dante had so hard fought for had eclipsed. Petrarca and Boccaccio were courtesans, who lived by producing art for the courts. Petrarca looked at Dante’s fierce, vulgar language, and with an affectionate tut-tut proceeded to cleanse if of all that was popular and unrefined. The language he produced was beautiful, elegant, and his vocabulary much reduced. Boccaccio, who for his great popularity was also influential, took a look and decided to follow Petrarca. They were all from Tuscany, but they didn’t write for Florence. They wrote for the courts of Italy, and the language they produced became the language of art and poetry. Not for the humble, of course.

There are many other steps along the way. One pivotal moment is the one in which Alessandro Manzoni, probably the real father of Italian language, decided that the great novel he had already written and published with some success could not become the springboard for a new language if it remained written in his Milanese Italian. He therefore rewrote it in a heavily Florentine accent, and created a monster, but a viable one: a language that could be taken seriously as a literary language because it had the authority of Dante and Petrarca and Boccaccio behind it.

Ultimately, she concludes (if I may summarize), a language community–like the national community it’s often associated with–is produced, as Ernest Renan wrote in his seminal Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, is the produce of the the day-to-day referendum of its speakers, the product of a shared history and the member’s common reactions to this history. The post’s worth reading in full; go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2009 at 7:20 pm

[LINK] Some Friday links

  • blogTO shares the sad news that Annex restaurant Dooney’s Cafe seems to have gone out of business.
  • Centauri Dreams covers the news that Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan are both slated to receive orbiters. It also speculates on the interesting question of whether Europa has a thin ice crust above its water ocean or a thick one, the former being much more favourable to human exploration and–quite possibly–the correct model.
  • A Fistful of Euros’ Edward Hugh reports that the Russian economy is shrinking at an annualized rate of 8.8% and points out that other people apart from him are calling for the emergency admission of the beleaguered new central European member-states of the EU to the Eurozone.
  • According to Gideon Rachman, Chinese policy wonks are rather sanguine about the prospects for their country’ political and economic systems.
  • Joe. My. God links to the statements of a Colorado Republican who apparently believes in the concept of original sin, based on his argument against prenatal testing of mothers for HIV infection on the grounds that if HIV-infected mothers pass on the virus to the children they’ll feel that much more guilty about their sinful behaviours.
  • Language Hat links to Charlie Stross’ explanation of why science-fiction novels have gotten to be so long in recent years.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money points out that Sarah Palin isn’t being respected not because the media are out for her but because she has shown herself singularly dense.
  • Edward Lucas argues that Europe should remain tough on Belarus, refusing to let itself be used as a bargaining chip in relation to Russia.
  • Noel Maurer shares the news that Argentina’s mooted high-speed train is defunct and compares Argentina’s turn-of-the-century economic crash with central Europe’s ongoing trauma.
  • pauldrye explores the Yonagumi monument, a possibly-though-not-likely megalithic monument on the continental shelf off of Japan’s Ryukyu islands that has been a subject of some controversy.
  • Slap Upside the Head reports on the strongly negative effect that the stripping of charity status from the Pride Centre of Edmonton is likely to have on that institution, particularly on isolated seniors.
  • Space and Culture reports on a recent conference examining the fragmentation of early 21st century Toronto and ways to repair it.
  • Spacing Toronto reproduces the excitement of Torontonians in 1931 when the Toronto Coach Terminal building was opened.
  • Towleroad reports that Cyndi Lauper has no problem with Madonna dating someone two-fifths of her age.
  • Paul Goble at Windows of Eurasia makes the interesting argument that Russia favours Georgia’s federalization as a way to keep that country in its sphere of influence. That might be true. It’s also the case that given Georgia’s very sketchy history re: its ethnic minorities since independence that federalization is the only way for the country to function with all of its parts happy. He also points out that many small and not-so-small language communities in Russia are on the verge of assimilation into the wider Russophone community.

[PHOTO] First Canadian Place and Scotia Plaza

I’m a fan of skyscrapers. Below are pictures of the two tallest in Toronto, the two tallest buildings in Toronto in fact behind the CN Tower, both located in Toronto’s Financial District.


Financial District Towers: BMO, Scotiabank
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

This is a shot, from Yonge near King Street, of the First Canadian Place headquarters of the Bank of Montreal (in white), with the base of the Scotia Plaza tower (in red) visible in the foreground.


Financial District Towers: Scotia Plaza at Bay Street
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

This is a better shot of the Scotia Plaza building taken on Bay Street, with another gleaming corporate edifice (I forget which one) in the foreground.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] A brief look at the Caisse

Bertrand Marotte and Rhéal Séguin’s article “How did it all go so wrong at the Caisse?”, in today’s Globe and Mail, takes a look at how Québec’s pension fund got so badly off-track this past year–down nearly $C 40 billion, almost a quarter of its previous value–and what this might mean.

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec will face intensified scrutiny in special government hearings into the investing strategies and risk management practices that led to its stunning $39.8-billion loss.

The Caisse, Canada’s biggest public pension fund manager, racked up the worst performance in its 43-year history, posting a return of minus 25 per cent that left the once high-flying fund lagging its rivals.

The median return of large Canadian pension funds for 2008 is minus 18.4 per cent.

The Caisse was badly hit by exposure to asset-backed commercial paper, taking $4-billion in writedowns in 2008 related to its $12.8-billion portfolio, and was also hammered by its extensive currency hedging activities, used to cover its global investments in real estate, infrastructure and private equity.

But the losses confirm the worst fears of many Caisse watchers that the institution’s risk management practices may not have been up to scratch, and led to big bets on complex derivatives and untested financial instruments that magnified its losses relative to those at other funds.

Mr. Perreault denied that, saying the sudden and dramatic drop in the value of the Canadian dollar by 20 per cent last year had a major negative impact on the Caisse’s foreign exchange risk hedging.

Mr. Perreault said the pension fund took no undue risks and is in stellar company with fellow big-time losers on collapsing global markets like Warren Buffett.

“Warren Buffett lost 30 per cent last year and there are others that lost incredible amounts,” Mr. Perreault said at a news conference to discuss the record loss.

The Quebec government also said it would make sweeping changes to the leadership, including appointing new board members and a new chairman to replace Pierre Brunet. A new president and chief executive officer will also be named, Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget said.

The Caisse has been under fire for months now as it struggles with the fallout from its riskier investment strategies as well as turmoil in its senior ranks. Its much anticipated big loss for 2008 and management style were hot issues in last year’s provincial election campaign, and its role as a key player in the Quebec economy continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

The Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec has played a central role in the Québec economy when it was created in 1965, as an organization responsible for the investment of the couple dozen institutional pension funds of Québec. Since its creation, the Caisse has stood as a major symbol of the post-1960 Quiet revolution of Qubec tha saw–among other things–the growth of a prosperous Francophone business class with access to investment funds, many of which have been provided by the Caisse according to a long-standing policy of favouring investments within Québec, even if they aren’t the most economically productive investments. This traditional mandate changed after 39 years.

The Liberals have been criticized by opposition parties for changing the pension fund’s mandate in 2004, putting the quest for “optimal” returns ahead of the Caisse’s traditional role as an economic development tool. The changes, critics say, led the Caisse to take oversized risks with Quebeckers’ savings in order to increase its annual return. Now, many of the 25 pension and insurance funds whose assets are managed by the Caisse could be forced to hike premiums or cut benefits to stay afloat.

Mr. Charest scoffed at accusations that his government bears responsibility for the fiasco, insisting that all pension funds lost money in 2008 and that the Caisse’s long-term performance compares favourably with other pensions funds.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 26, 2009 at 7:36 pm

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[LINK] “As Japan’s exports cave, eyes turn to China”

We are doomed, it turns out.

Asia’s economic downturn has reached new depths, with a collapse in Japanese exports casting fresh doubt on China’s ability to stave off recession.

Japan, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, was already in full-blown recession before its January exports tumbled 45.7 per cent from the same month last year, according to figures released earlier this week by Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

Japan is seeing its economy contract at a rate not witnessed since the oil price shock of the 1970s. Only a few months ago, Japan was considered to be in comparatively good shape because its banks were not saddled with toxic assets like their U.S. counterparts. Now, its economy is declining much more steeply than that of the United States or the major European economies.

“We don’t see any signs of a pickup in the Japanese economy in the near term,” Takeshi Minami, chief economist at the Tokyo-based Norinchukin Research Institute, told Reuters. “The economy will gradually worsen further.”

Japan’s slumping trade adds to concern about the collapse of inter-Asian trade and the once-unthinkable possibility that China, which has seen its growth rate slow, could actually see its economy contract.

[. . .]

All three export-reliant countries [South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore] were hit by a decline in demand from not only North America and Europe, but also from China, leading some economists to suggest that the world’s third-biggest economy is faring far worse than Beijing’s official statistics suggest. Japan’s sales to China fell 45 per cent, while exports to Asia as a whole fell 46 per cent.

“Exports to Asia, particularly China, are tumbling at about the same pace as shipments to the United States, signalling that even China’s economy may be shrinking,” Mr. Minami said.

[. . .]

[F]falling global demand has led to growing unsold inventories at factories in China and elsewhere, forcing firms to rapidly cut back on production. While China’s exports were down 17.5 per cent last month, Beijing still insists that the overall economy will grow at close to 8 per cent this year.

The new trade numbers mean that the Chinese economy–like most of those in Asia – is now shrinking, said Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Beijing University. “Both exports and imports are going down, so China’s economy is definitely contracting,” he said. “I’ve never believed that [decoupling] was even a small possibility.”

Written by Randy McDonald

February 26, 2009 at 7:25 pm

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