A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for December 2009

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Why I look forward to the 2010s

The future isn’t something that people like contemplating these days, quite probably for the same reasons of disappointment and foreboding that Andrew Barton described earlier this month.

For decades, the twenty-first century was implicitly the great beyond, the city on the hill, and there was no alternative to it being a good and decent place where technology would work miracles and all our petty twentieth-century problems would be solved. It was the gateway to the Grand and Shining Future. After all, the crew of the Enterprise didn’t have to worry about nuclear war or STDs or poverty in Africa. This was supposed to be the time where we made the first steps toward solving the problems that have bedeviled humanity since the beginning.

Ten years, and we’ve hardly started. What these ten years have taught us is not only that things are worse than we thought, and getting worse faster than we thought they could get, but that people don’t even believe things are getting bad – as if the slow death of the Arctic ice cap or the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the ticking timebomb that is the tens of billions of tons of greenhouse gases in melting northern permafrost is on the same plane as the question of whether or not the Shroud of Turin is genuine. Then again, it’s hard to care about the environment when you’ve been fired or laid off or made redundant or what have you and you don’t know where you’re going to find money for food or rent.

My first reaction to think post was to recall “The Future,” the first track on Prince’s 1989 Batman soundtrack, where Prince sings against a foreboding funk guitar that he plans to “drink six razor blades, razor blades in a paper cup” because he has “seen the future, and boy, it’s rough.” My second reaction was to recall the Times‘ correspondents’ various predictions, including the speculation that Conrad Black might have some of his convictions reversed and Avatar might sweep the Oscars.

My third reaction? The pessimism is overblown.

A lot of this is spillover from my own personal situation, sure. the improvement in my quality of life over the past decade has been spectacular. I’m happy, living in an exciting community where I feel comfortable in my own skin and where I can easily connect with all manner of and any number of people, happily belonging to human communities and maintaining human relationships. I would have taken this as a low-probability outcome a decade ago. I certainly can’t dismiss the past decade as so negative as all that. Things can and will improve, but they’ll do so without any low-probability revolutionary transformations.

More of this comes down to my belief that we really are making things much better. When I read Charlie Stross’ afterword in his excellent 2004 Atrocity Archives, I was struck by his defense of that book’s melange of horror and spy fiction on the grounds that it fit with the realities of the Cold War, that one moment you could walking around in a thriving metropolis and the next you’d be standing with your skin burned off your city’s poisoned ruins, one of many cities so blasted on a poisoned world. That future didn’t happen, not for want of the necessary technology, but because the people responsible for the use of these technologies didn’t want that kind of world.

Things, Steven Pinker demonstrated earlier this year, have been generally improving for some time, as people and societies have tended (over the longue durée) to become civilized, to respond to problems not with anger and amusement but with a real sense of concern that’s manifested in action. Effective action, too; Doug Saunders recently wrote about this in the Globe and Mail. Contrary to the apocalyptic predictions made at the end of the milennium, entire continents haven’t collapsed into chaos; poor people and countries have become substantially better off; human suffering is being alleviated. Civilization, it turns out, is winning. There will be problems, yes.

This will not be an easy time ahead: Wealthy countries are facing a 3 per cent cut in their economy for as long as a decade while they pay off their bailout debts. Aging populations will force them to pay steeper bills for pensions and medicine. And they will probably have to pay for carbon-emission reductions, just as they are attempting to extricate themselves from the financial crisis.

The war in Afghanistan, and its repercussions in Pakistan, are not going to be easy to resolve. And the cultural tensions caused by immigration are not going to go away: Most Western countries, to cover all those costs, will be forced to take in hundreds of thousands of people from the developing world each year.

In the past decade, we avoided many worse fates through a series of developments that most of us missed. In the future, we’ll have to pay closer attention. The southern and eastern three-quarters of the globe are pivotal to the areas that have the greatest effect on us – energy and emissions, exports and equities, technology and terrorism.

We have adapted in certain ways – by shifting our military expenditures from Europe to Central Asia; by pursuing the Millennium Development Goals, the UN’s plan to reduce the most extreme forms of poverty by 2015; and by replacing the worn-out G8 with former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s idea of a G20. In the decade ahead we will have to work even harder just to keep pace.

All we know for sure is that it will not be a repeat of the past 10 years. In 2007, the statistician-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined what may be the decade’s most descriptive axiom: “History does not crawl, it jumps.” History has exploded from the least likely corners; spurious events unsettled our surest expectations. The 2010s will be volatile, unpredictable, dangerous – but not what we hope, and not what we fear.

I expect the world to have problems, Canada to have problems, Toronto to have problems, certainly me to have problems, I don’t think that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but I don’t think that we live in the worst one, either. I know that “something good is going to happen” to us all without any low-probability revolutions or miracles. (Unless something completely unexpected comes, but I can’t be fairly blamed for that.)

(“Oh, I, Oh, I.”)

Happy New Year!

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Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2009 at 7:36 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On staying in Afghanistan

The news of Harper’s postponement of the next session of the Canadian Parliament was bumped from the lead position on the CBC’s The National nightly broadcast by the news that five Canadians–one journalist, four soldiers–have been killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device.

I’ve complained here about the many problems with Canada’s role in Afghanistan, , most relating to the lack of any clear reason why Canada’s there or why Canada has to deal with such a lazily corrupt regime as Karzai’s. Reluctantly, though, I have to agree with the sentiments of this Matthew Yglesias post that Noel sent me a while back.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has done a lot of reporting on Afghan women over the years and writes for The Daily Beast that there’s little support for the departure of American troops among the organizations doing work with Afghan women and girls:

Even while some political activists and pundits in Washington and London sound the call for a full troop withdrawal, women here argue that a complete pullback would only exacerbate the battery of formidable problems plaguing their struggling nation. Though nearly all say the international community could have done a far better job in securing a teetering Afghanistan, where practically every citizen can now rattle off a personal tale of corruption, few women say they believe foreign forces should go. In a series of conversations with a dozen women leaders spanning a range of sectors, from health care to business to politics, some of whom rarely speak to journalists, the consensus was that existing troops must stay for now—if only because things would be far worse were they to leave. Insecurity would rise, the Taliban would gain power, and women and girls would immediately lose ground.

I think the best thing to say is that American troops aren’t in Afghanistan in order to help Afghan women, and there are a lot of things America could do in the world that would be more effective ways of advancing women’s rights if that were our primary goal, but Afghan women are nonetheless beneficiaries of the mission.

That said, when it comes to military operations you can’t just bracket the question of feasibility. If the administration’s plan is fatally flawed and simply leads to several more years of fighting followed by inevitable withdrawal and Taliban takeover, then we’re not actually helping anyone. This is why things like Richard Just’s insistence on trying to understand everything through a lens of “realism” versus “idealism” are so annoying. If the administration has a workable plan to bring stability to Afghanistan, then implementing that plan will have humanitarian benefits. But if the plan’s not workable, then it’s not workable, and it doesn’t matter how idealistic or ambitious you try to make it.

I guess we’ll have to find out if the new plan will work out and Afghanistan will stumble towards something better and safer. I can hardly wait.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 30, 2009 at 11:59 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On Harper’s personally convenient postponing of Canadian democracy

Wow. I’d no idea that Harper would prorogue Parliament a second time, this time without fears of a threatening coalition government to replace his.

Opposition politicians lambasted Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision Wednesday to suspend Parliament for the next two months as a politically opportunistic and despotic attempt to avoid scrutiny.

“Mr. Harper is showing that his first impulse when he is in trouble is to shut down Parliament,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in the wake of news that Parliament had been prorogued.

But the government maintained that its decision to not have Parliament sit through most of the winter was a routine move that would allow for a two-week parliamentary truce during the Winter Olympics in February.

The move will kill dozens of the government’s own bills, while leaving in limbo a parliamentary inquiry into Afghan detainees. It will also pave the way for Conservative control of the Senate.

And prorogation sets up a number of confidence votes on economic issues in the spring, at which point the opposition will determine whether Canada goes to the polls for a third time in four years.

Mr. Harper called Governor-General Michaëlle Jean Wednesday morning to ask her to give a Speech from the Throne on March 3 – delaying Parliament’s return by 22 sitting days – and allowing the government to table a budget on March 4.

More than 30 bills will die on the order paper, with more than half of them part of the government’s tough-on-crime agenda. But the Prime Minister’s Office said the goal is to continue focusing on the economy, with consultations on budgetary matters in the next two months.

“This is the time to recalibrate, consult and deliver the next stage of our plan that we outlined last year in Budget 2009,” said spokesman Dimitri Soudas.

He said that Canada has done relatively well during the recent global recession, but said “we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Mr. Soudas added the government will file five vacancies in the Senate in the near future, providing the Conservatives with more seats than the Liberals in the Upper Chamber.

New Senate committees will be formed when Parliament is reconvened, putting the Conservatives in the driver’s seat for the first time since Mr. Harper came to power in 2006. The government will still be short of an outright majority in the 105-seat Senate, given the presence of five independents, but will enjoy a “governing minority” with 51 seats.

But the opposition is particularly angry that the government, through prorogation, is shutting down the parliamentary committee into the treatment of Afghan detainees.

At this point I have to agree with James Bow (“The Real Canadian Coup D’Etat”) and his three conclusions (bullet-pointing mine, italics to be assumed by the reader, sentiments wholeheartedly shared by me with Bow).

  • [W]e have a prime minister who seeks to suspend the work of parliament — not, as it could have been argued last year, to establish a seven week cooling period before facing the prospect of changing a government in the middle of an economic crisis, but to thwart the work of various committees asking questions in the name of accountability. This is a prime minister who has defied the principle of parliamentary supremacy, ignoring a direct order by vote of parliament to turn over uncensored documents to a parliamentary committee for investigation, in order to save his own political skin. Whatever high ideals the move to suspend parliament last year might have had, they’re not present here. The move is nakedly political, and shames our democracy.
  • Step by step, this prime minister who campaigned on establishing a new era of transparency and accountability, has sought to strip away the very checks and balances he promised to reinforce. If Canadians are cynical about their political institutions, it’s because political accountability has been removed by successive Liberal and Conservative governments, and we should care about the actions taken here because Stephen Harper clearly wants to make the situation worse, not better.
  • Mr. Ignatieff, this is your moment. You either step up, or you let the prime minister walk all over you. And if you do the latter, and Mr. Harper gets away with his anti-democratic acts, ultimately, you will have no one to blame but yourself.
  • Written by Randy McDonald

    December 30, 2009 at 7:26 pm

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    [LINK] “His Specialty? Making Old New York Talk in Dutch”

    Something about the effort to bring New York City’s Dutch past, embedded in the Dutch language as it is, into the present day fascinates me. Perhaps it’s the sheer scale of the discontinuity between a metropolis’ founding language and its current language, something that has gone on effectively unnoticed for centuries. New Orleans might not by very Francophone, but it’s certainly thought of as a very “French” place. I like reading of efforts to piece genealogies together, I guess.

    [T]here surely is no one who loves Dutch Americana more than Charles T. Gehring.

    How else to describe a man who has spent the past 35 years painstakingly translating 17th-century records that provide groundbreaking insight and renewed appreciation for New Netherland, the colony whose embrace of tolerance and passion for commerce sowed the seeds for New York’s ascendance as one of the world’s great cities.

    Toiling from a cramped office in the New York State Library here, Mr. Gehring, as much as anyone, has shed light on New York’s long-neglected Dutch roots, which have been celebrated this year, the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that bears his name.

    Mr. Gehring, by the way, only has about 4,800 pages left of the 12,000 pages of Dutch-era letters, deeds, court rulings, journal entries and other items that have been housed at the State Library for decades. They paint a rich picture of daily life in the colony, which the Dutch surrendered for good in the 1670s.

    “Most historians don’t think much of the Dutch; they minimalize the Dutch influence and try to get out of that period as quickly as possible to get into English stuff,” Mr. Gehring said, explaining why he has spent half of his 70 years mining Dutch colonial history. “What you find out is how deeply the Dutch cast roots here and how much of their culture they transmitted to this country.”

    Mr. Gehring, whose official title is director of the New Netherland Project, looks as if he has not trimmed his sideburns since he started translating the records in 1974, and he seems like the kind of mirthful man who would make a good Sinterklaas — the Dutch forefather of Santa Claus.

    Mr. Gehring’s translations served as raw material for Russell Shorto’s critically acclaimed 2005 book about Manhattan, “The Island at the Center of the World.” The Netherlands of the 17th century, Mr. Shorto said in an interview, was “the melting pot of Europe.”

    “It was a place that people fled to in the great age of religious warfare; it was a refuge,” he added. “At the same time, they were known for free trade; they developed a stock market — and those things, free trade and tolerance, are key ingredients of New York City.” Mr. Gehring’s translation work, Mr. Shorto writes in his book, “changes the picture of American beginnings.”

    Written by Randy McDonald

    December 30, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    [META] I’ve finally figured out Twitter! (@rfmcdpei)

    I know how to use it!

    It acts as a sort of RSS feed, yes, the sort that I already have via my FeedDemon reader. It’s a place where you can find out things quickly. I just found out that the Voyager 2 spacecraft is almost thirteen light-hours from Earth thanks to Twitter. Twitter’s advantage is that it’s a personal feed, a palimpsest with others’ comments and wit and quotidian observations. There may well be a worthwhile community there. TweetDeck has certainly proven to be a worthwhile download.

    So. I’m at @rfmcdpei! My three lists–@rfmcdpei/news, @rfmcdpei/people, and @rfmcdpei/space–are listed on the sidebar below the link to my Twitter profile. Follow me, follow the things I read, follow everything, it’s up to you.

    Thanks to @osirius for providing me with the first few Twitter users to pick up, the space ones especially. I imagine there are more users to pick up. For that matter, I imagine that there are readers here who would like to pick me up. Please do; I’m tired of reporting bots for spam.

    Remember, @rfmcdpei!

    Written by Randy McDonald

    December 30, 2009 at 7:02 pm

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    [DM] “Where do foreign citizens live in the EU?”

    I’ve got a post up at Demography Matters that takes a look at a recent Eurostat study examining the question of foreign citizens in the European Union’s member-states. Where do they come from, in what numbers are they present, in what proportions are they present? Go, read.

    Written by Randy McDonald

    December 30, 2009 at 7:50 am

    [LINK] “Keeping Toronto’s past alive”

    I so need to get to the Toronto Public Archives again. It’s located just up the street from one of my habitual subway stops.

    It is dated Nov. 15, 1792, and it is a chart of Toronto Harbour signed by Joseph Bouchette.

    It is one of her treasures.

    It is also one of your treasures: a gift to Toronto and its residents made 75 years ago by a descendant of John Graves Simcoe.

    Teeple, as the city archivist, is anxious to share the wealth of writings, maps, photographs and records of all kinds that cram the archives, on Spadina Rd. near Dupont St., just down the hill from Casa Loma.

    Her mission, in her own words:

    “Toronto is a major city that’s got a very illustrious past. I think we are responsible to ensure that Toronto’s history is preserved and made accessible to its citizens.”

    The archives shelter millions of documents, in 123,000 boxes. Some have obvious significance: The city’s original incorporation document from 1834 lies here. So does the official version of the City of Toronto Act, deposited by Mayor David Miller and municipal affairs minister Brad Duguid on New Year’s Day, 2007.

    Some are merely wordy, such as the official minutes of all Toronto council meetings, including the minutes of the city, borough, village and Metro municipal governments that preceded them.

    But the archives also house myriad images: a million photographs; thousands of maps; a collection of antique glass projector slides.

    Here’s the link to the archive’s website.

    Written by Randy McDonald

    December 30, 2009 at 7:23 am

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