A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for January 2010

[META] A note on blogging

I know that I haven’t mentioned here that my blogging has no relationship whatsoever with my place of employment, indeed that I never have and never will involve said place of employment with my online persona. I just thought it something important to make clear to you all at this particular time.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2010 at 12:40 pm

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[DM] “On Russia’s brief population increase”

I’ve a post up at Demography Matters that takes a look at the recent minor increase in the Russian population, a decided break from the post-Soviet trends. It’s only going to be a brief trend, produced by the late Soviet spike in Russian fertility; the post-Soviet collapse in Russian fertility ensures that there won’t be enough women to give birth to enough children to counter death rates, even with plausible immigration levels.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2010 at 11:52 pm

[LINK] “Not so rare for rarities to occur in waves: Professor”

Recently, an above-average number of pedestrians have been killed in Toronto, fourteen so far, the worst number in a decade. The mass reaction to this involves a lot of soul-searching and concern about the worsening plight of the pedestrian. That may be useful, but as a University of Toronto statisticianpoints out chance also plays a role.

There is a tendency to grip these disturbing numbers and wring them for meaning. But for statisticians, maybe there is no meaning behind the numbers, just probability.

“Chances of a big clump are more than you would think,” said Jeffrey Rosenthal, a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto. “Yes, (the numbers) are rare and January was certainly much worse than usual, but it wasn’t something that is completely unexpected.”

Plane crashes, lightning strikes — for probability theorists, it’s no surprise that such rare happenings often occur in waves.

Rosenthal, who authored Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, explains that random events are all subject to a statistical phenomenon called Poisson bursts, named for the 19th-century mathematician Siméon Denis Poisson.

[. . .]

Seven isn’t that big a number when looked at through a statistician’s lens. Jeffrey Rosenthal calculates that between 2000 and 2009, Toronto witnessed an average of 31.9 pedestrian deaths per year and 2.7 deaths per month. Using Poisson distribution, this means there is about a 1.9 per cent chance of there being seven or more pedestrian deaths in a single month.

This principle applies elsewhere in life, of course.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2010 at 11:23 pm

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[LINK] “PETA protester gets pie in face”

Will the same Newfoundland member of Parliament call this an act of terrorism, too?

A People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protest was on the receiving end of a pieing on Friday.

Emily Lavender stood outside a hotel where Prime Minister Stephen Harper was slated to talk Friday before meeting with Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams.

Dressed as a seal and protesting the hunt, Ms. Lavender was accosted by the dog mascot for Downhome Magazine who came up behind Lavender and pulled her around, tripping her in the process. Her seal head went flying and, as the dog mascot helped pull Lavender up, he pied her in the face and ran off down the street.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2010 at 11:18 pm

[LINK] “United Church, Jewish group try to reconcile”

There’s a fight between the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Jewish Congress, the National Post‘s Kathryn Blaze Carlson tells us, the CJC opposing the UCC’s relationship with a non-Zionist Jewish group. All I can say is that, in the battle between left-wing occasionally blind idealism and diasporic ethnic nationalism, I lean strongly towards the idealists.

The Canadian Jewish Congress and the United Church — Canada’s largest Protestant denomination‚ have reached a “breaking point,” and the Feb. 1 meeting will determine whether the organizations can “get back on track,” said Bernie Farber, CEO of the Jewish organization. “What is at stake is our ongoing relationship,” he said. “I am confident that we will be able to resolve the main issue, but there is the possibility that this could lead to a schism.”

The main item on the agenda is the United Church’s dealings with Independent Jewish Voices, a controversial organization that challenges mainstream Jewish groups and supports a boycott of Israel. Mr. Farber wants the United Church’s national office to repudiate what he calls a “fringe group” that spews “vile, anti-Zionist” rhetoric.

“The Canadian Jewish Congress has raised this issue with us, and we have had some back and forth,” said Nora Sanders, the Church’s general secretary. “But we need to sit down and talk directly.” Ms. Sanders said the United Church is “not partners with the IJV” and does not “encourage groups to act in partnership with the IJV.” But Mr. Farber said the Church’s position has not been strong enough, and said Church leadership has done little to convince the CJC that it — not the IJV — is the United Church’s partner representing mainstream Jewish views.

He said there were a number of incidents — all tied to the IJV — that compelled the congress to send a “strongly worded letter” to the United Church last November demanding a meeting with Ms. Sanders. “What got us to this point was an unfortunate series of decisions by some within the United Church to make common cause with a very small anti-Zionist rump group,” Mr. Farber said, adding the Church’s January response to the November letter did little to quell flared emotions. “To see certain folk in the United Church of Canada embracing this group is questionable. Getting together would allow us to sit down and find out who their faith partner really is.”

After decades of relatively amicable dealings, tensions between the two groups boiled last summer at the United Church’s general council meeting in Kelowna, B.C. There, the United Church came under fire for considering contentious resolutions to boycott Israeli academics and cultural institutions — resolutions that were strongly supported by the IJV, but which were ultimately not adopted by the United Church.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2010 at 11:12 am

[LINK] “Civic engagement and formative institutions”

That’s the title of an interesting post at Understanding Society.

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations. But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order. One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness. If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one. What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility? What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement? What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual’s motivation to be involved in community service?

The post goes on to explore a study by McAdam and Brandt about young volunteers involved in the Teach for America program, finding that a significant minority of people who finished the program become so disengaged that they throw off the statistics for all graduates, and goes on to speculate about the constraints needed by a thorough study of the causes of and influences upon social engagement.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2010 at 10:59 am

[LINK] Some Friday links

  • 80 Beats shares the good news that humanity’s shift from analog to digital television transmissions is making us invisible to extraterrestrial civilizations.
  • blogTO’s Derek wonders if Adam Giambrone’s video will work in gaining him support. The consensus seems to be that it will help, but he needs to cobble the right policies together.
  • Centauri Dreams discusses plans to construct systems for defending Earth against asteroid impact, and the various methods that could be used.
  • Will Baird suggests that some charred dinosaur fossils recently found in China might be the legacy of the K-T extinction event.
  • At Everyday Sociology, Janis Prince Inniss describes how African-Americans–and presumably other groups in the African diaspora–often divide themselves along lines of shade, the whiter shades being “better,” in a refraction of anti-black racism.
  • Global Sociology has a graphic showing inequality in the OECD. The United States doesn’t do well, but Canada doesn’t do that much better.
  • At Halfway Down the Danube, Douglas Muir writes about the many ways in which Tanzania seems to be a functioning society, from civil service to civil society.
  • Invisible College’s Richard wonders how useful the ICJ indictment of Sudan’s Bashir actually is.
  • Could the Republican Party have become the party of civil rights in the US? Noel Maurer comes up with something that suggests it was at least possible.
  • Slap Upside the Head lets us know about a New Hampshire state legislator who says that the state is selling children to same-sex couples, i.e. allowing them to be adopted out.
  • Strange Maps links to a map showing the hidden green spaces of San Francisco.
  • Towleroad reports on a study suggesting that half of San Francisco-area same-sex couples are openly non-monogamous.
  • Zero Geography shows the religious geography of the world via Google searches, among other maps.

[META] Blogroll Additions

Croatian blogger Dragon Antulov’s Draxblog III and the Population Reference Bureau’s Behind the Numbers are now on the blogroll. Go, read!

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2010 at 6:21 am

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the anti-prorogation protests in Canada and some notes on their importance

I’m impressed that Crooked Timber’s Henry Farrell took note of the ongoing controversy over the prorogation of Canada’s parliament, asking blogger Tom Slee for a chronology of events.

Early Jan. In an outbreak of slacktivism, thousands of people join the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, who also have one of those old-fashioned website things here. The media, always happy for a story that keeps them from going outside in January, meticulously chart the climbing Facebook numbers until they top 200,000, and a set of protests around the country is scheduled for Jan 23, when MPs would usually be packing their bags to get back to their benches. In smaller countries, organizing a big rally in the capital city may make sense, but whose going to book a flight to Ottawa on short notice? So it’s going to be smaller protests, done locally.

Jan 23. 60 separate demonstrations [map], not counting the one-woman protest in Oman, and about 30,000 people in the streets, which is not bad for a movement with no coherent voice, no structure, and no recognizable public face. Reports described the protests as “organized on Facebook” [CBC]. There’s no doubt that many of the organizers were young’uns who naturally use Facebook, and the rapid growth of the group was an early sign of fertile grounds – an indicator that there was sentiment worth picking up on. Yet the rallies themselves seem to have skewed much older than the organizers, and it’s likely that in the end many people who turned out did so because the mass media picked up on the story and then more traditional networks like Liberal, NDP and Green Party riding associations (and the Bloc in Quebec) and religious groups got their members out. If there is anything that Mr. Harper can be happy about, it’s that the talk is all of the act of shutting down parliament, and not so much of the Afghanistan torture scandal that started it all off.

Jan 24. There’s a second wave group started, and the next week or two will probably decide whether this was a winter blip or the beginning of something bigger. It may be that the difficulties of organizing across Canada in winter will let Mr. Harper off the hook. But there’s also just a chance that Saturday’s success will lead to something bigger, and that would be a lot more exciting than the cross-country skiing.

Aaron Wherry of MacLean’s noted that the size of the protest in Ottawa in front of the Parliament buildings was rather notable indeed.

Make what you will then of 3,500—a number equal to the crowd that rallied for Canada thirteen months ago—who gathered before Centre Block’s front steps this afternoon to denounce the prorogation of Parliament.

At its essence, the public protest is both charming and antiquated. A crowd gathers and chants and cheers and, when prompted, cries “shame” upon whatever shameful act has brought them there. Various individuals take the microphone to awkwardly and loudly air their grievances, almost all speaking roughly three times as long as they should. Periodically someone breaks into song.

This afternoon brought out the young and old, the peaceniks and socialists, the Nortel pensioners and autoworkers, the environmentalists and the electoral reformists. This being Ottawa, a place almost entirely unihabitable save for a two-week period each July, it was rather cold.

Chants involved various meditations on the theme of resuming one’s work and various rhymes for the word prorogation (nation, generation, investigation, television station, etc.). Jack Layton, beneath a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses, wandered amongst the common men and women. A young lady read aloud from the list of legislation that perished in the great prorogation of New Year’s Eve 2009. The Raging Grannies, a group of elderly women who are somehow required at these sorts of events, performed a few of their self-penned tunes, somewhat dampening the fervour. A young man with a guitar singing a folk song entitled We Are The Beaver sufficiently revived the masses.

If there is some unimpeachably redeeming value in such demonstrations, beyond the physical and photographable display of public sentiment, it is the waved placard, one of the enduring mediums for political wit. Today’s signs included “I Prorogued The Dishes To Be Here,” “Your Sweater Vest Can’t Fool Us” and, perhaps most Canadian of all, “I Shouldn’t Have To Be Here.” Showing fine artistic skill for his age, a young boy traipsed around with a sign that read “I have to go to school, so why don’t you have to go to work?”

The protests were nation-wide, with thousands protesting in Toronto. One notable element of the protests was the fact that they were organized via Facebook, through groups like this one. Douglas Bell noted in his Globe and Mail blog that the anti-prorogation protesters managed to leverage their membership quite well.

Walied Khogali, a student at U of T and one of the chief organizers, seemed genuinely awestruck at the turnout. “We started with an organizing meeting at Hart House and drew 200 people now we’ve got something like 210,000 members on Facebook. This crowd is amazing; people bought their kids.”

Tech journalist Matthew Ingram argues in conversation with TVO’s Steve Paikin that joining the anti-prorogation Facebook groups signifies some sort of political activism or interest, all the more so because these Facebook groups went on to galvanize the protests.

While all this demonstrates Canadians’ continued interest in politics, and might even signal a revival of engagement, a lot of the signs aren’t good. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who–as Wherry noted in his above post–praised a large public protest in Calgary a bit over a year ago, also said that “Parliament is unimportant” and that the prorogation lets him catch up on his non-parliamentary duties. (As the post mentions, that observation earned him some boos and a political rally.) Have I mentioned that I, like Douglas Bell noted in his Globe and Mail blog, find it dispiriting that demands for regular sessions of parliament have become politicized?

Watch this space for more on this. It’s just odd and it’s interesting that Crooked Timber picked this news item up: might Canada be pioneering something?

Written by Randy McDonald

January 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm

[LINK] “How the Canadian education system is failing queer youth”

This piece by Xtra!‘s Natasha Barsotti isn’t surprising, sadly. I don’t remember being bullied when I was in high school in the late 1990s on Prince Edward Island, but I equally don’t remember anything remotely queer-supportive–youth programs, anti-bullying initiatives, even recognition in class materials–being voiced there. I was lucky, I suppose.

When Susan Rose brought her anti-homophobia workshop to Newfoundland’s northern peninsula last May, she was greeted by a guidance counsellor who told her the area had no gay and lesbian students.

It didn’t take her long to figure out why. Homophobic slurs peppered the hallways and classrooms and one student put his finger down his throat when Rose asked if the slurs were generally uttered in anger.

“Wow, if I were gay or lesbian here, I certainly wouldn’t come out,” Rose said, with a glance at the guidance counsellor.

“I guess I was really ignorant, wasn’t I?” the counsellor said to Rose afterwards.

Rose encountered another nervous guidance counsellor on Newfoundland’s west coast. This one was pacing back and forth in the school library, worried that he wasn’t going to be able to deal with the fallout of Rose’s Making Queerness Visible workshop.

“He said, ‘Not that I don’t want your presentation here. It’s here and we’ll deal with it, but I’m just so nervous about tonight.’

“He said, ‘You’re opening up a door. You’re talking about homosexuals. You know as well as I do, I’m going to have dozens of kids going home tonight saying they’re queer[.]’”

[. . .]
According to a national survey conducted in 2007 by the queer lobby group Egale Canada, 75 percent of queer students feel unsafe at school, and one in four said they were physically harassed for being gay.

Six out of 10 queer students surveyed also reported being verbally harassed for their sexual orientation, while half said they hear homophobic slurs on a daily basis.

“That type of information is essential because that gives us a reflection of what the reality of our children’s lives in schools are,” says Chambers Picard, who sits on Egale’s Safe Schools Initiative committee.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 28, 2010 at 11:29 pm

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