A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for April 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] Tintin and Belgo-Congolese relations

Many of you may have heard about the proposal, by a Congolese man in Belgium, to ban the 1930-1931 Tintin graphic novel, second of its kind, Tintin in the Congo on account of its racism.

A Congolese man living in Belgium is trying to have Tintin in the Congo banned in the boy reporter’s native country, almost 80 years after Tintin first donned his pith helmet and headed for Africa to patronise its people, slaughter its animals, and spark an undying controversy.

Tintin and his creator, the cartoonist Hergé, who launched the strip in black and white in the Petit Vingtieme newspaper in 1930, are national heroes in Belgium, where a multimillion-euro museum celebrates his adventures and the 2m books still sold every year in 150 languages.

However, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, who has been campaigning for years to have the book removed from Belgian shops, says its depiction of native Africans – including a scene where a black woman bows before Tintin exclaiming “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!” – is ignorant and offensive, and he has applied to the Belgian courts to have it banned.

“It makes people think that blacks have not evolved,” he said.

[. . .]

Hergé redrew the book for a colour edition in the 1940s and made many changes, including excising a scene where Tintin killed an elephant by blowing it up with dynamite. He also dropped all references to the “Belgian Congo”, and changed a geography lesson Tintin gave about Belgium to a maths lesson. Despite the changes, the book remains equally offensive to race equality and many animal rights campaigners.

Michael Farr, Hergé’s biographer, who spoke often with him about the book, says that the artist later regretted his depiction of the Congolese, but denied it was racist, merely reflecting the way Africa was portrayed in the 1930s.

Farr seems to have overlooked the possibility that the way whites saw and portrayed Africa in the 1930s was racist. I’ve read Tintin in the Congo and I’d certainly call it racist–the stereotypical portrayal of the Africans, all big lips and blackface in appearance, would count as racist. I don’t think that the graphic novel should be banned–censorship isn’t something I favour, and frankly, after nearly eighty years, what’s the point?–but I can certainly understand why Congolese would take offensive.

It’s interesting how the Congolese have such a small presence in Belgium, after nearly eighty years of Belgian or quasi-Belgian colonization. Belgium seems to have been responsible for the assassination of Congo’s first leader, Patrice Lumumba, and certainly tried to establish as independent the relatively pro-Belgian southeastern state of Katanga in the early 1960s, but after especially defeating the two-stage invasion of Katanga by rebels in 1977 (Shaba I, Shaba II) Belgium seems to have limited its presence to economic involvement, extending loans to Mobutu and becoming (and remaining) major trading partner of Congo, although the Congo is a relatively trivial trading partner of Belgium itself. There seem to have been relatively few human connections, as Stanard notes in a review essay on the Belgo-Congolese relationship, with relatively niche interest in Belgium in the affairs of its colony. This is evidenced by migration; 2003 estimates suggest that there were only twelve thousand Congolese, as opposed to 200 thousand Italians, 121 thousand Moroccans, and 107 thousand French. Some of the Congolese in Brussels are notable as sapeurs, Congolese who have adopted high fashion and a particular mien as a lifestyle, but their visibility is unconnected to their numbers.

Early 21st century Belgium remains a partner of some note, but an increasingly unimportant one, as Belgians have become very critical of the training of Congolese soldiers by the Belgian army, and Congolese in turn remain critical of Belgium’s appalling past. Although Congo will probably remain in the francophonie, growing trade in its natural resources with powers like China now and India as well in the near future will continue to distance Congo from Belgium. Britain and France and Portugal and Spain remain intimately tied with their former colonies by all manner of connections–linguistic and cultural, migratory, economic, military–but Belgium, perhaps befitting its confused state, has opted out of this sort of connection.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 28, 2010 at 6:01 pm

[LINK] “The throbbing heart of democracy beats loudly”

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald‘s Stephen Maher is one of many commentators to report on the very good news that Canada’s speaker of Parliament, Peter Milliken, has forced the Harper government to release documents regarding the possible torture of Afghan detainees to MPs. Thus, Canada’s trend to centralize government in the executive has been at least slowed down.

By tradition, in Canada, when a Speaker is elected and first takes his throne, the prime minister and the opposition leader drag him to the throne while he pretends to struggle, a reminder that kings used to behead Speakers.

On Tuesday, Speaker Peter Milliken, like Lenthall before him, asserted the power of Parliament in the face of the power of the Crown, embodied by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Milliken ruled that the House, having voted, has the right to demand that MPs be allowed to look at secret documents relating to the treatment of Afghan detainees, although Harper and his ministers have refused to show them.

It is an assertion of the ancient privileges of Parliament, won at the cost of many heads.

“In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege, and in fact an obligation,” Milliken said.

“Embedded in our Constitution, parliamentary law and even our standing orders, it is the source of our parliamentary system from which other processes and principles necessarily flow.”

The particulars of this showdown do not matter as much as the principle that was reasserted against the efforts of the Crown.

Opposition MPs had asked the government to compromise, to establish a security system so they could look at the information.

The government refused, citing national security, and hired retired Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci to decide which documents to release.

Milliken said, though, that this reasonable-sounding measure is flawed, because Iacobucci’s master would be the government, not Parliament.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 28, 2010 at 5:02 pm

[OBSCURA] Uncle Lynx, “Rear alley balconies, Queen St West”

Rear alley balconies, Queen St West
Originally uploaded by Uncle Lynx

Toronto’s rear alleys are always interesting places to explore.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 28, 2010 at 9:12 am

Posted in Assorted

[CAT] National Geographic, Tigers of the Snow (1997)

National Geographic, Tigers of the Snow (1997)
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

National Geographic’s 1997 Tigers of the Snow is a decent documentary exploring the early efforts to save the Siberian tiger. The Siberian tigers are actually the only remnant of a larger population of tigers covering an area stretching from Iran in the west to Siberia, the Siberian Tiger being almost exclusively confined to Russia’s Primorsky Krai (around Vladivostok), in turn becoming critically endangered when lumber harvesting destroyed its habitat while hunters killed the tigers so as to render them into Asian traditional medicines.

The documentary’s is well-filmed and -narrated, showing the American and Russian researchers trying to learn more about the species, showing the efforts that they were making reserves and public education and captive-breeding sites, showing the Siberian tigers themselves, of course. While the content might be a bit dated, it’s certainly a good introduction to the tigers’ plight. Although there now seem to be more Siberian tigers in captivity than in the wild, thus ensuring the species’ survival in that sense, I wonder how durable it will be. One of the issues raised in the documentary was the fact that tigers raised from cubs in the wild couldn’t raise their own cubs, having not picked up those skills from their mothers. How can you successfully enculturate a tiger with these skills?

The telling thing about the documentary was the way in which Tigers of the Snow showed me, and Jerry, that these tigers were cats. Two young adult tigers were playing with each other, pushing each other around with their paws, the way that Shakespeare and Bart do. At the documentary’s beginning, we saw the zoologists examine a drugged young male tiger they were tagging, pushing his lip up to show the same sets of teeth I’ve seen in miniature on Shakespeare, pushing on the bottom of the great padded paws to reveal the same curved claws that I’ve carefully trimmed on Shakespeare. The difference, apart from the Siberian tiger’s lack of a purr, is that of size–Shakespeare is barely the size of one of the young tiger cubs, never mind any of the adults. Despite all these commonalities in anatomy and behaviour, in her CBC Radio documentary Stalking the Cat, Marilyn argued that of the few dozen species in the family Felidae, only Felis catus domesticus was secure, with a population in the hundreds of millions, the other cat species being endangered to one extent or another since they’re carnivores with a wide range and frequently come into conflict with humans. The critically endangered Iberian lynx, possibly the first cat species to go extinct in the modern era, has been pushed to the edge of extinction for these reasons.

I wonder if the Siberian Tiger, majestic feline predator though it certainly is, has become too specialized for its own good. How did the domestic cat come to be? Ten thousand years ago, a half-dozen Middle Eastern wildcats took advantage of some early human settlements’ pests, the humans observed that these self-domesticating animals weren’t of a size that could seriously hurt them and decided to accept them, and a wonderful relation began> Domestic cats have done well out of their partnership with humans, the species being transplanted far beyond their Eurasian homeland to almost every cat-inhabitable territory, growing in numbers vastly beyond any other feline species, even replacing ancestral wildcat populations. Felis catus domesticus is as uniquely successful a generalist within Felidae as the Homindae family’s Homo sapiens. In a world where environments change at an extraordinarily rapid pace, the Siberian Tiger may be as dangerously overspecialized in the Siberian forests as the Neanderthal was in the caves of Ice Age western Europe. as doomed as the Neanderthal, and for the same reasons. At least some recognizable catness might survive in its smaller kin; at least some media recording the Siberian tiger’s majesty will persist.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 27, 2010 at 11:52 pm

[LINK] “Are There Really No Hipsters in China?”

Science fiction writer Frederik Pohl’s novels were overfull with visions of a China populated by crowds of commuters bicycling through the streets on their simple bikes. In Slate, J. David Goodman suggests that the Chinese aren’t at all interested in these bikes any more mainly because they’re serious, non-ironic consumers.

Fixed gears—brakeless, single-speed bicycles in which the only gear is locked in place on the back hub, so that the rider reduces speed by pedaling forward at a slower rate—have long been a staple of New York messengers. In the last 10 years or so, the urban-cowboy quality of riding without brakes, as well as the bikes’ simplicity, has made fixed gears, aka “fixies,” an increasingly common hipster accessory and a growing part of global urban style.

Irony also plays a key role, as riders deliberately opt for an expensive, often custom-made ride, with hand-built components, that is less functional than what’s available at Wal-Mart. (That is, until March, when even Wal-Mart jumped on the trend.)

It may be this last aspect that’s preventing the bikes from catching on in China. Indeed, the anemic fixie scene seems to offer an object lesson in the difficulty of marketing fashion irony here.

“There is a saying in Chinese: ‘Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,’ ” Juanjuan Wu, a professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Chinese Fashion From Mao to Now, told me. “Hipster fashion only really works by communicating your irony—in other words, someone needs to ‘get it.’ Hipster irony in dress would most likely be misinterpreted in Chinese society as simple poverty or weirdness.”

Nicole Fall, co-founder and trend director at Five by Fifty, an Asian trend consulting firm, agreed. “Consumers need to be in a position to reject norms or feel confident enough about their status and knowledge to be ironic,” she said. “Thus a 20-year-old New York hipster can smoke a pipe or drink a really naff drink because it’s funny, but for someone in China, many of their equivalent peers don’t have the history and past knowledge of trends to understand what has been cool in the past.”

Though there are examples of ironic style on display in China—Mao’s face, red stars, military regalia are today worn with something less than earnestness—there is also more at stake in young people’s fashion choices, making them “less likely to ‘play’ with their dress in a cynical or ironic manner,” Wu explained. They prefer brands that are recognizably luxury—Louis Vuitton, Prada, Bottega Veneta, etc.—over more ambiguous fashions.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 27, 2010 at 10:36 pm

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Let’s go to Eros

In his recent announcement on the United States’ retooled space program, President Obama announced that the United States would send a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. 80 Beats’ Andrew Mosemen pointed out that such a mission would be considerably more difficult than a lunar mission, although scientifically rewarding.

One week ago today, in response to heavy criticism for killing the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, President Obama presented his revised vision for NASA: To build a new heavy lift spacecraft that will go beyond low Earth orbit and land on an asteroid by around 2025. This goal is far more ambitious than going back to the moon. Space experts say such a voyage could take several months longer than a journey to the moon and entail far greater dangers. “It is really the hardest thing we can do,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said [AP].

NASA doesn’t know which of the nearby asteroids it might pick for a visit, but the main candidates are around 5 million miles from Earth. The moon, by contrast, is a little less than a quarter-million miles away. The asteroids are about a quarter-mile across; the moon is more than 2,000 miles in diameter. And a trip to an asteroid could take 200 days, as opposed to the Apollo 11 lunar round-trip, which required little more than a week.That means NASA may have to devise new radiation shields and life-support systems for the asteroid-bound astronauts.

Once you get there, it’s no picnic either. You can’t actually land on an asteroid because it has so little gravity. Astronauts would have to somehow tether themselves to the rock to keep from floating away. (DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait cheered this bit of science fact in the 1998 disaster movie Deep Impact, in which the heroes encounter this problem while visiting a comet.)

Despite the challenge, there are several great reasons to go. The chemical composition of asteroids can give scientists clues about era of the planets’ formation, roughly four and a half billion years ago. And on a practical level, an asteroid mission would be a Mars training ground, given the distance and alien locale. “If humans can’t make it to near-Earth objects, they can’t make it to Mars,” said MIT astronautics professor Ed Crawley [AP].

The idea of sending a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid–one of a population of asteroids orbiting well inside the asteroid belt, closed to the inner terrestrial planets–has been alive for decades, with the relatively large, well-studied, and culturally prominent asteroid 433 Eros frequently named as a possible target. Subject of a recent NASA feasibility study, a 1966 conference paper proposed that NASA use retooled Saturn rockets to send a manned mission to Eros in 1975, when the asteroid would be only 14 million miles away.

Smith’s 527-day Eros flyby mission would begin with launch and Earth departure on May 3, 1974, at the opening of a 30-day launch window. Upon arrival in 100-nautical-mile parking orbit, the Eros Flyby Spacecraft Vehicle (EFSV) would comprise a 33.6-ton Eros Command Module/Eros Service Module (ECM/ESM), a 33.2-ton Eros Mission Module (EMM), and a 98.6-ton Apollo Saturn V S-IVB stage, for a total mass of 165.4 tons. The ECM would be based on the conical Apollo Command Module design.

At the time Smith presented his paper, the Apollo Saturn V had yet to fly, but NASA expected that it would be able to launch about 130 tons into 100-nautical-mile parking orbit. Smith cited studies that proposed boosting Saturn V launch capacity to 165 tons by uprating the four J2 engines in its S-II second stage. Alternately, the rocket’s S-IC first stage could be fitted with twin 260-inch-diameter solid-propellant strap-on boosters so that it could launch about 215 tons. This, Smith wrote, would provide ample margin for EFSV weight growth during development.

[. . .]

Closest approach to Eros would occur about 14 million miles from Earth on January 28. The piloted spacecraft would spend about 90 seconds within 200 miles of asteroid’s sunlit side and about 30 seconds within 100 miles. On January 30, 1975, the crew would end Eros tracking and fire the ESM engines to correct course deviations imparted by the January 23 maneuver, the automated probe launch, and the weak tug of Eros’ gravity.

The astronauts would load the ECM with scientific data and check out its systems on October 10, 1975. On October 12, they would abandon the EMM and use the ESM engines to place the ECM on course for Earth atmosphere reentry. They would then jettison the ESM, reenter Earth’s atmosphere at about 40,000 feet per second, and descend to the surface on parachutes.

This didn’t happen, obviously. Equally obviously, it’s a nice idea. If something like this Eros expedition is made with early 21st century technology, I’ll be happy.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 27, 2010 at 8:00 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • 80 Beats’ Andrew Mosemen reports that Japan’s unlucky Hayabusa asteorid probe is on track to return to Earth with its sample container, even though the probe might not have succeeded in taking a sample after all.
  • Acts of Minor Treason’s Andrew Barton writes about how the future may well give birth to new kinds of discrimination, suggesting that people who try to technologically augment their bodies might be the next major sufferers.
  • Crooked Timber’s Ingrid Robeyns tells her readers that a leading Belgian bishop has resigned after admitting that he sexually abused a family member for at least a decade.
  • Daniel Drezner wonders where all the anti-globalization protesters have gone.
  • Extraordinary Observations’ Rob Pitingolo takes a look at some of New York City’s best coffee shops.
  • Joel at Far Outliers quotes at length a writer on how madrassahs often provide much better education than state schools.
  • Geocurrents examines how unexpectedly heavy rain in Australia has led to a temporary revival of Australia’s landlocked Lake Eyre.
  • Personal Observations’ Jim Belshaw observes that regional disparities within particular jurisdictions–nation-states, states, provinces–can produce serious internal conflicts.
  • Slap Upside the Head observes the hysterical, and homophobic, opposition to a recently withdrawn plan for sex education in Ontario.
  • Surprise! Towleroad notes a recent study observing that queers are substantially more likely to suffer violence than their straight counterparts.
  • Alex Harrowell at the Yorkshire Ranter examines how a French project to implement personal rapid transit failed thanks to internal culture clashes and a failure to consult outsiders.

[DM] “On the lumpiness of nations and migrations”

I’ve a post up at Demography Matters that makes the very important point that naive comparisons between populations in different regions–there, I start from a comparison of the levels of integration of Muslims in the United States and Europe–will inevitably be partial and incomplete, if not fatally flawed, if you don’t take note of the fact that different poplations comprise numerous sub-populations with widly divergent characteristics. Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 27, 2010 at 10:58 am

[OBSCURA] inedible, “yonge.”

Originally uploaded by inedible

Sometimes, part of the subway line can look a bit grungy.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 27, 2010 at 8:01 am

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with , , ,

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Edmond Perrier, La Vie dans les planètes, and exobiology

Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait recently linked to the first entry in one David Friedman’s new blog, Sunday Magazine. There, every Friday, Friedman will “post the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine that was published exactly 100 years ago that weekend.” What caught Bad Astronomy’s attention was Friedman’s linking and reproduction of an 24 March 1912 New York Times Sunday Magazine article “French Savant Tells of Life on Venus and Mars,” describing French biologist Edmond Perrier’s speculations on the alterations of basically Earth-type life to the then-believed conditions on Venus and Mars.

"FRENCH SAVANT TELLS OF LIFE ON VENUS AND MARS: Conditions Resemble Those on the Earth"

The article is drawn from La Vie dans les planètes, a 1911 tome written by one Edmond Perrier. Perrier was a leading French biologist (or “zoologist”) of Third Republic France, a grand systematizer of systems whose The Philosophy of Zoology Before Darwin), translated into English and republished in 2009, is representative of his general project of giving structure to the intellectual universe of humanity. (There’s a school named after him in his native Limousin, actually.)

There’s a certain novelty value to Perrier’s predictions, yes, but looking over the summary it’s actually a fairly respectable attempt to imagine what living organisms and ecosystems would be like on other worlds. Life on Earth fits a system, therefore life on Earth’s sister worlds must share this system.

Life must begin under the same conditions on all the planets. Made up of infinitesimal atoms it must have appeared throughout the planets wherever the necessary atoms could be brought together. The sun and the planets being in realiyt but one body these atoms must behave everywhere in the same manner, and wherever similar conditions ar efound there will be similar results. Where conditions are dissimila results will differ in a manner that we can perhaps calculate.

The gas giants are too cool and low-density to support life, these worlds’ moons aren’t considered at all, while of the four inner worlds Mercury is too dense and hot. Venus and Mars, thankfully, lie within the ecosphere of Sol, at the inner and outer edges respectively. Venus, a world of perpetual heat and humidity, with habitable poles and desert equatorial lands, is predicted as having the sort of very stable environment that would slow down evolution, with complexity coming about organizations of social insects like bees rather than complex animals like human beings. Mars, with its lower mass, lower global temperature, and a climate prone to greater extremes than Earth’s, would be a world where evolution advanced rapidly, where warm-blooded and furred animals would flourish and Martians would build their advanced civilizations. Yes, they would be pale-skinned and narrow-jawed and broad-chested and slender-legged, there would be “small beauty about them, to our way of thinking, except for the intelligence of their expression,” but these evolved beings would have built a civilization of peace and plenty. As Venus would be Earth’s past, so would Earth be Mars’.

Perrier was wrong about the characteristics of Venus and Earth. Venus orbits Sol too closely to escape a supereffective greenhouse effect, and besides has a day much too long (243 Earth days versus its year of 224.7 Earth days) to produce an environment as Earth-like as Perrier predicted, while Mars would only be as Earth-like as Perrier had hoped it would be if it was a denser world able to hold on to a dense atmosphere. By the time that La Vie dans les planètes was published, the first signs that Perrier’s predictions would be proven false might have already come with the spectrographs of the atmospheres of Venus and Mars revealing atmospheres made up mostly of carbon dioxide, not the oxygen necessary for animal life.

But still, Perrier’s predictions don’t strike me as as being all that unreasonable, not judged by the knowledge of the time and not necessarily all that much by the knowledge of ours. Stable environments might well diminish evolutionary pressures; cold inhospitable ones might well encourage warm-bloodedness and the development of fur and other like traits. And if, as one might expect, the same evolutionary pressures in the same environments would produce similar technology-using intelligent species, one might naturally expect that the species with the older history would be the wiser. These are all assumptions, but again, they’re not inherently unreasonable ones. If Venus was in the right sort of orbit (and quicker-turning) and Mars was more massive, Perrier might well be a famous prophet. As is, I feel a bit sad that I hadn’t heard of the man before now.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 26, 2010 at 10:33 pm