A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for May 2010

[LINK] “‘How Did We Become So Poor?'”

Over at IPS News, Vesna Peric Zimonjic writes about how the peoples of the former Yugoslavia are coping with the fact that their economies collapsed so thoroughly, such that GDP per capita and income are still well below 1990 levels.

Experts and analysts agree that the region, now comprising the newly independent nations or territories of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, went through a “painful transition” into market economy.

It began more or less at the time when the 1991-95 wars of disintegration tore the country apart and ended a brand of relaxed socialism that had existed since the end of WW II.

Except for Slovenia, once the most developed part of former Yugoslavia and which became a member of the European Union (EU) in 2004, the economic performances of the rest are dismal when compared to 1989, a benchmark for the region.

Experts say that the processes of privatisation and transition to market economy here differed profoundly from what happened in the former East European nations after the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and that today’s poverty is not a sudden event caused by recent global downturn.

“We did not see former cunning communist managers or murky international businesses being engaged in privatisation,” economy analyst Misa Brkic told IPS in an interview.

“We had devastating wars, used by local elites to grab power and introduce people close to them into economy, where, as the time went by in the 90s and in this decade, they did not and could not play by market rules.”

The wars left more than 120,000 people dead and economic damage worth tens of billions of dollars in devastated factories, companies, state or privately owned real estate, and in production and export losses of the former common market that collapsed.

[. . .]

Croatia and its 4.3 million people reached 69 percent of its 1989 GDP in 2003, while Serbia and its 7.3 million reached the same point only in 2009.

As for Bosnia-Herzegovina with an estimated population of 3.5 million, and its specific post-war construction of two entities, Republic of Srpska, the Serb entity, and Muslim-Croat Federation, things stand definitely worse.

As Broadberry and Klein note in their 2008 paper “Aggregate and Per Capita GDP in Europe, 1870-2000”, Yugoslavia has suffered massively. In 1990, thanks to its long history of integration with western Europe, Yugoslavia was in a relatively enviable place: GDP per capita in Serbia comparable to Poland, Croatia was well ahead of Slovakia and Hungary (31), and Yugoslavia as a whole was reasonably well positioned (27). If Yugoslavia had followed Polish growth trajectories in the 1990s and later, Yugoslavia would have the second-large economy of the new accession states, with Serbians and Vojvodinans enjoying living standards comparable to their Hungarian counterparts and Croatia being right up there not far behind the Czech Republic. Even the country’s poorest regions, like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, would be substantially advanced. Instead, these countries have fallen far behind, and with the exception of perhaps Croatia I doubt that they’ll have the chance to regain their relative positions.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

[LINK] “Seal cull on Sable would cost $35 million”

Just last week I blogged about plans to make Sable Island, a giant sand dune located in the North Atlantic Ocean off the Nova Scotian coast, into a national park, so as to protect the unique and fragile environment. Just yesterday I learned massive seal cull.

The windswept beaches of Sable Island would become a scene of slaughter if the federal government adopts the results of a study that explores in chilling detail how 220,000 of the island’s grey seals could be exterminated over five years.

The 2009 feasibility study, compiled for the federal Fisheries Department, says the first year of a proposed cull would target 100,000 seals, requiring a team of 20 specially trained hunters with silenced rifles to kill 4,000 seals per day during the dead of winter.

“At this production rate, a tandem dump truck would be filled with seals approximately every 10 minutes — seven hours per day for 25 days,” says the 68-page study, drafted by engineering consultants at Halifax-based CBCL Ltd.

The hunters’ rifles would be equipped with silencers to avoid spooking the herd, the report says. Since silencers are a prohibited device in Canada, the federal government would be required to get a special permit to import them from the United States.

[. . .]

The slaughtered seals, some of them weighing more than 350 kilograms, would then be grabbed by one of 30 modified heavy loaders and carried to portable incinerators at five work camps set up across the island.

Why this industrialized slaughter? Supporting the seal industry and protecting the cod are cited. As you might expect, the evidence that the seals are decimating cod stocks is rather weak.

Nova Scotia’s fisheries minister, Sterling Belliveau, says the province’s NDP government is not opposed to a cull on the island, which is destined to become a national park.

“That’s a federal issue but I can assure that we have always appreciated the traditional hunting methods of a humane hunt and will continue to support the seal industry,” he said.

“I would point out that there is hunting and different activities that goes on in other national parks.”

While many Canadians regard Sable Island as a wild and unspoiled oasis worthy of park status, commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia see the island very differently.

They say the grey seals that frequent the island are responsible for eating too many commercially valuable fish, particularly cod. The seals are also blamed for ruining many of the fish that are left by leaving them infected with parasites called sealworms.

“A important industry in the region believes that there is a problem,” the study says, noting that the east coast grey seal population has grown from 20,000 animals in the 1970s to more than 300,000 today.

About 80 per cent of all grey seal pups are born on Sable Island, about 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax.

I can only imagine the international reaction.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 28, 2010 at 8:36 am

[LINK] “At least they’d be able to work can-openers”

james-nicoll has a poll up at his blog asking the important question which types of animals are cuter, cats or cephalopods.

You will be unsurprised to learn that I selected “cats,” but really, it’s a very close thing. I might go so far as to say that the two groups are more alike than they are not alike, what with their astounding flexibility and their pragmatic predatory intelligence. And the cuteness, of course. 59 of the 119 participants said that a monstrous hybrid of cat and cephalopod would be cutest, for whatever its worth.

(Yes, cephalopods can be quite cute. See below.

You have to admit that’s cute for a marine intertebrate that we last shared an ancestor with at least a half-billion years ago.)

(Now, to bed. I am so tired . . .)

Written by Randy McDonald

May 28, 2010 at 2:52 am

[LINK] “Namibia Expands Uranium Mines as Diamonds Lose Shine”

BusinessWeek‘s Carli Lourens reports that Namibia is hoping to diversify its economy by becoming a major uranium exporter.

Namibia’s economy contracted 0.8 percent last year, after expanding 4.3 percent a year earlier, as mining output halved. Diamond production plunged to 929,006 carats from 2.22 million carats a year earlier, according to the central bank. Demand for the gems plunged as the worst recession since World War II deterred buyers of luxury items like necklaces and earrings.

“The uranium sector is on the verge of surpassing the diamond industry as Namibia’s biggest,” Luise Nakatana, a mining analyst at Investment House Namibia, a Windhoek-based brokerage, said in an interview on May 18. “If all the proposed projects come on stream, the uranium sector will play a significant role in the country’s economic growth.”

Namibian output may quadruple by 2015 as new mines are opened by companies including Extract Resources Ltd., more than doubling uranium’s contribution to the economy, according to IHN. The industry accounted for 5.6 percent of Namibia’s gross domestic product last year.

[. . .]

Uranium companies are planning to spend more than $3 billion starting operations in Namibia, he said. In 2008, the country became the world’s fourth-biggest producer, up from sixth. The Moscow-based State Atomic Energy Corp., known as Rosatom Corp., said last week that Russia is prepared to invest about $1 billion developing uranium deposits in Namibia.

The nation has “significant” reserves and isn’t plagued by political instability like some rival producers, Marino G. Pieterse, a uranium analyst and editor of Uraniumletter International, said by phone from Amsterdam.

It does have a water supply problem, which is a “major concern” for companies planning to start production in Namibia, said Heike Smith, head of research at Windhoek-based IJG Securities Ltd. The country is mostly desert or semi-desert.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 27, 2010 at 11:26 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] On the confusions of Tea Partiers

Tim Gueguen recently pointed to the news that some Tea Partiers would like to reform the US Senate by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment that requires Senators to be selected by popular vote. Instead, in an effort to decrease the influence of the federal government over the states, senators would be appointed by states themselves.

In the past couple weeks, at least two mainstream Republican candidates have found themselves walking back from pledges to support repealing the amendment, suggesting there’s a limit to how much support the tea parties can provide.

The “Repeal The 17th” movement is a vocal part of the overall tea party structure. Supporters of the plan say that ending the public vote for Senators would give the states more power to protect their own interests in Washington (and of course, give all of us “more liberty” in the process.) As their process of “vetting” candidates, some tea party groups have required candidates to weigh in on the idea of repeal in questionnaires.

Tim’s observations are quite right. The Tea Partiers want what Canadians have at the same time that some Canadians want something like what the Americans have.

This is ironic given that the most common idea for Senate reform in Canada is to make it elected, although there are also those, like the New Democratic Party, who want the Senate abolished. Alberta has had elections to fill its Senate candidates, and the current Saskatchewan Party government in Saskatchewan wants to do the same, but the results of these elections are not binding on the Prime Minister. So it’s kind of amusing to see the Tea Partiers move in the other direction.

Me, I think it seems to contradict the Tea Partiers’ insistence that American politics be much more responsive to the people. It is hilarious that they just want to redistribute the “authoritarianism” they denounce to different levels.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 27, 2010 at 9:59 pm

[CAT] Randy Moravec, Claude


Randy Moravec, Claude
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

A commenter in a recent friends-locked conversation suggested that one reason cat owners seem to be much more imaginative about their cats personalities and intellects and interests than owners of other pets is that cats, unlike (for instance) dogs, are decidedly independent, doing whatever pleases them with relatively little regard for human wishes. This observation occurred to Randy Moravec before he composed his 1992 photo essay book Claude (official site here). After he had seen all the activities that his handsome black-and-white cat would do different things, Moravec provided his friends with precise figures as to how much a cat would do something over its projected seventeen-year lifespan, that its average food-related attention span was 2.16 hours, for instance. The whole small, slim book is devoted to explorem, pairing a black-and-white photo of Claude doing something with a figure and related observation on the facing page (that cats’ food-related attention span are almost indefinite, giving them the impression of being "truly devoted" pets). The photos illustrating Claude’s behaviour are well-shot and do a good job of illustrating Moravec’s amused, almost bemused, observations of the different skills and interests of catdom. I’m glad that I came across this very pleasant book, and am certain that other cat aficionados would enjoy it as much as I did.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 27, 2010 at 8:06 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] On Greco-Turkish reconciliation and the rise of Turkey

It’s almost a truism that Greece-Turkey relations are fraught. They have been since the first Greek uprisings against Turkish rule in the early 19th century, and they have remained inflamed since by any number of crises including the 1923 population exchanges between Greece and Turkey following the very bloody Greco-Turkish war and the and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Now, IPS News suggests that Greco-Turkish relations are set to improve, as a rising Turkey implements a (so far) successful foreign policy aimed at reducing conflicts with its neighbours. Reconciliation seems like a real possibility.

Ioannis Grigoriadis, professor at the Bilkent University in Turkey and an associate of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy Studies (ELIAMEP), circulated an analytical report days before Erdogan’s visit arguing that Turkey’s return as a strategic regional force would have enormous impact on the geopolitical balance.

Grigoriadis is one of many analysts who see Turkey’s return as a regional power rooted in Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategic doctrine that envisages the country as a core economic regional power and a transit point between East and West in future. It is a sophisticated foreign policy strategy that promotes the country’s economic interests while also attempting to heal Turkey’s old wounds.

“Davutoglu’s doctrine talks about “zero problems with neighbours. It remains to be seen whether any substance will be put to this in the following months’’, Grigoriadis told IPS.

“More attention has been given to Turkish relations with Armenia, Syria, and Iraq rather than with Greece. Joint Greek-Turkish initiatives in the Balkans could not be precluded, yet where work is mostly needed is in the Aegean question, as well as Cyprus,” he said.

Offering to mediate between the West and Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and taking on Israel for its aggression against Lebanon and Palestine, have also been spectacular foreign policy decisions that attracted attention internationally.

But Turkey’s silent return in the Balkans has been equally effective. During the last decade it has established itself, politically and economically, as a key factor in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, successfully playing on cultural proximity.

Turkey’s new philosophy has led it to improve relations and acquire strategic assets beyond traditional boundaries. Two weeks ago Turkish investors declared interest in purchasing the Serbian national carrier JAT.

Emrullah Uslu, a Turkish terrorism expert and currently an associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utah said: “Davutoglu and the governmental Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership consider Turkey’s economic infrastructure to be the strongest in the region. Therefore, peace within the region would benefit the Turkish economy”.

This represents something of a power shift in the area of the Balkans. Since the end of Communism Greece has been the main regional centre, a leading foreign investor particularly in the banking sector and a major destination for Balkan emigrants, particularly emigrants from areas and communities with close links to Greece, like the Greek diaspora in the Black Sea area and southern Albania. Turkey’s rise is changing the dynamics.

In a sense, the relationship between Greece and Turkey is like that of Taiwan and China. Relative to Turkey Greece is a maritime power, separated from Turkey by the Aegean Sea and with well-defended insular holdings near the frontier, able to successfully hold of its neighbours thanks to a significantly greater wealth per capita that allows it to defend its well-defined frontiers with a relatively more sophisticated military and favourable geography. China’s economic growth of late has threatened Taiwan’s defensive position, helping to encourage a rapprochement based on economic factors. So too Greece and Turkey?

Written by Randy McDonald

May 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm

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[REVIEW] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon


Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

I’d like to thank Christine Gordon Manley, Edwards Magazine‘s editor, for posting my review of Andrew’s Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Hopefully this will be one review of many posted there.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Yet another amazing extrasolar discovery

Upsilon Andromedae A is a Sun-like star somewhat younger and more massive, thus more luminous, than our own Sol. The fact that Upsilon Andromedae A supports a planetary system has been known since 1996, while three years later astronomers determined that Upsilon Andromedae A has multiple planets, the first system so identified. It turns out that Upsilon Andromedae A’s system is very weird and unexpected. I’ll let Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait describe it.

Our solar system is pretty neat and orderly. Yeah, it has some issues, but in general we can make some broad statements about it: the planets all orbit the Sun in the same direction, for one thing, and they also orbit pretty much in the same plane. If you look at the system from the side, the orbits would all look flat, like a DVD seen from the side.

That’s left over from the formation of the solar system itself, which happened when a cloud of dust and gas collapsed into a disk. The planets formed from that disk, so they all orbit in roughly the same plane. We see other systems forming in the same way, so we assume that when we look at those planets, they’ll also have all their planets in a plane.

Oops. Maybe not so much. Astronomers have just announced that they’ve confirmed a system where the planets are not all aligned this way, and in fact the planets are titled relative to each other by as much as 30°!

Will Baird reproduced the below useful comparison map of our planetary system and Upsilon Andromedae’s. I wouldn’t have thought it stable, honestly.

Comparison of Solar System with Upsilon Andromedae system

[T]he amazing thing is that it looks like Ups And c and d are in wildly different orbits: instead of being almost exactly in the same plane as expected, they are tilted relative to one another by 30°! The illustration on the right compared those orbits with those of planets in our own solar system, and you can see how weird this is.

[. . .]

In the case of Upsilon Andromedae, we have some culprits. The data hint that there may be a fourth planet orbiting the star. It’s not clear if it’s there or not, but if it has an elliptical orbit it could gravitationally affect the inner planets. There’s also the red dwarf star orbiting farther out. Far more massive than a planet, its gravity may have some effect on the system as well. It’s also certainly possible that there are other influences we haven’t seen or thought of yet. [Update: I just got off the phone with the team who did this research, and Rory Barnes told me that a strong possibility as well is that there were more planets in the system initially. They would have interacted via gravity, and affected each others’ orbits. A likely scenario is that a planet with about ten times the mass of Jupiter could have messed up the orbits of the other two, then been ejected out of the system. This is a common outcome when you have lots of massive objects in one system.

This has obvious implications for life, as noted at Wired Science.

When astronomers talk about the “habitable zone,” they mean the shell around a star where the temperatures are right for liquid water. Any closer, and oceans will boil. Any farther, and the planet will freeze. But this definition assumes that most planets have roughly circular orbits, like the Earth and most other planets in the solar system.

“What we know from studying exoplanets is that that is definitely not the rule,” said Rory Barnes of the University of Washington at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami. Many of the 454 exoplanets discovered to date have highly elliptical orbits, meaning the planets are not always the same distance from their parent star. Thanks to this uneven geometry, the planet spends more time closer to its star, which tends to make for warmer planets.

Adding another planet, especially a bullying Jupiter-sized planet, can mess with orbits and make a once-hospitable planet move in and out of the habitable zone over time. Using computer simulations of several hypothetical planetary systems, Barnes showed that a giant neighbor can pull an Earth-like planet’s orbit like a rubber band, shifting it from circular to elliptical and back to circular again in as little as a few thousand years.

Still, there is hope.

Barnes’ simulations predicted more-dire consequences for extrasolar planets near the edge of their habitable zones, though. If the planet is on the cooler edge of the habitable zone, it could go through cycles of freezing and thawing. If it’s on the warmer side, the temperature could fluctuate from comfy to boiling from one millennium to the next.

“The inner edge is much more dangerous,” Barnes said. All the water could boil off and be lost forever, or the warming planet could experience a “runaway greenhouse” effect and end up a scorched wasteland like Venus.

But it’s not all bad news. Barnes suggests that some planets we might dismiss as snowballs could just be going through an eccentric phase.

“Our own Earth has gone through stages of glaciation — we call them snowball Earth phases — and we managed to pull out of it,” he said. “On a planet like that, on the outer edge, you will have reservoirs of life, and there will be habitats that will persist.”

Barnes is referring to the Snowball Earth theory, which suggests–apparently with good reason–that there have been periods of time when the Earth was locked into periods of tens of millions of years in which it has been completely glaicated. Science fiction writers have depicted life on worlds with similar if less extreme cycles, most notably Brian Aldiss in his Helliconia series, set on a planet with very long seasons, dipping from coldest winter to warmest spring over two thousand years.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Daniel Drezner wonders if, at a time when Europe is weakening, the United States can find partners and allies to take Europe’s place in emerging countries like India and Brazil.
  • Extraordinary Observation’s speculates that social engineering might change the ways American cities and city-dwellers operate, becoming more pro-bike for instance.
  • Geocurrents writes about Paraguay, suggesting that its apparent tolerance for corruption may have a lot to do with its participation in two deadly, very draining wars.
  • Global Sociology really doesn’t like the IMF, particularly what it sees as economic strategies which disproportionately hurt the poor and the middle classes.
  • Law 21’s Jordan Furlong warns that China may end up becoming hugely important as the outsourcing of legal work goes, with obvious implications for lawyers in North America and elsewhere.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money’s communication of the reality that the Israeli-South African alliance under apartheid was so close that Israel was apparently willing to sell South Africa nuclear weapons doesn’t surprise me. The fact that Israel got away with such potentially catastrophic proliferation will threaten non-proliferation efforts, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
  • Noel Maurer is not impressed by German public opinion’s hostility to IMF bailouts of southern European Euro-using countries, since Germany will benefit.
  • Slap Upside the Head reports on the sad news that Canada is about to deport an asylum seeker, hoping that Canada wwill save him from persecution on the grounds of his sexual orientation.
  • Spacing Toronto’s Shawn Micallef mourns the recent death of Will Munro, a queer artist and community organizer who helped transform Toronto’s artistic community.
  • Zero Geography maps Internet usage by country. Romania and Ukraine turn out to have surprisingly low rates of Internet usage.