A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for December 2010

[MUSIC] Annie Lennox, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

I wasn’t planning to buy Annie Lennox’s A Christmas Cornucopia because her 2007 Songs of Mass Destruction left me mostly cold, her shimmering “Coloured Bedspread” aside. Songs of Mass Destruction seems to have left her record company cold, too; A Christmas Cornucopia, released on Island, is the first album she released since Lennox left Sony amid a certain amount of fuss. The September announcement of the holiday album’s impending release, that staple of established stars with nothing to say, left me uninspired. But then, via Facebook’s David, I heard her cover of “God rest you merry, gentlemen”, with her typical sheen–good vocals, interesting instrumentation–and felt back into line.

I like the album; I’ve certainly heard it enough. She does bring something new to the songs she covers, personally familiar to North American Anglophone me or not. What? Apart from her musical talents, she brought her philosophy about the season, something she revealed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on the making of the album. Christmas isn’t just all sweetness and light; Christmas is more complex, and scary, and important than that.

The flip side of the Christmas season is pretty dark: Packed department stores and crowded high streets juxtaposed with homeless people wearing Santa hats in the freezing cold.

In a way, my choice of carols for “A Christmas Cornucopia” reflects the duality of the season. One song I recorded, “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol),” is a tender lullaby of a mother to a child, but, looking deeper, the essential issue is actually infanticide.

[. . .]

I love Christmas trees and bright lights and all the celebration. But I see a world that is sometimes mad, leaderless, and compassionless to children. All those themes are part of the Christmas story—such as the hunting of the Christ child by King Herod—and part of the caroling tradition. It’s there in my thinking as I’m creating a recording. There’s a film in mind and it goes from child soldiers to Macy’s department store.

If you go to London (where I live), you will see a Victorian church more or less on every corner, just like you see a Starbucks on every block of any city these days. And you subsequently get the sense that the church, in decades and centuries past, was packed on a Sunday, morning, noon and night. It was the glue of society, and the moral arbiter of the day.

Carols like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” feature religious and royal images of angels and kings—-but most of us don’t have those mental pictures running through our heads anymore. Yet we have a longing to return to other, traditional scenes of Christmastime: horse-drawn carriages in the snow-covered streets, families coming together round a tree. In our hearts we’re children, really, and we want the world to be a better place. We want it to be shiny and we want it to have brightly colored lights. And when we see children, we recognize the wonder they feel about life and the world is something we might have lost, but we yearn to keep it safe for them.

Lennox’s best songs, as a solo artist or with the Eurythmics, had an awareness of this dangerous ambivalence at their core. Her “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” brings authentic passion and meaning back to that powerful verse:

God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan’s power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.

The song–and its sentiments–matter. Kudos to her for this.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • 80 Beats suggests that, contrary to expectations, the climate of northern Africa’s Sahara region may have been pleasant enough to let early hominids migrate to the Mediterranean basin without being forced to follow the thin fertile strip of the Nile.
  • At Acts of Minor Treason, Andrew Barton uses an artifact–his grandfather’s old toolbox, a former ammunition box–to wonder about all the things in history that remain unknown, and how speculations about possibilities make alternative history interesting.
  • blogTO points out that the current risible anti-drug campaign on the TTC–look, if you do drugs you’ll no longer look pretty–is, in fact, risible.
  • Centauri Dreams commemorates the dream of the generation starship, put forward by Leslie Shepherd in 1952.
  • At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin thinks that it might be worthwhile for the United States, at least, to spend more money on education and health than on the military. In the past generation, American military expeditions haven’t met very successful outcomes (cf Iraq, Afghanistan).
  • Extraordinary Observations’ Rob Pitingolo points to a recent study suggesting that, for nine major American cities, the outer suburbs are more dangerous than the inner cities. This, he points out, is a recent change.
  • Far Outliers has an interesting excerpt relating to NGOs as “benevolent colonialists.”
  • The Grumpy Sociologist documents the apparently successful efforts of the National Basketball Association to boost that sport in first China then India, starting with high-profile stars from those countries (Yao Ming, say) to create perceived needs for those sports.
  • Itching for Eestimaa suggests that turmoil in Estonia’s Centre Party–a left-wing party with strong appeal to Russophones as well as to ethnic Estonians, beset by controversy suggesting that the leader has been accepting Russian money–is the product of a palace coup against the party’s leader.
  • Lawyers, Guins and Money’s Charli Carpenter links to a Financial Times essay by Parag Khanna saying that the world is becoming “neo-medieval,” the 21st century coming to resemble the 12th century. The analogy works, actually, save in the many, many ways in which the two centuries are fundamentally different. Argh.
  • At NewAPPSBlog, Catarina Dutilh Novaes counsels prospective graduate students against making the jump if they’ll go into debt, arguing that the exloitative nature of universities’ employment of doctoral students in most countries just isn’t worth the payoff: there aren’t that many jobs, they don’t pay that much.
  • Savage Minds shows telepresence in action, with Filipino teachers of English animating avatars in out-of-the-way area of South Korea.
  • Towleroad carries the news that, famed failed Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell is being investigated for using campaign funds to cover personal expenses like rent.
  • Understanding Society’s Daniel Little has an interesting post up about dystopian representations of Indians and Chinese cities in film.
  • Windows on Eurasia suggests that, under Iranian influence, Shi’ite Islam is taking off in traditionally Sunni but Persian-speaking Tajikistan.

[PHOTO] Laneway near Dovercourt and Dupont, Toronto

Written by Randy McDonald

December 30, 2010 at 9:57 am

[H&F] “Information and democracy”

I’ve a post up at History and Futility recapitulating the interesting question of whether or not WikiLeaks–and the ideal of greater transparency generally–is necessary for democracy. A question: does broader and deeper democracy require more information-sharing?

Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2010 at 11:08 pm

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[LINK] “Brazilian Economy Booming, but Sliding Backwards”

Inter Press Service’s Mario Osava makes the important point that although Brazil’s economy is doing fine as a whole, and doesn’t seem likely to succumb to the foreign debt and bad government issues that have harmed its past growth prospects, it still faces significant problems not least of which is apparently a fair amount of deindustrializaiton.

The economy has grown by more than seven percent this year, and exports for the January to November period were up by 30.7 percent over the same period last year.

But imports have grown at the considerably faster rate of 43.9 percent so far this year, as part of a trend that has held steady since 2007. In 2006, Brazil had a 46.1 billion dollar surplus of exports over imports, which has decreased every year since; as of November this year the balance in Brazil’s favour was only 14.9 billion dollars.

Furthermore, the trade surplus is based on exports of agricultural and mineral commodities. The manufacturing trade balance is negative, to the tune of some 35 billion dollars this year, a figure that could grow five-fold in two years’ time, Rogerio Souza, chief economist at the Institute of Studies for Industrial Development (IEDI), told IPS.

The industrial sector in Brazil was hit hardest by the global financial crisis in 2009, when its output fell by seven percent. After rallying early this year, production dropped again in the second quarter and remained stagnant in subsequent months, alarming manufacturers.

Industrial production has stagnated in the context of a fast-growing economy, which accentuates the fall of its share of GDP, already six percentage points lower than in 1970, when Brazilian industrialisation was in its infancy and the country’s main export was coffee, Souza said.

[. . .]

Paulo Francini, head of research at the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP), said on Nov. 30 that the extremely undervalued Chinese yuan, together with a Brazilian real that is overvalued by an estimated 42 percent against the dollar, make it impossible to compete, since no one can halve their production costs.

That day, Francini presented a study which describes the increasing replacement of national inputs and products by imported ones in factories in Brazil’s industrial heartland.

The government must do everything in its power to combat overvaluation of the real, including restrictions on inflows of speculative capital attracted by Brazil’s high interest rates, said Souza.

The textile industry provides another illustration of the problem. Five or six years ago, exports exceeded imports by 400 to 500 million dollars a year.

This year, however, a deficit of 3.5 billion dollars is projected, with imports worth some five billion dollars, said Fernando Pimentel, supervising director of the Brazilian Textile Industry Association (ABIT).

The sector has fought back with hefty investments in new technology and equipment, but there are too many factors against it, like high taxes and interest rates, poor infrastructure and little technological innovation, said Pimentel. “Change makes everything more difficult; if we hadn’t been creative, we wouldn’t have survived,” he said.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2010 at 9:08 pm

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[LINK] “South Korea Names North’s Regime ‘Enemy,’ Seeks Change”

This is a change, and it does seem to have the potential to destabilize the bilateral north-south situation, much more than an unlikely revival of the Sunshine Policy that saw the South treat the North as a viable partner.

South Korea named the North Korean regime as its “enemy” and promised to combine a stronger military deterrent with a renewed push to prepare its totalitarian neighbor’s 23 million people for reunification.

Plans presented to President Lee Myung Bak by the Defense, Foreign and Unification Ministries today signaled a harder line against the North and a diplomatic drive to win global support. While Lee said multinational talks were the only option to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, policies aimed at undermining Kim Jong Il’s regime and the focus on planning for reunification are likely to rile the North.

“As the future of North Korea is becoming increasingly unpredictable, such preparation is necessary,” said Park Joon Young, professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University. “Steering North Korean residents toward that goal is the thing that North Korea hates the most.”

Lee has found revived public support for the tougher approach to North Korea he promised when elected in 2008, after two attacks this year raised tension on the peninsula to its highest in decades. North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month, killing four people, and was blamed for sinking the Cheonan warship in March, in which 46 sailors died.

Lee replaced his defense minister and army head following the Nov. 23 artillery barrage, vowing to strengthen the military and respond more harshly to any further North Korean attacks.

[. . .]

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said today it will continue to deepen ties with China. South Korea and the U.S. fought against Chinese and North Korean troops in the 1950-1953 Korean War, and China remains the North’s biggest benefactor. China has come under mounting pressure from the U.S., Japan and South Korea to rein in Kim’s regime.

[. . .]

In a shift of focus, the Unification Ministry said next year’s policy goals would include preparations for unification with North Korea, rather than the previous strategy of improving ties. The “North Korean” people would be the priority, it said in a statement, without giving further details.

The South Korean government has been at pains to draw a distinction between the regime and the people.

While it is unlikely the ruling elite would change their habits, the way the country’s civilians think is changing fast, officials said at a Unification Ministry briefing, according to a statement from the ministry that didn’t identify the speakers.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2010 at 7:45 pm

[LINK] “What Would a Post-Masculinized Military Look Like?”

Charli Carpenter’s post at Lawyers, Guns and Money has me curious about explicitly non-sexist (and non-homophobic) military forces would operate and be structured. People who know more about affairs military than me,

A post-masculinized military, as I imagine it, would differ from the system she’s critiquing not in its ability to use violence [. . .] And it would not merely be constituted by who is in the military or what kind of masculinity the military privileges in its soldiers (though these things matter). More significantly, one would know a post-masculinized military system by the character of the military’s relationship to the civilian world it serves. And I would argue with Sjoberg that there is further (beneficial) work to do, but also that we are heading in the right direction faster that she might acknowledge.

What exactly does that world look like?

Well, it is a world in which women and men both have the equal right to serve.

And it is a world in which hetero-normativity is not a requirement for the sort of archetype we valorize in soldiers. Women’s integration and the repeal of DADT therefore do take us in that direction.

And it is also a world in which “normal masculinity” is delinked from the attributes we associate with hyper-masculine military culture. This is happening in many places already: men’s groups, rap lyrics, third grade classrooms like my son’s, where students are taught to include everyone, to use I-statements when they have hurt feelings, bond without smack-talk, to value other cultures and the earth, and to see “bad” not in the guy but in the behavior. These things are also happening in the military.

And it is also a world in which militarism is de-linked from its historical raison d’etre “killing bad guys to protect innocent women and children on the home front.” But there are many ways to do that delinking short of letting “‘guys’ who do bad” run rampant, and these things are also happening already. Since at least the early 1990s, the US military has been intimately involved in a variety of humanitarian and stability operations worldwide, where the vulnerable being protected are “theirs” not “ours”; where the enemy are not “bad guys” so much as disease, starvation or natural disaster; where the goal is not to kill but to “peace-keep”; where the tactics involve very “feminine” traits such as listening, intercultural dialogue, and the provision of comfort; and where the “good” and “bad” “guys” (when there is killing to be done) may just as easily be children or women. All of this, for better or for worse, is already destabilizing the conventional gendered war narrative that IR feminists use as a foil.

But “de-masculinizing the military” it’s also about at least three other things that are happening, if at all, much more slowly: a) balancing the esteem we pay to military service with the esteem we pay to traditionally feminized roles such as child-rearing b) making the same effort to gender-integrate traditionally feminized roles as we do to gender-integrate traditionally masculinized roles c) changing the relationship between the military and civilian sectors in security operations to be more collaborative and less hierarchical.

Carpenter’s elaboration on her third point particularly interests me.

What we see happening, as Colonel Matthew Moten has aptly described, are armed “civilian” contractors displacing uniformed troops in stability operations, exhibiting a renegade form of warrior masculinity delinked from the just war ethic of those socialized into military culture; and military personnel encroaching upon civilian political authority. What we need to see: increasing engagement by weapons-bearers with “civil society” groups, particularly women’s groups, who often have not only the contextual knowledge to detect threats and mobilize social capital but are frequently overlooked in stability ops because they are not perceived to have the expertise necessary to work with the military. (In fact, people in care-giving roles, historically mothers, have precisely what the military is realizing it needs most: socio-cultural intelligence. Cynthia Cockburn has great examples of this in her chapter on reconstruction in Bosnia in this book[.])

Thoughts?

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2010 at 6:04 pm

[LINK] “B.C.’s salmon wars about ownership, not race”

Over at the Globe and Mail, Harry Swain analyses the slow-motion environmental-cum-ethnic disaster that’s the British Columbia salmon fishery as a consequence of the breakdown of the pre-Confederation ethnic division of labour in the face of the repopulation and industrialization of British Columbia, post-Confederation.

In the 1840’s, when coastal B.C. was run by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fur-trading factors wanted to concentrate the efforts of their expensive imported (mostly Scottish) labour on the profitable business of fur. When local Indian communities – then the owners and long-time sole exploiters of the fisheries – offered to supply food in trade for cloth and kettles, Governor James Douglas was delighted. He set aside small tracts of land for settlements and kitchen gardens, and because these old villages were usually located on the seashore – beside favoured shellfish grounds – he included what we would now call the associated water lots. A comfortable division of labour continued through the establishment of the Crown Colony of B.C. in 1858 and beyond. Pre-Confederation legislation recognized Indian ownership of important fishing stances along the rivers, which were often leased, in a sophisticated display of ownership rights, to Interior tribes for specific periods of a salmon run.

Gold was discovered in the Fraser and the Cariboo, however, bringing a pulse of European and Chinese men to work the deposits and later, in the 1880s, build the CPR. And the first steps toward turning salmon from something that had to be eaten fresh or smoked into an internationally tradable commodity were taken. Canning, which had started early enough to poison Sir John Franklin’s expedition in the 1840s with lead leached from solder, became widespread under the impetus of the U.S. Civil War. Small canneries spread up and down the B.C. Coast. Suddenly native and white fishermen were competing for what had always been an Indian monopoly. Salmon were caught from small boats, rowed or sailed only a few miles from the nearest cannery, in order that they could be delivered fresh in this period before refrigeration and ice plants.

But at least a flow of income continued to the coastal villages, as Indian women went to work in the little plants. Traditional social roles took a bit of a battering, of course, as women took on wage jobs.

A second technological revolution, starting in the 1890s and effectively completed under the lash of the First World War, changed roles even more radically. Internal combustion engines allowed fishing boats to move faster and farther, and fast buy-boats ferried the catch to larger, fewer, and more efficient canneries. Consolidation meant that the local plants that offered employment to people along the coast started to disappear.

Meanwhile the colonial-era legislation that had effectively confirmed the Indians in their existing monopoly of the salmon was swamped under a constitution for the new Canada, written in places like Charlottetown, Quebec, Halifax and Ottawa (sensitive as they still are to facts on the ground 3,000 miles away). The British North America Act of 1867 and, a year later, the new federal Fisheries Act, reserved power over the saltwater fisheries solely to Ottawa. Bit by bit, “ownership” shifted without compensation or even consultation from natives to a distant Crown. And the flood of immigrants continued.

Technology changed social roles in coastal communities, at first empowering women, then disempowering both native fishermen and female plant workers. The new boats required capital the Indians did not have, and which the 1876 Indian Act effectively prohibited them from accumulating. Slowly, over a period of generations, what had for millennia been an Indian monopoly became licensed principally to non-native fishermen. Half-hearted reforms in the period since 1982 have resulted in Indians holding a number of commercial licenses, as well as having their access to salmon for food and ceremonial purposes confirmed through the Charter, but high-flown words often lead to conflict on the water, where tough, hard-working men of both backgrounds either don’t know this little history, or figure it doesn’t apply in the 21st century.

Swain’s suggestion for a solution to the environmental and ethnic issues–briefly, ending the commerical fisheries and instead promoting fisheries tourism, by people who’d spend heaivly in local communities but would catch substantially fewer fish–is problematic. What about fish farms? What if there aren’t enough visiting fishers to compensate for the commercial fisheries’ demise?

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2010 at 4:26 pm

[LINK] “Oldest Homo sapiens fossil? Journalistic vaporware”

The Loom’s Carl Zimmer doesn’t think much of the recent claims that the earliest Homo sapiens comes from Israel almost a half-million years ago. It comes down to category mismatches.

The fossil record offers a picture of hominins evolving in Africa, and pulses of new lineages rolling out through Israel and neighboring regions, and then onward to Europe and Asia. Some 1.4 million years ago, for example, a species of early Homo left fossils in Israel at a site called Ubeidiya. At several sites in and around Israel, paleoanthropologists have found fossils and tools dating back 400,000 to 200,000 years ago–the same period as the Qesem site. Unfortunately, the fossils are mostly fragments that might belong to a number of different species. The tools are equally ambiguous.

Something really interesting happened later in Israel, between about 130,000 and 50,000 years ago. It appears that Homo sapiens, having evolved in Africa, expanded tentatively into the Near East for the first time. Fossils of tall, slender Homo sapiens turn up at a site called Skhul/Qafzeh. But then they vanish, replaced for tens of thousands of years by Neanderthals. Only later does Homo sapiens expand again out of Africa, and this time they don’t retreat. Instead, it’s the Neanderthals that disappear from the Near East, dwindling away to refuges such as Spain before becoming extinct.

The new paper documents the struggle of the scientists to figure out who the Qesem teeth belong to. In some ways, they seem more like Neanderthal teeth. In others, they seem more like the choppers of Homo sapiens, as represented by the Skhul/Qafzeh fossils. The authors tilt towards a relationship with Homo sapiens, but mostly because the teeth are “plesiomorphous.” That term refers to a trait that was already present before the origin of a group of species. It does not refer to a trait that closely links all individuals who have it into a single lineage.

Here’s a simple example of what plesiomorphous means. Let’s say you find a fossil at a site where you had already found dogs and birds. The new fossil has four legs. In that respect, it’s more like a dog than a bird.

But it would not make sense for you to conclude that the fossil was a dog. The common ancestor of dogs and birds had four legs, and birds evolved into two-legged animals. But alligators have four legs, too, and they’re closer to birds than to dogs. All those four legs really tell you is that the fossil isn’t a bird.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2010 at 12:28 pm

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[LINK] “Kant and Wikileaks”

Here’s an interesting justification for Wikileaks. NewAPPSblog’s Julian Nida-Rümelin is the responsible.

About 200 years after the emergence of Kant’s theory [of democratic peace], it turns out that political scientists who work in international relations have come to the conclusion that this theory is correct, according to the data they have thus far. This is surprising: the dominant theory in international relations—so-called “realism”—has no explanation for this data. Realism posits that states, in foreign policy, act exclusively according to their own national interests, so that, without any supra-national body, there is a sort of Hobbesian state of nature, in which conflicts, according to the interests of the states involved, can escalate into wars, regardless of the sort of constitutions these states have.

Against this view, Kant maintained that democracies (“Republics”) would not go to war against one another, because the interests of the ruling bodies within these democracies are generally identical with the interests of those who are governed by them, because the worth of the individual has become a part of the understanding of the state, and because—and here is the crucial point for us—the international relationships in democracies are public: there aren’t any secret subsidiary agreements to international treaties; for every citizen, everything is transparent and can be checked on, and those who rule in democracies tend to avoid all duplicity and secret policies. This condition of publicity constitutes the centerpiece of Kant’s democratic peace: The democratic form of government will ensure peace between republics, independent of their particular interests, only when the goals and praxis of regimes in international politics are transparent and public.

[. . . A] condition for the survival of democratic peace is that the praxis of foreign policy in democracies should distinguish itself from the praxis in dictatorships. The Wikileaks documents show, however, that Kant’s criterion of publicity has been abused not only by dictatorial regimes but also by U.S. diplomacy and, it is likely, by all Western states. The outrageous reasons given for the war in Iraq are only the most obvious and most scandalous example until now. The public was intentionally misled. Had they been adequately informed, they would presumably not have approved of the second Iraq war.

[. . .]

This fundamental difference is called into question by the Wikileaks documents. It is about time that we orient the foreign policy of democratic states according to the principles of clarity and truth. The citizens of a democratic state have a right to know the strategies of their government and its motives.

If the U.S. endorses the admission of Turkey into the E.U. and sings the praises the Erdogan government for its willingness to reform, while the American ambassador in Turkey at the same time implies that this same regime is pursuing a program of Islamization in Turkey and, moreover, is corrupt to the core, this is a glaring breach of Kant’s condition of publicity, and capable of eroding the fundamental conditions of democratic government action: transparency, coherence, and oversight.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 28, 2010 at 11:58 pm