A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for May 2011

[LINK] “Egypt’s Mubarak fined for communications cut”

Reuters’ Shaimaa Fayed reports on the symbolic news that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, already facing a raft of charges has been fined (along with two other) the equivalent of 91 million US dollars for cutting telecommunications services, specifically the mobile and Internet services which played such a symbolic–if not actual–role in organizing the Egyptian opposition in January.

An Egyptian administrative court fined ousted President Hosni Mubarak and two former officials 540 million Egyptian pounds ($91 million) on Saturday for cutting mobile and Internet services during protests in January.

It was the first court ruling to be made against Mubarak since he was ousted on February 11. Mubarak faces more serious charges, including ordering the killing of protesters, a charge which could carry the death penalty.

A judicial source said the administrative court fined Mubarak 200 million Egyptian pounds, former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif 40 million pounds, and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli 300 million pounds.

The court ruled that Mubarak, Nazif and Adli were guilty of “causing damage to the national economy” and the fines would be paid to the country’s treasury.

Political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah called the ruling “extremely important,” saying it would change the way the Egyptian government deals with the communication revolution.

“This ruling will be a turning point for the standing and decisions of some Egyptian entities still living in an authoritarian culture regarding how to deal with communication services and the freedoms they offer,” Abdel Fattah said.

The 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak was largely Web-based, and was organized by groups on Facebook.

[. . .]

Telecoms operator Vodafone said in January it and other mobile operators had no option but to comply with an order from the authorities to suspend services in selected areas of the country during the peak of the anti-government demonstrations.

In February, Vodafone also accused the authorities of using its network to send pro-government text messages to subscribers.

Communications and Information Technology Minister Maged Othman said his ministry planned to pay compensation estimated at around 100 million pounds to mobile telecoms operators for losses caused by the service disruption, the state news agency Mean said. It said the figure was reached by independent bodies.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 31, 2011 at 8:36 pm

[LINK] “France Criticizes German Retreat From Nuclear on Emissions”

I agree almost entirely with the sentiments of the French of the German rejection of nuclear energy as ill-judged. I’m skeptical of the idea that a Germany more dependent on coal and oil (but how can it do so and diminish its carbon footprunt?) or on wind and solar energy (but is there enough?) can continue to be an energy exporter. But then, if Germany rejects imports of nuclear-generated energy … perhaps quantum-foam taps will be coming online shortly?

The German government’s decision to close all its nuclear plants in a decade will lead to greater dependence on fossil fuels, increase carbon emissions and require imported atomic power, French officials said.

“Germany will be even more dependent on fossil fuels and imports and its electricity will be more expensive and polluting,” French Industry Minister Eric Besson said in a statement. German households pay twice as much for power than homes in France, where 80 percent of electricity comes from atomic plants, he said.

[. . .]

“It’s hard to see how they will replace the energy,” Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive officer of state-run Areva SA, the world’s biggest maker of nuclear equipment, said on BFM Radio. “I’m not sure there is enough Polish coal, and it creates carbon problems. Alternative energy sources are intermittent sources. I think they will do what Austria did in its time: import nuclear electricity from neighboring countries.”

The move “will result in higher electricity costs in Germany, with consequences for industry,” said Lauvergeon.

Germany is Europe’s largest power market, followed by France. Germany last year was a net exporter of power to France, sending 16.1 terawatt hours to the country compared with imports of 9.4 terawatt hours, according to data published by grid operator Reseau de Transport d’Electricite.

This trend was reversed last month following the accident at Fukushima and the subsequent decision by Merkel to halt Germany’s oldest reactors. In April, France was a net exporter of power to Germany for the first time since the summer months of June, July and August last year, according to RTE.

Merkel has repeatedly said that Germany must remain a net exporter of energy, stressing that there is no point closing German nuclear plants only to import nuclear power from other countries.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 31, 2011 at 7:10 pm

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[LINK] “‘Blue Stragglers’ in the Galactic Bulge”

Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster made an interesting post about the recent discovery of blue stragglers–briefly, old stars that seem younger than they should be–in the galactic core where there should be none.

The galactic bulge is a tricky place to study because foreground stars in the disk compromise our view. But the SWEEPS data led to a re-examination of the target region, again with Hubble, two years after the original observations were made. The blue stragglers could clearly be identified as moving at the speed of the bulge stars rather than the foreground stars. Of the original 42 blue straggler candidates, anywhere from 18 to 37 are now thought to be genuine, the others being foreground objects or younger bulge stars that are not blue stragglers.

Allan Sandage discovered blue stragglers in 1953 while studying the globular cluster M3, leading scientists to ask why a star would appear so much younger than the stars around it. Stars in a cluster form at approximately the same time and should therefore show common characteristics determined by their age and initial mass. A Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of a cluster, for example, should show a readily defined curve on which the stars can be plotted.

Blue stragglers are the exception, giving the appearance of stars that have defied the aging process. One possibility is that they form in binaries, with the less massive of the two stars gathering in material from the larger companion, causing the accreting star to undergo fusion at a faster rate. More dramatic still would be the collision and merger of two stars — more likely in a region where stars are dense — which would cause the newly formed, more massive object to burn at a faster rate.

And as it happens, Gilster reports on the suggestion of Canadian astronomer Martin Beech that blue stragglers might–might–be a sign of stellar engineering. (I’d reviewed Beech’s Rejuvenating the Sun and Avoiding Other Global Catastrophes here.)

Martin Beech (University of Regina) has suggested looking at blue stragglers in a SETI context, noting that some could be examples of astroengineering, the civilization in question using its technology to mix shell hydrogen into the inner stellar core to prolong its star’s lifetime on the main sequence. It’s an interesting suggestion though an unlikely one given that we can explain blue stragglers through conventional astrophysics. In fact, blue stragglers point to an important fact about the field some are calling ‘interstellar archaeology’ — gigantic astroengineering may be extremely difficult to tell apart from entirely natural phenomena, in which case Occam’s razor surely comes into play.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 31, 2011 at 4:16 pm

[LINK] “Dan Choi, Other Activists, Beaten and Arrested in Moscow”

Thanks to Facebook’s Michael for linking to Dan Savage’s post reporting on an attack on gay protesters in Moscow by skinheads, apparently with the implicit permission of the police.

denied a permit—but anti-gay skinheads were given a permit. Russian LGBT activists, along with international supporters (including Choi), marched in defiance of the ban on a gay pride demonstration. The police stood by and did nothing while skinheads—some working with the police—beat some marchers, the police then swarmed and arrested other LGBT marchers. You can see the police tackle Choi in the video above. LGBT activists, some skinheads, and a few bystanders were all swept up in the arrests, and they all wound up in cells and courtrooms together. Choi has published an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on her to condemn state-sponsored violence against LGBT people in Russia.

The letter is here, while you can add your signature there, too.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm

[#PHOTOS] St. Clair West in the spring evening light, #Toronto

St. Clair West in the spring evening light by randyfmcdonald
St. Clair West in the spring evening light, a photo by randyfmcdonald on Flickr.

The streetcar awnings set off this stretch of cars and stores well.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 31, 2011 at 9:28 am

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[DM] “More on the demographics of Canadian politics”

I’ve a post up looking at the analyses by Canadian political blogger Éric Grenier of the changing demographics of the three major Canadian political parties as they won or lost seats. While his analysis is remained problematic by the distinct between the people of the ridings and the people who actually voted, it’s provocative.

Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm

[LINK] “Talking trash at City Hall, left right and centre”

Edward Keenan at The Grid–successor to eye weeklynails squarely the import of the privatization of garbage collection in Toronto, as an issue onto itself, as cause for the massive swing towards Ford (the 2009 garbage strike was unpleasant), and as representative of growing discord between ideological factions on city council.

CUPE Local 416, the union that represents the city’s waste disposal staff, is still suffering from damage caused by its summer 2009 strike. There is little point in going back to re-argue the merits of the union’s bargaining position. What appears relevant in retrospect is how self-destructive the event was, taken as a whole. The debate turned on a perk that allowed garbage collectors to bank unused sick days and then take them as cash—a quirky bit of largesse that offended the general public. So the union behaved as if it were at war with the city’s government and residents.

When the strike was settled, the union had all but ended the political career of David Miller, likely the most union-friendly mayor this city will have in my lifetime. When he announced he wouldn’t run again, most analysts attributed his decision to either the personal or political injuries he incurred during the garbage strike—at the very least, it appeared, to many of us, to have broken his spirit.

Moreover, the strike left a big segment of the general public viscerally angry at the public service and hungry for revenge. Which is where Rob Ford came in. His campaign for mayor tapped into the residual sense of rage that many people had with government employees. There was a gut feeling that getting paid for staying healthy, and $12,000 retirement parties on the public dime, were symptoms of a City Hall that had profoundly lost touch with reality, a government that left senior citizens rotting in a pile of their own garbage while it debated how best to spend tax money on perks. It’s too simple to say the strike made Rob Ford mayor, but it would also be simple-minded to deny it helped create the conditions for his victory. Notably, Ford’s campaign promised to contract out garbage collection.

Last week at City Hall, Ford moved a little closer to delivering on that promise. Still, if he’s capitalized on the union’s lack of diplomatic acumen, he doesn’t seem to have learned from it. Ever since he was elected, Ford has controlled council using a with-us-or-against-us mentality, bullying moderate councillors and aggressively trying to screw those who won’t defer to his will. The air between council’s left and right is toxic, but more importantly for Ford, the centrist councillors are showing signs of poisoning as well.

Go read the whole thing.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2011 at 10:03 pm

[LINK] “Divide and Bind”

Bulgarian television journalist Boyko Vassilev an article up at Transitions Online examining the decidedly tumultuous Bulgarian-Turkish relationship.

Yes, Bulgaria and Turkey have a long history. Its central fact is a number: 500, the years of – how to call it? Ottoman or Turkish? Presence? Domination? Rule? Or was it a yoke, as the 19th-century writer Ivan Vazov saw the period in his classic novel, Under the Yoke. “This is a Bulgarian issue,” Pamuk told a press conference before our interview, seeming genuinely surprised by the question from a reporter.

But it’s not only “the yoke” that sticks between Bulgarians and Turks. Contemporary history also matters. In the mid-1980s Bulgaria’s communist leadership changed the names of the Muslim population, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks). The shameful campaign, called the “revival process” was supposedly meant to encourage them to “rediscover” their Bulgarian roots. Instead, resistance broke out, blood was shed, and around 300,000 Turks left Bulgaria. The common life was poisoned, and the country’s international reputation was ruined. Even Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union did not back its Bulgarian comrades.

Then 1989 came and Muslims got back their names. Some of the refugees returned. And a party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), was born. The philosopher and political prisoner Ahmed Dogan became, and remains, its leader. It was this party and this person who shaped the image of the relationship between Bulgarians and Turks in Bulgaria.

[. . .]

Could the famous Bulgarian ethnic model of tolerance and integration after 1990 crumble? No, but the ground is not entirely solid, either. Another coincidence proved that. On the last day of Pamuk’s visit, Ataka supporters clashed with Muslims in front of the Sofia mosque during Friday prayers. This act was immediately condemned by all parties and pundits – and exposed as part of Ataka’s preparations for October presidential and local elections. Yet the issue is inflammatory – and yes, it builds on historical memory.

The question is whether the Bulgarian public will be tempted to recall that memory right now. It would be premature to expect that Ataka will win the election points it is expecting. Christian citizens found each other on Facebook and brought flowers to the mosque; the Facebook group grew. Another group demanded that Ataka leader Volen Siderov be prosecuted for inciting ethnic and religious hatred.

Historians pointed out that Turkey is the neighboring country to enjoy the longest period of peace with Bulgaria. Commentators remind that the two countries are now NATO allies. Though there are open questions, like calls to compensate the descendants of Turkey’s 1913 expulsion of Bulgarians from Thrace, the bilateral itinerary is not one of conflict. Yes, Bulgarians have painful memories, but they also eagerly spend their holidays in Antalya, shop in Istanbul, and, most tellingly, watch Turkish soaps. Last year, the second-most watched show on Bulgarian TV, behind only the football World Cup final, was one of these serials. And Bulgarians read Pamuk, one of the best-selling writers here.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2011 at 8:44 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “A Dose of Fiscal Reality”

At his blog, James Bow makes the obvious point that Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s plan to build entirely new subway lines is simply impossible, and that there will either be significant increases in city taxes and tolls or massive cutbacks.

[. . .] I’m not surprised that Ford currently enjoys a 70% approval rating. I, for one, didn’t buy the doom and gloom of the anti-Ford naysayers that Ford’s election would ruin the city on December 1, 2010. Toronto is just too resilient for that. Besides, there’s the small matter of the $300 million surplus that David Miller left behind. That money has helped fund Ford’s many fiscally irresponsible acts in 2011, including canning the Vehicle Registration Tax, blocking the TTC’s fare increase, and granting the police union a higher-than-inflation wage increase. Put simply, Ford has coasted through his first year in office thanks to David Miller’s gift. The real impact of Ford’s mayoralty hasn’t been felt by most Torontonians, and it won’t until 2012, when Rob Ford will be called upon to close the $750 million operating shortfall that’s currently on the city’s books.

Let’s see then if he’ll manage to live up to his campaign promise to cut taxes “without any service cuts” (to be fair, he later amended this with the weasel words, “without any major service cuts”). It’s easy to like Ford when he cuts a $62 million tax, but doesn’t close community library branches, pools, hockey rinks, or rush hour buses. When real service cuts come to hit the TTC, when community centres close, ice time vanishes, and pools sit empty during the hot summer months, how will people react to a city that has just become leaner and meaner, in ways that affect them personally?

It’s at this point that people will start pointing out that Ford promised that stopping the gravy train would enable the city to lower taxes while maintaining services, but the math isn’t adding up in Ford’s favour. Privatizing garbage collection for half the city will only save $8 million. Going through department budgets line by line, and going after the overspending of previous councillors, like Adam Giambrone’s $3000, will barely net more than a million. It’s all well and good to go after these efficiencies, but at the end of the day, the Ford administration is only going to have saved around $50 million. Congratulations guys; that is time well spent. But you still have $700 million to cut. You are now going to have to go after things that you previously did not label “frills”.

Signs of the coming unravelling can already be seen as Ford pushes forward his fiscally irresponsible plan to complete the Sheppard subway. Never mind that Ford is spending $4 billion to build a major piece of infrastructure that far exceeds the demand of the route it serves when an LRT line costing a quarter of that value was already funded, and would have served more of Sheppard Avenue. So dogmatic was Ford’s antipathy towards surface transit that, if reports are to be believed, he turned down a provincial offer of $2 billion towards his beloved subway, on the condition that the provincially funded Eglinton LRT be allowed to operate on the surface between Laird Drive and Kennedy station.

I can’t help but shake my head at this. That’s $2 billion turned aside because Ford wasn’t willing to widen Sheppard Avenue to put LRT vehicles in the middle. Instead, we’re left with infrastructure that’s way overbuilt, and which will be of use to far fewer people. Where’s the respect to taxpayers?

And by turning aside the $2 billion, Ford now has a $4 billion subway proposal that’s almost completely unfunded. And yet, his campaign promised that the line would open in time for the Pan-Am Games. Does that sound sensible to you? He might get money from the federal government, but the related government infrastructure program he’d access only has a budget of $1.25 billion, to be earmarked for the whole country. He’s talked about development charges, but the funds raised by these measures are woefully insufficient. Now, I’m told we’re looking at rerouting development charges around the Eglinton LRT, and possibly a fire sale of City property to try and close the gap. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible — selling the refrigerator to pay for a new mansion — it won’t close the gap.

Go, read the whole thing, and hope that Bow is wrong.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2011 at 7:39 pm

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[LINK] “Can Turkey Unify the Arabs?”

I’d like to thank Facebook’s Scott for linking to this New York Times article by Anthony Shadid. The idea of a Turkey having a substantial influence on the Arab world–more specifically, it seems, but the area of the Fertile Crescent stretching from Lebanon through to Iraq–now that it has become dynamic in any number of areas (economically, culturally, politically) does make a certain amount of sense. Might it be accurate to describe the former Ottoman domains as constituting as cohesive a bloc as the former Austro-Hungarian domains in central Europe?

As the Arab world beyond the border struggles with the inspirations and traumas of its revolution — a new notion of citizenship colliding with the smaller claims of piety, sect and clan — something else is percolating along the old routes of that empire, which spanned three continents and lasted six centuries before Ataturk brought it to an end in 1923 with self-conscious revolutionary zeal.

It is probably too early to define identities emerging in those locales. But something bigger than its parts is at work along imperial connections that were bent but never broken by decades of colonialism and the cold war. The links are the stuff of land, culture, history, architecture, memory and imagination that remains the realm of scholarship and daily lives but often eludes the notice of a journalism marching to the cadence of conflict.

Even amid the din of the upheaval in the Arab world, that new sense of belonging represents a more pacific and perhaps more powerful undertow pulling in directions that call into question more parochial notions. The undertow intersects with the Arab revolution’s search for a new sense of self; it also builds on economic forces now reconnecting an older imperium, as well as on Turkey’s new dynamism and on efforts to bring reality to what has long been nostalgia.

Its echoes are heard in the borderlands like Gaziantep, near Mr. Said’s shop, where businessman can haggle in a patois of English, Turkish, Arabic and even Kurdish. It is seen in the blurring of arbitrary lines where the Semitic script of Arabic and Kurdish tangles with the Latin script of Turkish across the borders with Syria and Iraq. It is noticed along the frontiers where Arab and Turkish nationalism, pan-Islamism and a host of secular ideologies never seemed to quite capture the ambitions or demarcate the environments of the diverse peoples who live there.

“The normalization of history,” proclaims the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, whose government has tried to reintegrate the region by lifting visa requirements and promoting a Middle Eastern trade zone, as it deploys its businessmen along the old routes and exports Turkey’s pop culture to an eager audience.

“None of the borders of Turkey are natural,” he went on. “Almost all of them are artificial. Of course we have to respect them as nation-states, but at the same time we have to understand that there are natural continuities. That’s the way it’s been for centuries.”

There is admittedly a hint of romanticism in it all. The Arab world may in fact be bracing for years of sectarian and internecine strife in places like Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria. And in seeking to be a more prominent, and steadying, influence, Turkey’s ambitions may well be greater than its means. Still, economic realities are already restoring old trajectories that joined the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iraq, tied Batumi in Georgia to Trabzon in Turkey, and knit Aleppo into an axis of cities — Mosul, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep and Iskenderun — in which Damascus, the leading but distant Arab metropole, was an afterthought.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2011 at 6:04 pm