A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for November 2012

[META] Blogroll Additions

I’ve added two blogs to the blogroll, each belonging to a Canadian science fiction author: Karl Schroeder’s weblog and Peter Watts’ No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Re-reloaded).

One recent Schroeder post you might be interested in is “Colonizing Alpha-Centauri: the least and most we can do”. Written in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of Alpha Centauri Bb, Schroeder argues here that even in the case of that planet being the only one in the entire Alpha Centauri system, it might still provide the anchor for a human civilization in-system.

If your idea of habitability is finding a more or less exact copy of the Earth and settling down on it to farm, then things are looking kinda bleak. But, if we have the technology to get to Bb, then we have the technology to live and thrive there.

Not on the surface, of course. Not even in a nearby orbit. But even if Bb is uninhabitable, it is still a great source of building material. If we have the technology to get to it, we’ll have the technology to mine it, if only by dangling a skyhook down from the L2 point (or from a heliostat) to dredge the magma ocean. Haul the magma up, render it in the terrible light of the star, and ship the refined goods to a higher orbit where the temperature’s a bit better. There, we can build habitats–either O’Neill colonies or, if we can harvest enough material, the coronals I describe in my novel Lady of Mazes.

With unlimited energy and (nearly) unlimited building materials, we can construct a thriving civilization around Alpha Centauri B, even if all we have to work with is this one piece of melted rock. (In terms of details, it would be a bootstrapping operation, with an initial small seed of robot miners constructing more or bigger skyhooks, more miners, etc. until exponential growth sets in, by which time it’s safe for the human colonists to show up.)

Watts, meanwhile, argues in “Geoengineering and the Evils of Conservation” that geoengineering, or some form of managed human intervention in the environment, is going to be necessary to keep a world already thrown out of balance comfortable for our civilization.

The problem is that as any population varies, so too does its behavior. Mortality curves, reproductive rates, vulnerability to pathogens and predators — a hundred other variables — all change with population density. It’s a complex system, full of cliffs and folds and intertwined curves unwinding across a range of conditions; and when you keep your population from varying, you only acquire data from a very narrow band of that tapestry. But Nature’s a fickle bitch, and sooner or later she’ll kick your population out of that comfort zone despite your best efforts. When that happens you’ll be adrift in a dark, data-free wilderness where anything can happen.

Unless you kick it out there yourself beforehand, to get some idea of what’s waiting for you.

The term is Adaptive Management and back in grad school days my supervisor was one of its early champions. The idea was that you combine “management” with research, that you don’t strive to keep your system stationary year after year. Every now and then you cut your salmon quotas to zero, leave the scaly little buggers completely alone. Other years you hammer the shit out of them. In all cases you take notes— and gradually, over time, you beat back those dark zones, scratch out here there be dragons and scribble Ricker curves and Lotka-Volterra parameter values in their place. You do what Nature would do eventually anyway, only you do it on your own timetable, to a degree of your own choosing.

That’s the trick, of course: because sometimes there are dragons out there, and what if one of them swallows your salmon stock to extinction because you hammered them too hard? It’s a balancing act. You have to tread carefully, weigh risk against opportunity; the techniques used to find that sweet spot are what distinguishes Adaptive Management from just rolling the dice and unleashing a series of shotgun blasts.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm

[LINK] “Serbia’s Future: Back to the Past”

Hosted at the website of the Institute for Policy Studies, John Feffer’s extended interview with Serbian human rights activist Sonia Biserko, about the collapse of Yugoslavia, the peculiarities of Serbian nationalism, and Serbia’s prospects for the future (grim, she thinks, unless there’s change and honest recognition of past ills), makes for interesting reading.

The war in Yugoslavia began as a conflict over state structure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nationalist movements in the republics championed greater autonomy only to be suppressed in turn by Tito, who then went on to incorporate many of their demands in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic signaled his intentions to assert Serbian dominance within the federation by removing the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina. When I was in the region the following year, debate raged over the nature of the Yugoslav federation: should it be a loose confederation, a more democratic federation, or a state in which Serbia reigned first among equals.

In 1990, Sonja Biserko was in the very middle of these debates. She was working in the Yugoslav foreign ministry at the time, an ideal vantage point for witnessing the disintegration of the federation. She ultimately resigned her position and embarked on a career in human rights through the organization she founded, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. As one of the early critics of Milosevic, she has also been resolute in her critique of Serbian nationalism. She worked to document war crimes and promote dialogue with Kosovo. These positions were not popular, to the say the least, among right-wing extremists and their more mainstream supporters, but Biserko has bravely continued to speak her mind.

She points out that Milosevic and his team were fundamentally anti-institutional and relied on the power of the mob. “This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions,” she points out. “We are now still living in this provisional state. We don’t have a modern state.” Serbia, in other words, is still struggling with the legacy of Milosevic. And the same policies that tore apart the federal structure of Yugoslavia are now threatening Serbia itself, as Belgrade treats provinces like Vojvodina much as it did the republics of Slovenia and Croatia during the Milosevic era.

Biserko does not mince words about what Serbia must do to change course. First of all, Serbians have to grapple with the nationalist project, spelled out back in 1986 in an infamous memo from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, which contributed so much to the war and suffering of the 1990s. “In order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do,” she says. “Other countries also have homework to do, but they won’t do it until they see that Serbia has started the process. This doesn’t mean putting Serbia in a corner. But we should know, especially the young generation, why it happened. People have to understand what was behind all this.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2012 at 2:37 am

[LINK] “Albanians in Balkans vow to unite ‘within EU'”

This Agence France-Presse article speaks to an interesting phenomenon. Is sentiment for a Greater Albanian state including all the major Albanian-populated areas of the western Balkans actually growing?

The leaders of Albania and Kosovo vowed to achieve unity for ethnic Albanians in the region during the centennial celebration of Albania’s independence in the Macedonian capital Sunday but said it should be “within EU boundaries”.

“Through the European Union we are going to realise the project of our national unity,” Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha told some 10,000 people in Skopje.

Berisha insisted that states bordering Albania should not fear this unity.

“I urge all the neighbours to understand that the national unity of Albanians is nothing wrong,” he said, cheered by a crowd chanting “Great Albania” and waving Albanian red flags.

His words were echoed by Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci, who said that Albanians in the region, including the minorities in Serbia and Macedonia, were “stronger than ever and should work together.”

[. . .]

No incidents were reported during the celebration, which has heightened tensions in Macedonia, prompting police to step up security and Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska to appeal for calm amid fears of possible inter-ethnic violence.

Several incidents had been reported in recent days, with youths setting ablaze the flags of rival communities in Skopje and the Albanian-dominated northwestern town of Tetovo.

A leader of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians and former guerilla leader-turned-politician, Ali Ahmeti, whose party organised Sunday’s celebration, also called for respect because “a nation that seeks its rights can not disrespect the rights of others.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm

[LINK] “Serbia’s Future: Back to the Past”

Hosted at the website of the Institute for Policy Studies, John Feffer’s extended interview with Serbian human rights activist Sonia Biserko, about the collapse of Yugoslavia, the peculiarities of Serbian nationalism, and Serbia’s prospects for the future (grim, she thinks, unless there’s change and honest recognition of past ills), makes for interesting reading.

The war in Yugoslavia began as a conflict over state structure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nationalist movements in the republics championed greater autonomy only to be suppressed in turn by Tito, who then went on to incorporate many of their demands in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic signaled his intentions to assert Serbian dominance within the federation by removing the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina. When I was in the region the following year, debate raged over the nature of the Yugoslav federation: should it be a loose confederation, a more democratic federation, or a state in which Serbia reigned first among equals.

In 1990, Sonja Biserko was in the very middle of these debates. She was working in the Yugoslav foreign ministry at the time, an ideal vantage point for witnessing the disintegration of the federation. She ultimately resigned her position and embarked on a career in human rights through the organization she founded, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. As one of the early critics of Milosevic, she has also been resolute in her critique of Serbian nationalism. She worked to document war crimes and promote dialogue with Kosovo. These positions were not popular, to the say the least, among right-wing extremists and their more mainstream supporters, but Biserko has bravely continued to speak her mind.

She points out that Milosevic and his team were fundamentally anti-institutional and relied on the power of the mob. “This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions,” she points out. “We are now still living in this provisional state. We don’t have a modern state.” Serbia, in other words, is still struggling with the legacy of Milosevic. And the same policies that tore apart the federal structure of Yugoslavia are now threatening Serbia itself, as Belgrade treats provinces like Vojvodina much as it did the republics of Slovenia and Croatia during the Milosevic era.

Biserko does not mince words about what Serbia must do to change course. First of all, Serbians have to grapple with the nationalist project, spelled out back in 1986 in an infamous memo from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, which contributed so much to the war and suffering of the 1990s. “In order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do,” she says. “Other countries also have homework to do, but they won’t do it until they see that Serbia has started the process. This doesn’t mean putting Serbia in a corner. But we should know, especially the young generation, why it happened. People have to understand what was behind all this.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2012 at 9:37 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Give Toronto council a time-out”

The traditionally pro-Ford Toronto Sun, in the person of its columnist Mike Strobel, responded to Ford’s expulsion from office by arguing that city council as a whole should also be kicked out of office, removing democratic representation entirely.

(Strobel last appeared here as the author of a column in his paper criticizing Slutwalk, comparing women to prey animals. “There are no such marches on Manitoulin Island, where my cabin nestles. But there are lots of deer. And lots of hunters.”)

The gist of Hackland’s ruling is that Ford should not have voted last February when council considered making him pay $3,150 he’d solicited for his football charity using city letterhead.

Council voted overwhelmingly in Ford’s favour, so his own vote was meaningless, except it’s a technical breach of the province’s harsh municipal ethics rules.

So what of the other councillors? I say give ’em two years for being accessories to the mayor’s “crime,” for aiding and abetting, or even for not reporting it.

[. . .]

Other offences: Being unusually childish, obtuse, partisan, self-serving and dysfunctional.

Rarely outside of Korea has local politics seen such yapping, mewling, growling, pouting, posturing, sneering and jeering. It has even nearly come to blows, Korean-style, between councillors.

And it’s confusing. I forget, are we getting subways, LRT or horse-drawn wagons?

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2012 at 7:02 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Don’t feel sorry for Rob Ford”

The very strongly anti-Ford weekly NOW Toronto has a column up, by Enzo Di Matteo, that is not at all sympathetic to Rob Ford.

Justice Hackland has done Toronto, turned laughingstock by a buffoon, a big favour.

Of course, in Ford’s mind it was everybody else’s fault when the news broke and he found himself unceremoniously dumped.

After the verdict, the mayor showed up at a meeting of his closest advisers in his muddy sweats (he’d been putting his football team through practice in preparation for the next day’s Metro Bowl at the Rogers Centre) – and in deep denial.

When he met the crush of reporters waiting outside his City Hall office, he blamed “left-wing politics” for his defeat and promised to fight the decision “tooth and nail.”

It seems the vast left-wing conspiracy against the mayor includes Justice Hackland, who was appointed by Ford’s fishing buddy in Ottawa, Stephen Harper. One Sun TV commentator said “homosexual extremists” were responsible for the judge’s decision. Yup. Those fucking downtown elites were picking on their boy again.

Ford’s was a pathetic performance. By the time his brother Doug took to the airwaves late Monday afternoon to do damage control on AM 640, Newstalk 1010 and the Stephen LeDrew show, the talking points had changed to how Ford’s football foundation was helping kids in priority neighbourhoods.

Doug Ford also pointed the inevitable finger at other politicians who’ve burned money on assorted wasteful projects. Ford friendlies in the media quickly seized on the Liberals’ gas plant fiasco as a subject of comparison. I hear a march on the office of Clayton Ruby, the lawyer who made the winning case against Ford, may be in the works. And so went the chest-beating by the Ford camp.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2012 at 6:58 pm

[LINK] “Albanians in Balkans vow to unite ‘within EU'”

This Agence France-Presse article speaks to an interesting phenomenon. Is sentiment for a Greater Albanian state including all the major Albanian-populated areas of the western Balkans actually growing?

The leaders of Albania and Kosovo vowed to achieve unity for ethnic Albanians in the region during the centennial celebration of Albania’s independence in the Macedonian capital Sunday but said it should be “within EU boundaries”.

“Through the European Union we are going to realise the project of our national unity,” Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha told some 10,000 people in Skopje.

Berisha insisted that states bordering Albania should not fear this unity.

“I urge all the neighbours to understand that the national unity of Albanians is nothing wrong,” he said, cheered by a crowd chanting “Great Albania” and waving Albanian red flags.

His words were echoed by Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci, who said that Albanians in the region, including the minorities in Serbia and Macedonia, were “stronger than ever and should work together.”

[. . .]

No incidents were reported during the celebration, which has heightened tensions in Macedonia, prompting police to step up security and Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska to appeal for calm amid fears of possible inter-ethnic violence.

Several incidents had been reported in recent days, with youths setting ablaze the flags of rival communities in Skopje and the Albanian-dominated northwestern town of Tetovo.

A leader of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians and former guerilla leader-turned-politician, Ali Ahmeti, whose party organised Sunday’s celebration, also called for respect because “a nation that seeks its rights can not disrespect the rights of others.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm