A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for June 2013

[PHOTO] Peonies by night

One recent night as the peony blossoms yellowed and fell apart, I took some photos of the last remaining clusters of flowers.

Peonies by night (1)

Peonies by night (2)

Peonies by night (3)

Written by Randy McDonald

June 23, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Photo, Toronto

Tagged with , , , ,

[FORUM] What are obvious things you think previous generations missed?

My book review of Journey Across Russia dealt with an in-depth view of a global superpower that would disappear less than a generation after the book’s publication. No one expected the Soviet Union would dissolve, yet, clearly, it did.

What other like lacunae in the imagination do you think that the past was afflicted with?

Written by Randy McDonald

June 23, 2013 at 12:23 am

[REVIEW] McDowell and Conger, Journey Across Russia: The Soviet Union Today

Thursday, I was lucky. Bart McDowell and Dean Conger‘s classic 1977 National Geographic book Journey Across Russia: The Soviet Union Today was one of the first books I ever read on the former Soviet Union, in the adult stacks in Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre Public Library. Much to my surprise, I found a copy for sale, literally on the street at Bloor and Brunswick, for a mere five dollars. This copy even came with the classic two-sided ethnopolitical February 1976 map of the Soviet Union tucked away neatly in the back!

McDowell and Conger, <I>Journey Across Russia: The Soviet Union Today</i>

Journey Across Russia is a remarkable not least because of the date of its publication. In 1977, the Soviet Union was arguably reaching its peak relative to the United States, not that deep into the era of Brezhnevian stagnation at home while expanding its military footprint abroad. The Soviet model of course had its obvious flaws, but the Soviet Union did seem to work, did seem a viable alternative to the Western liberal democratic capitalist order. This book sought to communicate to Western readers something close to an insider’s view of this fascinating, threatening, different society.

The biggest flaw of this book is that it doesn’t deal with the ongoing oppression experienced by Soviet citizens. Reading Journey Across Russia from my particular position with my knowledge 36 years after its publication, I wonder what lacunae Intourist and state censors forced on the author. (The chapter including Crimea doesn’t mention the Crimean Tatars, for instance.) Against this limitation in the depth of the book is the incredible breadth of this book, including interviews with people from a variety of social strata coming from all fifteen Union republics, and beautiful photos along with. And even the limitation in depth isn’t so serious: again, reading with my post-Soviet mind, I see numerous indications of the ethnic tensions in Soviet society, with Georgians wanting to be seen as Europeans and seeing Russia as being as foreign as France, Armenians describing the way past Armenian sufferings influence the current generation’s perceptions, the author’s noting the quiet ethnic tension in Kazakhstan marked by Russophone incomprehension of said country’s titular nation, and a Russian who tried to order a salad in Estonia ended up getting served with sliced eel while his American Estonian-speaking counterpart got smiles and the food he wanted. (Class tensions are lower-key.)

My main emotional reaction to this book is a sort of sadness. The picture of Soviet society that I got from the book is, in part, of a society that was devoted despite itself to its further development. The ambitious geoengineering projects–canals in the Turkmenistan desert, the overextensive development of the Soviet North, even plans to rechannel the Amur–are a case in point. They were environmentally potentially catastrophic, sure, but they did reflect a sort of ambition that liberal-democratic capitalist Westerners could identify with. I can almost understand why many Western leftists so overempathized with the Soviet Union as to be called on it later by Susan Sontag. Knowing how badly life would deteriorate for many of the individuals and entire peoples encountered in the book, I wished things could have been different.

This book has the flaws of its era, but in other respects transcends them. It’s a fascinating worthwhile read, a look at a complex world power just a decade and a half before its fall. Recommended.

[LINK] “OB298 — A Preliminary Atlas of Drone Strike Landscapes”

Quiet Babylon’s Tim Maly has a post up, part of the Murmuration Festival of Drone Warfare, describing in text and in satellite images the leading to a drone-strike in October 2012 on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Who was hit, with what, where, launched from where, made where, and so on–the different factors are described. For instance:

The Arena
Tappi—where the strike happened—is in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. It is sometimes spelled ‘Tapi’, sometimes called a village, and sometimes called an area. It is in North Waziristan, a mountainous region with a socially and religiously conservative culture. The rugged terrain makes it a difficult place to make a living and many locals emigrate to become labourers. When they can, they prefer a medical education.

After the fall of the Taliban government in Afganistan, insurgents began to move across the border and set up shop. In 2007, concerns over the Talibanization of the region led the National Security Council of Pakistan to hold a meeting to decide how to address the detriorating law and order situation. Their plan of action included the deployment of drones.

The region is marked by frequent blood feuds and Waziri religious leaders have been known to use outsiders—such as US forces hunting al-Qaeda fugitives—as a means of settling scores.

The Drone
The drones that killed Bibi Mamana were almost certainly US drones—MQ-1 Predators, flown by the CIA. They’ve been flying missions and hitting targets in Pakistan since 2004. The vast majority of the more than 360 strikes that have happened in Pakistan have been in North Waziristan.

The MQ-1 Predator was originally designed to be a high endurance surveillance platform, but later upgrades allowed it to carry a missile payload. A Predator can fly up to 740km, hold above a target for up to 14 hours, and still return to base. These high endurance times are perfect for the CIA, as it means they can keep a constant presence over an area, observing it for weeks.

Drones are not individual objects. They are distributed hyper-entities, smeared across the globe. A typical Predator system configuration might include four aircraft, one ground control system, a data distribution terminal, and a sattelite network to enable over-the-horizon control. The main piloting is often done from a remote location, but a ground crew is required in the field to maintain, launch, and land the aircraft.

Go, read the whole thing.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 22, 2013 at 8:45 pm

[PHOTO] A mysterious tree with its maple-like seeds

Can anyone identify for me what this tree is, with its long pointed leaves and clumps of light green seed pods? I saw it in front of Essex Junior and Public School on Essex Street west of Christie, for whatever it’s worth.

A mysterious tree with its maple-like seeds

Written by Randy McDonald

June 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Photo, Toronto

Tagged with , ,

[CAT] “Alberta flooding: Momo the cat ‘is a survivor’”

The Toronto Star article illustrating Jordan Verlage’s photo of a man and his cat who escaped a flooded truck in Alberta is heartwarming.


Yeats jumped. The water was frigid, moving fast and full of debris. It was also deep — he didn’t hit bottom when he splashed under. Within seconds the truck disappeared.

Momo was well on her way, heading to an area about 25 metres away, where trees promised safety. But was a difficult swim for Yeats, a 21-year-old arborist in good shape.

“Momo was giving it everything she had,” he said. “I didn’t know if she could swim that far.”

Struggling to the side, they finally made it, Momo sprinting to the nearest tree, Yeats following to check on her as several bystanders rushing to help.

“She was not happy,” Yeats told the Star Friday, laughing. “She’s had better days.”

Then he turned around and surveyed the scene. About a dozen abandoned cars strewn about. His truck had vanished. Some were crying, others were consoling. They huddled on the banks of the river.

Within minutes someone had found a small crate, where Momo sought refuge, and began to settle down.

Jordan Verlage, a photographer with The Canadian Press, came over to talk to Yeats, who was shirtless at that point. Verlage had just captured the entire scene in a series of dramatic photos that went viral online: Yeats and Momo in the back of the truck, then Momo drenched, ears back, eyes focused, with Yeats behind her, both swimming fiercely.

Both man and cat are fine.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 22, 2013 at 1:13 am

[URBAN NOTE] “As Little Saigon turns 25, family and heritage mark the path ahead”

Anh Do’s Los Angeles Times article describing the maturation of Orange County‘s Vietnamese neighbourhood of Little Saigon–founded, as the name suggests, by refugees from conquered South Vietnam makes for fascinating reading, and not only for its insights onto patterns of neighbourhood development. In the three decades since, the Vietnamese-American population has grown by a factor of six to reach some 1.5 million, giving Vietnamese-Americans more choices. This enclave, though, seems relatively durable.

When Danh N. Quach chose to set up shop in 1978 in Westminster, he knew just one Vietnamese doctor — the same man who agreed to co-sign a loan for him.

Now, as Little Saigon celebrates its 25th anniversary — a date marked not by the arrival of refugees, but by the state erecting a freeway offramp sign — Quach’s shop stands as a landmark in the largest Vietnamese cultural district outside the country itself.

[. . .]

Danh Quach had been a pharmacist in Saigon until war brought him to America as a refugee. When he opened shop on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, he dispensed medicine, tobacco, shampoo, boomboxes, fabric — items that new immigrants in the community sought out to mail to loved ones left in Vietnam.

He sold care packages for $100 to $300, and Air France stopped by twice a week to pick up the shipments through a government program that allowed refugees to send “humanitarian aid” to family members.

[. . .]

At the time, real estate in central Orange County was going for 50 cents a square foot, a fraction of today’s cost. Quach and partner Frank Jao, the man frequently credited with developing much of Little Saigon, began buying space in strip malls, including the center where thousands staged nightly demonstrations in 1999 after a video shop owner put up a photo display of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Quach now owns about 300,000 square feet of retail space through real estate partnerships in Little Saigon, a mecca luring Vietnamese expatriates from around the world.

“At first, we thought Little Saigon might last 20, 25 years. We were wrong,” Quach said. “I think Little Saigon is here to stay. Mom and Dad might be the tenants, and when they retire, they will pass it on to their children.”

Written by Randy McDonald

June 22, 2013 at 12:11 am

[URBAN NOTE] “TTC renews agreement with Distress Centres to help prevent suicide”

In 2012, I took a picture at the track level of Eglinton station is one of the signs for the TTC’s new trackside suicide prevention program. The sign points people who feel themselves at particular risk–i.e. potential jumpers–to the Crisis Link distress line accessible via an emergency phone, located in the case of Eglinton at the north end of the platform.

Crisis Link

The Toronto Transit blog’s Robert Mackenzie reports that, happily, the TTC is renewing its innovative project with Crisis Link.

Tuesday, June 18, the TTC and the Distress Centres of Toronto renewed and extended an agreement that continues the Crisis Link suicide prevention program through to July 31, 2018. Crisis Link began as a pilot program in June 2011.

Mary Deacon, Chair of Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk mental health initiative joined the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, Karen Stintz, the TTC’s chief executive officer, Andy Byford and Distress Centres executive director Karen Letofsky to sign the agreement at the TTC’s head office. Bell has generously provided the pay-phones on each subway platform that immediately connect someone in distress who is thinking about suicide with a Distress Centre counselor. Crisis Link phone calls are free.

When a TTC passenger calls Crisis Link from a payphone near the designated waiting area on every subway platform in the system, a counselor with the Distress Centres knows exactly where on the TTC the call is coming from. The counselor then determines whether the caller is in danger of harming themselves. If they are, the Distress Centres notifies the TTC’s transit control centre where staff can slow subway trains entering that station and then dispatch help for the caller.

Since the TTC introduced Crisis Link in 2011, the Distress Centres have received 218 calls from individuals in distress. Of those, counsellors determined that 12 per cent of the callers had suicidal thoughts that required action by the TTC and police. Another 18 per cent of callers expressed suicidal ideas but the councillors did not deem them to be threatening to harming themselves. The Distress Centres have handled an average of 2.75 incidents each month of people contemplating suicide on the TTC. No person has ever attempted suicide on the TTC immediately after speaking with a Crisis Link counselor.

In 2010, the year before the TTC and the Distress Centres set up Crisis Link, 29 suicide incidents occurred on the TTC. In 2011, the year they introduced Crisis Link, 16 suicide incidents occurred. In 2012, 19 suicide incidents occurred and to date in 2013, there have nine suicide incidents have occurred on the TTC.

[. . .]

The TTC says that “As an employer and provider of a public service in Toronto… [it] takes suicide prevention very seriously. It has worked with, and will continue to work with, health-care professionals to help end the stigma resulting from seeking help for mental health issues. A case in point: the TTC purposely uses the word ‘suicide’ in all of its published material — including posters in the subway system — to make sure everyone knows that help is just a phone call away.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 22, 2013 at 12:04 am

Posted in Photo, Toronto

Tagged with , , , ,

[LINK] “Mother of Canadian Muslim convert says son recruited into Syrian conflict”

I found Stewart Bell’s National Post article describing, from the perspective of his mother, why a young Canadian man ended up joining jihadis in Syria. It fits the general profile of people who found themselves out of sorts but found an answer for their griefs in a simple but still non-conformist solution.

Academically gifted and athletic but suffering from crippling anxiety, the Nova Scotia-born French Catholic Acadian was bored at school. He went through phases during which he dressed as a gangster, a jock and Frank Sinatra. “He was trying to find an identity,” she said.

“He had a rough go. He has a higher than normal IQ so his intelligence level and emotional intelligence level did not meet when he was going through those teen years, obviously, and he didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere.”

Between the ages of 15 and 17, he barely left the house and his mother described him as agoraphobic. He home schooled on the Internet. He also started chatting online with a Muslim girl. But his anxiety prevented them from ever meeting and she broke it off.

He fell into depression and his mother found a suicide note. She called the police but they didn’t take it seriously until he turned up in hospital. He had been found unconscious in an alley, having swallowed a container of anti-freeze.

Two months later, he was released from hospital and started talking about converting to Islam. At first, his mother was relieved by his conversion. He calmed down and seemed to have found a place where he felt he fit in. He talked about becoming an imam.

But about two years ago, he moved to the west side of Calgary and left behind his former mosque, she said. “And that’s when everything started changing.” He lost touch with lifelong friends and became more “hard core and extreme,” she said.

“He started bringing up stuff about the rest of the world. He started getting a little bit more forceful when he was talking about the religion and how important it was, certain beliefs that all of a sudden he started coming across about having more than one wife, and just some not-so-Western cultural type things where he was kind of going off the wall a bit.”

Written by Randy McDonald

June 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Food trucks make their big debut”

I remain as stunned that Montréal has apparently copied Toronto’s terribly dysfunctional model for food trucks (here, as reported by the Montreal Gazette‘s Riley Sparks) as I was back in May.

Local culinary institutions Au Pied de Cochon and St-Viateur Bagel will join Montreal street food pioneers Grumman 78 and 24 other restaurants in the streets Thursday as the city’s 66-year-long ban on food trucks ends.

[. . .]

People hoping for a simple steamie or pretzel will have to look elsewhere — the 27 trucks operating will offer only somewhat more sophisticated foods.

Vendors were selected from 31 candidates who applied last year. A selection committee narrowed the list to 27, considering the “creativity and originality” of the dishes and quality of the ingredients used, the city explained in a statement Wednesday.

Some food trucks, including Nomade SO6 and P.A. & Gargantua, had been able to skirt the city’s ban by operating only while parked on private property.

The now-overturned rules prohibited vendors from operating on public property unless given a specific permit.

Food trucks have been banned in the city since 1947, when mayor-to-be Jean Drapeau declared them unsanitary and undignified. A few years later, after his election in 1954, he would raze most of the vegetation around Mount Royal in an effort to discourage Montrealers from fooling around in the bushes.

The trees grew back, but the street meat ban remained for more than half a century.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 21, 2013 at 7:28 pm