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Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
11:48 pm - [DM] "On looking at peripheries"
I've a brief note up at Demography Matters noting my upcoming series of posts regarding the demographic dynamics of peripheral regions.

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11:38 pm - [BRIEF NOTE] On how domestic politics in Russia have been hollowed out by trolling
The multiply-authored article in The Telegraph "Russia hikes interest rates to 17pc to stop rouble collapse" came out yesterday, outlining the state of affairs in Russia as the ruble collapses and interest rates spike and capital is going everywhere and immiseration 1998-style beckons. My attention was caught by one passage.

The currency's collapse will feed into double-digit inflation in short order. “This is extreme central banking, and the question is, what are they trying to achieve?” said Tim Ash, from Standard Bank.

“Moves like this create systemic risks, the risk of panic among the general population, and surely risks major deposit flight. It makes you think whether they forgot to read the manual which came with the bazooka. But this is a really high-risk strategy from the central bank."

The Institute of International Finance says Russia's reserves are not as large as they appear, given the levels of external debt and a chronic capital deficit of 2pc to 3pc of GDP a year. It says the danger line is around $330bn, suggesting that the central bank cannot safely bleed its funds for long to stem the outflow.

Mr Putin has so far defended the central bank against accusations from populists in the Duma that it has betrayed Russia by letting the rouble crash, and is run by “liberal feminists” in thrall to the International Monetary Fund.

He has promised "harsh" measures against traders betting against the rouble, warning that “we know who these speculators are” and how to deal with them. Yet the Kremlin appears out of its depth and is struggling to keep up with events.

"Liberal feminists" are wrecking the Russian economy?

I've noted in the past that Russian officialdom seems to be cleaving closely to conservative, even reactionary, ideologies on gender and sexual orientation and human rights. But this last, if true, is a not-bad example of trolling, in the sense at least of being absurdly provocative while making no sense. Can any dialogue where opinion like this features prominently mean anything good?

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11:31 pm - [LINK] "9 Wildrose MLAs, including Danielle Smith, cross to Alberta Tories"
Wow. From the CBC:

Nine Wildrose MLAs, including leader Danielle Smith, have crossed to Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservative party in a move political observers are calling unprecedented.

Premier Jim Prentice made the announcement late Wednesday afternoon after a day-long meeting, where PC MLAs voted in favour of bringing the new members into caucus.

"This is not a merger of parties, let’s be clear about this," he said in a joint news conference with Smith. "This is a unification of conservatives as Progressive Conservatives."

[. . .]

Smith said she was joining the party because Prentice's values were similar to the Wildrose. She and the other 8 MLAs decided to cross after agreeing to a set of "aligned values and principles."

Alberta has had four premiers since Smith became Wildrose leader in October 2009: Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, Dave Hancock and Prentice. She said Prentice is the first to meet with her.

"Past premiers have merely paid lip service to these issues, saying the right things and then doing the opposite," Smith said. "But Premier Prentice has shown me and my caucus that he is different."

[. . .]

In her resignation letter as Wildrose leader, Smith asked the party to hold a membership meeting and pass a reunification resolution. She had led the party since October 2009.

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7:00 pm - [LINK] Two Bloomberg reports on Google and Apple leaving Russia, in different ways
Bloomberg's Tim Higgins notes Apple's withdrawal from online sales in Russia.

Apple Inc. halted online sales of its products in Russia due to “extreme” ruble fluctuations, showing how the currency’s swings are rippling out to international businesses.

The iPhone and iPad maker stopped sales from its Web store as Russia’s currency lost as much as 19 percent today, with a surprise interest-rate increase failing to stem a run on the currency. The ruble briefly sank beyond 80 per dollar, and bonds and stocks also tumbled.

“Our online store in Russia is currently unavailable while we review pricing,” Alan Hely, a spokesman for the Cupertino, California-based company, wrote in an e-mail today. “We apologize to customers for any inconvenience.”

The selloff in Moscow is spreading across the globe, prompting nervous investors to pull money from other developing nations amid concern that Russia’s financial struggles and the tumble in oil signal a global economic slowdown.

Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky, meanwhile, observes that Google and other Internet companies are leaving Russia to avoid the risk of state censorship and interference in their affairs.

Google confirmed today that it would move its engineering office out of Russia. That makes it at least the third major tech company to scale down its presence in the country this year. Although none of the three companies explicitly tied the decision to Russia's increasingly oppressive Internet policies, the decisions to leave can hardly be a coincidence.

In April, President Vladimir Putin, who by all accounts isn't an Internet user, declared that the global computer network had "emerged as a special project of the U.S. CIA and that's how it's developing." A little more than two months later, the Russian parliament, always looking for creative interpretations of Putin's messages, passed a law banning the storage of Russian citizens' personal data outside the country. All Internet companies were required to move the data to servers within Russia by September 2016. Although the Internet community protested -- obeying the letter of the law would deprive Russians of the opportunity to use Facebook or even buy plane tickets from foreign airlines through their websites -- legislators toughened the ban in September, bringing forward its implementation to January 2015.

Even as that change made its way through parliament, Adobe Systems, maker of Photoshop and other popular software, announced that it was closing its Russia office. Adobe gave an innocuous business justification: It was moving its applications to the cloud, where they would be available by subscription, as part of the global fight against piracy. It no longer needed a physical presence in Russia or in a few other countries, such as Taiwan and Turkey. Yet unofficially, company representatives said that Putin's increasingly tense relations with the West were keeping it from winning contracts in Russia, and that it wasn't prepared to move its servers to comply with the personal data law.

In November, Microsoft shut its Moscow development office for Skype, moving some of the Russian engineers to Prague. The official reason was a restructuring of the video chat service's development arm to make its logistics simpler. Skype, however, is a product that has long interested Russia's intelligence services. Last year, the Moscow business daily Vedomosti reported that spies had found a way to eavesdrop on Skype chats. Skype also keeps its users' personal data on servers outside Russia. Since the service had no Russian presence apart from the development team, it made sense to get rid of the Moscow office and relocate the best programmers.

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6:58 pm - [LINK] "Alien Life on Mars? NASA Rover Spots Methane, a Possible Sign of Microbes"
National Geographic's Dan Vergano writes about the recent discovery of methane spikes by the Curiosity rover on Mars. They might indicate life, but not necessarily.

On Earth, most methane, better known as natural gas, is released by microbes that belch out the gas as they digest food. The rover mission scientists hedge the new results carefully, saying there's no way to tell whether the methane spikes have a geological or biological origin.

"It is a very, very puzzling result," says planetary scientist Joel Levine of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who was not part of the study team. "Either Mars is geologically alive, which would be surprising, or Mars is biologically alive, which would have profound implications."

Decades of up-and-down measurements of methane in the Martian atmosphere have intrigued scientists hunting for signs of life on Mars. So when Curiosity first recorded a sudden tenfold increase in methane in November 2013, scientists were startled.

"It was an 'oh, my gosh' moment," said planetary scientist Christopher Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the study team. Reported in the journal Science and presented Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting, the spikes, he said, "disappeared only six weeks later."

Curiosity went on to record a total of four sharp jumps in methane concentrations in the Martian air during its travels. The pulses lasted only a few weeks and lingered over a small area, roughly 2,625 feet (800 meters) of the rover's path. That points to a local, concentrated vent as the origin of the releases, says team scientist Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, most likely to the north of the rover inside Gale Crater.

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6:55 pm - [LINK] "Journalism ethics take a hit with Rolling Stone's unravelling rape story"
CBC's Neil Macdonald argues that the search for clickbait is undermining journalism, as the Rolling Stone rape story suggests.

Rolling Stone accepted the vogue notion that the accuser should always be unswervingly believed — and that any skepticism "re-traumatizes."

That is a fine rule for people staffing rape crisis centres and phone hotlines. Women (and men; a significant percentage of sexual assaults on campus involve male victims) who say they have been raped should be treated with respect and trust.

But journalism is supposed to involve healthy skepticism and due diligence, no matter how strongly the winds of public opinion might gust on a particular issue.

In the case of Rolling Stone, a cynic might note that the climbdown and subsequent publicity resulted in another torrent of mouse clicks. (Nowadays, getting it wrong can be profitable.)

But that is increasingly the nature of postmodern journalism; facts matter less than trends. (Anyway, as postmodernists would ask, what's a fact, really?)

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6:52 pm - [LINK] "Angelina Jolie boycott brewing in Japan over war movie Unbroken"
CBC carries the Associated Press report that some conservatives and historical revisonists in Japan are unhappy with an upcoming film's depiction of the Japanese military. The film, it's worth noting, is historically accurate.

The movie [Unbroken] follows the real-life story of Louis Zamperini as told in a 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand. The book has not been translated into Japanese, but online trailers have provoked outrage. Zamperini, played by Jack O'Connell, survived in a raft for 47 days with two other crewmen after a plane crash, only to be caught by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Especially provocative is a passage in the book that refers to cannibalism among the troops. It is not clear how much of that will be in the movie, but that is too much for some.

"But there was absolutely no cannibalism," said Mutsuhiro Takeuchi, a nationalist-leaning educator and a priest in the traditional Shinto religion. "That is not our custom."

Takeuchi acknowledged Jolie is free to make whatever movie she wants, stressing that Shinto believes in forgive-and-forget.

But he urged Jolie to study history, saying executed war criminals were charged with political crimes, not torture.

"Even Japanese don't know their own history so misunderstandings arise," said Takeuchi, who heads his research organization, the Japan Culture Intelligence Association.

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6:47 pm - [LINK] "For aspiring Nepali migrants, the risks start at home"
Al Jazeera's Pete Pattisson notes the plight of migrant workers from Nepal, who seem to find themselves facing cheating by employment agents and dangerous work conditions at every turn. That their remittances play a critical role in the domestic economy makes things more complex.

Every day, almost 1,500 Nepalis join the long queues at Kathmandu’s airport to follow their dreams of a job abroad, typically in the Gulf or Malaysia. Over 525,000 Nepalis were issued permits to work overseas in 2013-14, well over double the number issued just five years ago.

According to an Open Society Foundations report on migrant workers, Nepal now sends the most workers abroad per capita of any country in Asia.

And for many, migration works. Official remittances account for over 29 percent of Nepal’s total GDP, and have increased by 400 percent between 2003 and 2011. At the arrivals gate of Kathmandu’s airport, dozens of migrants arrive off each flight balancing bulging bags and flat-screen TVs on their trolleys.

But wait till they have left, and another set of trolleys emerge from the terminal carrying a very different load — coffins bearing the bodies of migrant workers, like Umesh Pasman. Every day, three or four are flown back to grieving families in Nepal. In 2013, at least 185 Nepalis died in Qatar alone.

[. . .]

It usually begins with an introduction to a local recruitment broker, or agent. Typically, "the individual agent [is] someone personally known to the migrant worker... Consequently, migrant workers have great trust in their agents to look after their interests," said the Open Society Foundations report.

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3:40 pm - [BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • Centauri Dreams considers interesting implications for planets very closely orbiting their parent stars.

  • The Dragon's Gaze notes exoplanet KOI-1299b, a gas giant very closely orbiting its red giant parent star.

  • The Dragon's Tales is bearish about the potential for artificial intelligence, The Numerati is bullish.

  • Joe. My. God. notes that one of the two people murdered in the Sydney hostage taking, the store manager who tried to hold off the hostage-taker, was gay and partnered.

  • Transit Toronto notes that in the new year, debit and credit card payments can be made for TTC tokens.

  • The Volokh Conspiracy notes the bad sense of a petitioner suing an employer on religious discrimination grounds launching racist rants at the judges, and observes a faked anti-Bosnian hate crime in St. Louis.

  • Window on Eurasia observes that Internet usage in Russia does not change minds so much as confirm them, shares the observations of a Russian visitor to Ukraine that Ukrainians now see Russia as an enemy, and argues that the current Orthodox-Muslim peace in Russia is ephemeral and based on shared short-term concerns.

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12:07 pm - [PHOTO] Walking into the Distillery District, Parliament and Mill
Walking into the Distillery District, Parliament and Mill

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Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
10:45 pm - [BRIEF NOTE] On the end of the Wildrose Party of Alberta
Facebook's Mike shared the news that many members of Alberta's right-wing Wildrose Party were crossing the floor to the governing Progressive Conservatives, including the party leader.

The executive of the Wildrose party is holding a teleconference Tuesday night after Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith met with her caucus to discuss uniting with Premier Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives.

David Gray, the party's vice-president of communications, said caucus members were meeting at 1 p.m. to discuss an offer from the PCs to merge with the party.

Former Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin said he expects that of the 14 members of the caucus "seven to nine" will be crossing.

But Jeff Callaway, the vice-president of fundraising for the Wildrose, says four of the party's MLAs are expected to cross the floor — including Smith.

I have no idea how the party can survive this. I have no idea why it's happening, even. All I can speculate is that these politicians have decided that trying to promote the Wildrose Party, which has never quite managed to break through to challenge the Progressive Conservatives, was a less productive use of their time than trying to join the party that actually ran things.


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6:03 pm - [URBAN NOTE] "Ask A Native New Yorker: Is Queens Doomed To Be The Next Brooklyn?"
Gothamist's Jake Dobson writes about the homogenizing effect of gentrification, in New York City's boroughs and in the wider world.

Have you ever noticed that all gentrified neighborhoods are alike, but each ungentrified neighborhood is cool in its own way? Like I could drop you in any hipster area anywhere in the world—Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, Berlin, Tokyo—and you'd be surrounded by the same scene: coffee bars with people tapping away at Macbooks, an upscale dive bar filled with guys with beards, a bunch of restaurants selling farm-to-table food. Even the graffiti would look the same!

Why is that? Why doesn't gentrification look different everywhere? Maybe it's because it has the same basic ingredients in each place: students and artists and gays looking for an affordable place to live, and the small business owners they attract who cater to their tastes. Or more likely, because a lot of gentrification is engineered by property owners and banks working from the same template, and it's a lot easier to copy a place which has produced investment returns, like Williamsburg, than it is to try a new idea. Or, ultimately because capitalism is all about commodification, even when the commodity that's being sold is authenticity. That's some next-level post-modern Marxist critique right there!

Media plays a sad role in this. But they have a good excuse: they do it for the money! Allow me to explain: the New York Times is not a monolithic business. In reality, it is composed of many important bastions of journalism, like the international section, the Metro desk, Science, etc. These are valuable and very important for our democracy. But these sections are expensive to run and often lose money, so they must be supported by more advertiser-friendly areas of the paper, like Style and Real Estate, or the odious billionaire ball-cupping that gets done at DealBook.

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5:56 pm - [LINK] "Stephen Harper, a son—and antagonist—of Ontario"
Veteran political journalist Paul Wells writes in MacLean's about how for Stephen Harper, his birth province of Ontario plays a unique role. He looks to particular Ontarian traditions of small-c conservatism, as Wells explains at length, and is disappointed when these are not only unactivated but Ontario is actively undermining his national goals.

This preoccupation with the fate of Ontario goes back a long way. Much of it is simple conviction. After 11 Liberal years, the province is paying $11 billion a year in debt servicing. Nobody knows how Wynne plans to meet her 2018 target to eliminate the provincial budget deficit. Don Drummond, the former bank economist, was hired by McGuinty to find answers and proposed really serious cuts to the size of the provincial government. Wynne has explicitly charted a different course, preferring “growth” (pronounced “magic”) as the path out of deficits.

Harper would not have governed the way McGuinty did, and certainly not the way Wynne has. But he was brooding over politics in Ontario before either of them were around to annoy him. In 2000 the Canadian Alliance, led by Stockwell Day, lost the only federal election it would ever contest under that name and leader. Harper had publicly predicted the Alliance wouldn’t do well, but the predicted result still made him furious. The object of his anger was “eastern Canada” — basically, Ontario.

Eleven days after the election, the National Post published a bitter column from Harper. Sure, the Alliance had no clear strategy, policy or tactics, Harper admitted, and yet he clamed “this had little if anything to do with the election result.” The real fault lay with the Reform movement’s “rejection by the very electorate that, in creating the Canadian Alliance, it had twisted itself into a pretzel to please.” Which electorate? “Eastern Canada,” which “appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.”

[. . .]

You start to see Harper’s irritation with an Ontario government that is often portrayed as being allied with a new Quebec government and which, in style and philosophy, is far closer to David Peterson and Jean Chrétien than to Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, or Stephen Harper. It is a longstanding (and perfectly reasonable) belief of Western conservatives that divergent philosophies held in Ottawa and Queen’s Park dilute the effectiveness of one government, if not both. I remember a Preston Manning news conference, perhaps 15 years ago, at which he argued that since Mike Harris felt one way about some issues and Jean Chrétien felt another, Chrétien should smarten up. Manning used to throw the odd Hail Mary pass like that.

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5:52 pm - [LINK] "Russians do not want to adopt Russian children"
Writing for Open Democracy, Ekaterina Loushnikova argues that deep-seated cultural and policy inhibitions against adoption in Russia means that children who, before the 2012 Magnitsky law, might have been adopted by foreigners are now languishing.

Irina Onokhina’s family includes, apart from her own two children and five grandchildren, sixteen adopted children. Irina used to be a journalist; she worked for 33 years as a news photographer on ‘Komsomol Flame’ magazine. Her career was going very nicely, when she suddenly decided to change everything: both her profession and her life. ‘I always dreamed of having a large family,’ she told me, ‘but my husband wasn’t keen, and we divorced. Then, when I reached my 48th birthday, I thought: now what? I’d be retiring in a few years [Russian women receive their state pension at 55]; my children are grown up and have their own lives. I’m still in the prime of life, but nobody needs me.’ In 1990, to her colleagues’ amazement, Irina decided to organise a family-type children’s home. She applied to her local council for the necessary permission, but instead of support she met with incomprehension.

‘Communist Party officials came to my home and even my parents’ home, and tried to put me off. “Don’t have anything to do with these children!” they said. “You don’t know what you are letting yourself in for. They’re all disabled and mentally retarded; they steal, smoke, drink and swear! You’ll never cope with them!”

When Irina went to the committee meeting that would decide the matter, she took with her journalist colleagues with cameras and microphones. ‘When we arrived we switched on the tape recorders and set up the mikes, as though we were going to do an article about it. And it actually worked!’

[. . .]

‘It’s not so simple these days. If you want to adopt you need to do a special course, have a medical check-up, collect lots of bits of paper to show that you’re not an alcoholic or a mental case. And then there’s our notorious juvenile justice system – it’s getting so that a parent can’t even give a child a slap or they’ll end up in court! But I think inter-country adoption is a good thing, and I don’t know why they had to ban it. The foreigners mostly used to take kids with disabilities. If our government can’t treat them, why stop other people trying? Ok, so a few bad things happened, but it’s not like they don’t happen here as well. Just take a look at that!’

Irina points to a local news bulletin on the TV. ‘The young girl gave birth in secret, wrapped her baby in a polythene bag and took it out into the cold, where it died of hypothermia,’ says the newsreader in his dispassionate voice. ‘The woman has admitted her guilt and will spend the next four years in a prison camp.’ The screen shows a weeping girl hiding her face from the camera, and the material evidence of her crime – the child’s body in its polythene wrapping –lying on a table. Its life lasted only a few minutes. According to official statistics, a hundred children perish at the hands of their own mothers every year in Russia.

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5:49 pm - [LINK] "Putin’s Friends Reap Billions in Deals as Economy Teeters"
Writing for Bloomberg, Henry Meyer, Ilya Arkhipov and Alan Katz note how the Russian economy has been taken over by an oligarchy linked personally to Putin. The pie might well be about to shrink, but they'll have more of it.

Having grown rich on government contracts during the boom in Putin’s Russia, friends of the president are benefiting anew as times grow tough. Lucrative orders keep rolling in for the favored few even as western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices push the economy to the brink.

The development has polarized Russia’s oligarchy and pitted Putin’s small circle against less well-connected rivals in a battle for money and privilege.

Companies linked to [Arkady] Rotenberg and another Putin confidant, Gennady Timchenko -- both targeted by U.S. sanctions for their ties to the president -- are landing a growing amount of state contracts. Together, they have won at least 309 billion rubles of work since U.S. sanctions were imposed in March, filings show. That figure -- which works out to about $8.1 billion at the average exchange rate over the period -- is 12 percent more than they received in all of 2013.

A Rotenberg-affiliated company is also about to secure a 228-billion-ruble order to build a bridge to Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, according to a high-ranking government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contract hasn’t been officially awarded.

[. . .]

In all, companies linked to Rotenberg and Timchenko have received orders since March that are equivalent to more than a fifth of what the government spent on contracts in the first nine months of the year.

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5:46 pm - [URBAN NOTE] "Detroit’s Art Museum Shoulders $350 Million Burden"
Bloomberg's Chris Christoff notes the recent experience of Detroit's main public art museum in the context of its bankruptcy. The collection has survived, barely.

Detroit’s world-class art collection became a fulcrum for the city’s bankruptcy settlement, with such cherished works as Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait” leveraging an $816 million deal to fund city pensions.

Now, the Detroit Institute of Arts must raise as much as $350 million to fulfill its end of the bargain and sustain it after a local arts tax expires in 2022. That’s a tall order for donors who’ve already dug deep for the museum. The effort may be aided thanks to the 129-year-old museum’s brush with liquidation.

“When I first came here, I had to tell people what a great collection this was, how valuable it was,” said Graham Beal, DIA director since 1999. “I don’t have to do that anymore.”

Detroit’s record bankruptcy began in July 2013 as the city piled up deficits and $18 billion of debt, and it made the cultural centerpiece a damsel in distress, her cry heard by art-lovers worldwide. The museum’s rescue by private foundations, the state of Michigan and a relentless federal judge who hatched the plan to save it may become municipal-finance legend.

“You want to say Detroit was the only place that liquidated its art?” said Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, one of the donors to the bankruptcy agreement. “That would never have gone away.”

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3:42 pm - [BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • blogTO notes the end of long-running Toronto literary journal Descant.

  • The Dragon's Tales notes the Russian acquisition of another SSBN.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money links to a Los Angeles Times article examining child labour on Mexican farms.

  • Marginal Revolution links to a paper examining surnames in Catalonia for mobility.

  • Livejournaler moiraj mocks, with facts, the predictions of Canadian conservative journalist Diane Francis.

  • The New APPS Blog considers the biopolitics of inexpensive medical tests.

  • Personal Reflections' Jim Belshaw started a discussion about the attractiveness or not of villains, even before the Sydney tragedy.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer notes how Mexico City made construction issues for its subway Line 12 into a net positive.

  • The Russian Demographics Blog debunks a myth about Russian premature mortality for the 1923 cohort that still tells of terrible things.

  • Strange Maps notes the significant problems of explorers trying to map northeastern, Arctic, Canada.

  • Torontoist notes Toronto's Black Lives Matter march while Towleroad notes the lack of a GLBT-black coalition.

  • Window on Eurasia notes that Russian economic problems are worsening the government's relations with republics like Tatarstan, wonders how long Kadyrov will stay in power in Chechnya, and suggests Belarusian bases might be used to threaten Ukraine.

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12:03 pm - [PHOTO] My carrots
My carrots

Grown in outdoor pots, these specimens are stubby but are mine.

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Monday, December 15th, 2014
11:53 pm - [DM] "On how Afghanistan shows the importance of having a census"
I've a brief article at Demography Matters on Afghanistan's impending census and its important. Information matters.

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10:37 pm - [NEWS] Some Monday links

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