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Thursday, November 26th, 2015
3:14 pm - [WRITING] "The Ruination of Written Words"
Gastón Gordillo's Savage Minds essay about the historic transience of the written word makes for compelling, if sad, reading.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.

Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In these monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things.

What got me thinking about the ruination of written words is Stephen Greenblatt’s fascinating (if uneven) book The Swerve, which narrates how in 1417 a book-hunter discovered Lucretius’ The Nature of Things in a remote monastery. In my book Rubble, I examined how different forms of ruination, from the Spanish conquest to the soy boom, have created constellations of nodes of rubble in northern Argentina, many of which are perceived by locals to be haunted (Gordillo 2014). I therefore read The Swerve with an eye sensitive to the destruction of places and matter and the affective materiality of their debris. The richness conveyed by Greenblatt’s story of the vanishing of Roman books reveals that the physical disintegration and afterlives of rubble also involve the written word, which in the modern world is often presented as an emblem of human endurance.

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3:12 pm - [LINK] "Refugees: That Time Everyone Said 'No' And Bolivia Said 'Yes'"
At NPR, Jasmine Garsd notes how, in an increasingly closed South America in the 1930s, Bolivia stood out for its continued welcome of refugees.

Consulates were under orders to stop giving visas. Ships carrying refugees were turned away. The most famous case is the St. Louis in May 1939. It was carrying 937 refugees. In Cuba, where the ship first attempted to dock, political infighting, economic crisis and right-wing xenophobia kept the passengers on board. The U.S denied the ship too, as did Canada. The St. Louis turned back to Europe.

All in all, Latin American governments officially permitted only about 84,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945. That's less than half the number admitted during the previous 15 years.

There were exceptions — again, often in countries that were far from well-off. The Dominican Republic issued several thousand visas. In the '40s El Salvador gave 20,000 passports to Jews under Nazi occupation. Former Mexican Consul to France Gilberto Bosques Saldivar is known as the "Mexican Schindler." Working in France from 1939 to 1943, he issued visas to around 40,000 people, mostly Jews and Spaniards.

In South America, Bolivia was the anomaly. The government admitted more than 20,000 Jewish refugees between 1938 and 1941. The brains behind the operation was Mauricio Hochschild, a German Jew. He was a mining baron who had Bolivian President Germán Busch's ear (and who wanted to help his fellow Jews for humanitarian reasons).

This was a time of economic crisis and uncertainty for the whole world, but Bolivia was in particularly bad shape. The Chaco War, fought against Paraguay until 1935, had just ended. Ironically, Bolivia's weakness was why the government agreed to open those doors wide open. Even though Busch flirted with Nazi ideology, he hoped that that immigrants would help revitalize the economy.

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3:10 pm - [LINK] "Gay Syrian man in Vancouver speaks out about Canada's refugee plan"
Vancouver Metro's Thandi Fletcher points out with the only flaw in the plan of the Canadian government to allow, of single male Syrian refugees, only the non-straight ones in.

A gay Syrian refugee living in Vancouver says is he concerned Canada’s plan to prioritize refugee status for single men only if they identify as gay, bisexual or transgender could cause more problems for an already vulnerable group.

“If I was a refugee in a camp at the moment and I went out and went to the Canadian embassy and applied for refugee status, that’s basically outing myself to the whole refugee camp,” Danny Ramadan told Metro. “[That would] be putting myself in extreme danger.”

The Liberal government revealed Tuesday its promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, giving priority to complete families, women at risk, members of sexual minorities and single men only if they are identified as gay, bisexual or transgender or are travelling as part of a family.

While he is glad to see the Canada welcome gay Syrians as refugees, Danny Ramadan said he worries that the requirement could put many in the LGBTQ community at risk of discrimination or even violence.

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3:07 pm - [LINK] "Mussels’ Sticky Secretions Make for Super-Strong Adhesives"
Wired's Chelsea Leu reports on something that, frankly, should not surprise people who know the only way you can open a mussel is to boil it.

Some sea creatures float lazily in the ocean, letting the currents waft them where they may. Mussels are not those creatures. They live in tidal areas, and their lives are a churning series of unpredictable events: submerged in the wash one tidal cycle, baking in the sun the next. Not to mention all those waves, constantly threatening to dash them to bits. So they’ve evolved to cling very, very tightly to rocks, ships, piers—anything, really—like their lives depend on it, because they sort of do.

The secret’s in their secretions. “Mussels take a bunch of protein, lay it down on a surface, and crosslink it all together,” says Jonathan Wilker, a chemist at Purdue University. Specifically, mussels use a rare amino acid called dihydroxyphenylalanine, or the more-pronounceable DOPA. (It’s related to dopamine, the neurotransmitter.) DOPA is unusual, because it enables materials to be both cohesive and adhesive—that is, the materials can stick to themselves and other surfaces. The balance of the two forces determines whether something makes good glue, and DOPA manages both. “It’s very efficient,” Wilker says.

And DOPA is extremely easy to tinker with, which is great for scientists looking to design a new adhesive, says Bruce P. Lee, a biomedical engineer at Michigan Tech. Its structure allows it to play nice with a whole range of different chemistries, which means it can stick to practically anything—metal, body tissue, even Teflon. So scientists make chemicals that mimic DOPA’s structure (harming no mussels in the process), and tweak it to suit their own ends, whether that’s a biodegradeable glue, or something that can set while underwater, or something stronger than superglue.

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3:02 pm - [LINK] "Tracking down the 'missing' carbon from the Martian atmosphere "
The Dragon's Tales linked to a press release about a new study that, among other things, implies that Mars had a thinner early atmosphere than was often thought.

Mars is blanketed by a thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere--one that is far too thin to prevent large amounts of water on the surface of the planet from subliming or evaporating. But many researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in an atmosphere many times thicker than Earth's. For decades that left the question, "Where did all the carbon go?"

Now a team of scientists from Caltech and JPL thinks they have a possible answer. The researchers suggest that 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had only a moderately dense atmosphere. They have identified a photochemical process that could have helped such an early atmosphere evolve into the current thin one without creating the problem of "missing" carbon and in a way that is consistent with existing carbon isotopic measurements.

The scientists describe their findings in a paper that appears in the November 24 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

"With this new mechanism, everything that we know about the martian atmosphere can now be pieced together into a consistent picture of its evolution," says Renyu Hu, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, a visitor in planetary science at Caltech, and lead author on the paper.

When considering how the early martian atmosphere might have transitioned to its current state, there are two possible mechanisms for the removal of excess carbon dioxide (CO2). Either the CO2 was incorporated into minerals in rocks called carbonates or it was lost to space.

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3:00 pm - [LINK] "Former Yugoslav States, Albania Vow to Step Up Drive to Join EU"
Bloomberg's Jasmina Kuzmanovic and Gordana Filipovic report on the renewed push in the western Balkans for European Union membership. Certainly it's not as if the western Balkans have any other future.

Former Yugoslav republics and neighboring Albania vowed to resuscitate their drive for European Union integration after the migrant crisis rocked the region and created the worst political rifts between Balkan states since the civil wars of the 1990s.

The heads of state for EU members Croatia and Slovenia and EU outsiders Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania signed a joint commitment to strengthening the stability and prosperity of the region. They also aim to strengthen ties to the U.S. and seek an expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization deeper into the Balkans.

[. . .]

The western Balkans has been stretched by the flood of hundreds of thousands of migrants escaping the violence in Syria as well as refugees from as far away as Afghanistan and Northern Africa. Slovenia and Croatia strained their EU ties after Slovenia declared its intention to build fencing along the two countries’ shared border. The dispute is being echoed across the EU as governments grapple with a crisis on a scale not seen since the 1940s.

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2:58 pm - [URBAN NOTE] "'Newcomer high' under fire in Toronto board review"
Kristin Rushowy at the Toronto Star writes about the tensions in Toronto education, with shortages.

Even though its enrolment remains strong, Toronto’s one-of-a-kind high school for new immigrants could be forced to move into Danforth Collegiate and the building sold, under an option now being considered by a review committee.

The potential plans for 10 high schools in the Toronto-Danforth/East York area were unveiled Monday night at a public meeting — on the eve of the federal government’s announcement of plans to settle a wave of Syrian refugees in Canada, which had some questioning such a move for the city’s unique “newcomer high.”

“We are like family, and I think if we move to Danforth, I’m wondering if we will have the programs at Danforth?” said Greenwood student Zahra Afshar, who is 17 and a member of the accommodation review committee.

She came to Canada almost a year ago from Afghanistan, knowing only a few sentences in English. Now, in her second semester at Greenwood, she can carry on a conversation and is taking academic math and other subjects. She said many extracurricular activities — including the “conversation club” which she attended Tuesday after school — are a highlight, and extra help is always available.

“What I like at Greenwood? I like everything,” she said, from the way the teachers talk to students to “how they respect us… if I have a problem with my lessons or homework, the teachers are saying ‘you can do that,’ and they help me with my homework and everything.”

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2:52 pm - [URBAN NOTE] "Bombardier declines meeting with TTC about streetcars"
The Toronto Star's Tess Kalinowski reports about the latest stage in the TTC-Bombardier confrontation.

Bombardier’s absence went unremarked at Monday’s TTC board meeting. But transit officials were already aware that the Montreal manufacturer had declined its request to appear there and publicly explain why it has failed to deliver on Toronto’s $1.25 billion streetcar order.

The company’s refusal wasn’t about whether to address the issue in public or private, said spokesman Marc Laforge in an email to the Star. Company officials have had many discussions with TTC officials and there are legal considerations, he said.

“We told the TTC that we are more than willing to engage into discussions with the chair of the board and other board members if they want to, with (CEO Andy) Byford and the project team,” he wrote.

Those discussions could extend to all the delays, including those beyond Bombardier’s control and those caused by the TTC, he said.

“At the same time . . . the board has authorized the TTC’s general counsel to commence a claim or legal action against Bombardier. The contract signed with the TTC sets forth an exclusive dispute resolution process providing for confidential and without prejudice discussions between TTC and Bombardier in an effort to settle the dispute,” he wrote.

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10:04 am - [PHOTO] Carpet of autumn leaves, Jones Avenue, Toronto
Carpet of autumn leaves #toronto #autumn #leaves #jonesavenue

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Wednesday, November 25th, 2015
2:36 pm - [BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • Centauri Dreams looks at the massive flares of red dwarf TVLM 513.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper suggesting that M-class red dwarfs have less massive protoplanetary disks than other stars but more massive planets.

  • The Dragon's Tales notes new research suggesting that Earth's grat oxygenation event was preceded by another.

  • Geocurrents looks at Fiji's Kiribati-administered Banaba Island.

  • Language Hat is skeptical about the idea that computer programs could automatically reconstruct ancient languages.

  • Language Log notes research about hesitation markers in Germanic languages.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes Richard Posner's criticism of anti-abortion obstacle courses.

  • Marginal Revolution comes out in favour of Syrian refugee admission.

  • Johnny Pez wonders what it is with white men.

  • Towleroad notes a Cook Islands ban on same-sex couples renewing their vows.

  • Transit Toronto notes the ongoing removal of many streetcar stops.

  • Window on Eurasia suggests Russia will work with Iran to undermine Saudi Arabia by supporting Shi'a, and argues current mindsets suggest Russia will remain a threat to Ukraine and its other neighbours for some time.

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11:41 am - [LINK] "What If Trump Wins?"
Thanks to Facebook's Alex for sharing Jeet Heer's article in The New Republic looking at the consequences of Donald Trump winning the Republican Party nomination. His conclusion, that the precedent of Goldwater's 1964 nomination suggests the Republican Party will be permanently altered, is frightening to me.

Barry Goldwater’s nomination tore the party in half because he was the avatar of a wider conservative insurgency that displaced the moderate Republicanism of President Eisenhower’s crowd. For the moderates, Goldwater was a frightening figure not only because he adopted extreme positions (opposition to the Civil Rights Act, an unwillingness to disavow the conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society), but also for his habit of making reckless remarks, like suggesting the Pentagon “lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”

Before Goldwater got the nomination, GOP notables and his rivals had attacked him in the fiercest possible terms. Richard Nixon, who was in between presidential runs that year, described Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights as a “tragedy.” New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was a candidate, said, “Barry Goldwater’s positions can spell disaster for the party and the country.” Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, another presidential hopeful, called Goldwaterism a “crazy quilt collection of absurd and dangerous propositions.”

The hostilities played out on national television during the convention in which Goldwater was selected in San Francisco. Rockefeller and Scranton tried to exert a moderating influence on the platform, only to be met with heckling and catcalls. Eisenhower said the ruckus of the convention was “unpardonable—and a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed.” The former president also said that during the convention his young niece had been “molested” by Goldwater-supporting hooligans. The disarray of that convention anticipated some of the rowdiness of Trump events, as in the recent roughing up of a black protester in Birmingham, Alabama, which Trump himself egged on and justified.

Goldwater’s campaign had a profound impact on the racial composition of the Republican coalition. As historian Geoffrey Kabaservice notes in his 2012 book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, “Many progressives and moderate Republicans did not want to participate in the Goldwater campaign in any way, shape, or form. The party’s African-American supporters were a special case in point. … African-Americans comprised only one percent of delegates and alternatives at the convention, a record low. Even so, there were some ugly incidents when Southern whites baited the blacks with insults and racial epithets and, in one case, deliberately burned a black delegate’s suit jacket with cigarettes.” Baseball star Jackie Robinson, then the most famous black Republican, said, “I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

[. . .]

Goldwater’s hard-right stance on civil rights alienated African American voters from the Republican Party in an enduring way. In 1956, 39 percent of the African American vote went to the Republicans, in 1960 it was 32 percent, and in 1964 it plummeted to 6 percent. Since Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate has never gotten more than 15 percent of the black vote, and usually far less. A Trump nomination could have a similar effect by alienating Latinos, and perhaps all non-whites, thereby making the Republican Party even more monochromatic going forward than it already is.

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11:39 am - [URBAN NOTE] "LCBO should have pot monopoly, too: union boss"
While I approve of the idea of marijuana legalization, and even think that government licensing is a good idea, I am not at all sure about the suggestion, as reported by Sarah-Joyce Battersby, that the LCBO should be given a monopoly over marijuana sales in Ontario. I am pretty sure the users I know would not approve of the disruption of their links with their existing suppliers.

Stocking weed alongside wine at the LCBO is the best way to protect public health, say addiction experts. But for marijuana advocates it’s more of the same prohibition.

In a statement released Monday, the union representing LCBO workers said the provincially owned stores are the ideal place to sell marijuana, should the federal government legalize it.

“If they do legalize it, then it’s a drug,” Warren (Smokey) Thomas told the Star. “So we think that, like alcohol, it should be controlled.”

Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said secure warehouses and staff trained to check ages are some of the reasons the LCBO should be the sole source of legal pot in the province, as it is with most alcohol.

The scheme would also generate revenue for the government to combat the potential social costs. But marijuana advocates say those social costs and the spectre of public danger are overblown, and government-run sales would continue a prohibitionist regulatory approach.

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11:34 am - [URBAN NOTE] "Eglinton West station to become ‘Cedarvale’ because of Crosstown LRT"
I approve of the proposal, as reported by the Toronto Star's Tess Kalinowski, to give the TTC's Eglinton West station a more locally meaningful name.

The TTC has opted for Cedarvale as the new name of Eglinton West station where the Crosstown LRT will intersect with the subway.

But the Eglinton (at Yonge St.) and Kennedy stops, the other two interchange stations on the LRT, will retain their utilitarian handles.

The TTC has naming jurisdiction on only those three of the 25 Crosstown stations. The light rail line is being funded by the province and built by its agency Metrolinx.

Councillor and TTC board member Joe Mihevc put out the call in his ward for station name preferences at Eglinton West. Of 43 responses 22 supported Cedarvale and 21 wanted Allen Rd. The latter group, however, tended to be from a broader area, whereas the Cedarvale supporters were more local, he said.

Cedarvale, lends some local charm to the stop.

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11:33 am - [ISL] "Sinking into Paradise: Climate Change Worsening Coastal Erosion in Trinidad"
The Inter Press Service's Rajiv Jalim notes how rising sea levels and climate change are combining to accelerate erosion in Trinidad.

As unusually heavy rainfall battered Trinidad’s east coast a year ago, a lagoon here was overwhelmed, flooding a major access road to the island’s south-eastern communities. As the flood waters poured over Manzanilla beach, they washed sand away, caved in sections of road and collapsed a seawall at a tourist beach facility. Further damages were also incurred with the flooding of homes and agricultural plots.

The coastline of Trinidad is under threat as seas rise, storms grow heavier, and as sand is washed away. As iconic coconut trees are lapped by an encroaching sea, some of the dangers of climate change are becoming clear.

Seas in the region have been rising by more than 2 millimeters every year — though scientists are still trying to pinpoint the role of climate change in accelerating local beach erosion.

“On Manzanilla beach the sea is definitely getting closer to the land, but the primary reason may not be land deformation or sea level rise,” said Keith Miller, a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of West Indies.

“The Atlantic swell causes longshore drift and beach sediments move southward,” Miller said. “Research has been done to suggest that the sediment source has dried up to some extent, so material is being moved along the beach, but there is less material available to replace it.”

In addition to the problems on the east coast, Trinidad’s south-western peninsula is experiencing rapid erosion. Despite being sheltered from the open ocean, satellite images have shown large portions of it being lost to the Gulf of Paria.

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11:28 am - [ISL] "Sable Island horses, walruses to be discussed at meeting"
CBC News' Jennifer Henderson reports on the latest studies into the biological history of Nova Scotia's Sable Island. Apparently, before the famous horses appeared, the island hosted a large and genetically distinctive walrus population exterminated by hunters.

Brenna McLeod Frasier, a biologist and research associate with the Nova Scotia Museum, says accounts from early explorers suggest there were as many as 100,000 walrus in the Maritimes, including in the Bay of Fundy, Sable and Magdalen Islands.

The walruses disappeared by the end of the 1700s.

"People were hunting them for their tusks which were almost like an ivory similar to an elephant ivory," says McLeod Frasier, who is also an educator with the Canadian Whale Institute.

"They also wanted the hide and their blubber. The walrus had a lot of blubber which could be rendered down to an oil which could be used for various products," she said.

McLeod Frasier has taken DNA, tusks and jawbones from 278 specimens found on Sable Island in recent decades to conclude the mammal here was different from the walrus found today in the North.

"Our Maritime walrus, as we have 'tagged' them, were larger and more robust animals. They were also genetically distinctive," she said.</blcokquote>

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11:26 am - [ISL] "Woodleigh Replicas sale pushed with $10K cash incentive on Facebook"
Yet another tourist attraction of the Prince Edward Island of my childhood, Woodleigh Replicas in Burlington, is on the market still, seven years after it closed.

P.E.I. real estate agent has turned to social media — and a hefty cash reward — in the hopes of finding a buyer for the former popular tourist attraction Woodleigh Replicas.

Allan Weeks posted an offer of $10,000 cash for anyone who helps him sell the property, which he co-owns with his brother, to Facebook last week. It's since been shared more than 2,000 times.

"This is a pretty high promotion of $10,000," Weeks said.

A cash-deal between brokers usually runs between $1,000 and 5,000, he said.

Woodleigh Replicas, located in Burlington near Kensington, featured small-scale stone replicas of famous British castles and landmarks. Many of the buildings are still located on the 19-acre property.

The site, the CBC notes, has been pre-approved for building lots.

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11:23 am - [URBAN NOTE] "Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks"
CityLab's James Somers reports on why New York City's subway system lacks the countdown clocks of Toronto's network. The answer? The technology behind it is almost astonishingly primitive.

The reason there are no realtime countdown clocks on the F line is that even the tower operators don’t know which train is where. All they can see is that a certain section is occupied by a certain anonymous hunk of steel. It’s anonymous because no one has a view of the whole system. A hunk comes into one section of track from somewhere else; the tower’s job is to get it through their section efficiently. The next tower they pass it to will likewise not know whether it’s an F, say, or a G. When there are incidents, trains are located by deduction.

This complex—of towers, signals, switches, and track sections—is responsible for a disproportionate share of the costs and foibles in the operation and maintenance of New York’s subway system.

The equipment is old and breaks all the time. In fact it’s so old that the MTA can no longer buy replacement parts from the manufacturer; it has to refurbish them itself. Some of the controls for the interlockings are originals from the 30s. Much of the wiring is still insulated with cloth, instead of rubber; ten years ago the entire Chambers Street interlocking caught fire. Salt water from Hurricane Sandy did damage to trackside switches and signals that is still being repaired.

Inside the Signal School there is equipment from every major era, since it’s all still active in various parts of the system. As a demo, Habersham at one point flips an old-style switch on the big replica track. It lets out a giant pneumatic wheeze, as though the tired station itself were sighing. Even the little toy train that he used to demonstrate signaling basics is falling apart; there was so much rust and dust on the tracks that at several points another MTA employee had to help it along with his hand.</blcokquote>

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8:44 am - [WRITING] "The entire board of the Organization for Transformative Works has resigned"
This is noteworthy. From the Daily Dot's Cynthia McKelvey:

Following a controversy around its most recent board election, the non-profit group that runs the fanfiction hub Archive Of Our Own (AO3) announced on Sunday its entire board had resigned.

Now the leadership of the Organization for Transformative Works is up in the air.

Andrea Horbinski, a current member of the seven-member board, was up for re-election to two open board seats, but she came in last in the members election. The membership, made up of roughly 8,000 fans who paid a $10 membership fee, voted for Matty Bowers, Atiya Hakeem, Alex Tischer, Katarina Harju, Aline Carrão, and Horbinski in that order.

During a public board meeting on Sunday, the OTW board appointed Horbinski back onto the board to fill an unfinished term on a third open seat not included in the election. Horbinski voted in favor of the motion to re-appoint herself to the open seat, rather than abstaining from the vote. The board meeting came to an abrupt halt after several OTW members voiced their opposition to the decision, pointing out that other candidates got more votes than Horbinski in the election.

OTW board members work on a volunteer-basis only. In addition to running AO3, OTW also runs a legal committee, a fandom wiki site, the fansite preservation project Open Doors, and an academic journal.

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6:04 am - [PHOTO] First snow, backyard
First snow, backyard #toronto #dupontstreet #snow #winter #dovercourtpark

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Tuesday, November 24th, 2015
11:55 pm - [DM] "Some notes on the Turkmen, Turkey, and this diaspora's future"
I've a followup at Demography Matters to this afternoon's post in the Syrian Turkmen, predicting the imminent mass migration of ethnic Turks from Syria and Iraq to (for starters) Turkey.

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