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Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
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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9:05 pm - [URBAN NOTE] Two more links about the Union-Pearson Express transit line
blogTO's Derek Flack notes that the TTC is taking advantage of the controversy over the high cost of tickets on the Union-Pearson Express to advertise its 192 Airport Express bus. Speaking as someone who has used it multiple times, I can attest to it being superb, directly integrated into the subway network for no extra fare.

According to the Star, the current ridership of the bus is 4,500 daily. With a desire to double that number, the TTC will wrap the vehicles with travel-themed graphics and add the service to the official route map that appears on subway vehicles.

While the service is obviously slower than a taxi or the UPX (unless you happen to live near Kipling Station), the three-stop express service is actually pretty good, and it makes sense to highlight its existence to transit users who may not have even considered it given the attention focused on other modes of travel to Pearson.


At Transit Toronto, meanwhile, James Bow posted--crossposting from his own blog--an article suggesting that the Union-Pearson Express, as relatively unaccessible as it may be, has to be seen in the context of general improvements to the mass transit infrastructure of the Toronto area. It's not such a high price to pay.

[T]o truly understand and appreciate the contribution the UPExpress makes to public transit in Toronto, you have to look not at what's running on its rails, but what's happening beside its rails. Metrolinx did not spend its money building tracks for the UPExpress alone. The entire Weston Sub was torn up these past four years, and the investments are about to come on stream.

The UPExpress will run on two tracks that were strung between Union and Pearson Airport. The railway bridges over the Humber River and Weston Road used to be single-tracked; now they have four tracks. Bloor station, which used to have two modest platforms and primitive facilities, will now have a modern station building and four platforms for passengers to access. At what used to be the Strachan Avenue level crossing, four tracks are becoming eight, passing unimpeded through an underpass. That's in addition to many other widened bridges and new underpasses, and the elimination of a level crossing with the busiest Canadian Pacific railway line in eastern Canada.

More than that, Metrolinx has purchased all of the tracks running from Union Station to Bramalea and from Georgetown to Kitchener. Before construction began in 2011, GO Transit used to operate three trains in both directions between Union and Bramalea. It's likely that this service will be restored once the UPExpress is up and running. Indeed, every obstacle to operating half-hourly train service, seven days a week, between Union and Bramalea has been removed. The only question about setting up such a service is if GO Transit can find room in its budget for it.

A GO train operating through Weston station every half hour, seven days a week, able to whisk residents to Union or Brampton within 20 minutes, all for a fare of just $5.65, is far more useful a service than a $11 shuttle operating every fifteen minutes going just to the Airport. I think that if Weston residents were told that the former is what they could expect to receive by the end of 2015, they would have been a lot happier. And, ironically, they would not have needed a stop on the UPExpress to make this service a possibility.

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7:05 pm - [ISL] "MSG Headache, West Papuan Heartache? Indonesia’s Melanesian Foray"
At the The Asia-Pacific Journal, Camellia Webb-Gannon and Jim Elmslie describe the complexity of Indonesia's relationships with Melanesian states, structured as they describe it towards legitimizing Indonesia's hold over Melanesian West Papua.

Asia and the Pacific—these two geographic, political and cultural regions encompass entire life-worlds, cosmologies and cultures. Yet Indonesia’s recent enthusiastic outreach to Melanesia indicates an attempt to bridge both the constructed and actual distinctions between them. While the label ‘Asia-Pacific’ may accurately capture Indonesia’s aspirational sphere of influence, it is simultaneously one that many Pacific scholars have resisted, fearing that the cultures and interests of the Pacific are threatened by the hyphen. This fear is justified, we contend, as Indonesia progressively puts itself forward in Pacific political forums as the official representative of ‘its’ Melanesian populations—a considerable number of whom support independence from the Indonesian state.

In this article, we examine why Indonesia is increasingly representing itself as a Pacific ‘nesia’ (Greek for islands), seemingly to neutralise West Papua’s claim to political Melanesianhood. Then we analyse the ways Indonesia is insinuating itself into Melanesian politics and its attempts to undercut Melanesian support for West Papuan self-determination. Finally we consider the implications of Indonesia’s lengthening arm into Melanesian politics for Melanesia’s regional political bloc, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), and for West Papuan politics. International support for West Papuan independence is critical to the movement’s traction, as it was in the cases of East Timor and South Sudan4. As West Papua refutes Indonesia’s claim that the conflict is an internal domestic one, and enlists the support of fellow Melanesian nations to help internationalise its concerns, Indonesia is forced to respond on the international stage too, seeking first to woo West Papua’s strongest potential allies, the MSG members. We conclude by arguing that if the MSG and individual Melanesian states want to respond to Indonesia by including it in their political and trade networks, it is their prerogative to do so. However, they should beware of further stifling already marginalised Melanesian voices such as those of West Papuans, this being the principal deleterious effect of Indonesia’s recent foray into Melanesian politics.

West Papua’s geopolitical liminality in relation to Asia and the Pacific Islands positions it as the ‘hyphen’ in the pan-regional Asia-Pacific construction. Culturally it is of the Pacific, with a Pacific identity, which, on account of its geographic location and colonial history, has had its interests subordinated to its much larger Asian occupier, Indonesia. Over the last five years however, West Papuan voices for self-determination have increasingly made their way into the consciousness of the regional and the international community. In response, over the past two years in particular, Indonesian diplomacy has vigorously extended itself east into Melanesia in an attempt to maintain control over West Papua, its territorial bridge to the Pacific. But Indonesia is not only using West Papua to attain status as a member of the Pacific regional community, it is also seeking Pacific status to legitimise its stranglehold on West Papua.

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7:03 pm - [LINK] "40 Years Ago, Earth Beamed Its First Postcard to the Stars"
Writing at National Geographic, Nadia Drake--daughter of physicist Frank Drake describes what went into the composition of the Arecibo message, humanity's first effort to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences.

Forty years ago, Earth beamed its first postcard to the stars.

The message left our home planet on a warm and sticky mid-November day in Puerto Rico. It has been flying through the galaxy at the speed of light ever since, and in about 25,000 years will arrive at a cluster filled with more than 300,000 stars.

Unlike the radio signals that had been leaking from Earth since the late 1930s, this postcard was the first deliberate transmission to an alien civilization. Written in a way meant to be decipherable by extraterrestrial beings, the message contained some key information about the species that had sent it.

“It was a message that would actually inform anyone who did receive it that we existed, and tell them a little bit about what we were like,” says my dad Frank, who had the responsibility of constructing and sending what’s now known as the Arecibo Message. “And it was also a message to ourselves in that it showed what an intelligent civilization can do to contact other civilizations.”

He had just one month to write Earth’s first radio greeting to the stars.

It was 1974, and the Arecibo Observatory’s giant radio telescope had just gotten a major upgrade. Beamed into space by the Observatory’s powerful, one million-watt transmitter, the message would cap a ceremony marking the completion of the improvements (you can listen to it being sent, below). But it was a secret – only the ceremony’s organizers knew ahead of time what would happen, and they envisioned a transmission lasting about 3 minutes.

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6:59 pm - [LINK] "It’s Erdogan vs. Ataturk in a battle for Turkey’s soul"
Al Jazeera America's Joseph Dana notes how Erdogan's effort to reintroduce the old Ottoman Turkish language, written with a different vocabulary and in Arabic, gets to the heart of Turkey's culture wars.

With his vociferous call on Monday to elevate an older form of Turkish in the national school curriculum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to dismantle the linguistic cornerstone on which modern Turkey was built — and challenge the legacy of its master builder. If 20th century Turkey had been modeled on the obsessively secularist “modernizing” vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan has revealed the extent of his ambition to root the country’s future in the image of its imperial Ottoman past.

Erdogan’s comments came on the heels of a decision last weekend by Turkey’s National Education Council to make Ottoman language classes compulsory for the religious vocational high schools that train imams and elective for secular high schools across the country. The council’s position was widely criticized by Turkey’s secular opposition parties. But Erdogan made clear where he stands in a Dec. 8 speech in Ankara.

“Whether they want it or not, Ottoman [language] will be learned and taught in this country,” Erdogan said. “There are those who are uneasy with this country’s children learning Ottoman.”

The Ottoman language, which was abolished by Ataturk’s decree in 1928, is a predecessor to modern Turkish. It was written in Arabic script, and can still be found on monuments and buildings throughout Turkey. Added Erdogan, “They say, ‘Will we teach children how to read gravestones?’ But a history and a civilization is lying on those gravestones."

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have never concealed their intention to uphold traditional notions of piety and establish a regional power base that would act as a counterweight to Western influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. The government lifted a decades old ban on Muslim headscarves in state high schools in September, and Erdogan’s political allies on the education council recently voted to ban bartending classes in tourism-industry vocational high schools. Last Thursday, Erdogan lashed out at the United Nations Security Council for being a “Christian body”that didn’t properly represent the interests of Muslim nations.

But changing the Turkish language is different; it is striking at the heart of the grand transformation ushered in by Ataturk in the 1920s. When Ataturk came to power as the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, the language spoken in Turkey had been a rich tapestry of Arabic, Turkish and Farsi woven together in flowing Arabic script. As part of Ataturk’s scheme to “modernize” Turkey, Arabic script was replaced with the Latin alphabet. Arabic and Farsi words were systematically replaced with German and French.

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6:57 pm - [LINK] "Crimea Ignores Economic Pain to Embrace Putin in New Russia Era"
Bloomberg's Anna Andrianova looks at what is going on in Crimea. Notwithstanding a serious economic crash and previous support for remaining in Ukraine, it looks as if the war in the Donbas might well have created a pro-Russian constituency.

In the Crimean resort town of Alushta, realtor Janna Voitenko is doing all she can to welcome the region’s new overseers. A Russian flag hangs outside her office and a portrait of President Vladimir Putin is in the entry.

It hasn’t offset an economy that’s dead in the water. She spends her days waiting for customers to come in.

With revenue at her real estate agency down 90 percent, Voitenko is turning to family and friends to help pay the office rent. Even if anyone did want to buy a flat, she’d have a hard time finding a listing for them: the property database was only just reopened after being closed since March, when Ukraine cut access to the records after Russia annexed Crimea.

“Everything -- cars, apartments, bank accounts -- you name it, we had to start from scratch,” Voitenko said as she flipped through a list of names of people she hoped to talk into selling their homes. “We are just tired, tired to the degree that there is no energy left.”

The Crimeans who voted to join Russia in a disputed March referendum got what they asked for -- and they are paying a high price. The Black Sea peninsula is in a legal and technological twilight zone, in which Russia’s 2.4 million newest citizens find themselves without legal titles to their properties or access to their savings. Prices are soaring, business is down and business owners deemed friendly to Ukraine are finding their assets nationalized.

Still, based on interviews on the peninsula, Crimeans say they’d rather be here and under Putin’s thumb than in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,600 have been killed since May and countless more forced to flee their homes. Many in Crimea say it is Putin who saved them from the tumult around Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

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6:53 pm - [LINK] "Why the ‘Coffee’ Words Are Not Cognates"
Languages of the World's Asya Perelstvaig provides an entertaining look into the world of linguistics by looking at the definition of a "cognate", looking to coffee. (Coffee.)

A former student of mine drew my attention to a recent article in Slate written by Alyssa Pelish and titled “The Stimulating History of Coffee: Why You Hear This Word Around the World” (the image on the left is reproduced from the article). Pelish starts with a little thought-experiment about how one would order a coffee while travelling around the world: Kaffee in Berlin, caffè in Rome, kofi in Lagos, Nigeria, kŏfī in Delhi, India, and кофе (pronounced /’kofè/) in St. Petersburg, Russia. She correctly points out that these words sound alike in many languages, describing these words very poetically as “the two reliable syllables, the seesaw of vowel sounds punctuated by velar stops and fricatives”. I am not sure about the reliability of syllables or how one would go about measuring it, or whether the alternating consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (CVCV) pattern can be called a “seesaw”. But the explanation Pelish provides for why these ‘coffee’ words are so similar the world over is entirely wrong and ignorant.

She claims that the recognizable nature of the different words for ‘coffee’ that one might hear around the world is due to the fact that they are cognates. She writes: “These are words that share the same root, and, often enough, they’re a good indication that two languages developed from a common ancestor”. In the next paragraph, she adds:

“But one of the tricky things about cognates—true cognates—is that they aren’t always an indication that two languages share a common ancestor”.

I had to re-read this sentence several times to make sure the negation is really there because the sentence would be perfect if the little “n’t” weren’t there. The one tricky thing about cognates—which all too many researchers and journalists mess up—is that they always are an indication that two languages share a common ancestor. In fact, that is precisely the definition of cognates, which one can easily find in any introductory textbook if one desires to provide one’s readers with correct and well-informed stories: cognates are words from different languages that share a common ancestor.

The word that Pelish should have used is “look-alikes”. Or perhaps more precisely “sound-alikes”. As she later admits, “coffee is a loan word. That is, it was borrowed, fully formed, from another language”. But that’s just it: loanwords are not cognates! Sometimes it is hard to recognize loanwords as distinct from cognates, especially if the loanword comes from a closely related language. But that does not make all words that “share the same root” cognates. Nor is the use of the term “cognates” in connection to ‘coffee’ words in the above-cited passage an isolated instance in this article[.]

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3:32 pm - [BLOG] Some Monday links

  • blogTO notes the development of a new shopping mall in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper examining the ability of the James Webb telescope to detect exoplanet transits.

  • Joe. My. God. notes a breakthrough for GLBT rights protesters in Seoul.

  • Language Log notes Google's localization in Kazakh and observes Erdogan's desire to revive Ottoman Turkish.

  • Languages of the World looks at the Gagauz.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer shares the story of a poor Texan fallen into the cracks of Obamacare because of his state's chosen policies.

  • Savage Minds looks at early African-American anthropologist St. Clair Drake.

  • Spacing Toronto examines the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan in the GTA in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Torontoist looks at the career of Joseph Shlisky, a Toronto-based Jewish cantor who tried to combine secular and religious careers.

  • Towleroad suggests that Elton John and David Furnish might be getting married next week.

  • Window on Eurasia notes that immigration has made Moscow the city with the largest Muslim population in Europe, and looks at security fears related to Central Asian migrant workers.

  • The Financial Times' The World wonders if Netanyahu has triggered the end of his political career.

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12:02 pm - [PHOTO] Angel's trumpets hanging, Allan Gardens
Angel's trumpets hanging, Allan Gardens

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Friday, December 12th, 2014
9:01 pm - [BRIEF NOTE] On the meaninglessness of a supposed Jewish right of return
Palestinian author Ghada Karmi's Al Jazeera opinion piece "The Jewish Right of Return" evokes for me Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock. This is not a good thing.

Anti-Arab slogans and graffiti are widespread in Israel, and Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, estimates that there are more than 50 Israeli discriminatory laws against Arabs. A new law making Israel the "nation-state of the Jewish people" that clearly discriminates against Arab citizens has already been passed by Israel's cabinet. Dozens of Knesset members also support it.

This violent and irrational Israeli hatred and maltreatment of Arabs needs an explanation. In my view, it derives largely from the destruction of European Jewry during World War II. [. . .] To atone for this crime Europe encouraged the settlement of Holocaust survivors and other persecuted Jews in a faraway Middle Eastern country they did not know and whose people and culture were alien to them.

It was not the answer. In Palestine, the Jews were forced to acclimatise to an unfamiliar place and required to accept a new identity as "Israelis". A Zionist history was created for them with the religious scriptures as a reference point. Their own past, despised by Zionism as assimilationist or passive in the face of Christian persecution, was to be discarded, and their mother tongues had to give way to a new language, Hebrew. Above all, they had to learn to be a majority when they had always been a minority. And all this in a short period of time as Israel was being rapidly established to defend against a hostile Arab environment that rejected it. That hostility was another challenge the Jewish immigrants had to face and that made all their other difficulties worse.


The solution?

The solution to this tortured situation lies in what may be called the Jewish right of return. Under this right, Europe would welcome back its previous Jewish citizens, at least those still alive, and their descendants, offer them compensation, fund their resettlement and provide jobs and housing. These costs could be defrayed against the EU's current massive bilateral trade with Israel worth $36bn (with many trade agreements favouring the latter) and its generous grants to its scientists.

Germany is the model for this Jewish return. After reunification in 1990, it welcomed Jews to its towns and cities, with the result that an estimated 15,000 Israelis are now living in Berlin alone, which is experiencing a Jewish renaissance, and many more are applying for German citizenship. Other European states should follow suit, as should Arab countries with Jewish communities who had resettled in Israel.


Where can I begin?

Most of the countries of origin of Israel's Jewish population--in central and eastern Europe, in the Middle East and North Africa, and beyond--are substantially less economically developed than Israel. Even in fast-developing central Europe, living standards still lag behind Israel's, to say nothing of poorer countries like Romania, or Ukraine, or Yemen. There really is no economic incentive for Jewish immigration specifically targeted to ancestral countries of origin. Germany has attracted many tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants since reunification, but most of these Jews are migrants from the former Soviet Union and Germany is still much richer than even Poland or Hungary.

Are there non-economic incentives? I am very skeptical of this. In the case of central and southeastern European countries which belong to the European Union, getting an EU passport might well be an incentive for many Israelis. That is it. The old Jewish-Christian communities of central Europe have been almost entirely destroyed, and negative associations understandable remain strong. There is very little alive for potential Jewish immigrants to cling to.

Perhaps most importantly, the majority of Jews in Israel were born in Israel. Ancestral countries of origin are increasingly irrelevant in a mixed population, perhaps almost as irrelevant as they are in another country of recent mass immigration like Canada. Why should they leave their homeland for lands that offer very little that is attractive to them, and does so only at significant cost? A Jewish exodus from Israel may actually aggravate existential issues and Israel-Palestinian conflict: Would a Jewish population weakened by mass emigration and reduced to a hard core of isolated people be more tractable to the Palestinians, or less?

I may get what Karmi is saying. It would have been very nice of these genocides and forced migrations had not happened. They did though, changing things irrevocably and beyond hope of reconstitution. All we can do is live realistically within the world that the past has created.

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7:26 pm - [LINK] "Ethiopia: Dreaming of Europe"
All Africa shared Mihret Aschalew's article In Addis Ababa's The Reporter looking at Ethiopian migrants' experiences in Europe, focusing on Switzerland and concentrating on refugees. As one might expect, life for many of these migrants is difficult.

Yared (not his real name), a thin Ethiopian immigrant with a pale face, has lived in Switzerland for 12 years. He left Ethiopia 13 years ago and his journey to Switzerland was not an easy one.

He had to start from Mombasa, Kenya, Frankfurt, Germany and Lyon, France to reach there. This route cost him USD 20,000. The cost for the journey, which was made a long time ago, makes one raise his eyebrows since other immigrants who follow same route in recent times are said to have paid much less.

Yared was at a law firm in the first week of June this year with his lawyer, Anna Fadini. The law office supports immigrants in Lausanne, the fourth largest city in Switzerland. He was there to seek advice on how to get his wife - an Ethiopian immigrant - a residence permit. For him, it took eight challenging years to get his permit.

Back in Ethiopia, Yared used to work as a customs officer at the Ethio-Djibouti border. He alleges that did not get the promotion he deservesd and was pushed by officials to join the ruling party [Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front]. "This forced me to quit my job," he told The Reporter. Formal resignation was unthinkable so he just disappeared, prompting his office to file charges against him. Charges were looting money and a pistol that he had as an officer. Frustrated by these developments, he opted to leave the country and went to Kenya.

Though he mainly left because of work related incidents, the situation in the country was not easy for him and his parents who were supporters of the former regime - Derg - and the fact that they oppose the current government left them in an uncomfortable situation. He believes that after the EPRDF took power his family's business went down the drain.

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7:22 pm - [LINK] "Russian Grip Haunts Kazakhs Trying to Escape Ukraine’s Fate"
Nariman Gizitdinov and Henry Meyer at Bloomberg note that many in Kazakhstan fear for the future of their booming but ethnically divided country after their president Nursultan Nazarbayev leaves power. The commenter who suggests that the continued numerical growth of a Kazakh majority might diminish the risk of conflict overlooks, I think, the concentration of much of the Russian minority in Russian-majority districts immediately adjoining Russia proper.

The risk of domination from China or Russia is “like living in a cage with a dragon or a bear -- it will bite you,” Dosym Satpayev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group said in an interview. “If Kazakhstan is seen as in only Russia’s sphere of influence, we’re lost.”

[. . .]

With no anointed heir to 74-year-old Nazarbayev, who’s ruled since independence in 1991, uncertainty over the future was acknowledged in a sovereign bond prospectus in September. Should he leave office “without a smooth transfer to a successor,” the “political situation and economy could become unstable,” according to the document.

Russia may have spotted a potential opportunity to cement ties with Kazakhstan when Nazarbayev departs. A study for Russian government officials, conducted last year and obtained by Bloomberg, suggested his succession offers a “beneficial background to promote moderate values of Eurasian integration.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin jangled nerves when he told students at a pro-Kremlin youth camp on Aug. 29 that Nazarbayev had created a state “where there’s never been a state” and that the “vast majority of the citizens of Kazakhstan favor stronger ties with Russia.”

His remarks may be interpreted to mean a state “that’s appeared thanks to one person can disappear thanks to another,” Carnegie Moscow analyst Alexei Malashenko said in his blog.

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7:18 pm - [LINK] "Venezuela’s Oil Industry Exodus Slowing Crude Production: Energy"
Bloomberg's Pietro D. Pitts and Andrew Rosati suggest that the Venezuelan oil industry is starting to face shortages of skilled labour, as its professionals search for economies offering stabler and more renumerative pay.

When Angel Fernandez, a former production engineer with Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company, relocated to Canada’s oil-sands region, it wasn’t for the weather. The draw was a paycheck that he said can stretch as much as 100 times further.

[. . .]

Fernandez, 33, is part of a growing exodus of skilled oilfield workers from Venezuela, where real wages for engineers have fallen to the equivalent of less than $400 a month, about 9 percent of the global average. The world’s worst inflation, swelling crime rates and a plunging currency are prompting others to move abroad, dragging down oil production at a time when slumping crude prices threaten the country’s export revenue.

While Venezuela’s foreign affairs ministry has declined to provide emigration data, job websites show surging interest. The number of Venezuelans with active resumes on Rigzone.com, a Houston-based oil and gas research company with an employment database, jumped 22 percent this year through October, and is up 68 percent over 2011. Daily page views on MeQuieroIr.com, which helps Venezuelans looking to emigrate, reached 180,000 to 200,000 in September and October, compared with an average of 60,000 for the past four years.

[. . .]

PDVSA is pumping about 8,000 barrels per employee per day, compared to about 26,000 barrels in 2004, according to the trade group Gente del Petroleo. While Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has pledged to double output, few in the industry are confident this goal can be reached.

“It’s clear they don’t have the human capacity to lift output,” said Eddie Ramirez, the group’s director and a former PDVSA employee who has long criticized the government. Production peaked in 2008 at 3.2 million barrels a day, and last year slid by 11,000 barrels to 2.9 million a day. PDVSA declined to comment on turnover rates.

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7:14 pm - [LINK] "Gender equality is holding Belarus back"
Writing at Open Democracy, Alexander Pershai argues that in Belarus, a gender equality understood in conservative terms is causing significant issues and is only now starting to be challenged. Fascinating stuff.

It would be untrue to say that gender equality is a ‘hot topic’ in Belarus. Like many other ‘post-Soviet’ countries, Belarus remains, on the whole, a deeply patriarchal society where traditional ideas of gender norms and identities prevail. Gender stereotypes, which define the ‘correct’ behavioural codes for both women and men persist to this day, as do normative standards of femininity and masculinity. Homophobia too is common place. Moreover, gender, by and large, remains an unpopular framework through which to view social oppression and inequality. More often than not, the dominant order is explained away as a matter of tradition or with the flippant response: ‘it’s just the way things are.’

[. . .]

There is no one official definition of gender equality accepted by all in Belarus, however the dominant definitions all have one important thing in common: they refer exclusively to men and women and they dismiss entirely other ‘unconventional’ forms of gender identity. For example, transgender and intersex people are rarely, if ever, covered under the concept of gender equality in Belarus (this is sadly also true of many other societies).

[. . .]

Moreover, the conservative nature of gender equality as commonly understood in Belarus is, in direct contradiction to its proposed aim, constricted in its ability to shatter the prevailing dividing lines between men and women. Gender equality as a concept in Belarus has emerged out of a long and widely-accepted tradition, which has deeply-set views about what gender is – namely male and female – and about what it means to be male and female. This conservative conceptualisation of gender is not just simply an abstract idea which has little impact upon the lived realities of people in Belarus, it is embedded in the very system which categorises and distributes the men and women of Belarus (and those who fall in between) into specific economic, political and social structures. Within this system, social positions for men and for women are pre-set and clearly-defined. In failing to address this system, which produces and demands gender normativity, the gender equality ‘movement’ in Belarus is unable to instigate genuine and meaningful change, and is instead reduced to seeking social, political, and jurisdictional ‘adjustments’ of the existing androcentric system in which men are the norm and women simply deserve a ‘better’ share.

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7:10 pm - [LINK] "HPV vaccination concerns about promiscuity deemed 'unwarranted'"
Surprise! The HPV vaccine does not encourage young girls who received it to be more promiscuous, instead and merely protecting them against cervical cancer. From the CBC:

Since 2006, an HPV vaccine has been licensed in countries including Canada to protect against four types of the virus. But there have been concerns that the vaccine might give girls and women a false sense of security, and encourage promiscuity.

Researchers from Montreal and Kingston, Ont. followed a group of more than 260,000 girls. About half were eligible to receive HPV shots when Ontario introduced a vaccination program to Grade 8 students in 2007 and 2008.

Dr. Leah Smith of the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health at McGill University in Montreal and her team examined data on vaccine receipt, as well as on indicators of sexual behaviour, specifically pregnancy and non-HPV-related sexually transmitted infections.

HPV vaccination and eligibility for the program did not increase the risk of pregnancy or the STIs among females aged 14 to 17, the researchers found.

"We present strong evidence that HPV vaccination does not have any significant effect on clinical indicators of sexual behaviour among adolescent girls," the study’s authors conclude in Monday’s CMAJ issue.

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