January 18th, 2010

[LINK] "Margaret Thatcher and island-buying in 1979: less than it seems"

Noel Maurer takes apart the rather imaginatively dystopic suggestion that Margaret Thatcher wanted to buy, in the late 1970s, an island in Southeast Asia to create a city-state for Indochinese boat people.

Unless there is more than the Archives made available, or I missed the juicy stuff in my long skim, nobody seems to have really considered the creation of a new Crown Colony in 1979. I can’t find any references to an entrepreneurial city or opposition from Lee Kwan Yew; I certainly can’t find any references to an actual transfer of sovereignty.

Judging from the documents, the story does have a grain of truth. There was a bilateral meeting between Australia and Britain, although little seems to have been discussed other than the possibility of a joint position at the U.N. conference. (Both countries had already tried and failed to get the main Western powers in for a sit-down before the U.N. meeting.) The British ambassador to Jakarta did raise the possibility of buying an island from Indonesia for an expanded refugee camp capable of housing up to 200,000 people. The thing about that is that the report about the British suggestion and the Indonesian response is phrased in vaguest possible terms. It isn’t clear who exactly would have put up the money. (I suspect that the British were thinking about the UNHCR, not HMG) It certainly isn’t clear that the use of the term “buy” meant “transfer sovereignty” as opposed to a simple land purchase.

[. . .]

Judging from the documents, the story does have a grain of truth. There was a bilateral meeting between Australia and Britain, although little seems to have been discussed other than the possibility of a joint position at the U.N. conference. (Both countries had already tried and failed to get the main Western powers in for a sit-down before the U.N. meeting.) The British ambassador to Jakarta did raise the possibility of buying an island from Indonesia for an expanded refugee camp capable of housing up to 200,000 people. The thing about that is that the report about the British suggestion and the Indonesian response is phrased in vaguest possible terms. It isn’t clear who exactly would have put up the money. (I suspect that the British were thinking about the UNHCR, not HMG) It certainly isn’t clear that the use of the term “buy” meant “transfer sovereignty” as opposed to a simple land purchase.


Thailand was concerned that Cambodia would be repopulated by Vietnamese, Singapore thought that Vietnam was engaging in a bit of ethnic cleansing, Malaysia apparently was willing to sink refugee ships regardless, the French were placing pressure on the British to accept as many boat people as their trans-Channel neighbour, and Thatcher's government didn't want any more immigrants. Hence, the idea of a distant island.

[LINK] WiFi at McDonald's? Even in Canada?

This news item caught my attention.

Starting today, fast-food restaurant McDonald's will begin offering free Wi-Fi access at 11,500 of its 14,000 U.S. locations. It's a nice improvement from the $2.95 they were previously charging for two hours, and it could come in pretty handy in a pinch, considering the ubiquity of McDonald's.


Although Canada got restaurants with WiFi starting in 2003, it looks like only now is WiFi getting deployed on a wider scale in Canadian restaurants, in Vancouver in time for the Winter Olympics. Why? The CBC suggests that politics somewhere may be responsible.

Some market analysts say McDonald's has not rolled out Wi-Fi in Canada because doing so would bring the chain into conflict with the country's cellphone providers, such as Bell Canada Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., who have been stifling the spread of public Wi-Fi for years.

"If you look at who owns the wireless networks, it's all telcos, and they have no interest in promoting Wi-Fi because it competes with their network," said Eamon Hoey, senior partner of market strategy consulting firm Hoey Associates. "We're just behind on the technology. We're lacking terribly in competition and innovation."

[. . .]

"There are a number of chains and retailers that have Wi-Fi so technically it's not a problem," said Lawrence Surtees, principal telecommunications analyst for IDC Canada. "That kind of rules out some nefarious carrier factors."

Instead, Surtees says McDonald's Canada has not yet converted to the new philosophy of its parent company wherein customers are being encouraged to stay in restaurants longer.

"The focus is on herding you in and out," he said. "It's about turnaround, getting you out, don't loiter."

Hoey said the economics of offering Wi-Fi are different for McDonald's than they are for Starbucks or Second Cup because they attract a different type of customer. McDonald's customers are typically more budget-conscious, which would pressure the chain into keeping the cost of Wi-Fi access low — something it may not be able to do if the asking price from the carriers to provide the service is too high.


All I'll say is that I like their coffee--the price per volume's great--but the idea of sitting down and checking my Yahoo!Mail over a Big Mac so doesn't appeal.

[LINK] "Job Seekers, Watch Your Walls -- Employers Check Facebook"

Surprise, surprise.

More than half (53 percent) of employers research potential job candidates on social networks such as Facebook, says CareerBuilder.co.uk.

Research by the job search website revealed that a further 12 percent said they were planning to start using social network sites to

Of those that do research candidates on the web, 43 percent said they relied on search engines, while 12 percent admitted to checking Facebook, and another 12 percent preferred LinkedIn.

CareerBuilder also said that two in five employers said they had found content on a social network that dissuaded them from hiring a candidate.

Over a third said a social networking profile proved they had lied about their qualifications on their CV, while 13 percent claimed a potential employee had made discriminatory comments on their Facebook page and nine percent said provocative or inappropriate photographs had been posted on the account."


(The information's from the United States, but I'm sure its generally valid, at least in countries with high rates of Internet penetration.)

Personal branding works, the article goes on to suggest, it's just that it's important to get the right sort of branding.

[LINK] "Libraries as Community Plumbing"

I quite like this post by Prince Edward Island Peter Rukavina. Whether on Prince Edward Island or in Toronto--Toronto's public library system is the most extensive in North America--libraries are profoundly enabling and democratizing, giving all of its users access to the same information regardless of their origins or current standings.

I’m sure there are literally dozens of tiny resource collections squirreled away in the offices of non-profit organizations across the province. Organization gets funding from ACOA to develop a resource collection; hires resource coordinator; buys resources; funding runs out; resource collection gathers dust in the corner: I’ve seen it happen over and over, and have been party to it more than once.

And yet there’s the Public Library Service: a presence across the province, convenient hours, friendly staff, an online catalogue, a reservations service – in other words everything you need to provide equitable, low-barrier access to resources for all Islanders. The perfect repository for public resources.

[LINK] "The middlemen: how translators are boosting India's writers"

This article, written by Chandrahas Choudhury, published in Abu Dhabi's The National and shared with me by @belovedsnail, makes a point that's relevant not only for India's languages but for languages worldwide: language communities that are larger than others, that have more prestige than others, or are just more accessible than others, have their cultural products prioritized over the products of language communities that aren't so favoured. Still, as a native speaker of English, I'm simultaneously privileged by the fact that my language is the global language and left at a disadvantage my the lack of easy accessibility of the works produced by people in other language communities. My knowledge of French is a help, true, but not that much of a help: it still leaves the languages of several billion people wanting.

For a network whose English strain is diverse, highly developed, and globally circulated, Indian literature is surprisingly short on high-quality translations of works from its other languages into English. The number of memorable translations of fiction from the basket of Indian languages – Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Oriya, Gujarati, Kannada, to name only a few – into English could be counted on one’s fingers.

This is unfortunate, for no single branch of India’s literature can possibly encompass the representation of diverse social realities that a flourishing national literature requires. As the poet and critic Vinay Dharwadker wrote recently in Indian Literature (the little-read and poorly distributed – though increasingly well-designed and well-produced – bimonthly journal of literature published by the Indian government’s academy of letters, the Sahitya Akademi): “Indian-English literature by itself is inadequate to represent who we are to the rest of the world. Only a broad representation of the full range of Indian literatures, translated into a world language such as English, can do what is needed.”

Dharwadker’s essay frames such translations as a way of understanding India – its plural cultures, the variety of self-representations and existential dilemmas – not only for international audiences, but also, crucially, for Indian readers. Currently, the north of India is often unaware of what is going on in the literature of the south, the east of the west – and few seem to ever know what is happening in the remote but sizeable north-east. No literary scholar, let alone the general reader, possesses a map of the entire country.

Translation is the force that makes it possible to imagine such a map – a map that, when fully sketched in, would represent a wonderland of literary riches from diverse languages, all made intelligible to one another for the first time. In addition, only translation can finally allow readers and scholars to weigh and judge properly the merit of Indian writing in English, which presently has something of a free ride on the world stage.


An example of a good translation is described below.

Salma’s massive The Hour Past Midnight comports itself [. . .] with an almost Tolstoyan calm and gravitas. Set in the world of a group of Muslim trading families in a village in Tamil Nadu, Salma’s story, first published in Tamil in 2004, fashions an intricate web of observations and criscrossing perceptions from the lives of a group of women who serve, in their patriarchal society, as wives, daughters, mothers, mistresses, paramours, and widows before anything else. This makes the novel a paradigmatic example of Dharwadker’s point that works written in translation radically expand the India made available to readers in English by novelists in English, who are mostly urban and, almost inevitably, urbane. It is hard to recall an Indian novel in English that explores the hierarchical social order and worldview of a village culture as densely and unselfconsciously as Salma’s does.

One sees the difference between urban and rural not just at the level of theme or worldview, but in minute particulars, down to the writer’s choice of metaphors. To read, in The Hour Past Midnight, a sentence like “Kani Rowther’s smartness in making such a grand alliance was the envy of all; he had grabbed hold of a fine tamarind branch, laden with fruit, they said” is to be jolted into the realisation that the only metaphorical branch found in Indian fiction in English is probably the olive branch, and that there is a gap between the botanical imagination of Indians and Indian literature in English. Every such instance serves as a salutary reminder – to Indian writers in English no less than writers and readers in all languages – that we blind ourselves to our own world whenever we borrow metaphors or linguistic structures without reanimating then with our own particulars.

Holmstrom’s translation, although very different in sound and spirit from Sinha’s, is astutely calibrated for the demands of Salma’s novel – and might even be read as a making a theoretical argument about translation along the way. While Sinha Englishes everything about Sankar’s story except some terms for family relationships, Holmstrom leaves a significant number of significant words and terms untranslated. A thinnai, we release from the context, is something like a front porch, but it is better to think of it as a thinnai, much as a puri loses all its puri-ness by being described as “fried bread”, and evokes its visual, tactile and gustatory properties only as a puri.

Similarly, a simple bit of speech like “Watch out, di, you’ll get a crick around your neck” manages, entirely through that di, to make the sound of English in Salma’s novel at once familiar and foreign. By not translating completely out of the Tamil, Holmstrom demonstrates the strange truth of the Indian scholar and translator AK Ramanujan’s observation that “A translator hopes not only to translate a text, but ... to translate a non-native reader into a native one.” Holmstrom’s is not a translation that truckles to the linguistic and economic power of the English-speaking reader. It insists, rather, that the reader meet it halfway.

[LINK] "High modernism and expert knowledge"

Understanding Society examines an interesting book about the pitfalls of expert knowledge, James Scott's 1998 Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements. The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level.... The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs. The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)


High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century ... He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)


Scott's view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of "scientific management" to order and organize human activity. He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266). And we could add China's Great Leap Forward famine to the list. In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.


His conclusion?

Scott's perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern. Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters. And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories -- whether of forests, bees, or cities -- has been an important element of these destructive endeavors. So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.