May 20th, 2010

[LINK] "Gays in the Military a Nonissue, Say Officers from England, Canada, Australia, Israel, and T

Towleroad has reported on a recent Brookings Institute conference on GLBT servicemembers in non-American militaries. Worst-case scenarios haven't panned out.

Concerns "in the late '90s of gay men walking across the gangplank in feather boas and high heels" once gays were allowed to serve openly in the British military did not pan out, said retired Lt. Cmdr. Craig Jones of the British Royal Navy to representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Israel and the Netherlands at the Brookings Institute on Wednesday, CNN reports.

The representatives came together to describe the experiences of their countries in allowing gays to serve openly.

Maj. Gen. Walter Semianiw of Canada and Col. Kees Matthijssen of the Royal Dutch Army said there were no problems either.

There are benefits, in fact, according to the reps:

"Jones said British military officials saw an unexpected benefit of allowing gays to serve openly - better retention of qualified soldiers and sailors in key positions. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the British military had a 6 percent to 8 percent gap in unfilled positions. Now it's down to the 2 percent to 3 percent range. Jones said one reason for that is the new policy allowing gays to serve. Now that gays are able to serve, military recruiters in the United Kingdom have more volunteers to choose from, Jones said. Also, having children is often cited by British troops as one reason why they leave the military in their late 20s or 30s. And Jones said because gays and lesbians are less likely to become parents, they tend to stay in the military longer."

The reaction at CNN is surprisingly positive, that is to say, substantially anti-homophobic.

[LINK] "Richard Francis Burton, Harar, and Hyenas"

This Geocurrents post on the Ethiopian city of Harar, a community of a hundred thousand people with its own distinct culture--including its own language--and ranks alongside as Addis Ababa as a self-governing city. Richard Burton was one of the first Westerners to visit.

In 1854, having recently gained fame from his pilgrimage to Mecca, Richard Francis Burton first entered the territory of what is now Somaliland. Burton’s destination was the city of Harar, located in what is now Ethiopia, but then an independent emirate. Harar was a challenge that Burton could not refuse: rumor had it that no Christian had ever set foot inside the city walls, and prophesy maintained that the city would decline if one ever did. Burton waited in the Somali port city of Zeila and explored its environs until he determined that the way to Harar was open. He reached the city with few problems, and remained there for ten days as the guest – or perhaps prisoner – of the Emir.

Burton was not particularly impressed with Harar or its inhabitants. “The Somal say of the city that it is a Paradise inhabited by asses,” he reported, immediately adding that, “the exterior of the people is highly unprepossessing. Amongst the men, I did not see a handsome face.” Yet he found the women of Harar “beautiful,” but only in comparison with their men. He also noted that, “both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals. High and low indulge freely in intoxicating drinks, beer, and mead” – but in Burton’s case, “laxity of morals” was not necessarily an objectionable trait. He also praised Harar’s qat (“I could not but remark the fine flavour of the plant after the coarser quality grown in Yemen”), yet seemed disappointed that the drug did not have a stronger effect.

Burton was intrigued by the city’s language, which did not extend beyond its wall: “Harar has not only its own tongue, unintelligible to any save the citizens; even its little population of about 8000 souls is a distinct race.” Immediately outside of the city, Burton reported, one encountered a different “race,” the Galla (Oromo), who, he claimed, were habitually defrauded by the merchants of Harar. The profound separation of the city from its hinterland persists. The Harari are a distinct ethnic group with their own language. The Harari tongue is Semitic, hence only distantly related to the Cushitic language of the Oromo who surround them. Harar and its immediate outskirts thus forms one of Ethiopia’s ethnically based administrative regions, officially called the Harari People's National Regional State (see map).

Harar today boasts an emerging tourist trade. UNECSO lists it as a world heritage site, claiming that it is the fourth most holy city of Islam, with 82 mosques and 102 shrines. It has other attractions as well – including hyenas. Semi-wild hyenas live within the city walls, providing scavenging services for the Harari. Hyena-men feed the animals raw meat out of their own mouths for the amusement of visitors.

[LINK] "Star: om nom nom! Planet: Aieee!"

One reason I follow Bad Astronomy, and regularly link to it, is because of its energetic coverage of exciting space science news like the discovery of the spectacular planet WASP 12b.

600 light years away, in the constellation of Auriga, there is a star in some ways similar to our Sun. It’s a shade hotter (by about 800° C), more massive, and older. Oddly, it appears to be laced with heavy elements: more oxygen, aluminum, and so on, than might be expected. A puzzle.

Then, last year, it was discovered that this star had a planet orbiting it. A project called WASP – Wide Area Search for Planets, a UK telescope system that searches for exoplanets — noticed that the star underwent periodic dips in its light. This indicates that a planet circles the star, and when the planet gets between the star and us, it blocks a tiny fraction of the starlight.

[. . .] Called WASP 12b, it was instantly pegged as an oddball. The orbit is only 1.1 days long! Compare that to our own 365 day orbit, or even Mercury’s 88 days to circle the Sun. This incredibly short orbital period means this planet is practically touching the surface of its star as it sweeps around at over 220 km/sec (130 miles/sec)! That also means it must be very hot; models indicate that the temperature at its cloud tops would be in excess of 2200°C (4000° F).

Not only that, but other numbers were odd, too. WASP 12b was found to be a bit more massive and bigger than Jupiter; about 1.8 times its size and 1.4 times its mass. That’s too big! Models indicate that planets this massive have a funny state of matter in them; they are so compressible that if you add mass, the planet doesn’t really get bigger, it just gets denser. In other words, you could double Jupiter’s mass and its size wouldn’t increase appreciably, but since the mass goes up, so would its density.

But WASP 12b isn’t like that. In fact, it has a lower density than Jupiter, and is a lot bigger! Something must be going on… and when you see a lot of weird things all sitting in one place, it makes sense to assume they’re connected. In this case it’s true: that planet is frakking hot, and that’s at the heart of this mess. Heating a planet that much would not exactly be conducive to its well-being. When you heat a gas it expands, which would explain WASP 12b’s big size. It’s puffy! But being all bloated that close to a star turns out to be bad for your health.

Astronomers used Hubble to observe the planet in the ultraviolet and found clear signs of all sorts of heavy elements, including sodium, tin, aluminum, magnesium, and manganese, as well as, weirdly, ytterbium*. Moreover, they could tell from the data that these elements existed in a cloud surrounding the planet, like an extended atmosphere going outward for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

[. . .]

This explains the peculiar high abundance of heavy metals in the star I mentioned at the beginning of this post; they come from the planet! But not for long. Given the mass of the planet and the density of the stream, it looks like it has roughly ten million years left. At that point, supper’s over: there won’t be anything left for the star to eat. In reality it’s hard to say exactly what will happen; there may be a rocky/metal core to the planet that will survive. But even that is so close to the star that it will be a molten blob of goo. The way orbits work, the way the dance of gravity plays out over time, the planet itself may actually be drawn inexorably closer to its star. Remember, too, the star is old, and will soon start to expand into a red giant. So the planet is falling and the star is rising; eventually the two will meet and the planet will meet a fiery death.

[URBAN NOTE] Toronto parochialism

I've just come back from a trip to deepest darkest Scarborough, once an independent municipality not altogether different from Mississauga but now a component of amalgamated Toronto. I went to Scarborough so I could go to the Markham Road Animal Hospital, Shakespeare's vet, and pick up more of the cat food prescribed him after an unfortunate and uncomfortable but fortunately quite treatable blockage. It was a long trip, about two and a half hours from my home south to the Dufferin subway station, then almost an hour east to the Warden TTC station and then up the 102 Markham Road, and then all the way back down again.

I don't think that many people think about Scarborough much when they think about Toronto; all the major landmarks--the Eaton centre, City Hall, the CN Tower, the Queen West and Queen East strips, Yonge Street, Bloor--are located in the core city of Toronto. Outside the old city? There be dragons. Thriving communities might lie outside, the vast majority of Torontonians might live outside of the old city's boundaries, and the suburban and high-rise neighbourhoods that I saw clearly relate to thriving communities--often of immigrant stock, South Asian particularly along Markham Road, Sri Lankan and Afghan most notably--but how often do Toronto's urbanists think of these neighbourhoods? Bike lanes might be popular in the old city, but how are they relevant in the rest of the city where motorized vehicles are far more practical? Massive investment in public transit might be an immediate payoff for downtowners, but for people who live an hour's walk away from a subway station what benefit would they derive? Et cetera.

I'm not one to make particular scolding claims about this. I wouldn't have gone to Scarborough if not to get Shakespeare's food. Hell, I'm the sort of Toronto parochialist who thinks that St. Clair West is terra incognita and hardly ever goes to Lansdowne, never mind the Danforth. The "three Torontos" paradigm still holds, the socioeconomic divisions mapping on a general failure to imagine a city including all of its parts, not only the most photogenic. The thing is, I really can't see myself spending that much more time exploring Toronto--I'm a reasonably busy man, most Torontonians are. What to do, then, for me and for Torontonians generally?

[BRIEF NOTE] On federalisms and Buryats

J. Lee Jacobson's Transitions Online article Siberian Buryats Struggle With Loss of Autonomy"--an expanded version of his Huffington Post entry "Buryats Worried by Future in Newly Merged Territory"--examines how the Buryat of the Agin Buryat Autonomous Okrug are reacting to their territory's merger the much larger Chita Oblast that surrounded it to form the new Zabaykalsky Krai. The Buryats, an indigenous Buddhist people related to the Mongols living in central Siberia are Lake Baikal, face serious threats as their autonomous decrease in number.

Since 1937 the Buryats, Siberia’s most populous indigenous group, have given their name to three administrative regions of Russia. But in recent years that number has been reduced to one. In 2008, the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Area merged with the surrounding Irkutsk Region, melding the Buryats into a large Russian population. In 2007, just as the region was celebrating 70 years of autonomy, a referendum decided a similar fate for the Aginsk Buryats. This January marked the end of the transition period, when the Aginsk Buryat Autonomous Region officially lost its autonomy and became part of the new Zabaikal Region. Now, the Buryat Republic is resisting pressure to merge, and Buryats across Russia struggle to maintain their culture.

Though home to a small fraction of Russia’s 400,000 Buryats, Aginsk Buryat was the only administrative region where the Buryats formed a majority. Of Russia’s 89 regions prior to 2005, it was one of only two in Siberia where natives outnumbered Russians. The Buryats, a formerly nomadic people of Mongol origin, with their own language and strong ties to Buddhism and shamanism, have a culture distinct from the Russians who form the majority in the surrounding region. With the loss of the funding and legislative decision-making that came with autonomy, this unique culture now faces additional challenges to its survival.

The loss of specifically Buryat structures and policies--budgets, funding, education, employment--has hit the inhabitants of both assimilated Buryat enclaves hard.

[R]esidents try to adapt to the changed circumstances. Some leave Aginsk for the civil service jobs that have been transferred to Chita or seek opportunities in Buryatia. Tsyrempilov notes an increased migration of Buryats from both Ust-Orda and Aginsk. “People don’t see enough opportunities for themselves in regions without their own budgets,” he said. “Buryatia is the last region where Buryats can have a career.” Others seek advice and comfort from local monks and shamans. Cultural workers – from artists to Buryat language teachers – continue with their work, hoping for the best.

“We have the assignment to save and protect our national culture,” said Bazar Damdinov, director of the Buryat music and dance group Amar-Saan.

Group member and throat singer Leonid Babalaev said he feels some responsibility to maintain his culture. “Since we’ve merged with Chita we’ve had difficulties with finances,” he said, as he worked on a costume on his home sewing machine. “It becomes hard to do a new program, we have to sew our own costumes and we buy our own material. Before, the district would give us 5 million rubles for the year and we were able to work with that. Everything we made working we could use for gas and other expenses.”

Cultural activists in Buryatia, such as Tsyrempilov, are focusing their attention on maintaining the republic’s autonomy through influencing public opinion via the media and the Internet. “Since the Republic of Buryatia is all we have now, we have the duty to [work to preserve it]. We are a small nation and there are not so many scholars among Buryats,” he said. “Buryats look at us and say, ‘We gave you education, please do something to protect our rights.’ ”

One source has argued that the ongoing assimilation of smaller enclaves with high proportions of indigenous populations--like the Buryat enclaves, say, or like the northern indigenous peoples' into Krasnoyarsk Krai that I blogged about in 2005--are part of a policy centered on assimilating these peoples, on reversing the Soviet-era trend to create the infrastructure for nations in the form of autonomous government and to revert to a more traditional and perhaps more centralized government. Maybe. Then again, it might also be the case that the merger of these small territories with their larger neighbours was actually a significant money-saver--Agin-Buryat okrug was entirely surrounded by Chita, and a small fraction its size--notwithstanding the Russian government's pressure. Why subsidize small and independently unviable polities, the thinking might go, when they could be passed onto their larger neighbours? Similar processes have occurred in other continental federations, where in Canada there has been a long-standing desire among some British Columbians to annex the much smaller and rather poorer Yukon Territory, while up until 1911 Australia's Northern Territory was part of the state of South Australia and lost it only when failed to develop the territory.

The Buryats aren't in an enviable position. With their two autonomous territories gone, the Buryats only have the republic of Buryatia on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal left as a specifically Buryat polity, but the population of even this polity is less than 30% Buryat. Barring unlikely population changes--the sharp rise in the share of ethnic Yakuts in the population of the Sakha Republic is a consequence of the collapse of Soviet-era migrant populations in northern Siberia, something not relevant to southern Siberia--the future for an autonomous Buryat territory will depend on what the Russian government thinks about this territory's costs and benefits.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the Canadiens' Toronto fans

I'm on the record as believing that Torontonians have a self-destructive relationship with their hometown hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs trade on their reputation and their monopoly over NHL hockey in southern Ontario to get away with, well, not playing a good game. Since 1969. Fortunately, Toronto fans now have an alternative.

Montreal Canadiens Centennial Loonie

The above is theCanadian one-dollar coin was struck in 2009 in order to celebrate the centennial of the Montreal Canadiens NHL hockey team.

Approximately 10 million Canadian dollar coins honoring the famous hockey franchise's centennial will be struck by the Royal Canadian Mint and issued for circulation.

The Canadiens have won a record 24 Stanley Cups, including their first in 1916 -- one year before the NHL was formed -- as the National Hockey Association champion when they beat the Pacific Coast Hockey Association winner Portland Rosebuds, the first American team to compete for the storied trophy.

"I think it's because of that history and the sacrifices that so many people made that we have the privilege of being able to go to the government of Canada and ask if they would stamp a particular coin for us in honor of our centennial year, or that they would come up with a stamp program," Canadiens owner George Gillett said. "This is a hockey club, and to have that kind of respect is pretty amazing."

Toronto's Maple Leafs doesn't have anything of the kind. Nor, perhaps, should it, especially given the Canadiens' recent excellent performance.

This has not exactly been an easy decision. As a journalist, I am not supposed to root for any one specific team. And as someone who grew up in a suburb just outside of Toronto, I am especially not supposed to root for the hated Habitants.

But can you really blame me? I mean, even the most hardened Toronto Maple Leafs fan has to admit that watching the underdogs of the Stanley Cup playoffs knock off Goliath after Goliath has been pure joy.
[. . . W]hat I really love about the Canadiens is that they are this year’s Cinderella team. Every playoff needs one. Last year, it was the Carolina Hurricanes, who fluked their way to the Eastern Conference final thanks to some last-second heroics. In 2006, the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

And now, we have the Canadiens. A team whose general manager resigned in February. A team that qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. A team that is being outchanced two-to-one in these playoffs.

A team that just might go all the way and win the franchise — and Canada — its first Stanley Cup since 1993.

It's worth noting that the list of Stanley cup winners was dominated from 1975 to 1990 by Canadian teams, whether the Canadiens or the Edmonton Oilers in the Wayne Gretzky years or the Calgary Flames, and that the Canadiens were the last Canadian team to win the Cup in 1993.

Writing in eye weekly, Rob Duffy made the point that, really, the old Toronto-Montreal rivalry in sports is irrelevant, and that we just need a winning Canadian team.

So let’s stop calling the history between the Habs and Leafs a rivalry and hop on the Canadiens bandwagon, because it’s possible that Jerry Seinfeld had it right — when it comes right down to it, we’re really just rooting for the clothes.