June 22nd, 2010

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • Border Thinking's Laura Agustín really doesn't like Sweden's sex-purchase law, which criminalizes prostitution by penalizing the john, not the (presumably) much weaker sex worker. What happens, she wonders, to the individual autonomy that has encouraged many people (not only women) to exchange their sexual services on the market?

  • The Global Sociology Blog argues that Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is tailor-made as source material for a studies on the sociology of gender, showing--and not only through the character of Lisbeth Salander--the challenges of women under patriarchy.

  • At GNXP, Razib Khan makes the point that old stories about wild men have less to do with folk memories of extinct hominin species and more to do with the ability of people to dehumanize others.

  • Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen makes the reasonable argument that Germans are hostile to the idea that they should save less and spend more based on their own limited, displeasing, experiences with Keynesianism, and that they aren't unreasonable to be hostile.

  • Slap Upside the Head notes that a bill in Canada's parliament to explicitly extend human-rights protections to the transgendered has passed second reading, the first time a bill of its kind has done so.

  • From Understanding Society's Daniel Little comes some enlightening quotes on the complexities of human societies from the anthropologist and essayist Clifford Geertz, everything from wonderful summaries of Foucault to observations about the diversity of North Africa. Attention to detail, Geertz notes, matters hugely.

[LINK] "Moncton pressured for bilingual sign bylaw"

Good.. It's about time that the Canadian province of New Brunswick start looking bilingual, especially in the places where it has a bilingual population--and no, in case you're curious, of that province's two language communities the Francophones certainly aren't the ones content to ignore the other language community wherever possible. Getting bilingual commercial signage is the very least that a bilingual community needs, and it says a lot about prevalent attitudes towards language use (on the part of both communities) that French hasn't had a much more prominent role in one of the largest Francophone commnunities in Canada outside of Québec. I've blogged earlier about Dieppe, Moncton's Francophone-majority sister city; it's about time this happen in Moncton itself.

Dieppe passed a bylaw in May that all commercial signs must be in French and English. Now the group that lobbied Dieppe to impose the sign bylaw is pushing Moncton to follow suit.

Martin Leblanc-Rioux, who started the Dieppe sign bylaw push with a 4,000-person petition in January 2009, said Moncton declared itself officially bilingual in 2002 and now it has to do something about the fact that 80 per cent of all commercial signs are only in English.

A bilingual sign bylaw, Leblanc-Rioux said, would show to people outside of the city how the two language groups can coexist.

"We believe it is a strategic opportunity for Moncton," Leblanc-Rioux said.

"Bilingual signage would distinguish Moncton as an inclusive and diverse community, reinforcing Moncton's image as the perfect example that Canadian bilingualism is not only a dream, it is possible, alive and doing well."

[. . .]

New Brunswick is officially bilingual, but the province's language law does not cover the private sector. So any bylaw covering the language on commercial signs in municipalities must come from a local government.

[PHOTO] G20 Summit photo requests, anyone?

I never like succumbing to allergy attacks so severe that I have to flee business and work for home and rest.

But. While I'm here, I may as well mention that I've got my camera back in service. Are there any specific scenes of Toronto during the upcoming G20 summit--particular landmarks, say, or particular events or groups of people--that you'd like me to photograph for your viewing interest?

[BRIEF NOTE] On the post-Dziekanski fall of the RCMP

The inquiry into the Robert Dziekański Taser incident is over, and the RCMP--the organizations whose police officers repeatedly tasered a disoriented Polish traveller at Vancouver International Airport in 2007, killing him--looks very bad.

The final inquiry report on the death of Robert Dziekanski has concluded the RCMP were not justified in using a Taser against the Polish immigrant and that the officers later deliberately misrepresented their actions to investigators.

The long-awaited report, by retired B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood, was released Friday in Vancouver.

Braidwood was commissioned by the B.C. government to investigate the actions of the four RCMP officers who confronted and subdued Dziekanski on Oct. 14, 2007, at Vancouver International Airport.

Braidwood said the four officers involved initially acted appropriately, but the senior corporal intervened in an inappropriately aggressive manner.

[. . . The judge] concluded the officers later deliberately misrepresented what happened at the airport to justify their actions.

"I also concluded that the two other officers during their testimony before me offered patently unbelievable after-the-fact rationalizations of their notes and their statements" to the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, Braidwood said.

"I found all four officers’ claims that they wrestled Mr. Dziekanski to the ground were deliberate misrepresentations made for the purpose of justifying their actions."

"I also disbelieved the four officers’ claims there was no discussion between or among them about the incident before being questioned by IHIT investigators, although I did not conclude that they colluded to fabricate a story."

Did not formally conclude, I'm tempted at annotate.

While we were in the middle of the inquiry, the increasingly horrible revelations from the inquiry--basically, that it seemed as if everyone involved in the RCMP was lying and/or trying to cover things up--prompted me to write a [FORUM] post wondering how readers in other jurisdictions saw their police. The inquiry's conclusion is such that it even managed to seriously upset the conservative National Post's editorial board.

Officers charged uninformed into the 2007 standoff at Vancouver airport, like bouncers breaking up a barroom brawl. They made no attempt to defuse the tense situation before discharging a Taser — five times — into the obviously anguished Mr. Dziekanski as he screamed in agony on the floor of the international arrivals lounge.

To make matters worse, according to Justice Braidwood, the four concocted “unbelievable after-the-fact rationalizations.” They made “deliberate misrepresentations” about how they feared for their lives when Mr. Dziekanski grabbed a stapler from a nearby counter, just so they could “justify their action.” For instance, they all claimed the victim lunged at them, while Mr. Braidwood could find no evidence of any move toward the officers.

Higher-ups, too, attempted to cover-up the force’s possible complicity by insisting nothing had gone wrong and by preventing the release of a civilian video recording of the incident. The recording, by passerby Paul Pritchard, was eventually made public, and thankfully so. Without Mr. Pritchard’s evidence, the RCMP might have been able to sweep its members’ conduct under the rug.

The federal government pledged to adopt Justice Braidwood’s eight recommendations, including establishing a civil oversight board to monitor complaints against the Mounties, a board with broad-ranging investigative powers.

Yet the rot inside the RCMP is so great it is not clear whether the force has admitted to itself even now that anything wrong was done by the four officers present at Mr. Dziekanski’s death and those who may have attempted to conceal the truth afterwards.

In April, deputy commissioner Gary Bass apologized to Mr. Dziekanski’s mother, Zofia Cisowski, and paid her an undisclosed amount of financial compensation on behalf of the force. But then Mr. Bass immediately turned around and reassured members in an internal memo, obtained through access to information requests, that the RCMP was apologizing to Ms. Cisowski for the loss of her son, not for what constables on the scene were alleged to have done. “Even though the word ‘apology’ worries some, we are not apologizing for the actions of specific members or saying anything about specific actions,” wrote Mr. Bass.

Sad days, but at least we know not to count on the RCMP any more. Long live eternal vigilance and the sort of sousveillance that let Canada see the video showing just how much the RCMP tried to cover up.

[LINK] "Keeping an Eye on Io"

Centauri Dreams' Paul Gilster shared a novel idea with his readership today. It's been imagined for decades, and considered a serious possibility, that there might be life and entire ecosystems in the outer solar system, in the subsurface water oceans of moons like Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus. Today's the first time that I heard serious speculation as to the possibility that Io, a Moon-sized rocky body with the closest orbit orbit to Jupiter of that giant's four planet-sized moons and not coincidentally the most volcanically active body known in the solar system, might harbour life.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Washington State University) made the case for astrobiology on the seemingly hostile world in a paper last year in the Journal of Cosmology. Io’s plasma particle interactions with Jupiter, its lack of a substantial atmosphere and its extreme temperature gradients all argue against life there. Nor do we see impact craters, indicating a malleable surface that is being constantly reformed.

But there is this to be said about the place: It formed in a part of the Solar System where water ice is plentiful and geothermal heat could have made the origin of life possible. We can imagine a scenario where water was lost on the surface and life went deep underground, where both water and carbon dioxide may still be plentiful. Schulze-Makuch’s view:

Geothermal activity and reduced sulfur compounds could still provide microbial life with sufficient energy sources. Particularly, hydrogen sulfide is probably a common compound in Io’s subsurface…. Volcanic activity is prevalent on Io and lava tubes resulting from that activity could present a favorable habitable environment. Microbial growth is common in lava tubes on Earth, independent of location and climate, from ice-volcano interactions in Iceland to hot sand-floored lava tubes in Saudi Arabia. Lava tubes also are the most plausible cave environment for life on Mars… and caves in general are a great model for potential subsurface ecosystems.

Underground microbial life on Io would, then, be protected from low temperatures and shielded from radiation, in an environment with both trapped moisture and nutrients like sulfide and hydrogen sulfide. Schulze-Makuch speculates that sulfur could play a large role here as a potential building block of life, noting that there is no evidence to this point for any organic molecules on Io and little hint of carbon of any kind. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that any organic molecules would be extremely difficult to find in Io’s atmosphere — they wouldn’t last long given the radiation environment at the surface. Energy, of course, is plentiful, and the author studies the possibility of chemical and magnetic energy’s role in astrobiology.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the intersection of hard times, quality, and brand loyalty, and, oh yes, coffee

Extraordinary Observation's Rob Pitingolo comes to an interesting conclusion about what Starbucks coffee and light beers have in common: they're not good enough to command any amount of brand loyalty when times are tough, even when macroeconomic trends suggest that they should be doing well.

What both of these situations have in common is that the products are broken. Starbucks coffee is not good; light beer is not good. Yes, many people do and will continue to buy both of these things, but just enough people have stopped buying them that the balance is being tipped in the opposite direction. So even if you write these people off as snobs who are being haughty, losing them as customers is really hurting these businesses.

The other aspect that both of these situations have in common is that the brands are attempting to remedy declining sales with marketing and PR that don't address the root problem. Light beer commercials have never really had anything to do with beer, but these days they seem particularly pointless. Free wifi at Starbucks locations is something the company should have done long ago, but it does nothing to address the quality of the coffee.

I kind of like Eric Felten's suggestion. Wouldn't it be something if these brands pulled a Domino's Pizza and admitted that the quality of the product has suffered, but that they are committed to fixing that? It won't happen though. At least not by a long shot.

I drink Starbucks coffee mainly because it's the coffee most readily available to me in certain environments, and buy cheaper coffee whenever I can. The gap between its coffeehouse interiors and its university department-office-coffee reality hasn't left me with any positive illusions towards the chain.

It wouldn't matter to me if Starbucks' wifi became free, not least since I've had the good luck to associate a coffee shop with wifi as being original and non-derivative by definition. At the intersection of Bloor Street West with Brunswick, just west of Bathurst Street, in the Annex, three of the four corners have coffee shops: Second Cup, a Canadian chain, on the southeast corner; Starbucks, on the northeast; Aroma, a new Israeli-based chain, on the northwest. All three coffee shops offer wifi. Guess which one stands out for me? Guess which one I've boosted to as many of my friends as I've been able to?

[LINK] "My daughter, the terrorist"

"Bonnie and Clyde '10"
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei
This is the second time I've featured this striking image. The first time was in April of this year, when the woman shown here, 17 year old Dzhanet Abdullayeva, gained posthumous global fame when she joined another woman from the autonomous Russian republic of Dagestan in becoming a suicide bomber on the Moscow subway after their Islamic terrorist husbands were killed in battle with Russian forces. This image was widely interpreted as the icon of a 21st century Bonnie and Clyde, a couple bound to each other by their cause and vice versa, making use of and remaking the conventions of popular culture to show just what someone would do for love. This Guardian article, written by Luke Harding, goes into the fine sociological and biographical detail that got passed over in the immediate aftermath of the suicide bombing, examining the life of the other woman, 27 year old schoolteacher Maryam Sharipova. In visiting her family and her village, in trying to understand the dynamics of the civil war waged by Islamist terrorists across the North Caucasus and the dirty war waged in retaliation by the federal government, Harding illuminates a lot of stuff. Paradoxes feature prominently, as people like Maryam's father Rasul try to understand how (and try not to recognize that) the very together and competent and normal young woman they knew could become a suciide bomber.

Washing hangs on the line in the front yard of the family home; shoes are neatly stacked; there is a satellite dish; sparrows flit past a trailing vine. Mariam lived in the downstairs front bedroom. She decorated the walls a tasteful magenta. Her possessions are still there: L'Oréal moisturisers; a bedside table and mirror. There are books in Arabic. More surprising is the heap of women's fashion magazines – Health And Beauty, Good Advice and Glamour.

Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, Rasul tells me he finds it impossible to believe that his daughter was a suicide bomber. "I don't know what happened," he says. "We, too, are seeking answers. She knows. Allah knows. That's it." He offers his condolences to the families of Muscovites blown up on their way to work. Typically, bombers leave a last testament before going on their final mission. But Mariam left no note of any kind. "We've looked everywhere. We've found nothing."

I examine Mariam's old schoolbooks: they are covered in neat, diligent handwriting. She had been taking classes in Arabic. Rasul shows me the verbs she was busy noting down in her exercise book on 7 February, weeks before her death. "She wasn't the kind of person who could do this," he says. "She was self-confident, someone who defined clear goals, and who wanted to achieve them."

The collapse of the stable Soviet order, and the increasing immiseration and political oppression of the isolated territories on Russia's Caucasus border like Dagestan, seems to have triggered a sort of a phase transition: the old share in the same Soviet-era culture as the other people in their age demographic, while the only really standout option for the young is another glittery supranational ideology demanding a certain amount of sacrifice. Harding's not optimistic.

Back in Balakhani, Rasul talks eloquently of the 300-year struggle that has been waged in the mountains of Dagestan against Russian occupants. He mentions Sheikh Mansur, who in 1785 organised the first large-scale rebellion against Russian expansion into the Caucasus highlands. It was Mansur who also issued a call for gazavat, or holy war, against the Russians, a slogan still used by today's guerrillas. (Increasingly, thanks to the internet, they see their campaign not as a local struggle but as part of global jihad.) The most celebrated anti-Russian warlord, Shamil, surrendered in 1859 just down the road after Tsarist forces trapped him in the Dagestani village of Gunib. At the same time, Rasul also expresses his fondness for Russian writers Pushkin, Lermontov, Sholokhov and Tolstoy: "I admire Tolstoy for his stand against violence."

I leave with few answers, but the tragedy of Mariam Sharipova, it strikes me, may ultimately be a generational one, with today's disaffected Muslims far more radicalised than their Soviet-educated parents. These days, the major platform for revivalist Islam is no longer the madrasa but the web, an area in which Mariam was a specialist and through which she may have been pursuing a secret life. Rasul quotes a line from Tolstoy's
War And Peace: " 'Good people make up the majority. Evil people are fewer in number, but they are very organised and can control the masses.' This is still the case today."

[AH] Kosigan, Home so far from home: The Vainakh of the Caucasus and Kazakhstan

It's well and surely time, I think, for me to resume the Tuesday night Alternate History book reviews that I liked doing so much. Comments, as always

* * *

The Grozny Oblast of the Russian Federation seems by all reports to be as quiet a Russian province as any. Homogeneously Russian by population, notable for its farmland and its rich abundant oil, possessing not as depressed ane conomy as one might expect of a provincial economy deep in the Caucasus, Grozny seems to show as little sign of its non-Russian past as the collection of provinces and territories on th northeastern shore of the Black Sea that once constituted Circassia. The only difference between Circassia and Chechno-Ingushetia--the territory's former name, after the two major constituents of the Vainakh group--is that the Circassians were ethnically cleansed to Anatolia by centralizing Russian power in the 19th century while the Vainakh were ethnically cleansed to Central Asia by centralizing Soviet power in the 20th century. And yet, despite being permanently removed from their homeland, the Vainakh still survive. How?

A. Kosigan's 2008 study tells us all about the Vainakh. Home so far from home is a sensitive, opinionated exploration of an interesting chapter in the Stalinist forced population movements of the mid-20th century, particularly of those directed against potentially disloyal ethnic minorities (co-ethnics of Axis powers, or one of the Muslim and Turkic-Turcophile people of the northeastern shore of the Black Sea and Caucasus) during the Second World War. I am personally reasonably familiar with the contours of the expulsions and resettlements of the Russian Germans, mainly because after Communism's end the large majority of the Soviet Union's ethnic Germans ended up returning to their titular homeland. I did not know much about the deportees from the Caucasus and Black Sea area. Kosigan's study makes the very compelling point that, rather than being anomalous actions of little relevance, the deportations of the Vainakh and their neighbours is actually of signal importance. Overseen by the Caucasian, the Georgian, Stalin, the brutal Vainakh expulsion that killed almost half of the half-million Vainakh alive in 1944-1945 finds its ultimate origin in the terrifically costly expulsion of the Circassians to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s, undertaken with the goal of pacifying a restless frontier that could be opened to productive settlement. The Vainakh, like the former Circassian neighbours, happened to occupy lands with valuable resources, and also happened to have a very decentralized tribal social organization that helped them resist state pressure. It was only in the 1940s, when the rebellious Vainakh were confronted Soviet state mobilized in a desperate struggle for national survival, that they succumbed, vacating their homelands, leaving them open to more "productive" and "rational" settlement by Russians and Slavs just like other resettled peripheral areas such as Karelia and Kaliningrad, and providing, in their diaspora, a useful and disposable labour force for an underdeveloped labour-hungry Central Asia. Although destalinization led to the removal of official stigma against the Vainakh and the other deported peoples of the Caucasus in 1967-1957, by that time the Soviet Centre had grown too accustomed to its newly stable Caucasian territories to want to reverse Stalin's ethnic cleansing. And so, just like the Crimea Tatars originally of Ukraine and the Meshkhetian Turks originally of Georgia, the Vainakh originally of Russia stayed in their Central Asian exile.

Kosigan presented a history that I knew nothing of lucidly and compactly. The analysis he provides of the development of the Vainakh community in its exile in Kaxakhstan--concentrated mainly in the cities and farms of southeastern Kazakhstan, particualrly around Almaty--is revelatory. The Vainakh are the third-largest national community in Kazakhstan, well ahead of the Ukrainians, Uzbeks and Germans and ranking behind only the Russians and the titular nationality in size. To a remarkable degree, the Vainakh have preserved their language and their family structures, adapting their culture from the compact fortified villages of the Caucasus to the ethnically very mixed plains and cities of Central Asia so as to retain just enough continuity to survive as a distinct minority. In independent Kazakhstan, it turns out, the Vainakh play a relatively minor role: Nazarbayev lacks any interest in support Vainakh desires to return to their homeland (ironically, of the two hundred thousand Vainakh who emigrated to Russia after 1991, the vast majority went not to their homeland by to cities like Moscow as migrant labourers) and the Vainakh show little interest in compromising their existence. They have managed to survive.

Great book, highly recommended to students of ethnic minorities.