July 13th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links


  • At the Burgh Diaspora,Jim Russell writes briefly about how expats from declining areas (New Brunswick, say, or Pittsburgh) can be valuable human resources for areas hoping to recover.

  • Eastern approaches' Edward Lucas has two oddly complimentary posts, the first examining the question of how Russian membership in NATO would work, the second reporting how a Russian threat to block imports of Moldovan wine after the smaller country's president proposed mourning the anniversary of the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia in 1940.

  • Gerry Canavan lets us know the disturbing news that the worst--or at least the worst-informed--have been revealed in a recent sociological study to be the most politically determined.

  • Geocurrents' Martin Lewis writes about how Panama is easily Central America's economic success story in terms of GDP per capita and growth, although income inequality is rather severe. Lewis also mentions the relatively significant amount of self-government enjoyed by Panama's indigenous peoples.

  • Hunting Monsters' Ian tackles the Islamic Republic's politicization of male hairstyles. Having non-regulation hair, he points out, doesn't necessarily signify one's membership in the opposition; it just signifies difference.

  • At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley mourns the disappearance of sensible foreign-policy wonks from the ranks of the Republican Party.

  • Marginal Revolution hosts an interesting discussion of how Prohibition in the United States ended up being storngly anti-immigrant and anti-urban but began as a product of mobilized anti-abolitionists and religious revivalists.

  • Strange Maps shows us Paula, the woman whose is as much an icon of the proud Brazilian state of São Paulo as Marianne is of France, only with a head and upper torso that actually maps onto the map of São Paulo.

  • Torontoist reports on how popular and activist upset with the police reaction at the recent G20 summit here in Toronto might actually be evolving into some kind of durable movement.

  • Window on Eurasia suggests that religion is becoming more of a barrier to intermarriage in the minds of Russians than ethnicity, perhaps contradicting--at least locally--a previous post there talking about continued high rates of religious intermarriage in Tatarstan.

[LINK] "Death Star Off the Hook for Mass Extinctions"

Going by this evidence, Sol is probably a solitary star after all, since without the periodic mass extinctions there wasn't any special reason to imagine that Nemesis existed at all. This just leaves one question: what does cause mass extinctions every 27 million years like clockwork?

A massive extinction like the one that claimed the dinosaurs has hit the Earth like clockwork every 27 million years, a new fossil analysis confirms. But the study claims to rule out one controversial explanation: a dark stellar companion called Nemesis that sends a regular rain of deadly comets toward Earth.

“The main astronomical ideas you can come up with that could cause something like this just don’t work,” said physicist Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas, a coauthor of the new study.

Nemesis was first suggested in 1984 as a way to explain an alarmingly regular series of extinctions in the marine fossil record, which was discovered by paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski. In light of the suggestion in 1980 that the dinosaurs were killed by a catastrophic impact, an invisible cosmic sniper lobbing comets at the inner solar system seemed like a plausible culprit.


Two independent groups of astronomers suggested that a dim brown dwarf or red dwarf star lying between one and two light years from the sun could throw a shower of ice and rock from the Oort Cloud every 26 million or 27 million years to wreak havoc on Earth. Because the orbit of this “death star” would be tweaked by interactions with other stars and the Milky Way, the time between one impact and the next should vary by 15 to 30 percent.

But now, Melott and coauthor Richard Bambauch of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, say that’s not actually what happens. The extinctions come almost exactly every 27 million years, they say, to a confidence interval of 99 percent.

“It’s really too good, it’s too sharp and fixed,” Melott said. “It’s like a clock.”

[REVIEW] Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors

I knew little about Augusten Burroughs before I read the 2002 memoir that made him famous. I knew that he had a sense of humour that displayed a decided resilience; I knew that he had, as documented in her later book Dry, a serious problem with alcoholism; I knew that he was queer. Finally, I knew that Running With Scissors documented his adolescence living with the wacky family of his mother's psychiatrist. I expected enjoyable quirk.

I didn't get that at all. See Randy read about how Augusten was afraid that his erratic mother and his terrifyingly grim father would kill each other in one of their fights. Observe Randy as he learned that his mother's psychiatrist--also, apparently, her rapist--gave him the alcohol and the pills that Augusten would need to make the kind of credible suicide attempt that would keep him from going to school. Look at Randy discover how one of the more competent family members left her cat to starve to death trapped under a hamper in a basement because she thought her pet told her he wanted to die.

Burroughs does manage to write engagingly about all these experiences with a certain sense of humour, and Running With Scissors did end on a quasi-optimistic note (if he could survive that adolescence what couldn't he survive?) but for me the horror swamped whatever enjoyment I might have taken away from the book. Running With Scissors is a good book; it's just that I expected to read something that wasn't an abuse survivor's story.

[LINK] "Does Japan face a Greek-like debt crisis?"

This Globe and Mail question-and-answer feature is reassuring, in one sense; the problem might be exaggerated. Somewhat.

HOW BAD IS JAPAN’S FISCAL POSITION?

By certain measures, Japan’s debt load is worse than that of Greece.

Japan’s outstanding long-term government debt is set to reach ¥862-trillion ($9.7-trillion U.S.) at the end of March 2011, or 181 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, the Ministry of Finance says.

If short-term debt is added, Japan’s liabilities will hit 197 per cent of GDP this year and 204 per cent in 2011, the highest among advanced economies and far worse than Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio of around 130 per cent, OECD figures show.

Similarly, the IMF warned in May that Japan was growing more vulnerable to sovereign risk, estimating the country’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio at 227 per cent in 2010.

WHY DOES JAPAN HAVE SO MUCH DEBT?

Tokyo’s debt burden is a legacy of massive government spending in the 1990s to support the economy as it stagnated following the bursting of an asset bubble.

An aging population has meant rising social welfare costs add considerably to government spending.

Some analysts say Japan’s net debt provides a more accurate picture of the country’s indebtedness. This measures gross debt minus government assets such as public pension fund reserves and foreign reserves.

On that basis, debt will reach around 105 per cent of GDP in 2010, the highest among major economies, the OECD says.

Still, some analysts say Japan would not be much worse off by that measure than Belgium and Italy were in the 1990s, and both nations avoided a sovereign debt crisis.


It's also decidedly not reassuring in that it makes the point that if Japan was to follow a Greek path, the heft of Japan's economy--and its debt--might be such that nothing could save it.

[LINK] "Tyler Brûlé, Media Maverick"

This Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile of Tyler Brûlé, an out Canadian expatriate in the United Kingdom who, after journalism, went ont to co-found Wallpaper and now runs Monocle, is interesting not only in its portrayal of the man but in its description of Monocle: a magazine that works. (And that I like.)

In a modest, terraced mews building beside Marylebone station in West London, the offices of Monocle magazine are, on the morning I visit, a little bleary eyed and blinking themselves awake. Several staffers are just back from a bonding and brainstorming weekend in Beirut, treating their jet lag with a variety of herbal teas. The air is thick with rose hip and ginseng. At the reception desk a scrubbed young man in impeccable casual wear is on the phone, putting a distant hotel booking desk through its paces: "All I want to know are the dimensions of your single room," he says. "I mean, is it an absurd space? We really do not want something absurd."

Tyler Brûlé, the founder, chief executive officer, editor, and guiding tastemaker of
Monocle, is running late, but even in his absence you sense him in the detail of his compact and carefully styled offices. Brûlé made his name as the editor of Wallpaper</i>, once the house bible of loft dwellers and metrosexuals everywhere, a magazine with the subtitle, "the stuff that surrounds us." Brûlé became famous for letting nothing escape his attention. His vision is built on stern principles, such as an emphasis on natural materials and a disdain for laminates of any kind. You look, in vain, for a veneer.

The latest edition of </i>Monocle is a fat book of a magazine that challenges just about every piece of received wisdom about what works in media these days, starting with the notion that this is no time to start a new print publication. Now three years old, Monocle boasts a global circulation nearing 150,000, a 35 percent annual increase at a time when magazine sales are supposed to be going in the other direction, and a rising subscription base of 16,000. If that sounds small, consider that these individuals pay $150 for 10 issues, a 50 percent premium over the newsstand price.

For their money, readers get a compendious global mix of reports on new thinking and trends from unlikely places. They get the inside track on the "heroes of hospitality in Basel" and the "movie moguls of Mexico." They find out why "German doctors are the most attractive doctors in the world." There's more coverage than is possibly healthy about matters such as the comparative virtues of various overnight bags and calfskin slippers and monogrammed stationery.
Monocle has, too, cornered the market on model cities, fantasy aircraft, and camp jokes. The cover I'm looking at advertises a feature on startups with a picture of a square-jawed warehouseman beside a stack of cardboard boxes, with the headline: "Is your package fit for global consumption?"