July 14th, 2010

[MEME] I write like ... ?

I used three different writing samples to make sure I got as much out of that meme as I could. Using the text Running With Scissors review, I was told I write like H.P. Lovecraft. (Atlantic Canada is like New England?)

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Using my own text in the post on people's problems with Twitter and Karelia and Stratfor, the program told me I write like Isaac Asimov. (Would Asimov be a blogger?)

I write like
Isaac Asimov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I will opt for the Asimov--less unsettling that way--although I will confess to being disappointed that I do not write like Margaret Atwood.

[BRIEF NOTE] On Mariner 4 and Mars

Wired's Brandon Keim commemorates the 45th anniversary of the transmission of the first space probe pictures taken of Mars, by NASA's Mariner 4 (more images are available via NASA's site here).

Mariner 4 Photos

The half-ton space camera flew past Mars eight months after being shot from Earth on an Atlas rocket, having traveled 325 million miles. It flew within 6,000 miles of the planet’s surface, snapping 22 digital photographs before continuing into space. They were the first close-ups ever taken of another planet, and it was only appropriate that the subject was Mars, a source of fascination since the beginning of recorded history.

There were, alas, none of the canals seen by astronomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nor evidence of senders of messages heard by Nikola Tesla or Gugliemo Marconi. Indeed, the hazy images of a barren, crater-strewn landscape ended speculation that Mars might plausibly be inhabited by higher life forms. But those low-resolution — 0.04 megapixel — images stirred the soul in different ways, and they paved the way for future photo shoots that would reveal a planet every bit as fantastic as imagined.

Someone--I think it was Patrick Moore in his 1999 book on Mars--said that if people before the first space probes made the mistake of thinking Mars essentially and excitingly Earth-like, after they saw Mariner 4's low-resolution photographs of a small single-digit percentage of the Martian surface they made the second mistake of thinking Mars essentially and boringly Moon-like and dead. It was only later, with the space probes of the 1970s including the famous Viking landers, that people realized that Mars was Mars-like, a world unto itself. Here's to Mariner 4 for helping our civilization work through the dialectic to that point.

[LINK] "The Lakeview Gusher"

pauldrye writes about the Lakeview Gusher, a 1911 oil gusher produced by lax drilling procedures that's estimated to have been even bigger than the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. How much bigger?

Eventually the oil company gave up trying to cap the gusher and settled on a second strategy, which had been used elsewhere but not to the same extent. Just like when a river floods, workers were hired to build an embankment of timbers and sandbags around the gusher. The local terrain required them to build a wall 150 feet wide at one end of a nearby gully and 250 feet at the other. It was, in places, 75 feet above the edge of the folds in the ground. In total, it could hold 16 million barrels of oil (or, in more commonly understood units, 672 million gallons, or 2.5 billion liters). Though the oil lake never quite reached the rim, at times the reservoir was up to 30 meters deep. The well was in the middle of this, so workers had to paddle out to it in small boats. This undoubtedly would have broken any number of health-and-safety regulations, if California had had any in 1910.

A “semi-cap” was eventually placed over the wellhead to at least keep the plume of oil in its gully and stop it from spewing all over the landscape. Some idea of the power of the gusher can be obtained by understanding that this new box hovered about ten feet in the air despite weighing several tons. To keep it from being propelled off into the middle distance somewhere, it had to be anchored to the ground by steel guy wires, which were in constant tension as the oil and muck roared and played against the underside of what was essentially a giant timber raft. Eventually the growing weight of the oil lake (and its growing depth) above the wellhead brought the tip of the gusher down to man height.

Most large gushers give out after a short while; the famous Lucas Gusher in Texas’ Spindletop oil field was as voluminous as Lakeview One, but dwindled away to much lower levels within a few months. Lakeview kept going at roughly the same volume, diminishing slowly to 60,000 barrels per day, until September 10th, 1911 when the bottom of the hole it had been eroding collapsed and filled in the well (some sources say September 9th). For 544 days the Lakeview Gusher had produced a significant fraction of all the world’s oil—to the point that, even with something like 40% of its production being wasted by being absorbed into the soil or flying all around the landscape at the top of an uncapped plume, what Union Oil could recover drove down the world oil price by 70% (from roughly $1 per barrel to 30¢ per barrel).

[URBAN NOTE] "A Look Back at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library"

Torontoist's Books section hosts a potted history and discussion of the defunct famous indie bookstore, This Ain't the Rosedale Library. Most of the comments, interestingly enough, focus not so much on the hostile nature of the market for independent bookstores as on changing tastes in the market and the possibilities of other--as argued by some of the commenters--better managed bookstores, like the Bakka Phoenix bookstore, doing better.

While sad that we lose another independent book store, I’m sorry that I can’t quite go along with continually blaming competition for its demise.

These “hip beacon[s] of readerly love” have lost their “hip”, but cost-conscious customers it seems. Why not give the former buyers some of the blame?

While it is interesting in a sociological context that someone would go online and give Amazon money to buy a copy of “No Logo”, instead of a local independent bookstore, it isn’t exactly a surprise.

While a capitalist will sell you the rope you use to hang her, it appears that being anti-capitalist doesn’t mean one can’t love a bargain.

[LINK] "What kind of regime?"

Registan's Joshua Foust profoundly disagrees with William Dalrymple's characterization of the Afghanistan unpleasantness as a civil war between the pro-Indian Tajiks and Uzbeks of the north and the pro-Pakistani Pushtuns of the south.

Right, so that’s just wrong. At least if you’re defining the sides ethnically. As one example, Jamiat-i Islami, one of the biggest factions of the Northern Alliance, had a large number of Pashtun members, especially in the Parwan—Kapisa—Shomali area. Secondly, what the fuck? A regime where most of the cabinet ministers are Pashtuns, where most of the governors (except those in obviously ethnic-majority provinces) are Pashtuns, and where the vast majority of aid and reconstruction money is spent on Pashtun areas is not exactly a “Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime.” Sure, there’s a Tajik and a Hazara Vice President, and where other minority leaders, like Ismail Khan or Abdulrashid Dostum, can make asses of themselves they’re incorporated into the government.

Secondly, while Afghanistan has been embroiled in wars for a good 30 years, only a few of them have been civil, and those civil wars have been
different civil wars. And I’m not sure it’s even fair to consider these civil wars noticably different from the many civil wars Afghanistan fought in the 20th century, aside from scale. We can look at the Bukharan Rebellion in 1928, the 1929 coup, the Safi Rebellion of 1945-6, the Gujjar Wars of the early 1960s, the Balochi insurgency in the 1970s, and then the initial anti-communist rebellion in Kunar and Nuristan in 1978.

These rebellions, which generally were about smaller, insular communities resisting the encroachment of central control, are not materially different than the current struggle to impose a central government on many of the same regions. We can argue over whether it’s a good idea or not (I’m of the opinion we should let the Afghan government choose where we go and what we do there), but what’s difficult to argue is that anything other than the Soviet War was particularly unusual other than scale (the Soviet War, since it was the result of an invasion by foreigners, is a separate thing).

But when we look at what happened in 1989, we see something very familiar: small, regionally-based militias fighting against a central government trying to impose control. When Najibullah gets thrown to the street, and then to a UN compound in Kabul, we see something very similar again: larger, still regionally-focused militias fighting over control of the government. It’s one way the fighting morphed somewhat—rather than merely resisting central control and seeking autonomy, in the 1990s the fighting changed to who gets to be in the center and impose control outward.

One commenter argues that the Pushtuns (the Pushtuns of Pakistan, at least) have traditionally enjoyed positive relations with India.

[LINK] "Chinese Preachers Bridge Indonesia’s Ethnic Gap "

The phenomenon of ethnic Chinese converting to Islam that Aubrey Belford describes in Indonesia is at least as much symbolic of the assimilation of Indonesia's Chinese minority as co-nationals as anything else: most Chinese in Indonesia are nearly all Buddhist and/or Christian, as the author notes. Might there be similar phenomena at work in neighbouring Malaysia, demographically and culturally somewhat similar to Indonesia but with a Chinese population proportionally ten times as large?

In Indonesia’s crowded world of celebrity Muslim preachers, it often pays to have a trademark. For Koko Liem, his ever-present Chinese-style outfits — garish satin tunics paired with matching skullcaps — play the role.

Whether in television appearances or Koran recitals, the approach of Mr. Liem, a 31-year-old convert to Islam from Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, is undeniably kitschy. In multihued permutations of his signature garb, he mixes preaching with guest appearances on dating and talk shows and promotes a religiously themed text-messaging service through his Web site.

Mr. Liem is one of a small but significant group of ethnic Chinese preachers to emerge over the past decade with a simple message: that being a member of Indonesia’s dominant majority — Muslims — and its historically most maligned minority — Chinese — need not be mutually exclusive.

“Clerics don’t only have to wear turbans. I’m a Chinese cleric. This is how I am,” Mr. Liem said at his home outside Jakarta, bouncing around boyishly on the couch in a crimson version of what he calls the “Koko Liem Costume.”

To outsiders, that assertion may seem unremarkable, even banal. But in Indonesia, it represents a powerful break with the past.

Pogroms and prejudice against Chinese have been a constant theme in Indonesian history. Discrimination peaked under the three-decade rule of the dictator Suharto, who banned the public expression of Chinese culture, language and religion. Despite being widely despised for holding a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth, Chinese were also, somewhat paradoxically, treated as potential sympathizers of the China-linked Indonesian Communist Party, which was wiped out in the 1965-66 purge that left more than half a million people dead.

In the economic chaos that led up to Suharto’s fall in 1998, riots and mass rapes drove many Chinese into exile abroad. There are no solid figures for how many Chinese live in Indonesia today, but they are generally believed to make up 2 to 3 percent of the 235 million people in Indonesia. Most Chinese here are Christians, Buddhists or followers of traditional beliefs; very few are Muslim.

In contemporary democratic Indonesia, official discrimination is gone, and Chinese culture has dramatically emerged from the shadows — although disparaging remarks are still heard about the Chinese, who are often stereotyped as greedy and deceitful. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president, made Chinese New Year an official holiday in 2002, and since then, it has been granted perhaps the highest honor possible in this country’s shopping mall-dominated, traffic-clogged capital: holiday sales and ubiquitous themed advertising.

“You see now on TV shows, there are many Chinese presenters, Chinese singers, also in the movies,” said Benny Setiono, the head of the Chinese Indonesian Association. “Before there were no Chinese in all this. Now they’re everywhere.”

Mr. Liem — who converted from Buddhism as a teenager in northern Sumatra and took shelter in his Islamic boarding school outside Jakarta as anti-Chinese mobs raged in 1998 — said his role was to teach the universality of Islam. “If a Chinese person becomes a Muslim, and he understands the religion, even to the point of being a cleric like me,” Mr. Liem said, “people are more awed and moved: ‘He’s just a Chinese, who wasn’t a Muslim before. Now he is one, and his religion is greater than ours. He can lecture on religion, he can memorize the Koran, what can we do?”’