July 16th, 2010

[LINK] "Periodicity on the Quick"

Continuing the theme of Nemesis, Will Baird doesn't think much of the idea of regular mass extinctions every 27 million years. It turns out that they caught my attention; others', too.

Periodicity came out of a paper done by Raup and Sepkoski back in 1984 based on a database of marine fossils that suggested that there might be a regular pattern to the mass extinctions. They felt they had uncovered a pattern of regular mass extinctions at 26 million years. This, in turn, inspired the idea of Nemesis, a dwarf companion to our sun. There was a hunt for Nemesis, which turned up zilch. Others have suggested that it is actually the sun's orbit around the center of the galaxy and the movement above and below the galactic arms that would cause the periodic signal. The most recent paper that refutes that there could not be a companion star such as Nemesis. It also casts doubt on the galactic orbit having anything to do with the extinctions. They still uncover a 27 million year repeating pattern for the extinctions.

Some of the popular press has stated that the general consensus amongst extinction researchers is that periodicity is real. Unfortunately, that's incorrect. There isn't a general consensus that agrees on this. On the contrary, it looks as though most researchers, other than a few (mostly physics and astronomy types), have rejected the idea. The idea, while perhaps not fringe, is definitely not in the mainstream.

Part of the reason for that is that there are at least two different killers for mass extinctions: impacts (KT Extinction) and vulcanism (Permian-Triassic and Late Triassic Extinctions). There seems to be a third, too: radically cooling (Eocene). Making these rather different extinction mechanisms follow a regular clock seems implausible at best.


A quick comparison of predicted mass extinctions versus actual ones leaves him unsatisfied. The causes of the mass extinctions are so different: can a single extraterrestrial body like Nemesis really be responsible?

The whole thing doesn't really hold water for me. Period ending extinctions are the best fit...but...the causes have zilch in common! KT: Impact. TJ: Vulcanism. Ordovician: Glaciation! The patterns of the extinctions are also different from one another. How an asteroid, a volcano, and a glaciation can have the same cause...well...that stretches credibility a bit.

[LINK] "The crisis of 2011?"

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber reminds me of my teenage years. Oh, Gingrich!

It seems obvious to me that a shutdown will happen – the Republicans of today are both more extreme and more disciplined than last time they were in a position to shut down the government, and they did it then. And they hate Obama at least as much now as they hated Clinton in 1995 (maybe not quite as much as they hated him by 2000, but they are getting there faster this time).

The obvious question is how a shutdown will be resolved. It seems to me that it will be a lot harder for Obama to induce the Republicans to back down than it was for Clinton. IIRC, no piece of legislation proposed by Obama has received more than a handful of votes in the House, and (unlike the case with Bob Dole in 1995) no aspiring Republican presidential candidate will have an interest in resolving the problem – the base would be furious. On the other hand, the price Obama would have to pay if he capitulated would be huge, certainly enough to end his presidency at one term. So, I anticipate a lengthy shutdown, and some desperate expedients to keep things running.

As far as I can tell, there is no mechanism for resolving this kind of deadlock – the House can’t be dissolved early as would happen in a parliamentary system. I think the Founders probably envisaged the House as having a “power of the purse” comparable to that of the British Commons. Whether they did or not, I’m sure this argument will be made, probably by people who have argued, until very recently, that the power of the Executive is essentially unlimited.

[BLOG] Some Friday links


  • 80 Beats announces that Japan's solar sail craft is working nicely.

  • At Acts of Minor Treason, Andrew writes that the Toronto Transit Commission might be insensitively making use of eminent domain, but at least--unlike its counterpart in the Australian state of Victoria--it's actually telling the people whose property it's confiscating (or wants to confiscate).

  • blogTO's Robyn Urback informs us that the Toronto Reference Library, my favourite library, is--like other downtown buildings--infested with bedbugs.

  • At A Fistful of Euros, Edward Hugh writes about the Polish economy and the extreme care to avoid Baltic-style debt bubbles its leaders must demonstrate.

  • Geocurrents observes that China and India are so solidly the world's most populous countries, not only are they far and away the two most populous countries in the world, 39 of the 61 most populous political subdivisions or either Chinese or Indian.

  • At the Grumpy Sociologist, David Mayeda crunches data on problems experienced by students in the United States, suggests that students of indigenous background--American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Hawaiian--are significantly more likely to experience violence than students of other demographic groups. Is the violence of colonization continuing?, Mayeda suggests.

  • Joe. My. God lets us know that the tourism agency of Mexico City--a polity which earlier recognized same-sex marriage--is offering a free honeymoon to the first Argentine couple married under the new marriage laws.

  • Over at Towleroad, there's an scandal caused by a German football/soccer coach who claims that there were too many games on Germany's third-placing World Cup team.

  • Wasatch Economics' Scott Peterson notes that, very rapidly over the past decade, China has replaced the United States as Japan's leading trade partner.

  • Window on Eurasia suggests that the European Union--not the United States--is moving towards engaging with Abkhazia on the principle of "involvement without recognition," potentially giving Abkhazia more options other than the Russian.

[LINK] "Language in Suriname"

In linking to a still-interesting 2008 article (that I linked to) about the standardization of Surinam's creole Sranam language as the national standard in place of Dutch, Language Hat starts an interesting discussion on the changing spelling of placenames tracking political changes.

Incidentally, my problem with the recent switch from the traditional English spelling Surinam to the Dutch Suriname is that it introduces an unnecessary split between spelling and pronunciation (of which English already has more than a sufficiency): to be consistent, the pronunciation should be changed to soo-ri-NAH-muh, but I'm pretty sure nobody says that. What was wrong with Surinam, anyway? I know, I know, I'm a hopeless reactionary when it comes to place names. If it was good enough for granddad, it's good enough for me.


Others say "Suriname" more accurately reflects the pronunciation. And the great debate spreads well beyond northeastern South America.

[LINK] "$3B Rail line strengthens social fabric of Johannesburg"

South African-born journalist Richard Poplak has a wonderful essay examining how GauTrain, the Johannesburg metropolitan area's new mass transit system built in time for the World Cup, will help to overcome apartheid by building up a unified city. Literally.

Welcome to the GauTrain, arguably the most important, certainly the most expensive, but not the only piece of massive transportation infrastructure the World Cup Finals preparations have bequeathed South Africa. Nowhere on the continent is there anything close to this — Cairo has a superb subway and train system, but nothing on this scale. But let’s leave Africa out of it: There isn’t a city in Canada that can boast of such a transit project — the GauTrain leaves even Vancouver’s Skytrain in the dust. This is a world class, high-speed commuter train, built and currently operated by (irony of ironies) Canada’s pride, Bombardier, at a cost to South Africans of about $3-billion. Sandton to the airport is the first part of the line to go operational. It will eventually connect the north of the city to the south, which, to anyone who knows Johannesburg, is as much a sociopolitical revolution as it is a transportation one.

No one walks in Johannesburg; public transit has always been for the poor. It is difficult for those who live in a walking, transit-based city to comprehend just how devastating dead sidewalks are to a sense of collective self. An important theme in South African novelist Nadine Gordimer’s work is that the street is where history occurs. It’s a utopian space — as the academic Rita Barnard puts it — “of bodily contact and chance encounter and of the unpredictable polyglot sociopolitical life apartheid’s white suburban homes were designed to seal off.” The old regime’s builders had a streak of dark genius; they understood the elements involved in making vital, democratic cities — and engineered the precise opposite.

The philosopher Michel de Certeau, who wrote the classic The Practice of Everyday Life, recognized the revolutionary sensibilities of the flaneur — the casual walker who subverts the ordered structure of the city simply by ambling through it at will — no less than apartheid-era builders did. Yet South African cities presented a unique wrinkle to this theory: walkers have almost always been uniformly black. In other words, their subversion was negated because they were performing exactly as their warders hoped they would. The white flaneur, on the other hand, was indeed a revolutionary. Black subversion was restricted to the townships, where it was easily controlled (at least for a time) and easily ignored. Segregation ruled to the last.

It has been virtually impossible to untangle this legacy. For one thing, the threat of racial violence that the old regime once held as a Sword of Damocles over the heads of the white citizenry has not disappeared, but has been dimmed by the spectre of insanely high crime rates. That’s kept people off the streets. What’s more, Johannesburg was built for the car, so much so that a Robert Moses-like planner — we’re referring here to the man who almost single-handedly killed swathes of New York City by building bridges over the Bronx and Brooklyn — would be entirely superfluous.

Like most South African cities, Johannesburg has a history of razing urban black settlements and moving them to the fringes of the city. Workers would have to find their way into town and make their way back, because the Group Areas Act made it illegal for them to live in white areas, and the Pass Laws highly restricted their freedom of movement. Cities were thus fluid panopticons, where blacks were always watched: Without the proper paperwork, they couldn’t be there; with it, they were easily traced. Johannesburg was a de facto work camp.

This is what makes the GauTrain such a revelation. By 2012 it will link the ritzy northern suburbs with Soweto. It has bus hook-ups with other parts of the city, and critically introduces public transit to Johannesburg’s upper classes, as well as its visitors. No longer are they cloistered, shuttled around by car from fortified mall to fortified housing compound; the entire complexion of the city changes. By integrating the city’s elites into the fabric of urban life, Johannesburg becomes a better city.

[REVIEW] Goodwin and Schiff, Heart of Whiteness

If June Goodwin and Ben Schiff hadn't compared Heart of Whiteness to Vincent Crapanzano's 1984 Waiting: The Whites of South Africa, I wouldn't have realized the ways in which they compliment each other. Crapanzano's study was an investigation of a cross-section of whites of a small community in the Cape Province interior, Afrikaners and English both, rooted in a particular place, whereas Goodwin and Schiff's survey (in addition to taking place years later) is a broad survey of prominent Afrikaners (writers, musicians, clerics, businesspeople, politicians) across South Africa.

What does Heart of Whiteness show? Put charitably, it shows that apartheid and all its related artifacts are causally associated with Afrikaners' lack of self-confidence and sense of fragility, of a common fear that in a country where people of different ethnicities could compete freely with them the Afrikaner cultural entity created with such effort--the codification of the language, notably--could fall apart and the constituents (subjects?) of "Afrikanerdom" would be left with nothing, this fear aggravated by the reality that even these things weren't under their control. Writers and linguists, to give a single example, tried to elevate Afrikaans, to make it a normal language of life and work in the fashion of language revivalism worldwide, without, however, taking note of the Afrikaans varieties spoken by the non-whites who make up most of South Africa's Afrikaansophone population, neglecting low-prestige words from the white Afrikaans speech community, and noting only when it was almost too late that the integral association of Afrikaans with the repressive apartheid state structure threatened the language's future. Crapanzano's survey didn't really suggest to me the extent to which Afrikaans identity was plural, politically and religiously and regionally (the rough contrast between the less reactionary Afrikaners who stayed in the Cape Province and the Boers who trekked inland wasn't something I'd considered before). This is critical: the need to fight this fragility is what sparked this most recent--I won't say last--episode in racial totalitarianism.

Goodwin and Schiff's profile of Afrikanerdom as it was falling away from apartheid, different interviewees opening up new vistas--here's a rocker who's moving away from the twee central European folk songs adopted in the 1930s as Afrikaner traditions, here's the missionary's daughter who's politically conservative but nonetheless wrote a marvellous book making her Afrikaner readers realize that they're human, too, there's any number of clerics who come to realize through their own experiences that the Calvinism of apartheid was unjust--actually has to be counted as pretty hopeful. Sometimes their interviewees were horrifically yet humourously blinkered--the example of the church minister who said both that Africans' low moral status was shown by their treatment of their children and advocated that their political demonstrations be countered by live fire--but they were trying to respond creatively. The fact that South Africa and Afrikaners survived long past this book's 1995 printing is proof. Apart from an incredulousness recorded in the writing of the interviewers that's only sometimes justified, the main flaw of Heart of Whiteness might be its relative lack of hope that things might be improving radically. Fortunately, this flaw doesn't interfere with my enjoyment or appreciation of the book.

Go, read.