October 27th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links


  • Centauri Dreams reports on how an ocean impact of an asteroid, even a survivable one, would wreak havoc on the Earth's ozone layer for years, exposing this time areas in a band extending well north and south of the equator.

  • The Global Sociology Blog notes from the continued problems faced by women, everything from the misogyny depicted in The Social Network to continued disparities in income and work conditions vis-a-vis men.

  • Joe. My. God notes how the Russian government recently arrested a man accused of generating 20% of the world's spam e-mails.

  • Language Log links, coincidentally enough, to a XKCD comic speculating on spam. What if it gets so good that it passes the commenter's Turing test.

  • Landscape+Urbanism uses a recent Strange Maps post examining plans to expand New York City via landfill to take a look at Boston's own significant history.

  • At the Pagan Prattle, feorag takes no truck with the silly claims of pagans.

  • People following my Facebook and Twitter feeds may have noticed this news story reported by Slap Upside the Head, about a Prince Edward Island same-sex couple's escape from death after their home was firebombed. Home. Sweet. Home.

  • Finally, Window on Eurasia writes about how the Aral Sea-like shrinkage of Kazakhstan's Lake Balkhash is complicated by the fact that its drainage basin includes Chinese territory, and the Chinese aren't likely to help out.

[LINK] "A matter of respect: how Rob Ford swept into City Hall"

Edward Keenan has long commented in eye weekly about the appeal of Rob Ford. In his latest common, Keenan makes the point that Ford won--with a record turnout--likely because he seemed more respectful of the majority of Torontonians than his competitors.

Some of the lessons for progressives are purely tactical: Ford’s campaign learned much from Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign of 2008 — using telephone town halls to build a database and personalizing the campaign for supporters, and taking his message to every corner of the city much more effectively than any of his opponents. The clarity and consistency of his message — thought to be signs of that very unsophistication hated by the establishment — also sends a message about what works during elections.

But more importantly, there’s a message about the way politics works — or more often, doesn’t — in a sprawling, diverse, amalgamated Toronto. Rob Ford summed his attitude up with the slogan “Respect for Taxpayers,” a phrase that spoke directly to many voters’ concerns. But substitute the word “citizens” for “taxpayers” and you have a message any city-building progressive would also do well to embrace.

Those in drive-through country at the northern edges of Scarborough and Etobicoke are Torontonians just as much as those who live at Queen and Beaconsfield. As we see, their votes count every bit as much, but they’re also wrestling with real concerns about diversity and sprawl and transportation and poverty. Too often, the approach of urbane downtowners has been to consider the inner suburbs to be forgettable or second-rate, and to see primarily suburban concerns as unworthy of serious debate.

Not only is that sort of approach disrespectful and — as Ford has shown — electorally dangerous, it is also the opposite of progressive. Unlike the white middle-class conformists that populate the nostalgic suburbs of our imaginations, North York and Etobicoke and Scarborough are home to most of our new immigrants and a substantial number of our poorest residents. Those Torontonians live in areas unsuited to delivering the services they require, places poorly served by transit, places where schools and shops are generally unreasonably long walks away from home, and they live there largely because that’s where they can afford to live. Many of them work very hard to make car payments because the car makes their working life viable. Many are just scraping by.

When those people hear drivers referred to as greedy know-nothing polluters, it must sting. When those people hear residents of largely white, middle-class neighbourhoods like the Beaches and the Annex trumpet diversity and sneer at supposed suburban small-mindedness, it must seem idiotic. When questions about $50,000 expense accounts and $11,000 parties and raises on $100,000 salaries are dismissed as small potatoes, it must seem galling.

[. . .]

That detachment and dismissiveness by the city’s creative class — real or perceived — is wrong-headed. And it’s likely that much of what resonated about Rob Ford’s Regular-Joe message was the perception of genuine respectfulness for the concerns of those who felt left out of the city over the past seven years.

[LINK] "Along the language frontier"

Open Democracy's RSS feed--recommended to me years ago by nwhyte, incidentally--tossed up another great article, Philip Ebels' "Along the language frontier". In this article, Ebels travels along the Flemish-Walloon frontier and Dutch-French language frontier in Belgium--as he notes, one of the oldest frontiers in Europe, dating to the time after the Roman Empire and remaining surprisingly intact--and reports on the conflicts he finds and doesn't find.

People actually start to speak another language the moment you cross this invisible boundary. They don’t do so gradually, like in many other European border regions, but abruptly. One farmer talks to me in Flemish; his neighbour a football field away speaks French. It’s an almost schizophrenic experience as I cross the border for what could be the twentieth time today.

But despite the contrast this is not Yugoslavia. “It’s the politicians”, most people tell me, “they’re the ones who don’t get along.” I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I didn’t expect to find a bullet-ridden war zone, but at least a strong opinion, some inciting graffiti, or maybe even a bar brawl. Nothing of the sort. But, the real hotbeds still lie ahead.

[. . .]

One is the municipality of Sint-Genesius-Rode, just south of Brussels. It is historically and officially Flemish, but has grown overwhelmingly Francophone—or non-Dutch-speaking, since it has been discovered by the city’s many diplomats and European Union officials. It is green, safe, and prosperous. Geographically, it borders Brussels in the north—officially bilingual but a de facto Francophone enclave within Flanders—and Wallonia in the south. Francophone politicians, therefore, have had their eyes on it for years, much to the chagrin of the Flemish.

I strike an odd note among the pretty girls in shiny cabriolets, driving to and from the tennis court. One of them points me towards the small city centre, trying her utmost to answer in Dutch. “Bonjour, goeiedag”, is how the people here greet me, which I take to mean as much as “I come in peace”, the salaam aleikum of bigger Brussels. “Goeiedag, bonjour”, seems to be the appropriate reply, aleikum salaam.

One window across the street from the village church announces this year’s “Gordel”, an annual bicycle ride around the Brussels periphery, for the Flemish by the Flemish, to show the world that the land is still theirs. Francophone residents traditionally show their appreciation by changing road signs and throwing nails on bike paths the night before.

The signposts at the local cultural centre have been vandalised. French translations are covered in blue paint. A passing woman isn’t surprised. “Tensions are rising”, she says. Born and bred in Rode, as the Flemish like to call it, she was forced to move because house prices have soared. Her parents still live here, she still comes to visit.

“All the children used to be Flemish”, she tells me, when she was a teacher at the local elementary school where she worked for more than twenty years. “Today, more than half are French-speaking. And their parents don’t even bother to speak Flemish in school.” Rode is lost forever, she regrets, there’s nothing to be done. “But”, she says, “not everyone agrees.” She happens to know a few members of the Taal Aktie Komitee, a militant group for the preservation of the Dutch language. “They’re not planning a second Yugoslavia or anything”, she says, “but if Rode is ever given away, things will get ugly.”

[LINK] "The Fuzzy Edges of Life"

Matt Warren linked to some great stuff about how the ideas of organisms which distinct boundaries and bacteria as unicellular organisms are so limited. Is this biology for the post-modernist?

The number of bacterial species in the human gut is estimated to be about 40,000, according to Daniel Frank and Norman Pace, writing in the January 2008 Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. The total number of individual bacterial cells in the gut is projected to be on the order of 100 trillion, according to Xing Yang and colleagues at the Shanghai Center for Bioinformation Technology, reporting in the June 2009 issue of PLoS One, a peer-reviewed online science journal. Xing calculated a ballpark figure for the number of unique bacterial genes in a human gut at about 9 million.

In fact, most of the life on the planet is probably composed of bacteria. They have been found making a living in Cretaceous-era sediments below the bottom of the ocean and in ice-covered Antarctic lakes, inside volcanoes, miles high in the atmosphere, teeming in the oceans — and within every other life-form on Earth.

[I]n principle, every bacterium can exchange genes with every other bacterium on the planet. A side effect of this reality: The notion of separate bacterial species is somewhat shaky, although the term is still in use for lack of a better alternative.

And bacteria don’t just get together for “file sharing.” Even before quorum sensing was discovered in V. fischeri, scientists had noted many examples of coordinated action, such as “swarming,” in which a colony of bacteria moves as a unit across a surface, and the development of “fruiting bodies,” in which bacteria glom together to form inert spores as a means of surviving severe environmental conditions. Since the dominant paradigm assumed that bacteria were dumb, discrete individuals, these phenomena tended to be glossed over until Vibrio‘s highly sophisticated census-taking focused new attention on coordinated bacterial behavior. Group behavior has now been demonstrated so widely that many microbiologists view bacteria as multicellular organisms, much of whose activity — from gene swapping to swarming to biofilm construction — is mediated by a wide variety of chemical communications.

Giovannoni stops short of claiming that bacteria are actually thinking. But the litany of bacterial talents does nibble at conventional assumptions about thinking: Bacteria can distinguish “self” from “other,” and between their relatives and strangers; they can sense how big a space they’re in; they can move as a unit; they can produce a wide variety of signaling compounds, including at least one human neurotransmitter; they can also engage in numerous mutually beneficial relationships with their host’s cells. Even more impressive, some bacteria, such as Myxococcus xanthus, practice predation in packs, swarming as a group over prey microbes such as E. coli and dissolving their cell walls. (Brown, emphasis mine)

[LINK] An Attempted Transcription of Rob Ford's As It Happens Interview

I've said elsewhere on this blog that Toronto mayor Rob Ford's election, and his apparent popularity, come from his popularity, produced by his addressing the immediate concerns of non-downtown Torontonians and their sense that they're being neglected by a "cultural class" with its own irrelevant concerns. I don't think it's a good thing. Last night's attempted interview with Rob Ford on CBC Radio 1 evening show As It Happens was ghastly. Couldn't he have at least pretended he was having a live radio interview? Why his media people told CBC to phone him while he was coaching football is beyond me.

Carol Off: Mr. Ford, congratulations...

Rob Ford: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Carol Off: People are saying it's a, calling it a stunning win. What do you think that—

Rob Ford: Things are, things are going really well.

Carol Off: What drew so much—

Rob Ford, yelling: Coach, half your juniors aren't even here, eh? Alright. Alright.

Carol Off: Hello, Mr. Ford, are you there?

Rob Ford: Yeah, yeah, I'm here, yeah.

Carol Off: Oh, you're at some event or...?

Rob Ford: I'm a coach. I'm a football coach.

Carol Off: Okay, so you're at football practice, then.

Rob Ford: Yes.

Carol Off: Alright well, okay, we'll continue then. What is it that you think drew so much support to your campaign?

Rob Ford: Yeah, it's just people are sick and tired of the wasteful spending. People are sick and tired of wasteful spending, that's the bottom line, that's what it comes down.

Carol Off: Well there—

Rob Ford: You know, I'm the only one that can go down there [Inaudible, then, yelling:] Just go get changed! Go! Out! And get changed! Don't worry about the water right now. [Pause.] Sorry.


It gets worse.