November 22nd, 2010

[BLOG] Some Monday links

  • Acts of Minor Treason and Steve Munro are both very unhappy with the tendency to automatically equate streetcars with light rails. This is just not so.

  • Derek Flack's photoessay, hosted at blogTO, showing the CPR tracks behind Dupont Street--i.e. my street of residence--was nice to see indeed. The photos provide nice, unexpected angles on the neighbourhoods I spend my time in.

  • The Burgh Diaspora notes that a major problem for troubled American cities lies in the inability of many of their residents, tied down by real estate, to move to more promising environs. Some kind of process that could encourage people who left to return with their skills (and perhaps investments) might work.

  • Eastern Approaches comments on the apparent end, but continuing tensions, in the name-spelling row between Poland and Lithuania.

  • Far Outliers records a Japanese-trained Dutch bankers impressions of 1960s America as a place marked by open hospitality and a troubling guilelessness.

  • Alex Harrowell, at A Fistful of Euros, thinks that the European Union has proven its worth by keeping Berlusconi from running Italy completely into the ground.

  • The Global Sociology Blog traces the global migration of soccer players, finding that while their movements trace historic pathways and reflect established connections, their movement is actually the product of at least five sorts of micromovements.

  • Passing Strangeness' pauldyre shows how the accidental release of mustard gas off the southern Italian coast in the Second World War, causing hundreds of dead, actually helped save millions of live through cancer treatments.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer argues that things look fairly bright for Portugal, with plausible projections suggesting renewed growth and the stabilization of the debt-to-GDP ratio, and impressive and potentially quite productive investments in infrastructure and new technologies, too.

  • The Search's Douglas Todd writes about self-righteous greens. Ethics aside, that's just bad politics.

  • Slap Upside the Head suggests that, with a resolution of the Québec segment of the New Democratic Party, Canadians are well on their way towards stripping organizations offering cures for homosexuality of charitable status, on the New Zealand model.

  • Spacing Toronto applauds the well-designed, multi-use parking lots of Portland OR.

cats, shakespeare

[CAT] On Hexbugs

The Hexbug is something I've been familiar with for years, but that the Globe and Mail just caught onto. Self-propelled insectoid robots are always cool.

To call something a “robot” would entail that it is able to perform some sort of calculated action. The Hexbug creatures have been designed to recognize walls and obstructions, as well as react to loud sounds. This doesn’t mean the gizmos avoid walls right before seeing them, since they do make contact, it’s just that they keep on moving in a different direction upon impact.

For example, when I let one loose inside my condo, it raced from one end to the other, crawled under the couch, reappeared again, and then ran into more obstacles in trying to get out into the open. Playing loud music had it in a tantrum where its senses looked to be in overdrive. It didn’t seem to know what to do. If this wasn’t a battery-powered gadget, I could swear that it was a sentient life form.

Me, I bought it as a toy for Shakespeare, with results visible below.

[LINK] "The tactile magic of the newspaper"

The Num3rati's Stephen Baker comes up with the comparative advantage of newspapers: they're laden with physicality and memories.

We were discussing the future of newspapers with friends this morning over a late breakfast, and I predicted that the paper versions would be around only as niche products in most markets within a few years. My friend either disagreed or played an earnest devil's advocate. "They said the same thing about movie theaters after TV came out," he said.

Didn't seem like a good analogy to me. Movies provide a night on the town, a much more engrossing experience, and some social contact. What do paper newspapers provide over electronic news?

"A tactile experience," he said. I've never been a big fan of the tactile experience of newspapers. I associate it with smudgy fingers. But then I started to think about tactile experiences that I've treasured in my life--and at least a few of them have already vanished into history. Manual typewriters, for instance. I loved the feeling of the play of the keys beneath my fingers, the tap tap on the paper, the engineered quality of an all-metal Smith Corona or Underwood. Typing on it was like shutting the door of a Mercedes. In 1981, I lugged what must have been a 20-pound Smith Corona from New York to Madrid, and I treasured it for its tactile pleasures. Even into the beginning of the Internet age, I was still buying old manual typewriters at garage sales. Now they're gone. replaced by this much lighter and more efficient MacBook Air, which delivers some tactile goodies of its own.

Works for me. And yes, I own a typewriter, on Prince Edward Island though it may be.

[H&F] "Kaarlo Kurko; war, inhumanity and humanity"

Over at History and Futility, Jussi Jalonen writes about how a bright young Finnish volunteer in the Polish-Soviet War reacted--and participated in--the conflict's atrocities.

On April 1920, ataman Bulak’s division, the Finnish volunteers included, joined the Polish offensive against the Bolsheviks and attacked from Mozyr to the Dniepr, fighting side by side with the Polish forces of colonel Józef Rybak in Polesie. Kaarlo Kurko embraced the savage nature of the war with enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment. As mentioned in the previous episodes of this story, Kurko had already witnessed the White terror of the Finnish Civil War, and was consequently not the least shocked by the vicious character of the Polish-Soviet War. His memoirs make laconic comments on the Bolshevik terror, massacres, looting and rapes. He’s equally frank of the Polish response of occasionally shooting the captured Soviet commissars and hanging the agents of the Cheka outright.

As expected, the behavior of Bulak’s irregular forces was often particularly brutal, and in his memoirs, Kurko openly speaks of the atrocities and even of his own participation in them without hesitation. As one example, Kurko tells the story of how he and his men turned their machine-gun against a synagogue during a firefight in the small Byelorussian town of Luninets (Łuniniec). During his service, Kurko seems to have adopted the anti-Semitic attitude which was widespread among Bulak’s soldiers. For a young, 20-year old man from a country where Jews were basically an invisible minority, he proved to be remarkably prone to the anti-Semitic propaganda which was all too common among the White Russians and also among certain segments of the Polish society. In his memoirs, Kurko repeatedly describes the “children of Israel” as greedy, opportunistic, drug-dealing Bolshevik agents and collaborators, who were continuously sabotaging the Polish war effort. Ironically enough, even though ataman Bulak himself was an equally violent anti-Semite for whom pogroms were standard operational practice, his quartermaster, captain Elin, was – at least according to Kurko – also Jewish. As another testimony of hatred, Kurko’s memoirs portray the Jewish captain as a “lecher with a short figure, a greasy face and two small Jewish eyes, twinkling with deceit”.

Although pogroms and anti-Semitic atrocities were a common feature of the Polish-Soviet war, the Polish command was certainly not indifferent towards such actions. According to a later testimony by Kurko, he was also eventually charged by a Polish court-martial for his actions at Luninets. He avoided the sentence only because he was able to show a written order from one of the local commanders, ordering him to “crush all resistance without mercy”.

Go, read.

[LINK] "Baseball and History: Narratives, Part Two"

History and Futility co-blogger the Oberamtmann has another post up in his series on baseball and history. Stereotypes can be so limiting, especially when they harden into accepted dogma.

The problem with WPA and other contextual stats is that they are teleological. This is not really a problem for a description of a single baseball game, of course. They are purely for entertainment and the reader often already knows what happened. The need for dramatic effect means that writing up Aaron Boone’s 2003 homerun includes lots of foreshadowing and details that would not have been included if he struck out. I do not have to even tell you which one I am talking about. It becomes an issue when this turns to labeling some players as “clutch” and others as “chokers” even though small sample sizes abound. This essentially creates narratives that writers will use before the end result is known, which is even worse.

[. . .]

While it is true that great teams often have a feeling of destiny around them – and if they do not, writers create one – it is an illusion. The teams that seem to have a destiny aura but fail in the playoffs simply get forgotten and their stories left untold, unless there is something else going on in the background like the 2001 Yankees.

[. . .]

Teleology has long been a major problem in history. Major narratives explaining all of history in simple, easy strokes, also known as tropes, dominated much of the field until World War Two and later. Luther and Hegel led to Hitler! Prussia bad! No wait, Prussia good! Erm, actually, Prussia bad again! Manifest destiny! French Absolutism! Calvinist work ethic! These have been brought down over the last several decades. While some are defeated only to be resurrected in changed form, it is always with more nuanced understandings of the historical context. Prussia is a perfect example. Despised since World War One for its authoritarian, state-within-a-state tradition, marred by the monarch allying with the Junker nobility to oppress the serfs, recent research has uncovered that the monarchy and the nobility did not ally any more than in any other notable state. Its recent political tradition is at least as much social democrat as it is authoritarian. While the army’s special status remains an important piece of historical knowledge (one I think still holds true) Prussian society was far from militarized.

Go, read.

[LINK] "Life Found in the Deepest, Unexplored Layer of the Earth’s Crust"

We know that life is everywhere here, and likely everywhere out there. 80 Beats just let us know of another domain here on Earth.

At this point, after finding microorganisms that don’t mind extreme temperatures, pressure, aridity and other hardships, we shouldn’t be surprised that bacteria’s dominion over the Earth extends to just about anywhere we look. A new expedition to the Earth’s crust has reached unprecedented depths—down to the deepest layer of the crust—and found that even there, microorganisms are tough enough to survive.

On a hypothetical journey to the centre of the Earth starting at the sea floor, you would travel through sediment, a layer of basalt, and then hit the gabbroic layer, which lies directly above the mantle. Drilling expeditions have reached this layer before, but as the basalt is difficult to pierce it happens rarely.

To circumvent the Herculean task of drilling through basalt, the expedition, called the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme, headed out to sea to find an easier drilling location.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program sank its drill into the Atlantis Massif in the central Atlantic Ocean where seismic forces have pushed the deep layer, known as the gabbroic layer, to within 230 feet of the ocean floor making it easier to reach.

The organisms living there in the deepest part of the crust were strikingly different that the populations in other rock layers, the team says in a study published in PLoS One.

One key difference was that archaea were absent in the gabbroic layer. Also, genetic analysis revealed that unlike their upstairs neighbours, many of the gabbroic bugs had evolved to feed off hydrocarbons like methane and benzene. This is similar to the bacteria found in oil reservoirs and contaminated soil, which could mean that the bacteria migrated down from shallower regions rather than evolving inside the crust, the team says.

Teh cool is superabundant here.

[LINK] "Who killed Lebanon's Rafik Hariri?"

Hezbollah did. I'm pleased that the CBC broke the story. I'm just sad that there was a story to break. Journalist Neil Macdonald deserves the credit.

It wasn't until late 2007 that the awkwardly titled UN International Independent Investigation Commission actually got around to some serious investigating.

By then, nearly three years had passed since the spectacular public murder of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

[. . .]

The massive detonation that killed him on Feb. 14, 2005 unleashed forces no one knew were there. All of Lebanon seemed to rise up in the murder's aftermath, furiously pointing at the country's Syrian overlords.

The not unreasonable assumption was that Hariri had died for opposing Damascus.

Lebanon's fury quickly accomplished what the assassinated leader had failed to achieve in his lifetime.

The murder gave rise to the so-called Cedar Revolution, a rare Lebanese political consensus. Syria, cowed by the collective anger, withdrew its troops.

This didn't last and things promptly deteriorated, not least with the Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006 that made all Lebanese helpless bystanders.

Who did it?

# Evidence gathered by Lebanese police and, much later, the UN, points overwhelmingly to the fact that the assassins were from Hezbollah, the militant Party of God that is largely sponsored by Syria and Iran. CBC News has obtained cellphone and other telecommunications evidence that is at the core of the case.
# UN investigators came to believe their inquiry was penetrated early by Hezbollah and that that the commission's lax security likely led to the murder of a young, dedicated Lebanese policeman who had largely cracked the case on his own and was co-operating with the international inquiry.
# UN commission insiders also suspected Hariri's own chief of protocol at the time, a man who now heads Lebanon's intelligence service, of colluding with Hezbollah. But those suspicions, laid out in an extensive internal memo, were not pursued, basically for diplomatic reasons.

The investigation goes into great detail.

And the worst bit? No one did anything about it, not in Lebanon and not in the wider world, because no one wanted to risk a confrontation. (Hezbollah, incidentally, has said it'll cut the hands off of anyone who tries to arrest a Hezbollah member for involvement in Hariri's assassination.)