December 2nd, 2010

[LINK] "Saudi's struggle for water"

In the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National, Graeme Wood has an interesting review essay describing how Saudi Arabia's leaders have seen the power of the Saudi state as being most readily expressed in terms of its ability to make water resources available--and to expend them.

Researchers recently announced that what was thought to be the most arid place known to man might actually be wet enough to support life. Just one small truckload of its soil, they say, can support the drinking, cooking, and showering needs of a person for a day, as long as you are willing to spend the energy needed to wring the water out of the dirt that conceals it.

This surprisingly wet place is, of course, the moon. Residents of the Arabian Peninsula are in some ways in a more precarious situation. There is not a single river or lake in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the factories that clean salt water consume massive amounts of energy, even though they are barely enough to meet the needs of the population. If these desalination plants were to shut down, Saudi Arabia would begin to die of thirst within days.

Toby Craig Jones's new book about the kingdom examines the Saudi state's relationship to water and oil, the twin resources that are its blessing and its curse (or, according to some, its two curses). Jones argues that Saudi ruling classes hold their inherently fragile state together through a strict and bold programme that manages these two substances. In Saudi Arabia, more so than in almost any other place on earth, the business of the state is the control of nature, because to control nature is to control people.

When the Saudi kingdom was established in the early 1930s, the royal family's highest priority was to establish its authority to the fragmented tribes outside the central desert of the Nejd. Jones leaves little doubt that the Sauds saw oil and water as the glue that would keep the diverse new country together and make it rich and strong. Other countries have been founded on the idea that the land must be subdued and conquered - the United States' notion of manifest destiny is perhaps the most famous case - but only the Saudi project combined a massive scale with the awesome power of modern engineering.

[. . .]

The bold and profligate use of the water has been no less amazing than the manner of its acquisition. It is as if the goal was not merely to control nature but to defy it. To the Saudis this meant not only supplying its citizens with drinking water but also inviting them, with massive financial incentives, to use the water to produce water-intensive crops. Dates, which Jones says are consumed in some parts of Saudi at a rate of one and a half kilograms per person per day, were just the beginning. During the 25-year period that ended in 2005, the government spent 18 per cent of all its oil revenues on subsidising other, less geographically appropriate agriculture, to the extent that a country unsuited for cultivating anything but date palms briefly became the world's sixth-largest exporter of wheat. This policy, which aimed to diversify the country's food supply, is being phased out, but it gives a measure of the eagerness of the Saudis to think big, with blithe disregard for the natural order.


Go, read.

[URBAN NOTE] On the problems with Ford's cancelling Transit City, and his critics' problems

On his first day in office, Toronto mayor Rob Ford cancelled the Toronto Transit Commission's ambitious Transit City project. Basically, Transit City was a plan to create seven new light rail lines, express bus routes, and other expansions of the system in ways that would help integrate Toronto transit with the transit systems of the rest of the Greater Toronto Area. Ford will need to mobilize support on council behind his project, and already $C 130 million has been spent so far and more contracts have been signed, but he can do it. Subways, Ford thinks, are the future.

This isn't good. Andrew Barton points out that subways aren't the only choices for Torontonians who want to improve mass transit, or even necessarily the best choice. The fact that one commenter implies that money for subways can come out of money for arts budgets or income support isn't encouraging. Steve Munro writes that Ford's plan to build more subways could derail the goal of transit integration across the Greater Toronto Area, to say nothing of added cost.

The deafening silence from Queen’s Park shows us how much Metrolinx and its regional plan, The Big Move, depend on political agreement among GTA municipalities. Removing the pols from the Metrolinx Board may have centralized important announcements at Queen’s Park, but it did nothing to blunt the effect any local Mayor or Council can have if they don’t play ball.

The Big Move has both a 15-year and a 25-year component, although the likelihood either of these would see substantial construction was compromised the moment Queen’s Park’s budget priorities trumped a scheme to build major transit improvements first as a prelude to new revenue tools. Nobody wants to talk about taxes or tolls, but money for transit, whatever the technology, won’t come from the tooth fairy. It won’t come from the private sector either, at least not without a guaranteed return on their investment.

Ford, whose aggressive tactics on Council are well known but whose character was carefully controlled during the election, has shown that he has a plan, and feels that his mandate gives him carte blanche to implement whatever he wants. The voters have spoken. Those who voted for 44 Councillors might beg to disagree, but that’s for Council to decide in weeks and months ahead.

The real problem is the lack of leadership on the transit file from Queen’s Park. The Big Move was cobbled together from many local plans, including Transit City, and flawed though it might have been, there was general agreement about the shape of the plan. Changing Toronto’s focus to subways unbalances the plan’s scale and benefits, not to mention the huge change in net cost. Mayor Ford’s concern for taxpayers’ dollars appears to end when someone else is expected to pay the bill, and this could deprive Toronto of transit improvements while growth proceeds on smaller-scale projects in the 905.


And yes, it will be more expensive, as this comparison suggests, with per-kilometre costs in the low tens of millions (usually around 30 million) for light rail systems of the sort that would have been supported under Transit City, and hundreds of millions (150 to 250 million, generally) for subways.

All this is bad. Do you know what's especially bad? Toronto Star urban issues columnist Christopher Hume's article in today's Star on the issue.

The “War on the Car” may be over, but the War on the City has only just begun.

After mere hours on the job, Toronto’s newest mayor can already claim to have done more damage to this city than most chief magistrates manage in an entire career.

No doubt they were cheering in Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York as Ford announced he had killed Transit City — though that remains to be seen — but they are the ones who will bear the brunt of his shortsightedness in the years and decades ahead. Indeed, unless council turns out to be exceptionally strong, Ford’s foolishness will set Toronto back immeasurably.

With Ford at the helm, Toronto is set to become Buffalo North, a fate that most likely would please His Worship; after all, the traffic there hums along ever so nicely.


So, in the third paragraph Hume manages to bash the voters of the three former suburbs home to 1.6 out of the City of Toronto's ~2.6 million inhabitants, and in the fourth accuse Ford of favouring a city that--sorry, guys--seems to epitomize failure and dysfunction. This line from the final paragraph--"We won’t have to fret about political correctness any more; those days are officially over"--amuses me. Who cares about building coalitions and changing minds when we can just bash entire communities?

[LINK] "The 2 Ingredients for Self-Replicating Solar Power: Sahara Sand & Sun"

The idea of unleashing Von Neumann machines on the Sahara Desert does seem to have obvious failure modes, but it's such fun!

Using two resources that the Sahara has plenty of, sun and sand, the Sahara Solar Breeder Project hopes to build factories that will refine the sand’s silica into silicon. That silicon will be used to build solar panels, which will power more silica-refining and solar panel factories, which will be able to build more solar panels, and on and on and on.

The potential for exponential growth allows for some extreme optimism: The project’s leaders say they could build enough power stations to meet half of the world’s energy needs by 2050. Project leader Hideomi Koinuma believes the project is key to solving the world’s energy crisis, saying:

“If we can use desert sand to make a substance that provides energy, this will be the key to solving the energy problem. This is probably doable. Moreover, the energy we continually receive from the Sun is 10,000 times the energy currently used by mankind. So if we can utilize 0.01% of it skillfully, we won’t have a shortage of energy, but a surplus.” [DigInfo TV]


The Sahara desert is about the size of the United States, but instead of being full of people and farms and towns the Sahara is almost empty of everything. Everything except sand, that is. Three and a half million square miles of it.

[. . .]

Though Koinuma is bursting with enthusiasm, desert sand has never been used to produce silicon-based solar panels before, so the team will have to perfect that technology first. Once they start building factories, they’ll have to cope with environmental hazards in the desert like sandstorms and shifting dunes.

If all of those endeavors are successful, the energy produced by the station will still need to be transferred from the desert to areas that need it, which requires superconducting power lines kept cold by liquid nitrogen–a technology which is difficult to handle in the best of circumstances, let alone in the middle of the empty desert. Koinuma believes the superconducting lines would be cost-effective, though another company called the Desertec Foundation is working on the same problem with a different approach.

[BRIEF NOTE] On eastern European Titoism

One of analyst Andrew Wilson's more recent essays, "Eastern Europe’s Tito Option", presents a rather more subtle view of the foreign policy alignments of the eleven post-Soviet and non-Russian countries outside of the European Union. Are they aligned with Europe? Are they under Russian hegemony? Neither, Wilson argues. They have agency, and are choosing not to ally with one bloc or the other country, but rather to try to balance the two sides off.

irst, these are new states whose sovereignty was often contested at their birth in 1991, and that have remained weak. Their independence was a result of the USSR’s collapse, and, while some had national revolutions, in most Soviet elites and political culture remained entrenched. Corruption is rife, state capture by powerful vested interests is the norm, and institutional effectiveness and capacity for reform are weak.

Second, they have the economies of weak states. With the crucial exception of energy-rich Azerbaijan, they have few natural resources or high-value manufactures, and have large agricultural sectors. They also depend on economic rents or Russian derivatives rather than adding value themselves – Ukraine makes profits from gas transit, Belarus from oil refining.

[. . .]

The emulation effect that spurred Central European reform in the 1990’s is not working farther east. Unlike the EU accession candidates of the 1990’s, the states of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have little incentive or capacity to adopt the Union’s body of law, the acquis communautaire, and move up the value chain.

Third, although they would no doubt protest loudly at such a description, states like Ukraine are better thought of as balancers rather than joiners. Playing a game of balance between Russia and the West allows the elite to remain in power, and to preserve the oligarchical economy in an otherwise harmful equilibrium of semi-reform.

Indeed, local leaders are modern-day Titos, unable or unwilling to join either Europe or Russia. But both Russia and the West are sufficiently interested that they feed the game of balance with enough resources to enable local leaders to fend off rivals and excuse their own lack of reform.

Some are reluctant balancers. Moldova’s current government, the Alliance for European Integration, might be a lot more pro-European if it had not seen how Russia treated supposedly pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine before it. Some play the game with relish – ironically, Belarus’s President Aleksander Lukashenka is suddenly something of a regional role model in this regard.

The increasing role of other powers in the region – Iran and Turkey, but China above all – gives local leaders even more wriggle room, particularly because, as Lukashenka said in characteristically unguarded fashion during a visit to Beijing, “China’s investment has never had any political strings attached.”


The thing about Titoism is that even in its original Yugoslav form, it was never a stable ideology. It dependeed: the popularity of local communism; the ability of the Yugoslav government to resist Soviet pressure; Western interest in supporting an anti-Soviet country in the Balkans; a dynamic world economy capable of taking Yugoslavia along with it; and, finally, a stable bipolar distribution of power in Cold War Europe that let Yugoslavia integrate with western Europe enough to adopt a semi-capitalist economy and labour market closely integrated with capitalist Europe while retaining enough socialist features to have cordial enough relations with Moscow. In the 1980s, when Titoist economic models became unsustainable, the system staggered; in the 1990s, when the Cold War came to an end, the whole structure collapsed. How much more unstable are Titoist regimes that lack the relatively profound routes and supportive international environment of Tito's Yugoslavia? The whole system, as Wilson describes it, seems at best metastable, depending on things continuing to work.

Later in his essay, Wilson suggests that European policies--directed towards the Eu's Eastern Partnership associates, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova in the Europe proper, and Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus--should try to incentivize a shift towards the Union. He specifically suggests that Europe should "Finlandize" Ukraine into a more Europe-aligned orbit, "Serbianize" Georgia enough for that country to abandon irredentism for cultivating its own garden, and "Francoize" Belarus so as to ensure a post-Lukashenko transition to more pluralistic politics and economics. (I assume that Wilson also would include the United States, maybe even Canada, in his analysis.)

This sort of gradualist approach, subtle, is certainly better than trying to push immediately for everything. The idea of Titoism does work inasmuch as it presumes a sort of neutrality, if not between ideological blocs then between internal divisions. As Wilson earlier suggested about Ukraine, drawing from his 2002 The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, neither a strong Russian alliance drawing support from the east nor strong anti-Soviet/Russian hostility derived from the west is likely to keep Ukraine, largest of all the Eastern Partnership states, functioning well. A more moderate, and geographically central, "Dneiper nationalism," would serve that country best.

Wilson went on to distinguish eight possible identities within this middle group. The first is the Soviet identity, to which up to 30 percent of the population identifies (at least in part). Wilson noted that these people regret the passing of the USSR and oppose Ukrainian independence. However, he suggested that "Soviet" may function as shorthand for other sorts of identities, such as Eurasianism or pan- (East) Slavism. Eurasianists see Ukraine as historically part of the Eurasian economic and cultural space. Pan-Slavism goes further, focusing on Ukraine's contribution to Russian culture and disregarding the west Ukrainian experience.

Wilson posited that a form of "Dnieper nationalism" may arise from this position. He described this as nationalism that is Ukrainian but based on Kyivan rather than Galician traditions. People ascribing to this identity are able to at once express the idea of a common east Slavic origin and still maintain their separate existence. This can be distinguished from Kievocentrism, in Wilson's view, in that the latter emphasizes a pan-Slavism centered on Kyiv as the inheritor of Rus' culture.

Wilson said some scholars have argued that Kievocentrism is countered by the "Creole nationalism" of the Russophone population. That is, Russophones as a newly post-colonial population are unsympathetic to Ukrainian culture. Local identities, in Wilson's view, may also be salient in Ukraine. In particular, he points to the Donbas and southern Ukrainian identities as prevalent forces. Finally, Wilson differentiates Galician nationalism, which views Western Ukraine as an agent of national unity and keeper of the true faith of Ukraine.

Wilson then introduced data from a survey conducted in March 1998 that sheds light on issues of national identity and the "other Ukraine." He noted that the surveys revealed little support for an exclusivist model of Ukrainian identity: almost 58 percent of respondents felt that legal citizenship or self-identification was sufficient to be considered Ukrainian.

Wilson also discussed respondents' views on historical events that are controversial to different nationalist mythologies. He showed that support for key elements of the Ukrainian nationalist mythology was nearly always lower than the number of ethnic Ukrainians, and often less than the Ukrainophone Ukrainian segment of the population. For example, Wilson reported that a plurality of respondents fell somewhere between the Ukrainian and Russian nationalist views of Kyivan Rus', noting that there was no clear division amongst the Eastern Slavs at that time.

[. . .]

Wilson claimed that according to this analysis, rapid Ukrainization based on the narrow traditions of west Ukraine is unlikely to occur. He emphasized that this broad middle group could be a swing vote in Ukrainian politics. He concluded by outlining three possible scenarios for Ukraine: a Canada-like state with its own Russophone or Ukrainophone Quebec; slow Ukrainization leading to a consolidation around Dnieper nationalism; or a continuation and redefinition of the overlapping identities that currently make up the "other Ukraine."


Is it in anyone's interest to try to precipitate a breakdown of the Ukrainian state by forcing it to go one way or another? Softly, softly, whoever you are.

[LINK] "God-Loving Linguists"

3 Quarks Daily recently linked to Laura Spinney's article in the Economist spinoff magazine More Intelligent Life. The subject? The origins of SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics) and its language catalogue Ethnologue in mid-20th century missionary efforts. The article explores the interesting tensions behind this missionary-driven project. It's driven by religious impulses--the desire to make the Good Word, well, words in the languages of the diffrerent peoples of the world--but there are few secular institutions which have the breadth or maybe even capacity to follow suit.

These days a global army of linguists (some missionaries, some not) feed Ethnologue and keep it up-to-date. Lewis coordinates their efforts with the help of a small editorial team based at SIL’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Academic linguists who contribute to the database aren’t paid for their efforts, though an Ethnologue citation embellishes their publication record. The catalogue includes roughly 7,000 languages and is updated roughly every five years, both in print and online; the latter version is freely accessible to anyone.

Many linguists are uncomfortable with Ethnologue’s missionary roots. Indeed, missionaries have long been blamed for linguicide for the way they impose “killer” languages such as English and Spanish on speakers of minority languages, says Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a linguist who is now retired from the University of Roskilde in Denmark. In his 2009 book, "Dying Words", Nicholas Evans, an Australian linguist, tells the tale of the Aboriginal language Kayardild, once spoken by inhabitants of Bentinck Island, Queensland. In the 1940s, missionaries evacuated Bentinck Islanders to the mission on Mornington Island, about 50 kilometres to the north-west, where children were not taught Kayardild. Today the language, which Ethnologue classifies as “nearly extinct”, has only six speakers left.

Yet Evans says there are also plenty of examples of missionaries helping to preserve minority languages. For example, the Spanish priests who followed the conquistadors into South America documented indigenous languages as they went. Evans describes his attitude to Ethnologue as pragmatic. “It is clearly biased by its missionary agenda,” he says, citing its information about Bible translations as an example. “On the other hand, they are the only people who have put the resources into assembling a worldwide database, and that counts for a lot in my eyes.”

Though academic linguists are suspicious of SIL's religious goals, many concede that the Ethnologue is the best tool of its kind. This despite the fact that much of the information is dated, meaning that some languages classified as spoken are actually extinct, according to Lyle Campbell, a linguist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Atsugewi, Clallam and Coos are just three of many examples of extinct languages he cites. A more serious problem, Campbell says, is how Ethnologue defines a language. “In most parts of the world, Ethnologue has a much higher number of languages than most linguists working there would recognise,” he says. This has led some to suspect that SIL International is attempting to justify having more missionaries in the field than the language work strictly warrants.

Lewis, the editor of Ethnologue, acknowledges these complaints. “People write to us saying, you say there are two varieties of our language, well we’re all one people,” he says. However, the criteria his team uses are the ones that Barbara and Joseph Grimes painstakingly developed half a century ago, which boil down to whether two speakers can understand each other or not. Defining a language is notoriously difficult. At which point in the divergence of two dialects does one decide that they have become different languages? The Ethnologue definition isn’t perfect, says Lewis, but it’s one of the embarrassments of linguistics that the entire field of study hasn’t come up with a better one.


Go, read.

[MUSIC] Lorenna McKennitt, "The Lady of Shalott"

Loreena McKennitt, the Manitoba-born "singer, composer, harpist, accordionist and pianist who writes, records and performs world music with Celtic and Middle Eastern themes[,] is known for her refined, warbling soprano vocals[, and who] has sold more than 13 million records worldwide," is probably best known for her 1997 North American cross-over hit "The Mummer's Dance". I have the CD single somewhere, not here, and I still think it a great song. The Loreena McKennitt song that has the most meaning for me, now, is "The Lady of Shallot", a track from her fourth album, the 1991 The Visit, a combination of her music with the ballad of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and apparently something of a live favourite.



I heard the live version for the first time in the second half of an English literature review course, introduced by Dr. Gammel a a sort of an aural illustration of one of the great poems of the Romantic era (and inspirations of the Neo-Raphaelites). The Wikipedia article's summary of the ballad's development is concise: the protagonist lives in a pastoral setting on an island on a river leading to the heart of things; the protagonist has been cursed and can never look directly at those things, only their distant reflections, leaving her forever outside the universe of humanity; she sees Lancelot, turns and looks at him, and is cursed; she reacts by leaving her castle and finding a boat and heading downstream; she is then found, dead in her boat but still beautiful to Lancelot. It's a tragic end, but it's also a fulfilling end, one on her own terms. It may even have been a happy end for her; remember the verse that provided the title of that iconic Waterhouse painting.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and with lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
"I am, half sick of shadow," she said,
The Lady of Shalott.



"I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott


So. Someone leaving in desperate isolation on an island just this far from the heart of things, someone who felt condemned to see things only at a distance and never able to approach them directly for fear of catastrophe, someone who ultimately didn't care and did it anyway regardless the cost because it just had to be done. That doesn't resonate at all with any themes of my life, does it?

I like this song, still. It just amuses me to realize how much I identify still with it. :-)