December 30th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • 80 Beats suggests that, contrary to expectations, the climate of northern Africa's Sahara region may have been pleasant enough to let early hominids migrate to the Mediterranean basin without being forced to follow the thin fertile strip of the Nile.

  • At Acts of Minor Treason, Andrew Barton uses an artifact--his grandfather's old toolbox, a former ammunition box--to wonder about all the things in history that remain unknown, and how speculations about possibilities make alternative history interesting.

  • blogTO points out that the current risible anti-drug campaign on the TTC--look, if you do drugs you'll no longer look pretty--is, in fact, risible.
  • Centauri Dreams commemorates the dream of the generation starship, put forward by Leslie Shepherd in 1952.

  • At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin thinks that it might be worthwhile for the United States, at least, to spend more money on education and health than on the military. In the past generation, American military expeditions haven't met very successful outcomes (cf Iraq, Afghanistan).

  • Extraordinary Observations' Rob Pitingolo points to a recent study suggesting that, for nine major American cities, the outer suburbs are more dangerous than the inner cities. This, he points out, is a recent change.

  • Far Outliers has an interesting excerpt relating to NGOs as "benevolent colonialists."

  • The Grumpy Sociologist documents the apparently successful efforts of the National Basketball Association to boost that sport in first China then India, starting with high-profile stars from those countries (Yao Ming, say) to create perceived needs for those sports.

  • Itching for Eestimaa suggests that turmoil in Estonia's Centre Party--a left-wing party with strong appeal to Russophones as well as to ethnic Estonians, beset by controversy suggesting that the leader has been accepting Russian money--is the product of a palace coup against the party's leader.

  • Lawyers, Guins and Money's Charli Carpenter links to a Financial Times essay by Parag Khanna saying that the world is becoming "neo-medieval," the 21st century coming to resemble the 12th century. The analogy works, actually, save in the many, many ways in which the two centuries are fundamentally different. Argh.

  • At NewAPPSBlog, Catarina Dutilh Novaes counsels prospective graduate students against making the jump if they'll go into debt, arguing that the exloitative nature of universities' employment of doctoral students in most countries just isn't worth the payoff: there aren't that many jobs, they don't pay that much.

  • Savage Minds shows telepresence in action, with Filipino teachers of English animating avatars in out-of-the-way area of South Korea.

  • Towleroad carries the news that, famed failed Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell is being investigated for using campaign funds to cover personal expenses like rent.

  • Understanding Society's Daniel Little has an interesting post up about dystopian representations of Indians and Chinese cities in film.

  • Windows on Eurasia suggests that, under Iranian influence, Shi'ite Islam is taking off in traditionally Sunni but Persian-speaking Tajikistan.

[MUSIC] Annie Lennox, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"

I wasn't planning to buy Annie Lennox's A Christmas Cornucopia because her 2007 Songs of Mass Destruction left me mostly cold, her shimmering "Coloured Bedspread" aside. Songs of Mass Destruction seems to have left her record company cold, too; A Christmas Cornucopia, released on Island, is the first album she released since Lennox left Sony amid a certain amount of fuss. The September announcement of the holiday album's impending release, that staple of established stars with nothing to say, left me uninspired. But then, via Facebook's David, I heard her cover of "God rest you merry, gentlemen", with her typical sheen--good vocals, interesting instrumentation--and felt back into line.

I like the album; I've certainly heard it enough. She does bring something new to the songs she covers, personally familiar to North American Anglophone me or not. What? Apart from her musical talents, she brought her philosophy about the season, something she revealed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on the making of the album. Christmas isn't just all sweetness and light; Christmas is more complex, and scary, and important than that.

The flip side of the Christmas season is pretty dark: Packed department stores and crowded high streets juxtaposed with homeless people wearing Santa hats in the freezing cold.

In a way, my choice of carols for “A Christmas Cornucopia” reflects the duality of the season. One song I recorded, “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol),” is a tender lullaby of a mother to a child, but, looking deeper, the essential issue is actually infanticide.

[. . .]

I love Christmas trees and bright lights and all the celebration. But I see a world that is sometimes mad, leaderless, and compassionless to children. All those themes are part of the Christmas story—such as the hunting of the Christ child by King Herod—and part of the caroling tradition. It’s there in my thinking as I’m creating a recording. There’s a film in mind and it goes from child soldiers to Macy’s department store.

If you go to London (where I live), you will see a Victorian church more or less on every corner, just like you see a Starbucks on every block of any city these days. And you subsequently get the sense that the church, in decades and centuries past, was packed on a Sunday, morning, noon and night. It was the glue of society, and the moral arbiter of the day.

Carols like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” feature religious and royal images of angels and kings—-but most of us don’t have those mental pictures running through our heads anymore. Yet we have a longing to return to other, traditional scenes of Christmastime: horse-drawn carriages in the snow-covered streets, families coming together round a tree. In our hearts we’re children, really, and we want the world to be a better place. We want it to be shiny and we want it to have brightly colored lights. And when we see children, we recognize the wonder they feel about life and the world is something we might have lost, but we yearn to keep it safe for them.

Lennox's best songs, as a solo artist or with the Eurythmics, had an awareness of this dangerous ambivalence at their core. Her "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" brings authentic passion and meaning back to that powerful verse:

God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan's power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.

The song--and its sentiments--matter. Kudos to her for this.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Some meanderings on the weakness of Cuba's dissident movement

A recent post over at Global Voices by one Ellery Biddle--WikiLeaks-related of course--suggested that Cuba's dissident movement is fundamentally stuck, and that it's only the young--particularly the bloggers--who can move beyond the impasse.

Cables sent from the US Interest Section[1] (USINT) in Havana in 2009 (the most explicit of which can be found at El País) indicate that, in the eyes of USINT, the Cuban government does not see the traditional dissident community as a serious threat to political stability on the island, and that the movement has limited resonance within the general population.

An April 15 cable described the dissident movement in Cuba as, “as old and as out of touch with the lives of ordinary Cubans as the regime itself.” The dissidents mentioned here include leaders and groups such as Oswaldo Payá and Agenda para la Transición, who represent part of the island’s small, decades-old dissident community that receives considerable support from USINT and struggles to evade repression by the Cuban government.

On April 15, 2009, Jonathan Farrar of USINT wrote:

…we see very little evidence that the mainline dissident organizations have much resonance among ordinary Cubans. Informal polls we have carried out among visa and refugee applicants have shown virtually no awareness of dissident personalities or agendas.

Given that USINT surveyed visa and refugee applicants, a group that opposes the Raúl Castro government in greater proportions than the general population, this information should be particularly disconcerting to dissident leaders. Ironically, Farrar also wrote that “…dissidents have, and will continue to perform, a key role in acting as the conscience of Cuba and deserve our support in that role.” He did not elaborate on how these groups could represent the “conscience of Cuba” if they were, as mentioned earlier, “out of touch with the lives of ordinary Cubans.”

A cable sent on December 20, 2009 indicated that the Cuban government sees bloggers as “its most serious challenge” within the realm of civil society.

Another cable also described “[y]ounger individuals, including bloggers, musicians, and performing and plastic artists” as being “much better [than traditional dissidents] at taking “rebellious” stands with greater popular appeal.”

Patricia Grogg's Inter Press Service article goes into further detail about the criticisms, suggesting that the dissident groups are prone to infighting, and that their leaders and members are as much concerned with the mechanics of survival as with propagating their movement.

Chief among the prominent dissident bloggers is Yoani Sánchez, whose blog Generation Y (Spanish, English) has gotten her a high profile domestically and internationally despite the difficulties she and others Cubans have with getting access to the Internet. It's interesting reading, with a mission statement of note: "Generation Y is a Blog inspired by people like me, with names that start with or contain a "Y". Born in Cuba in the '70s and '80s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration. So I invite, especially, Yanisleidi, Yoandri, Yusimí, Yuniesky and others who carry their "Y's" to read me and to write to me."

Profile's one thing, but does profile necessarily translate into political leadership, especially in circumstances where access to writings of people like Ms. Sánchez is so limited? One of the dissidents quoted by Grogg doesn't think so: "[Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesperson for the moderate opposition group Arco Progresista] pointed out that the bloggers 'are only trying to be the critical conscience of Cuban society. They do not move in the political sphere, they do not claim to represent the people, nor do they pose themselves as a political alternative,' he said, noting that of course 'they can have a political position just like any citizen, but that is something else.'" Generation Y's mission statement certainly doesn't challenge Cuba's state ideology, only complicating and contradicting the narrative of Cuba's official dynamism and progressivism. Sánchez, pointing out that despite official support Cuba supported any number of homophobic countries in opposing a United Nations resolution condemning state homophobia, may have contributed to Cuba's withdrawal from the anti-gay coalition. Unsanctioned and/or uncontrolled methods of cultural expression can create interesting spaces, Cuban hip-hop's origin as an imported musical genre used (just as it was first used in the United States) to express criticism of the established order (and not only by Afro-Cubans!) also coming to mind.

The import of all this? The phenomenon of dissidence--in authoritarian regimes like Cuba's, and under other political regimes and in other circumstances--reminds me yet again of the rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari, of the creation of alternative and perhaps unexpected connections between people and organizations and cultural forms, something that's capable of subverting more self-contained and internally solid regimes like--say--the Cuban state. It's sad that they're not stronger, but I don't think it's not realistic to expect that dissidents will be capable of doing anything but that; the only example of a dissident movement successfully undermining an authoritarian state by its own initiative that I can think of is Poland's Solidarity, and that succeeded only because of a particular combination of circumstances (the weakness and lack of legitimacy of the Polish state, Poland's relative invulnerability to Soviet intervention circa 1980, et cetera). Creating spaces allowing for alternative discourses, preparing for future changes in Cuban governance which might let these discourses become more influential, eventually leading to a more pluralistic society, is all that Cuba's dissidents can realistically expect.

[URBAN NOTE] Toronto's Little Ethiopia: one or several?

I've absolutely no problem with the City of Toronto's official recognition of a "Little Ethiopia", a neighbourhood where the Ethiopian Canadian community of Toronto is particularly concentrated and supports a thriving local economy keyed to ethnic interests: restaurants, grocery stores, community religious and political sites. But they're doing it in the wrong part of Toronto!

Up to 70,000 people of Ethiopian origin live in the GTA and surrounding region, according to the executive director of the GTA’s Ethiopian Association. But Toronto doesn’t have an officially branded neighbourhood for any African country. Italians, Greeks, Koreans, South Asians, Chinese and Portuguese all have pockets of town to call their own. Even tiny Malta has a few blocks named after it in the Junction.

Until this month, Mr. Getachew had failed time and again to gain support from the board or the city for Little Ethiopia, which he proposes would stretch four blocks down Danforth Avenue from Greenwood Avenue to Monarch Park. The problem isn’t the idea, city officials agree, but the multicultural area he envisions it in.

“That area has businesses owned by Greeks, Italians – a whole range of cultural groups,” city Councillor Janet Davis said. “The name ‘mosaic’ was intended to highlight the diversity.” Indeed, the area is lined not just with Ethiopian businesses, but also with Moroccan, Italian, Greek, Asian and Spanish restaurants and cafés. Mike Major, the manager of the BIA office at the City of Toronto, said that if the new board wants the city to look at branding the area, the city will do so.

“But it sends mixed messages when you have banners that say ‘Mosaic’ and street signs that say ‘Little Ethiopia.’ ”

For the Ethiopian community that eats, works and mingles in the area, however, a Little Ethiopia would be a welcome piece of home – and hopefully push more Ethiopians to set up shop on the Danforth. Naser Kaid, 43, lived in Ethiopia until he was 20. He said he comes down to the area almost daily to meet friends and eat hearty, Ethiopian meals. He says if Little Ethiopia becomes a reality, he expects many people to invest in the area.

Me, I've always associated the Ethiopian presence in Toronto not with the east of downtown Toronto but with the west, but with my neighbourhood--my extended neighbourhood, at least. Lalibela is on a part of Bloor Street West that's just fifteen or twenty minutes' walk away from me, for instance. The Ethiopian presence in this part of Toronto is hardly uncomplicated, but it does form an identifiable block between the Portuguese Canadians to the west and the Korean Canadians to the east.

I'll make a prediction. When this Ltitle Ethiopia on the Danforth gets recognized, in the coming decade you'll see a certain shift of an identifiably Ethiopian presence away from the west of the downtown towards the east. The two neighbourhoods may be roughly Ethiopian now, but future expansion--through migration and through investment--in specifically Ethiopian areas will probably be directed towards areas of Toronto that are officially Ethiopian to one extent or another.
cats, shakespeare

[CAT] "Pay Attention to Me"

Blogger and--I'm delighted to say--cat owner Matt Warren has, over at The Long Game, a post up about his cute cat Lexi.

Kitty Photo Shoot

She plays fetch!

As a general rule, cats don’t roll over or come when you call them. Most don’t even hunt anymore. They have long since been repurposed for cuteness. Even in their Egyptian, vermin-hunting heyday, burly Calicoes were rarely seen in the company of hunters. But, every cat comes with an exception. Our cat plays fetch.

I’ve been seated at the computer and engrossed in a game, only to hear the telltale meow. I’ll look down, and see a fluffy pink ball. I then reach down, grab the ball, lean out into the hallway, and throw it. The cat speeds after it, playing with its prey after it sinks its declawed paws into it. I return to the keyboard, only to be interrupted again.

This goes on maybe six or seven times, if you do it right. Perfecting the proper throwing motion is key. You can’t lob something slowly and expect any of her interest. You have to adjust the trajectory. And it’s gotta have the right kick. Lexi is very particular about throwing technique. It is one of the few reasons we were put on this planet.

Speaking from personal experience, fetch-playing cats are a minor pleasure. It's nice to be wanted by them.

Anyhow, more cat-related content--and much else besides--is available via those links. Go, see.

[DM] "What the Roman Empire's demographics were like and what they mean"

I've got a long post up building on the work of Smil et al in describing what the demographics of the Roman Empire were like. They were horrible: the odds are that most of the people reading this would be dead, likely of one horrible preventable illness or another, in an environment far worse than any now existing. Looking to the future's all well and good, but looking to the past is just as important, I think.

Go, read.