Mar. 9th, 2006

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I've just read Australian writer Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down", from the collection Black Juice, and the tears are still in my eyes. My God but that Lanagan can write.
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From MSNBC, news that Saturn's moon Enceladus is even more interesting than planetary scientists thought before the arrival of the Cassini in the Saturn system.

Scientists have found evidence that cold, Yellowstone-like geysers of water are issuing from a moon of Saturn called Enceladus, apparently fueled by liquid reservoirs that may lie just tens of yards beneath the moon's icy surface.

The surprising discovery, detailed in Friday's issue of the journal Science, could shoot Enceladus to the top of the list in the search for life elsewhere in our solar system. Scientists described it as the most important discovery in planetary science in a quarter-century.

"I think this is important enough that we will see a redirection in the planetary exploration program," Carolyn Porco, head of the imaging team for the Cassini mission to Saturn, told "We've just brought Enceladus up to the forefront as a major target of astrobiological interest."

The readings from Enceladus' geyser plumes indicate that all the prerequisites for life as we know it could exist beneath Enceladus' surface, Porco said.

"Living organisms require liquid water and organic materials, and we know we have both on Enceladus now," she said. "The plumes through which Cassini flew last July contain methane, contain CO2, propane — they contain several organic materials."

The third necessary ingredient — energy for fueling life's processes — could exist around hydrothermal vents around the bottom of Enceladus' water reservoirs, just as it does around Earth's deep-ocean hydrothermal vents.

The results impressed University of Colorado planetary scientist Robert Pappalardo, who has studied Enceladus and other icy moons but was not involved in the newly published research.

"I think the discovery of activity on Enceladus is about the most exciting discovery in planetary science since the volcanoes of Io," he said, referring to the detection of volcanic activity on Jupiter's moon by the Voyager probe in 1979.

With recent suggestions that Titan's methane is produced by outgassing from that planet-sized moon's core, and continuing uncertainty as to whether Titan has a subsurface water ocean like three of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, this discovery does indeed seem to make Enceladus the most attractive target for exploration in the Saturn system.

A question to the planetary scientists out there: Have scientists determined how Enceladus, substantially smaller than the Galilean moons, is able to keep an ocean of liquid water? I thought that I remembered news reports claiming that there just wasn't enough heating produced by tidal friction--with Saturn, with Titan--to account for this, but I may have misremembered and the reports I did hear a couple of years ago.
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Today at Wikipedia's front page, the article on the Indian state of Kerala is given pride of place. It should be; it's an impressively complete article about an impressively accomplished society.
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Will Baird asked what these paragraphs meant.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he wants to get the federal government's relationship back on track with Quebec.

Harper says he wants to go ahead with what he calls open federalism that is appealing to Quebecers and to other provinces. The prime minister was in Quebec City today to meet with Liberal Premier Jean Charest.

In the words of [ profile] acrabtree, they mean that Québec's progression towards full nationhood will be entirely unobstructed. Canada is not a nation-state, and never could have been. Canada could have been a multinational state if English Canadians had ever thought of themselves as constituting a nation or a group of kindred peoples like the Swiss Germans, but English Canada never really existed. Canada is simply going to become a political unit favoured not because of its expression in the Renanian collective will of the Canadian peoples, but rather because it's convenient. Or, perhaps after one referendum returns a "Oui" or even a "Yes" in favour of separation, because it isn't any more.

For "open federalism," in short, read the "variable geometry" favoured in discourse on the European Union, which already lets some states choose to opt in or opt out on projects of nominally pan-EU import like the euro or foreign policy.

I think this a good thing, incidentally. Others' mileage certainly varies.
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Patrice de Beer's essay at Open Democracy, "France's immigration myths", merits reading and not only because of its identification of a profoundly important bias in public discourse on immigration.

In 1999, 23% (13.5 million out of 59 million) of the population were of immigrant origin – 4.3 million were migrants themselves, 5.5 million were children of immigrants, and 3.6 million were grandchildren. Of these, 22% were connected to north Africa, 5% to sub-Saharan Africa, and 53% to other European countries (mostly Italian, Spaniards, Portuguese and Poles, who also took decades to integrate). To understand the complexity of this situation, a reader might try to imagine what such percentages could mean for his or her own society.

In targeting only "coloured" and Muslim immigrants – less than 30% of the total – some French politicians seem to be playing with fire. Moreover, they run the risk of alienating former French (and francophone) Africa where France's influence has been paramount since it reached independence in the 1960s. The magazine L'Evènement (Burkina Faso) recently quoted the late Ivory Coast president, and former member of the French government, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who once said: "I waited for the bride in front of the church with flowers in my hands but she didn't come. And my flowers have wilted". The magazine added a comment on Jacques Chirac's last visit to Africa: that, if France couldn't come out with a new and more sensible African strategy, she "could miss her second rendezvous with the Africans. And, this time, it could mean divorce."
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I'd intended to meet up with a friend at 6 o'clock, at the Starbucks on the southwest corner of Christie. I got to that Starbucks, all right, arriving right on time. Alas UI was caught up in my reading of Frédéric Martel's wonderfully comprehensive The Pink and the Black and confused intersections. Westbound I went on the first streetcar to Dufferin, the fog of
French GLBT history from 1968 lifting on arrival. Back east to the Starbucks, where I realized to my embarrassment that I missed the scheduled appointment.

I can say that St. Clair looks like a wonderful neighbourhood. I can also say that I'm becoming disturbingly good at missing appointments. The first is good; the second, good only in a twisted way.
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Once alerted to its existence, it took only a couple of seconds for me to decide to add the weblog Centauri Dreams, focusing on space science and future interstellar exploration.
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[ profile] nhw raised the question of whether Margo Lanagan's wonderfully and horribly compelling short story "Singing My Sister Down" is a work of speculative fiction. Myself, I think that it is on the pattern of Shirley Jackson, in her The Haunting of House Hill or better yet "The Lottery". The speculative elements don't lie in the setting so much as they do in the basic assumptions, in the stories' depiction of a world subtly twisted. Freud's concept of the uncanny is central in this; worlds almost but not quite (and how not quite!) like our own are unsettling.
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Thanks to [ profile] jrittenhouse for bringing my attention to Bill Law's BBC article "French islands bid for oil-rich sea", originally aired on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents. Since the collapse of the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks in 1992, the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon have been hammered at least as badly as Newfoundland ever was, possibly worse because of the restricted share of the Grand Banks that the islands received.

Lying just off the south-eastern coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, St Pierre and Miquelon are tiny islands that represent a past most people have forgotten and a present with a very uncertain future.

The original French settlers were Basques, Bretons and Normans who arrived here in the 1600s. For centuries they fished the Grand Banks where the supply of cod was seemingly inexhaustible.

All that came to an abrupt end in 1992, when the Canadian Government, appalled at the destruction of cod stocks by foreign trawlers, banned all cod fishing.

That same year - a year of infamy as far as the islanders are concerned - the Canadians hammered home their intention to protect and exploit the coastal waters.

At an international tribunal in New York, sitting across the table from a French delegation, they successfully laid claim to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone.

St Pierre and Miquelon were left with their own 200 mile zone, but bizarrely it is just 10 miles wide, a long thin finger of ocean running due south of the islands and leading nowhere.

[. . .]

Bruno Detcheverry runs a fish processing plant that used to employ 350 people. Now he has just 70 part-time workers.

He says that what happened in 1992 was "a tragedy, like a guillotine coming down".

"Before there was work for many, and many fishing vessels. After, there was no work. The harbour is finished and the economy is finished."

Later this spring, a fourth offshore well will go into production in Canadian controlled waters.

The once have-not province of Newfoundland has in the past few years begun to emerge from poverty into a potential that is rich in oil and gas.

The roughly sixty-five hundred islanders, it seems, want to avoid indefinite subsistence on subsidies provided by the French government by laying claims to territories on the Grand Banks that might contain reserves and oil and natural gas. As Law notes, the marine territories that the islanders want to claim do not connect to the maritime boundaries of St. Pierre et Miquelon at all, lying at a remove several hundred kilometres to the south across Canadian territory. If St. Pierre et Miquelon was a microstate, this popular demand might be raised by the islanders in international fora, no matter how legally dubious their claim was. Unfortunately for them, though the islands' status as a collectivité d'outre-mer of France assures them of French citizenship and French aid, it also requires the islanders to submit to the foreign-policy plans of Paris. After recovering from their nadir with Gaullist support of Québécois separatism, Franco-Canadian relations are now warm enough that an unlikely French territorial claim is unlikely to be made.

This is unfortunate for the islanders but not unprecedent, since life for the islanders was historically difficult. The whole history of St. Pierre et Miquelon in the first half of the 20th century can read almost like one of unmitigated catastrophe, of a boom-and-bust economy that hit bust more often than not and a population that just couldn't manage.

The dawn of a new century cast darkness over Saint Pierre’s once shining economy. Newfoundland’s legislature passed a "Bait Bill" barring export of live bait to the islands. France abandoned its rights to establish seasonal fishing camps on the "French shore" in 1904. The dories gave way to large trawlers. The population of the colony plummeted 30% in the three years beginning with 1904. The number of fishing boats dropped from 200 in 1902 to just 70 in 1907. The colony’s economic woes continued through the First World War in which a fifth of the islands’ five hundred man contingent perished.

Saint Pierre made a dramatic recovery following the war. The United States Congress passed the Volstead Act barring the manufacture, sale or importation of alcohol in 1920 but the French government maintained that export of alcohol from St. Pierre was perfectly legal since no crime occurred until ships carrying it entered American waters. France went a step further in 1922. President Millerand signed a decree granting Saint Pierre and Miquelon preferred status in the colonial liquor trade. Rum Runners built several large warehouses and anchored a fleet of booze trawlers in Saint Pierre. Taxes on "legal" alcohol exports now underwrote most of the colony’s budget. The islands’ number one taxpayer, Al Capone paid a visit to his Saint Pierre operation in 1927.

Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 and shortly thereafter Prohibition ended. Saint Pierre was no longer the preferred distribution center for whisky, liqueurs and aperitifs entering the United States. The colony’s happy days were gone again. Saint Pierre was thrust into the misery of the Great Depression. The suddenly reduced circumstances of the population spawned demonstrations and political turmoil. Governor Barrillot writing the Minister for Colonies in 1934 described the situation of the colony as, "becoming impossible" but Paris refused further subsidies. To keep order, the Government sent a corvette along with an Inspector General of Colonies who recommended "a reduction in the standard of living".

The Popular Front government elected in 1936 instituted a "New Deal" for metropolitan France but its policies did little to alleviate the sufferings of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The islands’ governor was replaced by a less costly administrator. Municipal government was abolished and responsibility for the budget transferred from the resident administrator to bureaucrats in the Ministry for Colonies. Separation of Church and State laws instituted in France in 1905 were now made applicable to the colony but their implementation was delayed by the administrator under pressure from the local clergy. The Cures continued to be paid a government salary and housing subsidy. Economic misery continued unabated. The islands’ few trees disappeared for few Saint Pierrais could afford the Nova Scotia coal formerly used for heating. Many families were forced to immigrate to Canada.

The insensitivity of the French government in the 1930s to the islanders' poverty is remarkable, but the unnamed functionaries were correct in noting that, with the islands' population and economic resources, absent external support the islands just couldn't support a high standard of living for the entire population. St. Pierre et Miquelon is, as is often noted, the last part of New France remaining French. The islands rank almost as an anachronism; almost, because even if they were part of Canada they'd share in the general economic depression of coastal eastern Atlantic Canada. One of the islanders interviewed by Lee is wrong to argue that the islands' French connection is doomed. If anything, it might save them, thanks to the fact of the islands' Frenchness being used by tourism agencies. Tourism, alas, just isn't enough to keep the islanders as well-off as they want. Emigration is inevitable.
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