Thursday, August 14, 2003
And darkness covered the land...

About an hour ago, the power went out all over central Canada and the northeastern US. It's out from Chicago to New York and north to Timmins in Ontario. I caught it on the Beeb not too long after it started up. Now, I'm listening to CBC Radio One from Ottawa and it's kinna funny listening to the People's Radio get themselves together. First, there's afternoon guy, basically looking out his window and saying "Yup, the power's still out. How 'bout you, Bob?" Cell phones are down because the relays have only got thirty minutes of battery time. Then, they get some guy from Hydro on the phone to say, "Power's out, eh? 'Mericans did it." Now, CBC seems to be organised. Lester Pearson's closed, but Dorval is open. NavCan has air traffic in hand. They've got - I swear to god this is his name - Sgt. Muscat from the Toronto fuzz on the phone, saying the buses are running, the cops'll be doing traffic control, it's all cool, go home and smoke a constitutionally protected spliff.

For some reason, the whole thing makes me think of Bruce Sterling. Especially this:

On January 15, 1990, AT&T's long-distance telephone switching system crashed.

This was a strange, dire, huge event. Sixty thousand people lost their telephone service completely. During the nine long hours of frantic effort that it took to restore service, some seventy million telephone calls went uncompleted.

Losses of service, known as "outages" in the telco trade, are a known and accepted hazard of the telephone business. Hurricanes hit, and phone cables get snapped by the thousands. Earthquakes wrench through buried fiber-optic lines. Switching stations catch fire and burn to the ground. These things do happen. There are contingency plans for them, and decades of experience in dealing with them. But the Crash of January 15 was unprecedented. It was unbelievably huge, and it occurred for no apparent physical reason.

The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single switching-station in Manhattan. But, unlike any merely physical damage, it spread and spread. Station after station across America collapsed in a chain reaction, until fully half of AT&T's network had gone haywire and the remaining half was hard-put to handle the overflow.

Within nine hours, AT&T software engineers more or less understood what had caused the crash. Replicating the problem exactly, poring over software line by line, took them a couple of weeks. But because it was hard to understand technically, the full truth of the matter and its implications were not widely and thoroughly aired and explained. The root cause of the crash remained obscure, surrounded by rumor and fear. The crash was a grave corporate embarrassment. The "culprit" was a bug in AT&T's own software - not the sort of admission the telecommunications giant wanted to make, especially in the face of increasing competition. Still, the truth was told, in the baffling technical terms necessary to explain it.

Somehow the explanation failed to persuade American law enforcement officials and even telephone corporate security personnel. These people were not technical experts or software wizards, and they had their own suspicions about the cause of this disaster.

I was in France in early '90, so I missed the whole thing, but Sterling's account has always struck me as quite compelling. Naturally, there seems to be a blanket denial that this problem is terrorism related, so perhaps the surreal response to the 1990 Mother's Day phone system crash wil not be repeated this time. I think since '90 people have gotten used to the idea that technology fails.

Anyway, time for me to see if I can find an American station.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Speaking English is hazardous to your health

My wife picked this up off a forum somewhere.

  1. Japanese people eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  2. Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  3. Japanese people drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  4. Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  5. Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Apparently, it's speaking English that'll kill you.

Coming soon

Language Rights and Political Theory, which I promised to review here after having earlier promised Jacob Levy that I would read it when it came out in paperback, came in yesterday at the wife's US mission box. Thanks again, Aidan.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through it - in the middle of Idil Boran's chapter on linguistic diversity as a public good. Some meta-review notes: Are political science collections usually this acrimonious? David Laitin and Rob Reich trash Stephen May, Thomas Pogge trashes May, Reich, Laitin and Kymlicka, May trashes all the above, and everybody seems to hate Brian Barry.

In linguistics, it never works that way. A collection will almost always unite people who largely agree; not, as is clearly the case with Pogge and May, people from different planets. Stephen May, Will Kymlicka, Phillippe van Parijs and Jacob Levy are the only contributors that I recognise from other publications, so the conflicts of the first few chapters are new enough to me that I can laugh at them.

Chapter 6 offers incontrovertable proof that Phillippe van Parijs has a strong - if oblique - sense of humour. I have to wonder if he is being intentionally Swiftean with his proposal for resolving all linguistic justice problems. It took me several pages before I asked myself, "Is Phillippe shitting me?", and until the last paragraph I wasn't sure that the answer was "yes."

It's a little odd to see language politics discussed in the language of Rawlsian liberalism - a language which seems uniquely ill-suited to the challenge for exactly the reasons Kymlicka points to in his introduction: the impossibilty of language-neutral policy. Though, I suppose it's an improvement over discussing language policy in terms of nationalism, segregationism, historical grievances and Lebensraum. I'm not a liberal of the Rawlsian type myself, but I can more or less follow the lingo.

I'm thinking the format will go as follows: Three posts in short succession (I won't publish the first one until I've actually written the lot). First, a couple paragraphs to review each chapter, after which I'll pontificate on more general issues of linguistic policy and then present an alternative approach to language policy and some model policy ideas. Sound good?

Monday, August 11, 2003
Mennonites lose their last enclaves of separatism

I think there will be light blogging for a few days, but I have a knack for saying that when all of a sudden I'm about to blog a lot, so keep checking in. I've been off for the weekend because it was my birthday Sunday, and I spent the weekend moping about being old.

Anyway, Language Hat sent me this from Sunday's NY Times:

Paraguay Mennonites Find Success a Mixed Blessing

FILADELFIA, Paraguay — On Avenida Hindenburg, the dusty main street running through this farming town founded over 70 years ago by zealous, hard-toiling German Mennonites, the traffic signs are also signs of the times.

Where a few years ago "Vorsicht Schüler" would have been enough to warn drivers passing the Benjamin Unruh elementary school to watch out for children, the town needs bilingual signs now. The Spanish "Cruce de Alumnos" has been added. [...]

On one hand, the Mennonites need the labor to keep their successful farming cooperative growing. On the other, the outsiders inevitably dilute the colonizers' German-language culture and religious traditions that have been unaltered for decades.

The forefathers of Filadelfia's Mennonites fled Russia in two waves. The first went to Canada in the 19th century, when they lost their exemption from military service, and then to Paraguay, while a second wave fled Stalin's collectivization program via Germany and China. The Mennonites now make up less than half the town's population of 8,000.

"We are victims of our own success," said Gundolf Niebuhr, curator of the town's tiny museum, which is filled with Mennonite memorabilia and stuffed wild animals. "The Mennonites' highly successful work ethic and commitment to build a functioning society attracts others and ends up fragmenting our own social structure." [...]

[T]oday the Mennonites' large cooperative farms are successful, providing dairy products consumed across the country. While Paraguayans' income slumped to $950 a year from an average of $1,750 in the decade after the last military ruler, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, went into exile in 1989, Filadelfians' average yearly income is about $10,000.

On a recent visit, Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, Brazil's ambassador to Paraguay, told the people at the cooperative, "I'm fascinated by what I have seen — a Paraguay that works!" [...]

The town is also split over whether Mennonites should get involved in politics beyond electing a community leader. Generally, the older generation clings to the centuries-old tradition of steering clear of statecraft.

In general elections in April, however, Orlando Penner, 40, formerly a rally driver and governor of Boquerón, Filadelfia's province, became Paraguay's first Mennonite senator. Elected on the slate of Beloved Homeland, an anticorruption, grass-roots movement that became a political party, Mr. Penner says that Filadelfia's Mennonites should integrate more and that their success could serve as an example to the rest of the country.

"If we want to keep ourselves caged inside orthodoxy, we will be chasing around the world forever looking for new, empty, isolated lands," he said. "I'm sure that if we can't preserve our identity as Mennonites while still opening up to and living alongside others in this country, then it doesn't make any sense to be a Mennonite."

As weird as it is for me to think about there being an "Orlando Penner" (Penner is one of the most common names among Manitoba Mennonites), this pattern in Paraguay parallels what happened in Canada. One of the things that I'm eventually going to cover in my Grandfather's autobiography is the complex and sometimes painful integration of the Mennonites into Canadian society. Unwillingness to integrate was the key reason Mennonites went to Mexico and Paraguay in the first place, and in Canada, two generations after they left, no one under 40 still spoke German on any regular basis and even church services were in English.

Mennonite communities and businesses proved quite successful. Steinbach Credit Union is the largest non-union credit union in Manitoba. Penner Foods is a rapidly growing supermarket chain. Businesses with names like "Reimer", "Friesen" and "Unger" are pretty commonplace. Steinbach is still a majority Mennonite city, but now it has a Catholic church, a mall and a McDonald's that's open on Sunday.

There was a decision in the 1960's - a semi-conscious decision - to try to preserve the Mennonite faith, even at the cost of losing any sort of distinct Mennonite culture. Now, Canadian Mennonites speak English. In my own extended family we have no other common language. With my grandfather's death, my grandmother and I are the only remaining Martenses who are literate in German, and my mother is one of the youngest in Manitoba to still be able to speak Plautdietsch - and she almost never uses it. Mennonite churches nowadays usually contain a mixture of "hereditary" Mennonites and first, second, in some cases even third generation converts, while the culturally Mennonite may belong to any of several Evangelical churches or often none at all.

It looks like this is what is happening in Paraguay now too. There are almost certainly people in Paraguay who are afraid of losing their cultural distinctness, but there are no more countries with free land and tax bargains to run off to anymore. The 21st century almost certainly means the end of a separate Mennonite way of life, for better and for worse.