The DRC: Volcanoes, rebel attacks and tense elections all in one day

3QD friend Edward B. Rackley in his blog, Across the Divide:

Screenhunter_6_6What other country can boast such diverse forms of crippling instability, all occuring simultaneously? If the Bemba fanatics in Kinshasa dont lynch you for speaking Swahili and supporting Kabila, Nkunda’s men around Goma will gladly terminate you on suspicion of ‘oppressing Tutsis’. And don’t go seeking refuge in the wilds around Goma, as you’re sure to get cooked by fresh lava flows from Mt. Nyamuragira, which erupted last night just outside of town.

Official election results were announced last night by Supreme Court officials in Kinshasa. They spoke under heavy armed guard from their temporary digs in the Ministry of the Interior, following last week’s incendiary ravaging of the Supreme Court building by rabid Bemba supporters. Never has the thirst for lawlessness been more accurately expressed. Dont care for rule of law? Just burn down the Supreme Court.

In any other country, tanks would have flooded the streets in retaliation, and martial law immediately declared. In Kinshasa, police forces stood agape for a few reflective moments before the ravenous crowd of assailants, and promptly fled. UN peacekeepers arrived after the fact. The national army did not respond.

More here.

Shahzia Sikander, Global Artist

Saleem H. Ali in Pakistan’s Daily Times:

Screenhunter_5_9Every year, the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation provides a generous award of US$500,000 each “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits”. The MacArthur fellows are free to use the funds as they please over five years without any ‘strings attached’. Some might pay off a mortgage, while others invest in a scholarship or finance a sabbatical. The recipients range in their expertise from neuroscience to carpentry, and are selected through a rather opaque but rigorous nomination and review process conducted by the foundation under utmost secrecy. Among the twenty-five recipients this year is an artist of Pakistani lineage, Shahzia Sikander, who was recognised for “merging the traditional South Asian art of miniature painting with contemporary forms and styles to create visually compelling, resonant works on multiple scales and in a dazzling array of media”.

Traditionally, visual art has been a culturally reductive form of human expression, whereby communities, tribes, cities and countries have defined their identity. We have been quick to label art as ‘eastern or western’, ‘indigenous or foreign’, ‘Christian or Islamic’, and so the list goes on as galleries define their areas of specialty. However, artists such as Shahzia Sikander are transcending such categorisations and resent being exoticised as simply Asian or Pakistani.

More here.

Sam Harris/Dennis Prager debate

From Jewcy:

Earlier this year, Newsweek religion columnist Marc Gellman confessed that atheists had lately befuddled him: “What I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry,” Gellman lamented. “I just don’t get it.”

Sam_harris_200_1Screenhunter_4_17Why are atheists so angry? Sam Harris and Dennis Prager inaugurate Jewcy’s “Big Question” series by arguing this very question. In the Big Question, passionate thinkers will debate the weightiest, most contentious issues of the day via e-mail.

Author of the thundering anti-theist polemics The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris may just be the Thomas Paine of an emerging movement to wrench religion out of American life. Prager is a nationally syndicated talk radio host who trumpets the virtues of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

More here.  [Thanks to Beajerry of Cosmic Watercooler.]

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About


Nothing keeps a relationship on its toes so much as lively debate. Fortunate, then, that my girlfriend and I agree on absolutely nothing. At all.

Couple_argument3Combine utter, polar disagreement on everything, ever, with the fact that I am a text-book Only Child, and she is a violent psychopath, and we’re warming up. Then factor in my being English while she is German, which not only makes each one of us personally and absolutely responsible for the history, and the social and cultural mores of our respective countries, but also opens up a whole field of sub-arguments grounded in grammatical and semantic disputes and, well, just try saying anything and walking away.

Examples? Okey-dokey. We have argued about:

  • The way one should cut a Kiwi Fruit in half (along its length or across the middle).
  • Leaving the kitchen door open (three times a day that one, minimum).
  • The best way to hang up washing.
  • Those little toothpaste speckles you make when you brush your teeth in front of the mirror.
  • I eat two-fingered Kit-Kats like I’d eat any other chocolate bars of that size, i.e., without feeling the need to snap them into two individual fingers first. Margret accused me of doing this, ‘deliberately to annoy her’.
  • Which way – the distances were identical – to drive round a circular bypass (this resulted in her kicking me in the head from the back seat as I drove along).
  • Which type of iron to buy (price wasn’t an issue, it was the principle, damnit).
  • Margret enters the room. The television is showing Baywatch. Margret says, ‘Uh-huh, you’re watching Baywatch again.’ I say, ‘I’m not watching, it’s just on.’ Repeat. For the duration of the programme.
  • She wants to paint the living room yellow. I have not the words.

More more here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

Is a little economics a dangerous thing?

Christopher Hayes in In These Times:

Sanderson_allenAllen Sanderson, 62, has been teaching the intro macro and micro courses at the university for the last 18 years and though he initially appears somewhat grave and understated, it is quickly apparent that he is a master of technique. His lectures skip along, propelled by a series of wry, contrarian quips, each punctuated with a visual rimshot: a slight pause and a thrust jaw. “When you hear, ‘The economics department at U. of C.,’ one’s free association is ‘pro-business, greedy bastards,’” says Sanderson (pause, jaw thrust) in the first lecture. “I tend to think that’s not the case. Greedy bastards we may be, but we’re not pro-business. Republicans tend to be very pro-business. It’s a genetic defect of Republicans. Democrats tend to be anti-business, another genetic defect. We are not anti-business; we are not pro-business. We are pro-choice in the ultimate sense of pro-market. Based on empirical work, macro and micro solutions are probably better worked out by private markets than government intervention.”

His second lecture begins with a thought experiment. Noting that there are only 26 spots left in the class for the 52 students who would still like to enroll, he asks, “How should we figure out who gets to go into the class?” The students—eager, studious and serious—shoot their hands up and offer a variety of ideas: Seniority? First-come, first-serve? Ask prospective students to write an essay? It takes about a minute for a confident young man to give the answer Sanderson’s looking for: “auction by price.”

More here.  [Thanks to David Giles.]

Uncrewed aerial vehicles: no pilot, no problem?

Paul Marks in New Scientist:

Screenhunter_3_18The promise is fantastic: new generations of remote-controlled aircraft could soon be flying in civilian airspace, performing all sorts of useful tasks. They could monitor flood defences, keep criminal suspects under surveillance, give firefighters a bird’s-eye view of blazes, search for people lost at sea, or provide wireless networks from on high.

The reality is that a lack of radio frequencies to control the planes and serious concerns over their safety are going to keep them grounded for years to come.

Surprisingly, given the commercial hopes it has for civil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the aviation industry has failed to obtain the radio frequencies it needs to control them – and it will be 2011 before it can even begin to lobby for space on the radio spectrum. What’s more, none of the world’s aviation authorities will allow civil UAVs to fly in their airspace without a reliable system for avoiding other aircraft – and the industry has not yet even begun developing such a system. Experts say this could take up to seven years.

More here.

Republicans give a bigger share of their incomes to charity

Ben Gose in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Screenhunter_2_18In Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books), Arthur C. Brooks finds that religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals, and that those who support the idea that government should redistribute income are among the least likely to dig into their own wallets to help others.

Some of his findings have been touched on elsewhere by other scholars, but Mr. Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, breaks new ground in amassing information from 15 sets of data in a slim 184-page book (not including the appendix) that he proudly describes as “a polemic.”

“If liberals persist in their antipathy to religion,” Mr. Brooks writes, “the Democrats will become not only the party of secularism, but also the party of uncharity.”

More here.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known

Babara Mink at the Light in Winter Festival in Ithaca, NY:

Our 2007 festival features “connections” between us and the world we live in: music and art, engineering and sound, the smallest components of matter and the visible world, physics and movement, our actions and their effect on our planet, the brain and the senses, and animal whispers and film sound.

Long-time Ithaca resident Carl Sagan once said: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” During the Festival weekend, you will get to embrace the excitement of discovery and celebrate the connections between science and the arts. Join us for an entertaining and educational winter festival that will inspire your own curiosity and creativity.

Among the many and varied program events:

Warped Passages
1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m., Statler Auditorium, Cornell University campus
Sponsored by Sprague and Janowsky, Accountants and the Cornell Department of Physics
PassagesPresenters Lisa Randall & Stephen Andrew Taylor take us on an incredible journey inside the world of quantum physics, where particles too small to imagine violate our expectations. Randall is Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard and an expert in string theory, a topic she explores in her book, Warped Passages. Taylor is a professor of composition at the University of Illinois who says, “I was inspired to compose Seven Microworlds by learning about string theory…In my piece, the electronics are intended to act as a bridge between the ‘real world’ of the flute and guitar and these hidden microworlds that permeate us all.” With Wendy Mehne and Pablo Cohen.

More information about the festival here.

Freud’s Will to Power

From The New York Sun:Freud_2

Legend has it that Freud, although educated in the philosophies of his day, studiously avoided the work of Nietzsche to preserve the originality of his ideas against external influence. Nietzsche’s analysis of the human psyche, how values were supposedly projections of people’s unspoken jealousies and fears, ran dangerously close to Freud’s idea (still a work in progress at the end of the 19th century) that the roots of conscious behavior lay in unconscious desires.

But after reading Dr. Peter Kramer’s outstanding new biography of Freud, one wonders if Freud feared something else, not influence but self-knowledge, for Dr. Kramer’s Freud is practically the living embodiment of Nietzsche’s will to power. It’s not simply that Freud was incredibly ambitious. (At age four, after soiling a chair, he reassured his mother that he would grow up to be a great man and buy her another.) Rather, it was Freud’s determination to systematize the world, to bring order to chaos, and to impose his theory of life on life itself — a determination so intense that one of Freud’s colleagues called it a “psychical need.”

More here.

Forensic Traces of War

From Lens Culture:

Norfolk_23 Simon Norfolk is a very talented driven young photographer who is pursuing one of life’s big questions with intensity and focused intention. He is studying war, and its effects on many things: the physical shape of our cities and natural environments, social memory, the psychology of societies, and more.

He is examining genocide; imperialism; the interconnectedness of war, land and military space; and how wars are being fought at the same time with supercomputers, satellites, outdated weapons and equipment, people on the ground, intercepted communications, and manipulated and manipulating media.

More here.


Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker:

GuantanamoSince the Middle Ages, habeas corpus—“You should have the body”—has been the principal means in Anglo-American jurisprudence by which prisoners can challenge their incarceration. In habeas-corpus proceedings, the government is required to bring a prisoner—the body—before a judge and provide a legal rationale for his continued imprisonment. The concept was so well established at the time of the founding of the American Republic that the framers of the Constitution allowed suspensions of the right only under narrow circumstances. Article I, Section 9, states, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Such suspensions have been rare in American history. The most recent occasion was in 1871, when President Ulysses S. Grant sent federal troops to South Carolina to stop attacks by the Ku Klux Klan against newly emancipated black citizens. This fall, however, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, a new law banning the four hundred and thirty detainees held at the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and other enemy combatants, from filing writs of habeas corpus.

More here.

Possessed: Parasite Video and Powerpoint

Carl Zimmer at his blog, The Loom:

Well, the talk at Cornell last week went very well. Thanks to everyone who came. If you want to hear me wax rhapsodic about parasite manipulations (and explain how scientists study their evolution), you’re in luck. Cornell has put the video of the talk online. The image is pretty small on the screen, so I decided to post the slide show on my web site here. I suggest opening two screens and advancing the slides as the talk progresses.

At first the sound is a little scratchy on the video and the light balance takes a while to get properly adjusted. But don’t give up–it evens out. You may also hear a baby gurgling from time to time.

Near the end, when I talk about cuckoo birds as parasites, I refer to their host in one of the pictures as a cowbird. I should have said a reed warbler.

And if you are curious to find out more, check out my book, Parasite Rex.

Update: Apparently the video doesn’t work for some readers. I am at a loss.

A tantalizing theory of consciousness

John Clark in Bookslut:

Can you define “consciousness”? Most of us understand the word in context and can use it properly in a sentence. But asked to define it, we are suddenly rendered mute or at best unintelligible. It’s a word that is both vague (cannot be precisely measured) and ambiguous (having multiple meanings). No wonder scientists, philosophers and religious scholars have debated the source, meaning and nature of consciousness for all of recorded history. The argument continues, but a fascinating new book, Second Nature, Brain Science and Human Knowledge may bring us one step closer to resolution.

Nobel laureate Dr. Gerald M. Edelman offers a tantalizing theory of consciousness aimed at satisfying both the scientist and philosopher alike, but also appealing to the reader, like me, who is neither. There isn’t much here for the fundamentalist though. By naming his theory Neural Darwinism, and invoking evolution throughout, I suspect believers in the literal truth of religious texts will summarily reject the book before they get through the preface. Deeper into the book, Edelman does cleverly use the word GOD as an acronym for “Generator of Diversity.” Who can argue with that?

The title, Second Nature, is intended to distinguish human nature from nature in general. It calls “…attention to the fact that our thoughts often float free of our realistic descriptions of observed nature.” Edelman aims to communicate his proposed theory of consciousness without resorting to complex technical detail.  Even so, it is not for the faint of heart in terms of vocabulary.

More here.

Global Health into 2030

In PLoS Medicine, Colin Mathers and Dejan Loncar’s projections of global mortality and disease through 2030.

We project that life expectancy will increase around the world for all three scenarios, fewer children younger than 5 y will die (a 50% decline under the baseline scenario), and the proportion of people dying from non-communicable diseases will increase (from 59% in 2002 to 69% in 2030 under the baseline scenario). Although deaths from infectious diseases will decrease overall, HIV/AIDS deaths will continue to increase; the exact magnitude of the increase will depend to a limited extent on how many people have access to antiretroviral drugs and much more on whether there are increased prevention efforts. Although a projected 6.5 million people will die from HIV/AIDS under the 2030 baseline projection, an even larger number will die from disease attributable to tobacco smoking (8.3 million). By 2030, the three leading causes of burden of disease will be HIV/AIDS, depression, and ischaemic heart disease in the baseline and pessimistic scenarios. Road traffic accidents are the fourth leading cause in the baseline scenario, and the third leading cause ahead of ischaemic heart disease in the optimistic scenario.

These updated projections of mortality and burden of disease have been prepared using a similar methodology to that of the original GBD study, but with some changes described above and with updated inputs and an updated base set of estimates for 2002. We have incorporated a number of methodological improvements and changes. These include carrying out the projections at country rather than regional level, use of separate regression equations for low-income countries, incorporation of information from death registration datasets on recent observed trends for selected causes, and calibration of the regression equations through a comparison of back-projections with observed child mortality trends from 1990 to 2002.

The Imperial Impulse of the Puritans

In the Globalist, Robert Kagan looks at Puritan culture and American expansionism:

The picture of Puritan America as a pious Greta Garbo, wanting only to be left alone in her self-contained world, is misleading.For one thing, Winthrop’s Puritans were not isolationists.

They were global revolutionaries. They escaped persecution in the Old World to establish the ideal religious commonwealth in America, their “new Jerusalem.” But unlike the biblical Jews, they looked forward to the day, they hoped not far off, when they might return to a reformed Egypt.

Far from seeking permanent separation from the Old World, the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” aimed to establish a base from which to launch a counteroffensive across the Atlantic.

Their special covenant with God was not tied to the soil of the North American continent. America was not the Puritans’ promised land, but a temporary refuge. God had “peopled New England in order that the reformation of England and Scotland may be hastened.”

The Massachusetts Bay colonists neither sought isolation from the Old World nor considered themselves isolated. The Puritan leaders did not even believe they were establishing a “new” world distinct from the old. In their minds New England and Old England were the same world, spiritually if not geographically.

A 2,000 Year Old Computer

In The New York Times:


A computer in antiquity would seem to be an anachronism, like Athena ordering takeout on her cellphone.

But a century ago, pieces of a strange mechanism with bronze gears and dials were recovered from an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece. Historians of science concluded that this was an instrument that calculated and illustrated astronomical information, particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions, in the second century B.C.

The Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the world’s first computer, has now been examined with the latest in high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. A team of British, Greek and American researchers was able to decipher many inscriptions and reconstruct the gear functions, revealing, they said, “an unexpected degree of technical sophistication for the period.”

The researchers, led by Tony Freeth and Mike G. Edmunds, both of the University of Cardiff, Wales, are reporting the results of their study in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

They said their findings showed that the inscriptions related to lunar-solar motions and the gears were a mechanical representation of the irregularities of the Moon’s orbital course across the sky, as theorized by the astronomer Hipparchos. They established the date of the mechanism at 150-100 B.C.

Mahfouz’s grave, Arab liberalism’s deathbed

“The Arab world’s passage from progressive secularism to conservative religiosity in the last fifty years is illuminated by the work of Egypt’s greatest writer.”

Tarek Osman in

The death on 30 August 2006 of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz – the sole Arab writer to receive the Nobel prize in literature – was marked around the world, and by many of those unable to read a word of his work in its original language. This universal moment, however, was primarily an Egyptian and Arab one, and for more even than the loss of a great writer. For Naguib Mahfouz’s death is also a symbol of the demise of Arab liberalism. It is a century’s story, and the “Dostoyevsky of Cairo” was the one whose books embodied it.

A century ago, the west was not worryingly eyeing the Arab world, with a fear of suicide-bombers and plane hijackers. It was colonising the Arab world – for a number of reasons: the strategic location, the Suez canal, securing trade routes, access to the Indian subcontinent, protection of minorities, exploitation of economic resources, building empires, civilising the savage Saracens.

In resisting the colonists, the Arabs were broadly divided into two camps: the rejectionists and the integrationists.

The rejectionists were predominately Islamists and Salafis: the group that saw the Arab world’s humiliation and defeat as a consequence of its abandonment of the righteous path prescribed in the Qu’ran and the Prophet Mohammed’s sunna.

The integrationists, on the other side of the intellectual spectrum, saw the Arabs’ defeat as a consequence of their lagging behind in all aspects of modern thinking; they saw a dire need for the integration of western modernity into the traditional Arabic/Islamic culture. As one notable integrationist – Taha Hussein, the legendary Egyptian education minister in the early 20th century – put it: “it’s the enlightenment”.

More here.

Trained bees sniff out bombs

From Cosmos Magazine:

Screenhunter_2_17Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, USA, said they trained honeybees to stick out their proboscis – the tube they use to feed on nectar – when they smell explosives in anything from cars and roadside bombs to belts similar to those used by suicide bombers.

“Scientists have long marveled at the honey bee’s phenomenal sense of smell, which rivals that of dogs,” said Tim Haarmann, who led the research, dubbed the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project. “But previous attempts to harness and understand this ability were scientifically unproven. With more knowledge, our team thought we could make use of this ability.”

Using Pavlovian training techniques in which bees were exposed to the odour of explosives followed by a sugar water reward, researchers said they had trained bees to recognise substances ranging from dynamite and C-4 plastic explosives to the Howitzer propellant grains used in improvised explosive devices in Iraq.

More here.

Ask a Nobel Laureate

From Scientific American:Nobel_1

The Nobel Prize is the highest award in science. Its recipients include nearly every member of the pantheon of secular gods we revere–from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie, along with more recent notables such as James Watson and Francis Crick.

Every December, the current year’s crop of new science Laureates travel to Stockholm to receive their Prizes. While they are there,, t he official website of the Nobel Foundation, interviews them for the archives. This year, is offering visitors to Scientific the chance to pose questions to the Laureates.

More here.

Does everyone smell different?

From Nature:

Smell There are many good reasons to believe that we all have our own unique smell. Dogs, for example — as pets or police sniffers — seem to be able to distinguish individuals by their smell. And the mother-baby bond is cemented by their own distinctive odours. Now a large and systematic study led by Dustin Penn from the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology in Vienna, Austria, has provided stronger support for the notion that your smell might distinguish you from others — maybe even as much as your face. The researchers further suggest that profiles of individual odours may also fall into two groups according to gender — men more commonly have some smelly compounds, women more commonly others.

The researchers took samples of armpit sweat, urine and spit from 197 adults. Each subject was sampled five times over a ten-week collecting period. They extracted thousands of volatile chemicals from the samples — the type of compound most likely to have an odour — and identified them by chromatography and mass spectrometry. The team found many more different volatile chemicals in sweat than in urine or saliva, it reports in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. This could be because humans have a reason to be able to distinguish themselves by general body odour, more than by marking territory as many other animals do.

More here.