Tuesday, November 30, 2010

'That's really rapid evolution'

How the demise of the dinosaurs led to super-sized mammals
The Independent: A worldwide study of fossilized mammals has demonstrated beyond any doubt that it was the extinction of the dinosaur some 65 millions years ago that was the key trigger leading to the explosive growth of the warm-blooded mammals...

The study found that for the first 40 million years or so of their existence, the mammals were mostly small, shrew-like creatures that lived in a narrow range of habitats. However, after the dinosaur disappeared, larger creatures capable of exploiting a wide variety of ecological niches, from leaf-eating giant sloths to tundra-munching mammoths.

'Basically, the dinosaur disappear and all of a sudden there is nobody else eating the vegetation. That's an open food source and mammals start going for it, and it's more efficient to be a herbivore when you're big,' said Jessica Theodor of the University of Calgary in Canada... 'Within 25 million years the system is reset to a new maximum... That's actually a pretty short time frame, geologically speaking. That's really rapid evolution.'...

The study in the journal Science found that many different types of mammals grew into gigantic forms on different continents... John Gittleman of the University of Georgia, who took part in the study, said... 'Having so many different lineages independently evolve to such similar maximum sizes suggests that there were similar ecological roles to be filled by giant mammals across the globe.'
Image source here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

'Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds'

Surviving Cameramen Recall Nuclear Test Shoots
Der Spiegel: By 1963, the United States had detonated more than 200 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Cameramen and photographers working for a secret special unit recorded the acts of destruction. Some of their sensational images have now been declassified, and the last remaining eyewitnesses are now sharing their experiences...

Between 1947 and 1969, the material was edited to make more than 6,500 motion pictures in a secret film studio in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles... The studio on Wonderland Avenue was called the Lookout Mountain Air Force Station...

At the height of the Cold War, the superpowers embarked on a spectacular race to develop nuclear weapons. It was accompanied by an unparalleled propaganda war that involved large numbers of tests... The goal, from the very beginning, was to create impressive images to convince politicians to approve ever-growing military budgets. But the public never saw most of the images...

Most of these images are still under lock and key today. Only military physicists are permitted to analyze the images for the purpose of improving the designs of bombs. The US government is still hesitant to release the photos and films completely. But it is critical, says [Peter] Kuran, that the material be processed and digitized, 'before it turns to dust.'

He has already assembled five documentaries from the film and photographic footage, which he distributes through his website. A sixth film, about the neutron bomb, is in the works. More images here.

[Post title quote from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita was recalled by J. Robert Oppenheimer upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb at White Sands, New Mexico, July 16, 1945.]

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wikileaks 'meltdown' for US foreign policy

The US Diplomatic Leaks
Der Spiegel: The development is no less than a political meltdown for American foreign policy. Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information... It is now possible to view many political developments around the world through the lens of those who participated in those events... An image emerges of a superpower that can no longer truly be certain of its allies... On the whole, the cables from the Middle East expose the superpower's weaknesses.

(includes search function)
WikiLeaks: The cables, which date from 1966 up until February of this year, contain confidential communications between 274 embassies in countries throughout the world and the State Department in Washington, D.C... The embassy cables will be released in stages over the next few months. The subject matter of these cables is of such importance, and the geographical spread so broad, that to do otherwise would not do this material justice.

The Guardian: The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis today, with the leaking to the Guardian and other international media of more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as recently as February this year... At the start of a series of daily extracts from the US embassy cables -- many of which are designated 'secret' -- the Guardian can disclose that Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on iran and that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN's leadership.

The New York Times: A mammoth cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the last three years, provides an unprecedented look at bargaining by embassies, candid views of foreign leaders and assessments of threats... The cables, a huge sampling of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates, amount to a secret chronicle of the United States' relations with the world in an age of war and terrorism.

Le Monde: Cette fuite de câbles est un troisième revers pour l'administration américaine. Mais il est beaucoup plus grave les Etas-Unis car il n'implique pas uniquement, cette fois, leur armée. C'est, à travers les télégrammes du département d'Etat, toute le diplomatie mondiale qui se trouve en partie dévoilée.

El País: Será muy costoso, por tanto, para ese país reparar el daño causado por esta filtración, y llevará años poner en pie un nuevo sistema de comunicación con plenas garantías. Lo más importante, sin embargo, es el valor informativo que esos documentos tienen actualmente. Estamos ante una serie de relatos... que servirán para una mejor comprensión de algunos conflictos y de personalidades que afectan determinantemente a nuestra vida y que pueden abrir a nuestros lectores a una nueva interpretación de la realidad que les rodea.
Image source here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

'America's national ego carries on'

America the Material
Excerpts from a review by Nomi Prins in Truthdig:
A Question of Values is an alternately sobering and inspiring collection of essays by noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman... In the unswerving style of his other writings, he rips apart the national illusion of greatness [of] a country caught in a societal malaise of promoting external accumulation over internal compassion...

In Section I, the second essay, 'Conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History,' Berman dissects America's profound sense of self-importance, a central theme of the entire collection [and] lists four descriptive conspiracies (or fallacies): First that we are a chosen people (so we get to do whatever we want); second, that America itself is a kind of religion; third, that we must endlessly expand, whether it be geographically or financially; and lastly, that our national character is composed of extreme individuals going back to our colonization. This he considers to be the main reason why 'American history can be seen as the story of a nation consistently choosing individual solutions over collective ones.'...

Berman brings us to his conclusion that the only hope for America is to stop believing its own hype -- something he doesn't consider very likely... Berman's lament isn't for an America that lost its way, but for one that never had a heart, a colossal ego that raids other nations with self-righteous impunity... If we measure progress by consumption, how can it ever stop until there's nothing left? According to Berman, it can't, which underscores a phenomenon he dubs 'catastrophism.' As he puts it, 'it is a fair guess that we shall start doing things differently only when there is no other choice.'... America's national ego carries on.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Quote for the day

I have no qualifications in the career, or, rather, pursuit I chose for my journey through life... In the end, though, I lost sight of my fellow runners, the ones you're so conscious of at first, when you're in your twenties of thirties and keep glancing out of the corner of your eye at those behind, intent (or so you believe) on overtaking you, meanwhile calculating how big a lead the runners ahead have over you and conserving your energies as you imagine the best way of getting past them for the final sprint.

But there are no sprints, and certainly no final sprints. Indeed, I stopped running a long time ago. There's no point. Just walk at the pace that suits your feet and you'll end up arriving at the place you set out for. Or else keep quite still: lately, I've had the feeling that it's simply a matter of sitting and waiting, that it isn't us who do the walking, but the things around us, and they won't fail us; they never do, because nothing ever fails and everything ends up happening anyway.

-- Javier Montes, in 'The Hotel Life,' Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists/Los Mejores Narradores Jóvenes en Español. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A disaster in the making

A world without birds
Could we be facing a future without birds? Our reliance on pesticides has cut a swathe through their numbers.

The Independent: According to Hank Tennekes, a researcher at the Experimental Toxicology Services in Zutphen, the Netherlands, the threat of DDT has been superseded by a relatively new class of insecticide, known as the neonicotinoids. In his book The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making... Tennekes draws all the evidence together, to make the case that neonicotinoids are causing a catastrophe in the insect world, which is having a knock-on effect for many of our birds.

Already in many areas, the skies are much quieter than they used to be... Ornithologists have been trying desperately to work out what is behind these rapid declines... Tennekes thinks there may be a simple reason. 'The evidence shows that the bird species suffering massive decline since the 1990s rely on insects for their diet,' he says. He believes that the insect world is no longer thriving, and that birds that feed on insects are short on food...

'Neonicotinoids are revolutionary because they are put inside seeds and permeate the whole plant... (which is why they are called systemic insecticides). Any insect that feeds on the crop dies.' explains Tennekes. Even small doses can kill... The damage is cumulative... And unfortunately the robust nature of neonicotinoids means that they can travel far beyond the crops they were used to treat.

'Neonicotinoids are water-soluble and mobile in soil. They can be washed out of soils and into surface and groundwater... As a result, neonicotinoids are probably readily taken up by wild plants as well, and in this way spread throughout nature, causing irreversible damage to non-target insects,' says Tennekes... 'The message is that we must act quickly and ban these compounds, to avoid a catastrophe.'
Image source here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

'The surest sign of looming national decline'

Ohhh, America, you're so strong
Matt Miller, The Washington Post: Does anyone else think there's something a little insecure about a country that requires its politicians to constantly declare how exceptional it is? A populace in need of this much reassurance may be the surest sign of looming national decline...

'Americans believe with all their heart,' said Marco Rubio upon winning his Senate race, 'that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all of mankind.'

Rubio described his Senate race as 'a referendum on our identity,' adding that 'this race forces us to answer a very simple question,' he said. 'Do we want our country to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared for it to become just like everyone else?'

The conservative use of American exceptionalism as a political sword today is perversely revealing. There's something off when the first generation of Americans that is less educated than its parents feels a deep need to be told how unique it is. Or that a generation that's handing off epic debts and a chronically dysfunctional political process (among other woes) demands that its leaders keep toasting its fabulousness. Especially when other nations now offer more upward mobility, and a better blend of growth with equity.

Paul Woodward, War in Context: Leaving aside the fact that many Americans who hold this view have never actually visited another country, expressions of America's exceptional character such as that by Rubio represent a view of the world as much as one of America. Moreover, this is not merely about saying that America is unique but that it is superior to every other nation and that it must vigorously guard this position of supremacy.

If this was about praising a set of virtues, then one might imagine that those who see America in this way would hope that every other nation at some time might share the same set of virtues. Clearly they do not hold this hope, because this is not about virtue or excellence -- it is about power and domination. That America could be dislodged from its position of supremacy -- this is the greatest fear of the supremacists.

In as much as American exceptionalism is rooted in a belief in American supremacy, then the power ascribed to the nation is implicitly shared by every American. That this is make-believe power is evident in the frequency and loudness with which it is declared and the fact that those who profess their conviction in this power nevertheless clearly easily feel threatened -- threatened by the government; by the rest of the world; by immigrants; and by other Americans who don't share their views...

This theme will be picked up by others, as the cause of raw American nationalism easily resonates with a dispirited electorate... The worst mistake of those who find this view of America unpalatable is to fail to take it seriously.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

First snow of the season

Jay Griffiths, 'Skate Fever'
in Lapham's Quarterly:

The year has two generosities: that of harvest, as August augments into autumn, ripening and swelling, the other of white beginnings and open futures where all is possibility, wide as a frozen lake when you can no longer see its limits. A clean sheet of paper speaks of the same generosity, where nothing is prescripted and anything can begin. A wide-open day, too, when time stretches untrapped by schedule and offers opportunity, so spontaneity uncurls and basks in the extravagance of the open moment...

Ice sharpens your thoughts, and out here everything is sharp: skate blades, frost, sunlight in your eyes -- even the contrast between day and night is sharpened by cold. Summer has an incoherent lushness, warm and lolling, rolling over everything else, slurred. Winter has a cold coherence, exact and electric, compact as skates laced tight and sharp to the clean ice.
Image source here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

'We're looking almost to the edge'

Oldest Galaxy Discovered From 13.1 Billion Years Ago, Astronomers Say

AP: Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That's a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far.

By now the galaxy is so ancient it probably doesn't exist in its earlier form and has already merged into bigger neighbors, said Matthew Lehnert of the Paris Observatory, lead author of the study published online in the journal Nature. 'We're looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age,' said California Institute of Technology astronomy professor Richard Ellis...

'Because it takes so long for the light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like... at a time when it was quite young -- maybe even as young as 100 million years old,' Lehnert said. 'It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars.'

What's most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would have formed not too soon after them. 'We're looking almost to the edge, almost within 100 million years of seeing the very first objects,' Ellis said.
Image source here; galaxy described is small smudge at centre.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Support renewable energy sources, or...

Global temperature to rise 3.5 degrees C. by 2035: International Energy Agency
Unless governments cut subsidies for fossil fuels and adopt new policies to support renewable energy sources, the Copenhagen Accord to hold global warming to less than a 2-degree increase will not be reached.

The Christian Science Monitor: But there's hope yet, says Faith Birol, the chief economist for the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA)... 'Renewable energies need substantial subsidies from governments,' Dr. Birol said... 'The important task [for governments] is to decide whether they will support energy renewables in the future. It could be bad news for energy security and climate change if they don't.'

None of that may be surprising, considering the 26-nation Copenhagen Accord signed in December 2009 was not legally binding and also fell short of recommendations from the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for how to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C...

'Renewable energy can play a central role in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and diversifying energy supplies, but only if strong and sustained support is made available,' IEA executive director Nobuo Tanaka said in a statement upon [Nov. 9] release of the 2010 World Energy Outlook...

But the world has never been quick to adopt new energy policies, as Monitor correspondent Douglas Fox pointed out in his cover story on the future of energy.

'Energy revolutions have usually been slow, starchy, conservative affairs, not overnight explosions; and the next one promises to be, too -- never before has humanity replaced 15 trillion watts of worldwide energy production,' writes Mr. Fox. 'Our success in making it happen quickly enough to stave off climate change will depend every bit as much on strategic use of fossil fuels now as it does on flash new technologies in the future.'
Image source here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

2041: No oil, no replacement

Oil to run out 100 years before replacements become viable, study claims
Agence France-Presse: The world will run out of oil around 100 years before replacement energy sources are available if oil use and development of new fuels continue at the current pace, a US study warns.

In the study, researchers at the University of California, Davis used the current share prices of oil companies and alternative energy companies to predict when replacement fuels will be ready to fill the gap left when oil runs dry. And the findings weren't very good for the oil-hungry world.

If the world's oil reserves were the 1.332 trillion barrels they were estimated to be in 2008 and oil consumption was some 85.22 million barrels a day and growing at 1.3 percent a year, oil would be depleted by 2041, says the study, published online in Environmental Science and Technology...

But by plugging current stock market prices into a complex equation, UC-Davis engineering professor Debbie Niemeier and postdoctoral researcher Nataliya Malyshkina calculated that a viable alternative fuel to oil won't be available before the middle of the next century.

The answer they came up with was that there would not be a widely available replacement for oil-based fuels before 2140, which, even if the more optimistic date of 2054 for oil depletion is retained, would mean there could be a nearly 90-year gap...

The calculations used by the researchers are based on the theory that long-term investors are good predictors of when new technologies will become commonplace.
Image source here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taliban 'fighting a war of liberation'

Taliban motivated by revenge against Western armies more than Islam: study
But 'Americans don't compromise, their model is winning'

The Canadian Press: A new report, partly funded by the Foreign Affairs Department, says western nations have misunderstood the war aims of the Taliban... The study, initiated by the US Institute for Peace with help from Ottawa's Global Peace and Security Fund... suggests many insurgent fighters have taken up arms in retaliation for perceived military aggression by NATO...

Researcher Matt Waldman, recently a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School, conducted over 80 interviews in Kandahar, Kabul and Quetta, Pakistan, last spring... He says the longer the fighting has dragged on, the more the Taliban have convinced themselves and ordinary Afghans that they are fighting a war of liberation.

The Taliban see themselves as fighting in 'retaliation against perceived military aggression; resistance to perceived foreign invasion' and 'in opposition to abuse of power' by the Afghan government... 'It is not appropriate to define the insurgency as being about Islamic extremism.'... The insurgency is largely indigenous, rather than imported from elsewhere.

Waldman interviewed a number of diplomats in Kabul and he said some Europeans are skeptical 'that the United States would seriously support negotiations.' An unnamed diplomat quoted in the report argued: The Americans 'don't compromise, their model is winning... They have a radically different perception of what a political solution means.'
Image source here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

For what it's worth: Canada's 'brand' is #1

As described by FutureBrand:
The strength of a country's brand is determined in the same way as any other brand. We can measure levels of awareness, familiarity, preference, consideration, advocacy and active decisions to visit. But the most important factors, the aspects that truly differentiate a nation brand, are its associations and attributes -- the things that people think of when they hear a place name, or look at a photograph or plan a trip.

The FutureBrand 2010 Country Brand Index, produced in partnership with BBC World News, is our most comprehensive study of country brands to date. It is based on more respondents across more countries and questions than ever before. After five years of research, we know that country brand strength is driven by perceptions of heritage and culture, tourism, what it's like to do business, quality of life and national value systems.

But above all, a strong country brand is more than the sum of its attributes: it makes peoples' lives better.

From progressive politics to openness, freedom of speech, movement and a positive outlook on the world, countries that are geared around their people and their needs score highly. They also have to create a strong emotional connection, making people want to visit, do business, learn and build their lives in a place. Not just that, but like any brand, they need to be consistent across all touch points, from advertising and public relations to political representatives, cultural ambassadors, tourists, companies and indigenous products. We need to be able to differentiate between country brand experiences, from people to places, from products to companies. Country brand ranking even correlates to how far a nation exports its values through its iconic brands.

These features, coupled with a strong point of view and role on the world stage and a tireless effort to drive the world forward, encouraging tourism, immigration, cultural exchange and partnership, make the difference between a nation state and a genuine country brand. Also, as the 2010 Country Brand Index reveals, while economic performance is vital to brand strength, it is not enough to guarantee a high world ranking.
Download the entire report (.pdf) here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kingfisher hunting underwater

Der Spiegel: In the search to find this year's European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the German Society of Wildlife Photographers has compiled a collection of the most spellbinding moments caught on camera in the natural world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Record sockeye, record eagles!

Record raptors hit town in time for Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival
Georgia Straight: Look up. Look way up. If your eyesight is as good as a great blue heron's, you'll be able to spot black specks soaring above the Lower Mainland. Even if your vision is less discerning, get ready to welcome back bald eagles that are migrating south from summer feeding grounds...

On the phone from the Hancock Wildlife Foundation in Surrey, David Hancock could barely contain his excitement. The honorary director of the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival had just returned from a bird count in the Harrison River estuary and expressed amazement at what he'd witnessed.

'Usually at the end of October, you'll find two- to three hundred bald eagles feeding by the river,' said the biologist, who has spent the better part of 50 years observing eagles. 'There are already 500 to 600, and they are coming in at a rate of about 100 a day. At this pace, I predict we'll have at least 1,500 to 2,000 for the festival [November 20-21].'... During November, the Fraser Valley witnesses the largest concentration of eagles anywhere on the planet.

'I've traveled much of the globe and seen mammal predators migrate in large numbers, but there's nothing that compares with this among raptors. This is a class event in the world of wildlife.'...

With food so close at hand, eagles can afford to be picky. Their preferred species is sockeye -- which average between two and three kilograms -- slightly less than the maximum weight an eagle can carry. Coho and chum are too heavy for the eagles, which, despite their size, only weigh two to four kilograms.

Canadian Press: The 2010 stocks are being heralded as the largest since 1913. In that year, a railway construction-caused landslide blocked six million fish from swimming up the river, wiping out stocks and impacting salmon returns for years to come. This year's return of the sockeye to the Fraser River has been estimated to be nearly 25 million, being the highest return of the fish for nearly 100 years.
Image source here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Low-energy desalination in Vancouver

A better way to take salt out of seawater
Toronto Star: The world isn't facing a water shortage. Anyone who lives by the ocean knows that. What we are running short of is fresh water. Only 3 per cent of the water on this planet is considered fresh water, and of that about two thirds is locked up in glaciers. Most of the rest isn't close to people who need it most, with parts of Australia, India and the U.S. southwest being some of the better known water-scarce regions.

This has brought heightened attention recently to the importance of water desalination, and more specifically, lower-cost ways of removing salt from seawater that don't require enormous amounts of heat and electricity. On this front, a start-up from Vancouver called Saltworks Technologies has been breaking new round with a process called 'thermo-ionic desalination.'...

Most of the world's desalination plants today separate salt by distilling seawater, but this requires an immense amount of energy to rapidly vaporize and then condense the water. Newer desalination plants typically use a process called reverse osmosis. This is when the seawater is forced against a membrane that filters out the salt and other minerals. The approach is less energy-intensive than distillation, but the big pumps that push the water through the membrane still require lots of electricity...

This is why a company like Saltworks is so important... Ben Sparrow, the mechanical engineer who co-founded Saltworks in 2008, says a small pilot plant is already operating in Vancouver that can process 1 cubic metre of ocean water a day. [Read about the process here.] The beauty of this approach is that no external energy is required...

Saltworks needs to show the process can be scaled up to handle millions of cubic metres of water annually... Joshua Zoshi, co-founder and president of Saltworks, says a commercial plant that could handle 50,000 cubic metres a day would require an evaporation tower 80 metres in diameter. Building such a structure shouldn't pose a challenge. 'That's a well-known, well-practised engineering discipline,' he says.
Image source here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Graphs of the day: War dead in Iraq

By Canadian Kamel Makhloufi. In his words:
Blue = 'Friendly', Green = 'Host Nation', Orange = Civilians, Grey = Enemies

First one is function of sum, second is function of time, or how you can dilute the media impact of a massacre by killing a few people each day for 6 years.

Just remember that host nation + civilian + enemies = mostly Iraqis

Used the cleared dump from The Guardian.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quote for the day

Gavin de Becker, in The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence:
Note: Men of all ages and in all parts of the world are more violent than women. For this reason, the language in this book is mostly gender-specific to men. When it comes to violence, women can proudly relinquish recognition in the language, because here at least, politically correct would be statistically incorrect.