Monday, January 31, 2011

Quote for the day

Stephen T. Asma:
The belief that nature is loaded with invisible spirits that live in local flora, fauna, and environmental landmarks is generally characterized by Westerners as 'primitive' and highly irrational... But most of the world is made up of animists. The West is naive when it imagines that the major options are monotheistic. In actual numbers and geographic spread, belief in nature spirits trounces the One-Godders...

Contrary to the progress-based story the West tells itself, animistic explanations of one's daily experience may be every bit as empirical and rational as Western science... As Roger Scruton says, 'The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.'...

Unlike Western fundamentalism, animism is not locked in a zero-sum battle with science... Animism is highly syncretic, adopting any and all spiritual beliefs and practices as complimentary rather than competing options... There's not much concern for, or history of, orthodoxy in animism, a trait that can render it liberal and tolerant toward alternatives, including science.
From 'The New Atheists' Narrow Worldview' in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Permian Extinction's 'smoking gun": volcanoes

Evidence in Canadian Arctic points to volcanoes as cause of massive extinction
PostMedia News: A mass extinction 250 million years ago was caused by massive volcanic eruptions that burned significant volumes of coal, causing runaway global warming to impact the temperature and acidity of the world's oceans, Canadian researchers found...

'This could literally be the smoking gun that explains the latest Permian extinction,' said Steve Grasby, a researcher at the University of Calgary's department of geoscience. During the Permian extinction 95 per cent of life was wiped out in the sea and 70 per cent on land...

Grasby and his colleagues, Benoit Beauchamp and Hamed Sanei... discovered layers of coal ash in rocks from the extinction boundary in Canada's High Arctic that gives the first direct proof to support the belief that eruptions in what is knows as the Siberian Traps, now found in Northern Russia, produced ash clouds that had a broad impact on global oceans...

At the time of the extinction, the Earth contained one big land mass, a supercontinent known as Pangaea. The environment ranged from desert to lush forest, and the planet was already populated with four-limbed vertebrates. Among them were primitive amphibians, early reptiles and synapsids, the group that would, one day, include mammals.

'The Permian Extinction set the stage for the dinosaurs to take over,' said Grasby... It was a really bad time on Earth. In addition to these volcanoes causing fires through coal, the ash it spewed was highly toxic and was released in the land and water, potentially contributing to the worst extinction event in Earth history,' said Grasby. 'Pockets of life did survive... But it took five million years before it recovered.'
Image source here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

'This vision of Canada is being dismantled'

Erna Paris, in The Walrus (March 2011):

The New Solitudes
Canada was once defined by the schism between English and French. Today, our divide is increasingly ideological. Can it be bridged?

Most Canadians can recite our traditional values by heart, even if we no longer embrace them in identical ways. They are, in a nutshell: moderation in civil discourse; toleration of dissent; support for human rights and the institutions of civil society; respect for the rule of law; a commitment to mutilateralism abroad and pluralism at home; and a dedication to the public good, which includes a sensitivity to our uniqueness as one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries... Now this vision of Canada is being dismantled...

Errol Mendes, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa, thinks that what drives [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] is not traditional libertarianism, which may be socially progressive because of its core commitment to unfettered personal freedom, but rather a version of hard-right, US-style Republican politics that might be termed the modern 'Night Watchman.' The Night Watchman is a nineteenth-century theoretical construct in which government assumes only minimal responsibility for the citizenry. Its role is limited to protecting individuals from crime, and the country from foreign aggression: in other words, it is responsible only for the police, the judiciary, prisons, and the military...

The underlying question is what constitutes a good society. Across millennia of human history, philosophers, political leaders, artists, and ordinary people have debated the social order of their respective eras. What matters is public engagement... We need a reasoned and, above all, courteous discussion about what we want Canadian society to look like in ten or twenty years. The language of insult is intended to intimidate and silence. Without courtesy, we cannot talk to one another.
Image source here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Alberta's dirty secret

Tar Sands Oil Some of World's Dirtiest
The Tyee: A report (.pdf) by a major global research group representing the world's 10 largest car buying markets has concluded that Canada's bitumen is one of the world's dirtiest oils due to its poor quality, low gravity and the vast amount of natural gas needed to enrich it.

Find original, larger image on page 9 of the report (.pdf).

The study for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), which looked at the carbon intensity of oil from 3,000 fields now supplying European gasoline markets, also concluded that increasing reliance on dirty fuels will raise greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent above that of conventional oils...

The study calculated the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by extracting, moving and refining different types of crude oil based on specific characteristics including weight, viscosity, purity, age of the field, leaks and the flaring of waste gases...

Like researchers at the University of Toronto and Calgary, the authors of the ICCT report characterized the quality of data on carbon intensity from the tar sands as poor. 'There is a lack of detailed data/transparency on tar sands projects.'...

For nearly 100 years engineers, scientists and politicians have referred to thick asphalt-like deposits of bitumen as tar sands... Industry rebranded the ultra-heavy crude oil as oil sands in the 1990s to make the sulfur-rich resource sound more accessible and clean.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Canadians stand on guard for the Arctic

Hard as ice: eight-country poll suggests Canadians least willing to compromise on Arctic
The Canadian Press: The poll queried 9,000 people in the United States, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and both northern and southern Canada... It found that Canadians from coast to coast to coast were remarkably united on the Arctic. Just over half of both northerners and southerners said that the region should be the most important element of Canada's foreign policy... Similar percentages agreed the country's military presence in the region should be beefed up, even if it means doing less elsewhere in the world...

Canadians were also remarkably united in what kind of development the country should be pursuing in the North. The importance of high-quality public services, environmental protection and search-and-rescue capacity were supported by more than 80 per cent of respondents...

About three-quarters of them insisted the Northwest Passage is in Canadian waters, a position that has almost no international support. Norway, with 23 per cent of its respondents agreeing, came closest.

The Northwest Passage

More than 40 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement, "My country should pursue a firm line in defending its sections of the Arctic.' That was more than any other country. Fully half of northern and southern Canadians said Canada should pursue 'full sovereignty rights' in what it claims for the Beaufort Sea. Only 10 per cent of Americans felt that strongly...

The strong stand Canadians seem to have taken on the Arctic may simply be because they're better informed about it than citizens in other countries, particularly those in the US.
Image sources here and here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quote for the day

Jeff Warren:
The world is humming with organizing patterns that affect our minds in ways we've hardly begun to appreciate. Our psychology and neurobiology, of course, shape how we receive and interpret those patterns. But my feeling is that we do not create them any more than we create the songbird's call or the movement of wind in the trees. What seems like nature mysticism now could be the next generation's environmental science: both an intimation of the biosphere's complex information exchange and a glimpse into nature's vast interiority, intelligence -- maybe even agency.
From 'Tourists of Consciousness,' Maisonneuve (December 16, 2010)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Special forces war crimes: 'superiors walk away'

JTF2 command 'encouraged' war crimes, soldier alleges
CBC News: A member of Canada's elite special forces unit says he felt his peers were being 'encouraged' by the Canadian Forces chain of command to commit war crimes in Afghanistan... Documents from the military ombudsman's office show the member of the covert unit Joint Task Force 2, or JTF2, approached the watchdog in June 2008 to report the allegations of wrongdoing he had first made to his superior officers in 2008. The soldier told the ombudsman's office 'that... he does not believe they are investigating.'...

The documents make clear that the soldier didn't believe the military was taking his allegations seriously and that he had lost faith in the forces' leadership. He told the ombudsman's office in one of many telephone conversations he felt 'more and more of his peers are being encouraged to commit war crimes by the chain of command... which they may be held accountable for one day as superiors walk away.'

The soldier said he wasn't coming forward to have 'the guys who pull the trigger' investigated who he said were 'being incited to do these things' by their superiors. 'This is done by promoting those who do, and not promoting those who don't,' the ombudsman's office staffer handling the file wrote in the document.

The soldier also claimed the 'vision of the southern friends is being pushed' -- an apparent reference to the more aggressive reputation of the American soldiers. When the military spoke to CBC News last fall about the investigations, it stressed it was looking into the allegations against the soldier and their superior officers.
Image source here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quote for the day

Denis Smith, reviewing Becoming Canada: Our Story, Our Politics, Our Future, by Ken Dryden
When Stephen Harper reunited some of the Conservative fragments, Ken Dryden argues that Harper was acting on a profound grudge, bringing together voters who felt ignored, neglected and insulted by the Liberal Party's use of power. That was Harper's Big Idea... There was no grand scheme beyond it. Stephen Harper had no larger vision of the country, and still lacks one; he despises visions. He wanted to throw out the Liberal Party and reduce the national establishment of policy and institutions that it had created. Once in office, he understood that the key to retaining power was, simply, to hold on and gradually convince the public that Conservatives, by being there, deserve the office while Liberals do not. He too could govern by guile and inertia. His object was to destroy the Liberal Party and keep his non-Liberals in power.
In the Literary Review of Canada (January/February 2011)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

UN: 'Without women... no durable peace'

Why Peace Is the Business of Men (But Shouldn't Be)
A Modest Proposal for the Immodest Brotherhood of Big Men

Ann Jones, at TomDispatch: Looking for a way out of Afghanistan? Maybe it's time to try something entirely new and totally different. So how about putting into action, for the first time in recorded history, the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325?...

In a nutshell, SCR calls for women to participate equally and fully at decision-making levels in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconstruction. Without the active participation of women in peacemaking every step of the way, the Security Council concluded, no just and and durable peace could be achieved anywhere. 'Durable' was the key word...

Most hot wars of recent memory, little and big, have been resolved or nudged into remission through what is called a power-sharing agreement. The big men from most or all of the warring parties -- and war is basically a guy thing, in case you hadn't noticed -- shoulder in to the negotiating table and carve up a country's or region's military, political, and financial pie. Then they proclaim the resulting deal 'peace.'...

But... when the men in power stop shooting at each other, they often escalate the war against civilians -- especially women and girls. It seems to be hard for men to switch off violence, once they've gotten the hang of it... From the standpoint of civilians, war is often not over when it's 'over,' and the 'peace is no real peace at all...

The Security Council... recognized that men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth... while women included at any level of negotiations commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with civil society... all those thing that make life liveable for peaceable men, women, and children everywhere... In more than a decade since SCR was enacted, it has never been put to the test...

When men in war-torn countries negotiated peace, often with the guidance of the U.N., they forgot all about it. Their excuse was that they had to act fast, speed being more important than justice or durability or women. At critical times like that, don't you know, women just get in the way... What we're up against is not just the intractable misogyny of President Karzai and other powerful mullahs and mujahideen, but the misogyny of power brokers in Washington as well...

The sad news from Afghanistan is that a great many progressives have already figured out their own exit strategy... I'll bet many of those progressive Afghan men will bring their families to the United States, where women appear to be free and it's comforting to imagine that misogyny is dead.
Image source here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

US 'dishonour roll...longest of any nation'

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the night before he died.

Gerald Caplan, Globe & Mail: America faces a deeper, more intractable crisis that no one has a clue how to deal with, largely because it's denied: a huge epidemic of mentally disturbed people, many with power and influence... The World Health Organization has found that 26 per cent of Americans have mental disorders of some kind or another, the highest rate on the planet, most of which goes completely untreated. But this was a clinical study and didn't examine political or cultural manifestations of mental disturbance in the United States... For all we know, the real total of those with mental disorders could be as low as that 26 per cent and as high as the sky.

Of course we Canadians have no right to complacency in this area... But how does Canada, or any other country, possibly begin to compare to the dishonour roll of America's mass and serial murderers, far and away the longest of any nation on Earth?

Lee-Anne Goodman, The Canadian Press: Americans have long valued individualism as opposed to collectivism, believing people are personally responsible for their actions, their successes and their failures... And yet environmental and cultural factors most certainly impact the behaviour of all citizens, the deranged among them, said [Marvin] Swartz, who coauthored a 2006 study that found environmental factors can play a role in increasing violence in schizophrenics...

But those sorts of questions go against American individualism, he noted, contrasting the state of affairs in Canada as opposed to the U.S. 'I think what's curious is when you compare Canada and the U.S., and how close we are in many ways, and yet how different the national character is... So much in Canada has to do with thinking collectively. Canadians value equity and everybody getting a fair shake... and somehow we've moved in a different direction in the U.S.... There are a host of issues raised here that Americans simply don't want to talk about or deal with.'

Jeremy Rifkin, AlterNet: The American character was forged, in large part, on a skewed idea about who we are as a people... From the very moment John Winthrop and his flock of Puritans landed on American shores in 1630, we came to believe that we are God's chosen people and that the Lord has a unique covenant with us that makes us special among the peoples of the world. In our economic life, we have become the fiercest supporters of Adam Smith's belief that the naked pursuit of individual self-interest in the market is the defining feature of human nature. In our political life, we have come to believe in 'American Exceptionalism,' that our political ideology is somehow superior to all others. In our social life, we are the strongest supporters of Social Darwinism, that life is a combative struggle in which only the strongest survive. These highly regarded core beliefs are antithetical to a mature empathic sensibility.

What is there about the concept of empathy that conjures up so much derision? Why are some so frightened? Perhaps it's because being empathic requires giving up the pretense of being special and anointed. It means being mindful of other points of view. It means abandoning the idea that rank self-interest governs all behaviour. And, most important, it means being open to the plight of others.
Image source here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bacteria survive 34,000 years in salt crystals

34,000-year-old organisms found buried alive Scientists bring back ancient salt crystals, dug up from deep below Death Valley for climate research. The sparkling crystals are carefully packed away until, years later, a young, unknown researcher takes a second look at the 34,000-year-old crystals and discovers, trapped inside, something strange... 'It was actually a very big surprise to me, said Brian Schubert, who discovered ancient bacteria living within tiny, fluid-filled chambers inside the salt crystals...

Salt crystals grow very quickly, imprisoning whatever happens to be floating -- or living -- nearby inside tiny bubbles just a few microns across... Research indicates this process occurs in modern saline lakes... The new findings, along with details of Schubert's work, are published in the January 2011 edition of GSA Today, the publication of the Geological Society of America.

Schubert, now an assistant researcher at the University of Hawaii, said the bacteria -- a salt-loving sort still found on Earth today -- were shrunken and small, and suspended in a kind of hibernation state. 'They're alive, but they're not using any energy to swim around, they're not reproducing... 'They're not doing anything at all except maintaining themselves.'

The key to the microbes' millennia-long survival may be their fellow captives -- algae, of a group called Dunaliella. 'The most exciting part to me was when we were able to identify the Dunaliella cells in there,' Schubert said, 'because there were hints that could be a food source.'... These tiny chambers could house entire, microscopic ecosystems...

The next step for researchers is to figure out how the microbes, suspended in a starvation-survival mode for so many thousands of years, managed to stay viable. 'We're not sure what's going on,' Lowenstein said. 'They need to be able to repair DNA, because DNA degrades with time.' Schubert said the microbes took about two-and-a-half months to 'wake up' out of their survival state before they started to reproduce.
Image source here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Quote for the day

The Four Horsemen of my Apocalypse are called Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security, and in their names, crimes against poetry, sociability, and the very largeness of the world are daily, hourly, constantly carried out. These marauding horsemen are deployed by technophiles, advertisers, and profiteers to assault the nameless pleasures and meanings that knit together our lives and expand our horizons... I believe that slowness is an act of resistance, not because slowness is a good in itself but because of all that it makes room for, the things that don't get measured and can't be bought.
From 'Finding Time,' Orion magazine (September/October 2007)

Friday, January 14, 2011

'It has become shameful to be an Israeli'

Israel's Rightward Lurch Scares Some Conservatives
Time: If there were any doubt about the direction in which the government of Israel is headed, another clear marker emerged in the overheated air of a Knesset committee room. On the table was a bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), the right wing party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The measure called for stripping the citizenship of any Israeli convicted of espionage, but the only Israelis under discussion were the country's Arab minority. The move follows a loyalty oath that Lieberman would make a condition for acquiring citizenship; calls for bans on Jews from renting property to Arabs; and street demonstrations demanding prohibitions on dating between Arab boys and Jewish girls...

Shin Bet, the shadowy domestic intelligence body charged with keeping the public safe from terrorism, delicately informed the lawmakers that it had no use for their sledgehammer... When even the secret police suggest that a measure goes too far, elected panels might find occasion to pause. Not the Knesset's Internal Security Committee, which passed the bill before midday...

Taking a page from neighboring authoritarian states, [Prime Minister] Netanyahu encouraged support for the law, appointing a panel to investigate independent organizations that are critical of government actions... Minister without portfolio Benny Begin, the arch-conservative son of Menachim Begin, told Israeli Radio that the measure broke from the conservatism he knew: This decision sends a warning signal -- here is darkness.'

Amnon Dankner, Ma'ariv [from the Hebrew Press translation service of the Israel News (Daily Summary of the Hebrew Media for embassies and journalists]: I have felt lately that it has become shameful to be an Israeli... Because it is fairly clear already that if our life here continues as it has been developing, then decent, moderate, balanced and humane people will not be able to live here...

It is now permissible to be a racist, and permissible to take pride in it, and it is permissible to kick democracy and take pride in that, and it is permissible to cause injustice and exploitation and trample people's rights, if the people in question are Arabs, and it is permissible to take pride in this too...

All the fine things that we say about ourselves, all the correct things that we say about the conflict, shatter in the face of our actions, which join together greed and an appetite for land, arrogance and cruelty and stupidity and malice, and wickedness and discrimination and exploitation of the poor...

For a man of my age... seeing Israeli society quickly changing its face and taking on a form that you never thought you would see outside your nightmares -- that makes the heart shrink. Starting to become ashamed of being an Israeli, and knowing with some degree of certainty that the shame will continue to grow, that is heartrendingly discouraging.
Image: Moshid Grain, Jenin; source here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

US violence 'direct legacy of revolution'

Our permanent culture of political violence
And why the calls for civility in the wake of Saturday's shooting won't end up changing anything

Glenn W. LaFantasie, Salon: America has a long history of political violence -- a dark river of brutality, even savagery, that runs through our entire national experience... We don't like facing up to that fact as a people or as a nation. Americans prefer instead to see each outburst of violence... as aberrations, isolated incidents committed by deranged individuals who cause mayhem and slaughter like human whirlwinds. When the wind has subsided, and the casualties have been counted, we proceed as we have done before, dismissing the event as an exception...

It's my belief... that American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots' victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation... It is a troubling, but inescapable bequest...We find it very difficult to admit that we are, in the end, a very violent people and that aggression can be found at the very core of our culture... What is unique is the American tendency to legitimize violence -- to rationalize it as necessary...

So what can we do about this tradition of violence? The remedy, in my opinion, should begin with recognizing its existence. Acknowledging our full and rather tawdry history of violence would be the first step... If we face up to our history, confronting it head-on, we might be able to move past all our elaborate denials of our worst traits, our shared sins, our mistakes, our lies. To accomplish this as a people... requires us admitting that the violent deeds that flow so calamitously through our history were -- and are -- quintessentially American.
Image source here.

De la neige au microscope

Image source: La boite verte

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Canada warming, for centuries to come

Vancouver Sun: National temperatures exceeded average values by a whopping 3C... Of the 10 warmest years on record, four have occurred within the last decade, and 13 of the last 20 years are listed among the 20 warmest. Average national temperatures have been above normal since 1997.

Canadian study sees global warming for centuries
Reuters: Carbon dioxide already emitted into the atmosphere will keep contributing to global warming for centuries, eventually causing a huge Antarctic ice sheet to collapse and lift sea levels... Even the complete abandonment of fossil fuels and halt to emissions cannot prevent devastating ocean warming in Antarctica as well as increasing desertification in North Africa, the research finds...

Even so, many of the negative consequences in the Northern Hemisphere, such as loss of Arctic sea ice, are reversible... said Shawn Marshall, a University of Calgary geography professor and one of the study's authors...The study, led by Nathan Gillett of the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, is published in the journal Nature Geoscience...

Major differences of the impacts in various regions lie in the centuries it takes for heat to circulate from the North Atlantic through the world's ocean currents and into the deep sea... Wind currents in the southern hemisphere may also play a role.

Vancouver Sun: A fifth of the ice in the world's mountain glaciers and ice caps will disappear by 2100, with some regions losing as much as 75 per cent of their ice... In Western Canada and the United States, 50 per cent of glacier ice could disappear by 2100, which could have substantial impacts on regional power dams and water supplies...

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, excluded the enormous ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica in a bid to focus on the impact of atmospheric warming on the smaller glaciers and ice caps dotting the planet.
Image source here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Swiss doctors commend Canada's gun laws

Doctors back anti-gun move to save lives Swiss doctors consider it their professional duty to back an initiative aimed at restricting access to firearms... The Swiss Medical Association, which represents the overwhelming majority of practising doctors, considers the initiative an important part of suicide prevention. 'It is about public health and suicide prevention. This is our core business, to save lives,' said the association's president, Jacques de Haller...

'In general terms it is our duty to treat people suffering from depression, to assist them and of course to avoid death,' he said... More than 90 per cent of the people who died of gunshot wounds are suicide cases... 'As we learn from observations in England, Scotland, Australia and Canada we can conclude that there is a correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer suicide cases with firearms. There is a lower suicide rate altogether,' says de Haller... 'It might not have an impact on crime -- is not the target of the initiative -- but safety in terms of fewer suicides and less domestic violence.'
Image: Karl Fredrik Reutersward, Non-violence, 1985, UN Plaza, NY; source here.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

'The most frightening people on this planet'

America the Violent

We are today the most frightening people on this planet. The ghastly things we do to our own people, the ghastly things we do to other people, these must at least compel us to look searchingly at ourselves and our society before hatred and violence rushes on to more evil, and finally tear our nation apart...

We cannot blame the epidemic or murder at home on deranged and solitary individuals, separate from the rest of us. For these individuals are plainly weak and suggestible men stamped by our society with a birth rite of hatred and a compulsion toward violence.

We must recognize, I believe, that the evil is in us, that it springs from some dark intolerable tension in our history and our institutions. It is almost as though some primal curse had been fixed on our nation. We are a violent people with a violent history, and the instinct for violence has seeped into the bloodstream of our national life.
In the Second Sunday series produced for NBC Radio, March 3, 1969

Sun explosions a 'concert of mayhem'

Global Eruption Rocks the Sun
VIDEO here.

NASA Science News: On August 1, 2010, an entire hemisphere of the sun erupted. Filaments of magnetism snapped and exploded, shock waves raced across the stellar surface, billion-ton clouds of hot gas billowed into space. Astronomers knew they had witnessed something big. It was so big it may have shattered old ideas about solar activity...

[After three months of study, they announced that] explosions on the sun are not localized or isolated events... Instead, solar activity is interconnected by magnetism over breathtaking distances. Solar flares, tsunamis, coronal mass ejections -- they can go off all at once, hundreds of thousands of miles apart, in a dizzyingly-compex concert of mayhem...

'Not all eruptions are going to be global,' notes [Lika] Guhathakurta, [NASA's Living With a Star Program Scientist]. 'But the global character of solar activity can no longer be ignored.'
Image source here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Israel: Keep Gaza 'at lowest level possible'

Juan Cole, Informed Comment: The Norwegian newspaper Aftenpost has released a March, 2008 US embassy cable describing the Israeli blockade and siege of Occupied Gaza as an attempt to reduce the society to the lowest possible level of functioning without provoking a 'humanitarian crisis' (presumably mass starvation).
'Israeli officials have confirmed to Embassy officials on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.'
And, with regard to taking money out of circulation in Gaza, a deflationary policy used as a tool of oppression:
'As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to econoffs on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.'
It seems to me the Israeli right-wingers missed their mark, since 55% of Palestinians in Gaza are food-insecure and 10% of children show signs of stunting from malnutrition. I'd call that a humanitarian crisis. What the despicable Israeli officials meant by their phrase, of course, is that a mass die-off should be avoided that would bring to bear world pressure to abandon this criminal policy.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza is illegal in international law... The [Fourth Geneva] Convention did not envisage a situation where the population of the occupied territory is deliberately left 'inadequately supplied' by the occupying power, apparently not able to imagine the full sadism of the Likud Party... The Israeli officials who told the US embassy what they were doing are war criminals...

Another document shows that even before the blockade, in 2006, corrupt Israeli officials were making money off the misery of the Palestinians in Gaza by insisting on large bribes to let in American goods past the checkpoint. There must be a special place in hell...
Image: Missile shells from Israel's three-week offensive against Gaza in 2008-9; source here.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Neanderthals gathered, cooked plant foods

Neanderthals ate their veggies
CBC News: Neanderthals weren't just meat eaters, with new research finding that the ancient near-human creatures regularly cooked and consumed a variety of plants. The discovery challenges the position of some who argue that Neanderthals were largely carnivores who ultimately became extinct in part because they were bested by early human ancestors who managed to wring more nutrition from their environment by incorporating more plants into their diet.

Researchers examined the dental calculus -- the layer of hardened plaque -- in seven fossilized teeth of Neanderthal individuals whose remains were unearthed at archaeological sites in Iraq and Belgium. What they found was a wealth of well-preserved plant microfossils. They identified dozens of starch grains from many plants, including wild grass, legumes, palm dates, roots and tubers.

They also found evidence that some of the plants had been cooked. 'There is clear evidence of cooking in the recovered starch grains, and furthermore, several of the identified plant foods would have required moderate to high levels of preparation.' the researchers wrote in a paper published... in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 'These lines of evidence indicate Neanderthals were investing their time and labour in preparing plant foods in ways that increased their edibility and nutritional quality.'

The Guardian: The last of the Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 28,000 years ago, but it is unclear what role -- if any -- modern humans played in their demise... [Dolores] Piperno's team was given permission to study the remains of three Neanderthal skeletons. One was unearthed at the Shanidar cave in Iraq and lived 46,000 years ago. The other two were recovered from the Cave of Spy in Belgium, and date to around 36,000 years ago...

They collected 73 starch grains from the Iraqi Neanderthal's teeth. Some of these belonged to barley or a close relative and appeared to have been boiled in water... Similar tests on the Belgian Neanderthals' teeth revealed traces of cooked starch that probably came from parts of water lilies that store carbohydrates. Other cooked starch grains were traced back to sorghum, a kind of grass...

The work also raises questions about whether Neanderthals organised themselves in a similar way to early hunter-gatherer groups, [Piperno] said. 'When you start routinely to exploit plants in your diet, you can arrange your settlements according to the season. In two months' time you want to be where the cereals are maturing, and later where the date palms are ready to pick... This is important in terms of your overall cognitive abilities.'

'In early human groups, women typically collected plants and turned them into food while men hunted. To us, and it is just a suggestion, this brings up the possibility that there was some sexual division of labour in the Neanderthals and that is something most people did not think existed.' Agence France-Presse: Neanderthals controlled fire much like early modern humans, PNAS said in a statement.
Image source here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hillier: NATO 'a corpse decomposing'

How Afghanistan Became a War for NATO
Gareth Porter, IPS: The official line of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO command in Afghanistan, is that the war against Afghan insurgents is vital to the security of the countries providing troops there. In fact, however, NATO was given a central role in Afghanistan because of the influence of U.S. officials concerned with the alliance, according to a U.S. military officer...

'NATO's role in Afghanistan is more about NATO than it is about Afghanistan,' [said] the officer... The alliance would never have been given such a prominent role in Afghanistan but for the fact that the George W. Bush administration wanted no significant U.S. military role there that could interfere with their plans to take control of Iraq...

[Gen. James] Jones admitted in an October 2005 interview with American Forces Press Service that NATO had struggled to avoid becoming irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. "NATO was in limbo for a bit,' he said. But the 9/11 attacks had offered a new opportunity for NATO to demonstrate its relevance...

But there was one major problem: public opinion in NATO member countries was running heavily against military involvement in Afghanistan... Britain, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands had all sold the NATO mission to their publics as 'peacekeeping' or 'reconstruction' as distinct from counterinsurgency war...

[Gen. Karl] Eikenberry acknowledged in testimony before Congress in February 2007 that the policy of turning Afghanistan over to NATO was really about the future of NATO... He noted the argument that failure in Afghanistan could 'break' NATO, while hailing the new NATO role... as one that could 'make' the alliance. 'The long view of the Afghanistan campaign,' said Eikenberry, 'is that it is a means to continue the transformation of the alliance.'...

But Canadian General Rick Hillier... wrote in his memoir A Soldier First, published in 2009, that NATO was an unmitigated disaster in Afghanistan. He recalled that... NATO had 'no strategy, no clear articulation of what it wanted to achieve' and that its performance was 'abysmal.' Hillier said the situation 'remains unchanged.'... NATO had 'started down a road that destroyed much of its credibility and in the end eroded support for the mission in every nation in the alliance.'... 'Afghanistan has revealed,' wrote Hillier, 'that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse decomposing.'
Image source here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Conservative brains: more fear, less courage

Study: Conservatives have larger 'fear centre' in brain
Raw Story: A study at University College London in the UK has found that conservatives' brains have larger amygdalas than the brains of liberals. Amygdalas are responsible for fear and other 'primitive' emotions. At the same time, conservatives' brains were also found to have a smaller anterior cingulate -- the part of the brain responsible for courage and optimism...

'It is very significant because it does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes, 'Geraint Rees, the neurologist who carried out the study, told the media... He cautions that, because the study was carried out only on adults, there is no way to tell what came first -- the brain differences or the political opinions...

Evidence is beginning to accumulate that figuring out a person's political proclivities may soon be as simple as a brain scan -- or a DNA test. In a study published in October, researchers at Harvard and UC-San Diego found that a variant of the DRD4 gene predisposes people to being liberal, but only if they had active social lives as adolescents. The 'liberal gene' has also been linked to a desire to try new things, and other 'personality traits related to political liberalism.'

Image source here.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Quote for the day

You Won't Be the Same Person
When You Wake Up Next Year
Sunny Biswas, at The Awl: It turns out that in a couple of parts of the brain, neural stem cells are constantly giving birth to new neurons that travel around and plug into already existing networks. Sometimes they're replacing dying neurons and sometimes they're just helping a part of the brain grow... There's a body of recent literature that suggests that this is how adults form new memories...

I read about neural stem cells and think about how different I am from even a few years ago, and I get the weird feeling that I was right when I was little, that I'm the most recent in a long line of not very good impersonators of myself. Science (science!) confirms that parts of me are here now that weren't there even a little while ago (and that parts of me that were there before are gone forever). In other words: one night someone else went to sleep and woke up as me.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mysterious cases: jack pine, Tom Thomson

Canada's jack pine tree holds secrets in its branches

Vancouver Sun: It's arguably Canada's most recognizable artwork, a classic Tom Thomson landscape showing a lonely tree with drooping branches, toughing out its fragile existence on a rocky northern lakeshore. But The Jack Pine, a priceless public treasure that's been on permanent display in the National Gallery of Canada for almost a century, depicts a species with long-held secrets that a team of Canadian scientists has just now unravelled.

After a comprehensive study of the boreal forest's most iconic tree, three Quebec botanists... have determined that the trees found in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan each represent genetically distinct families with separate histories shaped by glaciers from the last Ice Age... [They] evolved independently over the past 10 millenniums or so from the Ontario specimen that Thomson immortalized in his 1917 masterpiece from the shore of Algonquin Park's Grand Lake.

The vast ice sheets that covered North America during the last continental freeze-up forced a general southward retreat of jack pine forests, fragmented their populations and 'profoundly influenced their present-day distribution and genetic diversity,' the researchers, led by Universite de Laval scientist Julie Godbout, conclude in a summary of the study, published in the American Journal of Botany...

'Even if it looks like an old bonsai, jack pine is real tough,' she said. 'It regenerates through fire -- so each baby tree is an orphan. It's a real fast grower, and it can grow on rock and sand in difficult conditions.'... At first glance, she observed, 'it feels lonely and sad, 'but the tree is really more like 'an old sage that knows a lot about life and death.'

Globe and Mail: Tom Thomson's untimely death has haunted author Roy McGregor for decades. Now, 21st-century forensics may have helped solve one of our defining riddles.
Image source here.