A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

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  • Centauri Dreams considers the likely cometary explanation for KIC 8462852.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes an enigmatic dark spot on a white dwarf.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on China’s construction of a military base in Djibouti.
  • Joe. My. God. notes that the man who promised to reduce the price of an HIV/AIDS medication that his company hiked has reneged.
  • Lawyers, Gins and Money notes that Trump was lying about protesting Muslims in New Jersey after 9/11.
  • pollotenchegg maps the distribution of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, now and in 1926.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer looks at how the right won in Argentina.
  • Torontoist notes local initiatives to welcome Syrian refugees to Toronto.
  • Towleroad notes a Vietnamese trans right bill.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy observes that American states cannot ban Syrian refugees.
  • Window on Eurasia looks on a new Chinese railway passing from Xinjiang through Central Asia to Iran, and looks at the odd Communist-Christian-Muslim mélange being favoured in Russia.

[WRITING] “The Ruination of Written Words”

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Gastón Gordillo’s Savage Minds essay about the historic transience of the written word makes for compelling, if sad, reading.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.

Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In these monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things.

What got me thinking about the ruination of written words is Stephen Greenblatt’s fascinating (if uneven) book The Swerve, which narrates how in 1417 a book-hunter discovered Lucretius’ The Nature of Things in a remote monastery. In my book Rubble, I examined how different forms of ruination, from the Spanish conquest to the soy boom, have created constellations of nodes of rubble in northern Argentina, many of which are perceived by locals to be haunted (Gordillo 2014). I therefore read The Swerve with an eye sensitive to the destruction of places and matter and the affective materiality of their debris. The richness conveyed by Greenblatt’s story of the vanishing of Roman books reveals that the physical disintegration and afterlives of rubble also involve the written word, which in the modern world is often presented as an emblem of human endurance.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:16 pm

[LINK] “Refugees: That Time Everyone Said ‘No’ And Bolivia Said ‘Yes'”

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At NPR, Jasmine Garsd notes how, in an increasingly closed South America in the 1930s, Bolivia stood out for its continued welcome of refugees.

Consulates were under orders to stop giving visas. Ships carrying refugees were turned away. The most famous case is the St. Louis in May 1939. It was carrying 937 refugees. In Cuba, where the ship first attempted to dock, political infighting, economic crisis and right-wing xenophobia kept the passengers on board. The U.S denied the ship too, as did Canada. The St. Louis turned back to Europe.

All in all, Latin American governments officially permitted only about 84,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945. That’s less than half the number admitted during the previous 15 years.

There were exceptions — again, often in countries that were far from well-off. The Dominican Republic issued several thousand visas. In the ’40s El Salvador gave 20,000 passports to Jews under Nazi occupation. Former Mexican Consul to France Gilberto Bosques Saldivar is known as the “Mexican Schindler.” Working in France from 1939 to 1943, he issued visas to around 40,000 people, mostly Jews and Spaniards.

In South America, Bolivia was the anomaly. The government admitted more than 20,000 Jewish refugees between 1938 and 1941. The brains behind the operation was Mauricio Hochschild, a German Jew. He was a mining baron who had Bolivian President Germán Busch’s ear (and who wanted to help his fellow Jews for humanitarian reasons).

This was a time of economic crisis and uncertainty for the whole world, but Bolivia was in particularly bad shape. The Chaco War, fought against Paraguay until 1935, had just ended. Ironically, Bolivia’s weakness was why the government agreed to open those doors wide open. Even though Busch flirted with Nazi ideology, he hoped that that immigrants would help revitalize the economy.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:13 pm

[LINK] “Gay Syrian man in Vancouver speaks out about Canada’s refugee plan”

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Vancouver Metro‘s Thandi Fletcher points out with the only flaw in the plan of the Canadian government to allow, of single male Syrian refugees, only the non-straight ones in.

A gay Syrian refugee living in Vancouver says is he concerned Canada’s plan to prioritize refugee status for single men only if they identify as gay, bisexual or transgender could cause more problems for an already vulnerable group.

“If I was a refugee in a camp at the moment and I went out and went to the Canadian embassy and applied for refugee status, that’s basically outing myself to the whole refugee camp,” Danny Ramadan told Metro. “[That would] be putting myself in extreme danger.”

The Liberal government revealed Tuesday its promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, giving priority to complete families, women at risk, members of sexual minorities and single men only if they are identified as gay, bisexual or transgender or are travelling as part of a family.

While he is glad to see the Canada welcome gay Syrians as refugees, Danny Ramadan said he worries that the requirement could put many in the LGBTQ community at risk of discrimination or even violence.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:11 pm

[LINK] “Mussels’ Sticky Secretions Make for Super-Strong Adhesives”

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Wired‘s Chelsea Leu reports on something that, frankly, should not surprise people who know the only way you can open a mussel is to boil it.

Some sea creatures float lazily in the ocean, letting the currents waft them where they may. Mussels are not those creatures. They live in tidal areas, and their lives are a churning series of unpredictable events: submerged in the wash one tidal cycle, baking in the sun the next. Not to mention all those waves, constantly threatening to dash them to bits. So they’ve evolved to cling very, very tightly to rocks, ships, piers—anything, really—like their lives depend on it, because they sort of do.

The secret’s in their secretions. “Mussels take a bunch of protein, lay it down on a surface, and crosslink it all together,” says Jonathan Wilker, a chemist at Purdue University. Specifically, mussels use a rare amino acid called dihydroxyphenylalanine, or the more-pronounceable DOPA. (It’s related to dopamine, the neurotransmitter.) DOPA is unusual, because it enables materials to be both cohesive and adhesive—that is, the materials can stick to themselves and other surfaces. The balance of the two forces determines whether something makes good glue, and DOPA manages both. “It’s very efficient,” Wilker says.

And DOPA is extremely easy to tinker with, which is great for scientists looking to design a new adhesive, says Bruce P. Lee, a biomedical engineer at Michigan Tech. Its structure allows it to play nice with a whole range of different chemistries, which means it can stick to practically anything—metal, body tissue, even Teflon. So scientists make chemicals that mimic DOPA’s structure (harming no mussels in the process), and tweak it to suit their own ends, whether that’s a biodegradeable glue, or something that can set while underwater, or something stronger than superglue.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:10 pm

Posted in Science

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[LINK] “Tracking down the ‘missing’ carbon from the Martian atmosphere “

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The Dragon’s Tales linked to a press release about a new study that, among other things, implies that Mars had a thinner early atmosphere than was often thought.

Mars is blanketed by a thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere–one that is far too thin to prevent large amounts of water on the surface of the planet from subliming or evaporating. But many researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in an atmosphere many times thicker than Earth’s. For decades that left the question, “Where did all the carbon go?”

Now a team of scientists from Caltech and JPL thinks they have a possible answer. The researchers suggest that 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had only a moderately dense atmosphere. They have identified a photochemical process that could have helped such an early atmosphere evolve into the current thin one without creating the problem of “missing” carbon and in a way that is consistent with existing carbon isotopic measurements.

The scientists describe their findings in a paper that appears in the November 24 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

“With this new mechanism, everything that we know about the martian atmosphere can now be pieced together into a consistent picture of its evolution,” says Renyu Hu, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, a visitor in planetary science at Caltech, and lead author on the paper.

When considering how the early martian atmosphere might have transitioned to its current state, there are two possible mechanisms for the removal of excess carbon dioxide (CO2). Either the CO2 was incorporated into minerals in rocks called carbonates or it was lost to space.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Science

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[LINK] “Former Yugoslav States, Albania Vow to Step Up Drive to Join EU”

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Bloomberg’s Jasmina Kuzmanovic and Gordana Filipovic report on the renewed push in the western Balkans for European Union membership. Certainly it’s not as if the western Balkans have any other future.

Former Yugoslav republics and neighboring Albania vowed to resuscitate their drive for European Union integration after the migrant crisis rocked the region and created the worst political rifts between Balkan states since the civil wars of the 1990s.

The heads of state for EU members Croatia and Slovenia and EU outsiders Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania signed a joint commitment to strengthening the stability and prosperity of the region. They also aim to strengthen ties to the U.S. and seek an expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization deeper into the Balkans.

[. . .]

The western Balkans has been stretched by the flood of hundreds of thousands of migrants escaping the violence in Syria as well as refugees from as far away as Afghanistan and Northern Africa. Slovenia and Croatia strained their EU ties after Slovenia declared its intention to build fencing along the two countries’ shared border. The dispute is being echoed across the EU as governments grapple with a crisis on a scale not seen since the 1940s.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:02 pm


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