A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “Donald Trump’s Russian cousins”

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Over at Open Democracy, one Alexander Groce has a compelling argument for placing Donald Trump in the context of Russian peers, not only Vladimir Putin but Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a perennial presidential candidate, a member and former vice-speaker of the Russian Duma (Russia’s primary legislative body), and the unrivalled king of trash-talk politics, Russian style. Zhirinovsky’s outbursts have lit up Russian television screens since his first outing in electoral politics over 25 years ago. His first experience in democratic politics found him allied with the Democratic Union, a short-lived movement of dissidents and human rights activists that heralded the experimental politics of the coming decade, when Russia was awash with both the novelty of democracy and the roiling corruption of gangster capitalism.

[. . .]

Zhirinovsky’s party, and its notorious campaign tactics directly reflects his own insatiable appetite for notoriety and attention. When Zhirinovsky declined to run against Vladimir Putin in 2004, he ran his personal bodyguard in his place. Zhirinovsky’s real staying power, it turns out, is derived from his penchant for outlandish statements as well as vitriolic, even pugilistic, encounters with any form of journalist or politician. His most famous encounters are Russian Youtube viral sensations, featuring bombastic rhetorical performances and sometimes profanity-laced outbursts.

In a recent speech to the assembled elite of the Russian capital, speaking before Vladimir Putin, Zhirinovsky revelled in his status as the idiot savant, ticking off a list of playful, but mostly incomprehensible, pronouncements about the dilapidated state of Russian culture. He suggested that literary creativity is born of the combination of long years of hard labour in prison camps (a trope in the biographies of famous Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn) and of belonging to a persecuted sexual minority, handily combining the two ‘muses’ in a prescriptive programme for the reinvigoration of Russia’s literary industry. This was not the harmless babbling it might otherwise have seemed, given the recent spate of persecutory anti-homosexual legislation passed in Russia.

Zhirinovsky, whose father was Jewish, has also openly made anti-Semitic remarks, and is well-known for his misogynistic views regarding polygamy and the role of women in modern Russia. He recently said that women who drive cars are more likely to commit adultery, and, on another occasion, urged his bodyguards to sexually assault a pregnant female reporter who had the audacity to ask him a tough question.

Such statements seem to be beyond even Donald Trump. What they both share, however, is the showman’s appetite, which seems to drive the media frenzy that has inevitably formed around the two unorthodox figures. Trump’s fluid segue into politics seems to confirm the new dominant axis of American political life: the politico-entertainment complex, where the trend towards endless information overdrive converges with an increasingly fluid understanding of the boundary between entertainment and politics.

The format that best suits Trump’s didactic bombast, the scripted ‘reality’ setting of blockbuster shows like Celebrity Apprentice, creates an image of the businessman as a fresh paragon of management and leadership in the entertainment age. Everything about the setting is designed to enhance Trump’s credibility as a leader without dulling his edge with the tired diplomatic attributes of moderation and circumspection.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 11:59 pm

[META] What social media do you recommend?

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What the subject line says. Blogs, Twitter, photo accounts–name it.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 11:00 pm

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[URBAN NOTE] “Cars are part of the mix in Kensington Market”

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Spacing Toronto’s Jake Tobin Garrett makes the case for the presence of the car in Kensington Market.

One of the first areas I take people when they visit Toronto is usually Kensington Market – that dense grid of narrow streets stuffed with fruit and veggie stores, cafes, colourful vintage shops, and taco joints.

It’s fun to navigate the market, threading between parked or slowly moving cars, crossing from one side to the other with just a casual glance over the shoulder. Kensington has a lively energy to which many other neighbourhoods aspire. It’s a neighbourhood that has found its pedestrian-friendly groove.

You won’t find special paving here, or curbless streets, or bollards, or any of the other tactics designers and planners now mobilize to make other areas pedestrian-friendly and people-centric. It Kensington it just kinda…happens.

Still, in an article published in the Toronto Star, urban affairs critic Christopher Hume argues that banning cars from Kensington is the “obvious move” and the area is a “battleground” between cars and people on foot? A battleground? If any neighbourhood in Toronto can least be described as a battleground between cars and people, it’s Kensington Market. More of a slow dance, really.

Pedestrian-only Sundays are great, but I would hazard a guess that they’re great because they’re pedestrian-only Sundays and not pedestrian-only all-the-times.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 8:53 pm

[LINK] “Earth from afar would look only 82% right for life”

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Universe Today’s Evan Gough writes about an amusing analysis of Earth’s suitability for life.

You might think, because, well, here we are, that the Earth would look 100% habitable from a distant location. But that’s not the case. According to a paper from Rory Barnes and his colleagues at the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, from a distant point in the galaxy, the probability of Earth being habitable might be only 82%.

Barnes and his team came up with the 82% number when they worked to create a “habitability index for transiting planets,” that seeks to rank the habitability of planets based on factors like the distance from its star, the size of the planet, the nature of the star, and the behaviour of other planets in the system.

The search for habitable exo-planets is dominated by the idea of the circumstellar habitable zone—or Goldilocks Zone—a region of space where an orbiting planet is not too close to its star to boil away all the water, and not so far away that the water is all frozen. This isn’t a fixed distance; it depends on the type and size of the star. With an enormous, hot star, the Goldilocks Zone would be much further away than Earth is from the Sun, and vice-versa for a smaller, cooler star. “That was a great first step, but it doesn’t make any distinctions within the habitable zone,” says Barnes.

To rank candidates for further study, Barnes focused on not just the distance between the planet and the host star, but on the overall energy equilibrium. That takes into account not just the energy received by the planet, but the planet’s albedo—how much energy it reflects back into space. In terms of being warm enough for life, a high-albedo planet can tolerate being closer to its star, whereas a low-albedo planet can tolerate a greater distance. This equilibrium is affected in turn by the eccentricity of the planet’s orbit.

The habitability index created by Barnes—and his colleagues Victoria Meadows and Nicole Evans—is a way to enter data, including a planet’s albedo and its distance from its host star, and get a number representing the planet’s probability of being habitable. “Basically, we’ve devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme,” said Barnes, “so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, ‘OK, that’s the one we want to start with.’”

So where does the Earth fit into all this? If alien astronomers are creating their own probability index, at 82%, Earth is a good candidate. Maybe they’re already studying us more closely.

The University of Washington press release is here, and the paper is at arXiv, “Comparative Habitability of Transiting Exoplanets”.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 8:37 pm

[LINK] “Tracing Slaves to Their African Homelands”

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National Geographic‘s Andrew Lawler reports on technological advances, including DNA, which are allowing researchers to discover the origins of slave populations throughout the Atlantic world.

“This will change our understanding of population and migration histories,” says Hannes Schroeder, a biological anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen. “What was just potential is now being fulfilled.”

One example comes from a 17th century cemetery on the Dutch side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin. When archaeologists excavated the site in 2010, they noticed filed teeth in the skulls of two men and a woman. The three individuals were between 25 and 40 years old when they died in the late 1600s.

Since teeth filing was a common practice in sub-Saharan Africa, it was a good bet that the individuals were enslaved Africans brought to the colony in the days of sugar plantations.

Just five years ago, that would have been the end of the story. An attempt to extract DNA from the skeletons to learn more about their identity would have been quixotic, since hot and humid weather degrades genetic material.

“These were badly preserved,” said Schroeder. “They had been laying under a Caribbean beach for four hundred years.” By contrast, biologists in 2012 readily sequenced the entire genome from Otzi, the frozen “ice man” who died in the Alps five thousand years ago.

After months of careful work, however, Schroeder’s team was able to extract DNA from the St. Martin individuals using a new procedure called whole-genome capture. Devised at Stanford University in California, this technique concentrates the degraded genes, providing enough material to sequence.

By comparing the results with a database from modern-day Africans, the researchers determined that all three people came from different parts of that continent. One of the men likely came from what is today northern Cameroon, while the other man and the woman may have originated in Ghana or Nigeria to the south.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 8:30 pm

[LINK] “Ireland and Iceland: when cosiness kills”

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At A Fistful of Euros, Sigrún Davíðsdóttir describes the similarities of the Icelander and Irish banking crises, product of recklessness by a minority of well-connected people.

The fate of the Irish and the Icelandic banks are intertwined in time: as the Irish government decided on a blanket guarantee for the Irish banks, the Icelandic government was trying, in vain, to save the Icelandic banks. In spite of the guarantee six Irish banks failed in the coming months; the government bailed them out. The Icelandic banks failed over a few days. Within two months the Icelandic parliament had decided to set up an independent investigative committee – it took the Irish government almost seven years to set up a political committee, severely restricted in terms of what it could investigate and given a very limited time. The Irish report now published is better than nothing but far from the extensive overview given in Iceland: it lacks the overview of favoured clients and the favours they enjoyed.

A small country with a fast-growing banking sector run by managers dreaming of moving into the international league of big banks. To accelerate balance sheet growth the banks found businessmen with a risk appetite to match the bankers’ and bestowed them with favourable loans. Lethargic regulators watched, politicians cheered, nourishing the ego of a small nation wanting to make its mark on the world. – This was Iceland of the Viking raiders and Ireland at the time of the Celtic tiger, from the late 1990s, until the Vikings lost their helmets and the tiger its claws in autumn 2008.

In December 2008, eleven weeks after the Icelandic banking collapse, the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, set up an independent investigative committee, The Special Investigative Commission, SIC, to investigate and clarify the banking collapse. Its three members were its chairman Supreme Court justice Páll Hreinsson, Alþingi’s Ombudsman Tryggvi Gunnarsson and lecturer in economics at Yale Sigríður Benediktsdóttir. Overseeing the work of around thirty experts, the SIC published its report on 12 April 2010: on 2400 pages (with more material online; only a small part of the report is in English) the SIC outlined why and how the banks had failed.

In November 2014, over six years after the Irish bank guarantee, the Irish Parliament, Oireachtas, set up The Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis, or the Banking Inquiry, with eleven members from both houses of the Oireachtas; its chairman was Labour Party member Ciarán Lynch. The purpose of the Committee was to inquire into the reasons for the banking crisis. Its report was published 27 January 2016.

[. . .]

In one aspect, the Irish Banking Inquiry differed fundamentally from the Icelandic one: the Irish was legally restrained from naming names. Consequently, the Irish report contains only general information on lending, exposure etc., not information on the individuals behind the abnormally high exposures.

This is unfortunate because in both countries, the high-risk banking was centred on a small group of individuals. In Ireland these were mostly property developers and some well-known businessmen; in Iceland the favoured clients were the banks’ largest shareholders, a somewhat unique and unflattering aspect that puts Iceland in league with countries like Mexico, Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova.

The SIC had no such restraints but could access the banks’ information on the largest clients, i.e. the favoured clients. The report maps the loans and businesses of the banks’ largest shareholders and their close business partners, also some foreign clients. Consequently, the SIC report made it a public information that the largest borrower was Robert Tchenguiz, owed €2.2bn, second was Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, famous for his extensive UK retail investments, with €1.6bn. Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson, Landsbanki’s largest shareholder (with his now bankrupt-father) owed €865m. These were loans issued by the banks in Iceland; with loans from the banks’ foreign operations these numbers would be substantially higher.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 8:26 pm

[LINK] On the possible detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes by LIGO

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Adrian Cho’s ScienceMag article notes in detail about something potentially astounding, something scheduled for official release on Friday the 11th but literally causing waves right now.

It’s just a rumor, but if specificity is any measure of credibility, it might just be right. For weeks, gossip has spread around the Internet that researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have spotted gravitational waves—ripples in space itself set off by violent astrophysical events. In particular, rumor has it that LIGO physicists have seen two black holes spiraling into each other and merging. But now, an email message that ended up on Twitter adds some specific numbers to those rumors. The author says he got the details from people who have seen the manuscript of the LIGO paper that will describe the discovery.

“This is just from talking to people who said they’ve seen the paper, but I’ve not seen the paper itself,” says Clifford Burgess, a theoretical physicist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in nearby Waterloo. “I’ve been around a long time, so I’ve seen rumors come and go. This one seems more credible.”

According to Burgess’s email, which found its way onto Twitter as an image attached to a tweet from one of his colleagues, LIGO researchers have seen two black holes, of 29 and 36 solar masses, swirling together and merging. The statistical significance of the signal is supposedly very high, exceeding the “five-sigma” standard that physicists use to distinguish evidence strong enough to claim discovery. LIGO consists of two gargantuan optical instruments called interferometers, with which physicists look for the nearly infinitesimal stretching of space caused by a passing gravitational wave. According to Burgess’s email, both detectors spotted the black hole merger with the right time delay between them.

LIGO’s prime target has been the death spiral and merger not of two black holes, but of two neutron stars. However, Marc Kamionkowski, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says the signal from the merger of more-massive black holes should be stronger and detectable from a greater distance. Other, less specific rumors suggest that LIGO has seen more than one source.

A commenter at another blog notes that the detection of gravitational waves is hugely important, perhaps the biggest development since the development of eyes hundreds of millions of years ago. I agree. If this is true, I think I know who’ll be getting a Nobel Prize in Physics, if not this year than next.

More to the point, it is decidedly cool that we now can apparently detect gravitational waves. Most speculatively, I wonder what such a collision of black holes would look like. Apparently three solar masses were dispersed into gravity waves. Would there have been electromagnetic radiation expelled, too?

Written by Randy McDonald

February 8, 2016 at 8:15 pm

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