A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for December 2012

[BLOG] Some Monday links

  • As mentioned previously, Charlie Stross asks what the big issues of 2013 will be.
  • Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait writes about a magnetar’s blast fifty thousand years away that, eight years ago, swamped our solar system with radiation.
  • Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster links to and comments upon a Martin Beech paper examining the history of studies and speculation about Alpha Centauri.
  • Daniel Drezner is unimpresed by the Republican Party’s lack of learning about foreign policy.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money’s bloggers are unimpressed by Naomi Wolf’s claims about FBI coordination of anti-Occupy campaigns and started a discussion about which countries give indigenous peoples the right to cross international frontiers at will.
  • New APPS Blog gets the importance of the Idle No More movement.
  • Eugene Volokh asks his commenters, drawing from a recent custody case involving a Singaporean family, whether Islamic family law should automatically invalid international custody claims.
  • Whatever’s John Scalzi celebrates the ten-year anniversary of the publication of his novel Old Man’s War.
  • Window on Eurasia comments upon a recent Russian study demonstrating that the numbers of guest workers in Russia are much smaller than often mooted in the public press.

[PHOTO] Maple Leaf Gardens in Cake, Loblaws 60 Carlton, December 2012

During my December 2012 visit with my father to Loblaws 60 Carlton–the grocery store built in the former Maple Leaf Gardens–I saw this scale model of the building its current state advertising the store’s cooking school.

Maple Leaf Gardens in Cake, Loblaws 60 Carlton, December 2012

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2012 at 5:59 am

[FORUM] What are the big overlooked issues of 2013?

Over at his blog, Charlie Stross linked to the latest iteration of Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s conversation at The Well on the state of the world. Stross then posed two questions: “What do you think they’re going to be? And what, in particular, do you think our major media outlets are overlooking?”

Speaking about Canada, I think that a potentially very interesting thing occurring in Canada is the Idle No More movement. Drawing on First Nations’ discontent with federal government policies, and inspired by the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence protesting government neglect of funding infrastructure in her community, the flash mobs have gone viral nationally. Here in Toronto alone, today was marked by a flash mob at the Eaton Centre and a blockade of the main rail line between Toronto and Montréal. Idle No More might even be spreading beyond Canada’s borders, with a brief march in Michigan by some Canadian protesters being bested by a sympathy protest in Washington State. Idle No More has been compared, with only some hyperbole, to the Arab Spring.

A McMaster sociology professor is comparing Idle No More — the First Nations’ rights campaign that’s sprung up across Canada — to the Arab Spring, the youth-driven pro-democracy push that took hold in North Africa and the Middle East starting in late-2010.

“Aboriginal peoples are a very young population,” Jeff Denis, who studies the relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, told CBC Thunder Bay’s Superior Morning on Friday. “They are the fastest-growing population in Canada. They are increasingly well-educated and aware of injustice.”

“They have high expectations for the future, but they still face tremendous barriers in terms of racism, lack of job opportunities, cuts to social programs and so forth,” added the Harvard-educated prof.

“If we think about other recent social movements around the world — including the Arab Spring, for example — those are just some of the factors that might be expected to facilitate this type of movement.”

Social media, Denis said, has played a big role in the Idle No More protests, adding tools such as Facebook and Twitter “have enabled this new, younger generation of activists to quickly and efficiently spread the word and organize across and also increasingly internationally.”

The Idle No More campaign developed in response to the federal Bill-C45, which includes changes to the Indian Act about how reserve lands are managed and removes thousands of lakes and streams from the list of federally protected bodies of water.

The movement has also rallied around the activism of Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, a First Nations territory in Northern Ontario. The Cree leader has been staging a hunger strike near Parliament Hill since Dec. 11, trying to force Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet about Bill C-45. She also aims to raise greater awareness about living conditions on First Nations reserves.

If the momentum generated by Idle No More continues, there could be very significant change afoot, at the very least in Canada’s relationship with its First Nations.

You? What’s going on in your corner of the world?

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2012 at 4:58 am

[PHOTO] Loblaws 60 Carlton, December 2012

The Maple Leaf Gardens, located at 60 Carlton Street just minutes’ walk east of the College subway station and south of Church and Wellesley, is a national icon. Home for decades to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a decade after Toronto’s NHL hockey team played its final game Canadian grocery chain Loblaws finally implemented its plans to convert the ground floor of the Gardens into a grocery store, Loblaws 60 Carlton. (Ryerson University uses the remainder of the space for its Mattamy Athletic Centre.)

Loblaws 60 Carlton consistently gets good reviews, receiving four stars on Yelp. There has been some concern in the neighbourhood about the impact of such a large store on the smaller stores of the neighbourhood–see Andrea Houston’s Xtra! article published just before Loblaws 60 Carlton’s opening in November 2011 and Tyrone Newhook’s Xtra! article published one year later, both of which seem to report some impact, admittedly in economically harsh times. When I visited the store earlier this month with my father, I was again impressed not only by the store’s size but by its excellent organization and displays. Nine pictures follow.

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (1)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (2)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (3)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (4)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (5)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (6)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (7)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (8)

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens (9)

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2012 at 4:09 am

[LINK] The Upsilon Andromedae system

Originally found here in a post by Tumblr user universalnomad, this shows the orbits of the four planets found orbiting the star Upsilon Andromedae A, 44 light years away. More massive and substantially brighter than our sun, Upsilon Andromedae A supports four planets in the mass range of Jupiter. Noteworthy is the fact that not all of these planets orbit in the same plane, as is the case in our solar system; in fact, d orbits at a very sharp angle indeed. In many respects, Upsilon Andromedae A’s planets are unexpected.

Upsilon Andromedae system

Upsilon Andromedae A is not only a young star, at 2.6 billion years a bit more than half as old as our star, but it is a young and bright star–more or less 27% heavier than Sol, a F8V white-yellow dwarf star with a total luminosity 3.57 times as bright as our own sun. A planet orbiting Upsilon Andromedae A at the distance of Earth from our sun would quickly be baked. The planet Upsilon Andromedae d–approximately 2.54 AU from its sun on average but roughly 1.88 AU at closest encounter and 3.19 AU at its furthest, with a year 3.49 Earth years long–does orbit within the habitable zone of Upsilon Andromedae A. While d is a superjovian gas giant and so can’t support Earth-like life, conceivably it could host planet-sized moons that might support life.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 29, 2012 at 1:11 am

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • Sociologist Dan Hirschman is unimpressed by Mark Regnerus’ claim that porn viewing predisposes heterosexual men to support same-sex marriage. Yes, it’s actually a causal claim.
  • Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster notes a new method for detecting planets, one relying on patterns in the dust clouds orbiting stars.
  • At Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies uses a metaphor to explore the insufficient nature of criticisms of religion to believers. Who, after all, believes in Canada?
  • Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok takes issue with the New York Times‘ claims that its coverage of poor conditions at Chinese factories have led to improved wages. In actual fact, wages have been increasing for a decade as part of China’s growth.
  • At Registan, Myles G. Smith notes the extent to which the Kazakh-language Wikipedia appears to be dominated by state-sponsored volunteers.
  • Torontoist recounts the successful restoration of a decrepit building downtown on Yonge Street.
  • Window on Eurasia notes Russian commentary on regionalism in the eastern Latvian region of Latgale.
  • Wonkman tells us why we should care about Susan Sontag–her controversial 1982 suggestion that the left got it wrong on Communism speaks to an admirable intellectual honesty.

[LINK] “Benedict vs. Mirandola: how gay rights and transhumanism are related”

Transhumanist writer and researcher Anders Sandberg–incidentally gay himself–reacts to the latest criticisms of same-sex marriage by the Pope. He argues at his blog that the particular critique made by the Pope about the unnatural nature of same-sex marriage, indeed its violations of nature, connects to criticisms of visions of the human future that see the human form transformed. Shades of Shulamith Firestone, here.

The important difference between me and the pope is that he has an essentialist view of human nature (and hence human dignity): it is something given and fixed, so changing it is both impolite (since it was a gift) and impossible (since it is absolute). We might try, but we will become inauthentic and hence unhappy. This is very much the same argument Michael Sandel makes in a secular form. It also has the same problem: there are obviously many parts of the human condition that are bad and we can and ought to change (ignorance, cruelty), and it is not clear how to delineate which ones are in that category, in the optional category (hair color? circumcision?), and in the impossible and/or bad categories (better than healthy). One can make some arguments for what goes where, but they typically seem to be consequentialist arguments – in which case there is no need to invoke human nature. Deontological arguments run into problems since typically they make claims of the type “One should always do X, when it is possible”, and these arguments then produce the “wrong” conclusions as the borders of the possible are shifted by new technology.

[. . .]

It seems to me that the family obsession of Christianity is very much based on the transcendentalisation of certain family relations typical of humans – parent-child relations, strong altruist bonds to family members, social emotions such as gratitude, and strict gender roles. But the last one does not seem to have the same deep biological basis as the first three: we know a bit about their neuroscience already, but as far as I know there are no neural correlates of fixed gender roles. There are certainly biological gender differences in the brain, but the various meta analyses collected by J.S. Hydes suggest that few of them are very large, and even those that do exist do not have much moral implications. This later point was dealt with at length in Janet Radcliffe Richard’s excellent 2012 Uehiro lectures, and she also argued that conservatives of all colors tend to think of the world as having a fixed underlying moral/natural order that must be preserved at all costs – and against all evidence (see here, here and here for a brief summary; the lectures will appear as a book sooner or later). Opposed to this “natural order” view is the view that humans must be active in both structuring the moral order, and changing the world to fit it. We are moral agents, so we better figure out a good morality and try to implement it – all based on empirical data as much as possible. You can guess where I stand.

The pope’s model predicts that changed gender roles, such as female suffrage, gender equality and gay rights, produce bad psychological effects. Not just occasional or individual problems (no doubt there are some) but profound malaise since they supposedly interfere with the essential human nature. His model predicts that very equal places like Scandinavia would be hotbeds of mental trouble, while traditional societies should work very well. Playing around a bit with tools like Gapminder tends to dispel that view. Just like anybody predicting dire consequences from new technology the pope can of course claim that they are long-term and invisible so far, but I think we would have seen some effects by now from female suffrage.

Of course, being a dualist the pope could conveniently claim there are profound damage in some spiritual dimension not accessible to empirical study. We Swedes might be thoroughly spiritually corrupt, we just don’t know it. Except that if there is no clear way of detecting it even from the inside we will just have to take it on faith, and it is going to be a hard sell to claim something that does provide real, observable benefits to people is actually very bad. It won’t be the first time for the Catholic church, of course, but given the past results of opposing contraception the pope should not feel optimistic about doing much good.

Go, read the whole essay.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm

[LINK] “150 Game Changing Wins that Made 2012 the Gayest Year Ever”

Towleroad’s Andrew Belonsky lists 150 victories of the gay rights movement in the United States, covering everything from political breakthroughs through cultural acceptance through economic successes. The list is worth reading, and not only because the United States plays such a central role in the gay rights movement.

A remarkably short four decades ago, the Stonewall Revolt of 1969 opened the flood gates for LGBT rights. The closet, so sturdy for so long, started being swept away in a rush of pride. Still, LGBT Americans lived in a culture of “tolerance,” a popular euphemism for enduring.

There have been momentous years since then — both Barney Frank’s 1987 coming out and the 2003 Supreme Court ruling overturning anti-sodomy laws come to mind — but when we look back in twenty years time or ten or even five, 2012 will be remembered as quantum leap for LGBT rights in the United States of America. It’s the year that equality went from being a far-off dream to becoming an inevitable, immutable and irreversible reality. Even Newt Gingrich agrees!

This was the year of equality, the year the American dream came into sharper focus and the nation crossed from begrudgingly tolerating gays, and sometimes even acknowledging their relationships, to demanding our inclusion in the greater American family. Coming out is for the large part no longer a big deal, which is a big deal in and of itself.

There have never been as many out and proud elected officials; never before has Wall Street embraced us with such force; never before have so many conservatives admitted they need to shift gears on marriage equality and embrace change. This was a year of “never before” and “never again.”

Written by Randy McDonald

December 28, 2012 at 8:26 pm

[LINK] “Mountains of Madness: Scientists Poised to Drill Through Antarctic Ice and Into Gothic Horror”

Evoking H.P. Lovecraft’s infamous novella of Antarctic exploration, At the Mountains of Madness, Douglas Fox’s Wired article speculates what scientists might find as they explore the frozen continent, its offshore waters, and frozen-over lakes like Lake Vostok. It turns out that Lovecraft had some things right. (Implications for extraterrestrial worlds with iced-over water oceans, like Europa and Enceladus, are obvious.)

What might lurk beneath Antarctica’s 5 million square miles of ice was the subject of speculation by sci-fi writers in the 1930s. One of the icy products this subgenre of Antarctic Gothic horror spawned is HP Lovecraft’s novella, At the Mountains of Madness, in which scientists drill beneath Antarctica’s ice — only to discover horrid things preserved there. Now, scientists are finally enacting Lovecraft’s scenario: Over the next several weeks they are drilling into three subglacial lakes hidden beneath thousands of feet of ice in Antarctica.

What they will find as they sample the lakes and send cameras into their bellies remains to be seen. But one thing is already clear: Lovecraft was actually right about far more than his readers could have realized.

In Lovecraft’s story, a team of researchers from Miskatonic University flies into an unexplored region of Antarctica and bores through the ice. They discover fossil dinosaur bones with disturbing puncture and hacking wounds that cannot be attributed to any predators known to science. Soon after, they uncover the source of some of those wounds: fossils of a leathery-skinned beast with a “five-ridged barrel torso … around the equator, one at [the] central apex of each of the five vertical, stave-like ridges are five … flexible arms or tentacles.” The beast’s body is topped by a “five-pointed starfish-shaped” head.

[. . .]

Lovecraft wrote At the Mountains of Madness at a time when Antarctica’s interior remained mostly blank. Airplanes had only just begun to venture inward from the coasts — Robert Byrd made his famous, first-ever flight over the South Pole in 1928 — and Lovecraft’s novella, written in 1931, echoes that expedition. It’s easy to smirk at Lovecraft’s five-armed monsters, described ad nauseam, including precise dimensions in feet and inches. It’s easy to conclude that Lovecraft tried too hard to invent something that was truly alien.

But the ensuing decades have shown that Lovecraft was right on one profound matter: Antarctica’s cold wastes do indeed preserve some very old things, some of them dead — and some, still alive.

Geologists exploring one end of the Transantarctic Mountains (perhaps Lovecraft’s “mountains of madness”) have found shreds of plants, dead for up to 20 million years, protruding from the gravel and fluttering in the wind. These mosses represent the last stand that plants made on the continent before being extinguished by endless winter. The subsequent cold and dry have preserved them from decay. Plop a bit of this moss into a bowl of water and its delicate leaves and stems inflate like soft sponges. The scattered twigs of southern beech trees that are found here still contain enough organic matter that they smolder and smoke if placed over a flame.

Not all of the deep-time holdovers are dead, though. Antarctica’s cold coastal waters preserve an ecosystem like no other Earth. Scientists call it Paleozoic, reminiscent of between 250 and 540 million years ago. It is dominated by echinoderms, the ancient phylum of animals including starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, and lily-armed crinoids, whose bodies have five-fold symmetry — which brings us back to Lovecraft’s race of five-tentacled Elder Ones mummified beneath the ice.

“They sound like echinoderms to me,” said Richard Aronson, a veteran Antarctic marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology. “Hilarious.”

Written by Randy McDonald

December 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm

[PHOTO] Snowless Christmas Eve

On the morning of the 24th, the snow that came belatedly on Boxing Day wasn’t present at all. My backyard looked like it was just an ordinary, traditional, pre-snow November.

Snowless Christmas Eve

Written by Randy McDonald

December 28, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Photo, Toronto

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