A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for January 2013

[LINK] “Why Are We the Last Apes Standing?”

Slate‘s Chip Walters has a cool article suggesting that the success of modern humans–not only relative to other species, but to other human populations like the Neanderthals and the Denisovans–has to do with our unusually long childhoods.

More than a million years ago, our direct ancestors found themselves in a real evolutionary pickle. One the one hand, their brains were growing larger than those of their rain forest cousins, and on the other, they had taken to walking upright because they spent most of their time in Africa’s expanding savannas. Both features would seem to have substantially increased the likelihood of their survival, and they did, except for one problem: Standing upright favors the evolution of narrow hips and therefore narrows the birth canal. And that made bringing larger-headed infants to full term before birth increasingly difficult.

If we were born as physically mature as, say, an infant gorilla, our mothers would be forced to carry us for 20 months! But if they did carry us that long, our larger heads wouldn’t make it through the birth canal. We would be, literally, unbearable. The solution: Our forerunners, as their brains expanded, began to arrive in the world sooner, essentially as fetuses, far less developed than other newborn primates, and considerably more helpless.

[. . .]

In the nasty and brutish prehistoric world our ancestors inhabited, arriving prematurely could have been a very bad thing. But to see the advantages of being born helpless and fetal, all you have to do is watch a 2-year-old. Human children are the most voracious learners planet Earth has ever seen, and they are that way because their brains are still rapidly developing after birth. Neoteny, and the childhood it spawned, not only extended the time during which we grow up but ensured that we spent it developing not inside the safety of the womb but outside in the wide, convoluted, and unpredictable world.

The same neuronal networks that in other animals are largely set before or shortly after birth remain open and flexible in us. Other primates also exhibit “sensitive periods” for learning as their brains develop, but they pass quickly, and their brain circuitry is mostly established by their first birthday, leaving them far less touched by the experiences of their youth.

Based on the current fossil evidence, this was true to a lesser extent of the 26 other savanna apes and humans. Homo habilis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, even H. heidelbergensis (which is likely the common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and us), all had prolonged childhoods compared with chimpanzees and gorillas, but none as long as ours. In fact, Harvard paleoanthropologist Tanya Smith and her colleagues have found that Neanderthals reversed the trend. By the time they met their end around 30,000 years ago, they were reaching childbearing age at about the age of 11 or 12, which is three to five years earlier than their Homo sapiens cousins. Was this in response to evolutionary pressure to accelerate childbearing to replenish the dwindling species? Maybe. But in the bargain, they traded away the flexibility that childhood delivers, and that may have ultimately led to their demise.

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Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 8:17 pm

[LINK] “Monumental Mistakes”

At Slate, Joshua Kucera examines a particularly clumsy piece of Azerbaijani public diplomacy. The Azerbaijani government financed the renovation of two parks in downtown Mexico City, spending a bit more than five million US dollars in the process. In one park, the Azerbaijani government placed a statue of the country’s first president, Heydar Aliyev; in the other, a monument to the dead of the Khojaly Massacre, killed in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war. The statues were initially missed by a Mexican public caught up in other issues, but recently much public discontent has built up surrounding the placement of one statue to a dead foreign dictator and another to Azerbaijan’s denialism of the Armenian genocide in the Mexican capital.

Until recently, Azerbaijan had been making good progress in advancing its agenda in Mexico. Mexico’s Senate in 2011 passed a resolution calling Khojaly a “genocide,” one of only a handful of governments in the world to do so. (Mexico has never formally recognized the events of 1915 as such.) The same year, Mexico City’s Museum of Memory and Tolerance hosted an event commemorating Khojaly.

But Azerbaijan seems to have overreached with the Aliyev statue. The monument initially drew little notice—as early as April, four months before it was erected, the Azerbaijani Embassy said it wanted a monument to Aliyev in the park. But the controversy only began in early September, a couple of weeks after the statue’s inauguration.

[. . .]

Mexico City’s intelligentsia is sensitive to such practices, having only recently emerged from a decades-long dictatorship itself. Moreover, Mexico’s capital is a liberal oasis; in 2009 it legalized gay marriage. “This is a city that prides itself on its liberty, and we don’t like the symbolism of having Heydar Aliyev in Chapultepec,” he said, referring to the park. “The monument is appalling—in bad taste and in a very strategic position,” on Mexico City’s stateliest avenue, near statues of Gandhi and Winston Churchill.

The controversy grew and soon became a cause célèbre among the city’s chattering classes, leading to a steady stream of opinion articles and talk-radio debates. A three-member commission of prominent intellectuals (Osorno being one) was formed to study the matter and in November issued recommendations to remove the Aliyev statue and to change the wording on the Khojaly monument from “genocide” to “massacre.”

Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, tried to defend the statue—unsuccessfully. In an interview, Mukhtarov claimed that the silent majority of Mexicans was behind him, though he wasn’t able to provide evidence of supporters other than the handful of Azerbaijani expats living there. He claimed that the controversy was ginned up by the country’s Armenian community, a standard Azerbaijani government trope. (Mexico’s Armenian community is tiny and diffuse but well-connected: The former rector of the country’s top university, Jose Sarukhan Kermez, is of Armenian descent and has campaigned against the statue. Still, his role was hardly decisive.) He also claimed that the city of Cleveland has a Heydar Aliyev park (not true) and acknowledged that Aliyev’s record wasn’t perfect, but neither was that of many Mexican presidents who have statues in the city. Aliyev “is our national hero, not Mexico’s, and it’s our right to recognize our national leader,” Mukhtarov told me.

The Aliyev statue did end up being removed.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 8:09 pm

[PHOTO] Looking at the Gardiner

Compare this photo from yesterday.

Looking at the Gardiner

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 2:09 pm

[PHOTO] “The End of an Era: Steve McCurry and the Final Roll of Kodachrome Film”

Someone, someone, linked to this post at Petapixel hosting a National Geographic documentary 23 minutes long. This clip, freely available on YouTubge, followed famed photographer Steve McCurry as he travelled the world–well, New York City and India mainly–taking the best pictures possible with the last roll of Kodachrome film ever manufactured.

Says Petapixel,

The video is much more than just a chronicling of how McCurry spent that last roll of film. As with any great artist, when the NatGeo crew put McCurry on camera he inevitably managed to spout some phenomenal advice. It really makes you appreciate digital (or perhaps miss film) to see McCurry being so careful with his shots, making sure that each one did the Kodachrome roll justice.

In reality, the days already came and went when that roll was shot and developed; the last lab to process Kodachrome stopped at the end of 2010 and you can see the gallery of those final shots on McCurry’s website. But this documentary acts as yet another farewell to a film so loved there are plans for a movie about its demise.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 3:59 am

[PHOTO] On the difficulty of being a photographer, a real photographer

In a post at blogTO, “Toronto photographers you can trust”, Victoria Quiroz started an interesting discussion in the comments, one not about the subject of her post but on her assumptions.

Toronto is full of photographers. Those trying to make a living with a DSLR in their hands have only themselves to rely on. This past Saturday I spoke with several Toronto photographers doing exactly that, at the release of the collaborative photo book, Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30.

The book features the work of nine photographers, all under 30 years old, from Vancouver, New York and Toronto. Sonia D’Argenzio and Dimitri Karakostas are a Toronto duo that often finds themselves outside of the country, and continent, for their work.

“Toronto is a finicky beast to master, and I’m fine with not mastering it for the time being,” said Karakostas. “I like just doing the periodic one-offs like this as opposed to trying to do it frequently.”

D’Argenzio told me about the difficulties of being a photographer when anyone and everyone is calling themselves one.

“Everyone’s a photographer now,” said D’Argenzio. “Everyone has Instagram, everyone has their iPhone, everyone has a Tumblr account and a Flickr account. It’s standing out amongst a crowd of millions.”

(For the record, I have a Tumblr account and a Flickr account, and take pictures with a smartphone along with a camera.)

Some commenters argue that Quiroz and D’Argenzio are being reductionist, that it takes particular skills to be a real photographer. Others–I’m among them–think that the genre has been demassified by inexpensive and efficient new technologies.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 3:29 am

[NON BLOG] My new Huawei U6150

As an addendum to my previous post hoping that Blackberry (formerly Research in Motion) can pull out of its ongoing death spiral, I thought–for honesty’s sake, you see–I should share the last picture I took with my Huawei U1250.

What is it?

The new Huawei U6150

My new Huawei U6150.

Acquired in August 2011, my old phone and my WIND Mobile provider did a good job serving my needs. When it no longer accepted voice calls, staying with my provider was a given. Staying with the Huawei line also made sense, given my generally positive experience of my phone. A QWERTY keyboard sold this model.

One era has ended; a new one has begun.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 12:21 am

[LINK] “RIM changes name to BlackBerry as BB10 launches”

I, for one, hope Canada can still have a high-tech future. From the CBC:

Research In Motion launched two BlackBerry 10 smartphones Wednesday, banking on the hotly anticipated line of devices to save the company.

CEO Thorsten Heins kicked off simultaneous live events in New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Dubai, Johannesburg, Jakarta and Delhi, with the announcement that the company and its ubiquitous product were becoming one and the same — the company has renamed itself BlackBerry.

Heins unveiled a line of new smartphones the company says will help it win back market share in the competitive mobile space.

RIM launched two versions of the phone on Wednesday, the BlackBerry Z10 and Q10. The former is a touchscreen device, the latter has a full Qwerty keyboard.

“We know there are a lot of keyboard lovers out there,” Heins said. “We heard you loud and clear.”

In Canada, the touchscreen BlackBerry Z10 will be available on Feb. 5. Pricing will vary by carrier partner, but it will retail for around $149.99 on a three-year contract, BlackBerry announced Wednesday.

[. . .]

Canada will be the launch pad for the devices ahead of other markets, including the United States. Other countries have launch dates on Feb. 11. The U.S. launch date for the initial touchscreen version is some time in March, but BlackBerry declined to offer any further details.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2013 at 12:08 am