A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘human beings

[BRIEF NOTE] On how the Germanwings crash shows how much we depend on trust

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The news today that the crash in the French Alps of Germanwings Flight 9525 was almost certainly caused intentionally by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was the talk of much of the world today. News media around the world, and investigators in Europe, are already dissecting the life of one apparently normal young man who not only decided to kill himself but to murder 149 other people. Why did he do this?

When I first heard of the plane’s odd course yesterday, its calm preprogrammed descent into a cold mountainside, I thought of William Langewische’s November 2001 article in The Atlantic examining the 1999 crash EgyptAir Flight 990. That plane, too, was intentionally crashed by its pilot, one Gameel al-Batouti. The consensus seems to be that al-Batouti killed hundreds of people because of personal problems, the consequences of reprimands from his employers at EgyptAir ranking highly. What will we find out about Lubitz?

This intentional crash, this mass murder, seems to have created a certain sense of unease. Philip Gourevitch’s essay in The New Yorker, “A Bewildering Crash”, caught the reality that, from the perspective of victims and non-victims alike, this seemed almost a random occurrence. These people died for no reason, and nothing could have been done to prevent this.

They could have been any of us, anywhere—whoever flies or rides a train or takes a bus or in any way entrusts her life to strangers, as we all must regularly and routinely to get through this world. That sense of investment in calamity—it could have been me—is true, of course, of accidents and targeted acts of terrorism as well. But to be told that a scene of mass death is the result of an accident or terrorism is to be given not only an explanation of the cause but also an idea of how to reckon with the consequence–through justice, or revenge, or measures meant to prevent a recurrence. After the massacre at Sandy Hook, we could at least dream of gun control. But the story of Lubitz, suddenly in control of a plane flying all those aboard to their deaths, offers us only a cosmic meaninglessness and bewilderment.

It would almost be more comforting if the Germanwings crash did turn out to be some sort of terrorist attack, after all, if this terrible action can trace its roots to some sort of dark conspiracy. It would almost be nice if, as seems quite possible, this wasn’t the action of a single man who had a single bad morning and decided, kilometres above the ground, to commit mass murder. Then, there would be a proportionality between the act and its origins. Things would match up. As things stand, as James Follows observed earlier today, there really is very little that can be done to prevent future occurrences of this sort.

But then, this sort of thing is common in all catastrophes of this kind. Look at September 11th conspiracy theories, particularly the ones alleging the active involvement of the American government. Yes, it would be a terrible thing if there was a conspiracy by powerful people in the United States to destroy two skyscrapers at the cost of thousands of lives in order to manipulate global politics, but at least the terrible outcomes of 9/11 would seem to have proportionately weighty origins. The reality of 9/11–the fact that a couple dozen men working on a shoestring budget directed by people on the other side of the planet could wreak such havoc, could change the world–demonstrates how fragile our civilization is.

If Germanwings 9525 means anything, it is as an illustration of the reality that modern globalized civilization relies on the good will of its members to avoid catastrophe. Knowing about this fragility is unsettling, I grant, but it’s rather better to know about this than to remain in ignorance. We need to be prepared.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 27, 2015 at 3:47 am

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

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  • Gerry Canavan produces his own compendium of interesting links.
  • Centauri Dreams speculates about the colours indicative of extraterrestrial life, and ecologies.
  • Crooked Timber takes a look at Northern Ireland and the legacies of past violence.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on a hominid fossil that may indicate a much greater diversity in our ancestral gene pool than we thought.
  • A Fistful of Euros’ Edward Hugh wonders when the European Central Bank will start to taper interest rates.
  • The Frailest Thing warns that the promises of tech giants to free people from the shackles of the past should be seen critically.
  • On St. Patrick’s Day, Joe. My. God. and Michael in Norfolk both note the extent to which attitudes towards GLBT people in Ireland have changed.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money wonders about the good sense of going off of anti-depressants.
  • Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen proclaims Scarborough to be one of the world’s best food cities.
  • Savage Minds makes the case for anthropologists to aid the post-cyclone people of Vanuatu.
  • Spacing interviews the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair on urban issues.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy’s David Bernstein is unhappy at the consequences for Israel of Netanyahu’s reelection, while Lawyers, Guns and Money looks at income disparities in Israel.
  • Window on Eurasia argues that high inequality and low social mobility in Russia will doom the country, notes the potential for water-driven conflict in Central Asia, and notes Russian interest in acquiring more slots of Muslim pilgrims after Crimea’s annexation.

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

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  • The Big Picture looks at the uses of oil barrels around the world.
  • blogTO wonders if the Annex is ready for a condo boom.
  • Centauri Dreams features a guest post from Andrew Lepage noting how odd spectra on Mars were misidentified as proof of life.
  • Crooked Timber notes a student occupation of the University of Amsterdam’s headquarters.
  • Discover‘s The Crux makes a poor argument that space probe visits to Pluto and Ceres will lead to the redefinition of these worlds as planets.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze looks at an odd pulsating hot subdwarf B star with a brown dwarf.
  • The Dragon’s Tales suggests chemical mechanisms for life on Titan, and explains the differences in water plumes between Europa and Enceladus.
  • A Fistful of Euros notes political conflict in Germany.
  • Discover‘s Inkfist notes that birds from harsher climates are smarters.
  • Joe. My. God. shares Madonna’s critique of ageism.
  • Languages of the World examines the genesis of the English language.
  • Marginal Revolution notes Japanese funerals for robots, suggests Facebook usage makes people less happy, and notes family formation in Europe.
  • John Moyer examines punctuation.
  • Steve Munro maps out routes for a Scarborough subway.
  • The Planetary Society Blog looks at science on Pluto.
  • pollotenchegg maps the distribution of ethnically mixed households in Ukraine.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer looks at how Panama successfully made use of price controls, and why.
  • Progressive Download’s John Farrell wonders what is the rush for three-parent IVF therapy.
  • Transit Toronto explains how old TTC tickets can be exchanged.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the importance of Belarus for the Baltic States, notes the newly-debatable borders of the former Soviet Union, suggests Tatarstan is unhappy with Russian federalism, and looks at the small grounds for Russian-Ukrainian hostilities.

[LINK] “Real Paleo Diet: Early Hominids Ate Just About Everything”

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At IFL Science, Ken Sayers notes that, far from cleaving to the paleo diet in vogue now, early hominids have a diverse omnivorous diet.

Reconstructions of human evolution are prone to simple, overly-tidy scenarios. Our ancestors, for example, stood on two legs to look over tall grass, or began to speak because, well, they finally had something to say. Like much of our understanding of early hominid behavior, the imagined diet of our ancestors has also been over-simplified.

Take the trendy Paleo Diet which draws inspiration from how people lived during the Paleolithic or Stone Age that ran from roughly 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. It encourages practitioners to give up the fruits of modern culinary progress – such as dairy, agricultural products and processed foods – and start living a pseudo-hunter-gatherer lifestyle, something like Lon Chaney Jr. in the film One Million BC. Adherents recommend a very specific “ancestral” menu, replete with certain percentages of energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and suggested levels of physical activity. These prescriptions are drawn mainly from observations of modern humans who live at least a partial hunter-gatherer existence.

But from a scientific standpoint, these kinds of simple characterizations of our ancestors’ behavior generally don’t add up. Recently, fellow anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy and I took a close look at this crucial question in human behavioral evolution: the origins of hominid diet. We focused on the earliest phase of hominid evolution from roughly 6 to 1.6 million years ago, both before and after the first use of modified stone tools. This time frame includes, in order of appearance, the hominids Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, and the earliest members of our own genus, the comparatively brainy Homo. None of these were modern humans, which appeared much later, but rather our distant forerunners.

We examined the fossil, chemical and archaeological evidence, and also closely considered the foraging behavior of living animals. Why is this crucial? Observing animals in nature for even an hour will provide a ready answer: almost all of what an organism does on a daily basis is simply related to staying alive; that includes activities such as feeding, avoiding predators and setting itself up to reproduce. That’s the evolutionary way.

[. . .]

Researchers Tom Hatley and John Kappelman noted in 1980 that hominids have bunodont – low, with rounded cusps – back teeth that show much in common with bears and pigs. If you’ve watched these animals forage, you know they’ll eat just about anything: tubers, fruits, leafy materials and twigs, invertebrates, honey and vertebrate animals, whether scavenged or hunted. The percentage contribution of each food type to the diet will depend (you guessed it) on the energetic value of specific foods in specific habitats, at specific times of year. Evidence from the entirety of human evolution suggests that our ancestors, and even we as modern humans, are just as omnivorous.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 2, 2015 at 10:18 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • blogTO notes that loads of new streetcars should arrive this year for the TTC.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to one paper examining the impact of colliding stellar winds in a close binary on habitable planets, links to another examining how habitable planets gets their water, and wonders about the insights provided by the HR 8799 planetary system into water delivery.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to a paper arguing that Enceladus’ subsurface ocean is made of alkaline soda water.
  • Joe. My. God. notes a claim by some British scientists that it may be possible, with foreseeable genetic engineering, to create children with two same-sex parents.
  • Languages of the World’s Asya Perelstvaig looks into what Broca’s area of the brain actually means for human language.
  • Marginal Revolution notes that the woman-dominated area of health care is a growth area for middle-class employment in the United States.
  • Otto Pohl notes that yesterday was the 71st anniversary of the deportation of the Chechens and the Ingush.
  • pollotenchegg maps industrial production in Ukraine.
  • Will Baird argues at The Power and the Money that the Minsk Accord is crumbling and examines the reasons for Chinese support of Russia.
  • Spacing Toronto’s John Lorinc worries about corporate sponsorship of ice rinks.
  • Torontoist notes that Massey Hall has begun its renovations.
  • Towleroad notes a Texan legislator who wants to make it illegal for trans people to use public washrooms.
  • Transit Toronto observes that the Union-Pearson Express is undergoing test runs.
  • Window on Eurasia worries about the potential for a minority of Russians in Latvia’s eastern Latgale province to start trouble.

[BRIEF NOTE] On how a new Maunder Minimum will not save Earth from global warming

Sitting in a pizzeria in the Annex this evening, as I ate my slice I read a complimentary copy of today’s Toronto Sun. My attention was caught by Lorne Gunter’s QMI Agency column arguing that global warming will be a thing of the past, that the sunspot cycle of our local star is heading towards a new Maunder Minimum that will lead to global cooling.

Forget global warming, it’s more likely we’re on the cusp of another Little Ice Age than of a warming Armageddon. The brutal winter that has hammered the U.S. Northeast, Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec could become the norm in the Northern Hemisphere for the next 30 years if a growing number of solar physicists are right.

Our sun goes through very predictable 11-year cycles. The current one began in 2008 and is expected to produce among the fewest sunspots and most diminished solar radiation of any of the 24 cycles that have been carefully recorded by scientists going back nearly three centuries.

And Cycle 25, which will “peak” in 2022, is expected to be the weakest cycle since the 17th century, when the Earth last encountered such a feeble sun, our planet was plunged into the depths of what has become known as the Little Ice Age.

The sun-climate connection makes perfect sense; far more sense than the theory that a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is trapping solar radiation close to the Earth’s surface and dangerously warming the planet and changing our climate.

This is especially true because even according to the most devoted global-warming believers, a buildup of CO2 is not enough to trigger dangerous warming. Some other “forcing” factor is needed to push worldwide temperatures higher. But so far, no one knows with certainty what that factor might be. And given that global temperatures have not risen appreciably in 17 years, no forcing seems to be occurring.

This actually is not a bad argument. The middle of the Little Ice Age, a time when the Thames River froze solid to the benefit of skaters, did in fact coincide with the Maunder Minimum. Brian Koberlein’s October 2014 phys.org article “Is the sun at Maunder minimum?” does agree that somewhat decreased luminosity will lead to some global cooling, specifically to colder winters in the Northern Hemisphere. How can it not? Assigning a very substantial amount of responsiblity for global climate change to the sun only makes sense. If it gives the world a respite, so much the better.

This is not the same thing as saying that the sun has sole responsibility for global climate. Heightened volcanic activity also led to the Little Ice Age, as did the Earth’s changing orbit around the Sun, as did changing patterns in ocean circulation. Critically for our purposes, the depopulation of the Americas after Columbus–the disappearance of carbon dioxide-producing populations and their industries across the Western Hemisphere and the rewilding of lands once home to tens of millions–also played a role. Human activity may not play a dominant role, but is there any reason to think it would play no role when it clearly can? Increased carbon dioxide is increased carbon dioxide regardless of the source.

(It’s worth noting that Wei-Hock Soon, a climate scientist who has assigned most responsibility for global climate change to solar output and little to human activity, has just this weekend been revealed to have accepted more than a million dollars from fossil-fuel companies without revealing it in his papers.)

In any case, even if a new Maunder Minimum did happily counterbalance the effects of human industry and more–ignoring, for the moment, effects like the acidification of the oceans–what would happen when the Maunder Minimum ended? Wouldn’t an acceleration of global warming be potentially catastrophic? A new Maunder Minimum could give us precious extra time, decades within which we could try to geoengineer away as much of our carbon dioxide as possible. Assuming this temporary phenomenon would exempt us indefinitely from our issues would be foolish.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 24, 2015 at 3:02 am

[BLOG] Some Monday links

  • blogTO notes that the cash-strapped CBC may be forced to sell its iconic downtown Toronto headquarters.
  • James Bow reflects on winter in Kitchener-Waterloo.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper studying the relationship between exoplanets and circumstellar dust discs.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to a simulation of the polar atmosphere of Venus and notes concerns that India’s Hindustan Aeronautics might not be able to manufacture French Rafale fighters under contract.
  • Far Outliers notes Madeleine Albright’s incomprehension of Cambodia’s late 1990s struggles and looks at the way the country lags its neighbours.
  • The Frailest Thing notes how human traffic errors reveal we’re not quite up to some of the tasks we’d like.
  • Joe. My. God. notes that Finland’s president has signed a marriage bill into existence.
  • Languages of the World notes the problem of where the homeland of the Indo-Europeans was located.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes the often-ignored pattern of lynching Mexicans in the United States.
  • Marginal Revolution notes (1, 2) the problems of human beings with algorithmic, computer-driven planning.
  • Otto Pohl notes how Germans in Kyrgyzstan were forced into labour battalions.
  • pollotenchegg looks at demographic indicators in Ukraine over the past year, noting a collapse in the east.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer looks at deep history, looking at the involvement of war in state-building in Africa and noting the historically recent rise of inequality in Latin America.
  • Window on Eurasia looks at one Russian’s proposal to give a Ukrainian church self-government, notes Russia’s inability to serve as a mentor to China, and looks at rural depopulation in the North Caucasus and South Russia.
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