Month: December 2014

Nice Solar System, Would Travel Around Its Star Again

Via io9:  ‘The main sequence star Sol sits at the center of a pretty nice system on the outer edge of a spiral galaxy. I did a full revolution on its third planet, and the view was great. Definitely up for another one.’

 

Why Not Try a Real Socialist for a Change?

Bernie Sanders, U.S. Congressman (now U.S. Sen...

Via NYMag: ‘ “Bernie Sanders for President? You frickin’ kidding me? He’s a commie. Is that even legal, a communist president?”

—A man named Tom in Manchester, New Hampshire’

We Need to Kick Racism Out of Criminal Justice Now

Via Pacific Standard: ‘The failure of the United States criminal justice system to protect non-white people is at an all-time high. The opportunity to correct course is now.’

A Weird Phenomenon That Might Change How We See Neutrinos

Via io9:‘Neutrinos are the ninjas of the universe. They don’t interact with other particles very often, but when they do, they obliterate them. Until now. Scientists have observed a new way that neutrinos interact with the world.’

Happy New Year!

New Year Sunrise

New Year Sunrise

This is the annual update of my New Year’s post, a tradition I started early on on FmH:

I once ran across a January 1st Boston Globe article compiling folkloric beliefs about what to do, what to eat, etc. on New Year’s Day to bring good fortune for the year to come. I’ve regretted since — I usually think of it around once a year (grin) — not clipping out and saving the article. Especially since we’ve had children, I’m interested in enduring traditions that go beyond getting drunk [although some comment that this is a profound enactment of the interdigitation of chaos and order appropriate to the New Year’s celebration — FmH], watching the bowl games and making resolutions.

Marteniza-ball

A web search brought me this, less elaborate than what I recall from the Globe but to the same point. It is weighted toward eating traditions, which is odd because, unlike most other major holidays, the celebration of New Year’s in 21st century America does not seem to be centered at all around thinking about what we eat (except in the sense of the traditional weight-loss resolutions!) and certainly not around a festive meal. But…

Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year’s Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.

“Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes “coming full circle,” completing a year’s cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Day will bring good fortune.

“Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another ‘good luck’ vegetable that is consumed on New Year’s Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some regions, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year’s Day.”

The further north one travels in the British Isles, the more the year-end festivities

English: Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year'...

Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve

focus on New Year’s. The Scottish observance of Hogmanay has many elements of warming heart and hearth, welcoming strangers and making a good beginning:

“Three cornered biscuits called hogmanays are eaten. Other special foods are: wine, ginger cordial, cheese, bread, shortbread, oatcake, carol or carl cake, currant loaf, and a pastry called scones. After sunset people collect juniper and water to purify the home. Divining rituals are done according to the directions of the winds, which are assigned their own colors. First Footing:The first person who comes to the door on midnight New Year’s Eve should be a dark-haired or dark-complected man with gifts for luck. Seeing a cat, dog, woman, red-head or beggar is unlucky. The person brings a gift (handsel) of coal or whiskey to ensure prosperity in the New Year. Mummer’s Plays are also performed. The actors called the White Boys of Yule are all dressed in white, except for one dressed as the devil in black. It is bad luck to engage in marriage proposals, break glass, spin flax, sweep or carry out rubbish on New Year’s Eve.”

Here’s why we clink our glasses when we drink our New Year’s toasts, no matter where we are. Of course, sometimes the midnight cacophony is louder than just clinking glassware, to create a ‘devil-chasing din’.

In Georgia, eat black eyed peas and turnip greens on New Year’s Day for luck and prosperity in the year to come, supposedly because they symbolize coppers and currency. Hoppin’ John, a concoction of peas, onion, bacon and rice, is also a southern New Year’s tradition, as is wearing yellow to find true love (in Peru, yellow underwear, apparently!) or carrying silver for prosperity. In some instances, a dollar bill is thrown in with the other ingredients of the New Year’s meal to bring prosperity. In Greece, there is a traditional New Year’s Day sweetbread with a silver coin baked into it. All guests get a slice of the bread and whoever receives the slice with the coin is destined for good fortune for the year. At Italian tables, lentils, oranges and olives are served. The lentils, looking like coins, will bring prosperity; the oranges are for love; and the olives, symbolic of the wealth of the land, represent good fortune for the year to come.

A New Year’s meal in Norway also includes dried cod, “lutefisk.” The Pennsylvania Dutch make sure to include sauerkraut in their holiday meal, also for prosperity.

In Spain, you would cram twelve grapes in your mouth at midnight, one each time the clock chimed, for good luck for the twelve months to come. (If any of the grapes happens to be sour, the corresponding month will not be one of your most fortunate in the coming year.) The U. S. version of this custom, for some reason, involves standing on a chair as you pop the grapes. In Denmark, jumping off a chair at the stroke of midnight signifies leaping into the New Year. In Rio, you would be plunging into the sea en masse at midnight, wearing white and bearing offerings. In many northern hemisphere cities near bodies of water, they will have a tradition of people plunging into the cold water on New Year’s Day. The Coney Island Polar Bears Club in New York is the oldest cold-water swimming club in the United States. They have had groups of people enter the chilly surf since 1903.

Ecuadorian families make scarecrows stuffed with newspaper and firecrackers and place them outside their homes. The dummies represent misfortunes of the prior year, which are then burned in effigy at the stroke of midnight to forget the old year. Bolivian families make beautiful little wood or straw dolls to hang outside their homes on New Year’s Eve to bring good luck.

In China, homes are cleaned spotless to appease the Kitchen God, and papercuttings of red paper are hung in the windows to scare away evil spirits who might enter the house and bring misfortune. Large papier mache dragon heads with long fabric bodies are maneuvered through the streets during the Dragon Dance festival, and families open their front doors to let the dragon bring good luck into their homes.

The Indian Diwali festival, welcoming in the autumnal season, also involves attracting good fortune with lights. Children make small clay lamps, dipas, thousands of which might adorn a given home. In Thailand, one pours fragrant water over the hands of elders on New Year’s Day to show them respect.

//www.elanguages.org/images/16245' cannot be displayed]Elsewhere:

  • a stack of pancakes for the New Year’s breakfast in France.
  • banging on friends’ doors in Denmark to “smash in” the New Year, where it is also a good sign to find your doorstep heaped with broken dishes on New Year’s morning. Old dishes are saved all years to throw at your friends’ homes on New Year’s Eve.
  • going in the front door and out the back door at midnight in Ireland.
  • making sure the First Footer, the first person through your door in the New Year in Scotland, is a tall dark haired visitor.
  • water out the window at midnight in Puerto Rico rids the home of evil spirits.
  • cleanse your soul in Japan at the New Year by listening to a gong tolling 108 times, one for every sin
  • it is Swiss good luck to let a drop of cream fall on the floor on New Year’s Day.
  • Belgian farmers wish their animals a Happy New Year for blessings.
  • In Germany and Austria, lead pouring” (das Bleigießen) is an old divining practice using molten lead like tea leaves. A small amount of lead is melted in a tablespoon (by holding a flame under the spoon) and then poured into a bowl or bucket of water. The resulting pattern is interpreted to predict the coming year. For instance, if the lead forms a ball (der Ball), that means luck will roll your way. The shape of an anchor (der Anker) means help in need. But a cross (das Kreuz) signifies death.
  • It’s a bit bizarre when you think about it. A short British cabaret sketch from the 1920s has become a German New Year’s tradition. Yet, although The 90th Birthday or Dinner for One is a famous cult classic in Germany and several other European countries, it is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, including Britain, its birthplace.” (Watch on Youtube, 11 min.)

Some history; documentation of observance of the new year dates back at least 4000 years to the Babylonians, who also made the first new year’s resolutions (reportedly voews to return borrowed farm equipment were very popular), although their holiday was observed at the vernal equinox. The Babylonian festivities lasted eleven days, each day with its own particular mode of celebration. The traditional Persian Norouz festival of spring continues to be considered the advent of the new year among Persians, Kurds and other peoples throughout Central Asia, and dates back at least 3000 years, deeply rooted in Zooastrian traditions.Modern Bahá’í’s celebrate Norouz (”Naw Ruz”) as the end of a Nineteen Day Fast. Rosh Hashanah (”head of the year”), the Jewish New Year, the first day of the lunar month of Tishri, falls between September and early October. Muslim New Year is the first day of Muharram, and Chinese New Year falls between Jan. 10th and Feb. 19th of the Gregorian calendar.

The classical Roman New Year’s celebration was also in the spring although the calendar went out of synchrony with the sun. January 1st became the first day of the year by proclamation of the Roman Senate in 153 BC, reinforced even more strongly when Julius Caesar established what came to be known as the Julian calendar in 46 BC. The early Christian Church condemned new year’s festivities as pagan but created parallel festivities concurrently. New Year’s Day is still observed as the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision in some denominations. Church opposition to a new year’s observance reasserted itself during the Middle Ages, and Western nations have only celebrated January 1 as a holidy for about the last 400 years. The custom of New Year’s gift exchange among Druidic pagans in 7th century Flanders was deplored by Saint Eligius, who warned them, “[Do not] make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” (Wikipedia)

The tradition of the New Year’s Baby signifying the new year began with the Greek tradition of parading a baby in a basket during the Dionysian rites celebrating the annual rebirth of that god as a symbol of fertility. The baby was also a symbol of rebirth among early Egyptians. Again, the Church was forced to modify its denunciation of the practice as pagan because of the popularity of the rebirth symbolism, finally allowing its members to cellebrate the new year with a baby although assimilating it to a celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. The addition of Father Time (the “Old Year”) wearing a sash across his chest with the previous year on it, and the banner carried or worn by the New Year’s Baby, immigrated from Germany. Interestingly, January 1st is not a legal holiday in Israel, officially because of its historic origins as a Christian feast day.

Auld Lang Syne (literally ‘old long ago’ in the Scottish dialect) is sung or played at the stroke of midnight throughout the English-speaking world (and then there is George Harrison’s “Ring Out the Old”). Versions of the song have been part of the New Year’s festivities since the 17th century but Robert Burns was inspired to compose a modern rendition, which was published after his death in 1796. (It took Guy Lombardo, however, to make it popular…)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
And here’s a hand, my trusty friend
And gie’s a hand o’ thine
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne

Here’s how to wish someone a Happy New Year around the world:

  • Arabic: Kul ‘aam u antum salimoun
  • Brazilian: Boas Festas e Feliz Ano Novo means “Good Parties and Happy New Year”
  • Chinese: Chu Shen Tan Xin Nian Kuai Le (thanks, Jeff)
  • Czechoslavakia: Scastny Novy Rok
  • Dutch: Gullukkig Niuw Jaar
  • Finnish: Onnellista Uutta Vuotta
  • French: Bonne Annee
  • German: Prosit Neujahr
  • Greek: Eftecheezmaenos o Kaenooryos hronos
  • Hebrew: L’Shannah Tovah Tikatevu
  • Hindi: Niya Saa Moobaarak
  • Irish (Gaelic): Bliain nua fe mhaise dhuit
  • Italian: Buon Capodanno
  • Khmer: Sua Sdei tfnam tmei
  • Laotian: Sabai dee pee mai
  • Polish: Szczesliwego Nowego Roku
  • Portuguese: Feliz Ano Novo
  • Russian: S Novim Godom
  • Serbo-Croatian: Scecna nova godina
  • Spanish: Feliz Ano Nuevo
  • Swedish: Ha ett gott nytt år
  • Turkish: Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun
  • Vietnamese: Cung-Chuc Tan-Xuan
  • [If you are a native speaker, please feel free to offer any corrections or additions!]

However you’re going to celebrate, my warmest wishes for the year to come… and eat hearty! [thanks to Bruce Umbaugh for research assistance]

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 33,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

22 animals that went extinct in 2014

Via Kottke:  ‘2014 was a year that humans treated each other horribly. But we continue to treat the natural world even worse. Living Alongside Wildlife has a list of 22 species of animal declared extinct in 2014, extending humanity’s long streak of causing plant and animal extinctions.’

 

Why are professors at Harvard, Duke, and Middlebury teaching courses on David Simon’s The Wire?

Via Slate: ‘Interestingly, the classes aren’t just in film studies or media studies departments; they’re turning up in social science disciplines as well, places where the preferred method of inquiry is the field study or the survey, not the HBO series, even one that is routinely called the best television show ever. Some sociologists and social anthropologists, it turns out, believe The Wire has something to teach their students about poverty, class, bureaucracy, and the social ramifications of economic change.’

The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots

The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots | Motherboard

Via Motherboard:  ‘If and when we finally encounter aliens, they probably won’t look like little green men, or spiny insectoids. It’s likely they won’t be biological creatures at all, but rather, advanced robots that outstrip our intelligence in every conceivable way. While scores of philosophers, scientists and futurists have prophesied the rise of artificial intelligence and the impending singularity, most have restricted their predictions to Earth. Fewer thinkers—outside the realm of science fiction, that is—have considered the notion that artificial intelligence is already out there, and has been for eons.

Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, is one who has. She joins a handful of astronomers, including Seth Shostak, director of NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program, NASA Astrobiologist Paul Davies, and Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick in espousing the view that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is probably artificial. In her paper “Alien Minds,” written for a forthcoming NASA publication, Schneider describes why alien life forms are likely to be synthetic, and how such creatures might think.

“Most people have an iconic idea of aliens as these biological creatures, but that doesn’t make any sense from a timescale argument,” Shostak told me. “I’ve bet dozens of astronomers coffee that if we pick up an alien signal, it’ll be artificial life.”

With the latest updates from NASA’s Kepler mission showing potentially habitable worlds strewn across the galaxy, it’s becoming harder and harder to assert that we’re alone in the universe. And if and when we do encounter intelligent life forms, we’ll want to communicate with them, which means we’ll need some basis for understanding their cognition. But for the vast majority of astrobiologists who study single-celled life, alien intelligence isn’t on the radar.

“If you asked me to bring together a panel of folks who have given the subject much thought, I would be hard pressed,” said Shostak. “Some think about communication strategies, of course. But few consider the nature of alien intelligence.”

Schneider’s paper is among the first to tackle the subject. “Everything about their cognition—how their brains receive and process information, what their goals and incentives are—could be vastly different from our own,” Schneider told me. “Astrobiologists need to start thinking about the possibility of very different modes of cognition.”

To wit, the case of artificial superintelligence.

“There’s an important distinction here from just ‘artificial intelligence’,” Schneider told me. “I’m not saying that we’re going to be running into IBM processors in outer space. In all likelihood, this intelligence will be way more sophisticated than anything humans can understand.”

The reason for all this has to do, primarily, with timescales. For starters, when it comes to alien intelligence, there’s what Schneider calls the “short window observation”—the notion that, by the time any society learns to transmit radio signals, they’re probably a hop-skip away from upgrading their own biology. It’s a twist on the belief popularized by Ray Kurzweil that humanity’s own post-biological future is near at hand.

“As soon as a civilization invents radio, they’re within fifty years of computers, then, probably, only another fifty to a hundred years from inventing AI,” Shostak said. “At that point, soft, squishy brains become an outdated model.” ‘

 

The operation making paralysed walk for first time

BBC - Future - The operation making paralysed walk for first time

Via BBC:  ‘Around 2-3million people worldwide have spinal cord injury. When the spinal cord is injured every part of the body is paralysed below it and without sensation.

But now scientists have achieved a remarkable feat. For the first time a cell transplantation treatment has allowed a man paralysed from the chest down to get up from his wheelchair and walk.

The pioneering therapy takes the regenerative cells that repair and renew our sense of smell, and uses them to form new connections to form in the damaged spinal cord. Thanks to this, 40-year old Darek Fidyka from Poland, who suffered his injuries after a knife attack, can now walk using a frame.

The man who has spent decades developing the procedure is Professor Geoffrey Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London’s Institute of Neurology. In this video he describes his tireless journey behind the achievement, how it works, and why he thinks no-one should have to pay a single penny for his achievements.’

 

The Bizarre Case of the Woman Who Saw Dragons Everywhere

Via io9:  ‘Recently, a group of neuroscientists examined a woman who complained of an unusual ailment. The people around her kept turning into dragons.

The fifty-something woman said the problem had been plaguing her for most of her life, and eventually prevented her from holding a job. When people turned into dragons, she reported, their faces turned “black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red.”

A group of researchers who examined her later wrote in a paper:

She saw similar dragon-like faces drifting towards her many times a day from the walls, electrical sockets, or the computer screen, in both the presence and absence of face-like patterns, and at night she saw many dragon-like faces in the dark.

The blogger Neuroskeptic notes that the basis of her condition is basically “a mystery” — doctors found no brain abnormalities after doing multiple tests. But she did eventually recover slightly after going on an “anti-dementia medication.” The dragon sightings became mild enough that she’s held a job for over 3 years now.’

The Bizarre Case of the Woman Who Saw Dragons Everywhere

Is anyone reminded of the 1988 US science fiction film They Live? The difference is that, in that film, it took a pair of sunglasses found by the protagonist to see the aliens among us.

 

Salon: Have a Very Disturbing Christmas!

Salon.com

How to keep the peace with your conservative relatives this holiday: Complain together! The family that kvetches together … makes it through dinner without any tears … together

Help these kids today: America’s quiet homelessness nightmare is 1.3 million homeless students. This Christmas, homeless data is changing in shocking ways: Fewer people on streets, but a record for homeless kids

How to win Christmas arguments: Salon’s guide to defeating your crazy right-wing uncle. Your right-wing uncle is all excited to talk about politics this Christmas. Lucky you!

Bill O’Reilly ruined Christmas: Why his nonsense undermines the holiday I love. With every predictable rant by the human outrage machines, the holiday loses a little magic for me. Here’s why.

“The Nutcracker’s” disturbing origin story: Why this was once the world’s creepiest ballet. From pedophilic godfathers to gruesome seven-headed mice, the first versions of the classic ballet were — different.

The most awkward sex ever? 8 epic holiday hookup tales. “I asked if he wanted to have sex — while he was talking about his dad having a stroke”

Terrifying gifts from the 22nd century: The hottest holiday presents for a post-apocalyptic tomorrow. The world will be way scarier by then, but there are still plenty of fun options for Christmas

via Salon.com.

Steven Pinker’s Mind Games

Via NYTimes.com:  ‘Steven Pinker is every bit the populist. All but three of his nine books are aimed at the general public (“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” is available in 21 formats and editions; the CD comes out this week). Dr. Pinker’s teaching is similarly accessible. Just look at the test questions here, culled from one of his Harvard courses, “Psychological Science.” He explains his approach: “The questions that psychology tackles are the ones that obsess us in everyday life: family relations, sexuality, kindness and aggression, the reliability of knowledge. Not surprisingly, many concepts in academic psychology have crossed over into popular culture, such as conditioning, Freudian psychoanalysis and cognitive dissonance. Exams that invoke these memes test whether students understand the theories well enough to reason about them when they are presented away from a familiar textbook context and are applied to real life.” ‘

Take the ten-question quiz; how did you do?

 

How Smartphone Use Is Changing The Way Thumbs and Brains Communicate

Via  IFLScience:  ‘Opposable thumbs gave ancient humans a huge evolutionary advantage by allowing for use of tools. More recently, these thumbs also allow for people to quickly type on screens of smartphones and other touchscreen devices. A new study has found that this recent widespread mode of communication is actually changing the way thumbs and the brain talk to one another, demonstrating the plasticity of the human brain. Arko Ghosh of the University of Zurich is lead author of the paper, which has been published in Current Biology.’

 

13 of the Most Amazing Things Discovered in Space This Year

Via WIRED:  ‘Scientists discovered some pretty amazing things in space this year. There were yet more planets, including the first Earth-like one in a star’s habitable zone. Astronomers found what might be a black-hole triplet, stars in the midst of merging into one giant one, and a star made of diamond.

But some of the most exciting things were found right in our own solar system. These discoveries include the first rings ever seen around an asteroid, plumes of water vapor spewing out from the dwarf planet Ceres, a disintegrating asteroid, and what appears to be a new dwarf planet billions of miles away. Oh, and we landed on a comet for the first time. Here are some of the most fantastic astronomical finds of the year, reminding us that space is a truly awesome place.’

 

Monkey Appears To Resuscitate Dying Friend

Via IFLScience: ‘A video has gone viral that appears to show a rhesus macaque resuscitating his friend who had been electrically shocked at a train station in Northern India. The video shows snippets of one monkey poking and prodding at the other for a period of 20 minutes, even trying to splash water on it. Ultimately, the unconscious macaque did wake up – but what were the actual intentions of the helpful friend?

National Geographic reports that it isn’t entirely clear how different primate species are affected by the death of those they are close with, but there have been recorded events of monkeys shaking and biting their fallen friends. However, it isn’t known if they are confused by why the other monkey isn’t moving, or if they are actually trying to revive the individual.’

 

Common Painkillers Could Decrease Skin Cancer Risk

Via IFLScience:  ‘Common over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can decrease risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma, according to a study published today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common types of skin cancer.

The results mean these drugs may have potential as skin cancer preventative agents, especially for high-risk people, said study co-author Catherine Olsen.’

 

This Orangutan Is Now A Legally Recognized Nonhuman Person In Argentina

Via io9: ‘History was made this past weekend in Buenos Aires when an appeals court ruled that an orangutan held in a zoo is a nonhuman person unlawfully deprived of its right to bodily autonomy.

The legal strategy used in this case is similar to the one recently employed by the Nonhuman Rights Project in the United States. Both are claiming that highly sentient animals like great apes are deserving of bodily autonomy, or habeas corpus.’

 

Is Moral Offsetting™ Right for You?

Via 3quarksdaily: ‘Everywhere we turn there are people demanding that we take moral responsibility for ever more features of our lives and the implications of our actions. Almost everything we do turns out to be involve a moral choice, or more than one, in which our deepest principles are at stake.

 

If you’re an egalitarian, how come you help your kids with their homework? If you’re against child-slavery, how come you still eat chocolate? If you’re against racism, how come you enjoy ‘white privileges’ like not being afraid when the police pull you over? And so on. Want to put milk on your breakfast cereal? There’s a moral philosopher out there who wants you to read about murdered baby cows first…

But it gets worse. Although they are presented as moral challenges, as tests of your principles, many of these demands are actually moral puzzles with no right answer…

If everything we do is wrong, why bother to even try to do the right thing?

Fortunately the solution is at hand. Here at Moral Tranquillity plc we believe that good people should be able to live a life free from guilt. That’s why we have developed a range of Moral Offsetting™ products that make meeting your moral responsibilities simple and affordable.’

 

Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses

This NYTimes editorial reads, in part:

‘…Americans have known about many of these acts for years, but the 524-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report erases any lingering doubt about their depravity and illegality: In addition to new revelations of sadistic tactics like “rectal feeding,” scores of detainees were waterboarded, hung by their wrists, confined in coffins, sleep-deprived, threatened with death or brutally beaten. In November 2002, one detainee who was chained to a concrete floor died of “suspected hypothermia.”

These are, simply, crimes. They are prohibited by federal law, which defines torture as the intentional infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” They are also banned by the Convention Against Torture, the international treaty that the United States ratified in 1994 and that requires prosecution of any acts of torture.

So it is no wonder that today’s blinkered apologists are desperate to call these acts anything but torture, which they clearly were. As the report reveals, these claims fail for a simple reason: C.I.A. officials admitted at the time that what they intended to do was illegal.

In July 2002, C.I.A. lawyers told the Justice Department that the agency needed to use “more aggressive methods” of interrogation that would “otherwise be prohibited by the torture statute.” They asked the department to promise not to prosecute those who used these methods. When the department refused, they shopped around for the answer they wanted. They got it from the ideologically driven lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, who wrote memos fabricating a legal foundation for the methods. Government officials now rely on the memos as proof that they sought and received legal clearance for their actions. But the report changes the game: We now know that this reliance was not made in good faith.

No amount of legal pretzel logic can justify the behavior detailed in the report. Indeed, it is impossible to read it and conclude that no one can be held accountable. At the very least, Mr. Obama needs to authorize a full and independent criminal investigation.

And concludes:

‘Starting a criminal investigation is not about payback; it is about ensuring that this never happens again and regaining the moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments. Because of the Senate’s report, we now know the distance officials in the executive branch went to rationalize, and conceal, the crimes they wanted to commit. The question is whether the nation will stand by and allow the perpetrators of torture to have perpetual immunity for their actions.’

Are Men Idiots Who Do Stupid Things?

Via NPR: ‘A new study shows what at least some of us might have suspected for a long time: Men are idiots and do stupid things. That’s the premise of the authors’ Male Idiot Theory. The study, published in BMJ, the former British Medical Journal, looked at past winners of the Darwin Awards. The awards are given to those people who die in such an idiotic manner that “their action ensures the long-term survival of the species, by selectively allowing one less idiot to survive.” The study looked at 318 cases, of which 282, or 88.7 percent, were men.’

Wolves and Bears Stage Comeback in Crowded, Urban Europe

Via National Geographic: ‘ [A] study published Thursday in the journal Science reports that Europe, one of the most industrialized landscapes on Earth, with many roads and hardly any large wilderness areas, is nonetheless “succeeding in maintaining, and to some extent restoring, viable large carnivore populations on a continental scale.”

A team of more than 50 leading carnivore biologists across Europe, from Norway to Bulgaria, details in the research a broad recovery of four large carnivore species: wolves, brown bears, the Eurasian lynx, and the wolverine.

“There is a deeply rooted hostility to these species in human history and culture,” the study notes. And yet roughly a third of Europe, and all but four of the continent’s 50 nations, are now home to permanent and reproducing populations of at least one of these predators.’

 

7 Films We Should Probably Ban Right Now, You Know, Just In Case

Via Gizmodo: ‘So you’ve no doubt heard about American cinemas’ near unanimous decision to pull The Interview from theaters. Not to be outdone in cowardice, Paramount is also telling some theaters to not play 2004’s Team America: World Police in its place in deference to our new cultural overlords in Pyongyang.

Since we’ve officially abandoned all reason, we thought we’d help the studios out and ready a list of some other films that we should probably just ban lest we incur the wrath of some unknown hacker group that’s demonstrated no ability to carry out all the threats it throws around. But hey, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone!’

 

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

Via Pacific Standard: ‘At, I suspect, every single correctional facility in the U.S., a drug network something like the one I’m about to outline operates and prospers. Take it from me—I was recently released from federal prison after spending 21 years of my life inside.

While you may read about the drug smuggling ventures that are busted, you’re unlikely to hear so often about the operations that are successful. To help explain one of these systems, I got in touch with a man I’ll call “Divine.” He’s a black, 50-something, very suave type of hustler, clean cut and ripped up from working out. A native New Yorker, his prowess as a drug dealer is even celebrated in hip-hop’s lyrical lore. He is now doing life in the feds. But his occupation in prison brings him money and power, and the all-important prestige of being The Man. He agreed to anonymously break down how it all works for Substance.com.’

 

Idaho State To Offer Bigfoot-Inspired Course

Via io9: ‘Though the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University is careful to note, “It is not a course on Bigfoot. It is a course on anthropology,” ISU will nevertheless be offering an experimental class titled “The Relict Hominoid Inquiry.” Which is kinda a course on Bigfoot. Sorta.

The Idaho State Journal reports:

In the upcoming semester, Idaho State University professor Jeff Meldrum will be teaching an experimental course titled The Relict Hominoid Inquiry. Part of that inquiry will address scientific theories on Bigfoot, alongside other links in the human evolutionary chain.

“What I’m trying to do is address a shift in perception that’s been gaining traction in the anthropological community,” Meldrum said. That shift involves looking at human evolution as a tree in which scientists are discovering new branches all the time. The theory is that offshoots of human evolution are recent and could still exist, roaming the earth undiscovered.

Aka Bigfoot, though Meldrum was also careful to note, “It’s not a course about Bigfoot.”

His Bigfoot bona fides, however, are impeccable:

A 21-year veteran at ISU and current professor of anatomy and anthropology, Meldrum studies how hominoids made the evolutionary leap to bipedalism. Ancient footprints, archeological records and the science behind legendary creatures have been his life’s work. Meldrum has been featured as a scientific expert on Animal Planet TV specials about Bigfoot. He also publishes a peer-reviewed online journal titled “Relic Hominoid Inquiry,” which explores the possible existence of relict hominoid species around the world.’

Meet the Spiky Shelled Sea Snail Named After The Clash’s Joe Strummer

Via io9: ‘After discovering new deep sea snails with spiky shells, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute named one of them (on the left above) A. Strummeri after Joe Strummer, singer for the Clash.

Speaking with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, lead researcher Shannon Johnson explained that the name was based in more than just a love for “London Calling”:

“Because they look like punk rockers in the 70s and 80s and they have purple blood and live in such an extreme environment, we decided to name one new species after a punk rock icon.” ‘

 

Over 700 million people have taken steps to improve privacy since Snowden

Via Boing Boing:  ‘Name another news story that has caused over ten percent of the world’s population to change their behavior in the past year? Cory Doctorow is right: we have reached “peak indifference to surveillance.” From now on, this issue is going to matter more and more, and policymakers around the world need to start paying attention.’

 

Hallucinogenic fungi found at Buckingham Palace

Via Boing Boing: ‘ “Palace officials said Friday there are several hundred species of mushrooms growing in the palace gardens, including a number of naturally occurring Amanita muscaria.”

Officials say garden shrooms are never used in the palace kitchens. But no word on whether the Queen uses them from time to time in her royal rituals of blood sacrifice, baby-dismemberment, and Satanic fornication.’

 

Australia’s Twitter Win Against Islamophobia: How To Use #illridewithyou

Via Lifehacker: ‘Twitter’s top trending hashtag worldwide, #illridewithyou, shows how social networks can be a force for good. Australian samaritans are using the hashtag to lend support to Muslim citizens on their daily commute, in case of a racist attack.

A gunman took dozens of hostages in a cafe in Sydney, Australia, on Monday, December 15. He was presumed to be an Islamic extremist, after he asked for a flag of ISIS among his demands. While the gunman’s actions are clearly to be condemned, innocent Muslims – particularly those who wear traditional garb – were afraid of hateful speech or even violence following these events. Almost half of Australia has anti-Muslim sentiments, according to a recent report.

And Australia has seen racial attacks in public before. There was the school boy verbally abused by a 50-year-old woman, a 55-year-old lady ranted against a couple of kids in a train, and a Muslim woman was bashed and thrown from a moving train. After that last incident, Muslim activists said they have seen a “massive spike in racist attacks,” the Herald Sun reported.

Amidst fears of a similar backlash against the Islamic community after the hostage situation, this Twitter campaign brings hope.

Australians across the nation started tagging the location of their daily commute on Twitter with the hashtag #illridewithyou, showing support to their fellow Muslim citizens and assuring them of protection. The hashtag has quickly gone viral, with people across the world praising it.’

Dick Cheney’s grotesque legacy: Why the record is so much worse than reported

Via Salon.com: ‘As many of us wade through the horror of the Senate torture report, it’s hard not to think back to a time when the man who ran the country explained to us in plain language what he was doing. I’m talking about Vice President Dick Cheney, of course, the official who smoothly seized the reins of power after 9/11 and guided national security policy throughout his eight years in office. He was one of the most adept bureaucratic players American politics has ever produced and it’s his doctrine, not the Bush Doctrine, that spurred government actions from the very beginning.’

Sorry to expose you yet again to this nightmare-inducing visage. Why? Because, while Bush was risible, this man was execrable. And, with another round of US Presidential campaigning kicking off, can the American people grasp that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them?

 

Happy Monkey Day!

Monkey Day Pictures: Our Favorite Primates Around the World

Via National Geographic: ‘According to the Detroit Metro Times, Monkey Day—which falls on Sunday—started when a Michigan State University art student scribbled “monkey day” on December 14th on a friend’s calendar. The newspaper said it caught momentum as students started adding monkeys to their artwork and circulating it online. To celebrate the day, National Geographic photo editors selected their favorite monkey pictures from all over the world.

In the picture above, a golden snub-nosed monkey perches in a highland forest in China’s Zhouzhi National Nature Reserve. The monkeys’ heavy fur helps them through subzero winters in the Qin Ling Mountains of central China.

This young monkey is among 4,000 others that are being squeezed from their habitat by human settlements, logging, and hunters interested in meat, bones, and luxurious fur. Only 20,000 golden snub-nosed monkeys are left on Earth, according to National Geographic magazine.’

 

Why Today’s Date Is Special

Via Gizmodo: ‘12/13/14 has a kind of pleasing order that you might’ve noticed this morning when you woke up. But today’s date is interesting because of more than just minor curiosity — it’s the last sequential date this century.

As Quentin Fottrell has pointed out over at Market Watch, people actually care about cool dates. Five times as many people have set today to be their wedding day than you’d expect for a snowy Saturday. He also contacted a professor at the University of Portland, who pointed out that this isn’t just any old sequential date — the dates themselves are made up of just four sequential digits: 1, 2, 3 and 4.’

 

Jeb Bush’s damning secret history

Via Salon.com: ‘Whenever the deep thinkers of the Republican establishment glance at their bulging clown car of presidential hopefuls — with out-there Dr. Ben Carson, exorcist Bobby Jindal, loudmouth Chris Christie and bankruptcy expert Donald Trump jammed against Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, to name a few — they inevitably start chattering about “Jeb Bush.”

Never mind that his father was a one-term wonder of no great distinction or that his brother is already a serious contender, in the eyes of historians, for worst president of the past 100 years. And never mind that on the issues most controversial among party activists — immigration and Common Core educational standards — he is an accursed “moderate.”

…The 2016 presidential hopeful has a checkered financial history. Republicans nominate him at their peril…’

Geminid meteor showers peak this weekend.

Here’s how to view, in the skies and online: ‘ “The Geminid meteor shower is now the richest meteor shower of the year, rivalling the summer Perseids in popularity,” writes Mark Armstrong at Astronomy Now.

The 2014 Geminids peak over the next few days, and it’s likely to be a particularly beautiful display.

The best viewing, as always, is as far away as possible from city lights. But if you can’t get to a good viewing spot, read on! There are several ways to view the Geminids online.’ (via Boing Boing)

The Deer

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,

the ones that stepped between the trees

on pound-coin-coloured hooves,

I’d bring them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;

more supple than the otters we waited for

at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher

that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

Five years on, in that same house, I rose

for water in the middle of the night and watched

my mother at the window, looking out

to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where she stood, I saw them stealing

through the pines and they must have been closer

than before, because I had no memory

of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur,

their eyes, like hers, that flickered back

towards whatever followed them.

— Helen Mort

 

Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014

Via Gawker:  ‘On Wednesday, after the announcement that NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be indicted for killing Eric Garner, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund Twitter posted a series of tweets naming 76 men and women who were killed in police custody since the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo in New York. Starting with the most recent death, what follows are more detailed accounts of many of those included in the Legal Defense Fund’s tweets.’

 

RIP Frank and Louie, the Two-Faced Cat

Via io9: ‘He defied the odds by purring as long as he did, but the world’s longest-living two-faced cat (also called a Janus cat, after the Roman god with faces looking to the future and the past), Frank and Louie, died last week at the ripe age of 15.The cause was cancer, according to the feline’s hometown paper, the Worcester Telegram.

Owner Martha “Marty” Stevens adopted Frank and Louie as a kitten in 1999. Initially, vets told her told he probably wouldn’t survive a week.

Reports the Telegram:

Frank and Louie — or rather Frank because his side had the esophagus — learned to eat and thrived. The cat rubbed against legs and won over the hearts of many who thought he was difficult to look at. He had two functioning eyes and a center eye, which was blind. Two noses and two mouths but just one brain. All in all, he was a healthy cat, his biggest ordeals having been neutering and the removal of some teeth from Louie’s mouth, which had no bottom jaw.’

 

27 Stunning Photos of #BlackLivesMatter Protests From Around the Globe

Via Mic:  ‘It’s not just Americans that care about racist policing practices across the U.S. In protests held worldwide this week, thousands of people showed up to demonstrate solidarity with their counterparts in the U.S., protesting the deaths of Ferguson teenager Mike Brown and New York man Eric Garner.

According to Newsweek, protests hit worldwide metropolises like Tokyo, Paris and Delhi, while reports of related graffiti have also popped up in Germany. Supporters of the cause waved signs saying “America, the world is watching” and “no justice, no peace.”

The marches also continued from coast to coast in the U.S., with yet another round of related demonstrations in New York and riot police clashing with protesters in Berkeley, California. In New York, the police arrested more than 220 people.’

 

Reminder: some US police departments reject high-IQ candidates

Via Boing Boing:  ‘Even if you think that IQ tests are unscientific mumbo-jumbo, it’s amazing to learn that some US police departments don’t, and furthermore, that they defended their legal right to exclude potential officers because they tested too high.From a 1999 NYT article:

In a ruling made public on Tuesday, Judge Peter C. Dorsey of the United States District Court in New Haven agreed that the plaintiff, Robert Jordan, was denied an opportunity to interview for a police job because of his high test scores. But he said that that did not mean Mr. Jordan was a victim of discrimination.’

Google Can Now Tell You’re Not a Robot With Just One Click

Via WIRED:  ‘On Wednesday, Google announced that many of its “Captchas”—the squiggled text tests designed to weed out automated spambots—will be reduced to nothing more than a single checkbox next to the statement “I’m not a robot.” No more typing in distorted words or numbers; Google says it can, in many cases, tell the difference between a person or an automated program simply by tracking clues that don’t involve any user interaction. The giveaways that separate man and machine can be as subtle as how he or she (or it) moves a mouse in the moments before that single click.’

Make It Happen, Hollywood:

Stephen Hawking Wants To Play A Bond Villain: ‘Professor Stephen Hawking has appeared as himself on The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory, but for once, he’d like to play someone other than himself. And he even has the perfect role picked out: Professor Hawking wants to play the villain in a James Bond film’ (via io9).

 

How to Beat a Polygraph

Via Pacific Standard: ‘The overall goal of the preparation process is to teach people to control the otherwise-involuntary physical stress responses that the polygraph’s sensors pick up on during the interview. Or, as Williams himself summed up quite simply in a recent tweet: “The polygraph operator monitors your respiration, GSR, & cardio. Get nervous on the wrong question & he calls you a liar!”Many criminologists now believe that “getting nervous” shouldn’t indicate a guilty conscience, and that consistent story-telling is a much better indicator of the truth. Psychologists are currently testing new techniques that “induce cognitive load” as potentially more accurate ways to weed out the lies. It takes more brainpower to keep an invented story consistent than it does to tell the truth, the theory goes. So interrogators can try to overwhelm their subjects with information, questions, and tasks, and see how flustered they get.

One review of the research explores methods like having the person draw the scene being described, tell the story in reverse-chronological order, describe the scene in detail from the perspective of a different physical vantage point, and even complete math problems in the middle of the interview. Even being made to maintain constant eye contact occupies the mind, so that can also make it more difficult for a liar to stay on message.’

 

The long and fraught history of judging the president’s kids

Via Washington Post: ‘The lesson: Don’t say anything bad about the president’s kids. Also, the Internet is always waiting for the next thing to be outraged about; don’t make its job too easy.

Avoiding saying stuff about presidential kids has not been America’s strong suit — especially since presidents usually try to keep their children away from spotlight. It’s human nature to be curious about the stuff you’re told to avert your eyes from. 

 

Why Lawyers Could Become An Endangered Species By 2030

Via io9: ‘A new report is predicting that robots and artificial intelligence will dominate most legal practices within 15 years, leading to the “structural collapse” of law firms.

Expert systems fuelled by sophisticated algorithms, natural language processing capabilities, and unhindered access to stores of data are poised to uproot many well established industries and institutions. And as a new report compiled by Jomati Consultants points out, lawyers — like many other white collar workers — are in danger of being supplanted.’

 

Good news: HIV is evolving to be less deadly

Via Salon.com: ‘On World AIDS Day, good news, however abstract, is more than welcome. That news came in the form of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science which has found that HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, is actually evolving in a way that makes it harder for the virus to cause AIDS. The research studied 2,000 women in Botswana and South Africa, two countries which have been hit hard by the epidemic.

…The positive findings are accompanied by the news that the number of people receiving treatment has now exceeded the number of newly infected people, which is an important tipping point in terms of fighting the disease.’

The World Now Has Its First E-Resident

The World Now Has Its First E-Resident - The Atlantic

Via The Atlantic: ‘Edward Lucas has a habit of popping up at pivotal moments in European history. In March 1990, shortly after Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union, the Economist editor caught a flight to Vilnius and received the first Lithuanian visa: number 0001, a stamp-sized chink in the Iron Curtain that got him arrested and deported by Soviet authorities. On Monday, Lucas helped chip away at borders once again. In a ceremony in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a friend of Lucas’s from Ilves’s previous career as a journalist, made Lucas Estonia’s first e-resident. And just like that, the word “resident” took on new meaning, distilled in the smart card below: To be clear: E-residency is not a path to citizenship; it’s not legal residency. It cannot be used as a travel document or a picture ID. Instead, it’s a form of supranational digital identity issued, for the first time, by a country. It’s the online self, now with a government imprimatur. And it’s the latest innovation from a tech-savvy nation that brought you Skype, the world’s first digitally signed international agreement, and an intricate national ID system that allows citizens to speedily elect politicians and file taxes online. The Baltic republic is so wired that officials are even contemplating uploading the government’s digital infrastructure to the cloud so that it can continue operating if Russia invades Estonia.’