Climate Change Imperils the State of the Planet–Will the World Act?

From Scientific American:

Climate-change-imperils-state-of-the-planet_1 NEW YORK CITY—More than 100 countries have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord—the nonbinding agreement to combat climate change hastily agreed to this past December at a summit of world leaders. As signatories, the countries agree to cut greenhouse gas emissions to keep global average temperatures from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. The countries that have signed up to date represent more than 80 percent of the global emissions of such heat- wrapping gases. “Climate change is one of the most important challenges humanity faces today,” said Mexico President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa via teleconference at the State of the Planet gathering at Columbia University hosted by its Earth Institute on March 25. “This is urgent, we need to act now as countries and as governments.”

As part of signing on, countries also listed their national goals for emission reductions. Mexico, for its part, pledged to cut 50 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2012. The U.S. pledged to reduce emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels, pending legislation, whereas China promised cuts of 40 to 45 percent of the total CO2 per unit of economic production, so-called carbon intensity. And it will fall to Calderón and his colleagues in the Mexican government as hosts of the next climate change negotiation meetings in Cancún this November to continue progress toward an international, binding agreement. After all, without a legally binding treaty there will be no accountability on greenhouse gas emissions, warned United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the conference.

More here.

Using Dark Matter to Sense Dark Energy

From Science:

It's a weird, weird, weird universe we live in. Cosmologists and astronomers know that only 5% of it consists of ordinary matter of the sort found in stars and planets. Another 23% consists of mysterious dark matter that (so far) manifests itself only through its gravity. And a whopping 72% of the universe consists of bizarre, space-stretching dark energy which is speeding up the expansion of the universe. Scientists don't know exactly what dark matter and dark energy are. But now they've pulled off a bit of black magic and used the subtle effects of one to study the other. Dark matter gives structure to the cosmos. Space is filled with a vast “cosmic web” of strands and clumps of dark matter, which have grown from microscopic variations in the original, nearly smooth distribution dark matter after the big bang. Through their gravity, the clumps draw in ordinary matter, so the galaxies form and reside within these clumps. Responding to their own gravity, the clumps and strands also grow denser and more compact. At the same time, dark energy stretches the very fabric of space. So if scientists can study the evolution of the cosmic web, they ought to be able to see the effects of dark energy setting in and slightly slowing the growth and coalescence of the clumps.

And that's what astrophysicist Tim Schrabback of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, and colleagues have done.

More here.

a big three


On April 2, 1916 one of Yeats’s plays for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, received its first performance in Lady Emerald Cunard’s drawing room in Cavendish Square, London, before an invited audience. Michio Ito danced the Guardian of the Well. The guests included Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. For all I know, this may have been the only afternoon on which Yeats, Eliot, and Pound were together in the same room. Many years later, Samuel Beckett wrote a play, like At the Hawk’s Well, about waiting; waiting for someone who is supposed to arrive but doesn’t, a variant of waiting for a transforming flow of water which is never received because the guardian of the well distracts those who are longing for it. In Happy Days Winnie utters the first line of At the Hawk’s Well, “I call to the eye of the mind,” one of many literary allusions that she recalls—or rather, that Beckett recalls on her behalf. I draw a loose connection between these occasions to suggest a literary context for the relations I propose to describe: Yeats and Eliot, Yeats and Pound.

more from Denis Donoghue at The Hudson Review here.

an eagle-eyed trickster


Matthew Beaumont took on a tusk of a task in trying to extract two inches from Terry Eagleton’s mammoth memories of a life in the ivory tower. In a series of discussions with Eagleton over a nine-month period in 2008-09, Beaumont covered everything from his subject’s birth to his new lease of life, and even afterlife, as the former altar boy took on the unbelievers in the shape of the two-headed beast, “Ditchkins” (Richard Dawkins and Christo­pher Hitchens). If, for Mark Twain, William Shake­speare was “a Brontosaur: nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster of Paris”, then Eagleton is a tyrannosaurus: nine barrels of blarney and 600 bones to pick. In his short autobiography The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001), Eagleton traversed some of the ground measured out in more detail in these interviews, which are more personal than that text. Beaumont, citing Peter Osborne, concedes they are “care­ful fictions, conjuring the promise of the actual from the signs of the present”. Walter Benjamin, who gives this text its title from an unpublished fragment of a project to “recreate criticism as a genre”, inspired what Beaumont considers to be Eagleton’s best book, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981). Beaumont quotes from Benjamin’s “The Task of the Critic” a comment that goes to the heart of Eagleton’s sig­nifi­cance: “Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinion on the basis of his critical analysis… What we should know about a critic is what he stands for.” This fits Eagleton beautifully. He is tribune rather than bureaucrat.

more from Willy Maley at the THE here.


JerrySaltzCover Saltz was attracted to art criticism, he explains, by reading Artforum, but thankfully he has shaken off that influence. His writing is driven entirely by immediate experience. Or as he puts it: “My ideology is that I hate ideology” (p. 426). He never hesitates to reject pretentiousness: “Sometimes the art world, presented with a vacuum, overinterprets it or assumes that something that says nothing must say something—why else would all these other important people be saying otherwise?” (p. 259). He doesn’t use many literary allusions. Nor does he offer larger historical perspectives, references to older art. When he calls Velázquez “the Shakespeare of painters” (p. 52), then for once his gift for phrase making fails him. Saltz has a short attention span, and so is the ideal commentator on art that mostly resists contemplation. When he reviews Arshile Gorky, admiring him while noting that “his hard-won surfaces and meticulous shapes strike people as labored or too idealistic” (p. 371), you see the limits of his sensibility, which is formed on contemporary art.

more from David Carrier at artcritical here.

A Crisis of Understanding

Dr4024_thumb3Robert Shiller in Project Syndicate:

Few economists predicted the current economic crisis, and there is little agreement among them about its ultimate causes. So, not surprisingly, economists are not in a good position to forecast how quickly it will end, either.

Of course, we all know the proximate causes of an economic crisis: people are not spending, because their incomes have fallen, their jobs are insecure, or both. But we can take it a step further back: people’s income is lower and their jobs are insecure because they were not spending a short time ago – and so on, backwards in time, in a repeating feedback loop.

It is a vicious circle, but where and why did it start? Why did it worsen? What will reverse it? It is to these questions that economists have been unable to offer clear answers.

The state of economic knowledge was just as bad in the Great Depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash. Economists did not predict that event, either. In the 1920’s, some warned about an overpriced stock market, but they did not predict a decade-long depression affecting the entire economy.

Late in the Great Depression, in August 1938, an article by Ralph M. Blagden in The Christian Science Monitor reported an informal set of interviews with US “professors, banking experts, union leaders, and representatives of business associations and political factions,” all of whom were given the same question: “What causes recessions?” The multiplicity of answers seemed bewildering, and did not inspire confidence that anyone knew what was causing the deepest crisis of capitalism.

The causes given were “distributed widely among government, labor, industry, international politics and policies.” They included misguided government interference with markets, high income and capital gains taxes, mistaken monetary policy, pressures towards high wages, monopoly, overstocked inventories, uncertainty caused by the reorganization plan for the Supreme Court, rearmament in Europe and fear of war, government encouragement of labor disputes, a savings glut because of population shrinkage, the passing of the frontier, and easy credit before the depression.

On the Theory and Practice of Justice

SandelVivian Gornick reviews Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? in the Boston Review:

Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do? is a book-length summary of a celebrated survey course on the moral basis of political philosophies ranging from Aristotle to John Rawls, given by Sandel, a remarkably skilled teacher who, over the course of some 30 years, has learned how to be undergraduate-lucid: anyone who has reached the age of reason can read the book. Its cleverness lies, especially, in Sandel’s continual re-creation of homely situations that allow his readers to consult their feelings, while demanding that they use their reason in trying to figure out whether this or that approach to a question of justice makes sense. As Kathleen Sullivan, Professor at the Stanford law school and a former teaching fellow of Sandel’s, remembers it, “He posed moral dilemmas so acute one could escape the agony only by thinking.”

Three approaches to justice—the welfare of the community at large, the rights of the individual, the value of good citizenship—are the heart of Sandel’s matter. How to reason one’s way through the thicket of argument both for and against each of these perspectives—all concerned with the relation between rights and obligations—is the subject of this book. In service to it, Sandel puts up, then knocks down, then resuscitates the reasoning of political philosophers who have struggled, over many centuries, to understand what it is that a human being needs in order to feel that he or she is being treated justly. Sandel posits an opinion about “the right thing to do,” then reflects on that opinion, then works to name the principle on which it is based.

Roughly speaking, ancient theories of justice were concerned with making morally responsible citizens, while modern theories are concerned with individual freedom. None of these theories can separate cleanly from one another—“Devoted as we are to freedom . . . the conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep”—but, Sandel suggests, political philosophy, as a practice, can “give shape to the arguments we have, and bring moral clarity to the alternatives we confront as democratic citizens.”

A Death in the Family

Christopher Hitchens' November 2007 column in Vanity Fair – about a fallen soldier whose decision to enlist had been influenced in part by Hitchens's own writings – has been nominated for a slot on NYU's Top Ten Works of Journalism of the Decade:

ScreenHunter_01 Mar. 15 18.58 I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed “Seen This?” The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described the death, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth of July, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:

“Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him … “

I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze.

More here.

Look Deep Into the Mind’s Eye

Carl Zimmer in Discover:

Mosaicmedia One day in 2005, a retired building surveyor in Edinburgh visited his doctor with a strange complaint: His mind’s eye had suddenly gone blind.

The surveyor, referred to as MX by his doctors, was 65 at the time. He had always felt that he possessed an exceptional talent for picturing things in his mind. The skill had come in handy in his job, allowing MX to recall the fine details of the buildings he surveyed. Just before drifting off to sleep, he enjoyed running through recent events as if he were watching a movie. He could picture his family, his friends, and even characters in the books he read.

Then these images all vanished. The change happened shortly after MX went to a hospital to have his blocked coronary arteries treated. As a cardiologist snaked a tube into the arteries and cleared out the obstructions, MX felt a “reverberation” in his head and a tingling in his left arm. He didn’t think to mention it to his doctors at the time. But four days later he realized that when he closed his eyes, all was darkness.

More here.

Gadalla Gubara and the Half-life of Sudanese Cinema


Sometime, in another life, in another world, he danced in the nightclubs of Khartoum. There were women, lots of them. Empires, kings, and presidents. He saw them all through the lens of a brand-new Arriflex camera. He was the only person to own one in Sudan. His name was Gadalla Gubara, and he was the father of Sudanese cinema. Then everything went dark. There were only voices, coming over the airwaves. Hour after hour he sat in his chair, resting his head against a radio he held with both hands. He looked like a turtle, head sunk into his shoulders, though he would straighten up suddenly when he heard a song he recognized, and he would sing along, in a voice that belied his frailty. It was that voice, and his hands — pinching my bottom, if I wasn’t careful — that helped me imagine what he must have been like, before. The cabinets in the tiny one-bedroom house where he lived were filled with the memorabilia of his life, all in careless disarray, useless to him. There were manifestos from the early days of the Federation of Pan-African Cinema (FEPACI), pictures from travels abroad to film festivals in Moscow and Paris and Berlin. Pictures of women. There was a strange intimacy to sitting beside him and looking at photographs he himself could no longer see. The world they depicted seemed far away from the insulting obscurity of his existence.

more from Nadja Korinth at Bidoun here.

It’s a show about a puppeteer who’s doing a puppet show about a puppeteer


On the rooftop patio of an old actors’ hotel on a sleepy Sydney street, Ronnie Burkett is contemplating neck joints. For years, he’s been convinced his are the best in the world, but some rare footage has just surfaced on YouTube, showing an obscure design used in America during the ’40s. “The puppet’s head went side to side,” he says, eyes widening, “and I thought I was going to have an orgasm.” The waters of the harbour a few blocks away shimmer in the midday heat as Burkett pledges to duplicate, if not surpass, this miracle of cranial manipulation. It will have to wait, though, until he returns to his Toronto studio. In a few hours, Burkett will leave this quiet oasis and walk to work, cutting down to the shore so he has an unobstructed view of the waterfront’s famous white half shells as he approaches them. “It’s one of those pinch-me moments,” he explains. “You go, ‘How did a puppet show from Medicine Hat get to the Sydney Opera House?’” A moment of pride gives way to gentle self-mockery: “I mean, it’s just a puppet show.”

more from Alex Hutchinson at The Walrus here.

our friend Tom Bissell has lost his mind….


Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down “only” a thousand words. Once upon a time I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than a fortnight between them. Once upon a time I was, more or less, content. “Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years (2001-2006), during which I wrote several books and published more than 50 pieces of magazine journalism and criticism – a total output of, give or take, 4,500 manuscript pages. I rarely felt very disciplined during this half decade, though I realise this admission invites accusations of disingenuousness. Obviously I was disciplined. These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction – excepting those I was also reviewing – in the last year. These days I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon and spend my evenings playing video games. These days I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-earth trajectories.

more from Tom at The Observer here.


From Edge:

Mullis500 [KARY MULLIS] We're working on a way to manipulate the existing immune system so it can attack things it's not already immune to. We've been controlling bacteria for years with antibiotics, but the bacteria are catching on. We've never been good at controlling viruses unless we prepare for them well in advance by vaccination, but now we can use the same method for them too, and in both cases the cure is not administered until you are infected, and it works right away. It sounds to good to be true, so did antibiotics—they called them “miracle drugs.” In order to understand what we're doing, I should explain how the immune system works. Most people know you've got this system, but not how it actually functions down on the level of molecules and cells.

It's a collection of lots of different kinds of cells, each with their own purposes. There are about as many as you have in your brain distributed mostly in special areas all over your body. The business end of the system is a set of hungry cells that will destroy and ingest things that are designated by the whole system as being “other.” The rest of the system is charged with preventing them from eating anything else. New cells are always being born. And they are right away tested for their ability to make antibodies that attach themselves onto things that are “other”. Antibodies are molecular markers.

More here.

No Bones about It: Ancient DNA from Siberia Hints at Previously Unknown Human Relative

From Scientific American:

New-hominin-species_1 For much of the past five million to seven million years over which humans have been evolving, multiple species of our forebears co-existed. But eventually the other lineages went extinct, leaving only our own, Homo sapiens, to rule Earth. Scientists long thought that by 40,000 years ago H. sapiens shared the planet with only one other human species, or hominin: the Neandertals. In recent years, however, evidence of a more happening hominin scene at that time has emerged. Indications that H. erectus might have persisted on the Indonesian island of Java until 25,000 years ago have surfaced. And then there's H. floresiensis—the mini human species commonly referred to as the hobbits—which lived on Flores, another island in the Indonesian archipelago, as recently as 17,000 years ago.

Now researchers writing in the journal Nature report that they have found a fifth kind of hominin that may have overlapped with these species. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) But unlike all the other known members of the human family, which investigators have described on the basis of the morphological characteristics of their bones, the new hominin has been identified solely on the basis of its DNA.

More here.