January 22nd, 2010

[LINK] Some Friday links

After a much-appreciated two days' rest, I'm back!

  • 80 Beats announces that global warming is accelerating the decay of underwater shipwrecks, like Sweden's Vaasa in the Baltic Sea.

  • A BCer in Toronto's Jeff Jedras reports that Conservative federal minister Rona Ambrose is taking a
    dvantage of the prorogation of parliament to haver a pleasant vacation.

  • blogTO's Derek lets us know that the Queen Street streetcar route, 24 kilometres long, isn't going to be split in two after all.

  • Laura Agustín at Border Thinking on Migration writes about Italy's astoundingly ill-thought immigration policies in the context of the recent Calabrian pogrom.

  • Gideon Rachman wonders whether Hillary Clinton is making much of China's Google issues to try to counteract the impression that she's soft otherwise on China.

  • Joe. My. God writes about the worsening plight of GLBT people across Africa.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money's Robert Farley lets us know that, firstly, the United States has Biblical quotations inscribed on some of its weapons sights, and secondly, that New Zealand will be getting rid of them.

  • Marginal Revolution informs us that, in at least some circumstances, South Korean courts recognize virtual currency as being akin to real currency.

  • Slap Upside the Head writes that, in what's the ultimate way of proving that a minority is accepted, that Kraft is dispatching researchers to study the consumption of same-sex households.

  • Spacing Toronto's Dylan Reid writes about the high number of pedestrian deaths recently in Toronto, and wonders whether the contrasts between recent bright weather and more recent overcast days has confused people into thinking that visibility was better than it was.

  • Window on Eurasia writes about the controversy surrounding the use of Latin and other scripts in Cyrillic-using Russia.

[BRIEF NOTE] On a low-impact method for feeding vampires

Although the vampire has always been an erotic figure, its difficult for a character who kills people for their blood to be a sympathetic hero. The Buffyverse's Angel got around this minor problem by drinking slaughterhouse blood, prefiguring the idea of "vegetarian vampires" that have manifested in Twilight and True Blood.

Believe it or not, the term “vegetarian vampire” is showing up all over the place — thanks in large part to the popularity of the Twilight book series, upcoming movie of the same name, and new series on HBO called True Blood.

Written by author Stephenie Meyer,
Twilight tells the story of a young woman that falls in love with a vampire named Edward Cullen. Thing is, he abstains from drinking human blood, and drinks animal blood instead. Hence, he’s labeled “vegetarian” — which obviously makes no sense according to the true definition but provides a fine analogy.

But seriously — this whole “vegetarian vampire” premise has gotten so big, that there’s even a “how to” for dressing up as one: “Put on gold contacts if you are a “vegetarian” vampire. If you do not want to be vegetarian, put on burgundy contacts. This step is optional.” Now you know.

True Blood, I guess these guys would be called “Vegan Vampires” since the idea is that an artificial blood source has been created so that vampires do not have to kill at all.

The idea of the "vegetarian vampire" might neuter the danger inherent in the idea of the vampire, but it does allow for the possibility that individual vampires could be sympathetic characters, not serial killers.

But still, I wonder whether there's a third outcome, apart from murder or vegetarianism. Earlier this month I had my annual checkup from my family doctor, a very competent and very thorough sort who made sure that I was sent to an adjoining clinic for blood tests. Everything went fine--in case you're curious, the only thing wrong with me was the sort of Vitamin D deficiency that's easily remedied--but the nurse took out eleven tubes of blood. That made me wonder: What if vampires ran health care systems?

- Nurse, you've taken twenty tubes already. I'm feeling light-headed.

- There's just ten more. Drink the orange juice and eat the cookie.

- But my doctor sent me in for tests for my psoriasis--

- Drink the orange juice and eat the cookie.

[LINK] "The cephalopods can hear you"

james_nicoll linked to this news item.

The discovery resolves a century-long debate over whether cephalopods, the group of sea creatures that includes octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautiluses, can hear sounds underwater.

Compared to fish, octopus and squid do not appear to hear particularly well.

But the fact they can hear raises the possibility that these intelligent animals may use sound to catch prey, communicate with one another or listen out for predators.

[. . .]

Hong Young Yan of the Taiwan National Academy of Science in Taipei, Taiwan suspected that octopus and squid might use another organ called the statocyst to register sound.

The statocyst is a sac-like structure containing a mineralised mass and sensitive hairs.

[. . .]

They discovered that the octopus can hear sounds between 400Hz and 1000Hz. The squid can hear an wider range of sound from 400Hz to 1500Hz, they report in Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part A.

"That indicates that squid have a better hearing capability than the octopus," says Yan. "Interestingly though, both species hear best at a frequency of 600Hz."

[. . .]

"The key question which I would like to investigate is what kind of sounds are they listening to?" says Yan. "Perhaps they listen to sound to evade predators and can eavesdrop to sounds made by their prey. Or, perhaps they even could make sounds to communicate among themselves."

[LINK] "Two moms are as good as a mom and a dad: study"

The Toronto Star's Cathal Kelly shares the news.

A pair of American sociologists spent five years sifting through all the available literature contrasting the outcomes for children raised in traditional families with those raised by a same-sex couple. Their conclusion: no substantive difference at all.

“The upshot of the study is something that should be common sense, but instead there is this enormous belief in the significance of gender. Bottom line: What matters is good parenting,” said NYU’s Judith Stacey. She and colleague Timothy Biblarz published the results of their investigation in the Journal of Marriage and Family on Friday.

Stacey and Biblarz have been involved in the culture wars surrounding gay marriage and gay parenthood since the release of their 2001 study, How Does The Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?

Those who disagreed with their answer to that question – “not that much” – began casting around for their own scientific data. That prompted this follow-up.

“In the U.S. especially, policy makers ... always start their (anti-gay marriage) argument with, ‘Research proves...,’” Stacey said. “But that research is almost exclusively research that compares children with two married parents to children whose parents divorced or never married. It’s completely skewed.

“They were extrapolating from those studies, which can say, on average – and that’s an important qualification – two parents usually are better than one. Not always. That’s another, more complicated story. But it certainly has nothing to do with whether (the parents are) male or female.”

The only discernible and consistent advantage they could come up with for traditional couples: lactation.

The studies covered same-sex female couples; apparently there are too few same-sex male families, too recently, to be included.

[LINK] Two social networking notes

  • MacLean's' links to an AFP article describing how five Francophone journalists will sequester themselves in a farmhouse in southern France, free of all contact with the outside world save for their Facebook and Twitter feeds, and see how accurate their news is.

  • Inter Press Service's Garry Pierre-Pierre writes about how all manner of social media and social networks helped Haitians in the diaspora stay in touch with events in their homeland.

[LINK] "Time to pay back Haiti"

Again at Inter Press Service, A.D. McKenzie describes how Haiti's profoundly troubled relationship with France has impacted on the state of modern-day Haiti, and interviews Haitians living in their French diaspora about their opinions on France's historical debt to the island nation.

Haiti's currrent poverty can be traced directly to the heavy financial and human toll it had to bear in its violent rupture from France two centuries ago.

Following Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1804, France demanded payment of 150 million francs in exchange for recognition of the country’s new status and also as reparation for "lost lands" in the slave revolt that led to autonomy.

Haiti signed a treaty agreeing to the demands, and although the amount was later reduced, the new nation still had to borrow heavily from banks in the United States, France and other countries to pay the sum plus interest, sinking ever deeper into poverty. The payments to France were completed only in the mid-1940s.

"They are all responsible - France, the U.S., all of them - for this mess that Haiti is now in," said Anita, a Paris-based Haitian in her fifties, speaking softly at the back of Notre Dame as the mass proceeded.

"When they weren’t getting money out of us, they were interfering in the governing of our country," she told IPS, before breaking off to join in the singing of a hymn.

[. . .]

Indeed, many of France’s 80,000 Haitians are still in shock, waiting to hear from loved ones and hoping that more can be done before others die.

"I don’t want to talk about historical obligations or debts," said Natacha Alexandre, a Haitian nursing student and former teacher who has lived in France for 18 years. "But there is now a moral obligation to help Haiti. I think the international community is doing what it can, and I would like to thank all the friends of Haiti who are supporting us in this tragedy at whatever level.’’

"Today my pain is so strong that I want to scream out my sadness to the whole world," she added. "But I know that Haiti, as always, will rise again from the ashes."

France has called for a speeding up of the cancellation of Haiti’s foreign debt, including a 54-million-euro (77.6 million US dollars) debt to Paris, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he will hold a "reconstruction and development" conference with other international "donors" to discuss ways to help Haiti recover from this latest disaster.

[. . .]

Meanwhile, French immigration minister Eric Besson ordered his department to halt the repatriation of undocumented Haitian immigrants, and he announced the implementation of an "exceptional and temporary measure" to allow those affected by the earthquake to enter France.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the challenges facing us and our hopefully un-deterraformed Earth

Over at his blog Infinite Recursion, my old friend Stephen DeGrace has written a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about the problems facing humanity in the 21st century, especially in the context of climate change I rather like them, and, in fact, would pretty thoroughly represent my own position on the subject.

Stephen begins by making the point that not only modern trade but modern agriculture is terribly dependent on fossil fuels, the cheaper the better, to generate the energy and the materials necessary to sustain a highly-productive, high-energy global culture. This dependency places us in a serious bind in the context of declining fossil fuel reserves, even as climate change undermines the basis of our existing economic structures (more or less precipitation, hotter or colder temperatures, et cetera), all imposing additional costs that might well break the system, in parts at least. I suspect--at least hope--that middle-income Mexico and China, never mind high-income southern Europe, won't succumb to famine, but other regions? The Middle East and North Africa strikes me as peculiarly vulnerable. This additional fragility makes it essential not only to avoid war--especially great power war--but to establish a workable system of global governance, a difficult task given how strained times tend to produce extremist ideologies. Still, a moderate globalism is key.

Between here and there we have to get through food supplies which are flattening out while the world population is projected to continue to grow to nine billion people before declining, and on top of that, dangerous political instability caused by climate change in an environment of food scarcity, peak oil, and Great Power reorganization. The path to survival requires effective supernational institutions and active government involvement, loathed by the right, and robust free markets and heavy investment in science and technology (with nuclear firmly on the table and interference with the climate seriously under consideration), loathed by the left.

Success is not impossible, but requires a sane, centrist approach that draws on the better elements from both basic human political prejudices. However, in an increasingly frightening and destabilized environment, people will increasingly turn to extremist ideology. Just because the right wing happens to be dominant in our time does not mean that it will necessarily be the preferred flavour of extremist ideology throughout the world in the future, either. But ideology means doctrine, and doctrine means a fact-proof screen between the believer and reality.

There are going to be some spoilers, mind, countries which would benefit at least for a while from climate change. Countries like Canada.

Canada stands to be a huge winner in the climate change and peak oil lottery. We are at a high latitude, so we probably won't experience the drying of other regions (although our water supply in parts of the country may be affected due to melting glaciers, as pertains to rivers which are glacier fed). But our water supply will be comparatively unaffected, or may actually improve in areas due to increased rainfall, and we will enjoy longer growing seasons and expanded agricultural range.

In a world where people are increasingly hungry, a nation which actually has an increased agricultural abundance stands to get very rich. Even if imported food is prohibitively expensive due to high shipping costs, people will stay pay whatever they have to, because they have to eat. Canada will make a killing.

Additionally, we have huge reserves of oil, especially expensive, dirty oil which will be very profitable to extract at high oil prices - as long as efforts to mitigate climate change don't cut even further into demand than high prices will, that is.

Because of these factors, it is absolutely not in Canada's naked short-to-medium-term self-interest to have any world-wide scheme to reduce carbon emissions. Obviously over the long term we will suffer along with everyone else, but long term considerations are unlikely to be particularly motivating, particularly when there is widespread wilful disbelief in the central facts.

For now, for practical reasons, our government is openly saying they will do whatever the Americans do, no more, no less. But over time, look for Canada to play even more of a spoiler role in climate change negotiations than we do even at present (and we are already a significant impediment to progress). Canada will absolutely become a major climate change villain. I absolutely foresee a day when Canadians will sew American flags to their backpacks to obtain a better reaction from people when travelling abroad.

Keeping in mind that expectations of limitless technological change are probably unrealistic, what with the easy technological byproducts of the scientific revolution quite possibly having all been made, what solutions are there?

In the long run, of course, human survival with any semblance of a decent standard of living depends on there being a lot less humans. Nine billion human beings is simply too great a strain on the earth's carrying capacity for us to get away with it for very long (and that's making the possibly unfounded assumption that we can get away with it at all). But we would like to get to a sustainable place the painless way, by having less babies and waiting for the old folks to die off on their own. Since that is likely a tall order, we need to be thinking very seriously about how we're going to manage the relatively short term of the next fifty or a hundred years or so.

Perhaps fortunately, the ongoing trend in more and more countries is for populations to fall given below-replacement fertility. This, however, won't necessarily make much of a dent on global population levels, not only because only a few countries are experiencing net natural decrease, but because growing life expectancies slows down the process. The social consequences of rapid aging in countries without effective social safety nets, especially pensions, also has to be considered. (Oh, China.)

The key requirement is clear: cheap, super-abundant energy. Massive food production consumes a massive amount of energy, and we will need to produce food on a more massive scale than has ever been done before. Assuming anyone has any food to export by mid-century, inexpensive transportation to make food imports affordable to nations badly hit by global warming will be crucial, and of course, nations will need to transport food internally at significant expense. Desalinization of sea water may be the only realistic source of water for some highly-populated arid nations which are rapidly consuming their sources of fossil water (*cough*Saudi Arabia*cough*). Every aspect of the very pleasant lifestyle we in the industrialized world enjoy and which everyone in the developing world has a right to aspire towards requires access to cheap, abundant energy.

The vast deployment of solar panels might work, as might successful nuclear fission or nuclear fission. Regardless, it'll be a close thing for us, caught between the need for poor countries to develop economically and everyone's need for an Earth that isn't deterraformed.

In terms of the future of energy, all that can really be said for sure is that we can't continue as we have been. Even if we try, peak oil will force us to bend our ingenuity to making less desirable hydrocarbons like bitumen and coal more economical, which will almost certainly create a major drag on our economy, but can certainly keep us going a while longer. At least until such time, not nearly far enough into the future for anyone's comfort, that our civilization will finally choke to death on its own pollution, most probably through the devastating destabilization caused by global warming.

Every way out that leads to long-term survival involves undeveloped and/or unproven technologies. So it is obvious what we must do - we must invest heavily into research and development through institutions of higher learning, and we must harness the power of the free market by artificially attaching a high price to carbon dioxide emissions on a global scale. Only by making resources available to our best minds and creating powerful incentives can we really have any hope that something will pan out in time. If we don't take this path, it will take more than a miracle to save us.

I think that we can escape, certainly; we likely have the technology to do so. I just hope that we'll be willing to deploy these technologies before it's too late.