February 9th, 2010


[OBSCURA] Niépce, "View from the Window at Le Gras"

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) was a researcher in photography who, in 1826, took the world's first photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras (La cour du domaine du Gras).

"Niépce captured the photo with a camera obscura focused onto a sheet of 20 × 25 cm oil-treated bitumen. As a result of the 8-hour exposure, sunlight illuminates the buildings on both sides."

Louis Daguerre, Niépce's sometime collaborator, went on to develop the commercially successful daguerrotype, overshadowing Niépce's innovations.

Jim Lewis' 2002 Slate essay is fantastic.

It's all too easy to think that an interesting picture is a picture of an interesting thing—this is the power of photojournalism, some snapshots, certain forms of portraiture, and so on. But the truth is trickier: The quality of a photograph lies not in its subject matter but in the irreducible entanglement of photographer, apparatus, and image. The most interesting fact to contemplate is that someone had the will and the opportunity to take it at all. You're looking at the specific and fleeting relationship among those three things—artist, camera, world. What makes the aesthetics of the photograph different than the aesthetics of, say, painting are the constraints put on that triangle; there's a different relationship to time, a different relationship to machinery, and, of course, a different (though no less complicated) relationship to truth, to memory, to history, and so on.

For example, consider this: Somewhere Nabokov writes that, while many of us are terrified by the expanse of empty time that awaits us after death, few feel any fear of the endlessness that preceded our birth. But looking at the Niépce picture reverses death's order of sentiments; it induces a deep unease over the blankness of the past. You can't help but think of the things and lives that, before 1826, were never caught on film—all those men and women, with nothing to mark their presence or their passing. It inspires a kind of light-headedness. Photographs are not our only—or even our best—reminder of the past, but they are now our most common, so much so that, from sonograms on, there's probably not a person living in the United States who has never been caught on camera. Look at the world's first gasoline engine, and you may feel a twinge of pity for all the miles walked before automobiles came on the scene; look at the first light bulb, and you may pity all the hours people spent in the dark. But the vertigo experienced in response to Niépce's picture is deeper than that: It's an almost metaphysical awe at the utter newness of the relationship being announced, between representations and the things they represent.

I took this copy here, from the Wikimedia Commons.

[LINK] "Aboriginals push back over hunting rules on caribou, polar bears in the North"

Bob Weber's Canadian Press article explains exactly why I distrust the representatives of local populations dependent on animal hunts--groups like First Nations, and groups like Newfoundlanders who claim a sort of indigenous status--who claim a right to determine the future of local animal populations. They've just got too much invested in the status quo, and are resistant to outside oversight (granted, sometimes this is founded in historical reasons, but still).

Aboriginal hunters across the North are pushing back against attempts to conserve wildlife, launching court actions and legislative measures to stop the three territories from regulating the harvest of caribou and polar bears.

"Aboriginal people are very aware of their rights," said Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation in Yellowknife, who faces legal action for hunting in defiance of a ban on taking caribou from the declining Bathurst herd in the central Arctic tundra.

"We may let other things slip, but when you go to the core of who we are, we determine there is a limit."

Northern aboriginals depend heavily on game for food and wildlife issues are among the most politically sensitive in the Arctic. Aboriginal control over animals on their own lands is supposed to be guaranteed by a series of land claims and co-management agreements.

But all three territorial governments, on the advice of biologists, are trying to restrict hunting.

Last fall, Yukon ruled that hunting of the Porcupine caribou herd - thought to have declined from 178,000 to 100,000 animals over the last 20 years - would be restricted to bulls.

Shortly after, the Northwest Territories ended all hunting for the Bathurst herd, which has shrunk by three-quarters in the last three years.

And Nunavut Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk is still trying to set new quotas for polar bears in Baffin Bay, which most biologists consider over-hunted and in decline.

Both the Inuvialuit Game Council and the Gwich'In Tribal Council are taking Yukon to court, asking a judge to declare the territory has broken their land claims by not consulting them adequately. They want a judge to order the hunting restrictions removed.

On Monday, the N.W.T. legislature will consider a motion that calls on the government to rescind its controls on the Bathurst herd.

"It's about aboriginal rights for their means of survival and food," said Norman Yakelaya, the legislative member from the area affected by the hunting ban who tabled the motion.

"We jumped the gun on this. We should have waited to have aboriginal people deal with it."

Erasmus and several other Dene leaders are expected to appear soon before a justice of the peace to demand the return of confiscated caribou meat seized after an illegal hunt.

Shewchuk has been trying to for months to bridge the gap between polar bear hunters near Baffin Bay, who insist they're seeing more bears all the time, and the scientists who claim the current quota is unsustainable. He's already rejected one recommendation from the aboriginal co-management board.

The argument was inflamed recently when the federal government ruled it would no longer permit export of hides taken from that population.

Government spokesmen say that aboriginal groups aren't moving fast enough to protect wildlife.

N.W.T. Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger said his government only acted when it became clear the aboriginal board that oversees the Bathurst herd wouldn't make its own recommendations until this year's hunting season was over.

"We had to make a decision," Miltenberger said. "All the biologists tell us the herd cannot survive another year with an unrestricted hunt."

[LINK] "Cats disappearing in Charlottetown"

Because of Prince Edward Island's relatively high population density and very large proportion of cultivated land, by the end of the 19th century Islanders had killed the large predators (like bears) while decimating old-growth forests. Of late, as cultivated land has given way to second-growth forest, small predators have returned. In rural areas, for instance, coyotes have become quite notable, such that it's a bad idea to let your pet cats and dogs roam freely. In the area of the capital of Charlottetown, suburban growth and/or the exploitation of a new ecological niche has led to the rapid growth of the fox population in the city. Guess what's happening now? The Brighton and Victoria Park districts, it's worth noting, are located in the middle of Charlottetown.

Paulette Hooley said she let her cat Red out after supper one night a couple of weeks ago, but the cat never came home.

Hooley looked up and down her street, asked neighbours, and even put a sign up in the local grocery store.

Then she got the bad news.

"One week later I met the mailman, John Pound, and I showed him the picture of Red, and he said he was very sorry to tell me that he found her body just up the street," said Hooley. "He said that something had got it at the neck."

[. . .]

Area residents said they've noticed more foxes in the city and the animals don't seem to be afraid to approach people.

Hooley's mailman said he often sees them on his morning route, especially around the Victoria Park area.

And Norman Sahely said he sees them at night outside his small neighbourhood grocery store. "They must be looking for food. They are coming closer to town now, very boldly," he said.

Provincial wildlife expert Randy Dibblee confirmed foxes are becoming more domesticated, but said he doubts they're responsible for the missing cats.

"In most cases house cats and foxes are seen out playing or jousting on the front lawn," he said. "I think it's rare even for a fox to prey on a cat, but that being said, foxes are capable of killing cats, but seldom do."

Asked about coyotes, Dibblee said: "These things are seen in rural and suburban areas, but again, if they encounter a house cat, coyotes are quite capable of killing them, but they don't key in on them specifically, but they are capable of taking them."

[LINK] "Earth needs sunblock and fast, scientist says"

For the record, I think that geoengineering plans are necessary: counting on the resiliency of the biosphere, given that the biosphere probably can't handle the volume of pollutants we've contributed, is foolish. We need to get involved. Whether the sulphur dioxide-injection plan is a good one is another thing entirely. Still, avoiding the deterraforming of Earth is key.

As greenhouse gases accumulate, the Earth could soon need a planetary sunblock to keep from frying.

But just what that block will consist of and who will slather it on are questions that need to be urgently answered, a Canadian researcher argued Wednesday in the world's premier science journal.

"Solar-radiation management may be the only human response that can fend off rapid and high-consequence climate change impacts," University of Calgary physicist David Keith writes in Nature.

"But because there's particularly been a taboo about talking about this, there's been very little serious work done," Keith said in an interview with the Star.

The "geoengineering" of our atmosphere could involve shooting sulphur particles into the stratosphere to refract sunlight back into space, and creating low-altitude clouds using particles of sea salt.

Keith, head of the school's Energy and Environmental Systems Group, says many top climate scientists have resisted frank discussions about solar-radiation management (SRM) options because they fear such talk would stymie efforts to cut carbon emissions.

As well, Keith says, some have called it presumptuous to believe humans can responsibly and reliably control climate through the geoengineering techniques. But as climate change predictions grow ever more dire, the use of relatively rapid and cheap SRM technologies must be considered, he says.

"We believe that the risks of not doing research outweigh the risks of doing it," Keith said in Nature.

[BRIEF NOTE] On libraries

A Rusty Little Box had a wonderful brief post about the power of libraries, starting with this Ray Bradbury quote: "Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years." Rebecca went on to write about how, when she was young, every summer she'd go daily to the library in order to read. I hear you.

I've written in the past about libraries. I consider myself lucky, as a point of fact, that the Toronto Public Library is the best library system of its kind in North America, full of books and magazines and online databases of interest. The TPL even offers access to JSTOR! Without the library, my access to knowledge would have been sadly limited, to say nothing of my enjoyment of books. I've come to realize that, as nice as book ownership might be, it just costs too much in space and time. Besides, there's something nice about partaking in a community of readers.

[LINK] "Nepal Waits as 2 Armies, Former Foes, Become One"

Jim Yardley's New York Times article explores an interesting phenomenon--the integration of guerrilla forces into the national miltary it once fought--that bears strong similarities to the creation of the South African National Defense Force out of the apartheid regime's South African Defense Force and the various anti-apartheid guerrilla movements. The difference in Nepal's case is that the integration isn't working so well.

Within the next four months, Nepal must complete the final and most difficult piece of the 2006 peace agreement that ended the brutal Maoist insurrection by integrating these fighters from the People’s Liberation Army of Nepal into the country’s security forces, including the Nepalese Army.

At the ramshackle headquarters of the Fourth Division of the People’s Liberation Army, soldiers in dingy tracksuits loitered in the compound’s dirt courtyard. Their leader, known as Commander Pratik, smiled when asked if integrating his troops with their enemies would prove difficult. “It is more difficult to fight one another,” he answered.

Perhaps. With Nepal facing a May 28 deadline to restructure its government and approve a new constitution, nothing is posing a greater threat to the peace process than the unresolved task of merging the two enemy armies. Maoist leaders and Nepalese political parties have alternately bickered and dithered, with Maoists stalling the dismantling of their army while negotiations go on about how to revise the Constitution.

As a result, Nepal is grasping for a lasting peace, trying to overcome the legacy of a war that has left it more militarized than ever. The 19,602 Maoist soldiers continue to train, even as they remain quarantined in the United Nations camps, or cantonments. The Nepalese Army is twice as large today, with 96,000 soldiers, as it was when the guerrilla war began, and the number of police and paramilitary police officers has steadily risen to roughly 80,000.

“How can you have one country with two armies?” asked Kul Chandra Gautam, a former United Nations diplomat and native Nepali who has consulted with different parties in the peace process. “A country like Nepal does not need 200,000 security personnel. That’s more than all the country’s civil servants combined, minus teachers.”

[. . . T]he Nepalese Army, which before 2006 answered to the king, now deposed, has grudgingly succumbed to civilian control. In January, the defense minister announced that the army was not obligated to accept Maoist soldiers and should be included in civilian negotiations over integration — comments rejected by the prime minister and seized upon by Maoists as evidence of bad faith by the government.

The discharge of disqualified soldiers was supposed to have been a relatively easy first step to begin the integration process. The soldiers being discharged at the Fourth Division ceremony were eligible to leave two years ago, but Maoist leaders rejected the rehabilitation package and demanded large cash payments for every departing soldier.

Those demands were rejected, and Maoists agreed to proceed with the discharges only in late 2009, with caveats. Now departing soldiers must call a United Nations hot line after they leave to personally request a rehabilitation package that includes educational support, business and vocational training, and financial help to start a business.

[LINK] "Did ancient Polynesians visit California? Maybe so."

Thanks to Ivan from Facebook for pointing me to this interesting article about pre-Columbian Polynesian/Californian contact.

Scientists are taking a new look at an old and controversial idea: that ancient Polynesians sailed to Southern California a millennium before Christopher Columbus landed on the East Coast.

Key new evidence comes from two directions. The first involves revised carbon-dating of an ancient ceremonial headdress used by Southern California's Chumash Indians. The second involves research by two California scientists who suggest that a Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe" is derived from a Polynesian word for the wood used to construct the same boat.

The scientists, linguist Kathryn A. Klar of UC Berkeley and archaeologist Terry L. Jones of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, had trouble getting their thesis of ancient contact between the Polynesians and Chumash published in scientific journals. The Chumash and their neighbors, the Gabrielino, were the only North American Indians to build sewn-plank boats, a technique used throughout the Polynesian islands.

But after grappling for two years with criticisms by peer reviewers, Klar and Jones' article will appear in the archaeological journal American Antiquity in July.

If they are right, their finding is a major blow to North American anthropologists' traditional hostility to the theory that non-Europeans visited this continent long before Columbus.

Until now, few scientists have dared to speculate that the ancient Polynesians visited Southern California between 500 and 700 A.D., that is to say, in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. This is known as the "transpacific diffusion" hypothesis.

"The dominant paradigm in American archaeology for the past 60 or more years has been anti-diffusionist, and our findings are already stimulating a rethinking of that paradigm," Klar told The Chronicle.

[LINK] "Russia Vows to Defend Rights as Czarist Creditors Seek Lawsuit"

The heirs of those French investors devastated by the advent of Soviet Communism still want their money back, even nearly a century later.

The Russian government vowed to “defend our rights” after French holders of czarist bonds valued at as much as 100 billion euros ($137 billion) threatened to sue the Kremlin and seize property it owns in Paris.

“May God help them,” Viktor Khrekov, a spokesman for the Kremlin Property Department, said by phone today from Moscow, after the Paris-based International Federative Association for Russian Bond Holders, or AFIPER, pledged to sue to recoup part of the century-old debt.

“We have experience defending our property abroad,” said Khrekov. “Russia and France settled this debt a long time ago, so if they are planning to sue they will also have to deal with the French government. But they’re welcome to file a lawsuit; we will defend our rights.”

AFIPER’s announcement yesterday came after the French Budget Ministry said Russia had purchased the Meteo France building near the Eiffel Tower in Paris for an undisclosed sum.

France was a key market for Russian bonds before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, with royalty to workers buying them for savings. Holders of czarist debt have clamored for a better deal since 1996, when Russia made a $400 million payment that France said “definitively” settled debt incurred to it before 1945.