May 27th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Daniel Drezner wonders if, at a time when Europe is weakening, the United States can find partners and allies to take Europe's place in emerging countries like India and Brazil.

  • Extraordinary Observation's speculates that social engineering might change the ways American cities and city-dwellers operate, becoming more pro-bike for instance.

  • Geocurrents writes about Paraguay, suggesting that its apparent tolerance for corruption may have a lot to do with its participation in two deadly, very draining wars.

  • Global Sociology really doesn't like the IMF, particularly what it sees as economic strategies which disproportionately hurt the poor and the middle classes.

  • Law 21's Jordan Furlong warns that China may end up becoming hugely important as the outsourcing of legal work goes, with obvious implications for lawyers in North America and elsewhere.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money's communication of the reality that the Israeli-South African alliance under apartheid was so close that Israel was apparently willing to sell South Africa nuclear weapons doesn't surprise me. The fact that Israel got away with such potentially catastrophic proliferation will threaten non-proliferation efforts, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

  • Noel Maurer is not impressed by German public opinion's hostility to IMF bailouts of southern European Euro-using countries, since Germany will benefit.

  • Slap Upside the Head reports on the sad news that Canada is about to deport an asylum seeker, hoping that Canada wwill save him from persecution on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

  • Spacing Toronto's Shawn Micallef mourns the recent death of Will Munro, a queer artist and community organizer who helped transform Toronto's artistic community.

  • Zero Geography maps Internet usage by country. Romania and Ukraine turn out to have surprisingly low rates of Internet usage.

[BRIEF NOTE] Yet another amazing extrasolar discovery

Upsilon Andromedae A is a Sun-like star somewhat younger and more massive, thus more luminous, than our own Sol. The fact that Upsilon Andromedae A supports a planetary system has been known since 1996, while three years later astronomers determined that Upsilon Andromedae A has multiple planets, the first system so identified. It turns out that Upsilon Andromedae A's system is very weird and unexpected. I'll let Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait describe it.

Our solar system is pretty neat and orderly. Yeah, it has some issues, but in general we can make some broad statements about it: the planets all orbit the Sun in the same direction, for one thing, and they also orbit pretty much in the same plane. If you look at the system from the side, the orbits would all look flat, like a DVD seen from the side.

That’s left over from the formation of the solar system itself, which happened when a cloud of dust and gas collapsed into a disk. The planets formed from that disk, so they all orbit in roughly the same plane. We see other systems forming in the same way, so we assume that when we look at those planets, they’ll also have all their planets in a plane.

Oops. Maybe not so much. Astronomers have just announced that they’ve confirmed a system where the planets are not all aligned this way, and in fact the planets are titled relative to each other by as much as 30°!

Will Baird reproduced the below useful comparison map of our planetary system and Upsilon Andromedae's. I wouldn't have thought it stable, honestly.

Comparison of Solar System with Upsilon Andromedae system

[T]he amazing thing is that it looks like Ups And c and d are in wildly different orbits: instead of being almost exactly in the same plane as expected, they are tilted relative to one another by 30°! The illustration on the right compared those orbits with those of planets in our own solar system, and you can see how weird this is.

[. . .]

In the case of Upsilon Andromedae, we have some culprits. The data hint that there may be a fourth planet orbiting the star. It’s not clear if it’s there or not, but if it has an elliptical orbit it could gravitationally affect the inner planets. There’s also the red dwarf star orbiting farther out. Far more massive than a planet, its gravity may have some effect on the system as well. It’s also certainly possible that there are other influences we haven’t seen or thought of yet. [Update: I just got off the phone with the team who did this research, and Rory Barnes told me that a strong possibility as well is that there were more planets in the system initially. They would have interacted via gravity, and affected each others' orbits. A likely scenario is that a planet with about ten times the mass of Jupiter could have messed up the orbits of the other two, then been ejected out of the system. This is a common outcome when you have lots of massive objects in one system.

This has obvious implications for life, as noted at Wired Science.

When astronomers talk about the “habitable zone,” they mean the shell around a star where the temperatures are right for liquid water. Any closer, and oceans will boil. Any farther, and the planet will freeze. But this definition assumes that most planets have roughly circular orbits, like the Earth and most other planets in the solar system.

“What we know from studying exoplanets is that that is definitely not the rule,” said Rory Barnes of the University of Washington at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami. Many of the 454 exoplanets discovered to date have highly elliptical orbits, meaning the planets are not always the same distance from their parent star. Thanks to this uneven geometry, the planet spends more time closer to its star, which tends to make for warmer planets.

Adding another planet, especially a bullying Jupiter-sized planet, can mess with orbits and make a once-hospitable planet move in and out of the habitable zone over time. Using computer simulations of several hypothetical planetary systems, Barnes showed that a giant neighbor can pull an Earth-like planet’s orbit like a rubber band, shifting it from circular to elliptical and back to circular again in as little as a few thousand years.

Still, there is hope.

Barnes’ simulations predicted more-dire consequences for extrasolar planets near the edge of their habitable zones, though. If the planet is on the cooler edge of the habitable zone, it could go through cycles of freezing and thawing. If it’s on the warmer side, the temperature could fluctuate from comfy to boiling from one millennium to the next.

“The inner edge is much more dangerous,” Barnes said. All the water could boil off and be lost forever, or the warming planet could experience a “runaway greenhouse” effect and end up a scorched wasteland like Venus.

But it’s not all bad news. Barnes suggests that some planets we might dismiss as snowballs could just be going through an eccentric phase.

“Our own Earth has gone through stages of glaciation — we call them snowball Earth phases — and we managed to pull out of it,” he said. “On a planet like that, on the outer edge, you will have reservoirs of life, and there will be habitats that will persist.”</i>

Barnes is referring to the Snowball Earth theory, which suggests--apparently with good reason--that there have been periods of time when the Earth was locked into periods of tens of millions of years in which it has been completely glaicated. Science fiction writers have depicted life on worlds with similar if less extreme cycles, most notably Brian Aldiss in his Helliconia series, set on a planet with very long seasons, dipping from coldest winter to warmest spring over two thousand years.

[BRIEF NOTE] On Greco-Turkish reconciliation and the rise of Turkey

It's almost a truism that Greece-Turkey relations are fraught. They have been since the first Greek uprisings against Turkish rule in the early 19th century, and they have remained inflamed since by any number of crises including the 1923 population exchanges between Greece and Turkey following the very bloody Greco-Turkish war and the and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Now, IPS News suggests that Greco-Turkish relations are set to improve, as a rising Turkey implements a (so far) successful foreign policy aimed at reducing conflicts with its neighbours. Reconciliation seems like a real possibility.

Ioannis Grigoriadis, professor at the Bilkent University in Turkey and an associate of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy Studies (ELIAMEP), circulated an analytical report days before Erdogan’s visit arguing that Turkey’s return as a strategic regional force would have enormous impact on the geopolitical balance.

Grigoriadis is one of many analysts who see Turkey’s return as a regional power rooted in Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategic doctrine that envisages the country as a core economic regional power and a transit point between East and West in future. It is a sophisticated foreign policy strategy that promotes the country’s economic interests while also attempting to heal Turkey’s old wounds.

"Davutoglu's doctrine talks about "zero problems with neighbours. It remains to be seen whether any substance will be put to this in the following months’’, Grigoriadis told IPS.

"More attention has been given to Turkish relations with Armenia, Syria, and Iraq rather than with Greece. Joint Greek-Turkish initiatives in the Balkans could not be precluded, yet where work is mostly needed is in the Aegean question, as well as Cyprus," he said.

Offering to mediate between the West and Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and taking on Israel for its aggression against Lebanon and Palestine, have also been spectacular foreign policy decisions that attracted attention internationally.

But Turkey’s silent return in the Balkans has been equally effective. During the last decade it has established itself, politically and economically, as a key factor in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, successfully playing on cultural proximity.

Turkey’s new philosophy has led it to improve relations and acquire strategic assets beyond traditional boundaries. Two weeks ago Turkish investors declared interest in purchasing the Serbian national carrier JAT.

Emrullah Uslu, a Turkish terrorism expert and currently an associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utah said: "Davutoglu and the governmental Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership consider Turkey’s economic infrastructure to be the strongest in the region. Therefore, peace within the region would benefit the Turkish economy".

This represents something of a power shift in the area of the Balkans. Since the end of Communism Greece has been the main regional centre, a leading foreign investor particularly in the banking sector and a major destination for Balkan emigrants, particularly emigrants from areas and communities with close links to Greece, like the Greek diaspora in the Black Sea area and southern Albania. Turkey's rise is changing the dynamics.

In a sense, the relationship between Greece and Turkey is like that of Taiwan and China. Relative to Turkey Greece is a maritime power, separated from Turkey by the Aegean Sea and with well-defended insular holdings near the frontier, able to successfully hold of its neighbours thanks to a significantly greater wealth per capita that allows it to defend its well-defined frontiers with a relatively more sophisticated military and favourable geography. China's economic growth of late has threatened Taiwan's defensive position, helping to encourage a rapprochement based on economic factors. So too Greece and Turkey?
cats, shakespeare

[CAT] Randy Moravec, Claude

Randy Moravec, Claude
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei
A commenter in a recent friends-locked conversation suggested that one reason cat owners seem to be much more imaginative about their cats personalities and intellects and interests than owners of other pets is that cats, unlike (for instance) dogs, are decidedly independent, doing whatever pleases them with relatively little regard for human wishes. This observation occurred to Randy Moravec before he composed his 1992 photo essay book Claude (official site here). After he had seen all the activities that his handsome black-and-white cat would do different things, Moravec provided his friends with precise figures as to how much a cat would do something over its projected seventeen-year lifespan, that its average food-related attention span was 2.16 hours, for instance. The whole small, slim book is devoted to explorem, pairing a black-and-white photo of Claude doing something with a figure and related observation on the facing page (that cats' food-related attention span are almost indefinite, giving them the impression of being "truly devoted" pets). The photos illustrating Claude's behaviour are well-shot and do a good job of illustrating Moravec's amused, almost bemused, observations of the different skills and interests of catdom. I'm glad that I came across this very pleasant book, and am certain that other cat aficionados would enjoy it as much as I did.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the confusions of Tea Partiers

Tim Gueguen recently pointed to the news that some Tea Partiers would like to reform the US Senate by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment that requires Senators to be selected by popular vote. Instead, in an effort to decrease the influence of the federal government over the states, senators would be appointed by states themselves.

In the past couple weeks, at least two mainstream Republican candidates have found themselves walking back from pledges to support repealing the amendment, suggesting there's a limit to how much support the tea parties can provide.

The "Repeal The 17th" movement is a vocal part of the overall tea party structure. Supporters of the plan say that ending the public vote for Senators would give the states more power to protect their own interests in Washington (and of course, give all of us "more liberty" in the process.) As their process of "vetting" candidates, some tea party groups have required candidates to weigh in on the idea of repeal in questionnaires.

Tim's observations are quite right. The Tea Partiers want what Canadians have at the same time that some Canadians want something like what the Americans have.

This is ironic given that the most common idea for Senate reform in Canada is to make it elected, although there are also those, like the New Democratic Party, who want the Senate abolished. Alberta has had elections to fill its Senate candidates, and the current Saskatchewan Party government in Saskatchewan wants to do the same, but the results of these elections are not binding on the Prime Minister. So it's kind of amusing to see the Tea Partiers move in the other direction.

Me, I think it seems to contradict the Tea Partiers' insistence that American politics be much more responsive to the people. It is hilarious that they just want to redistribute the "authoritarianism" they denounce to different levels.

[LINK] "Namibia Expands Uranium Mines as Diamonds Lose Shine"

BusinessWeek's Carli Lourens reports that Namibia is hoping to diversify its economy by becoming a major uranium exporter.

Namibia’s economy contracted 0.8 percent last year, after expanding 4.3 percent a year earlier, as mining output halved. Diamond production plunged to 929,006 carats from 2.22 million carats a year earlier, according to the central bank. Demand for the gems plunged as the worst recession since World War II deterred buyers of luxury items like necklaces and earrings.

“The uranium sector is on the verge of surpassing the diamond industry as Namibia’s biggest,” Luise Nakatana, a mining analyst at Investment House Namibia, a Windhoek-based brokerage, said in an interview on May 18. “If all the proposed projects come on stream, the uranium sector will play a significant role in the country’s economic growth.”

Namibian output may quadruple by 2015 as new mines are opened by companies including Extract Resources Ltd., more than doubling uranium’s contribution to the economy, according to IHN. The industry accounted for 5.6 percent of Namibia’s gross domestic product last year.

[. . .]

Uranium companies are planning to spend more than $3 billion starting operations in Namibia, he said. In 2008, the country became the world’s fourth-biggest producer, up from sixth. The Moscow-based State Atomic Energy Corp., known as Rosatom Corp., said last week that Russia is prepared to invest about $1 billion developing uranium deposits in Namibia.

The nation has “significant” reserves and isn’t plagued by political instability like some rival producers, Marino G. Pieterse, a uranium analyst and editor of Uraniumletter International, said by phone from Amsterdam.

It does have a water supply problem, which is a “major concern” for companies planning to start production in Namibia, said Heike Smith, head of research at Windhoek-based IJG Securities Ltd. The country is mostly desert or semi-desert.