November 10th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • At 3 Quarks Daily, Justin E.H. Smith criticizes the homogenizing category of "white" in the United States, which encompasses any number of regional and ethnic subcultures. His northeastern urban Catholic/Jewish experiences are rather different from those of Ulster-Scots descendants, say.

  • Beyond the Beyond's Bruce Sterling provides more disapproving commentary to an article critical of India's shirt from concern to official indifference to Burma's problems on the grounds of geopolitical competition.

  • Co-blogger Scott Peteson writes about how rising diabetes rates in India relate to new research suggesting that undernourishment at a young age plays a major role in increasing the risk of diabetes.

  • A Georgia that's trying to get closer to Europe and the United States, Eastern Approaches observes, is also trying to get closer to Iran for trade and visa purposes. Why? Who knows, but it may be an ill-advised move.

  • Marginal Revolkution notes that the drop in Irish living standards caused by expected tax hikes will be unparalleled in any industrial/post-industiral economy outside of the Soviet bloc.

  • Australian blogger Jim Belshaw--Kim, not Paul--continues his Greece-related posts, meditating on Australia's links via the cultural and military history of the British empire and Commonwealth and on Knossos' sigularity as representative of a Minoan civilization outside of the traditional historiography.

  • Savage Minds takes a look at a newish book, James Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, that makes the case that the dispersed and fragmented nature of many hghland Southeast Asian societies is product but of isolation, but of choices made to maximize autonomy from lowland states.

[LINK] Two interesting, and entirely unrelated (I'm sure), news items about our Milky Way Galaxy

We're learning much about our neighbouring worlds and exoplanets, but we're also learning more about our common galactic home the Milky Way Galaxy.

Background time!

As a galaxy, the Milky Way is actually a giant, as its mass is probably between 750 billion and one trillion solar masses, and its diameter is about 100,000 light years. Radio astronomial investigations of the distribution of hydrogen clouds have revealed that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy of Hubble type Sb or Sc. Therefore, our galaxy has both a pronounced disk component exhibiting a spiral structure, and a prominent nuclear reagion which is part of a notable bulge/halo component. Decade-long observations have brought up more and more evidence that the Milky Way may also have a bar structure (so that it would be type SB), so that it may look like M61 or M83, and is perhaps best classified as SABbc. Recent investigations have brought up support for the assumption that the Milky Way may even have a pronounced central bar like barred spiral galaxies M58, M91, M95, or M109, and thus be of Hubble type SBb or SBc.

First comes the New York Times article by Dennis Overbye, "Bubbles of Energy Are Found in Galaxy".

Something big is going on at the center of the galaxy, and astronomers are happy to say they don’t know what it is.

A group of scientists working with data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope said Tuesday that they had discovered two bubbles of energy erupting from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The bubbles, they said at a news conference and in a paper to be published Wednesday in The Astrophysical Journal, extend 25,000 light years up and down from each side of the galaxy and contain the energy equivalent to 100,000 supernova explosions.

“They’re big,” said Doug Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, leader of the team that discovered them.

The source of the bubbles is a mystery. One possibility is that they are fueled by a wave of star births and deaths at the center of the galaxy. Another option is a gigantic belch from the black hole known to reside, like Jabba the Hutt, at the center of the Milky Way. What it is apparently not is dark matter, the mysterious something that astronomers say makes up a quarter of the universe and holds galaxies together.

“Wow,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton who was not involved in the work.

“And we think we know a lot about our own galaxy,” Dr. Spergel added, noting that the bubbles were almost as big as the galaxy and yet unsuspected until now.

Next comes Wired Science's Dave Mosher, with the news that the "Milky Way May Fizzle Out Sooner Than Expected".

A thick bar of stars, gas and dust spanning across the Milky Way’s center could be speeding star formation and, as supplies run out, our host galaxy’s eventual death.

A new study, the first to trickle out of Galaxy Zoo’s second crowd-sourced scientific effort, buoys the idea that bars somehow encourage galaxies to form big, blue and short-lived stars, as well as funnel gas and dust to supermassive black holes lurking at their cores. In the process, bars may quickly consume star-making materials to leave behind only a “dead” galaxy of red and fading stars.

“Basically, as you go from the really youthful galaxies to the dead ones, more and more frequently we see bars in them,” said Kevin Schawinski, an astronomer at Yale University and co-author of the study, set to appear in an upcoming edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “Our immediate suspicion is that bars are involved in speeding galaxy evolution.”

Schawinski said the work isn’t proof that bars shorten galaxies’ star-forming lifespans — it could be the other way around, with bars being a product of dying galaxies. But he said the data backs the first idea, which is shared among many astronomers.

“Bars seem to help exhaust supplies of gas, pushing galaxies to a passive state and no longer forming any stars. This is inline with our results and what others are saying,” Schawinski said. “The Milky Way, which is more or less agreed to be a barred spiral, may be an example of a galaxy in transition from an active state to something anemic and passive.”

Galactic bars and energy bubbles are unconnected, right? The very idea of astroengineering being feasible is ridiculous, regardless.

Anyway, as Mosher notes, catastrophe may save our galaxy regardless!

When the Milky Way does run out of available stellar fuel and succumbs to its reddish death, which is extremely difficult to precisely predict, all may not be lost. The nearby Andromeda galaxy is expected to collide with our galaxy in about 4.5 billion years.

“When the Andromeda galaxy collides and merges with the Milky Way, it’s going to be spectacular fireworks of star formation,” Schawinski said, noting how gravity-induced chaos should stir up diffuse gas and dust. “Maybe even the galaxies’ black holes will start feeding again, too.”

[LINK] "Dissecting global civil society: values, actors, organisational forms"

Open Democracy's Marlies Glassus contemplates (pace Gladwell) the extent to which the ascendancy of flattened networks over more traditional hierarchies may be helping or harming the components of global civil society (depended on how one defines it, itself a difficult issue discussed by Glassus). First, there's the typology.

[E]ach one of us could probably mix-and-match our own favourite normative flavour of global civil society. Nonetheless, it is possible to simplify and abstract a few ideal typical normative definitions of global civil society. I distinguish the following four.

The neoliberal version: global civil society as the sphere, or the collection of actors, that provides social services more flexibly, effectively and efficiently than states can do.

The liberal version: global civil society as the sphere, or the collection of actors, furthering progressive change, or in other words renegotiating the global social contract, by holding global power-holders accountable to human rights and environmental values.

The radical version: global civil society as the arena, or the collection of actors, resisting global capitalism and/or neo-imperial hegemony through collective action.

The post-modern version: if we accept the western, neo-colonial concept of global civil society at all, it is the arena or collection of actors in (uneven) contestation from a plurality of normative perspectives, not engaged in any one single master project.

While we still all hold to our own normative version, I think a new consensus is emerging with respect to what might be called ‘actually existing global civil society’. Western actors in global civil society, donors, and academics studying the phenomenon are all increasingly coming to the recognition that, whatever normative preference they may have, the post-modern version is an empirical reality. Transnational societal actors include those whose ideology is exclusivist on an ethnic or religious basis, those who do not reject violence, and those who are covertly profit-oriented. Trying to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ or civil society from uncivil society on the basis of any moral frame may not do justice to the subtlety and complexity of social reality.

Next, after identifying specific types of NGOs and old trends (apparently the geographical distribution of NGOs by continent has remained stable since the mid-1990s) with new (Internet-mediated networks) Glassus considers results.

Research by Jordan and Van Tuijl (2001), Taschereau and Bolger (2006) and Carpenter (2007) suggests that transnational activist networks sometimes obscure rather than resolve tensions. These include differences of opinion over strategy, different points of departure in terms of norms and values, uneven information flows, and of course power differentials. Neither a demand for ‘representation’ nor the concept of ‘accountability’ quite captures the nature of these tensions. Most successful networks regularly adapt their structure in order to try and manage, if not necessarily resolve, them.

Charli Carpenter has discovered another important problem with networks. Intuitively, we assume that a problem, when felt in different locations and requiring policy change at different levels, may lead to the emergence of a transnational activist network. However, Carpenter has shown that powerful nodes in existing networks play a key role in brokering which issues become global campaigns and which do not. Organisations and individuals within the networks play roles as ‘issue entrepreneurs’, but also as gatekeepers. Her important example is that of children born of rape. She has documented that the vulnerability of these children is actually a considerable problem in many post-conflict situations, but it has not become framed as a ‘global issue’. She postulates that this is because the issue did not fit with the concerns of existing women’s and child rights networks, and goes so far as to suggest that instead of issues creating networks, it is networks that create the issues!

What we see in global civil society depends on what value lens we use to define global civil society. The lens used by participants, donors, and academics again shapes social reality, but not always in the way we expect.

It's made me think. It'll make you think, too, but only if you read it. Please?

[LINK] "Dolphins form sophisticated alliances to win battles and protect their young"

The fight between sea and land mammals for supremacy begins again, MacLean's tells us.

Like an undersea Facebook community, male and female bottlenose dolphins spend their days courting friends and building alliances. Two new studies show just how important these friendships are and the role they play in a dolphin's biggest game: the race to reproduce.

Male bottlenose dolphins form tight bonds with friends and allies that are as intricate and transitory as those of humans. Researchers already know, for example, that males team up as duos or trios - known as first-level alliances - so that they can mate with a female without her swimming away. (Females become fertile only every four to five years and are thus a rare prize.) But rival males will often try to steal the female, causing the duo or trio to join forces with other groups in what's known as a second-level alliance.

"There can be huge battles over a single female," says Richard Connor, an animal behaviorist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, who has been studying wild dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, for 24 years. "A trio under attack will get help from their buddies."

Now, Connor and colleagues have found an even higher level of alliance. In the biggest fights, the team found, the second-level alliance may receive help from another group of male dolphins, forming what the researchers call a third-level alliance. Even among chimpanzees, scientists have not witnessed such sophisticated partnerships, where one group of animals receives help from another group in a fight. The need to keep track of these complex and shifting alliances may help explain why dolphins have such large brains, the researchers reported in Biology Letters.

Female bottlenose dolphins also have a strong network of female relatives and friends - and in the second study, Connor and another team of researchers found that this helps them have more calves. The research, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that female dolphins have more calves that survive for three years if they have friends that have also raised calves to that age, when a dolphin calf usually becomes independent.

Note that the fights over females indicate that dolphins aren't necessarily nice beings. But then, who said that intelligent creatures had to be?

Mind, both dolphins and chimpanzees might be exceeded in intelligence by other species. I'd lay my bet on African grey parrots, with the cephalopods coming somewhat in behind. And you?

[LINK] "Google v. Blekko v. The Librarian. (The librarian wins.)"

The Zeds' Michael Steeleworthy pens a strong defense of the librarian in the face of search engines, both Google and the new editor-maintained blekko search engine.

The big thing Librarians still have over Google, though, is criticism and control. We not only know how to quickly manipulate Google’s search engine (and other companies’ engines) to discover decent results, but we are pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff. I notice this especially with government documents and government data on the web: people who visit me at the reference desk who are looking for government data have a hard time finding information and then being able to verify its authority. There are no second readers on the web – people have to rely on their own experience and understanding of information organization and information architecture to locate documents, and then be willing to using them with confidence. Librarians, however, can help people locate information sources, draw relationships between items, and determine the value of this knowledge to their own work. For these reasons alone, we’re kind of a big deal and shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

Especially in this so-called digital age, our ability to help people choose information sources makes us essential to information management and research services. For all of our complaints about people’s reliance on the Google search engine and index, we can at least take comfort knowing that our “editorial” function vis-a-vis the Internet is still necessary and valued. What’s a curator but a selector of items of value? I’m not saying that librarians curate the web, but on the whole, we certainly have a broad understanding of the tools and resources needed to help you find what data you’re looking or to take your work to the next level.

[. . .]

Blekko won’t know, for instance, what titles our local public library holds, and neither it will be certain which electronic databases our local universities subscribe to. And I can pretty much guarantee it won’t have any Canadian socio-economic data (longform or no longform) and very few government documents. This is where the person on the ground – the librarian – can step in and act as an intermediary between our patron and what the Internet has to offer.

Go, read the full essay.

[LINK] "North America’s most northerly mosque officially opens in the Arctic"

Arctic Progress blogged a while back about the opening of numerous mosques in the Russian North. The Canadian North, relatively underpopulated on account of its inhospitability, has its first mosque in the Northwest Territories community of Inuvik

Inuvik, a town of 3,300 people north of the Arctic Circle, has some 80 Muslim residents who until recently have met for prayers and religious education inside a small trailer. Guisti, a member of a Winnipeg-based Muslim charity called The Zubaidah Tallab Foundation, decided last year he would help design and build a mosque for the northern community.

Mosques are more than just a place to pray.

“It’s where we pray five times a day, where we socialize, where we hold weddings, where we hold religious schooling for the kids,” he said. “A mosque is at the centre of daily life.”

The group originally wanted the mosque to be built in Inuvik but soon realized having a prefabricated building constructed in Winnipeg would be much less expensive, even with the lengthy shipment factored in.

Getting the oversized load through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories was a bigger challenge than the group imagined. There were narrow bridges and highways under construction, as well as transport regulations which outlined when and where the building could travel.

When the truck arrived in Edmonton on Labour Day weekend, it was stalled as the drivers were told oversized loads were not allowed on Alberta highways on Sundays and holidays. Guisti began to fret, as he was trying to get to Hay River, N.W.T., before the last barge of the year departed down the Mackenzie River for Inuvik.

The obstacles didn’t end there. After crossing the Alberta-N.W.T. boundary, the truck came to a narrow bridge undergoing repairs. As the driver tried to gingerly drive across the bridge, the mosque started tipping to the right.

It made it. Apparently it's now the second most northerly mosque in the world outside of one in Siberia.