December 28th, 2010

[URBAN NOTE] "Remembering Andrew"

An "Andrew" image
Originally uploaded by randyfmcdonald
Via an interview with Torontoist's David Topping comes confirmation that, in fact, a slew of posters of a mysterious man are a memorial to a dead man by his partner.

[F]r both of them, Syed explains, Toronto was home. "Despite growing up elsewhere in Canada, when people here ask me where I'm from, I say Toronto as it's where I first established a strong community in Canada. For Andrew"—who was born in Oshawa, went to school in Lakefield and then Ottawa, and lived and worked after that everywhere from Tunisia to Dessau, Germany—"it was the same."

Starting in November, Syed spent nearly every night, sunset to sunrise, putting the posters of Andrew's face up, sometimes with friends and sometimes with the help of a pick-up truck, but usually by himself, by foot. By the time he stopped, it was three weeks later, and December.

"As an artist it seemed a natural way for me to pay tribute to Andrew, but also to raise questions around ideas of absence versus presence," Syed told Torontoist. "The project is indeed a direct tribute to Andrew and a performance or exercise in public grieving, yet the tribute is so much more as well. It's a tribute to a punk DIY mentality, to a questioning of advertising and the image. It's a rejection of clarity, information, and answers, and an embracing of ambiguity and the idea of not knowing." (That's regardless, he explains later, of whether some people now know who the "Andrew" is, and who put his face around Toronto.) "It's an experiment in memory, time, and permanence. It's an examination of geography and gentrification, vandalism and beautification. It's a celebration of city textures and derelict back alleys. In all of this, for me it is a tribute. "

Another close, longtime friend of Hull's, who asked that his name not be published, isn't sure yet how to feel about the posters. The project, he said, "brings the pain of his death at surprising moments and in public view where's it's difficult to mourn and remember him."

But, he added, Andrew may well have liked the posters just the same.

"Andrew did love to be counter-cultural," the friend said. "We used to love to break into construction sites and explore publicly unknown bits of cities long before 'infiltration' became popularized...the whole mystery of the posters might have been something Andrew would enjoy."

[LINK] "Exclusive Interview: Discoverer of Arsenic Bacteria, in the Eye of the Storm"

The purported discovery of arsenic-based bacteria in California's Mono Lake is one of the more interesting stories in biology lately, albeit more for its ham-handed presentation by NASA et al--the whole paradigm of science by press conference, really--than anything else. Recently an interview with lead investigator Felisa Wolfe-Simon came out at Science. Thoughts, gentlepeople? A selection is excerpted below.

Q: So you did expect your finding to be controversial. Why?

F.W.-S.: We expected some questions and challenges. Our paper, what does it suggest? It suggests that there's a potential exception to what we would say is a fundamental axiom of biology, so it's kind of a two-fold thing. We thought that our findings would generate some discussion, but we didn't anticipate the reaction we saw.

Q: Why do you think you got the reaction that you did?

F.W.-S.: I think maybe it has something to do with that there was some hype generated around it. I was receiving a lot of inquiries from all sorts of people, science journalists and scientists and other sorts of reporters, even before the paper went out under embargo.

So, in terms of understanding what generated the interest, I'm not exactly sure, but I think it was remarkable. What I did know is that on Monday, NASA had sent out the media advisory and it seemed to have people talking. And I thought, "Oh, we're all talking about science." You know, as a science communicator and a person, what I'd like to communicate is how passionate I am about science and understanding these fundamental properties and principles of nature and my small contribution to that understanding. If fifth-graders in Iowa and retirees in Buenos Aires are talking about it, well, that's fantastic.

We, as scientists and other science communicators moving forward, need to understand how the Internet gives voice to things we can't necessarily anticipate, and I think that that's something I will think a lot more about.

Q: You answered questions at the press conference, but then after that, when did you stop talking to the press?

F.W.-S.: This is a difficult question. Well, no, I guess it's very straightforward. For the press conference, I was prepared to talk about our findings reported in the paper. I did not show any data, nor did I describe the study as definitive. I was not giving a scientific talk, so I was really not prepared to engage in a scientific debate on that spot. Had I given a professional scientific talk, where I would go to the details—and, again, I think this was not the point of the press conference, as I understood it. I was explicit, and my co-authors included were explicit in that the point, as we understood it, was communicating in a way that could be understood what the results were and could suggest the implications. If I were to be giving a [scientific] talk, we could have a scientific discussion with my data in front of everyone, so we could actually look at the graphs and look at, well, what is this actually saying, rather than talking in the abstract. I think that's part of the difference.

Q: So, in other words, you avoided questions that related specifically to the data, even at the press conference?

F.W.-S.: I did address it a little bit. But, again, since I didn't show the data, and it was [a] complicated sort of situation where we didn't have enough time, it was really about, as I understood it and my co-authors understood it, it was really about representing this is what we found, this is the observations we made, in a way that a community could understand.

Q: So, after Saturday when Redfield's blog came out, at least some journalists took a look at the paper again and wanted to talk to you. If my information is correct, that's when you and NASA declined to talk to reporters anymore about this. Is that right?
F.W.-S.: There are two issues. One is that, well, we wanted to be able to have that discourse in the scientific community as a record. That's the record, the literature record that we go back to or has been up until now. So that was the one issue, and the other issue was the rapidness. So, we spent a lot of time really crafting our paper and crafting the SOM [supplemental online material] and crafting all the data, in terms of trying to show it as clearly as we thought. We wanted to give voice to that, in responses to these queries and some of the questions and issues brought up in the press, and we didn't want to answer it in a way, or respond to it in a way, that we thought would not give us the opportunity to think as deeply as we might need to. I was under a lot of pressure, and I'll be honest, I was exhausted. I really wanted to get back home and back into the lab. A lot of friends started contacting me to ask if I was okay, and I started to get concerned, "Should I be okay?" I felt a lot of pressure to respond. But I really needed to just get back in the lab, that was always clear. We presented our findings to the community in a peer-review journal, and to the broader public in that press conference, and I would really be lying if I told you that the barrage of criticism that followed didn't hurt. It did. I know my colleagues in the community aren't thrilled or happy about this delay, but, again, I'm really doing my best.

The comments are interesting.

[LINK] "Canadians spend more time online than any other country"

"Yay! Canadians are wired!" reports the Canadian Press' Michael Oliveira.

Canadians spend more time online than users in any of the countries tracked by measurement company comScore, which also said Canada had the highest penetration of Internet access. About 68 per cent of the Canadian population is online, comScore estimated in April, compared to 62 per cent in France and the United Kingdom, 60 per cent in Germany, 59 per cent in the United States, 57 per cent in Japan, and 36 per cent in Italy.

Canada was the only country in which users logged an average of more than 2,500 minutes online a month, which is almost 42 hours. Israel was second with an average of around 2,300 minutes, while a few other countries were around the 2,000-minute mark.

[. . .]

It's estimated that about 21 million Canadians visit YouTube each month, compared to 147 million Americans. But considering the U.S. has 10 times Canada's population, Canadians are way ahead on a per capita basis.

Canadian users also view more videos, with an average of 147 watched each month compared to 100 per U.S. viewer. In terms of most minutes watched, 18-to-24 is the biggest demographic with a monthly average of 244 videos viewed over the course of 1,095 minutes, or 18.25 hours.

[. . .]

Canadians were among the eager early adopters of Facebook and at one point trailed just the U.S. in overall numbers of users. But Canadians no longer dominate on the site. According to, Canada has more than 17 million users, and is neck and neck with India for 9th and 10th on the list of the countries with the most Facebook accounts. But Canada's penetration rate of about 51.2 per cent of the population, or 65.9 per cent of the online population, is still one of the most significant on Facebook.

[. . .]

The average Canadian web surfer reads 16 Wikipedia pages a month, which is the most in the world — one more than German users, two more than Polish users and four more than Americans. Canadian users generate about 217,000 edits a month, which ranks 8th among the most productive countries.

Canadians do apparently lag insofar as the purchase of e-book erotica goes. But then, we've Twitter star Justin Bieber, so that's more than cancelled out.

[LINK] "Is the Islands Trust going too far?"

According to the National Post's Brian Hutchinson, the internal politicking in British Columbia's Gulf Islands between pro- and anti-development factions that I mentioned in June is continuing.

The Islands Trust has a mandate to “preserve and protect” the islands and their environment. It’s been accused of heavy handedness. It has gone after Galiano Islanders wishing to build homes — or to simply use a bicycle — on their land. Last year it nixed a “green” upgrade to a long-established Salt Spring coffee-roasting operation, a decision that cost the island scarce jobs. More recently, it kiboshed plans to open a vegetable stand on Mayne Island. Organic veggies, to boot.

This week, the Islands Trust was accused of “a bald-faced attempt to stifle dissent.”

The allegation comes from a former trustee, a Bowen Island resident named Peter Frinton. Political activists on Salt Spring invited Mr. Frinton and a Bowen Island trustee named Alison Morse to a November town hall meeting to discuss potential benefits and drawbacks of making their island into a municipality.

Incorporation is burning issue on lovely Salt Spring. A group called Islanders for Self Government is plumping for it; the group argues that a single, formal municipal structure would allow their island better management and control of its affairs, its public services and their myriad budgets, which are now determined by bureaucrats in distant Victoria.

Having Mr. Frinton and Ms. Morse speak on the subject made sense. Bowen Island incorporated in 1999. It manages its own services and the like, while remaining part of the Islands Trust, which Ms. Morse represents. Mr. Frinton participated in the Bowen incorporation and now serves as one of the island’s municipal councilors. They both know of what they speak. They didn’t go to Salt Spring to preach.

But their invitation upset George Ehring. He’s a Salt Spring Island trustee. He took steps.

Mr. Ehring emailed Mr. Frinton and suggested he reconsider. “He didn’t explicitly say ‘don’t come to Salt Spring’ but he expressed his displeasure,” Mr. Frinton recalls. He and Ms. Morse went to the town hall meeting. They spoke to more than 150 people, who learned a thing or two about how municipal government on a Gulf Island actually works.

But that didn’t impress Mr. Ehring, the Salt Spring trustee. He then crafted a proposed amendment to the Islands Trust policy handbook; it was put to his fellow trustees on Wednesday for consideration.

It was, says Mr. Frinton, “a stupid, laughable, totally inappropriate” piece of work.

The proposed amendment seemed a slap at free speech. It suggested “elected officials” not become publicly involved “in the local politics or controversial local issues in an area outside the local trust area or island municipality that he or she was elected to represent, unless invited to do so by the local trust committee or island municipality.”

Trying to prevent overdevelopment's great, but non-sketchy methods would work better than the above kind.

[LINK] Two neuroscience/social networking links

Perhaps more pseudoneuroscience than anything else.

  • At the New York Times, Robin Dunbar--creator of the Dunbar's number theory, perhaps discoverer of the principle if it actually exists--talks about how social networking can't change the human brain's capacity for relationships.

  • Put simply, our minds are not designed to allow us to have more than a very limited number of people in our social world. The emotional and psychological investments that a close relationship requires are considerable, and the emotional capital we have available is limited.

    Indeed, no matter what Facebook allows us to do, I have found that most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships, online and off — what has become known as Dunbar’s number. Yes, you can “friend” 500, 1,000, even 5,000 people with your Facebook page, but all save the core 150 are mere voyeurs looking into your daily life — a fact incorporated into the new social networking site Path, which limits the number of friends you can have to 50.

    What’s more, contrary to all the hype and hope, the people in our electronic social worlds are, for most of us, the same people in our offline social worlds. In fact, the average number of friends on Facebook is 120 to 130, just short enough of Dunbar’s number to allow room for grandparents and babies, people too old or too young to have acquired the digital habit.

    This isn’t to say that Facebook and its imitators aren’t performing an important, even revolutionary, task — namely, to keep us in touch with our existing friends.

    Until relatively recently, almost everyone on earth lived in small, rural, densely interconnected communities, where our 150 friends all knew one another, and everyone’s 150 friends list was everyone else’s.

    But the social and economic mobility of the past century has worn away at that interconnectedness. As we move around the country and across continents, we collect disparate pockets of friends, so that our list of 150 consists of a half-dozen subsets of people who barely know of one another’s existence, let alone interact.

  • The amygdala is big, meanwhile, Wired Science reporting that the size of the amygdala in a human being relates to said being's number of friends.

  • The researchers measured two social network factors in 58 adults. First, they calculated the size of a participant’s network, which is simply the total number of people who are in regular contact with the participant. Second, they measured the network’s complexity, based on how many different groups a participant’s contacts can be divided into. The authors then examined how well those two factors correlated with the size of a participant’s amygdala and hippocampus. The hippocampus served as a negative control, as it should not vary based on social networks.

    Linear regression revealed a positive correlation in amygdala size with both social network size and complexity. This effect showed no lateralization, meaning both left and right amygdala volumes followed this relationship. In addition, the effect is relatively specific, as other social factors like life satisfaction and perceived social support failed to correlate with amygdala volume.

    Social network size and complexity did not significantly correspond with the size of the hippocampus or other subcortical areas. The authors did find that three regions in the cerebral cortex of the brain (caudal inferior temporal sulcus, caudal superior frontal gyrus, and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex) might correlate with social networks. They propose that those regions might have evolved along with amygdala to deal with the complexities of growing social circles.

    (Too, apparently a thickened amygdala also correlates to conservatism, and a damaged amygdala can reduce or eliminate the human capacity for fear.)

    All FYI.

    [LINK] "Kant and Wikileaks"

    Here's an interesting justification for Wikileaks. NewAPPSblog's Julian Nida-Rümelin is the responsible.

    About 200 years after the emergence of Kant’s theory [of democratic peace], it turns out that political scientists who work in international relations have come to the conclusion that this theory is correct, according to the data they have thus far. This is surprising: the dominant theory in international relations—so-called “realism”—has no explanation for this data. Realism posits that states, in foreign policy, act exclusively according to their own national interests, so that, without any supra-national body, there is a sort of Hobbesian state of nature, in which conflicts, according to the interests of the states involved, can escalate into wars, regardless of the sort of constitutions these states have.

    Against this view, Kant maintained that democracies (“Republics”) would not go to war against one another, because the interests of the ruling bodies within these democracies are generally identical with the interests of those who are governed by them, because the worth of the individual has become a part of the understanding of the state, and because—and here is the crucial point for us—the international relationships in democracies are public: there aren’t any secret subsidiary agreements to international treaties; for every citizen, everything is transparent and can be checked on, and those who rule in democracies tend to avoid all duplicity and secret policies. This condition of publicity constitutes the centerpiece of Kant’s democratic peace: The democratic form of government will ensure peace between republics, independent of their particular interests, only when the goals and praxis of regimes in international politics are transparent and public.

    [. . . A] condition for the survival of democratic peace is that the praxis of foreign policy in democracies should distinguish itself from the praxis in dictatorships. The Wikileaks documents show, however, that Kant’s criterion of publicity has been abused not only by dictatorial regimes but also by U.S. diplomacy and, it is likely, by all Western states. The outrageous reasons given for the war in Iraq are only the most obvious and most scandalous example until now. The public was intentionally misled. Had they been adequately informed, they would presumably not have approved of the second Iraq war.

    [. . .]

    This fundamental difference is called into question by the Wikileaks documents. It is about time that we orient the foreign policy of democratic states according to the principles of clarity and truth. The citizens of a democratic state have a right to know the strategies of their government and its motives.

    If the U.S. endorses the admission of Turkey into the E.U. and sings the praises the Erdogan government for its willingness to reform, while the American ambassador in Turkey at the same time implies that this same regime is pursuing a program of Islamization in Turkey and, moreover, is corrupt to the core, this is a glaring breach of Kant’s condition of publicity, and capable of eroding the fundamental conditions of democratic government action: transparency, coherence, and oversight.