Archive for December 20th, 2011|Daily archive page
One of the tragedies in the history of human learning is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. There are conflicting accounts of the library’s destruction attributed to various perpetrators, beginning with Julius Caesar in 48 BCE and ending with the Muslim invaders in 642 CE.
However it was destroyed, it was a tremendous loss. The Library of Alexandria was the Library of Congress of the ancient world. It is believed that many great works of antiquity – known to us today only by title, or in quoted fragments, or not at all — were lost for all time. Our knowledge would be richer and, potentially, our path from the ancient world to the modern world would have been shorter and easier, had some of these works survived.
This week we see history repeating itself on a smaller scale as another library in Egypt is burned down:
Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck Monday along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.
The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what’s left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt’s latest bout of violence.
Among the most severe losses is the 24-volume Description of Egypt, written over a period of 20 years by as many as 150 contributors after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. The loss of of these priceless manuscripts is a terrible blow from the standpoint of history, but there is a bit of a silver lining:
[T]here are four other handwritten copies of the Description of Egypt. The French body of work has also been digitized and is available online.
We can only hope that there are multiple copies of many of the books that were lost in this fire. Losing old books hurts, but losing the information they contained hurts a lot worse. This tragedy makes the case for creating digital backups of any collection of unique (or even rare) books, paintings, maps, etc.
A great deal of knowledge was centralized in ancient Alexandria and then lost because human civilization did not have a robust set of backup procedures in place. Such procedures would have been very difficult to implement in the ancient world, and would have been no small task even in the mid-to-late 20th century, when many such efforts were, in fact, contemplated (and a few initiated.)
But today there is no excuse. We have the tools and we have the infrastructure. We’re long past the point where we should be losing knowledge to fire or flood.
Let’s get those backup procedures in place, and let’s follow them carefully.
At this moment, Chinese officials are undoubtedly trying to restructure the regime in Pyongyang. We are not going to like Beijing’s handiwork.
In 2009, Kim Jong Il designated his son, Kim Jong Un, to be his successor. Most observers think that, with the Dear Leader now gone, his succession plans cannot succeed. For one thing, Jong Un has not had the time to put his own supporters into key positions in Pyongyang or gain experience in balancing the regime’s constituent elements.
But the young Kim faces even greater obstacles than these. Kim Jong Il had essentially appointed his own sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Song Taek, as regents for his untested son. The military, the strongest institution in the country, is thought to detest both of them, especially Ms. Kim. That’s a problem for the young heir. Although he himself was made a four-star general in September 2010 by his father — at the same time as Ms. Kim, his aunt — he has no known strong ties to the country’s flag officers.
Many observers would agree with former American diplomat Christopher Hill that the North will soon end up with a military junta, at least for the time being. Chinese flag officers would very much like that result. After all, China’s relations with the North are primarily handled by the countries’ militaries these days. Beijing has, for decades, been buying the loyalty of the North’s generals and admirals faster than Kim Jong Il could purge them. Now that Kim is resting under glass in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the Chinese are going to own all the flag officers they need.
A junta means, in large measure, that Kim Jong Un is bound to lose whatever influence he has inherited. He may be kept on the throne for the sake of appearances, but he will be reigning more than ruling. In any event, he will not be in a position to oppose Beijing’s plans for his country.
What will be China’s first order of business for the new North Korean junta? Beijing has already tried to get Pyongyang to accept the basing of its troops in the portions of North Korea near China, and it’s a safe bet they will renew their attempts to put their forces on Korean soil. So it is not inconceivable that, in the next two or three years, Chinese soldiers and the American military will again be face-to-face across the 155-mile Demilitarized Zone.
China’s troops left Panmunjom in 1994. Soon, it appears, they will be back.
Last week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at a large local church that was essentially about the role of Christians in the “Occupy” movements (one of the leaders of Occupy Nashville participated) and the proper Christian response to poverty and inequality. I’ve participated in many such discussions over the years, and I’m always struck by the core assumptions of many on the Christian Left: First, that America has not done enough — either charitably or through government programs — to improve the plight of the poor; second, that the right kind of governmental investment will make substantial differences in American poverty; and third, that America’s poor are largely victims of the wrong kind of government policies and individual greed.
For these individuals, the $16 trillion we’ve spent on means-tested welfare since the War on Poverty began represents a grossly inadequate expenditure, and the answer (it’s the same answer with public education, by the way) is more, more, more — more money, more programs, and more taxation. Yet after $16 trillion, we have a different kind of more, more, more — more illegitimacy, more citizens in poverty, and more inequality, with growing stickiness at the bottom.
Over at the The Atlantic, Megan McArdle has been writing an excellent series of posts on poverty (this is one of my favorites) that show both the profound limits of anti-poverty programs and the difficulty of real character change. (“Get married and stay married” is great advice, but in shattered neighborhoods, where are the truly eligible future spouses?) I love this observation:
As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you’re imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton. Having higher wage jobs available would give people more money which would be a good thing, and it would solve the sort of problems that stem from a simple lack of money. But it would not turn them into different people. Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.
The evangelical world is locked in an often-heated battle over the proper response to continued poverty in America, with much of that battle focused on politics. But I agree with Megan: public policy can modestly improve choices and behaviors, but it can’t “remake” people. That requires an ingredient all too often missing from the poverty debate: individual engagement and investment in the lives of the poor. Can any government program surpass in importance the influence of mentors or, say, foster parents? If poor kids face daunting challenges to good decision-making, can’t additional or replacement role models make a profound difference?
The political problem, of course, is that you can’t mandate and systematize the kind of engagement that makes a large-scale difference. The choice to engage is only meaningful if it’s a real choice motivated by something far more potent than any government program. We can, however, stop defining engagement down. Advocacy isn’t necessarily public service and “fighting for” the poor means much less than actually meeting the poor where they are. Simply put, a protest is a poor substitute for a relationship.
A senior U.S. official said intelligence analysts believe, for instance, that Kim Jung Eun “tortured small animals” when he was a youth. “He has a violent streak and that’s worrisome,” a senior U.S. official said, summing up the U.S. assessments.
I always love the beatific raising of his face upwards as though all the applause and adulation is just for him, don’t you?
While the true meaning of Christmas is often lost among the festivities, you’d expect a government tree to bear some relevance to the occasion.
But no ornament can be seen with the word ‘Christmas’, ‘Jesus’, his picture or a nativity scene on the 63ft Sierra White Fir outside the U.S. Capitol.
However what is easy for people to view standing near the tree’s base in Washington D.C. is an ornament with the phrase: ‘I love President Obama’.
On display: The 2011 Capitol Christmas Tree is seen after it was lit by House Speaker John Boehner and Johnny Crawford, 7, of Sonora, California
The Architect of the Capitol is responsible for the tree and told Cybercast News Service there is no policy or restrictions on themes or ornaments.
But it could not confirm whether there are any ornaments about Christmas or Christ – or any other elected officials in addition to Barack Obama.
Congress has decorated a Christmas tree outside the Capitol every year since 1964 and it has been cut down from a National Forest since 1968.
States including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and Vermont have all sent the tree – and the state is responsible for the theme.
All lit up: President Barack Obama, Michelle, Sasha and Malia attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting outside the White House on December 9
This year’s tree came from the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, California, reported Cybercast News Service.
Its theme was ‘California Shores’ and state residents submitted ornaments to show ‘the rich cultural and ecological diversity of this state’.
The tree has one ornament referencing Psalm 19 with the words ‘More precious than Gold’, but this does not directly reference Christmas.
Other ornaments include tributes to Disneyland, Hollywood and the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, reported Cybercast News Service.
Furthermore the tree has a number of ornaments which reportedly look like Christmas gifts – but these all have ‘Happy Holidays’ written on them.
CAIRO (AP) — Around 10,000 women marched through central Cairo demanding Egypt’s ruling military step down Tuesday in an unprecedented show of outrage over soldiers who dragged women by the hair and stomped on them, and stripped one half-naked in the street during a fierce crackdown on activists the past week.
The dramatic protest, which grew as the women marched from Tahrir Square through downtown, was fueled by the widely circulated images of abuses of women. Many of the marchers touted the photo of the young woman whose clothes were partially pulled off by troops, baring her down to her blue bra, as she struggled on the ground.
“Tantawi stripped your women naked, come join us,” the crowd chanted to passers-by, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council that has ruled Egypt since the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak. “The daughters of Egypt are a red line,” they chanted.
Even before the protest was over, the military council issued an unusually strong statement of regret for what it called “violations” against women – a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.
The council expressed “deep regret to the great women of Egypt” and affirmed “its respect and total appreciation” for women and their right to protest and take part in political life. It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations.
The statement suggested the military’s fear that attacks on women could wreck its prestige at home and abroad, which has already been heavily eroded by its fierce, five-day-old crackdown on pro-democracy protesters demanding it surrender power. The ruling generals have campaigned to keep the public on its side in the confrontation, depicting the activists as hooligans and themselves as the honorable protectors of the nation, above reproach.
In unusually harsh words, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday accused the Egyptian security forces and extremists of specifically targeting women.
“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people,” she said.
In a possibly significant hint of new flexibility, the council also said in its statement Tuesday that it was prepared to discuss any initiatives to help the security of the country. In recent days, a number of political factions have pressed the military to hand over power by February, rather than June, when it promised to hold presidential elections.
In the past, police in Mubarak’s regime were accused of intentionally humiliating women in protest crackdowns. But images of women being abused by soldiers were particularly shocking in a society that is deeply conservative and generally reveres the military. The independent press has splashed its front pages with pictures of soldiers chasing women protesters, including ones in conservative headscarves and full face-veils, beating them with sticks and clubs and dragging them by their hair. The crackdown has left 14 people dead – all but one by gunshots – and hundreds wounded.
The images of the half-stripped protester, whose identity is not known, clearly had a powerful resonance. A banner showing a photo of her on the asphalt – one soldier yanking up her black robes and shirt, another poised to stomp on her chest – was put up in Tahrir Square for passing drivers to see.
“The girl dragged around is just like my daughter,” said Um Hossam, a 54-year old woman in traditional black dress and a headscarf at Tuesday’s march. “I am a free woman, and attacking this woman or killing protesters is just like going after one of my own children.”
Ringed by a protective chain of men, the women marched from Tahrir to the Journalists’ Syndicate, several blocks away, chanting slogans demanding the military council step down.
Many accused the military of intentionally targeting women to scare them and their male relatives from joining protests against the generals. Previously, the military has implied women who joined protests were of loose morals. In March, soldiers subjected detained female protesters to humiliating tests to determine if they were virgins.
“They are trying to break women’s spirits, starting with the virginity tests. They want to break their dignity so that they don’t go out and protest,” Maha Abdel-Nasser, an engineer who joined the march, said.
Two sisters, Yomna and Tasneem Shams, said they never took part in previous protests because their parents wouldn’t allow them. But they happened to be downtown Tuesday and spontaneously joined the women’s march.
“No one should ever be beaten for expressing their opinion,” Yomna, 19, said. “I am proud I took part in today’s protest. I feel I can tell my kids I have done something for them in the future.”
Some also criticized Islamic parties, which stayed out of the antimilitary protests and did not participate in Tuesday’s march – even though religious conservatives often tout their defense of “women’s honor.” Pro-democracy activists accused them of being worried about anything that might derail ongoing, multistage parliamentary elections, which the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Al-Nour Party have dominated so far.
“This is a case of honor. But they clearly don’t care for honor or religion. They now care only about their political interests,” said Mohammed Fawaz, one of the men in the protective chain around the marching women.
The protest also is likely to deepen the predicament of the military as critics began to talk openly about putting them on trial for abuses, and politicians are floating ideas for their exit, perhaps in return for immunity.
Emad Gad, a newly elected lawmaker, said that without guarantees they would not be prosecuted, the generals won’t hand over power by the end of June as promised. Foremost on their minds, he said, was the fate of Mubarak, who ended in court facing charges that carry the death penalty after ruling Egypt for nearly 30 years.
“They didn’t get clear assurances and that is why they try diabolical tactics to make sure they get these guarantees,” he said, citing the military’s attempt to enshrine in the next constitution language that would shield it from civilian scrutiny.
“We have to address their fears, their interests and future role,” he said.
The public and many activists welcomed the military when it took power from Mubarak in February. But relations have deteriorated sharply since as the democracy activists accused the generals of hijacking their uprising, obstructing reforms, human rights abuses and failing to revive the ailing economy or restore security.
The most recent protests – and earlier round of protests that saw a deadly crackdown last month – have seen unprecedentedly bold ridiculing of the military, which for decades was considered a revered institution above criticism. Young protesters have heaped profanities into their antimilitary slogans, demanded the execution of Tantawi and taunted soldiers in Tahrir.
On Monday, a member of the military council, Maj. Gen. Adel Emara, took a hard-line in a press conference, denouncing the protests as a conspiracy to “topple the state” and accusing the media of fomenting sedition.
He defended the use of force by troops, saying they had a duty to defend the state’s institutions and declined to offer an apology for brutality toward female protesters. He did not dispute the authenticity of the image of the woman being dragged half naked by soldiers, but said Egyptians should not see it without considering the circumstances surrounding the incident.
The apparent change in attitude with Tuesday’s statement of regret left some women unimpressed.
Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, a 31-year old activist, doubted the promise to punish those responsible and said the statement was in response to the U.S. criticism. “This is an apology to one woman, Hilary Clinton.”
“This is like someone raping a girl, and then going to the police station to marry her (to avoid prosecution) and then divorce her as soon as he leaves,” she said. “It is an attempt to exonerate themselves after the deed is done, but with little accountability.”
This illustrated graphic shows the two newfound Kepler-20 planets shown to scale with Earth and Venus.
Two planets orbiting a star 950 light-years from Earth are the smallest, most Earth-size alien worlds known, astronomers announced Tues., Dec. 20. One of the planets is actually smaller than Earth, scientists say.
These planets, while roughly the size of our planet Earth, are circling very close to their star, giving them fiery temperatures that are most likely too hot to support life, researchers said. The discovery, however, brings scientists one step closer to finding a true twin of Earth that may be habitable.
“We’ve crossed a threshold: For the first time, we’ve been able to detect planets smaller than the Earth around another star,” lead researcher François Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., told SPACE.com. “We proved that Earth-size planets exist around other stars like the sun, and most importantly, we proved that humanity is able to detect them. It’s the beginning of an era.”
To discover the new planets, Fressin and his colleagues used NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which noticed the tiny dips in the parent star’s brightness when the planets passed in front of it, blocking some of its light (this is called the transit method). The researchers then used ground-based observatories to confirm that the planets actually exist by measuring minute wobbles in the star’s position caused by gravitational tugs from its planets.
“These two new planets are the first genuinely Earth-sized worlds that have been found orbiting a sunlike star,” University of California, Santa Cruz astronomer Greg Laughlin, who was not involved in the new study, said in an email to SPACE.com. “For the past two decades, it has been clear that astronomers would eventually reach this goal, and so it’s fantastic to learn that the detection has now been achieved.” [Gallery: Smallest Alien Planets Ever Seen]
Chances for life
The two Earth-size planets are among five alien worlds orbiting a star called Kepler-20 that is of the same class (G-type) as our sun, and is slightly cooler.
Two of the star system’s planets, Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are 0.87 times and 1.03 times the width of Earth, respectively, making them the smallest exoplanets yet known. They also appear to be rocky, and have masses less than 1.7 and 3 times Earth’s mass, respectively.
Kepler-20e makes a circle around its star once every 6.1 days at a distance of 4.7 million miles (7.6 million kilometers) — almost 20 times closer than Earth, which orbits the sun at around 93 million miles (150 million km).
The planet’s sibling, Kepler-20f, makes a full orbit every 19.6 days, at a distance of 10.3 million miles (16.6 million km). Both planets circle closer to their star than Mercury does to the sun. [Infographic: Earth-Size Alien Planets Explained]
These snuggly orbits around their star give the newfound planets steamy temperatures of about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit (760 degrees Celsius) and 800 degrees Fahrenheit (430 degrees Celsius) — way too warm to support liquid water, and probably life, researchers said.
Fressin said the chance of life on either of these planets is “negligible,” though the researchers can’t exclude the possibility that they used to be habitable in the past, when they might have been farther from their star. There is also a slim chance that there are habitable regions on the planets in spots between their day and night sides (the planets orbit with one half constantly facing their star and the other half always in dark). But astronomers aren’t holding out hope.
“The chances of liquid water and life as we know it on Kepler-20e and f are zero,” Laughlin said.
The planetary system around Kepler-20 is an unusual one.
For one thing, scientists say the rocky planets can’t have formed in their current locations.
“There’s not enough rocky material that close to the host star to form five planets,” Fressin said. “They didn’t form here; they probably formed farther from their star and migrated in.”
Furthermore, the five planets are in an odd order, with the rocky worlds alternating with their gaseous, Neptune-size siblings. That’s quite different from most solar systems, including our own, which keeps the rocky terrestrial worlds in close to the sun, with the gas giants farther out.
“How did that form?” Fressin said. “I think it’s a puzzle the theorists will have to try to explain.”
The star’s other planets are called Kepler-20b, 20c, and 20d. Their diameters are 15,000 miles (24,000 km), 24,600 miles (40,000 km), and 22,000 miles (35,000 km), respectively, and they orbit Kepler-20 once every 3.7, 10.9, and 77.6 days.
The largest of these, Kepler-20d, weighs a little under 20 times Earth’s mass, while Kepler-20c is 16.1 times as heavy as Earth, and Kepler-20b is 8.7 times our planet’s mass.
Scientists say finding the smallest exoplanets yet represents a significant milestone in the fast-evolving effort to learn about planets beyond the solar system.
The first alien planet was discovered in 1996, and the first planet found through the transit method came just 11 years ago. Both of those planets were roughly the size of Jupiter.
“I think we’re living in special times,” Fressin said. “This was unfeasible 10 years ago, and just with the quality of detectors and the quality of the treatment is it possible now.”
The total tally of known alien planets is above 700. Kepler alone has discovered 28 definite alien planets, and 2,326 planet candidates, since its launch in March 2009.
Earlier this month, the Kepler team announced another landmark find, the first planet known to occupy the habitable zonearound its star where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist.
That planet, called Kepler-22b, is about 2.4 times as wide as Earth.
The dream now is for astronomers to combine the two discoveries and find an Earth-size planet that’s also orbiting its star in an Earth-like orbit that puts it in the habitable zone.
“The holy grail of the search for other worlds is to find an Earth analogue, a true Earth twin,” Fressin said. “We just need to have these two pieces of the puzzle together.”
While the newfound planets orbit with periods of 6.1 and 19.6 days, Fressin estimated the habitable zone around Kepler-20 begins at orbits that take roughly 100 days to make a circuit.
Astronomers think it’s only a matter of time before they finally find one that’s just right.
“These discoveries are a great technological step forward — to detect small planets, in size like Earth — but these planets are very hot and not in the habitable zone around their star,” astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics wrote in an email. Kaltenegger, who studies the habitability of exoplanets, was not involved in the new study. “If we can already find these small planets with radii around Earth’s now, some future ones could be in the habitable zone of their stars and THOSE future ones would be great targets to look for liquid water and signatures for life.”
A paper detailing the discovery was published online in the journal Nature Dec. 20.