Monday, March 31, 2008

Rocks & Thoughts

Mindhacks has a brilliant post up on his blog that unites elements of psychology with a personal observance that he had (and which I have certainly shared) while rock climbing. Make sure you check it out.

Muddy Waters & James Cotton - Got My Mojo Working

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Just Plain Creepy

Computer graphics are getting just plain scary realistic. (make sure you move your mouse around).


Some Good News From Iraq?

Via the BBC:

Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has ordered his fighters off the streets of Basra and other cities in an effort to end clashes with security forces.

He said in a statement that his movement wanted the Iraqi people to stop the bloodshed and maintain the nation's independence and stability

. . .

Moqtada Sadr's statement said: "Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces.

"Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us."

The cleric also demanded that the government apply the general amnesty law, release detainees and stop what he called illegal raids.

Moqtada Sadr also told his followers to "work with Iraqi government offices to achieve security and to file charges against those who have committed crimes".


The NYtimes has a cool slideshow of scenes from various cities on International Pillow Fight Day.
Check it out by clicking here.

Stuff White People Like

I just came across this website gem, Stuff White People Like, which I highly recommend checking out. Some of the posts are hillarious. Like this one, for instance, on San Francisco:

White people like to vacation in San Francisco because it has beautiful architecture, fantastic food, and it is near the water. They like to live in San Francisco because of its abundance of Non Profit Organizations, Expensive Sandwiches, Wine, political outlook, and most importantly its diversity.

Since many white people either live in, plan to move to, or closely identify with San Francisco it is imperative that you know how best to deal with them.

The City of San Francisco has a very multicultural population that ranges from white to gay to Asian. Within white culture this known as “ideal diversity” for its provision of exotic restaurants while simultaneously preserving property values. The presence of gays and Asians is imperative as it two provides two of the key resources most necessary for white success and happiness. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that regions outside of San Francisco feature many people who are not white, gay or Asian. They are greatly appreciated during the census, but white people are generally very happy that they stay in places like Oakland and Richmond. This enables white people to feel good about living near people of diverse backgrounds without having to directly deal with troublesome issues like income gaps or schooling.

Mocking Atheists

This video is absolutely hysterical:

Interesting Thought of the Day

Geertz on Religion in "Ethos, World View, and the Anaylsis of Sacred Symbols":

Religious symbols, dramatized in rituals or related in myths, are felt somehow to sum up, for those for whom they are resonant, what is known about the way the world is, the quality of the emotional life it supports, and the way one ought to behave while in it. Sacred symbols thus relate an ontology and a cosmology to an aesthetics and a morality: their peculiar power comes from their presumed ability to identify fact with value at the most fundamental level, to give to what is otherwise merely actual, a comprehensive normative import . . . The tendency to synthesize world view and ethos at some level, if not logically necessary, is at least empircally coercive; if it is not philosophically justified, it is at least pragmatically universal.

. . .

The force of a religion in supporting social values rests, then, on the ability of its symbols to formulate the world in which those values, as well as the forces opposing their realization, are fundamental ingredients. It represents the power of the human imagination to construct an image of reality in which, to quote Max Weber, ‘events are no just there and happen, but they have meaning and happen because of that meaning.’

Btw, there's an interesting discussion between Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe on the topic of religion and morality over at which I recommend checking out.

Quantum Sleeper

The bed that turns into a protective coffin:

The basic Quantum Sleeper unit consists of an aluminum bed frame and headboard with polycarbonate, bullet proof plating that is designed to provide a protective barrier (shielding) between a perpetrator or environmental condition and the homeowners or occupants.

The bullet proof polycarbonate barrier is designed to stop bullet penetration, blows from impact, forced entry and provide a sealed temporary safe room and environment from burglars, terrorist or harmful gasses and also provide protection from the destructive forces of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. The unit can also be fitted with defensive devices customized to the requests of the purchasers such as tear gas spray, robotic arms, or projectile weaponry. It is designed to enable the person(s) inside the unit to see out and prevent those outside from seeing in.

The unit is equipped with a bio-chemical filter in case of bio-chemical attack and a rebreather system to enable the operator to seal off all outside air and provide breathable air for a specified amount of time. This system is used in such a case where the unit operator may need to release tear gas or another form of gaseous material in defense against a burglar or terrorist. The rebreather system is also useful as the ultimate protection (safe room) from weapons of mass destruction that may be used during biological warfare, chemical warfare, bio-chemical attack or other type gas attack that could release an unknown or new form of hazardous gas. There are doors on either side of the unit next to the headboard that have an emergency release button that when pressed will cause the doors to pop open in case of mechanical failure or loss of power to the operating systems.


When A Maaan Loves a . . .Table

Trouble ensues:
BELLEVUE, OH -- A man in central Ohio is accused of having sex with his picnic table.

The investigation began when a tipster gave police three DVDs showing Arthur Price having sexual intercourse with a metal round table on his deck.

The incidents occurred between January and March 2008.

Police say the DVDs show Price involved in a sex act in his bedroom. He walks out to his deck, tilts the table on its side and has sex with it.


Black Crowes - She Talks To Angels

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nasa's New Big Rig Space Buggy

Looks f*ing awesome:

It turns on a dime and parallel-parks like a dream. On the downside, it’s a little pricey (at $2 million or so) and its top speed is a pokey 15 miles an hour.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the concept car taking shape here at the Johnson Space Center.

Did I say car? The new moon buggy conceived by space center engineers is anything but a car or a buggy. Its official name is Chariot, and this, my friends, is a truck. A heavy duty workhorse of a truck.

“America basically created the truck,” said Lucien Junkin, the chief engineer on the project. And so, he says, why not take a truck to the moon if NASA, as planned, takes humans back, as early as 2020?

It is a beguiling idea, especially as realized in a vehicle infused with the lessons learned from the Apollo-era moon missions and the subsequent success of the Spirit and Opportunity robotic rovers on Mars.

This model took a year to build. It looks kind of like what you’d get if a monster truck had a ménage à trois with a flatbed trailer and a medieval siege engine.


Interesting Thought of the Day

In his lucid explanation of why it was that proletarians were more politically oriented than were peasants (though both were poor and exploited), Marx talked about how the individual cottages of each isolated peasant family looked out at the fields they individually worked. In effect, the peasants related to the world as individuals and simply had no effective "window" on the complex realities of social and economic organization. Their lives were neither urbanized nor sufficiently collectivized within production situations. They also resided at a distance from their neighbors; community thus was (in Marx's view) minimal. Television screens, arguably, are not unlike the peasant's window on the fields. They provide a glimpse (in this case a consciously controlled glimpse) of a small part of the world, but also isolate existence, reduce community, and narrow experience, both intellectual and actual.

Television rarely asks questions about the desirability and importance of consumption, or about the structures of society (or media ownership patterns). It just "entertains" in a mildly addictive sort of way, filling silences and providing a substitute for community institutions. It supplies amusing and undemanding friends and highly skilled athletic activity without the need for effort or the risk of injury or personal failure. It is also the ultimate selling machine for both goods and politics. In most developing nations it is, in effect, the advanced guard of globalization—it is at the heart of global-scale economic integration. Access to the airwaves (other than very locally) is all but unavailable to citizens, or to organizations without millions of dollars to spend.

- Robert Paehlke in Democracy's Dilemma

I personally don't think televisions grip over the masses is that intentional, since every day I am more and more convinced that people are just generally stupid and prefer the mindless entertainment that is provided to them on the airwaves over the more important and more thought-requiring topics or issues that they should be concerned about. Its unfortunate because I would much rather excuse their stupidity by saying that they are force-fed this stuff by the people in power, but the reality, I think, is that they actually enjoy this crap.

Interview with Alex Grey

Via the San Francisco Chronicle:

Alex Grey paints souls. His work shows human bodies — rendered with medical-illustration precision — wrapped in layers of sacred energy. Whether you believe Grey's work depicts the reality of divine auras or a particularly vibrant artistic license doesn't much matter. His paintings have an uncanny effect on viewers, making them sense — or at least consider the possibility of — the subtle energies that surround us and how these personal force fields might change depending on our intention, actions and moods. They are modern-day religious icons and mandalas for 21st century Westerners.


I want this tee-shirt so bad...


I smell a Zinger

Via David Corn:
Here's a good justification for war: you create the conditions for genocide and then you have to stick around to prevent that genocide. In a foreign policy speech on Wednesday, Senator John McCain said,

We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq. It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal.

What's At Stake in Basra

Fred Kaplan has a good piece in Slate explaining just why the fighting in Basra is so significant.

The fighting this week in Basra may be a prelude to the moratorium's collapse and, with it, the resumption of wide-scale sectarian violence—Shiite vs. Sunni and Shiite vs. Shiite.

Many Shiites believe—not unreasonably—that Maliki ordered the offensive in Basra now in order to destroy Sadr's base of support and thus keep his party from beating ISCI in the upcoming provincial elections.

Late last month, Iraq's three-man presidential council vetoed a bill calling for provincial elections, in large part because ISCI's leaders feared that Sadr's party would win in Basra. The Bush administration, which has (correctly) regarded provincial elections as key to Iraqi reconciliation, pressured Maliki to reverse his stance and let the bill go through. He did—at which point (was this just a coincidence?) planning began for the offensive that's raging now.

Also this suggestion of why the US supports ISCI--mysterious because it has stronger ties with Iran--would not surprise me if it is actually true:

The current fighting in Basra is a struggle for power and resources between those warlords. It's hard to say which faction is more alluring or less likely to fall under Iranian sway. Neither seems the sort of ally in freedom and democracy that our president conjures in his daydreams. (The lively blogger who calls himself Abu Muqawama speculates that Bush officials have embraced ISCI because, unlike Sadr, its leaders speak English.)

Hurling Headless Sheep

I def plan on adding this to my list of to-dos before I die:

Ulak Tartysh is the national sport of the central Asian republic. The aim is to hurl the sheep carcass into a tub to score points for your team. The pitch is 300m (1,000ft) long and 150m (500ft) wide.

It is played as part of Nouruz, the Persian new year's day celebration which marks the start of spring.


Modest Mouse - Gravity Rides Everything

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Controlling the Weather

I can't tell if this is a joke:

Training with the Olympics in mind, the meteorologists have been practicing their "rain mitigation" techniques since 2006. They have had a couple of dry runs, so to speak -- a China-Africa summit and a panda festival in Sichuan province, among others.

The bureau of weather modification was established in the 1980s and is now believed to be the largest in the world. It has a reserve army of 37,000 people -- most of them sort of weekend warriors who are called to duty during unusual droughts. The bureau has 30 aircraft, 4,000 rocket launchers and 7,000 antiaircraft guns, said Wang Guohe, director of weather modification for the Chinese Academy of Meteorology.

"We have the largest program in the world with the most people involved and the most equipment, but it is not really the most advanced," Wang said. That honor belongs to the Russians, who he says used sophisticated cloud-seeding in 1986 to prevent radioactive rain from the Chernobyl reactor accident from reaching Moscow.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ryan Adams - Desire

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bush's War

PBS has recently produced an incredibly informative and illuminating documentary on the Iraq War which I highly recommend watching. The first segment focuses on the important players and policies advancing a war with Iraq and the second segment focuses on the execution of the war and the perils that rapidly ensued. Make sure you check it out.


Man Man - Engwish Bwudd

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Garfield Minus Garfield

Simply fantastic.


Reason #234,568 Why I Love Canadians

Wish I had called them for my mom's wedding...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Freedom & Justice in Euripides' Electra

Phoebus, Phoebus – I say no more, as he is my royal lord; wisdom is his but wisdom was absent from the command he gave you.

Electra offers the reader both a nuanced version of an older, but still significantly popular and relevant tragedy-play and a unique chance to become acquainted with the thoughts and opinions of an author who, judged from the hindsight of modernity, clearly had a progressively pensive mind. What seems apparent, after reading the play, is that Euripides wrote Electra in reaction to or, at least, in obvious familiarity with, Aeschylus' second play in the Oresteia trilogy, the Libation Bearers, as numerous references throughout the play unquestionably demonstrate. However, although the similarities and parallels between the two plays seem manifest and, at times, even subtly comical, Electra clearly conveys a serious message and, moreover, imbues the reader with an impression that is thoroughly different from that found in Aeschylus' plays. Richard Rutherford suggests that the differences between the two plays are a result of constraint—Euripides was writing a single play, whereas Aeschylus a trilogy—but I think this suggestion diminishes the significance of the content and intent found within the differences. In Euripides' play the vendetta motif or the repeating/reciprocal nature of violence equating to justice found in Aeschylus' plays is seriously challenged, mostly by the main heorine of the play, of which it takes its name, Electra. Another significant difference in Electra is the noticeable lack of involvement of the gods and, to the extent that they are involved, there is a sense of poignant skepticism and questioning of the wisdom employed in their will.

In the passage above, spoken by the demigods Castor and Pollux, Electra and her brother Orestes have just been informed that their egregious deed, done in the name of divine justice and in obedience with Apollo's edict, now lacks its legitimacy in the eyes of the divine, because Apollo apparently forgot to put his wisdom cap on that day when he gave his matricidal command. Taking this into consideration, the prescribed punishments or sentences that Orestes and Electra receive from Castor are not capital punishment, but rather a charity service and probation type sentence, which is to say an odious, but more tolerable than death, sentence: Orestes is condemned to a life of exile and Electra is wedded to the taciturn Pylades. Before we delve into the implications of this passage, however, it is perhaps wise to back track a bit and provide some background context.

The seemingly shocking information that Castor pronounces in the aforementioned passage to Electra and Orestes had been pondered by the latter and thus subtly foreshadowed earlier on in the play. In lines 971-989, for instance, Orestes laments Apollo's command and questions his wisdom, but is eventually persuaded by his sister who initially tries to persuade him by reminding him that to disobey Apollo's command would be an act of impiety, and then, since Orestes reservations seem to persist, decides another, more effective tactic, and calls into question his very manhood(!) and Orestes, not fond of being called a Mr. sissy-pants, immediately concedes. Another example comes just after Orestes and Electra have committed the act of matricide, when they return to the chorus and Orestes, right after Electra makes her guilt-stricken remarks, avers “O Phoebus, what you proclaimed in song was justice veiled in darkness” (1190). From these passages alone it is obvious that conflict between a character's actions and his pious obligations to fulfill the will of the gods is much more prevalent and center stage in Euripides' play than it was in any of Aeschylus' plays. In Aeschylus' trilogy conflict did appear, for instance when Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphiginea, but his decision was unquestionable and passed off as necessity, whereas in Euripides' play the conflict between actor and divinity is raised to the fore and challenged without propriety.

One of the major differences found in Euripides play, in contrast to Aeschylus, is a shift of an individuals responsibility for his/her actions from the heavens to the hands of the actor. Evidence of this shift can be extracted from the text itself. The two long chorus odes found in lines 434-484 and 700-744 recount past historical events of ancient Greek notoriety, but within these tales is a certain, my suggestion is intended, pattern: people suffering as a result of divine interference. This point becomes despairingly sharper at the end of the play when Castor suggests that all the suffering humans have endured has neither 'rhyme nor reason', since wisdom is not always present to advise a god when he gives his command. So, for example, the Trojan war which had been triggered by Helen, was really just a mistake by Zeus, who sent a phantom Helen (1280-84). Which means that the lives lost, the sacrifices made, everything up to the present matricide committed by Orestes and Electra, was all because of Zeus and not because of man. Thus, if what Castor says is true, then man is not following the wisdom of the gods, so much as their whims.

The message that comes out of the conclusion of the play, then, seems to be the following: divine interference is a deleterious nuisance to mankind that prolongs suffering. In Electra, Euripides does not portray the gods as providing order to the universe, but instead sees them as casting the seeds of disorder, anomie, and perpetual violence in the world of man. Perhaps one of the main themes of the play, that of individual responsibility and character, is what Euripides finds lacking most in the judgments of and commands made by the gods. There are numerous hints that this is the case, but none of them are very explicit. In line 1051, which comes right after Clytemnestra has just finished her lengthy disquisition on why she is innocent and was just in her murderous act, the Chorus leader says “There is justice in what you have said but it is a shameful justice.” It was shameful, according to the chorus leader, simply because she is a she, but one might propose that whereas Agamemnon's act of murder displayed piety by obeying the will of the gods, vindicating him from the sacrifice of his daughter, Clytemnestra's act of murder was a display of iniquitousness because she acquiesced to the nefarious whims of anger and malice, and that is perhaps why it is shameful. As she herself admits in lines 1035, “Oh, we women are too often ruled by our hearts, I don't deny it.” Euripides, after reading Aeschylus' trilogy may have sympathized with Clytemnestra and not seen her as the play's paragon villain. In Electra we see elements of ready forgiveness, because she is more perturbed about how her mother has treated her and her brother in the present, than she is over the crime her mother committed in the past, unlike Orestes, but Electra, in all her fickleness, still feels that justice must be done, “if bloodshed, sitting in judgment, requires bloodshed, then I and your son Orestes will kill you in vengeance for our father. If justice was in that deed, justice is also in this” (1093-4). Thus it seems that obligation of the individual to piously obey divine justice or in other words, the will of the gods, does not end violence, it perpetuates it.

Estimating Neandertal and modern human divergence

Had to review and analyze a scientific article and also compare it to our text. Def. shoulda chosen an easier read...

In their recent paper, Close correspondence between quantitative—and molecular—genetic divergence times for Neandertals and modern humans, Timothy Weaver, Charles Roseman, and Chris Stringer present a divergence time estimator to estimate when Neandertals and modern humans last shared a randomly mating common ancestor (split time) based upon the input of neutrally evolving morphological measurements. Recent research, including their own, has shown genetic drift (not natural selection) may have produced many of the cranial differences found between Neandertal and modern humans. If this research is correct, then they can accurately estimate population genetic parameters much in the same way as estimates are made from DNA sequences, the only difference is that they use modern human and Neandertal cranial measurements to make their estimates. Using advanced statistical formulas employed in evolutionary quantitative genetics and on microsatellites to develop their divergence time estimator, the researchers then apply this estimator to 37 cranial measurements collected on 2,524 modern humans from 30 globally distributed populations and 20 Neandertal specimens and calculate that Neandertals and modern humans split ≈311,000 (95% C.I.: 182,000 to 466,000) or 435,000 (95% C.I.: 308,000 to 592,000) years ago. The time-span of divergence that these researchers produce is relatively aligned with dates derived from ancient Neandertal and extant human DNA-sequence (see Noonan and colleagues 2006). This correspondence, according to the researchers, greatly strengthens the neutral divergence explanation for the cranial-facial differences found between Neandertals and modern humans and weakens the adaptionist explanations of diversifying natural selection. Lastly, they state that their work shows that there is no conflict between molecules and morphology.

The research methods employed in this paper are very complex and there are a number of variables and equations that I do not fully understand, so they are hard to critique. However, I would say that one of the difficulties of adapting DNA sequence statistics to morphological measurements, in order to determine the effects of genetic drift, is that there a lot more shifting variables to account for—namely population size and fluctuations. According to John Hawks, “a model of phenotypic evolution by genetic drift requires an assumption about the effective size of the population (Ne). Weaver et al. (2008) assume a model of "mutation-drift equilibrium." This is an assumption that the effective population size has not changed over time in the populations under consideration -- in this case, the Neandertal and human populations back at least as far as their common ancestor.” Weaver and colleagues set the effective population sizes of Neandertals and modern humans over the past thousand years at 2700 individuals. This number seems contradictory to and much smaller than existing evidence of actual population size and fluctuations. Such a small number would obviously emphasize the role that genetic drift played, but may be incorrect. Also, using recent phenotypic and genetic divergences of modern humans to 'calibrate their clock' of phenotypic evolution is questionable, since modern effective population sizes are much larger today, than they were during the Middle Pleistocene—which raises a serious question of comparability of phenotypic divergences between the two periods.


The article summarized above encompasses and synthesizes a number of topics and approaches referenced in our text book and advances and discredits some of the proposed explanations for variation (specifically cranial differences) found between Neandertal and modern humans. The researchers suggest that genetic drift, not natural selection, is largely responsible for many of the cranial differences found between Neandertals and modern humans. In chapter 13, our text book begins by elaborating on the environmental background of the Pleistocene period before it goes on to describe the Neandertal cranium. This is to emphasize the environmental impacts on the anatomical structure of the cranium, an adaptionist explanation. Our text references one opinion that “both the facial anatomy and the robust postcranial structure of Neandertals” according to Erik Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, are “adaptations to rigorous living in a cold climate” (p. 335). In an earlier paper (Weaver et al. 2006), the same researchers of the paper I referenced deemphasize these adaptionist explanations of natural selection and advance their own explanation: “isolation between Neandertal and modern human populations would have lead to cranial diversification by genetic drift (chance changes in the frequencies of alleles at genetic loci contributing to variation in cranial morphology).” Our book defines genetic drift as being “the random factor in evolution, it's a direct function of population size” (p.82). Our book also states that “drift occurs because the population is small” (p.82). Thus, the smaller the population size the greater genetic drift's influence is. The researchers do not, however, dismiss altogether the role played by natural selection on Neandertal and moder human craniums. They admit that the similarity in cranium size between Neandertal and modern humans was most likely heavily influenced by natural selection, but the subtle differences in shape found between the two craniums, they argue, are a result of genetic drift, not natural selection. In the paper the researchers also bring up neutral evolution, which is basically the idea that variation is random and unselective (in a Darwinian sense) and strongly influenced by genetic drift.

This paper, as has already been mentioned, uses a number of methods employed by population geneticists. In chapter 15 our book devotes a couple pages to this field. One name that pops up in both our text book and this article is the Hardy-Weinberg theory of genetic equilibrium. According to our text, “the Hardy-Weinberg theory of genetic equilibrium establishes a set of conditions in a population where no evolution occurs” (p.391). In the paper the researchers reference it to explain why there is a difference of a factor of two between the quantitative genetic and microsatellite forumals—basically, according to Hardy-Weinberg theory a gametic variance should be twice a zygotic variance. The Hardy-Weinberg theory is very useful because “by explicitly defining the genetic distribution that would be expected if no evolutionary change were occurring (that is, in equilibrium), we can compare the observed genetic distribution obtained in real human populations” (p.391). Thus, “if the observed frequencies differ from those of the expected model, we can then say that evolution is taking place at the locus in question. The alternative, of course, is that the observed and expected frequencies don't differ enough that we can confidently say evolution is occurring at a locus in a population” (p.391). By using and slightly adapting this strategy Weaver et al (2007) are able to determine whether genetic drift or natural selection are contributing more to the cranial differences found between Neandertals and modern humans.

The time span that the researcher's divergence time estimator produces is within the figures of recent research but slightly more recent than the dates suggested in our text from a 1997 report by Krings and colleagues who “hypothesized that the Neandertal lineage separated from our modern H. sapiens ancestors sometime between 690,000 and 550,000 ya” (p. 343). Before referencing this estimated divergence period our book explains the techniques used to produce these dates and determine the degree of genetic relatedness between species, which include: “extracting mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), amplifying it through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, and sequencing nucleotides in parts of the molecule” (p. 343). These techniques allow for more accurate estimates of time divergence which Weaver et al. (2008) can use to compare the accuracy of their own results to. Lastly, there has been a long and lively debate regarding the replacement of ancient Homo species with modern Homo. One hypothesis, the complete replacement model, which was developed by Bristish paleoanthropologists Christopher Stringer (one of the researchers in the paper) and Peter Andrews, “proposes that anatomically modern populations arose in Africa within the last 200,000 years and then migrated from Africa, completely replacing populations in Europe and Asia” (p.354). Another model, partial replacement, proposes that “some interbreeding occurred between emigrating Africans and resident premodern populations elsewhere” (p.356). In other words, the partial replacement model assumes that “no speciation event occurred, and all these hominids should be considered members of H. sapiens (p.356). Then, lastly, there's the regional continuity model, associated with Milford Wolpoff, which suggests that “local populations—not all, of course—in Europe, Asia, and Africa continued their indigenous evolutionary development from premodern Middle Pleistocene forms to anatomically modern humans” (p.356). The last two models are questionable for a number of reasons and the findings in the Weaver et al. (2008) paper support Stringer and Andrew's replacement model, since they show that phenotypic differences in cranial measurements can be used to trace back to the time in which these two species diverged.


The article I reviewed at first seemed extremely esoteric and beyond comprehension, and so it often felt like I was reading something that was written in an entirely different language. It required me to learn quite a bit about quantitative genetics, microsatellites, neutral evolution, genetic drift, and mutation-drift equilibrium—terms which I had no knowledge of, at all, before. Once I familiarized myself with these terms and the methods employed in the paper I was able to get a pretty good grip on the substance of what they are saying.

The researchers are suggesting that natural selection is not the only or even strongest influence on diversity (or differences found between species) and argue that genetic drift, in the case of cranial differences found between Neandertal and modern humans, appears to have played a much stronger role. More importantly, by using morphological cranium measurements and plugging it into their formulas to produce similar or overlapping dates with the ones derived from DNA sequencing Weaver et al. (2008) build a potential bridge between the molecular and morphology camps. The only problem that I would raise with their paper is my concern that their formulas do not accurately address true population sizes and fluctuations. Based on the evidence we have it seems Neandertal and modern human population sizes waxed and waned at incongruent intervals. If the population sizes dwindled to small numbers diversity diminishes and deleterious traits begin to emerge. The researchers assume the population size to be 2700 individuals, which as John Hawks puts it “is an astounding assumption.” A small effective population size, such as the one the researchers select, means that rapid evolution will occur by genetic drift. This small size, however, is disputed by other evidence. As John Hawks again points out:

“most other sets of genetic data indicate a long-term effective size of at least 10,000 for human populations -- four times larger than assumed in this study. All things being equal, this means that the rate of phenotypic evolution by genetic drift should be four times slower than assumed by Weaver et al. (2008). Some of this difference between real and assumed effective sizes may be washed out by their process of calibration -- their equations involve several unknowns that must be simultaneously estimated, and give a lot of wiggle-room to the results.”

The problem with statistical formulas that include these unknown variables is that they can be adjusted such that the results can be fine-tuned and any phenotypic difference can thus look like genetic drift.

Lastly, in their formula they use 37 cranial measurements collected on 2,524 modern humans from 30 globally distributed populations. Modern human populations have dramatically increased in size, so whether one can use these measurements to accurately measure the differences between modern human craniums and Neandertal to track their divergence seems to me questionable. Overall I thought the article was very interesting and I think the researchers are usefully adopting and synthesizing numerous methods from various fields which bring molecular research and morphology closer together, producing a much clearer and accurate picture of our past.


Weaver, T.D., Roseman, C.C., Stringer, C.B. (2008). Close correspondence between quantitative- and molecular-genetic divergence times for Neandertals and modern humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0709079105

Porcupine Tree - Blackest Eyes

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!


A security lapse made it possible for unwelcome strangers to peruse personal photos posted on Facebook Inc.'s popular online hangout, circumventing a recent upgrade to the Web site's privacy controls.

The Associated Press verified the loophole Monday after receiving a tip from a Byron Ng, a Vancouver, Canada, computer technician. Ng began looking for security weaknesses last week after Facebook unveiled more ways for 67 million members to restrict access to their personal profiles.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Moving forward

as the rest of the world moves in reverse.

Broken Social Scene - 7/4 Shoreline

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Something isn't true...

until science says so:

After years of argument over the roles of factors like genius, sex and dumb luck, a new study shows that something entirely unexpected and considerably sudsier may be at play in determining the success or failure of scientists -- beer.

According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper's quality and importance.
Via NyTimes

Friday, March 21, 2008

Beirut - Elephant Gun

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Zbigniew Brzezinski

was on fire this morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program with Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlosn, and daughter, Mika Brzezinski.

International Pillow Fight Day

is tomorrow. Here's the list of locations. I was disappointed to see Montreal not included on the list, but considering the recent temperatures and weather we've been having, I'm certainly not surprised.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Arcade Fire - My Body is a Cage

Todays song of the day. Enjoy

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Iraqi Debacle: Finding A Way Forward and Out

On March 20, 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush launched a ‘pre-emptive’ military invasion against the state of Iraq intended to transform the greater Middle East region, through Iraq’s own shining example of reformed success, neutralize a potentially significant threat and perceived puppet-master of terrorism, by conclusively ousting the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein through military means, and divert attention away from the U.S.’ inability to locate and capture Al Qaeda front man Osama Bin Laden and his fellow collaborators, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri—the two men most responsible for the nefarious terrorist attacks on 9/11. The invasion itself was a stunning success but that feeling of triumphant exuberance has since been mired by the post-invasion ‘perils of occupation’—as the persistence of sectarian violence, civil strife, lawlessness, and widespread crime, an insurgency, and innumerable political animosities, divisions, and seemingly irreconcilable differences that exist to this day all elicit. In this paper I wish to examine the nature, sources, and causes of the Iraq war and explore a few viable solutions which achieve, as a title in a recent Carnegie Endowment report suggests, ‘a way forward for Iraq and a way out for the United States’. I will start by discussing the relevant changes in US foreign policy post 9/11, then I will address the myriad actors involved in the Iraqi conflict, elaborating on both their goals and intentions, and finally, I will conclude with a proposed set of solutions, at which point I will share the particular one I favor most.

On September 11, 2001 the world, and with it, American foreign policy dramatically changed. The terrorist attacks on both the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., inspired the Bush administration to rapidly craft a new National Security Strategy (NSS) that dealt with the new security environment. The contents of Bush's NSS revolved around three main pledges: First, the US will “defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants.” Second, it “will preserve the peace by building good relations among the super powers.” And third, it “will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”[1]The most significant change in Bush's NSS, which would later prove to have profound effects on the course of history, was the “shift in strategic thinking from a reliance on the deterrent containment doctrine of the Cold War to a willingness to use preemptive policy-making when necessary to safeguard American national interests.” [2]In other words, the Bush administration's preemptive principle proposed an abandonment of the US' traditional foreign policy approach of managing and containing existing threats and crises' (aka realism) for a much more proactive policy prescription: spread democracy in order to thwart future threats before they arise. Evidence of this shift in foreign policy can clearly be seen on November 7, 2003, at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, where President Bush expressed his deep conviction that U.S. security is threatened by the realist divorce of American values and American interests:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo[3].
The first victim that fell into the cross hairs of this new preemptive principle of American foreign policy was Iraq.

In the very same speech Bush made his intentions for invading Iraq perfectly clear: “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic transformation.”[4] By invading Iraq and replacing its despot with democracy you would, they thought, allow freedom to reign and the economy to flourish with investment and growth. Iraq would thus become a paragon of potential for other Middle Eastern states to model themselves after. Moreover, the White House and the neoconservatives envisioned the invasion of Iraq as being the solution to the majority of their Middle Eastern problems: terrorism’s source would be eradicated, other states in the Middle East, specifically Iran, would reform and become democratic and free, and Israel could “reenter the regional system, under conditions far more favorable to its economic interests and national security.”[5] The anticipated realities of this dream, however, were never, or at least, have yet to be, realized.

After five years of U.S. occupation, the expenditure of trillions of dollars, and despite the presence of 160,000 troops at the end of 2007, Iraq, today, is still an “unstable, violent, and deeply divided country, indeed a failed state.”[6] The cost and duration of the war in Iraq has far exceeded what the US administration had ever anticipated and the outcome was radically different from what had been expected. A mixture of mismanagement and poor decision making by the administration before and during the post-invasion reconstruction process certainly accounts for much of the mess that emerged over the course of the occupation, but today, the single greatest challenge preventing progress in Iraq is the refusal of Iraqi political factions to engage in serious political reconciliation.

The existence of myriad political factions and ethnic alliances within Iraq has only made the already difficult task of creating an integrated Iraq more challenging. The different Iraqi political figures and forces have conflicting and often changing views on what they envision to be the future of Iraq. Moreover, there is often inconsistency between their vision and their actions. Understanding the intentions and goals of these various and varying factions is a crucial part to understanding the overall Iraqi conflict puzzle.

There are three main ethnic groups who make up the constituency of Iraq: the Shi'a, who make up the majority with 60%, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. The Shi'a were severely oppressed under the Saddam regime, but since the U.S. invasion have gained a significant amount of power. In general the Shi'a support the strengthening of the Iraqi central government, which isn't surprising considering the fact that they are “the most numerous group, with the most members of parliament and control over the office of the prime minister.”[7] But there are still a number of different Shi'a factions who have conflicting goals. The Da’wa Party, represented by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, supports the enlargement of the central government’s authority and power. The Islamic Supreme Council (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), led by Abdel al-Aziz al-Hakim, favors the concentration of power being placed at the regional level. It has strong Iranian ties and supports the unification of a Shi’i bloc, in which the nine predominantly Shi’ite provinces would be made into one single region. Then there’s Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who has certainly been a thorn in the US’ side, who “heads the largest but also least disciplined and cohesive Shi’i militia” and “talks of a unified Iraq but at the same time has been contesting the authority of the central government and imposing his own control wherever he can.”[8]

The Sunnis, on the other hand, once the main party in power, have lost a significant degree of that power since the overthrow of Saddam. The reconstruction process--the disbanding of the military, the de-Baathification program, and the elections (which, only having a 20% share of the population, put them at a significant disadvantage)—left the Sunnis feeling indignant and marginalized. As a result, the Sunnis decided to boycott the elections, which only made matters worse, since it excluded them from having a role in the crafting of the constitution and from being represented in the parliament. Despite their lack of power and representation in the newly created Iraqi government, the Sunnis still initially advocated a strong, centralized Iraqi state. More recently, however, the Sunni vision has begun to change and has become much more complex. The new Sunni tribal leaders who, helped by the U.S., opposed al-Qaeda, also strongly oppose the Iraqi central government. As the recent 2007 US NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) states, the Sunnis “believe the central government is illegitimate and incompetent.”[9] Thus, it is difficult to determine whether or not the Sunnis would be willing to participate with the central government or if they perceive it to be a threat to their regional autonomy.

The Kurds occupy the northern region of Iraq and are the only group who have maintained a clear, consistent, and relatively unified vision. Since the end of the first Gulf War, the Kurds have continued to develop their own autonomous region. Their long term aspiration has been independence, but this vision is often ignored or flat out rejected because of its unfavorable implications amongst bordering states (such as Turkey and Iran) and amongst Iraqi political factions, since it threatens the unification of Iraq. Nevertheless, the Kurds have consistently pursued their autonomy. They supported the adoption of a constitution for Iraq that empowers the regional and provincial powers, instead of the Iraqi central government. They have their own militia; their own regional government and parliament to enact laws and govern their province; and they have signed a number of investment contracts with international businesses, including oil companies, without consulting or including the Iraqi central government.[10]

Reconciling these conflicting visions and constantly changing political agendas is the only way to transform Iraq from its current failed state status to a functioning state status. The task of stabilizing Iraq, as Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute Carlos Pascual points out, “has become an issue of massive global and regional consequence. At stake are the risks of a wider regional conflict between Sunni and Shi’a and perhaps between Arabs and Persians, humanitarian tragedy spreading over multiple states, a platform for international terrorism, and disruptions to oil production and transit from the single most critical region affecting global oil markets.”[11] There are three options available, or strategies that the U.S. can embrace, but, in my opinion, there is only one option that leads to a solution.

The first option is withdrawal. Reports indicate that, come this fall, the White House intends to start withdrawing a significant amount of American troops—on the order of 50%, though I have read in some places that it might be even larger. Withdrawing may seem like an immediate solution in the eyes of the U.S., but the likely long-term consequences of withdrawal will quickly teach the U.S. that it cannot wash its hands of the mess it has made that easily. According to Ivo Daalder, “after the withdrawal, the situation will get worse, probably much worse. Violence will increase, with deaths likely rising from tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed a year. A million deaths is not inconceivable.”[12] Moreover, if Iraq becomes engulfed in violence and remains a failed state it will become a magnet and safe haven for terrorists, where they would be able to safely plan and orchestrate future attacks on the region and around the globe.

The second option is for the U.S. is to stay until Iraq is stabilized, but significantly change its strategy in order to achieve this end. Over the course of the occupation the U.S.’ main security approach has been very broad: “pacify the entire country more or less simultaneously, preventing the insurgents from securing safe havens and focusing on political and economic progress across the board to help the country “shed” the violence by undermining the key claim of the insurgents (and would-be warlords) that only they can provide security and basic services.”[13] The U.S., lacking the necessary resources to accomplish this broad endeavor, would need to adopt, as Kenneth Pollack proposes, a true counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. This approach would focus on securing “enclaves or protected areas (Kurdistan, most of the predominantly Shi’ite southeast, Baghdad, and a number of other major urban centers, along with the oilfields and some other vital economic facilities) while, initially, leaving much of the rest of the country outside of Kurdistan and the Shi’ite southeast to the insurgents.”[14] This strategy emphasizes a smaller, ground-up approach to security in which local economic and political developments would be able to make “meaningful progress.”[15] The US would then be able to spread success outwards to encompass more territory (which is why this strategy is often referred to as a “spreading oil stain” or “spreading ink stain”). The U.S. has dabbled with this strategy in the most recent phases of the occupation, but it appears to be a strategy that does not make meaningfully significant progress quick enough, so it is hard to sustain and entails an indefinite amount of years of U.S. presence (something the US public does not seem to keen on supporting).

The third option and, to me, solution to this Iraqi quagmire, is the involvement of the International community through the U.N. in collaboration with the US military presence. Carlos Pascual usefully draws upon the learned lessons of history to emphasize how “decades of International experience underscore that, first and foremost, a political agreement among the warring Iraqi parties is needed for a sustainable peace, and that long-term multilateral engagement is necessary to create a chance for its successful implementation.”[16] Thomas Pickering puts this learned lesson of history even more pointedly when he says “all insurgencies, like most wars, end in political settlements. Indeed most insurgencies have been ended by political settlements, which is not the same thing.” [17]The experience in Iraq certainly supports this claim. The ‘go-at-it’ alone approach, coupled with the military-dominated strategy for achieving stability, has proven itself to be catastrophically fruitless.

More importantly, the US needs to recognize that it can no longer play the role of arbiter in the Iraqi political reconciliation process because it has both a political stake (its reputation) and national (economic and strategic) interests attached to the negotiations. This lack of legitimacy is one of the single greatest impediments to the achievement of successful reconciliation. In order to achieve sustained peace and stability in Iraq, political reconciliation must be brokered by a neutral entity that embraces all of the relevant state actors within its membership. The United Nations is the perfect candidate uniquely suited for this monumental role, because it offers not only an ability to mobilize a multilateral response, but also provides legitimacy through its neutrality.

The UN will be able to deal with the two most pressing concerns facing Iraq: it can manage the refuge crisis and broker peace. The latter will of course be the most difficult task, as most of the relevant parties involved in the Iraqi conflict are armed and obviously not very prudent when it comes to violence, but through the international support of its member states and its legitimacy, the UN is clearly the most able body to broker a political settlement between the Iraqis. The UN, however, cannot replace the US’ military role in Iraq. Providing security on the ground is a crucial element in the political reconciliation process. Without the continued presence of U.S. military forces the U.N. would be quickly doomed to failure.

The challenges of stabilizing Iraq are enormous and reason for optimism in achieving or brokering a political settlement is certainly fleeting, but this approach of including the UN and enlarging its role, is clearly the one that offers the best chance for success. The only question left is whether or not the Iraqis are prepared, capable, and willing to achieve this end. But judging from their past history I would certainly wager that they are more than ready to move forward. It is our job to give them that opportunity, and then get the hell out.


[1] Pauly, Robert J. Strategic Preemption: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Second Iraq War. Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub., 2005

[2] Pauly, Robert J. Strategic Preemption: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Second Iraq War. Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub., 2005
[3] White House.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kepel, Gilles. The War for Muslim Minds. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.
[6] Ottaway, Brown, Hamzaqy, Sadjadpour, and Salem. The New Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ottaway, Brown, Hamzaqy, Sadjadpour, and Salem. The New Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
[9] National Intelligence Estimate, Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead, January 2007. Available:; accessed: 4 February 2007.

[10] Ottaway, Brown, Hamzaqy, Sadjadpour, and Salem. The New Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
[11] Pascual, Carlos. “The United Nations in Iraq.” The Brookings Institute. September 2007. Accessed 10 March 2008. < >
[12] Daalder, Ivo. Coping with Failure in Iraq. Brookings Institute. Retrieved: 16 March, 2008. <>

[13] Pollack, Kenneth. Cited in The Road Ahead: Middle East Policy in the Bush Administration’s Second Term. Washington, DC : Brookings Institution, 2005.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Pascual, Carlos. “The United Nations in Iraq.” The Brookings Institute. September 2007. Accessed 10 March 2008. < >
[17] Pickering, Thomas. Does the UN have a Role in Iraq? Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group. Retrieved: 15 March 2008.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rolling Stones - Waiting On A Friend

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Revisiting the Possibility of War with Iran

Remember that mysterious bombing by Israeli jets on the box on the Euphrates in Syria?

Well I just recently came across this incredibly scary speculation...

Via US News:

Israel's airstrike deep in Syria last October was reported to have targeted a nuclear-related facility, but details have remained sketchy and some experts have been skeptical that Syria had a covert nuclear program. An alternative scenario floating in Israel and Lebanon is that the real purpose of the strike was to force Syria to switch on the targeting electronics for newly received Russian anti-aircraft defenses. The location of the strike is seen as on a likely flight path to Iran (also crossing the friendly Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq), and knowing the electronic signatures of the defensive systems is necessary to reduce the risks for warplanes heading to targets in Iran.
I am pretty confident that the US has been denuded of its ability to invade or, more likely, strike Iran by the NIE (although the recent dismissal of Adm. Fallon gives reason for pessimism), but an Israeli strike does not seem at all implausible. Though whether or not Israel has the capabilities to fly from the promised land to Iran and successfully destroy their designated targets is certainly questionable.

Then again, perhaps the plan in the works is for Israel to initiate a conflict with Iran by striking them first, provoking Iran to retaliate, at which point the US will gladly step in and do what it has been wanting to do for ages: overthrow the regime.

If this is indeed a plan in the works I can only hope that it doesn't get played, cause I think the results will be catastrophic.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jason Mraz - 1000 Things

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Monday, March 10, 2008


So today I made significant progress in my revanchist quest to achieve absolute freedom.

I spontaneously decided to permanently deactivate myself from the world of knaves and narcissists, aka facebook, because I realized that I had been duped by its alluring appeal of convenient usefulness.

At first I thought I would feel childishly dramatic and immediately regret deactivating my account, but, instead, I felt that a great weight had been lifted.

I had finally, and without hesitation, foundered my time-cosumingly fruitless distraction and now I, like Shakleton's crew after he purposefully sank their ship so that there would be nothing to return to, feel ready to move on and start focusing on more important things in life.

What's even more exciting to think about is that if I were to cut myself off from email, this blog, and attending school I would be a completely free man with absolutely no obligations, no constraints, and no troublesome burdens.

Then again maybe this yearning for freedom is a self-destructive pursuit, since, after all, a marionette stripped of his strings, while indeed free, is ultimately rendered lifeless and uselessly defunct to his puppet master (whoever or whatever one decides that to be)...

David Oistrakh - Sibelius Violin Concerto (3rd Mvt.)

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

The Other Side

Journalist Ali Abunimah has a good article on the apparent disparity between international reaction of sympathy and condolences to deaths suffered by Israeli citizens at the hands of Islamic radicals who are driven by political/ideological motives as opposed to indifference and apathy towards Palestinian civilians who are killed by Israeli forces, driven, paradoxically, by the same motives, though theirs are somehow deemed more legitimate. Thus, when an Israeli civilian is killed its considered tragic and an act of terrorism, but when a Palestinian civilian is killed by Israeli forces its considered to be merely collateral damage, an unfortunate result, which would preferably be avoided, but is decidedly not significant enough, no matter how big in number, to call into question the ongoing fight against terrorism (a fight which is to me so obviously unwinable through military means that I would go so far as to compare it to trying to fight dandruff with a comb).

Compared with the international silence that surrounded Israel's recent massacres of Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Gaza Strip, condemnation and condolences for the victims of the shooting attack that killed eight students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem have been swift.

"I have just spoken with [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert to extend my deepest condolences to the victims, their families, and to the people of Israel," US President George W. Bush said. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his "condemnation" and "condolences," as did EU High Representative Javier Solana.

The day before the Jerusalem attack, Amira Abu 'Aser was buried in Gaza. She had lived just 20 days on this earth before being shot in the head by Israeli occupation forces who attacked the house of friends she and her family were visiting. Needless to say, she had not been firing rockets at Sderot when she was killed. One of the house's inhabitants was found the next day, shot dead and his head crushed by an army jeep, an apparent victim of an extrajudicial murder by Israeli forces.

But confirming their status in the eyes of the "international community" as less than complete human beings, neither Amira's killing, nor any of the dozens of Palestinian civilian victims of Israel's onslaught in Gaza have merited condemnation or condolences.

The fallacy that lies behind the differential concern for the lives of innocent Israelis and Palestinians is that the massacre in Jerusalem and the massacres in Gaza can be separated. Israeli deaths are "terrorism," while Palestinian deaths are merely an unfortunate consequence of the fight against "terrorism." But the two are intricately linked, and what happened in Jerusalem is a direct consequence of what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians for decades.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Jackie Greene - Mexican Girl

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!