Jan. 4th, 2017
- Anthropology.net looks at the genetics of how the Inuit have adapted to cold weather.
- 'Nathan Smith's Apostrophen shares the author's plans for the coming year.
- Beyond the Beyond's Bruce Sterling shares Margaret Atwood's commitment to fighting for freedom of expression.
- Crooked Timber asks its readers for recommendations in Anglophone science fiction.
- D-Brief notes the discovery of the human mesentery.
- The Dragon's Gaze looks at the protoplanetary disk of LkCa 15 disk.
- Far Outliers looks at some lobsters imported to Japan from (a) Christmas Island.
- Joe. My. God. notes Janet Jackson has given birth.
- Language Hat examines the contrast often made between indigenous and immigrant languages.
- Language Log looks at the names of the stations of the Haifa subway.
- Steve Munro notes Bathurst Station's goodbye to Honest Ed's.
- The Planetary Society Blog examines the Dawn probe's discoveries at Ceres in the past year.
- Window on Eurasia looks at how the permafrost of the Russian far north is melting and endangering entire cities, and contrasts the prosperity of the Estonian city of Narva relative to the decay of adjacent Ivangorod.
Charlie Stross has completed the grimdark vision of 2017 that he had begun last week. I linked to the first two parts on New Year's Eve.
Let's try to do better, eh?
(October gets much much worse, and as for the remainder of the year, well.)
Let's try to do better, eh?
October Theresa May resigns as Prime Minister of the UK after a delegation from the 1922 Committee pay her a visit with baseball bats. Boris Johnson, one-time leader-in-waiting, bribes his way onto one of the few still-flying airliners bound for the United States and tweets in mid-air about his intention to request political asylum and re-assert his US citizenship. The aircraft is intercepted over the Atlantic and shot down by F-15s acting at the request of President Pence (who really doesn't want to give BoJo a shot at making his run in 2024).
An elderly back-bencher is prevailed upon to do the honorable thing and accept the office of the Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, thereby freeing up a seat for a by-election. On the basis of the theory that when you're up to your nose in shit the only way out is to take a deep breath and dive, Nigel Farage is fast-tracked as candidate for the by-election and, upon election, is promptly shoved through the door at Number Ten: at his first interview with the monarch he is told "you broke it, you fix it". (His subsequent plaintive requests for Jimmy Saville's phone number go unanswered.)
In the wake of the September melt-down, Germany's Bundestag elections produce huge voter swings to the AfD (from the CDU) and the Greens and Left (from the SPD), with the Pirate Party passing the critical 5% threshold for the first time. The AfD, taking heart from what they perceive as a swing to the right in global politics, go one step too far by openly calling for the rehabilitation of Adolf Hitler and are banned by the constitutional court; a Green/Left/Pirate coalition is formed and announces its intention of moving to leave the World Trade Organization to permit a sweeping regime of nationalization of banks and financial institutions and emergency measures to keep industry and agriculture going.
The new hard-left German government with it's Grumpy Cat logo is greeted with horror in the United States and is denounced in Moscow as Communism. However, when the new regime in Berlin announces its intention of forgiving all personal debt owed by Greek borrowers (denominated in the collapsed Euro, hence not worth very much at all) and to institute a universal basic income scheme throughout the EU and work to abolish wage slavery for all it buys them a lot of friends. The situation is very murky, and made murkier by the slow, unanounced withdrawal of Russian tanks from the Baltic region and their re-appearance further south.
(October gets much much worse, and as for the remainder of the year, well.)
NPR's Tegan Wendland reports on how rising sea levels, arguably felt more in low-lying Louisiana than elsewhere, are contributing to the literal erosion of the state's history.
Louisiana is losing its coast at a rapid rate because of rising sea levels, development and sinking marshland. Officials are trying to rebuild those marshes and the wetlands, but much of the coast can't be saved. This makes Louisiana's history an unwitting victim. As land disappears and the water creeps inland, ancient archaeology sites are washing away, too.
Richie Blink was born and raised in Plaquemines Parish, La. — way down south of New Orleans along the Mississippi River. Now he works for the National Wildlife Federation.
[. . .]
What's locally known as the "Lemon Trees" is a stand of weathered old trees on a grassy tuft of land. It's a well-known landmark for fishermen, but Blink says they would rarely stop there to hunt or fish because it's a sacred Native American site.
"The legend goes that you were always to bring some kind of sacrifice, so somebody left some lemons for the ancestors," Blink says.
And those grew into big trees with grapefruit-sized lemons. But as land was lost to the Gulf of Mexico, saltwater made its way into the freshwater marsh, killing off the trees and other plants.
The trees stand like skeletons on the edge of this scrappy, wind-beaten island. Waves beat against the dirt, washing it away, exposing shards of ancient pottery.
Bloomberg's Jessica Shankleman and Chris Martin report on how technological and economic progress is set to make solar energy the most inexpensive source of electricity around.
In 2016, countries from Chile to the United Arab Emirates broke records with deals to generate electricity from sunshine for less than 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, half the average global cost of coal power. Now, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Mexico are planning auctions and tenders for this year, aiming to drop prices even further. Taking advantage: Companies such as Italy’s Enel SpA and Dublin’s Mainstream Renewable Power, who gained experienced in Europe and now seek new markets abroad as subsidies dry up at home.
Since 2009, solar prices are down 62 percent, with every part of the supply chain trimming costs. That’s help cut risk premiums on bank loans, and pushed manufacturing capacity to record levels. By 2025, solar may be cheaper than using coal on average globally, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“These are game-changing numbers, and it’s becoming normal in more and more markets," said Adnan Amin, International Renewable Energy Agency ’s director general, an Abu Dhabi-based intergovernmental group. "Every time you double capacity, you reduce the price by 20 percent.”
Better technology has been key in boosting the industry, from the use of diamond-wire saws that more efficiently cut wafers to better cells that provide more spark from the same amount of sun. It’s also driven by economies of scale and manufacturing experience since the solar boom started more than a decade ago, giving the industry an increasing edge in the competition with fossil fuels.
Inverse features Joe Carmichael's interview with artificial intelligence pioneer Jürgen Schmidhuber, who claims that we've been making artificially intelligent programs since 1991. His argument actually does make a weird kind of sense, but I'm far from being an expert in the field. What do experts say?
There's much more at Inverse.
You claim that some A.I.s are already conscious. Could you explain why?
I would like to claim we had little, rudimentary, conscious learning systems for at least 25 years. Back then, already, I proposed rather general learning systems consisting of two modules.
One of them, a recurrent network controller, learns to translate incoming data — such as video and pain signals from the pain sensors, and hunger information from the hunger sensors — into actions. For example, whenever the battery’s low, there’s negative numbers coming from the hunger sensors. The network learns to translate all these incoming inputs into action sequences that lead to success. For example, reach the charging station in time whenever the battery is low, but without bumping into obstacles such as chairs or tables, such that you don’t wake up these pain sensors.
The agent’s goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain until the end of its lifetime. This goal is very simple to specify, but it’s hard to achieve because you have to learn a lot. Consider a little baby, which has to learn for many years how the world works, and how to interact with it to achieve goals.
Since 1990, our agents have tried to do the same thing, using an additional recurrent network — an unsupervised module, which essentially tries to predict what is going to happen. It looks at all the actions ever executed, and all the observations coming in, and uses that experience to learn to predict the next thing given the history so far. Because it’s a recurrent network, it can learn to predict the future — to a certain extent — in the form of regularities, with something called predictive coding.
There's much more at Inverse.
Savage Minds introduces the first of several posts to be made this month by Coltan Scrivner about personhood, starting from the question of whether other primates are people.
When the concept of a person is brought up, many seem to begin by comparing the “other” to humans, using our species as a measuring stick. We take for granted that our species exemplifies what it is to be a person, to be an agent in the world. This leads many of us to assume that personhood is somehow intrinsically tied to human beings. It’s “a part of our DNA,” so to speak, to be a person. Thus, any other creature or entity that might be considered to be a “person” is measured against abilities that exist in Homo sapiens. This often tosses the question to scientists to figure out if the “other” is enough like us to be a person. When considering chimps and other apes, this has been the charge of cognitive and comparative psychologists.
For quite some time now, chimps and other primates have been subject to a battery of cognitive tests aimed at assessing theory of mind. One of the first major studies in this area was Gallup’s “mirror test.” In essence, an animal is sedated and a mark is placed on their forehead, where it could not be seen by any normal method. The animal awakens in front of a mirror with no knowledge of the dot. If they begin to use the mirror to inspect themselves, in particular the dot, it suggests that the animal has some idea that the thing in the mirror is not just “that animal,” but is “me.” Thus, they would possess, at minimum, a sense of bodily awareness. The study has been replicated numerous times with various animals, but consistent passing has largely been restricted to adult species of Great Apes. Moreover, humans don’t start passing the test until around 18 months of age.
One of last cognitive bastions separating humans from other primates was the inability to show that other primates understand false beliefs. This might seem like an odd barrier, but understanding false beliefs, or the intentions of others, is an important and potentially testable component of understanding the mind of others. However, a recent study published in Science has purportedly demonstrated that chimps – as well as orangutans and bonobos – can in fact understand the false beliefs of others. Through the use of eye tracking software, all three primates were shown to anticipate another ape’s (okay, really a human dressed as an ape) false belief by looking where the misinformed ape would look before they did, even though the observing primates knew the object wasn’t in that location. If replicated and demonstrated to be a reliable finding, there will indeed be little in terms of testable self-consciousness that we possess that at least some apes do not.
At Daily Xtra, Michael Lyons writes about some astonishingly popular homoerotic published for the masses in 17th century Japan, looking at the plot and looking at the import of these stories' popularity.
Funny that same-sex love, at least male homosexuality, was once not only celebrated, but a cultural pastime. Published in 1687, Nanshoku ōkagami, or The Great Mirror of Male Love, was a book of 40 short stories by Ihara Saikaku.
This was at the height of the Tokugawa period when merchant classes, while still considered lower social status than farmers, were enjoying greater wealth that gave them access to prostitutes, urban pleasure quarters, art and popular fiction — the four were often interlinked.
To these chōnin, “townsmen,” the assumption was that romantic and sexual love was to be found outside of the institution of marriage. By this point in Japan’s history, monastic and samurai traditions of age-based hierarchal relationships legitimized homosexuality, so a culturally legitimized “cult of sexual connoisseurship” developed around adolescent boys without any stigma.
The latter half of Saikaku’s collection focuses on relationships with men and young kabuki actors, but it’s the samurai tales that interest me, one in particular, called “Implicated By His Diamond Crest.” The love story starts with Shimamura Daiemon, a 27-year-old samurai, renowned weaponist and engineer; a masterless samurai devoted to his family.
Daiemon attends a firefly viewing party near the outskirts of town near a statue of Buddha said to be carved by Kūkai (posthumously known as Kōbō-Daishi), the founder of Japanese Buddhism — rumoured to be the man who brought homosexuality to Japan — where he anonymously foils an intrigue, saving the reputation of a young samurai named Haruta Tannosuke.
The Toronto Star's San Grewal looks at how Mississauga will be growing--growing up?--this year.
Mississauga is on a roll. An unprecedented number of mega-projects are moving forward. The diverse city is finally addressing thorny issues related to inclusiveness. And multi-national corporations continue to eye the GTA’s second-largest city when considering where to set up their operations.
But 2017 could be the year that Mississauga also makes progress on some issues that have been neglected through the years: the city’s ballooning budget has become an unavoidable problem; many residents continue to feel left behind due to a lack of affordable housing, and the recent boom in increased density or “vertical” growth hasn’t always been accompanied with public transit planning, strategies to attract more than just condos and an approach to develop arts and culture in the country’s sixth largest city.
These are some of the major issues that Mississauga will have to deal with if it wants to keep benefiting from its status as one of the most desirable places to live and do business in Ontario.
They come with a price tag just as municipal costs are increasing.
“If you added the city’s increase (to its budget) from 2011 to 2016, it’s about 30 per cent,” said John Walmark, chair of the City of Mississauga’s citizen oversight committee.
At the Toronto Star, San Grewal suggests this year could be the one that sees the perennially divided city of Brampton move forward.
A $28.5-million lawsuit still hangs over Brampton City Hall, council is wrestling over a future route for a LRT corridor, long-standing policing policies in one of Canada’s most-diverse communities are being challenged by residents and plans for the city’s first university need to be hammered out.
These are some of the critical issues facing Canada’s ninth largest city in 2017.
Some city hall watchers and councillors worry that the ongoing lawsuit launched by local builder Inzola Group against the city in 2011, regarding the handling of a historic downtown redevelopment deal, is causing reputational harm and the possible loss of business as it drags through the courts.
“It’s of the utmost importance that this matter be resolved in 2017,” says Councillor John Sprovieri, who has been critical of the city’s handling of the six-year-old lawsuit, which Mayor Linda Jeffrey said has “paralyzed” city hall.
“A lot of people are following what’s happening with this lawsuit,” Sprovieri said. “There is a lot of speculation and much of it is negative. Until it is resolved this speculation and the allegations are a reputational issue for Brampton — it could be doing significant damage to our reputation.”
The Globe and Mail's Ingrid Peritz describes controversy in Montréal over the cost of celebrating the 375th anniversary of the city's founding. I'm for the idea: Why not celebrate an anniversary of some note? Everyone loves a party.
Montrealers do not need much of an excuse to party, but some are wondering why they are supposed to celebrate when their city turns 375 this year.
The birthday falls awkwardly between a semiseptcentennial (350 years) and a quadricentennial (400 years). The anniversary does not even have a formal name.
Then there’s the cost of the presents, including $39.5-million to illuminate the majestic Jacques Cartier Bridge. At least this gift is scheduled to arrive on time. Others are not expected until Montreal turns 376 or 377.
To boosters, however, staging a full year of celebrations – and spending millions doing it – is a way to lift the city’s spirits.
“It’s true, 375 isn’t a significant number,” admits Alain Gignac, general manager of the Society for the Celebration of Montreal’s 375th Anniversary. “But why not celebrate? We were starting to get used to a kind of gloominess. … We thought, why not mark the moment, give Montreal a little energy and pride, and a sense of belonging to Montrealers so that they can get into the party.”
Cherise Burda's op-ed in The Globe and Mail makes sense to me.
A number of critics would have us believe that Ontario’s land-use legislation is the top culprit for rising house prices in the Greater Toronto Area – namely the Greenbelt, which protects farmland, and its sister Growth Plan policy, which directs growth outside the Greenbelt. Proponents of this argument claim that these policies restrict land on which to build ground-related houses, thereby driving up prices.
These policies do influence where and what the region builds, shifting housing starts from predominantly car-dependent low-density subdivisions to more multiunit housing. However, to suggest government policy is the primary cause of high housing prices disregards the many bigger factors and paints an unhelpful picture that we are running out of land and bumping up against the Greenbelt – which has been shown to be false.
Recent analysis by RBC reports four factors accounting for between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of price increases in Toronto since 1999: low borrowing rates; higher incomes; higher percentage of incomes used to pay mortgages; and the bank of mom and dad all contributing to strong buying power.
Canadians buying properties that are not their primary homes now represent a quarter of demand in Toronto real estate, opting for safer investments over unreliable stock markets and zero cash returns, and contributing to higher prices.