Monday, July 27, 2015

(Non)-Virtual Reality: A Video Game About Cancer

On Living Memory

That Dragon, Cancer: Parkin of The New Yorker writes: “For Green, in other words, the game is no longer just a way to invite others into the dreadful realm of terminal illness; it’s also a way to preserve, and to celebrate, the memory of his son’s life.”

Some articles are more touching than others, striking a personal chord that resonates loudly and deeply. This is the case of an an article, by Simon Parkin, in The New Yorker about a father using his professional skills as a video-game maker to deal with his infant son’s cancer and his succumbing to it when he was five. Is this mawkish or exploitation? No, I would argue that this is a way to deal with devastating grief and profound inexplicable sadness.

Film-makers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall have made a documentary about it. In “A Father's Video Game About His Son’s Terminal Cancer” (July 22, 2015), Parkin writes:
The film “Thank You for Playing,” which premièred at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, follows a young father who is making a video game about his terminally ill child. Joel Green was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010, at the age of one. By the time the film’s directors, David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, first met him, in early 2013, Joel’s young body had been subject to more than three years of surgery and chemotherapy. The tumors had left him partially deaf and blind. At one point, he had to relearn how to walk. Other families might document and express a similar experience through photographs, home videos, written diaries, or poems. But Joel’s father, Ryan Green, is a video-game developer, and he decided to bring narrative order to the devastating chaos of his son’s illness using the medium he knows best.
This makes sense to me; when you have cancer, your world is thrown into disorder. Order is one thing that you want, that you desire, using your diminished strength and tired mind to obtain some of what is lost. It is, after all is said and done, a losing effort, in the sense that something is lost when you have cancer. [see A Cancer Memoir.]

It is true that the losses vary among persons hit by cancer. What is universal is that your world is divided into two phases: Before Cancer (B.C.) and After Cancer (A.C.). This might not be done overtly; it is often done without conscious acknowledgment or awareness. You cannot return to the way things were B.C. and you have to adapt to the “new normal” of life A.C.

Cancer is no discriminator of persons; it is the master of disorder, and its success is no reflection of the human effort. Such is the way it is with a cruel and unrelenting disease; it is tricky and implacable foe, who uses deceit. Cancer makes the people it attacks feel alone, vulnerable and already defeated.

Joel Green was too young at age one to know what order is, and what he was facing, so it was up to his father to try to make sense of it all by taking an initiative and inviting others into his world, his humane battle, to do the same. “On March 14, 2014, in the early hours of the morning, Joel Green died,*” the article says. Yet, the little boy lives on, as a visual memory, in a video game and in a documentary. This provides a setback to cancer’s claim of victory, which provides to me some measure delight. It is not the same as having the presence of a flesh-and-blood son, to be sure, but it provides some sense of his being.

For more, go to [TheNewYorker]


I will return in a few weeks with more posts.

Sci-Fi Meets Reality In Silicon Valley

Tech Innovation

DARPA Robotics Finals: The finals challenge involved 23 teams and was held at the Fairplex in Pomona, California. The competition’s purpose is evaluating the ability of robots, the site says, “capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. “Taking first place and the $2 million in prize money that goes with it is Team Kaist of Daejeon, Republic of Korea, and its robot DRC-Hubo. Coming in second and taking home $1 million is Team IHMC Robotics of Pensacola, Fla., and its robot Running Man. The third place finisher, earning the $500,000 prize, is Tartan Rescue of Pittsburgh, and its robot CHIMP.” The winning time, as the article notes, was 44 minutes and 28 seconds.
Photo Credit & Source: IEEE Spectrum

An article/conversation, by John Markoff, in Edge looks at the Next Wave in technology, or, to put it more simply, what’s both possible and probable. At the heart of this discussion of technology are two camps: techno-optimists and techno-pessimists, the latter seeing technological trends as nightmarish, portending disaster; while the former seeing them as bringing about significant human advancement.

Markoff is a science and technology journalist for The New York Times and the author of a forthcoming book, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. Automatons or robots can be helpful, easily doing tasks that humans find physically difficult, highly dangerous or mentally tiring. But the idea of automatons, highly intelligent and rebelling—and thus subjugating humans—is the fare of science fiction, and represents one of humanity’s fears about technological advancement. There is also the very genuine fear of automatons displacing human workers in what is already a shifting and tightening global job market.

The subtext of this argument is the question of whether such technologies are needed in light of the social and economic problems, let alone the environmental problems, that pervade our world. Yet, the changes once predicted as probable might not be possible in the next two or three decades, hindered, so to speak, by very real engineering challenges. Markoff, who grew up in the high-tech area dubbed Silicon Valley, has this to say about the place he calls home in “The Next Wave” (July 23, 2015):
There was a wonderful moment when I went down to cover the DARPA robotics challenge in Southern California. There was a preliminary event in Florida about eighteen months ago where they had the finals. They had twenty-five teams. It was quite an event. It was a spectacle. They built these by and large Terminator-style machines, and the idea was that they would be able to work in a Fukushima-like environment. Only three of the machines, after these teams worked on them for eighteen months, were able to even complete the tasks. The winning team completed the tasks in about forty-five minutes. They had an hour to do eight tasks that you and I could do in about five minutes. They had to drive the vehicle, they had to go through a door, they had to turn a crank, they had to throw a switch, they had to walk over a rubble pile, and then they had to climb stairs.
I'd have been able to do it a lot quicker than five minutes. It took the robot about forty-five minutes. Most of the robots failed at the second task, which was opening the door. Rod Brooks, who's this pioneering roboticist, came down to watch and comment on it afterwards because he'd seen all these robots struggling to get the door open and said, "If you're worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed." We're at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.
What more can be said? That the robotics technology has not advanced enough to do what a young child can do, let alone a highly trained and skilled professional search-and-rescuer? That science fiction films are fun to watch, but they are to a large degree fantasy? That in some cases, reality does catch up to science fiction, but only decades later, as is the case with our smartphones and other hand-held communication devices?

In a sense, science-fiction has bumped into reality, the hard and unbending reality of nature and its immutable laws. So, I would not be worried right now about Terminator-style automatons taking control of humans; we are far way from this on so many technological levels, let alone the ethical concerns (e.g. Frankenstein’s monster, a modern tale of Prometheus and the implications of a society gone wrong) that these machines raise, should they ever come into design fruition.

It is true that we should not invent any “intelligent beings” if we do not have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of such initiatives, even if the original reasons were good. Can society design a blueprint for its general betterment, one that includes intelligent machines that are limited in their ability to rebel against their human "creators” as a measure of safety?

Even so, as the robotics competition shows, we are not there yet. These ideas make for nice after-dinner discussions, where they typically follow a path where someone would say that such ideas are catastrophic for humanity, perhaps citing Prometheus unbound. That science has over-reached; that humanity is foolish for taking this unguarded path. What often follows is a doom-and-gloom scenarios accompanied by much hand-wringing and renting of clothes.

Robots, automatons, androids, AI, and various combinations and permutations of all these words and concepts, are embedded in our imagination, in our mind’s-eye, if you will, and will likely remain there for a long time. That these machines, these future mechanisms of engineering marvel, will be endowed with a human-type consciousness—it remaining one of the “hard questions” of our times—is also hard to fathom today. How can it be so, when we do not fully understand human consciousness. The ideas surrounding machine consciousness, even if it were “highly developed,” sounds more like science fiction that probable reality.

That being the case, I am going to save you the time of reading this long article, by quoting the final thoughtful and insightful ending, which encapsulates two schools of thought: “The Kurzweil crowd argues this is happening faster and faster, and things are just running amok. In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it’s going to look more like it looks today than you think.” Time will prove which group was indeed right in its prediction of the next thirty years, but I suspect it will not be Kurzweil and company.

For more, go to [Edge]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Place To Move & Breathe

Natural Science
Edwards Gardens in Toronto, a place we visit often, is a botanical garden in the midst of the city, a 30-minute drive from our residence. It has has miles of paths lined with flowers, shrubs, trees and wildlife, making it a perfect place to ruminate and clear the mind of muddled and conflicting thoughts. It has been a public garden since 1955, when the City of Toronto purchased the property from a private businessman, Rupert E. Edwards, proprietor of Canada Varnish Ltd., who, as the Toronto Botanical Garden puts it, “[desired] a place in the country…..with wide open spaces all around, with plenty of room to move and breathe.”
Photo Credit & Source: Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

A Walk In The Park

Brain Walk

Neighbourhood Park: The G. Ross Lord Park, a public park that is a few minutes walk from our residence, is one that we visit regularly. Gretchen Reynolds, in The New York Times, writes: A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature.”
Photo Credit & Source: Perry J. Greenbaum

Aarticle, by Gretchen Reynolds, in The New York Times says that taking a walk in parks has a beneficial effect on one’s cognitive abilities and over-all mood; while the effect was slight, it was nevertheless scientifically significant. Why this is so is not completely or sufficiently understood, but what is known and observed is that the brain pattern alters after a walk in nature.

This study becomes important in light of previous studies that show that urban dwellers who do not have easy access to public parks (or greens space), have higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than those who do. (As I wrote in a previous post, I am fortunate that I not only reside next to a large public park, but also have a good view of it from my sixth-floor balcony.)

In “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain” (July 22, 2015), Reynolds writes:
These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.
But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health?
That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, who has been studying the psychological effects of urban living. In an earlier study published last month, he and his colleagues found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.
But that study did not examine the neurological mechanisms that might underlie the effects of being outside in nature. So for the new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person’s tendency to brood.
Brooding is what we humans do when we have a hard problem to solve, and we figuratively turn it over in our minds. We ruminate trying to find a solution to it; while a change in setting is often helpful, going to a café or a shopping mall does not have the same effect, and neither does going to a museum, which, although informative and engaging, will not do the trick when dealing with a really knotty problem. It has something (or perhaps everything) to do with nature and what it provides: I also would suggest that walking heightens the ability to both problem solve and concentrate the mind where it is most needed.

Combined, the two give us humans something necessary that can’t be found in busy and noisy large cities: a quiet natural place to think. (Many people find that fishing on a lake provides the same calming effect on the mind; the reasons are no doubt similar.) Thus, public parks in urban areas are indescribably valuable to humanity—they are areas in which the sounds and sights of urban life are not found. Sometimes, life is a walk in the park, making life less anxious and more bearable.

One of the questions is whether solitary walks are preferable to walks with a companion or a group. You will notice, however, that even in groups people tend  to pair off. The answer, as is often the case, is “it depends.”

For more, go to [NYT]

Saturday, July 25, 2015

After 16 Years, Hebrew Israelites Have A Chief Rabbi

The Jewish World

Rabbi Capers Funnye: He is a first cousin once removed to First Lady Michelle Obama. Kestenbaum writes:“Today Funnye’s synagogue, the largest Israelite congregation of its kind, has regular pulpit exchanges with other Jewish synagogues in the city. He sees his community as an entry point; congregants have the Jewish literacy to worship anywhere. ‘Now wherever they go, they are grounded and steeped in Torah,’ ” Funnye said.
Photo Credit: Darchei Noam PR
Source: Haaretz

An article, by Sam Kestenbaum, in Haaretz looks at what Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr faces in becoming the first Black Chief Rabbi of the 21st century, that of the Hebrew Israelite community, also called the Black Jewish community, or in Israel, African Hebrew Israelites. This is both an honour and a great responsibility filled with many challenges, which includes gaining wider acceptance among mainstream Judaism and of the world’s Jews.

His role and title raises all the old questions of what it means to be a Jew, and who has the authority to decide such an important matter of recognition and validation. Judaism has never been a monolith, and that there are multiple branches of Judaism explains that as much as anything else. That Hebrew Israelites want to become a recognized sect of Judaism is equally understandable.

In “Can Michelle Obama’s cousin make Hebrew Israelites mainstream?” (July 17, 2015), Kestenbaum writes:
Like synagogues in many old neighborhoods, the walls of Mount Horeb in the Bronx are lined with the framed photos of esteemed elders who have passed on. There is a faded photo, too, of the Western Wall, and Stars of David.
But at this Bronx synagogue, an Ethiopian flag also hangs above a series of aged newspaper clippings, chronicling the history of the devout African-American community that congregates here, one whose story has unfolded on the margins of the Jewish world. This particular weekend, the crowd at Mount Horeb — some in dashikis, turbans and knit caps; others with three-piece suits and yarmulkes — have come to hear from a leader-in-waiting who promises to move his community, known as the Hebrew Israelites, at least somewhat closer to the center of mainstream Jewish life.
Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. has already risen to prominence in the Jewish world as a charismatic cleric, a first cousin once removed to First Lady Michelle Obama and the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, with a synagogue — Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation — listed on the Guide to Jewish Living website of the local Jewish federation. At the same time, he is vice president of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, the only rabbinical body in the separate world of the Hebrew Israelites.
Around 200 members gathered at Mount Horeb on June 27 to hear Funnye; to honor a cherished patriarch, Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, and to celebrate 96 years of history. It was, among other things, a chance for the New York community to listen to Funnye, who was nominated last October to assume the long-vacant title that Matthew once held. A statement from the board announced that Funnye had successfully “passed the penultimate step to becoming the first Black Chief Rabbi of the 21st century.” The final decision on his elevation, the board noted, will be made at a conclave of rabbis in the fall.
There have been only two other chief rabbis in the community’s history, and the position has been vacant for 16 years.
No longer; and the matter of the Hebrew Israelites fits into the broader questions of 1) who is a Jew? 2) who decides such matters? and 3) what are the requirements for conversion, or giyur in Hebrew (גיור‎,)? These are not easy questions to answer, and they have always been controversial and laden with emotion. One can, however, look to the Jewish Bible (the Tanakh) for answers, giving a historical perspective. There are two notable examples: Zipporah, a Midianite, who was the wife of Moses, considered Judaism’s greatest spiritual leader; and Ruth, a Moabite women, who was the great-grandmother of King David, considered Judaism’s greatest monarch? Did these women go through a formal conversion? Or is this a modern requirement? 

Nonprofessionals, that is, non-rabbis, tend to simplify the question to one: Is it sufficient that an individual wants to join the Jewish People to be made a member of the “House of David”? to be considered a Jew? Or, are the rabbinate of orthodox Judaism right to say that they ought to have the final say on such matters, that the bar needs to be raised high to ensure Judaism’s continuity and preservation? That it requires education, training and, even, discouragement? This is the case in the State of Israel, where Orthodox Judaism maintains exclusive control on such matters. Outside Israel, this is not the case.

This needs further discussion. Some, from the other sects of mainstream Judaism, including Conservative and Reform, would argue otherwise; and, accordingly, each has instituted a set of standards and procedures for conversion that are less stringent and more open to modern ideas. It is true that their arguments have some validity, particularly if Judaism is to grow in numbers and become more inclusive. Concomitant to this is acceptance, particularly of those who do not fit the “model” of a Jew. (Is a long tallit and the wearing of tzitzit necessary? the right kind of yarmulke or kippa? the right caftan or bekishe? Does this improve prayer? Do these make you a better Jew?  a better person?) How much is attributed to culture?

Apart from any theological or ontological reservations related to the existence of God, many Jews born as Jews do not attend religious services on a regular basis, nor do they have a desire to do so—for want of a better word, such individuals are called unaffiliated Jews. What other generations found familiar and comforting, “the unaffiliated” today find foreign and confusing. One argument is that ancient traditions are not relevant to the modern world, that the prayers are incomprehensible and dated. Then there is the matter of reading and understanding biblical Hebrew, which, in Orthodox congregations, is the only language used. If you can’t read or understand Hebrew, you are lost, forever trying to find the page on the siddur, or prayer book.

Such are not idle concerns, but very valid and real ones voiced by Jews who want no part of organized religious Judaism in any shape or form. There might have an inner need for community, but not at the cost to conformity. There is a growing trend among young people, so-called millennials, in particular, to resist top-down institutional authority and who as a group embrace sharing, empathy and collaboration, and in working side-by-side (figuratively, that is) on causes. Perhaps nothing traditional would satisfy such individuals, and they are happy to set themselves apart from traditional religious practices, viewing these as an imposition to modern life. Many still view themselves as Jewish, but either as secular or cultural Jews.

What is not in doubt, however, is that Jewish identity is shifting in America, according to a Pew Survey (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans;” 2013), where “62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.” So, one way to counteract such a trend is to add more people to the religious fold, and in particular to the affiliated. It would seem like a rational and sagacious move to accept persons who, although not born as Jews, self-identify as Jews. Although a recognized and formal ritual of conversion is likely necessary, it should not be overly burdensome and onerous as to be an impediment or discouragement. The important point, I would argue, is to view and welcome such individuals as bona fide Jews and as members of mainstream Judaism.

Such individuals, after all, have a great desire and want to become part of Judaism, want to adhere to the tenets of Torah and Talmud, want to maintain tradition, and want to both draw from and to devote themselves to Judaism’s long history. They feel Jewish. It would seem that the Hebrew Israelites fit such a description and ought to be warmly welcomed into the community.

Something to think about.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Jewish Quarter On Palestinian TV

Reality TV

The Jewish Quarter: Co-stars Menna Shalabi & Iyad Nassar in a screen shot from the Egyptian-produced drama. David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times writes: ‘The Jewish Quarter’ is named for a neighborhood where people of the three Abrahamic faiths once all lived together. In its opening scene, Muslims, Christians and Jews take shelter together in a synagogue during an Israeli air raid. (The temple is now boarded up and forgotten, hidden behind stalls selling cheap hairpins.) A Muslim romantic rival to Laila, the Jewish protagonist, makes fun of a Christian woman, and Laila defends her.”
Source: The Forward

An article, by William Booth & Sufian Taha in The Washington Post discusses a new show on Palestinian TV, an Egyptian produced Arabic language late-night soap opera that follows a Jewish family living in Cairo in 1948. It shows Jews in a positive light, and moreover the article says, the show is highly popular among Palestinians living in the West Bank, “garnering a 40 percent share during prime-time viewing.” 

In “Egyptian show that’s flattering to Jews is a surprise hit among Palestinians” (July 17, 2015), Booth and Taha write:
Bethlehem, West Bank. A dozen Palestinian Muslim men gathered after midnight at an isolated farm house this week to indulge in a new delight. They were going to watch a soap opera about Jews. “Hush, hush. It’s starting!” someone said. The group settled down, sipped fresh lemonade, nibbled sweets, sucked on water pipes and then cranked up the volume for the opening credits of  “Haret al-Yahud,” or “The Jewish Quarter.”
The steamy Egyptian soap tells a Romeo and Juliet tale of a beautiful daughter of a well-to-do Jewish merchant and a dashing Muslim army commander falling in and out and in love again in old Cairo during the earth-shaking 1948 Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath. The show’s vibe is a mash of “Casablanca” with a little “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“I never in my life imagined that I would be seeing this,” said Mahmoud Dadoh, a chicken farmer who had become a fan.
He was not amazed to see Jews in Arab media. Not at all.
Israelis and Jews, often presented as interchangeable, are a reliable staple on TV dramas produced in the Arab world, cast as greedy, villainous, hook-nosed stereotypes — or as evil occupiers of Palestine.

What Israeli media watchdogs often call “incitement,” the Arab world considers “television.”
No, what stunned the chicken farmer and his pals was that “The Jewish Quarter” is aired on Palestinian public television, with the implied consent of the Palestinian Authority, and it shows Jews in a positive light — as ordinary, even extraordinary, human beings.
“This is very new for us,” Dadoh said, pointing to the big-screen television during a scene where the Jewish patriarch counsels patience. “Look at them. Look at their dignity!”

The other men nodded.
To be sure, this show is a cultural product that has a large audience, which means that it has been highly successful in providing entertainment value, which does say something important. Entertainment can sometimes turn to education, since it is easier and more enjoyable to digest than traditional education. Yes, it is soap-opera drama, replete with low culture and high drama, and all that such combinations entails, not precisely my cup of tea.

This does not in any way suggest that the show is without merit, or that it has no value. Quite the contrary; and it has power to shape public opinion, not only in Egypt, where the show originates, but elsewhere in the Arab world where the drama is broadcast, This is part of the argument that Eyal Sagui Bizawe makes in Haaretz (“How ‘The Jewish Quarter’ became the talk of Cairo;” July 5, 2015):
Those who see themselves as being refined people of high culture can ridicule melodramatic Ramadan series, criticize the sticky romance, the overused filmmaking techniques and ridiculous mistakes made in them. But they would be better served if, instead of scorning the amusement that they see as dumbing down to the people, they recognize that they offer an important expression of the changes in society, challenging, shaping and different from the prevailing attitude for years.
Without a doubt, we know that culture has the ability to change views, perhaps not as powerfully as religion and politics (which often today appears toxic and ferments nationalism), but sufficiently enough, nevertheless, to engender dialogue, which are the tiny seedlings of trust that bear the tasty fruits of reconciliation and rapprochement. Such is always a good thing and considerably better than what we have been witnessing for decades.

For more, go to [WashPostt]; for more critiques , go to [TheForward] & to [NYT]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

5 Nations Sign Accord To Ban Arctic Ocean Fishing

Fish Stocks

Arctic Fishing: The Globe & Mail writes: “A fishing boat is firmly locked into the ice in Cambridge Bay on Nov. 29, 2013.” This agreement is one of those times where an accord is ahead of reality: there currently is no arctic fishing in this region. Gloria Galloway writes: “Scott Highleyman, the international Arctic director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the Arctic countries have agreed that unregulated commercial fishing in the High Arctic is a looming problem. Although there is currently no fishing in the central Arctic, there is also no legal means to prevent it as the sea ice melts, he said.”
Photo Credit: Peter Power
Source: The Globe and Mail

Five nations, including Canada, signed an accord that effectively bans fishing around the waters surrounding the North Pole. An editorial in The Globe & Mail says:
After 100,000 years of frozen peace, the central Arctic Ocean around the North Pole is becoming a hotbed of activity. Scientists see the ice melting quickly – at least 40 per cent of the central Arctic Ocean is now open water in the summer – and they are awaiting the inevitable next step: the arrival of commercial fishing boats and their massive nets. Now there’s hope they may not come.
The five countries surrounding the world’s northernmost ocean signed a remarkable accord last Thursday, each pledging not to permit their own ships to fish in the central Arctic Ocean’s international waters until a full scientific assessment of fish stocks can be conducted. The off-limits zone is a 2.8 million square kilometre body of water surrounded by Canada, the United States, Russia, the Danish territory of Greenland, and Norway.
The agreement is remarkable not just because it marks a rare example of countries co-operating to protect a sensitive environment before it is threatened, but because several of the signatories are involved in a bitter disagreement over Russian aggression in Ukraine. The U.S., Canada and Russia are barely talking these days, but all agreed to meet in Oslo to sign the accord. It was unusually mature diplomacy, and it deserves applause.
The agreement was originally reached in February 2014, and it is remarkable given the disagreements that Canada and the U.S. have over Russia's intervention in Ukraine. But, more important, this shows that a dispute in one area does not prevent agreement in another. I sense we will see a lot more of such agreements in the future.

Enforcement of such agreements is always an issue. This agreement currently involves only the five signatory nations, which does not prevent boats from China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union from entering the region. The next step, as the editorial suggests, is for the five signatory nations to bring in the world’s largest fishing nations into the accord.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is currently valued at $23 billion (US) a year, representing about 20 per cent of the world’s fish catch, says the Pew Charitable Trust, a global research and public policy organization having its headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It explains why such international accords are important:
Even when unregulated fishing on the high seas does not break any national law, it can have a significant harmful impact on marine life in the world's oceans. So, the international community needs to develop and implement policy solutions that both forbid and eradicate these activities.
International cooperation among nations will naturally have to become the norm if we are to protect the oceans, which is not only an economic issue but one of conservation and preservation. In simple terms, conservation makes economic sense. Now that’s a catchy slogan.

For more, go to [G&M]

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

Probing the Universe

Radio Telescopes: Scientific American writes about the radio telescope in West Virginia: “The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, and one of three telescopes Breakthrough Listen will use extensively in its groundbreaking search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” 
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Geremia

An article, by Lee Billings, in Scientific American says that Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawkings have teamed up on a new 10-year project that searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. The amount pledged toward this project, code-named Breakthrough Listen, is $100-million (US). Hawking, a theoretical physicist at University of Cambridge’s  Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and a public proponent of SETI, has signed on as the project’s adviser; it will be chaired by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

In “Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner Announce $100M Initiative to Seek ET” (July 20, 2015), Billings writes:
SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—has been one of the most captivating areas of science since its inception in 1960, when the astronomer Frank Drake used an 85-foot radio telescope in the first-ever attempt to detect interstellar radio transmissions sent by beings outside our solar system. Yet despite its high public visibility and near-ubiquity in blockbuster Hollywood science fiction, throughout most of its 55-year history SETI has languished on the fringes of scientific research, garnering relatively scant funding and only small amounts of dedicated observation time on world-class telescopes.
Although Milner has made his name—and billions of dollars—through investments in Facebook, Alibaba, and many other tech start-ups, his true passion is science, which he has demonstrated through his formation of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. This organization awards the world's most lavish scientific prizes. Milner's latest project is part of the Foundation's new Breakthrough Initiatives division and is called Breakthrough Listen. Providing $100 million in funding over the next decade to top SETI researchers, Breakthrough Listen will allow new state-of-the-art radio and optical surveys to take place using the world's premiere telescopes, creating the most ambitious and robust SETI program yet performed. The project is set to begin making observations in 2016.
What these observations will entail is explained by the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which received some funding from Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. It  says:
The intention is to use existing radio telescopes in West Virginia (the 100 meter Green Bank Telescope) and Australia (the 64 meter Parkes Telescope) to examine up to one million star systems for radio signals that would betray the presence of intelligence. The funding will allow the development of new receiving technologies that can speed up the search for radio broadcasts.
What a wonderful initiative; this huge private infusion of cash is a shot in the arm to SETI, which stopped receiving public funding as part of NASA’s budget in 1993, a year after High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) got started (on Columbus Day). It fell under the axe of budget cuts, which seemed a prudent way to deal with a $300-billion federal budget deficit that President Bill Clinton had inherited. It became an easy target—even though the SETI program then received $12.25 million annually, or less than 0.1 per cent of NASA’s total annual budget. No doubt, it was an easy target and open to ridicule, viewed in some quarters as money used for “looking for little green men.” [For details, see this excellent paper by Stephen J. Garber of NASA; 1999].

Even so, or despite the actions of the U.S. Congress (one controlled by Democrats) under the furor of a budget deficit, the public interest and appetite for such cosmological research and interstellar surveys has remained great. Why this is so is not hard to understand on many levels. One of the chief questions that humans eternally ask is whether life exists outside the boundaries of earth ? I remember reading about the research of Frank Drake, in the late-1970s, when I was in college studying pure & applied sciences.

Yet, strangely enough, it was for a course I took in philosophy and on the issues of determinism and free will, which also tied in to what I was then studying in physics, including Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the Schrödinger wave equation—all relevant today. I do not recall the name of the course, but one of the readings we were assigned was on the work of Prof. Drake, particularly his radio astronomy work with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico; this both intrigued and interested me and got my brain imagining and wondering in many directions.

This was a fertile period of intellectual awakening for me: five years after I had read about the Pioneer Plaque (1972) and a few years before I discovered Carl Sagan and his 1980 series, Cosmos. These were formative years in the development of my humanistic thinking; and while I have not often thought about the questions of ETs in the last few decades, the questions related to their existence are nonetheless no less exciting than they were when I was a young man. And now we might get some more answers.

For more, go to [ScientAmer].

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Our Orange Lily

House Plants

Lilium bulbiferumHere is a new addition to our flower family, an orange lily (Lilium bulbiferum), an European perennial introduced to North America; in Canada, it is found chiefly in Quebec and Ontario, We purchased this particular plant last week, which we named Oksana, while we were raspberry picking. She started to bloom during the weekend, and here she is in her splendor and glory. These plants can grow to a height of 100 cm (or 40 in,); she is now about 30 cm (12 in). Some kinds of lilies, not this one, are edible and parts of  the plant are classified as vegetables for use in Asian cuisine, particularly in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Even if this plant were edible, I would not consume any part of it; she is, after all, family.

Your Neighborhood Trees Are Good For You

Green Space

My View: Our sixth-floor apartment gives us an excellent view of a public park, G. Ross Lord Park, which is behind our building; this is one of the reasons that we decided to move here. Our street and the ones adjacent to it are all tree-lined, making for pleasant and healthier walks.
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

A paper in the science journal Nature says that living in a tree-lined neighborhood is good for your health; the paper, which used the city of Toronto for its case study, says that adding 10 trees to a city block makes residents feel wealthier, healthier and, even, younger.

In “Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center” (July 9, 2015), Omid Kardan, the paper’s lead author, from the University of Chicago’s department of psychology, writes:
Studies have shown that natural environments can enhance health and here we build upon that work by examining the associations between comprehensive greenspace metrics and health. We focused on a large urban population center (Toronto, Canada) and related the two domains by combining high-resolution satellite imagery and individual tree data from Toronto with questionnaire-based self-reports of general health perception, cardio-metabolic conditions and mental illnesses from the Ontario Health Study.
Results from multiple regressions and multivariate canonical correlation analyses suggest that people who live in neighborhoods with a higher density of trees on their streets report significantly higher health perception and significantly less cardio-metabolic conditions (controlling for socio-economic and demographic factors).
We find that having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger. We also find that having 11 more trees in a city block, on average, decreases cardio-metabolic conditions in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $20,000 higher median income or being 1.4 years younger.
I think that this study confirms what many of us have intuitively known, that living in neighborhoods with many trees, including have a park nearby, makes individuals not only feel better, but also be better.  I currently reside in Toronto, where this study was performed; and I currently live on a tree-lined street and in close proximity to a large expanse of green pace, G. Ross Lord Park, which has an area of 137 hectares (or 338 acres). Toronto’s largest public park is High Park, which has an area of 161 hectares (or 398 acres); we have been to it only once, but plan to visit it more often.

By comparison, Mont-Royal Park in Montreal has an area of 280 hectares (or 692 acres); and Central Park in NYC, has an area of  341 hectares (or 843 acres)—both were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted [1822–1903], landscape architect, journalist and social critic; many consider Olmstead the “Father of American Landscape Architecture.” We can thank individuals like Olmstead, who have done much to preserve nature for the benefit or urban dwellers. Parks do make a difference in the lives of its residents. If urban planners want to improve the health of their citizens, and reduce the costs of healthcare, this study is instructive: plant more trees.

For more, go to [Nature]

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Historic Nuclear Deal With Iran

Détente & Rapprochement

Meeting In Vienna: “Delegates from Iran and a group of six nations led by the United States in Vienna on Tuesday after agreeing to an accord to significantly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability,” The New York Times writes on July 14, 2015.
Photo Credit: Carlos Baria
Source: NYT

Whatever you think about the nuclear deal that the P5+1 nations (along with the  EU) negotiated and signed with Iran, significantly limiting its nuclear ambitions for possibly 15 years, what ought to be loudly acknowledged is how historic a document it is. Although there were many nations involved in the negotiations in Vienna, the chief players were two long-standing enemies of almost four decades: the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On July 14, 2015, what was agreed to by all parties was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a document that runs to 109 pages and includes five annexes. The details are important, but so is the fact that an agreement took place at all. Let us not drown in the details while forgetting the larger implications.

A well-written piece, by Elizabeth Drew, in The New York Review of Books reminds us of the importance of this event, a culmination of 20 months of arduous and tenacious negotiations, with many false starts, false hopes and periods of nothing happening; yet, no one gave up, and credit ought to go on the U.S. side to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for their faith in the process. this is no small matter, and deserves recognition.

In “The Iran Deal Goes to Washington” (July 17, 2015), Drew writes
That many of the opponents’ arguments don’t quite add up suggests their position is informed by some underlying, unspoken views. In fact there’s a longtime strain in the Republican Party that opposes negotiations with countries we don’t like. Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan were attacked from within their own party for negotiating with “the enemy”; Barack Obama, in his opening to Cuba and his deal with Iran, is taking on that view full-blast, as he said he would in his 2008 campaign. In the words of Dick Cheney, “We don’t negotiate with evil.” The term “Munich” is tossed around by some members of Congress who don’t know what happened there. Cheney and his neocon allies made sure that the US didn’t let the UN or respected international weapons inspectors get in the way of their drive for war with Saddam Hussein. If the inspectors found no weapons of mass destruction, that just showed how wily the Iraqis were.

One can detect in some of the statements of objectors to the deal a refusal to accept that the United States isn’t all-powerful and can’t get its way—by force if necessary—against any other country it opposes on an issue. The idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is so close to the surface of what many of the deal’s opponents say that it’s hard to ignore. Yet, quite apart from the side effects of such an attack, even if it were successful it would, according to various experts, only set back its nuclear program by one to three years. The negotiated deal would prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon for at least ten years. If during that time changes occur within Iran that make the country more reasonable to engage with, or even if the deal were to be the first step in Iran’s eventual joining of the community of nations, it would be all the more significant. But Obama has made it clear that he’s not counting on that.
I was at one time skeptical that such a deal could be reached, but no longer. Having read much about it the last few days from various media sources, including the arguments put forth by the deal’s opponents, I think that the deal is a good one. It has been well-received and endorsed worldwide by political leaders, international organizations like the U.N. and NATO and by nuclear-arms experts, including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is by no means perfect, but there is no better option.

I have read many of the articles that declaim the deal faulty and flawed; they come from the usual and expected sources. Some people, even if intelligent, can’t easily admit that the president, his secretary of state and the negotiating team have done a commendable job. Should they not receive any credit? The doom-and-gloom scenarios become incredible if they are used too often? The easiest thing is to find fault with the deal and be actively negative, imagining the worst-possible outcomes, instead of the best. Predictions of future events are always risky.

The reaction in Israel among politicians has generally been negative, and understandably so. but it has some support among Israel’s security establishment who, despite their misgivings, hold a more realistic view of what can now be achieved. Cooperation on matters of regional security will remain strong between the  two long-time allies, the U.S. and Israel, and this still counts. On a speculative note, the deal, might eventually open discussions between the two nations now officially hostile to each other.

Not today, but perhaps later. It must be remembered that Iran was the second Muslim country after Turkey to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation. There is no reason why Israel and Iran cannot again establish diplomatic and trade relations, as was the case before 1979’s Iranian Revolution. This is being optimistic, but then again this is what would bring about regional peace and stability.

I view it as a mistake for American lawmakers to vote against the deal (what is the alternative?), notably if it is based merely on partisan politics or election campaigning, where the striking of a superficial pro-Israel pose or on showing disdain and personal animus of the Administration—and in particular of President Obama—will somehow energize the party faithful and win more votes in 2016. Legislators ought to vote on the merits of the deal, which I do not think is asking too much.

The Republican Party has for too long been influenced by the Christian Right and a political-religious ideology steeped in biblical eschatology. It might come across as moral leadership to some, but it is often nasty, puerile and anachronistic. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified, if the party is to regain a modicum of credibility. President Richard Nixon, it must be remembered, made historic visits with both China and the Soviet Union in 1972; both had long-term positive results. Yet, both were criticized by the hawks in the party.

An important point in diplomacy is that nations gain peace by negotiating with their enemies, and not by engaging with them militarily. (Does anyone genuinely think that a military option is a good one?) No one is suggesting that this deal will immediately stop Iran from financially supporting terrorist groups in the region, or stop Iran from meddling and expanding its regional ambitions, or compel Iran to become a reasonable member of the community of nations with an exemplary or enviable human-rights record. These would all be wonderful and desirable changes to see in a region that requires less chaos and more stability.

This might happen one day, but this is not the nature or basis of this deal. First, trust will have to increase between Iran and the U.S. This is no easy matter considering their decades of festering mistrust dating to the 1953 joint British-American coup d’état—endorsed if not ordered by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the height of the Cold War—that ousted the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. This has not been forgotten by the Iranians; and the harsh rhetoric emanating from the religious leaders reflects, to some degree, this continuing mistrust. History is used as a weapon, which is often the case, when leaders have nothing else to offer their people.

Yet, there is cautious optimism. A deal was signed by all parties, including Iran (and Russia); it is backed by its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This current deal might become the basis for many more agreements, including normalization of relations and trade. One day we might be talking about détente and rapprochement.

Not yet, though, For now, it seems that the deal will achieve what it says it will; to expect more today is both unrealistic and unprecedented.

For more, go to [NYRB]

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1980)

Elton John performs “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in the 1980 Central Park concert in New York City, which was a free event in front of an estimated 400,000 persons. The song is the first track on the B side of record one on the double-album of the same name, which was released on October 5, 1973. The song has obvious references to the 1939 American film, The Wizard of Oz, and the yearning for a simpler life. At times, many of us find ourselves identifying with and becoming young Dorothy.

GoodBye Yellow Brick Road
by Elton John & Bernie Taupin

When are you gonna come down
When are you going to land
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man

You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn't sign up with you
I'm not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I'm going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

What do you think you'll do then
I bet that'll shoot down your plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again

Maybe you'll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain't got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground

(repeat chorus)

More Fruit Picking: This Time It's Raspberries

Country Life

Large Raspberries on a bush. The weather was fine and the raspberries were pleasing to the eye. 

We returned north to Newmarket last Wednesday to pick some more berries at Strawberry Creek Farms, this time for raspberries; they were large, abundant and evident in varying shades of red. Then we had lunch, as we did the last time we were in the area, at the Moose Caboose in Mount Albert.

We plan one more fruit-picking outing, a drive back around the horseshoe of Lake Ontario to the Niagara region in August, where we would like to get some plums and peaches. Then we might scoot over to the falls, since we would then be so close to them, and the two boys have yet to view them—one of the natural wonders of Canada.

Red Berry Pinky: Is our son adding a new universal hand gesture to non-verbal communication, or is he just fooling around on a nice summer day? I think it’s the latter.

Getting In There: The pickings were easy this year, the berries in abundance.

4 Lbs of Raspberries: Total cost was less than $12.00. Most of the berries have already been eaten, including mixing them with plain yogurt as a delicious and healthy breakfast dish.

Two Brothers: Over at the Moose Caboose sitting in a “Big Chair” while waiting for our lunch

All Photos: ©Perry J. Greenbaum

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The 1975 U.S.–U.S.S.R. Handshake In Space

U.S.-Russia Relations

Meeting In The Middle: NASA writes: “Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975 during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) docking mission in Earth orbit.” O’Hare writes: “The idea originated at the UN and received a boost after 1971, when US president Richard Nixon and later his secretary of state Henry Kissinger were looking for projects to build the detente between the two countries. Two crews were selected: the Americans under the command of Thomas P. Stafford, the Russians under Alexei Leonov.”
Image Credit & Source: NASA

On July 17, 1975, high above the Earth, astronauts from the United States shook hands with cosmonauts from the Soviet Union in what became known as the “handshake in space.” The cold war was on, as was the proxy war in Vietnam, but this did not deter the leaders from the two nation—U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev—from cooperating, if only a little, on issues that both thought important.

The door to détente was opened slightly; and space exploration was an area in which both nations could find common agreement. I remember this handshake, this event in time, since I had an avid interest in all things to do with space, including the Space Race in particular and space exploration in general. I have had this interest since I was eight or nine, and it remains so almost 50 years later. Not surprising, my wife, who comes from Russia, had a similar interest when she was a young girl.

In an article (“Apollo–Soyuz: A cold war handshake in space, 40 years on”; July 17, 2015) in New Scientist, Mick O’Hare writes:
Everybody knows the space race was driven by cold war politics: without the Soviet Union and the US battling to outmanoeuvre each other, we wouldn’t have had Sputnik, Vostok or Apollo. But amid all the rhetoric and duplicity, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – a mission now almost forgotten – was able to unite the two space programmes via a brief window that opened in a wall of implacable ideological mistrust.
Today is the 40th anniversary of a key moment in the project, when capsules from both superpowers docked in orbit and their crews shook hands, exchanged gifts and then conducted experiments jointly. One of these involved positioning one spacecraft in the line with the sun to create a fake eclipse so they could take photos of the solar corona.
The project, which became known as “the handshake in space”, had seemed unachievable only a few years earlier during the Cuban missile crisis. How did it get off the ground?

“Both nations had lost astronauts and cosmonauts,” says Cathy Lewis, historian of international space programs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, and the curator of its Apollo-Soyuz permanent exhibit, Space Race. “The death of the crew of Soyuz 11 returning from the Salyut 1 space station in 1971 prompted a consensus that both sides required some sort of rescue feasibility.”
The handshake might have then been considered symbolic, but the fact that it took place at all says much. Symbolism can, when the circumstances are right, lead to concrete positive measures. Waiting for the perfect political moment is like waiting for the perfect man or woman—it never happens. When opportunity for peace arrives, or the initial steps to pave the way for it presents itself, this ought to be taken.

For a noteworthy example, U.S. President John. F. Kennedy said the following in a 27-minute commencement speech at American University in Washington, D.C, on June 10, 1963:
While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both. No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion. But it can—if it is sufficiently effective in its enforcement and if it is sufficiently in the interests of its signers—offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race.

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough--more than enough--of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on--not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
The speech informed the public about negotiations with the Soviets, and showed the president mindful of such a strategy of peace. The negotiations were successful, and what followed was the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (August 5, 1963); many other such agreements followed between the two superpowers. No one here is arguing, for example, that relations today between the U.S. and Russia are ideal or that they do not need improving, but the two nations are talking and negotiating, which is always better than not doing so. Moreover, both nations are still cooperating on space missions for the International Space Station (ISS). Is not a cold peace always preferable to a cold war?

Hardliners, on the other hand, seem unwilling to negotiate anything, seeing any compromise as defeat of tradition and the old ways; perhaps hardliners view compromise as a personal defeat. Perhaps it comes from having a short short view of history, which in the end is the same old story full of heroic battles, sacrifices and, most of all, missed opportunities. Progressives hold another view of history and often see opportunity as the lever of change, especially if the change leads to the lessening of hostilities, peaceful coexistence and improved conditions for humanity.

This is why we labor toward a strategy of peace.

For more, go to [NewScientist]

For a full transcript of President Kennedy’s speech, go to [JFKLibrary]

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Pluto Flyby

Our Solar System

Pluto’s Surface: This is a photo taken near its equator; one of the scientific surprises is that Pluto has ice mountains that reach a height of 3,500 metres (or >11,000 feet) and that these are both geologically young (<100 million years) and still forming. Pluto is more than 3 billion miles from earth. More photos will come in the days and weeks ahead.
Credit: NASA; JHUAPL-SwRI; July 14, 2015
Source: Smithsonian

An article, by Victoria Jaggard, in Smithsonian shows some close photos of Pluto, revealing some surprises to scientists on the ground on Earth; the photos come from the NASA probe, New Horizons, which the American space agency launched in January 2006.

In “Behold, the First Closeup Pictures From the Pluto Flyby Are Here” (July 15, 2015), Jaggard writes:
New Horizons zipped past Pluto on Tuesday morning, coming within about 7,000 miles of the planetary surface. The encounter lasted a few hours and involved good long looks not just at Pluto's sunlit face, its largest moon Charon and its four smaller moons, as well as a parting study of the nightside of Pluto partially illuminated by moonlight from Charon.
"New Horizons is now more than a million miles on the other side of Pluto," Stern said during a July 15 press briefing. "The spacecraft is in good health and it communicated with Earth again for a number of hours this morning." While the latest haul represents just the tip of a massive Plutonian iceberg, these early images from the mission are already yielding some startling implications.
When I was young, we memorized the order of the planets in our solar system, and Pluto was viewed as its ninth and last planet that orbited our sun. It is, on average, more than 5.8 billion kilometres ( or 3.6 billion miles) from our sun; the earth, the third planet from the sun, is much closer at 150 million kilometres, or 93 million miles. This is equivalent to one astronomical unit (AU), thus making Pluto 39 AUs away from the sun.

Besides its distance, its history is equally fascinating: it was discovered in 1930 by an amateur American astronomer (Clyde William Tombaugh) and subsequently named by a 11-year-old British schoolgirl (Venetia Burney) after the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto remained a planet for 75 years, until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to a dwarf planet or a plutoid, essentially voting that its small mass and not being the dominant gravitational object in its orbit did not qualify it as a planet. [This did not put the matter to rest; the scientific debate of its status continues.]

For many, Pluto is likened to the “little engine that could,” the underdog. What is not in dispute, however, is what has now been achieved in the realm of astronomy and space flight. Seeing these photos is an accomplishment on the part of the team at NASA responsible for this mission; it is also another piece to the puzzle of knowledge of our cosmos. “Every mission expands our horizons and bring us one step further on the Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in an Universe Today article, regarding NASA‘s plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet during the 2030s.

As for the New Horizons probe, it is now moving at a speed of 49,600 kph (31,000 mph) into the Kuiper Belt, a vast body of small objects that orbit the sun. The probe is expected to send more images from there in 2019. These will, no doubt, be both engaging and captivating, as is anything previously unseen.

For more, go to [Smithsonian]

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dawn Of The Nuclear Age

Humanity's Folly

Trinity Test: July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m. (Mountain War Time)
Trinity Site:  Alamogordo Test Range, Jornada del Muerto (“Journey of Death”) desert. 
Yield: 19–21 Kilotons
Image Credit: Berlyn Brixner, LANL.
Source: Atomic Archives

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Bhagavad Gita

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, in a remote desert of New Mexico, in the southwestern part of the United States, the nuclear age came into being with the first successful testing and detonation of an atomic or fission bomb. This was code-named “Trinity,” it being the destructive fruits of years of work on the Manhattan Project, composed of scientists, chiefly physicists, but also mathematicians and engineers, lead by J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Only one nation has used atomic weapons; the United States of America; and only one nation has been the recipient of an atomic attack: Japan. The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945 (15-kiloton), and on Nagasaki (21-kiloton), on August 9, 1945. The result was 200,000 dead and injured, although precise figures are hard to obtain, given the ensuing chaos. Five days later, Japan surrenders, and the Second World War is over.

Looking at events from the past, it is easy to second-guess or criticize the decisions made. notably if they led to destructive consequences—this can be a type of chronological snobbery, a kind of moral superiority, or a kind of rare wisdom. Yet, sometimes it is necessary to do so, if only to see how humanity thinks today, to see, given similar circumstances, if political leaders would arrive at similar or different decisions. These thought experiments remain such; and in the heat of real and genuine battle, the actions might differ from abstract thoughts. Such are the arguments, often valid, of realists.

We do know that there were little public expression of moral concerns then; President Truman and his generals deemed it necessary to end a war that was causing so many deaths to American soldiers. “The atomic bomb was only another step in a horrible war,” as somebody once put it. It is only later, after the act, that moral concerns come into light, and understandably so. Truman, the devout Christian, saw the only use of atomic weapons as morally justified, saying as much in a radio report on the Potsdam Conference to the American people on August 9, 1945:
We must constitute ourselves trustees of this new force—to prevent its misuse, and to turn it into the channels of service to mankind. It is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
The language of this speech is revealing. Here you can get a look into Truman’s mind and into his conscience, so to speak, saying phrases that then rang true to his American audience: “ourselves as trustees of this new force,” and “turn it to channels of service to mankind.” How so? Was it President Truman’s view that the U.S. was the only nation capable of having atomic weapons, and using them responsibly in the “service of mankind.” Was it a logic that said death and destruction brings about a new order, a cleansing of the land, a removing of its impurities? If so, it echoes the dual ideas, or as some would say, the myths of “American Exceptionalism” and the ”City Upon a Hill.”

Such patriotic (bordering on nationalistic) sentiments, with all its symbolic meanings, were met with nodding approval by the majority of men and women in the United States. (After all, wasn’t it America’s heroics that preserved democracy?) It is also part and parcel of utilitarian philosophy that says the end justifies the means, which can convince otherwise moral people to act in opposition to their conscience. The American pubic’s view on the use of nuclear weapons remains mixed; throughout the last 70 years, however, a minimum of one in three Americans have been in favour of using nuclear weapons, even after knowing about its destructive power.

There is “knowledge” and then there is knowledge. Some people have more knowledge of an intimate, deeper kind; such describes the mind of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” who was immediately troubled, as a new play about him shows. One can make justifications, rationalizing that there are times in history that one has to commit “evil” to prevent a greater evil. Albert Einstein, who did not work on the Manhattan Project, and who was always the pacifist, came to this realization, but not easily and not without reservations, about what such thinking can lead to; in a letter to Linus Pauling, in 1954, one year before his death, Einstein said: “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them.”

That it ended a terrible war is true; that atomic weapons today have the same effect as a deterrent is probably true. Yet, it’s a deterrent based on mad thinking. We have today more destructive weapons, not only nuclear weapons—and more powerful ones in the form of a hydrogen bomb—but also chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction, This is more than enough to kill every human, every animal, every life form on this planet.

When you open Pandora’s Box, it cannot be shut easily; more lethal weapons of mass destruction were made, including the hydrogen, or fusion, bomb; there was a lot of chatter of a neutron bomb (“a more humane bomb”) during the American presidency of Ronald Reagan, and of a Star Wars program (a missile defense system); thankfully, both never came into being. What good could possibly come out of this?

The Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reports, is now set at three minutes to midnight, which it hasn’t been since 1984 when U.S.-Soviet relations were at a low point. Humanity ought to be concerned. Such weapons of mass destruction have only one purpose. It’s a pipe dream, I know, but wouldn’t it benefit humanity if we could, as a start, hold multi-lateral international talks with the desired aim of ridding the world of all nuclear weapons.  We seem no closer to this idea, as we are to the ideal to end all wars, one of the prime thoughts of The Russell-Einstein Manifesto (1955), which celebrated its 60th anniversary on July 9th.

As manifestos go, this is a good one to begin implementing: humanity can start be getting rid of nuclear weapons—a denuclearization program, if you will. Doing so would be a good way to “erase the memory” of this awful event of seventy years ago. By replacing a bad memory with a good one—the day nuclear weapons were eliminated. Now, that would be something to celebrate.