Thursday, April 26, 2012

Arundhati Roy

I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy—who find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative”—should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach? Which door did the Narmada Bachao Andolan not knock on during the years and years it fought against Big Dams on the Narmada?
Arundhati Roy, Walking with the Comrades, 3/29/2010

Monday, April 9, 2012

The End of the Human Species

Nothing lives forever, but as the song says,
"Who wants to live forever?"

We know from the fossil record that on average between 10 and 100 species on earth become extinct every year (we're talking about every living thing, including mushrooms and Republicans). But lately, due to the impact of humans on the earth's environment, we seem to be losing something like 27,000 species per year. The following is extracted from "The Current Mass Extinction," at Evolution Library.

Humanity's main impact on the extinction rate is landscape modification, an impact greatly increased by the burgeoning human population. Now standing at 5.7 billion and growing at a rate of 1.6 percent per year, the population of the world will double in 43 years if growth continues at this pace. By draining wetlands, plowing prairies, logging forests, paving, and building, we are altering the landscape on an unprecedented scale. Some organisms do well under the conditions we've created: They tend to cope well with change, tolerate a broad range of habitats, disperse widely, and reproduce rapidly, and they can quickly crowd out more specialized local species. City pigeons, zebra mussels, rats, and kudzu and tamarisk trees -- these are examples of what biologists call "weedy" species, both animals and plants. Many weedy species will probably survive, and even thrive, in the face of the current mass extinction. But thousands of others, many never known to science, are likely to perish.

And what is the fate of our own species likely to be, if we really are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction? One possibility is that as diversity and abundance wither, the species causing it all -- Homo sapiens, the most dominant species in history -- could also be on the road to oblivion. But another possibility is that Homo sapiens, which has proved to be a very effective weedy species itself, will persist. That's the view of paleobiologist David Jablonski, who sees us as one of the survivors, "sort of picking through the rubble" of a world that has lost much of its biodiversity -- and much of its comfort. For along with that species richness, the ecosystem is likely to loose much of its ability to provide many of the valuable services that we take for granted, from cleaning and recirculating air and water, to pollinating crops and providing a source for new pharmaceuticals. And while the fossil record tells us that biodiversity has always recovered, it also tells us that the recovery will be unbearably slow in human terms -- 5 to 10 million years after the mass extinctions of the past. That's more than 200,000 generations of humankind before levels of biodiversity comparable to those we inherited might be restored.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Looking in the Wrong Places

The error we humans make in seeking intelligent life beyond our planet Earth is: (1) we're looking for the wrong sort of thing, and (2) we're looking in the wrong places.

No matter how odd our typical alien appears, they all look like us, i.e., they are anthropomorphic. Even the most bizarre creatures of our movie producers' imagination are anthropomorphized.

They are self-contained, i.e., they have a body, head, limbs, sometimes tails (we humans once had one and still have its vestigial remnant), eyes, usually two, and in the front of their heads, a mouth, often with very scary teeth, and many of the other characteristics common to the human.

Like God, we have created extraterrestrial beings in our own self image.

Given that we have creatures on earth that in no way resemble us, not even in the sense that they have characteristics similar to our own, we should be able to open our minds and consider other forms of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The jellyfish has no brain, no blood, no eyes, no central
nervous system, and some effectively live forever.

Let us suppose, for example, that what we are looking for in the way of extraterrestrial intelligence takes the form of a bacteria. Something called "cyanobacteria" is probably responsible for our very existence. Cyanobacteria somehow showed up on our planet some 3.5 billion years ago and started the process of terra forming (I've written about this elsewhere).

Was this a random cosmological accident, or are bacteria a distributed form of intelligence that travels throughout the cosmos creating the conditions for its own existence, communicating, like our jellyfish, through a neural network like none we've ever conceived?

An artist's impression of the super earth world Gliese 667 Cc.
This brings me to my second point. Recently, a very specialized instrument operated at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has been dedicated to searching for "exoplanets," that is, planets outside our solar system, that have characteristics similar to our own earth. The High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) is an echelle spectrograph fed by fibers from the telescope in La Silla. The whole idea is to identify and hopefully explore planets similar to earth with the hope of finding intelligent life like our own.

But aren't we constraining our exploration by limiting our search to planets? We have no reason to believe that the cyanobacteria that made its way to earth is constrained to a single planet. Maybe the extraterrestrial intelligence we seek is integral to the universe as a whole. Maybe we exist as an infinitesimal part of the whole; an afterthought of a superior intelligence migrating throughout the cosmos in a never ending quest to find an intelligence like its own. And we aren't it.

America and its Guns

The Trayvon Martin shooting has once again raised the issue of gun violence in America. Martin, 17 years old, and unarmed, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, 28 year-old George Zimmerman, who is being portrayed by many as the victim in this tragedy; a man who “stood his ground” in the face of an unprovoked attack. Supporters of Zimmerman may imagine him facing off against the hooded black teen and snarling, “Go ahead, make my day!”
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation is being cited as the reason police did not arrest Zimmerman. The facts of the case, however, would seem to rule out the applicability of this law, as Zimmerman was following Martin, despite being told by the police, “We don’t need you to do that,” and, as 911 tapes reveal, being told to stay in his car. Why didn’t he? Because he had a gun and the bravado that comes with it.
Washington has a law covering justifiable homicide, which is the rubric under which Florida’s “stand your ground” law falls. This law considers homicide justifiable when there is imminent danger of the slain person committing a felony against the shooter. RCW 9A.16.050, in combination with 9A.52.025 on residential burglary, is sometimes termed the “castle doctrine,” as in, “Your home is your castle.”
Could an incident like the Trayvon Martin killing occur here in Washington? Of course it could. Would our local police and state attorney’s office handle the matter in the same way the Sanford, Florida, police and state’s attorney handled the matter? We can only hope not.
Justifiable homicide is a determination for the courts to make, not the police at the scene of the crime. The police should have treated the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as a homicide, collected evidence accordingly (including taking photos of any injuries to Zimmerman), taken Zimmerman into custody, requested an arrest warrant from the state attorney’s office, and turned the case over to the state prosecutor for disposition.
But this is not simply a case of poor practice on the part of Sanford Police and the state attorney’s office. Had George Zimmerman been black and Trayvon Martin been white, there is no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman would now be under arrest.
This is a case of racial profiling, by Mr. Zimmerman, who saw a black person wearing a hoodie and and assumed he was “up to no good,” and by the police and state’s attorney’s office, who made judgments about the case without thoroughly examining all the evidence.
But in a wider sense the Trayvon Martin shooting is an indictment of an American gun culture steeped in the mythology of the Wild West, infected with a paranoia so severe that gun proponents, principally the NRA, would rather see guns in the hands of terrorists than accede to reasonable restrictions, and tolerated by a US Congress too cowardly to confront the issue and say, “Enough is enough!”

The biggest obstacle to reasonable gun control in America is the National Rifle Association. It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners, and registration of firearms (Open Secrets). The NRA claims to have some 4 million members and is, by some counts, the most effective lobby around today. Why? Because its members are generally single issue voters.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The National Rifle Association has used this logical fallacy repeatedly in its determined defense of an excessively broad interpretation of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment. Kim Jong-un, “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, might use this same argument in defending the DPRK’s right to possess nuclear weapons, “Nucs don’t kill people, etcetera, etcetera,” but certainly we are smart enough to recognize that it begs the question of whether just any state should be allowed to possess such weapons, or if, as a matter of common sense, there should be controls imposed. By the way, Kim Jong-un is about the same age as George Zimmerman.

The NRA felt vindicated when in 2008, five members of the US Supreme Court, cited the Second Amendment in overturning the Washington D.C. ban on hand guns (D.C. v. Heller). The Court concluded that the Second Amendment establishes an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and hunting. However, the Court recognized that the government can regulate gun rights. The Court said its decision should not be interpreted to question the right of government to: prohibit felons and the mentally ill from owning weapons, prohibit guns in schools or public buildings, ban certain categories of guns not commonly used for self-defense, and to establish certain other conditions on gun ownership.
Despite the Court’s stipulations in the D.C. v. Heller case (and reasserted in McDonald v. Chicago, 2010), the NRA has fought any perceived infringement on an individual’s right to bear arms with the tenacity of a mother bear defending her cubs. The NRA even refused to meet with President Obama when he suggested a dialogue on ways to better enforce and strengthen America’s existing laws in the wake of the January 8, 2011, shooting of 18 people in Tucson, AZ, that killed six people, including a 9 year-old girl, Christina Green, and a federal judge, and left Representative Gabrielle Giffords brain damaged.
Guns do kill people, people with guns kill people, and they do it a hell of a lot more effectively than they would otherwise. And private Americans own more guns than any other nation in the world. The least we could do -- the very least -- would be to make obtaining a gun as difficult as obtaining a driver’s license.

The NRA recently successfully fought a bill that would have limited gun purchases by suspected terrorists. A 2010 GAO report stated that individuals on the terrorist watchlist were involved in firearm or explosives background checks 1,228 times; 1,119 (about 91 percent) of these transactions were allowed to proceed. They've also fought controls that would require gun dealers in the south west to report sales of multiple semiautomatic rifles. such as the AK-47, weapons favored by Mexican drug dealers.

In the NRA's militant battle over the Second Amendment, common sense has all but disappeared. Middle-ground, common-sense ideas over the years have included measures like the 1994-2004 federal assault weapons ban; the closing of the so-called gun show loophole (which allows private sellers, who are not federally licensed, to sell guns without having to conduct a background check — sales that reportedly account for about 40 percent of all gun purchases); and fixing gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System regarding individuals with mental illness, drug abuse and domestic violence records. The NRA has fought them all. Successfully.

Christina Green, 9/11/2001 - 1/8/2011