Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 14th, 2009

Google Search Cube

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It’s here. Kind of cute.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Technology

Good-movie report

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Just finished Bottle Shock. Fully satisfying: interesting, absorbing, and intriguing.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 3:29 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Thank for Constant Reader for this

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Movie: The Seven Little Foys (1955)
Bob Hope plays the role of Eddie Foy.
James Cagney plays the role of George M. Cohan.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Video

Are drones worth the human cost?

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An important story. Lede:

US drone bombings have reportedly killed 687 Pakistani civilians since 2006. During that time, US Predator drones carried out sixty strikes inside Pakistan, but hit just ten of their actual targets. Last week, a group of peace activists last week staged the first major act of civil disobedience against the drone attacks in the United States. Fourteen people were arrested outside the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where Air Force personnel pilot the unmanned drones used in Pakistan. We speak with longtime California peace activist Father Louis Vitale, who was among those arrested, and with Jeff Paterson of Courage to Resist.

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14 April 2009 at 2:19 pm

Tax code changes

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Interesting article by Joseph Schatz in Congressional Quarterly, which begins:

Energized by a global summit meeting two weeks ago where world leaders called for a crackdown on abusive tax havens, Congress seems likely this year to debate significant elements of the federal income tax code as it affects corporations. But it’s not likely to be the debate those companies had been hoping for.

In a budgetary environment that seems to get worse every day as the government expands its spending to battle the recession and financial crisis, President Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill are looking for new sources of money. And corporations have become a prime target. Not only is talk increasingly focused on ways to clamp down on offshore tax abusers, but revenue hunters also have their sights on scaling back the so-called deferral rules that permit companies to put off paying taxes on their foreign profits.

For all this, businesses will probably get little in return. Instead of negotiating the trade-offs that would be part of a broad overhaul of the corporate tax system, multinational corporate icons that employ millions of Americans — from Microsoft to Sara Lee — find themselves struggling not to be lumped together with shadowy tax offenders. And they are scrambling to distinguish their perfectly legal tax deferrals from questionable practices for the purpose of tax avoidance.

“Those are two really different things, said Alan Auerbach, director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California at Berkeley, raising a warning flag about legislatively conflating these very different concepts. “Clearly we need revenue,” Auerbach said. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily react to a weak economy by raising corporate taxes.” …

Continue reading. Graphs at the link.

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14 April 2009 at 2:16 pm

"Rule of Law": Spain vs. the US

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Glenn Greenwald:

Scott Horton reports this morning that, in Spain, "prosecutors have decided to press forward with a criminal investigation targeting former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top associates [John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Doug Feith and William Haynes] over their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo."  Spain not only has the right under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture to prosecute foreign officials for torturing its citizens, but it — like the U.S. — has the affirmative obligation to do so. (Indeed, the Bush administration itself insisted just last year that the U.S. the right to criminally prosecute foreign officials for ordering acts of torture even in the absence of an accusation that any of the victims were American).

As Hilzoy argues, however, the primary obligation for these prosecutions lies with the country whose officials authorized the war crimes — the United States:

It is a requirement of law, the law that the Constitution requires Obama, as President, to faithfully execute.  He should not outsource his Constitutional obligations to Spain.

That the U.S. has the legal obligation under the U.S. Constitution, our own laws and international treaties to commence criminal investigations is simply undeniable.  That is just a fact. Yet it’s hard to overstate how far away we are from fulfilling our legal obligations to impose accountability on our own torturers and war criminals.

The barriers to these prosecutions are numerous, but one of the principal obstacles is that CIA Director Leon Panetta has been emphatically demanding that there be no investigations of any government officials whose conduct was declared legal by DOJ lawyers (i.e., the very individuals the Spanish are now investigating for war crimes).  And it’s not surprising that Panetta has taken this position given that at least two of his top deputies at the CIA are among those implicated, to one degree or another, in the torture regime, as John Sifton detailed earlier this month at The Daily Beast:  …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 1:02 pm

Learn physics, amaze your friends

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Open Culture:

There’s something compelling about physics. Almost every major open courseware collection features a well-crafted physics course, and these courses consistently rank high on iTunesU and YouTube Edu. Let’s give a quick overview of the favorites.

At Stanford, we’re putting together a six course sequence called Modern Physics: The Theoretical Minimum. Taught by Leonard Susskind, one of America’s leading physics minds, this course traces the development of modern physics, moving from Newton to Einstein to Black Holes. So far, we’ve made five of the six courses available online (get them here), which amounts to 100 hours of free classroom footage. Hard to beat. (And, in case you’re wondering, the sixth course is being taped right now, and it will be coming online during the months to come.)

Another program that has received a fair amount of attention is Walter Lewin’s series of courses at MIT. As The New York Times has noted, Lewin has long had a cult following at MIT, and now, thanks to his physics courses, he’s achieved a minor degree of fame on the internet. His lectures, delivered with panache, can be found here: …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 12:59 pm

The student loan program

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Good post by Ezra Klein, which begins:

Obama had a nice line recently. Being president means you’re faced with a lot of hard problems, he said. If the problems weren’t hard, after all, then someone would have solved them before they got to you. That’s usually true, at least. But the student loan program is a simple problem. I’m going to let Jon Chait describe it:

For many years, the federal government supported college education by guaranteeing bank loans to students. If a student defaulted on his loan, Washington would simply pay back the difference. In 1993, Clinton undertook to reform the program by cutting out the middlemen and simply having the federal government issue the loans directly. Clinton hoped to save money for the government and plow some of those savings into lower interest rates for students. Of course, private lenders who benefitted from the no-risk profit stream balked and forced a compromise whereby both kinds of loans—guaranteed private loans, and direct loans from the government—would exist side by side.

Recent years have shown beyond a doubt that the direct lending program works better. Every independent analysis—by the Congressional Budget Office, by the Office of Management and Budget under each of the last three presidents, and by the New America Foundation—has found that direct lending is cheaper. The guaranteed-loan program managed to cling to life through its congressional patrons and through simple graft. In 2007, a major student-loan scandal emerged when it turned out that private lenders paid off college administrators to drop out of the direct lending program and steer students to them.

Obama thus proposes to save the taxpayers more than $4 billion per year by ending the guaranteed loans. This is as straightforward a case as you can find of a fight between special interests and the public good.

Its simplicity is probably why Obama eliminated it straight-off in his budget. But the budget hasn’t passed yet. And even bad ideas have their defenders. The New York Times reports that the student loan industry has brought in some heavy hitters to defend their giveaway…

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 12:48 pm

The important tea-bag story

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP

Ezra Klein investigates our tax burden: with charts!

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Three worthwhile posts by Ezra Klein on our tax situation. In chronological order of posting:

Day of 1,000 tax graphs

Why do state and local taxes hate the poor?

The tyranny of the income tax

By all means, click and read. The charts alone are worth the click, though understanding some of them requires reading his text.

The comments, too, are well worth reading. Indeed, his first post was triggered by an earlier comment.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

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Scarlett Johansson

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Ms. Johansson has an excellent and sensible column in the Huffington Post:

While training for an upcoming film, I’ve come to this conclusion: chin ups are near impossible and lunges suck. There is no magic wand to wave over oneself to look good in a latex catsuit. Eating healthy and getting fit is about commitment, determination, consistency and the dedication to self-preservation. While I’ve never been considered a gym rat, I have, in fact, worked up a sweat in the name of cardio before, and although I enjoy a grilled cheese as much as the next person, I combine the not-so-good foods I crave with an all-around balanced diet.

People come in all shapes and sizes and everyone has the capability to meet their maximum potential. Once filming is completed, I’ll no longer need to rehash the 50 ways to lift a dumbbell, but I’ll commit to working out at least 30 minutes a day and eating a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables and lean proteins. Pull ups, crunches, lunges, squats, jumping jacks, planks, walking, jogging and push ups are all exercises that can be performed without fancy trainers or gym memberships. I’ve realized through this process that no matter how busy my life may be, I feel better when I take a little time to focus on staying active. We can all pledge to have healthy bodies no matter how diverse our lifestyles may be.

Since dedicating myself to getting into "superhero shape," several articles regarding my weight have been brought to my attention. Claims have been made that I’ve been on a strict workout routine regulated by co-stars, whipped into shape by trainers I’ve never met, eating sprouted grains I can’t pronounce and ultimately losing 14 pounds off my 5’3" frame. Losing 14 pounds out of necessity in order to live a healthier life is a huge victory. I’m a petite person to begin with, so the idea of my losing this amount of weight is utter lunacy. If I were to lose 14 pounds, I’d have to part with both arms. And a foot. I’m frustrated with the irresponsibility of tabloid media who sell the public ideas about what we should look like and how we should get there.

Every time I pass a newsstand, the bold yellow font of tabloid and lifestyle magazines scream out at me: …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Mental Health

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MRSA in pigs and people

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Interesting article at the Ethicurean. It begins:

Everyone’s up in arms about historian James McWilliams’ New York Times op-ed last week, misleadingly headlined “Free-Range Trichinosis,” about how a study found more pathogens in pastured pigs than factory ones. Many bloggers have taken McWilliams to task for omitting the industry funding source for the research and misrepresenting its findings, but he also erred in presenting pastured-pork fans as primarily motivated by flavor and the naive idea of “happy” pigs. I’d argue that most of us seek out small, local hog farmers because our consciences won’t let us support the industrial meat system, which is titanically destructive to any nearby land, water, and air; to the people with the misfortune to work in it; and to the sentient animals it turns into protein widgets.

We can add public health to that list of victims. Forget trichinosis: CAFOs’ antibiotic abuse has  incubated far, far nastier little bugs, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Journalist Maryn McKenna is just now putting the finishing touches on the first book about MRSA. “Superbug: The Rise of Drug-Resistant Staph and the Danger of a World Without Antibiotics” will be published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, in 2010. (Follow its progress on her Superbug blog.) The book, she tells us, is both a biography of the bug — charting the hidden history of how MRSA arose first in hospitals and then in the outside world, how it wasn’t taken seriously for decades, and the recent recognition of the importance of MRSA in pets and food animals — as well as a detective story.

McKenna has the chops to cover this tricky tale. She has long written about infectious disease, global health, and health policy for national magazines and newspapers, and is also the author of “Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service,” about the Centers for Disease Control. She was kind enough to answer some in-depth questions for the Ethicurean team about MRSA in general as well as its presence in farming and potentially, in the pork on your fork.

The Ethicurean: What is MRSA, exactly?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 11:33 am

Blazars

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I had not heard of these, but this article in Discover talks about them. The article begins:

The Milky Way — our home galaxy — is pretty sleepy, as galaxies go. While bigger than most, it’s a good neighbor, generally behaving itself and keeping the noise down.

M87, on the other hand is a galactic frat house.

Deep in the heart of every big galaxy is a supermassive black hole. The Milky Way is no exception, but our black hole is quiet. The one in the core of M87, though is actively feeding. As material swirls around the Point of No Return, magnetic forces align to channel out twin beams or jets of energy and matter that scream out from just above and below the black hole at nearly the speed of light.

Bad neighbor indeed. At 50+ million light years distant it’s no danger to us, though it does keep astronomers up at night: our view of M87’s jet is pretty clear, and when it hiccups, that can be a mighty eructation! Behold: …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 10:49 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Jay Rosen on "He said, she said" journalism

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Good article, which begins:

There I am, sitting at the breakfast table, with my coffee and a copy of the New York Times, in the classic newspaper reading position from before the Web. And I come to this article, headlined “Ex-Chairman of A.I.G. Says Bailout Has Failed.” I immediately recognize in it the signs of a he said, she said account.

Quick definition: “He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear. The he said part might sound like this:

Mr. Greenberg asserted that he would have reduced or at least hedged A.I.G.’s exposure to credit-default swaps in 2005, when A.I.G.’s credit rating was reduced.

“A.I.G.’s business model did not fail; its management did,” he asserted.

Followed by the “she” said…

That provoked another scornful counterattack from his former company, saying that Mr. Greenberg’s assertions were “implausible,” “not grounded in reality” and at odds with his track record of not hedging A.I.G.’s bets on credit-default swaps.

I had read enough of the Times coverage of Mr. Greenberg to wonder why the editors would run something so lame. Their business columnists have been (excuse the expression) kicking ass on meltdown coverage, including A.I.G. But here there was no attempt to assess clashing truth claims, even though Times journalism was available to do just that. Instead Hank Greenberg got to star in a game of “you say black, I say white.”

It seemed strange to me that in 2009 stories like that were still being waved on through. On Twitter I sometimes talk to Ryan Chittum, who writes The Audit column for Columbia Journalism Review. It’s a running critique of the business press after the banking meltdown. So I asked Ryan, “is this the best the Times can do?” because he knows a lot more about the coverage than I do. A few hours later he answered me at CJR.

This one’s easy: No. The Times’s story offers no analysis and forces readers—95 percent of whom know little or nothing about Greenberg’s tenure at AIG—to try to guess who’s right…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 9:51 am

Posted in Daily life, Media, NY Times

Harry Reid: the best Senate leader the Democrats could have?

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In my opinion, no, but Eve Fairbanks has more to say in her article in The New Republic, which begins:

Some people keep talismans in their wallets to remind them of those they love: a romantic letter, a set of dog tags, a family picture. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has such a token–but it’s to remind him of the people he hates.

When I interviewed the Nevadan in March in his mahogany-toned office off the Senate floor, we cycled through the standard exchanges. Then I asked whether he has a lucky charm. The usually grave Nevada senator smiled, raised his eyebrows, and, fumbling for his wallet in the pocket of a smoothly pressed blue suit, plucked out a ragged-edged, smudged scrap of paper, home-laminated with strips of Scotch tape. “Medicare has no place in a free world,” he began to read off the scrap. “Social Security is a rotten trick!”

Reid’s lucky charm, it turned out, was a list of brazen quotes uttered by old-school Republican hard-liners. There are riffs from Dick Armey, Bob Dole, and even Newt Gingrich (that Medicare would “wither on the vine” under Republican rule). Reid keeps the scrap private, except when it might deliver a political punch. “He pulled it out on me in a meeting in 2005 about Medicare,” recalls one Democratic activist who has seen the keepsake emerge at more than one progressive strategy session. “He’ll say, ‘I keep this in my wallet to remember who these people are.'” Inside such meetings, the effect can be dramatic. “It’s like, wow, Harry Reid’s got an axe to grind with Republicans,” the activist explains.

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 9:44 am

Fights over student loans (and the money they make)

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Interesting:

Back in February, during one of his weekly multi-media addresses, President Obama predicted fierce fights with agents of the status quo. "I know that banks and big student lenders won’t like the idea that we’re ending their huge taxpayer subsidies, but that’s how we’ll save taxpayers nearly $50 billion and make college more affordable," the president said, adding, "I know these steps won’t sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I."

Well, Mr. President, here they come.

The private student lending industry and its allies in Congress are maneuvering to thwart a plan by President Obama to end a subsidized loan program and redirect billions of dollars in bank profits to scholarships for needy students.

The plan is the main money-saving component of Mr. Obama’s education agenda, which includes a sweeping overhaul of financial aid programs. The Congressional Budget Office says replacing subsidized loans made by private banks with direct government lending would save $94 billion over the next decade, money that Mr. Obama would use to expand Pell grants for the poorest students.

But the proposal has ignited one of the most fractious policy fights this year.

That’s a shame, because Obama is overwhelmingly right on this one, for all the reasons we talked about a few weeks ago. In a nutshell, this is a no-brainer — the student-loan industry is getting government subsidies to provide a service the government can perform for less. Obama can remove the middle-man, streamline the process, save taxpayers a lot money, and help more young people get college degrees.

The arguments from lobbyists, Republicans, and Democrats with the student-loan industry in their districts range from bad to worse. Many on the right argue that  …

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14 April 2009 at 9:39 am

Making decisions

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Interesting book review in New Scientist:

ONE of the most enduring depictions of the human mind, favoured by thinkers from Plato to 20th-century psychologists, is as a well of perpetual conflict between reason and emotion, where good judgement relies on using rational thought to overcome the impulsiveness that would otherwise lead us astray.

We now know better: the understanding that emotions play a crucial role in decision-making – and that people who sustain damage to the emotional parts of their brains are plagued by pathological indecision – has been one of the great revelations of recent cognitive science. The key question is when and how far we should rely on feeling when making choices. Since our emotional response system evolved in an environment very different to today’s, it is bound sometimes to lead us astray.

Jonah Lehrer‘s mission in The Decisive Moment is to help us determine when to override our instincts and when to let them run. If you are up to speed with the latest findings of psychology and neuroscience you will be familiar with much of his material, but as a popular distillation of the science of decision-making it is second to none.

His broad reach takes in …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 9:35 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Why the US Navy can’t stop the pirates

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Interesting article by Peter Pham in Foreign Policy:

Sunday’s dramatic rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips brings to a felicitous end an incident involving the most egregious assault on U.S. commercial shipping in two centuries. The last time maritime marauders were so bold, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison tasked the fledgling U.S. Navy and Marine Corps with taking the fight to the pirate havens along the "shores of Tripoli." This weekend’s incident highlights what the world’s best-trained military can accomplish under the right conditions. But it also underscores the limits of force in the face of a seemingly intractable challenge posed by the Somali pirates.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, 111 of the 293 incidents of piracy or armed robbery at sea in 2008 took place off the coast of Somalia — double the number from the preceding year. And 2009 is hardly off to an auspicious start. In spite of poor meteorological conditions — hardly favorable for maritime forays — there have already been more than a dozen seizures so far this year.

The pirates aren’t just getting lucky. Indeed, Somali piracy is quite the opposite of the helter-skelter often portrayed in the media; it is a highly structured enterprise built around a number of syndicates. Pirate bases in Eyl, in the northeastern Puntland region, and in Xarardheere, in central Somalia, stand out for their audacity and for the resources they command. The syndicates operate "mother ships" far offshore that serve as long-range platforms for the speedboats that attack commercial vessels; they own depots along the coast where the pirates resupply before bringing captured boats to their main bases; and they coordinate the networks to support pirate operations on land. A report to the U.N. Security Council last month by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plaintively conceded that "these groups now rival established Somali authorities in terms of their military capabilities and resource bases."

Not only are the Somali pirates well-organized, but they have proven to be highly resilient to changes in the strategic environment. As I warned in an analysis two weeks ago, the pirates have not been intimidated by the international naval force that has assembled to prevent a repeat of last year’s hijackings. Instead, they have shifted their operations to less patrolled areas, with strikes increasingly taking place farther and farther from the coast, on the high seas of the western Indian Ocean. The attempted seizure of the Maersk Alabama, for example, took place approximately 240 nautical miles southeast of the Somali shore. Mother ships, which resemble fishing vessels, have also worked hard to confuse antipirate patrols by avoiding the Somali coast altogether, docking instead at ports in other countries for refueling and resupplying (the U.N. report identified Al Mukalla and Al Shishr in Yemen).

Historically, piracy has been …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 9:32 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Military

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The debt that science owes to Islam

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Very interesting review of two books on science and Islam. The beginning:

When Roman civilisation fell in the early centuries AD, the light of scholarship was extinguished. It was close to a thousand years before civilisation recovered, thanks to European scholars who rediscovered classical Greek learning and ushered in the new dawn of the Renaissance.

At least, this is how history is taught. Now two books argue that this view ignores the crucial role of Islamic scholars.

In the first part of Science and Islam, a fascinating and clearly written book, Ehsan Masood tells how Islam spread rapidly from the 7th century onward, from the west of China to the south of Spain. As Europe slumbered in the Dark Ages, science-friendly caliphs such as al-Mamun, who ruled Baghdad in the 9th century, sponsored the translation of scientific texts from lands they had conquered.

Among them were the works of scholars such as 8th-century mathematician Musa al-Khwarizmi, who popularised the Indian number system and invented algebra; ibn-Sina (also known as Avicenna), a Persian polymath who realised in the 11th century that diseases can spread through soil and water; and 13th-century astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who made improvements to the Greek planetary models that Nicolaus Copernicus later relied on for his heliocentric theory.

While the Islamic world was enjoying astronomy, philosophy and medicine, those in Europe could not tell the hours of the day, thought the Earth was flat, and saw disease as punishment from God, …

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Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 9:09 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Slave rebellions

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Interesting:

Forget Spartacus – you need look no further than an ant colony for a slave mutiny.

Some ant species raid colonies of smaller species, killing the queen, scaring away worker ants and stealing larvae. Kidnapped larvae grow up as slaves.

Susanne Foitzik of the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, has evidence the slaves have evolved an unusual weapon in the fight for survival: mutiny.

When her team monitored 473 pupae in 88 slave-making colonies, they saw enslaved worker ants destroy two-thirds of newly hatched queens and female workers of their captors. Male pupae, which do not conduct raids, were left alone (Evolution, vol 63, p 1068).

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2009 at 9:06 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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