Since the twentieth century...

Yet Another Web Log

A clipping service without portfolio*, compiled and annotated by Vicki Rosenzweig since March 1999

ISSN 1534-0236

Technology and ideology alike are exercises in applied imagination.

21 April 2007

It transpires that the U.S. army's plan for providing "security" in Baghdad is to build a ghetto around Sunni areas.

US forces say the wall, which will separate Adhamiya from nearby Shia districts, aims to prevent sectarian violence between the two communities.

But Adnan al-Dulaimi, who heads the biggest Sunni bloc in parliament, says it will breed yet more strife.

Some Adhamiya residents have said the wall will make their district a prison.

When the wall is finished, nobody will be able to enter or leave the neighborhood without going through checkpoints guarded by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.

The US military says the barrier is the centrepiece of its strategy to end sectarian violence in the area but insists there are no plans to divide up the whole city into gated communities.

Residents of the neighborhood are referring to the wall as "collective punishment" and note that they were not consulted about the plan.

15 April 2007

There is less and less behavior that we can claim as exclusively human, even things we probably took for granted, not because other species couldn't do them, but because we'd assume they lacked motivation. Here is a fine video of a duckling feeding the ornamental goldfish. [Thanks to Coyotegoth]

27 March 2007

There's a report on the BBC (which credits Nature of the first known case of what they're calling semi-identical twins: identical on their mother's side, but sharing only half their genes on their father's side.

They are the result of two sperm cells fertilising a single egg, which then divided to form two embryos - and each sperm contributed genes to each child.

Each stage is unlikely, and scientists believe the twins are probably unique.

It's apparently not that unusual for two sperm to fertilize the same egg (the article guesses it happens in 1% of human conceptions), but most of the resulting embryos aren't viable.

The only reason this case was noticed is that one of the babies is intersexed. In examining the children, it turned out that while one is intersexed (with both ovarian and testicular tissue) and the other is anatomically male, both are chimeras with some XY and some XX cells. One of the researchers who investigated the case said "It makes me wonder whether the current classification of twins is an oversimplification."

23 March 2007

We not only don't know how long Saturn's day is, no method currently known to science can determine this information. The usual way of measuring the rotation of gas giants is to measure radio signals emitted by their rotating plasma disks. This works for Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, but the signal from Saturn has slipped by six minutes/rotation since Voyager went past in the 1980s.

It now appears that the slippage is caused by the geysers on the small, close-in moon Enceladus:

"We have linked the pulsing radio signal to a rotating magnetic signal. Once each rotation of Saturn's magnetic field, an asymmetry in the field triggers a burst of radio waves," said Dr. David Southwood, co-author, Imperial College London, and director of science at the European Space Agency. "We have then linked both signals to material that has come from Enceladus."

Based on the new observations, scientists now think there are two possible reasons for the change in radio period. The first theory is that the geysers on Enceladus could be more active now than in Voyagers' time. The second is that there may be seasonal variations as Saturn orbits the sun once every 29 years.

At this rate, that moon is going to be everyone's candidate for next interplanetary probe launch (or at least, next launch after the ones that are already close to completion: NASA has a Mercury mission on its way, and the ESA and Japan are working on one; Japan and Russia are both looking at Venus orbiters quite soon; there's more stuff headed for Mars; and of course New Horizons on its way to Pluto.

[Thanks to James Nicoll]

21 March 2007

A newly discovered species of dinosaur, Oryctodromeus cubicularis, dug underground dens and cared for its young in those dens. The fossils found, in a chamber at the end of a now-sediment-filled tunnel, are an adult and two juveniles. The adult O. cubicularis was probably about 2.1 meters long, over half of that being tail.

The team says the species' snout, shoulder girdle and pelvis have features one would expect to see in an animal that dug into the ground.

16 March 2007

In the L.A. Times (picked up by Newsday, Josh Meyer considers the possibility that Khalid Mohammed was "playing to the jury" by framing his actions in terms that might create sympathy in American readers: "framing his life as an underdog militant"

"It is designed to have an American audience understand that there is another way of looking at the conflict between the West and radical Islam under bin Laden's leadership," said Jerrold Post, former chief personality profiler for the CIA.

Post described the "performance" by al-Qaida's former chief of operations as part psychological warfare and part artfully crafted argument.

"I take it as confirmation of the significance of his position, that despite his thuggish appearance, this is a very shrewd and rather precise individual," Post said.

Again, it's taken for granted that Mohammed said what's in the transcript, and did so freely. Nor does the article note that Post is also presenting a carefully crafted argument. [Note in particular the term "thuggish," as if honesty produces good looks, even in a man who's been in prison for years.]

The press seem far too credulous about Khalid Mohammed's alleged confession. The BBC at least mentions Amnesty International's pointing out that the statement may have been coerced, but I feel as though I'm the only person looking at these stories and thinking "show trial." Maybe he did everything he said, maybe he did none of it, maybe he's been dead for a year and they'll announce three weeks from now that he's had a fatal heart attack.

To believe the claims that Khalid Mohammed confessed to these crimes means taking the words of the U.S. government for what he said. In the general case, it's not prudent to accept the prosecution's unsupported claims about a defendant. It's not just that the statement may have been coerced: it may never have been made at all. A blacked-out transcript isn't strong evidence.

In the second, I can't think of any motivation anyone involved in this has to be telling the truth: even if Mohammed said everything they claim he did, he may well be lying. He has reason to believe that, best case, he's stuck for life in Guantanamo, away from everyone he knows and cares about. A death sentence might seem like a relief in comparison.

Also, assuming he is an Al-Qaeda supporter, not a random person arrested by mistake, he might think it's tactically useful to draw attention to himself and away from Al-Qaeda members who are still free in the world and could plot further actions. And "we also were going to do X, Y, and Z" might just be a way of making the organization look bigger and more dangerous. Meanwhile, the people running those tribunals want us all to believe that Al-Qaeda is big and dangerous, but that they have captured one of the most important leaders of that group.

15 March 2007

A new species of cat has been found. More precisely, researchers have concluded that the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra are a different species from the mainland clouded leopard (both have previously been called just "clouded leopard," and the mainland population will probably continue to be, in most contexts. The island clouded leopard, Neofelis diardi, is a bit darker than its mainland cousin, and has slightly different markings, but this is mostly from DNA analysis and reproductive isolation. The research team estimate the two species diverged 1.4 million years ago.

The population numbers for the species are estimates with large ranges: 5,000 to 11,000 in Borneo, where the leopard is the main predator, and 3,000 to 7,000 in Sumatra. The Indonesian government promised last month to protect the Heart of Borneo, where most of the clouded leopards in Borneo live.

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