Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
Putin Drills Ground Troops At Doorstep Of A Fragile Ukraine
President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces on Ukraine’s doorstep Wednesday, intending to demonstrate the country’s military preparedness at a time of heightened tensions with Europe and the United States over the turmoil gripping Russia’s western neighbor.
Russia’s military put tens of thousands of troops in western Russia on alert at 2 p.m. for an exercise scheduled to last until March 3. The minister of defense, Sergei K. Shoigu, also announced unspecified measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
The orders came as thousands of ethnic Russians gathered outside the regional parliament in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, to protest the political upheaval in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, that felled the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych over the weekend and turned him into a fugitive. Crimea was a part of Russian territory until the Soviet Union ceded it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954, and Russians there have already pleaded for the Kremlin’s intervention to protect the region and its population from Ukraine’s new leadership.
Venezuelan Government Officials Allege Uribe Has Role In Violent Disturbances
Venezuelan governmental authorities have provided what they allege is evidence of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s involvement in the current disturbances and violence. They also claim that the US has provided some advice, and that mercenaries are involved.
Communications minister Delcy Rodriguez last night accused Uribe, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (Fedecamaras), and the American-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Venamcham) of being “implicated” in the current “destabilising” actions.
“We have been showing the proof [of this] for years, at the moment we’re investigating other facts so that soon we can show to what extent Fedecamaras is involved in this coup [attempt],” she said.
Further, last night National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello revealed a series of alleged emails between political advisor Juan Jose Rendon, and Ricardo Koesling of the opposition Piedra party.
Rendon allegedly wrote to Koesling about the role of Uribe in supplying “resources and sub-contacts” and that Uribe’s aim was to “end with this cancer of a regime”.
Armed Groups Surround Thousands In Central African Republic: U.N
Over 15,000 people in Central African Republic, mostly Muslim civilians in makeshift camps, are surrounded and being threatened by armed militia groups, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva that the refugees, dotted around 18 locations in the northwest and southwest of the landlocked country, face a high risk of attack and urgently need better security.
France's parliament voted in favor on Tuesday of extending its military mission in Central African Republic, Operation Sangaris, four months after its launch.
The former French colony has been torn by inter-communal violence that has killed thousands since Seleka, a coalition of mostly Muslim northern rebels, seized power in March and unleashed a wave of looting and killings.
Christian militia known as "anti-balaka", which means "anti-machete" in the local sango language, have exacted brutal reprisals against the Muslim minority whom they accuse of supporting the rebels. Ten of thousands of Muslims have fled to neighboring countries, while others sought shelter in camps.
Syria Agrees To New April Target To Remove Chemicals
Syria has agreed a new timetable to remove its chemical weapons by late April after failing to meet a deadline to ship out the arsenal earlier this month, diplomats said on Wednesday.
Under a U.S.-Russian deal reached after a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of people around Damascus last year, President Bashar al-Assad's government should have handed over 1,300 tonnes of toxic chemicals by February 5 for destruction abroad.
But only a handful of cargoes have been shipped out of the country so far, a small fraction of the stockpile declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) overseeing the process along with the United Nations.
The OPCW said a fourth consignment, containing mustard gas, left Syria on Wednesday. It welcomed the move, while urging Damascus to "maintain momentum" in shipping out the chemicals.
Amid growing international frustration at the slow pace of progress, Syria last week submitted a new 100-day plan to remove the remaining chemicals, which would have set a target of late May or early June for completion.
California Drought: Communities At Risk Of Running Dry
It is a bleak roadmap of the deepening crisis brought on by one of California's worst droughts - a list of 17 communities and water districts that within 100 days could run dry of the state's most precious commodity.
The threatened towns and districts, identified this week by state health officials, are mostly small and in rural areas. They get their water in a variety of ways, from reservoirs to wells to rivers. But, in all cases, a largely rainless winter has left their supplies near empty.
In the Bay Area, Cloverdale and Healdsburg in Sonoma County are among those at risk of running out of water, according to the state. The small Lompico Water District in the Santa Cruz Mountains is also on the list. Others could be added if the dry weather lingers.
"These systems all are experiencing challenges meeting customer need, and those challenges are exacerbated by drought conditions," said Matt Conens, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health.
The health department is looking to help the communities in several ways, Conens said. In some areas, new wells will be dug. In others, water may be hauled in. In some cases, smaller water systems will be connected with larger ones.
Prolonged Drought Demands Shared Sacrifice
As the Texas drought moves well into its seventh year, competition for scarce water intensifies as never before.
That competition is playing out graphically in the Colorado River Basin with devastating consequences.
Rice farmers have lost 55,000 acres of production each of the past two years due to water cutoffs. Businesses that rely on the rice industry have shuttered and jobs have gone away.
Also gone are 1.1 billion pounds of food, which would have provided sufficient calories to feed about 1.61 million people for a year — about twice the population of Austin.
It is estimated that nearly a third of wintering waterfowl were deficient their needed food and habitat on the Texas mid-coast resulting from the disappearance of critical rice wetlands. Two hundred species of waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and other wildlife face demise, as they depend largely on the rice prairie wetlands for their survival.
Thick Ice Cover On Great Lakes Boon In Mitigating Lake Levels Drop
Ice cover on the Great Lakes plays a pivotal role in the amount of water lost each year to evaporation, the key element in water loss on the lakes. Andrew Gronewold, hydrologist and physical scientist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, is intimately involved in the creation of predictive models (the scientific equivalent of a crystal ball) for Great Lakes water levels and spent some time talking water with The Expositor last week and what he had to say might surprise some people.
“My area of expertise is in the short and long term prediction of water levels and water surface temperatures,” he said. “(And) what the implications are for water levels over the next six to 12 months.”
With a very cool fall period leading up to winter, the amount of ice cover and colder water temperatures we are seeing this winter and the likely cooler temperatures we will be seeing next fall, Dr. Gronewold said that it is probable likely that the Great Lakes will see lower than average declines.
Overall, the seasonal cycle in the Great Lakes remains strong, with peaks and declines
“Water levels on the Great Lakes have really been fairly stable over the last decade or so,” he said. “The real drop in water levels occurred in 1997 and since then the water levels have really not rebounded. They have stayed very, very low for more than 10 years.”
Science and Technology
Wind Power On Verge Of Taking Off
Japan hasn’t seen an appreciable increase in wind power in the past few years despite the start of the feed-in tariff system designed to boost renewable energy, but it still has potential and the market will grow in the next several years.
That appears to be the consensus view of many people in the wind power industry participating in the Smart Energy Week 2014 exhibition that kicked off Wednesday at Tokyo Big Sight.
Tokyo-based Looop Inc., which has been selling solar panels, is planning to enter the wind power market by selling small-scale turbines.
Yasuhiko Watanabe, sales and public relations manager at Looop, said that although the solar panel sector has grown rapidly since the launch of the feed-in tariff in 2012, that rise is expected to slow down because the government lowered the purchase price for solar power last year and it is planning to drop it further.
Under the feed-in tariff system, electric utilities are required to buy all electricity produced by companies and households via renewable energy sources at a rate that will remain set for a specific number of years.
Nuclear Waste Repository Set To Reopen After Leak
Almost two weeks after an unexplained puff of radioactive materials forced the closing of a salt mine in New Mexico that is used to bury nuclear bomb wastes, managers of the mine are planning to send workers back in and are telling nearby residents that their health is safe.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 28 miles east of Carlsbad, has been in operation for 15 years, burying wastes in an ancient salt bed deep beneath the desert, mostly without incident, and some experts have said that the site should be considered for additional kinds of nuclear waste.
But late on Feb. 14, at an hour when no one was in the mine, an air monitor indicated the presence of radioactive contamination. An automated system cut off most of the ventilation and routed the exhaust through filters that are supposed to capture 99.97 percent of all contamination, turning off fans and changing the air flow, in less than one minute.
There was some small release of radiation, however. The Carlsbad research center registered the materials — plutonium and americium — on filter materials installed on air monitors in the surrounding desert. These filters must be collected and then dissolved in acid so the material they trapped can be analyzed. They can detect amounts far smaller than the device that registered the initial alarm, but the process takes many hours.
Photopharmacology: Optoswitches turn pain off and sight on
Photoreactive compounds developed by scientists of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich directly modulate nerve-cell function, and open new routes to the treatment of neurological diseases, including chronic pain and certain types of visual impairment.
All modes of sensory perception are based on communication between nerve cells. Both the response to the primary stimulus and the transmission of the resulting signal depend on the function of specialized receptor proteins that are associated with the surface membranes of neurons. Many sensory neurons respond only to a single sensory modality, such as mechanical stimulation or temperature. However, Dirk Trauner, Professor of Chemical Biology and Genetics at LMU, has helped develop a method which, in principle, enables all types of neuroreceptors to be controlled by light. "This is achieved by using synthetic molecular compounds that react specifically to light as switches for natural receptors," he says. "The combination results in hybrid photoreceptors, which effectively make the nerve cells that bear them responsive to light. In the long term, we hope to use this approach as the basis for new therapies for neurological disease." Two new studies, on pain receptors and a mouse model for congenital blindness, now report significant advances toward the realization of this goal.
Synthetic opioid as a painkiller So-called opioids, natural substances related to morphine, have been used as painkillers for thousands of years. The body also synthesizes endogenous opioids, known as endorphins, which bind to the same receptors and have the same analgesic effects as morphine. By chemically modifying the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is used clinically both as an anesthetic and as an extremely potent painkiller, Trauner and his team have succeeded in conferring photosensitivity on a particular class of opioid receptor. The modified fentanyl retains the ability to bind to Mu-type opioid receptors, but its physiological effect can be precisely controlled by light: Specifically, receptor function can be activated and deactivated by irradiating cells exposed to the compound with light of different colors, as Trauner and his colleague Matthias Schönberger report in the journal Angewandte Chemie.
The secret of Trauner's light-sensitive switches lies in their chemical structure. The agents synthesized in his laboratory all contain a characteristic chemical double bond at a specific position, which enables their shape to be altered by light. In effect, these molecules can be flipped from a bent to an extended form, and back again, depending on the wavelength of light used. Trauner explains the advantages of the method as follows: "The properties of light can be very precisely manipulated, so that we can modulate the state of the cells in a defined fashion. Furthermore, the reaction is fully reversible."
Society and Culture
One-Way Trip To Mars Prohibited In Islam
Promoting or being involved in a one-way trip to the Red Planet is prohibited in Islam, a fatwa committee under the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment in the UAE has ruled.
“Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life, and that can never be justified in Islam,” the committee said. “There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death.”
Whoever opts for this “hazardous trip”, the committee said, is likely to perish for no “righteous reason”, and thus will be liable to a “punishment similar to that of suicide in the Hereafter”.
The committee, presided by Professor Dr Farooq Hamada, said: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful.”
Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf, Imam of the Amena mosque, said: “Man’s life is not his or her own property; it is God’s creation, and therefore suicide is prohibited in all religions, and of course by law.”
Can A Thermostat Have Beliefs?
My engineer son recently bought me a Nest Learning Thermostat. The company that makes it was just purchased for more than $3 billion by Google, which is appropriately impressed by the sophistication of the functions built into the thermostat. Once the thermostat was working, I was reminded of a claim made in the 1970s by John McCarthy, one of the founders of artificial intelligence. He insisted that even a thermometer has beliefs, since it has a way of showing what the temperature is. The Nest thermostat is far more sophisticated than a thermometer, so it got me wondering whether a thermostat as complicated as this one could be capable of beliefs.
I don't think that ordinary thermometers have beliefs, because a belief operating in the human mind does a lot more than just show the current temperature. Beliefs are capable of interacting with many other beliefs through various forms of inference, including deduction, in which a conclusion follows with certainty from a set of premises, as in mathematical reasoning. People are also capable of inductive generalization, for example when they argue from observations of a new kind of food that in general that kind of food tastes good. An even more sophisticated form of reasoning is called abduction, or inference to the best explanation, in which people form and evaluate hypotheses about why things happen. Many of the most important kinds of thinking exemplify abductive reasoning: legal reasoning about whether an accused person is guilty, medical reasoning about what diseases are responsible for observed symptoms, and interpersonal reasoning about each other's mental states,
Remarkably, the Nest thermostat seems to be capable of all of these kinds of inference. The thermostat contains the same powerful computer chip found in iPhones and iPads. Most simply, the thermostat seems capable of deductive inference when it reports the total time when the furnace was running during the day, which requires it to add up the individual times. The thermostat also has sophisticated learning mechanisms that enable it to generalize from the way that people program the temperature at different points during the day to produce generalizations of people's behaviors. The thermostat inductively altered my settings in ways that reflected my behavior. Originally, I set it for 6 AM as a starting point to come up to room temperature for the day, but Nest noticed that I was sometimes waking up earlier than six and changing the temperature. Accordingly it changed my settings to up the furnace setting at 5 AM, first on Wednesdays, then on Saturdays, and then eventually for the whole week. The thermostat recognized a change in my heating pattern before I noticed it myself.
The Next thermostat may even be capable of a kind of abductive inference, for it has motion sensors that can detect whether anyone is moving through the room in which it is placed. If it detects no movement for a while, it will infer that people are away. One way of interpreting this would be to say that the thermostat is doing an inference to the best explanation by supposing that no motion is detected because people have gone away, which it reacts to by lowering the thermostat down to a level that produces minimal heating in order to save money.
One philosophical objection to the claim the thermostat has beliefs would be that it doesn't really have representations that are about the world, what philosophers call intentionality. This objection is hard to sustain in light of the fact that the thermostat get inputs from the world in the form of its temperature and motion sensors. Moreover it produces outputs in the form of turning the heat furnace on or off and conveying information to me about its operations. Moreover I've already described how the thermostat really does seem to learn my behavior. The thermostat therefore seems to have a lot of the same functionality that justifies the attribution of beliefs to human minds and the attribution of representations to their brains.
Can Creationists Be Scientists? Readers Respond.
This month, I’ve written a few posts defending the idea that you can believe in young-earth creationism—a complete fiction—and still practice good science. Most readers who responded to these articles disagreed. I’ve read more than a thousand of your comments, looking for insights that can help us think more clearly about this question. Some of what you’ve written requires me to amend or clarify what I’ve said. Some of it, however, should prompt reflection among those of you who say science and creationism are incompatible.
Here are some of the best reader comments. I’ll start with the ones that made me rethink my own position.SirWired: Biblical literalism doesn't make you inherently a poor engineer, or a poor scientist (as long as your field does not intersect the bible in any way), but it certainly makes your critical thinking skills suspect..
Alcibiades232: you can't be the best thinker/discoverer you can be AND believe in nonsense. You can be an athlete and be fat at the same time, too. It's like that.
Lon: religion can be compartmentalized because many religions do not think that religion makes scientific claims. By contrast, Creationism is a scientific claim. … [B]elieving that Jesus dies and was miraculously resurrected on the cross, is not a scientific belief, and believing it does not do damage to science, or require an ignorance of science
I agree with the first two comments here. Insisting on Biblical literalism in the face of contrary evidence does impair that part of your mind, and it does make me worry about your ability to confine the impairment. But I’m open to persuasion based on your job performance.
But the comments section also includes reports of real, live creationists who practice science. Here are some of those reports:G. Dannek: I've known many excellent scientists who are religious, a subset of whom are honest-to-god young earth creationists. They're a very small minority in the sciences, to be sure, but they exist, and the ones I've known have been productive, careful, effective researchers. People can handle it in all sorts of ways; by avoiding thinking about the conflict, by assuming there's some sort of atheist conspiracy to overstate the evidence for the age of the earth and never examining that assumption, etc. You just wall off your implausible beliefs from your critical thinking faculties, and as long as they don't overlap your field of study, the beliefs about origins and the critical thinking about everything else continue functioning just fine.slate
Well, that's different...
Saved By The Blimps:
Americans who have grown accustomed to hearing that the U.S. is militarily without peer might have been shocked to learn in January (as CBS News reported from a Pentagon interview) that America has “practically zero capability” either to detect enemy cruise missiles fired at Washington, D.C., from offshore, or even worse, to “defend against [them].” The Pentagon’s interim makeshift solution to protect the U.S. capital, said an official, is to launch two blimps, soon, to float two miles up over a base in Maryland to try to spot any such missiles.
Bill Moyers and Company:
Full Show: The Deep State Hiding in Plain Sight
Former GOP congressional analyst Mike Lofgren talks to Bill about America’s “Deep State,” in which elected and unelected figures collude to serve powerful vested interests.
Refugee Rage Leaves Us Fenced In By Fear
Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist
Say there was civil war here. Say some West Australian mining despot took power and began censoring news, jailing journalists, disappearing opponents. Say you were dragged from your bed, interrogated at midnight, your kids threatened with rape and torture. It's not so far fetched. Would you patiently wait your turn? Line up for a visa to Switzerland or the US? Or would you grab your kids and cash and hop in the first boat?
It probably wouldn't take much to scare most of us into Plan B. Yet because we steadfastly resist this exchange of viewpoints, "stopping the boats'' has become a political grail. It's not new. Just voicing the hate hands any leader a nice fizzy Berocca. Tampa did it for Howard, the Falklands for Thatcher. But Australia's boat-hate, having become bipartisan, is now a fixture.
Yet in this whole immigration shemozzle three things are abundantly clear. One, that we are all boat people. Two, that it is not illegal to seek asylum in a foreign country. Three, that Australia's detention islands, fulfil the pre-WWII definition of the term ''concentration camp'', breach international law. [The three island camps - Manus, Christmas, Nauru - now hold about 4300 people in unlimited detention] None of us, except perhaps Aborigines, are here by right. Many of our ancestors came explicitly as criminals. Most of those, having arrived, colluded in what would now be war crimes. We just wrote our own rights, and our own rules.
Yet we detain people without proof or charge. We deny them freedom of speech or movement without limit or reason. And although the Abbott government pretends that ''stopping the boats'' saves lives, we cage them in such hot, crowded and brutalised despair that they riot, suicide and abort babies rather than continue. We forbid reportage. We censor news. These are matters of fact. Together, they reveal our immigration policy as nimbyism of the ugliest sort and grandest possible scale.