Volcanic eruptions have changed the course of human history many times across the millennia. New research finds that a volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands, 6000 miles from Italy, may have contributed to the end of the Roman Republic. "In recent years, geoscientists, historians and archaeologists have joined forces to investigate the societal impacts of large volcanic eruptions. They rely on an amalgam of records — including ice cores, historical chronicles and climate modeling — to pinpoint how volcanism affected civilizations ranging from the Roman Republic to Ptolemaic Egypt to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. ... Dr. [Joseph] McConnell and his collaborators recently analyzed six ice cores drilled in the Arctic. In layers of ice corresponding to the early months of 43 B.C., they spotted large upticks in sulfur and, crucially, bits of material that were probably tephra. The timing caught the scientists’ attention. Researchers have previously hypothesized that an environmental trigger may have helped set in motion the crop failures, famines and social unrest that plagued the Mediterranean region at that time. ... There’s good evidence that the Northern Hemisphere was colder than normal around 43 B.C. Trees across Europe grew more slowly that year, and a pine forest in North America experienced an unusually early autumn freeze. Using climate models to simulate the impact of an Okmok [Aleutian volcano] eruption, Dr. McConnell and his collaborators estimated that parts of the Mediterranean, roughly 6,000 miles away, would have cooled by as much as 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit. 'It was bloody cold,' Dr. McConnell said. Rain patterns changed as well — some regions would have been drenched by 400 percent more precipitation than normal, the modeling revealed. ... These cold, wet conditions would have almost certainly decimated crops, Dr. McConnell and his colleagues said. Historical records compiled by Roman writers and philosophers note food shortages and famines. In 43 B.C., Mark Antony, the Roman military leader, and his army had to subsist on wild fruit, roots, bark and 'animals never tasted before,' the philosopher Plutarch wrote." www.nytimes.com/2020/06/22/science/rome-caesar-volcano.html
All U.S. states have reopened to at least some degree after being shut down to quell community transmission of COVID-19 this spring. But are they ready to quickly stop new outbreaks? This topological map looks at whether the number of contact tracers each state has available is considered sufficient to stay on top of the state's 14-day COVID-19 caseload. www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/06/18/879787448/as-states-reopen-do-they-have-the-workforce-they-need-to-stop-coronavirus-outbre
Let's say you have a heap of sand. Take away one grain. Do you still have a heap of sand? What if you take away another grain? Do you still have a heap of sand? If you keep repeating this process, at what point do you no longer have a heap of sand? Where is the delineation between "heap" and "no heap"? This is the sorites paradox, attributed to a contemporary of Aristotle, Eubulides of Miletus. It applies to both finite nouns (e.g., a pile of sand, a bucket of water, even an ocean of water) as well as adjectives (e.g., tall, old, rich). The sorites paradox calls attention to matters of judgment, which vary with the individual -- how old is "old" anyway? -- as well as the limitations of language (do we have the words necessary to describe all the gradations between a "heap" of sand and a single grain?).
By the end of 2018, renewable energy accounted for more than one-quarter of electricity generation globally, of which solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines were contributing the majority of new capacity. These maps, which originally appeared in Nature, show the global distribution of solar (top) and wind (bottom) installations as of earlier this year: powercompare.co.uk/global-solar-wind-installations/
Most of this summer's Shakespeare in the park performances have been canceled. But you can watch one of my favorite performances online for free. This is the Folger Theatre's 2008 staging of Macbeth, with special-effects assistance from Teller (of the award-winning magic duo Penn & Teller). www.folger.edu/video-macbeth-folger-theatre
Different countries have different approaches to policing. This geo-graphic shows, in alphabetically order, the 18 nations that do not routinely arm their police. www.statista.com/chart/10601/where-are-the-worlds-unarmed-police-officers
Deepfake videos created with the help of artificial intelligence are getting harder to spot. This article considers the corrosive effect of deepfake video on media and public discussion.
"Deepfakes are so named because they rely on “deep learning,” a branch of AI. ... [D]irty tricksters now have the technology to create videos in which it really does look like a prominent politician is violently cursing at a baby — or worse. ... AI researchers say it might not be technically possible to spot deepfakes before they spread virally on social media. While there’s plenty of reason to fear such false videos may mislead voters, our research finds the real problem is a bit different: It’s likely to spread distrust of all news on social media, further eroding public debate. ... Crucially, we found when people were uncertain whether the deceptive deepfake was real or not, they also had less trust in news on social media than did those who were not uncertain — even after controlling for participants’ levels of trust, as measured before the experiment. Why does this matter? Declining trust may be a rational response to the wave of online disinformation scandals in the past few years. But most Americans now get their news online, and almost half of Americans get their news on social media. ... In other words, deepfakes’ biggest threat to democracy may not be direct but indirect. Deepfakes might not always fool viewers into believing in something false, but they might contribute to skepticism and distrust of news sources, further eroding our ability to meaningfully discuss public affairs."
Last summer's European heatwave and regional droughts had an unexpected consequence: water flow in the Tagus River was sufficiently reduced in western Spain that the Dolmen of Guadaperal, also known as the Spanish Stonehenge, was visible for the first time in more than 50 years. Built 4000 to 7000 years ago, the Neolithic circle of granite stones had been submerged under the waters of the Tagus since a hydroelectric dam was built on the river in 1963. news.artnet.com/art-world/drought-reveals-spanish-stonehenge-1646509
Across the U.S., at all education levels, white workers on average make more than their black counterparts with similar experience. This map shows the black-white gap in median household (not individual) income by state. In general, the Pacific Northwest shows the smallest gaps with the largest gaps in the Midwest and South. howmuch.net/articles/racial-income-wealth-inequality-us
What is meant by "white privilege"? Perhaps not what you think. Feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh uses the metaphor of "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks."
This is excerpted from a paper McIntosh wrote *more than 30 years ago*:
"As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. ... I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant; to remain oblivious. ... After I realized, through faculty development work in Women's Studies, the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don't see ourselves that way. At the very least, obliviousness of one's privileged state can make a person or group irritating to be with. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.... My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. ... For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one's life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color. ... In unpacking this invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted, as neutral, normal, and universally available to everybody.... In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth."
McIntosh includes a fairly long daily checklist that is worth considering, of which these are the first six items, for example:
"1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented."
Earlier this week, Donald Trump announced his intention to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in Germany by roughly one-third on the grounds that Germany does not devote 2% of its GDP to defense spending. This series of maps based on YouGov polling in various NATO countries about a year ago shows which other countries the residents of Germany, France, the UK, and the U.S. are willing to fight to defend. (Note: Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine are not NATO member countries.) d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/inlineimage/2019-04-03/NATO%20willing%20to%20defend-01.png
Although most of the resources I highlight here every Friday are free, this one is not. But it is so cool looking that I thought it was worth a mention, especially given that many of us are still without library services. "Dear Holmes" introduces users to a new mystery -- via a series of hand-written letters that arrive in the mail -- each month. The mysteries are created by a "selection of modern Sherlock Holmes writers." You can sign up for three months (three mysteries) for $50. www.dearholmes.com/
Borders in the western Himalayas have long been disputed by India, China, and Pakistan. Fighting recently broke out between Chinese and Indian troops in Ladakh's Galway Valley, with at least 20 Indian soldiers killed, several reportedly beaten to death. This map from the BBC shows the Galwan Valley, which was also the site of a 1962 India-China conflict, within the broader, geopolitically complex region.
Tech companies are able to construct virtual perimeters (geofences) and, using cell phone location data supplied by apps, radio-frequency tags or wi-fi networks, identify everyone who enters, exits, or is located within that perimeter. That aggregated information is sold to marketing firms to push information, real time or subsequently, to those who are in (or had been in) a given location. Political groups are increasingly interested in the same information, and the current protests are proving a boon to liberal advocacy groups and voter-registration groups, which one user called “deeply spooky yet extremely helpful" in a recent Wall Street Journal article. However, the use of this "harvested" geofencing data raises important issues about privacy, surveillance, and informed consent. For more, see www.wsj.com/articles/how-political-groups-are-harvesting-data-from-protesters-11592156142
The South China Sea remains a geopolitical hotspot with, just this week, Vietnam claiming Chinese ships seized a Vietnamese fishing boat and its cargo near the Paracel Islands and the U.S. sending three aircraft carriers to the region. This article looks at the sand dredging operations that undergird China's massive island-building project to bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea, among other things. "In recent years, China has assembled an armada of oceangoing dredges. Some it buys from Japan, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Increasingly, though, China manufactures them itself. China’s homemade dredges are not yet the world’s largest, nor are they any more technologically advanced than those of other countries, but it is building many more of them than any other country. In the past decade, Chinese firms have built some 200 vessels of ever greater size and sophistication. ... In 2015 alone, China created the equivalent of nearly two Manhattans of new real estate. In recent years, it constructed two artificial islands to support a 34-mile-long bridge that connects Hong Kong with Macao and the Chinese mainland; it opened in October 2018 and is the world’s longest sea crossing. Much of that work was carried out by state-owned CCCC Dredging, the world’s largest dredging firm. By way of comparison: In 2017, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, America’s biggest, took in an estimated $600 million from dredging operations. CCCC Dredging booked $7 billion. ... CCCC Dredging has begun taking on projects overseas, and it now operates in dozens of countries. It has a particular focus on places targeted for Chinese-led port development as part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. ... It may be too late for other nations to do much about China’s artificial-land grab. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress in April  that 'China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.' ... Today, geopolitical power goes not only to those who control territory but to those who can manufacture it." www.technologyreview.com/2018/12/19/103629/aboard-the-giant-sand-sucking-ships-that-china-uses-to-reshape-the-world/
The COVID Tracking Project is now including data broken out by race/ethnicity. An analysis of the data reveals that in the District of Columbia and the 24 states shown in red on this map, African Americans account for *at least 50% more* COVID-19 deaths than would be proportionate based on the state's African American population. (For instance, in Ohio, African Americans are 12% of the population but 18% of the state's COVID-19 deaths.) The two states with the highest disparity are Kansas and Wisconsin, where African Americans account for just 6% of the population in both states but at least 25% of the COVID-19 deaths in both states. South Dakota and Utah are not shown on this map because they do not report deaths by race, but caseloads in both states, which are reported by race, suggest similarly disproportionate impact on African Americans. (To see the data, visit https://covidtracking.com/race/dashboard.)
Can we see the world objectively? Or does what we see depend on our individual vantage points? It is a metaphoric question at the center of current events, be it race relations, political conspiracy theories, or evaluation of scientific information. But it is also a literal question that philosophers have pondered for centuries. We now have a preliminary answer. In the first of a planned series of joint philosophy-neuroscience projects, researchers at Johns Hopkins have confirmed that we have a very hard time distinguishing objective fact from what we think we should be seeing. "When humans see things, the brain identifies them by combining raw visual information with ingrained assumptions and knowledge about the world. For example, if you take a circular coin and tilt it away from you, light from the coin hits your eyes in the shape of an oval or ellipse; but your brain then goes beyond that information and makes you "see" a circle in the real world. ... Over the course of nine experiments, subjects were shown pairs of three-dimensional coins. One was always a true oval, the other was a circle. Subjects had to pick the true oval. Seems easy, yet when presented with tilted circular coins, subjects were flummoxed and their response time slowed significantly. This persisted whether the coins were still or moving; with different shapes; and whether the coins were shown on a computer screen or displayed right in front of subjects."
As we head into the summer, tourism remains at a trickle. This geo-graphic from Foreign Policy looks at how important tourism, both foreign and domestic, is to the world's 20 largest economies. (It is useful to keep in mind that there are other countries, not among the world's largest economies, such as Iceland, Jamaica, and the Seychelles, that derive a significantly larger proportion of their GDP from travel and tourism. Seventy-five percent of the Maldives' GDP, for example, depends on tourism.) foreignpolicy.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Travel-and-Tourism-Graphic.png
U.S. students between the ages of 13 and 22 are invited to respond to the question, "If racial oppression is a kind of disease, what are some of your recommendations for remedies and how they can be applied?" Entries should be written as a blog post of 500-800 words. All submissions are due by June 19. Top prize is $2,000. https://fdfi.org/blog/
This map from Foreign Policy shows where national or regional elections have already been postponed (yellow) or rescheduled (blue) due to the coronavirus pandemic. (For details, check out the article itself: foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/22/coronavirus-elections-postponed-rescheduled-covid-vote)
With COVID-19 keeping most of the world off-balance and Hong Kong's protesters at home and demoralized, China is asserting greater control over Hong Kong. Under a new security law likely to take effect in September, activist groups may be banned in Hong Kong, the mainland's security services could operate openly in the former British colony, and long jail sentences could be imposed for "national security violations." The U.S., UK and other countries have threatened action against China, but many China-watchers expect China to call the world's bluff. "[W]hen it comes to the global economy, the Communist Party is wagering that the world needs China, with or without Hong Kong. The response of the business community has been muted so far. Even if it protested, business has always come back to China, whether in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. 'There will be some unhappy people for some time,' said John L. Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs who has longstanding ties with China’s leadership. 'But the drum rolls, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. That’s the political judgment. They [Chinese leaders] have had a fair amount of empirical evidence that the concerns will disappear.'" www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/business/china-hong-kong-damage.html
If you've ever looked at a map of Minnesota, you may have noticed the "bump" at the top, just west of center. If you look more carefully, you will notice that the land part of that bump is actually detached from the rest of the state. That bit of land is known as the Northwest Angle. It is the northernmost point in the lower 48 states and effectively an exclave of the U.S. The 120 or so permanent residents make most of their money providing services for recreational fishermen. June is normally their busiest month, but with the U.S-Canada border still closed because of COVID-19, business is slow. At present, Americans can only access the Northwest Angle via boat across the large and sometimes temperamental Lake of the Woods. www.nationsonline.org/maps/USA/Minnesota_map.jpg
This geo-graphic from The Wall Street Journal shows the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on commute times in a sampling of major U.S. metro areas. (from www.wsj.com/articles/drivers-take-advantage-of-low-gas-prices-as-states-reopen-11591003803)
If major events in our lives are shaped by luck, are we still agents, moral and otherwise, if what we do is not fully in our control? This piece from the online journal Aeon looks at how luck does, and does not, change our thoughts on agency.
"For better or for worse, luck can sweep in from nowhere and alter our lives. You might cross the road and get hit by a car, or you might end up bumping into someone who turns out to be the love of your life. One natural way of thinking about luck is that it happens to us. Things – unexpected and uncontrolled things – happen to us. ... The problem with luck isn’t just that it can affect what we do in minor or unimportant ways (though it does this, too); the problem is that it can also affect our actions in life-altering ways. We can imagine the driver [of the truck that hits a child through no fault of the driver's] feeling a deep and miserable regret that ruins the rest of his life. And it seems that he is rational: he feels terrible because what he did, through no fault of his own, was awful. It is thus deeply unsettling to realise how much luck can affect what we do. But should we be unsettled?
"An alternative position could hold that what we do – or what matters in what we do – just is what we control, and the rest is simply stuff that happens in the world. ... [But if] we think that our impact on the world is an important part of agency, it seems that we must accept that we can act on the world even though the impact we make is partly out of our control. We must accept that what we do depends on luck. As [British philosopher Bernard] Williams put it: ‘One’s history as an agent is a web in which anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not …’ ... Reflection on luck need not urge us to retreat to the secure but restricted domain of what we fully control; it can reaffirm our potency as agents and encourage our ambition. We can make a mark on the world and sometimes that mark can be a spectacular one. From a work of art to a strike on the football pitch, from the things we write to the meals we make, these things don’t just happen: we have to seek them out and use our skills to bring them about. And they are our actions – marks we make on the world as agents. Without accepting that we might fail, that we might end up regretting what we have done, we wouldn’t be able to achieve any of these things. There is something richer and more uplifting in recognising this, rather than living our lives in the secure but impotent realm where trying is all that matters."
According to U.S. Census data, more than 20% of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home. Over the last decade, the fastest-growing major language in the U.S. has been Telugu, a language native to the region of southern India shown in red on this map (which corresponds to the Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh). The major Telugu-speaking city of Hyderabad is one of India's major technology hubs, and the region sends thousands of engineers and other STEM professionals to work and study in the U.S. every year. (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, for example, grew up speaking Telugu in Hyderabad.)
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