Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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February 2018

First glimpses of the cosmic dawn

Marina Koren reports: Near the beginning, not long after the Big Bang, the universe was a cold and dark place swirling with invisible gas, mostly hydrogen and helium. Over millions of years, gravity pulled some of this primordial gas into pockets. The pockets eventually became so dense they collapsed under their own weight and ignited, flooding the darkness with ultraviolet radiation. These were the very first stars in the universe,

Conservation efforts are failing to address the importance of preserving intact forests

Morgan Erickson-Davis reports: When it comes to habitat quality and ecosystem services, research has shown that natural landscapes do it best. A new study, published recently in Nature, adds fodder to this argument, describing how intact forests are critically important for mitigating climate change, maintaining water supplies, safeguarding biodiversity, and even protecting human health. However, it warns that global policies aimed at reducing deforestation are not putting enough emphasis on

Glacial melting isn’t someone else’s problem

By Dana J. Graef High in the Ecuadorian Andes, the peak of Cotacachi was once reliably white. But by the early 2000s, the glacier on top of this dormant volcano, which reaches more than 16,200 feet, had disappeared. This made it—as anthropologist Robert E. Rhoades and his co-authors Xavier Zapata Ríos and Jenny Aragundy Ochoa wrote in the 2008 book Darkening Peaks—one of “the first Andean mountains in the past

Pentagon examines plans for a war against North Korea — ‘the brutality of this will be beyond the experience of any living soldier’

“A classified military exercise last week examined how American troops would mobilize and strike if ordered into a potential war on the Korean Peninsula,” reports the New York Times: A war with North Korea, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said, would be “catastrophic.” He and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued forcefully for using diplomacy to address Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Commanders

Advice for Trump from ancient China

The Huainanzi, a collection of essays of Western Han philosophy and statecraft written over 2,100 years ago, states: If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will

Facebook provided the perfect advertising platform for Trump

Alexis C. Madrigal writes: Here is the central tenet of Facebook’s business: If lots of people click on, comment on, or share an ad, Facebook charges that advertiser less money to reach people. The platform is a brawl for user attention, and Facebook sees a more engaging ad as a better ad, which should be shown to more users. This has been true for years. No one inside or outside

Predictive policing system made by Palantir has been secretly tested in New Orleans

Ali Winston reports: In May and June 2013, when New Orleans’ murder rate was the sixth-highest in the United States, the Orleans Parish district attorney handed down two landmark racketeering indictments against dozens of men accused of membership in two violent Central City drug trafficking gangs, 3NG and the 110ers. Members of both gangs stood accused of committing 25 murders as well as several attempted killings and armed robberies. Subsequent

China deploys big data analysis to enable ‘predictive policing’

Human Rights Watch reports: Chinese authorities are building and deploying a predictive policing program based on big data analysis in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said today. The program aggregates data about people – often without their knowledge – and flags those it deems potentially threatening to officials. According to interviewees, some of those targeted are detained and sent to extralegal “political education centers” where they are held indefinitely without charge

One-man rule in a one-party state

Kerry Brown writes: For all the West’s unease about a one-party state having such dominance at the moment, because of the stability it gives over such a crucial region, the Communist Party’s total control of China is something Western leaders buy into and support. Their mouths might say one thing, to appease critical constituencies back home. But their heads know that a China following the path of Russia after the

As China reduces its domestic reliance on coal, it’s building hundreds of coal-fired power plants overseas

The New York Times reports: Across a narrow channel from this historic port town, where baobabs tower over the forest and tiny crabs skitter in and out of the mangroves, Kenya could soon get its first coal-fired power plant, courtesy of China. The plan’s champions, including senior Kenyan officials, say the plant will help meet the country’s fast-growing demand for electricity and draw investment. Its critics worry that it will

Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism

By Tim Rogan, Aeon Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic

It’s time for young Americans to assert their power at the ballot box

David Leonhardt writes: Voter turnout is the biggest opportunity — and biggest challenge — for the new progressive movement. The problem is easy enough to describe: Progressives don’t vote as often as conservatives do. Americans under age 30, for example, lean notably left. They are socially liberal, worried about climate change and in favor of higher taxes on the rich. But most of them don’t vote, especially outside of presidential

Algorithms of oppression

MIT Technology Review reports: The internet might seem like a level playing field, but it isn’t. Safiya Umoja Noble came face to face with that fact one day when she used Google’s search engine to look for subjects her nieces might find interesting. She entered the term “black girls” and came back with pages dominated by pornography. Noble was horrified but not surprised. The UCLA communications professor has been arguing

Warren Buffett loves Apple because of consumer addiction to the iPhone

Quartz reports: Warren Buffett told CNBC that Berkshire Hathaway has purchased more shares of Apple than any other stock over the past year. It reflects the famed investor’s belief in Apple’s value as a consumer brand, not unlike Coca-Cola, Berkshire’s fourth-largest US stock holding. (Apple is now the second largest.) Buffett’s take on Apple is striking because it’s seemingly not rooted directly in a view of Apple’s technology, manufacturing, or

The white men seemed like lightning from heaven but their shit smelled just like ours

  Sean Flynn writes: Long after missionaries and Europeans settled on the coast of New Guinea in the 19th century, the mountainous interior remained unexplored. As recently as the 1920s, outsiders believed the mountains, which run the length of the island from east to west, were too steep and rugged for anyone to live there. But when gold was discovered 40 miles inland, prospectors went north across the Coral Sea

The first peoples in the Americas were not from Europe

Jennifer Raff writes: Last month’s release of The Ice Bridge, an episode in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series The Nature of Things has once again revived public discussion of a controversial idea about how the Americas were peopled known as the “Solutrean hypothesis”. This idea suggests a European origin for the peoples who made the Clovis tools, the first recognized stone tool tradition in the Americas. As I was one