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Weekend Edition

Friday, July 23rd, 2021

From apes we came …

Friday, July 23rd, 2021

by B. R. GOWANI

IMAGE/Pasttime/Duck Duck Go

the Universe has always been a great enigma for humans

similarly, they have been mystified by birth, life, death

gradual evolution led hominins to separate from other apes

including bonobos and chimpanzees, who are closest to humans

both share 98.7% of their DNA with human beings

bonobos, humans, and chimpanzees

have amazing similarities yet are different too

much later, after millions of years,

invention of agriculture, tools, etc. provided humans a settled life

which led to the growth of civilizations in various parts of the world

religions, in primitive stage of development, received a boost

religious leaders became ambitious; rituals turned more complex

life and death was credited to God (or gods and goddesses)

Hebrew (Jewish) Bible on death:

“Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.

“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”

Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 3:19 & 3:20, New International Version

Muslim scripture Quran on death:

“Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.”

Qur’an Al-Baqarah ( The Cow )2:156

Arabic verse in Roman script:

inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un(1)

hundreds of years ago, it was fine to believe such things

that Homo sapiens came from dust and returned to dust or Allah

because technology was not that advanced then

besides, countering such beliefs was difficult and also risky

due to fanatical mindsets and aversion to alternate ideas

religious zealotry is still part of our society and world

but scientific discoveries and being having an open mind

have enabled alternate theories …

now we can deduce from scientific knowledge:

that non-existent God, gods, and goddesses have no hand in creation

we should now change the concept of

belonging or returning to God and

from dust to dust to:

“From apes we came, and to insects we return.”

Wriggling maggots generate an enormous amount of heat within the body $PHOTO/Science Photo Library/BBC

Note:

(1) In some religions, the dead are cremated or are left for vultures as food. Zoroastrians/Parsis believe the human corpse defiles earth/fire/air/water. For them, all four elements are sacred and thus to be respected. They leave their dead at a Tower of Silence or Dakhma where vultures feed on them.

The Tibetan Buddhists and people in inner Mongolia, some regions of China, Bhutan, etc. practice Sky Burial i.e., leaving the dead on mountaintops as food for vultures.

The Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and many others cremate their deceased.

Then there are other forms of burial such as burial at sea and cryopreservation. Underground burial is only one form of disposing the dead.

B. R. Gowani can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

Did Homo erectus speak?

Friday, July 23rd, 2021

by DANIEL EVERETT

Peking Man Skull (replica) presented at Paleozoological Museum of China IMAGE/Wikipedia

Early hominins who sailed across oceans left indirect evidence that they might have been the first to use language

What is the greatest human technological innovation? Fire? The wheel? Penicillin? Clothes? Google? None of these come close. As you read this, you are using the winning technology. The greatest tool in the world is language. Without it there would be no culture, no literature, no science, no history, no commercial enterprise or industry. The genus Homo rules the Earth because it possesses language. But how and when did we build this kingdom of speech? And who is ‘we’? After all, Homo sapiens is just one of several species of humans that have walked the Earth. Does ‘we’ refer to our genus, Homo, or to our species, sapiens?

To discover the answers to these questions, we need to travel back in time at least 1.9 million years ago to the birth of Homo erectus, as they emerged from the ancient process of primate evolution. Erectus had nearly double the brain size of any previous hominin, walked habitually upright, were superb hunters, travelled the world, and sailed to ocean islands. And somewhere along the way they got language. Yes, erectus. Not Neanderthals. Not sapiens. And if erectus invented language, this means that Neanderthals, born more than a million years later, entered a world already linguistic.

Likewise, our species would have emerged into a world that already had language. In spite of the fact that many paleoanthropologists view erectus as little more than a skinny gorilla, of few accomplishments, far too stupid to have language, and lacking a vocal apparatus capable of intelligible speech, the evidence seems overwhelming that they had language. Erectus needed language. They were capable of language. And, though often denied in evolutionary studies, the ‘leap’ to language was little more than a long series of baby steps, requiring no mutations, nor any complex grammar. In fact, the language of erectus would have been every bit as much a ‘real language’ as any modern language.

Erectus was an imposing creature. Males stood between 173 cm and 180 cm. Their immediate ancestors, the Australopithecine males, were only about 137 cm tall (their immediate ancestors might have been Homo habilis, but only if we accept that habilis were not Australopithecines, or that they were a separate species from Homo erectus, neither of which is clear). The brains of these early humans averaged around 950 cubic centimetres in volume, double the size of the Australopithecines, though smaller than those of male Neanderthals (1,450 ccs) and sapiens (1,250-1,300 ccs), but still within the range of modern sapiens females. The vocal apparatus of erectus might not have been much more advanced than that of a modern gorilla or it might have been more similar to ours. But whether their speech sounded different than ours or not, it was nevertheless adequate for language.

Evidence that erectus had language comes from their settlements, their art, their symbols, their sailing ability and their tools. Erectus settlements are found throughout most of the old world. And, most importantly for the idea that erectus had language, open oceans were not barriers to their travel.

Aeon for more

Notes on violence

Friday, July 23rd, 2021

by JUSTIN E. H. SMITH

In her influential 1971 article, “A Defense of Abortion”,[1] the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson deploys a number of outlandish thought experiments. Among them is the story of a woman much like herself who gets kidnapped and, on awakening, finds she is attached by complicated life-support apparatuses to a great violinist. Her kidnappers explain when she awakens that she happens to be just so physiologically constituted as to be necessary for the violinist’s survival, and surely she agrees it is important to keep this rare musician alive, does she not? If she gets up and walks away, he will die; if she stays attached to him for nine months, they will both live. But, they acknowledge, she is of course free to go.

This particular scenario is one that Thomson only invokes in the course of making another point about another category of human beings than frail adult violinists, and yet it is a passing remark about his dependency on her that has preoccupied me the longest and most profoundly: we all agree, she reasons, that the person attached to the violinist is free to get up and leave, but she is not free to slit the violinist’s throat before going. Why not? The effect is the same in both cases —the violinist dies—  and indeed a case could be made that killing him swiftly is more merciful than letting him die slowly.

Slitting the other’s throat, or walking away: these two gestures might stand as exempla for the two most basic categories of violence. We all know what the first kind is, while the latter cries out for a listing of instances. Within “walking away”, we might include what is today often called “structural violence”: state policies that compel citizens and refugees  to sleep in the freezing streets, for example, and surely also my own habitual refusal to bring those people into my own warm home for the night, instead remaining hidden behind the literal structures of my apartment building’s walls. Most of us agree that “living high and letting die”, to cite the title of an important book by the moral philosopher Peter Unger,[2] is unjust, but that if it is to count as violence this is only in an attenuated sense. We might have to concede by force of reason that it is indeed violence, even if we continue to suppose by force of feeling that throat-slitting remains much more paradigmatically so.

But there is also a possible third species of violence, of increasing interest over the past decade or so, and difficult to place neatly within either of the first two. This is the violence that is purportedly done by words, or even, sometimes, by the withholding of words. “White Silence Is Violence”, for example, has been one of the more enduring slogans of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. Affirming standard dictionary definitions can also be met with an accusation of violence, as when gender-critical feminists (to use the relevant actors’ category) venture that “A woman is an adult human female”, and are told in response that this amounts to a “denial of trans people’s existence”, and is, therefore, violence.

Justin E H Smith for more

Do millennials really prefer to rent – or have we just been cheated out of a proper home?

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

by ARWA MAHDAWI

An aerial view of buildings in Washington DC – in the US housing market, demand massively outstrips supply. PHOTO/Bloomberg Creative/Getty Images

Capitalism is reshaping the property market, locking younger generations out of buying somewhere to live and expecting us to be happy about it

The year is 2070. Nobody owns a home any more; the concept of individuals possessing property has gone the way of the floppy disk. Instead, a few large corporations control all the world’s real estate and people “subscribe” to holistic housing solutions on their iPhone 78X in the same way they currently subscribe to Netflix. You can pay your monthly subscription in billionaire-backed cryptocurrency: BezosCoin, MuskCoin or ZuckCoin. If you default on your housing sub (nobody uses old-fashioned terms such as “rent” any more) you are dispatched to Mars to pay off your debt via indentured servitude in intergalactic Amazon warehouses.

I’m not saying that’s exactly how things are going to be in 50 years (the warehouses may well be on Jupiter), but, without major policy changes, it looks depressingly as though that’s the way the housing market is headed. That is thanks to a number of interconnected trends – the first of which is the proliferation of the corporate landlord. Ever since the last financial crisis, institutional investors such as private equity companies have been scooping up homes lost to foreclosure and reconfiguring the US housing market. A New York Times piece on the “$60bn housing grab by Wall Street” published last March noted that, before 2010, “institutional landlords didn’t exist in the single-family-rental market; now there are 25 to 30 of them”. The pandemic seems to have accelerated this corporate land grab. “If you sell a house these days, the buyer might be a pension fund,” the Wall Street Journal reported a couple of months ago. “Yield-chasing investors are snapping up single-family homes, competing with ordinary Americans and driving up prices.” The piece quoted a real-estate consultant who estimated that “roughly one in every five houses sold is bought by someone who never moves in”.

That Wall Street Journal article, I should note, didn’t get much traction when it first came out. However, it gained widespread attention last week after being mentioned in a viral Twitter thread accusing Blackrock and other investment firms of driving up house prices, which would mean that young families would not be able to build wealth. The housing market, as anyone who has looked at it recently knows, is absolutely bonkers. Globally, house prices are rising at their fastest rate since 2006, according to the Knight Frank global house price index. The US market, where demand massively outstrips supply, is so frenzied that one would-be purchaser reportedly offered to name their first-born child after the seller. They didn’t get the house. There are numerous reasons behind the massive rise in house prices – and everyone is looking for a convenient scapegoat. Blaming it entirely on Blackrock et al snapping up family homes, while tempting, is somewhat misguided. Rather, it is untrammelled capitalism that is to blame. But whoever’s fault it is, the consequence is the same: an increasing number of people, mostly young people, will be for ever locked out of homeownership.

Untrammelled capitalism isn’t just reshaping the housing market; more insidiously, it’s trying to rethink how we think about housing. I’d love to pretend that subscription-based housing was just a silly joke; alas, it’s a genuine business model a number of companies are working on – a natural evolution of the broader “sharing economy”. Perhaps the most pernicious thing about late-stage capitalism is the way in which it tries to convince us that not owning anything, not having any long-term security, is somehow liberating. Gig economy startups have helped erode labour laws while trying to persuade us that being a contractor with zero benefits, rather than an employee, is awesome. It means having flexibility! It means being your own boss! You might end up poor, but you’ll be following your passion! The same sort of lies are now being pushed on to us about housing. If I had a penny for every article that said “millennials prefer to rent” or “millennials don’t like owning anything”, I’d probably have a million dollars. Which would mean I might be able to buy a two-bedroom apartment one day. Unless, of course, Blackrock got there first.

The Guardian for more

The US dollar’s hegemony is looking fragile

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

by KENNETH ROGOFF

The mighty US dollar continues to reign supreme in global markets. But the greenback’s dominance may well be more fragile than it appears, because expected future changes in China’s exchange-rate regime are likely to trigger a significant shift in the international monetary order.

For many reasons, the Chinese authorities will probably someday stop pegging the renminbi to a basket of currencies, and shift to a modern inflation-targeting regime under which they allow the exchange rate to fluctuate much more freely, especially against the dollar. When that happens, expect most of Asia to follow China. In due time, the dollar, currently the anchor currency for roughly two-thirds of world GDP, could lose nearly half its weight.

Considering how much the United States relies on the dollar’s special status – or what then-French Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing famously called America’s “exorbitant privilege” – to fund massive public and private borrowing, the impact of such a shift could be significant. Given that the US has been aggressively using deficit financing to combat the economic ravages of COVID-19, the sustainability of its debt might be called into question.

The long-standing argument for a more flexible Chinese currency is that China is simply too big to let its economy dance to the US Federal Reserve’s tune, even if Chinese capital controls provide some measure of insulation. China’s GDP (measured at international prices) surpassed that of the US back in 2014 and is still growing far faster than the US and Europe, making the case for greater exchange-rate flexibility increasingly compelling.

A more recent argument is that the dollar’s centrality gives the US government too much access to global transactions information. This is also a major concern in Europe. In principle, dollar transactions could be cleared anywhere in the world, but US banks and clearing houses have a significant natural advantage, because they can be implicitly (or explicitly) backed by the Fed, which has unlimited capacity to issue currency in a crisis. In comparison, any dollar clearing house outside the US will always be more subject to crises of confidence – a problem with which even the eurozone has struggled.

Moreover, former US President Donald Trump’s policies to check China’s trade dominance are not going away anytime soon. This is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans broadly agree, and there is little question that trade deglobalization undermines the dollar.

Chinese policymakers face many obstacles in trying to break away from the current renminbi peg. But, in characteristic style, they have slowly been laying the groundwork on many fronts. China has been gradually allowing foreign institutional investors to buy renminbi bonds, and in 2016, the International Monetary Fund added the renminbi to the basket of major currencies that determines the value of Special Drawing Rights (the IMF’s global reserve asset).

Black Agenda Report for more

Bill, Melinda, and the burden of grand fortune

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

by SAM PIZZIGATI

Bill Gates and Melinda French PHOTO/Duck Duck Go

We can’t buy happiness, but greater equality could make it more likely.

Old adages can often come across as trite. But a trite old adage, we always need to remember, can also speak truth. Consider, for instance, the time-worn maxim that immediately comes to mind whenever we see the awesomely affluent stumble in their personal lives. Just another reminder, we tell ourselves, that “money can’t buy happiness.”

Earlier this week, Billionaire America’s most celebrated couple, Bill and Melinda Gates, stumbled. The pair announced Monday they’re divorcing after 27 years together. Money, apparently, still can’t buy everything that really matters.

Even money by the billions upon billions. The three richest individuals in the world — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk — have now all turned out to be divorced men. Musk leads that parade. He’s already divorced a life-partner three times.

What’s going on here? Does this week’s latest billionaire break-up have something profound to tell us? Let’s dig a bit. And where might we start? How about here: No one — at least no one who claims to be leading a rational life — pursues wealth simply to become wealthier.

Reasonable people and societies treat wealth as simply a means to an end. Greater wealth, we believe, can improve our lot in life, help us become, in a word, happier. But ever more wealth, we also understand, doesn’t ensure us ever more happiness.

“Many very rich men are unhappy,” as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus intoned, “and many in moderate circumstances are fortunate.”

“It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness,” quipped Frank McKinney Hubbard, the early 20th-century Indiana humorist, over two millennia later, “poverty and wealth have both failed.”

Few of us today would quibble with either Herodotus or Hubbard. We generally look askance at people who turn their lives into single-minded races after riches. So do most social scientists who’ve done research into what makes us happy. Their work suggests a possible social formula for happiness: If most people in a society can sit back, think about their personal situation and conclude they’re doing better than they used to be doing and about as well as most everyone else, you have the makings of a generally happy society.

The world’s wealthiest nation, the United States, doesn’t come close to fitting this profile. Average Americans today are not contentedly contemplating how nicely their personal fortunes have improved. They’re struggling to get by, to catch up to where they expected to be, and watching while other people — incredibly wealthy people — seem to be leading ever more luxurious and comfortable lives.

And what about those incredibly wealthy people? Most of us have learned not to take their luxury and comfort at face value. Every week, we thumb through the magazines at supermarket checkout counters and read about how wretchedly unhappy the personal lives of rich people can sometimes be. Even storybook couples — like Bill and Melinda Gates — can split. Their wealth cannot fix what ails them.

“Money brings some happiness,” as the playwright Neil Simon once put it. “But after a certain point it just brings more money.”

Inequality for more

Scientific American retracted pro-Palestine article without any factual errors

Wednesday, July 21st, 2021

by MURTAZA HUSSAIN

A Palestinian child, wounded by Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, receives treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital on May 19, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. PHOTO/Fatima Shbair/Getty Images

After right-wing outrage, the esteemed journal removed an opinion piece expressing solidarity with Palestinians under Israeli bombardment.

Sabreen Akhter felt an urge to help in whatever way she could. Like many people around the world this May, Akhter was following news of war in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli bombardment was exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in the territory. Scanning her social media feed, Akhter, a doctor from Chicago, made contact with a few other health care professionals across the United States who had also been posting news online about the crisis.

Akhter set up a call to discuss what they could do, on behalf of their profession, for Palestinians. They settled on the idea of writing an article together as a group of medical workers concerned about the medical situation in Gaza and pitching it to Scientific American, where Akhter had published in the opinion section in the past.

“We didn’t know each other previously but had all been watching all of this violence and devastation happening in Palestine and were feeling helpless about it,” said Akhter. “I remembered that there had been an article published in The Lancet in 2014 about health care workers speaking up for Palestine. I thought it was really powerful at the time and remembered that a lot of people in the health care field had responded to it when it was published.”

On June 2, following an extensive editing and fact-checking process with the publication, the article ran in Scientific American under the headline “As Health Care Workers, We Stand in Solidarity with Palestine.”

Less than two weeks later, on June 11, the article was removed from Scientific American’s website without warning. A short editor’s note appeared in its place. “This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed,” the note said. That same day, an editor from the publication emailed Akhter and the others, informing them of the retraction and apologizing for any “confusion” caused by the initial decision to publish the article.

“We were shocked, completely shocked. We all got on a call together and talked about it,” Akhter said. “We sent an email back to the editor later stating that we were disappointed and asking to clarify what they meant that the article had fallen ‘outside the scope,’ but we never got a response.”

Intercept for more

Early signs of dementia can be detected by tracking driving behaviors

Wednesday, July 21st, 2021

by RICH HARIDY


Researchers have developed models that could predict mild cognitive impairment and dementia with 88 percent accuracy PHOTO/lucidwaters/Depositphotos

A fascinating new study from a team of US researchers has used machine learning techniques to develop algorithms that can analyze naturalistic driving data and detect mild cognitive impairment and dementia in a driver. The work is still in the preliminary stages, however, the researchers claim it could be possible in the future to detect early signs of dementia using either a smartphone app or devices incorporated into car software systems.

The influence of dementia on driving behavior is a reasonably well-studied topic. It is certainly unsurprising to observe driving behaviors change as neurodegeneration leads to cognitive decline. However, this new research set out to explore whether machine learning techniques could be used to identify patterns in driving data that can then detect either mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia.

The research utilized data from a novel long-term study called LongROAD (The Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers), which tracked nearly 3,000 older drivers for up to four years, offering a large longitudinal dataset.

Over the course of the LongROAD study, 33 subjects were diagnosed with MCI and 31 with dementia. A series of machine learning models were trained on the LongROAD data, tasked with detecting MCI and dementia from driving behaviors.

NewAtlas for more

Inspiring architecture projects built on sustainable design

Wednesday, July 21st, 2021

by ADAM WILLIAMS

Powerhouse Brattørkaia, by Snøhetta, is one of our picks of five inspiring examples of sustainable design for Earth Day 2021PHOTO/Ivar Kvaal

April 22nd is Earth Day, an annual event that promotes environmental awareness throughout the world. To mark the occasion we’ve chosen five inspiring architecture projects that we feel are excellent examples of sustainable design.

We’ve picked a selection of recently completed projects that we think are genuinely sustainable here – so we’re not including supertall skyscrapers, for example, even if they do produce a lot of energy through solar power, because they require a huge amount of concrete and steel to produce, which in turn produces massive amounts of CO2.

Concentrating on finished builds only also means that we’ve not been drawn in by ambitious concept ideas from the likes of Hayri Atak Architectural Design Studio, or projects that are still to be completed like the stunning Tao Zhu Yin Yuan twisting tower from Vincent Callebaut.

We’ve also tried to steer away from the really high-profile projects like, say, BIG’s CopenHill and Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg HQ. So we’ve attempted to shine a light on the builds that might get a little less attention, relatively speaking.

Without further ado then, here’s our choice of five inspiring examples of sustainable design.

NewAtlas for more