Lab one step closer to understanding how life started on Earth

May 13th, 2021

Simon Fraser University

IMAGE/Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

How did life begin on Earth and could it exist elsewhere? Researchers at Simon Fraser University have isolated a genetic clue—an enzyme known as an RNA polymerase—that provides new insights about the origins of life. The research is published today in the journal Science.

Researchers in SFU molecular biology and biochemistry professor Peter Unrau’s laboratory are working to advance the RNA World Hypothesis in answer to fundamental questions on life’s beginnings.

The hypothesis suggests that life on our planet began with self-replicating ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules, capable of not only carrying genetic information but also driving chemical reactions essential for life, prior to the evolution of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and proteins, which now perform both functions within our cells.

Through a process of in vitro evolution in the lab, the team has isolated a promoter-based RNA polymerase ribozyme—an enzyme capable of synthesizing RNA using RNA as a template—that has processive clamping abilities that are equivalent to modern-day protein polymerases.

“This RNA polymerase has many of the features of modern protein polymerases; it was evolved to recognize an RNA promoter, and subsequently, to copy RNA processively,” says Unrau. “What our finding implies is that similar RNA enzymes early in the evolution of life could also have manifested such sophisticated biological features.”

Phys for more

Facebook is bombarding rightwing users with ads for combat gear. See for yourself

May 13th, 2021


A rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League near the state capitol in Richmond on 20 January. PHOTO/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On 16 January, Facebook announced that it will be “banning ads that promote weapon accessories and protective equipment in the US at least through January 22”. To those of us who have been observing the world of Trump-supporting social media, this announcement is a manipulative piece of whitewashing that obscures how Facebook’s algorithms continue to divide people the world over.

As part of my research while working as a consulting producer on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, I made many pro-Trump social media accounts. The accounts were a window into the Trump echo-chamber, where the unhinged threats and vitriol posted by radicalized users are chilling. Yet as shocking as the posts can be, they make perfect sense if you look at the ads that bombard those accounts.

Roughly four out of five ads shown to my pro-Trump profiles sell tactical gear clearly intended for combat. This is not a new thing – it has been going on since I started looking at these accounts in June 2019, and it was probably going on much longer than that.

Although Facebook policy does not allow the direct advertisement of guns and bombs, accessories have generally been fair game. Tactical backpacks with integrated back scabbards that can hold weapons up to 25in long. Rapid clip loaders. Night vision sights. Shoulder holsters. Body armor.

Despite not actually selling guns, the vast majority of the ads nevertheless display military-style weapons somewhere in their design. An automatic rifle slides into the tactical backpack. The body armor is worn by someone actively poised to shoot a semi-automatic weapon. A black T-shirt presents an image of a medieval crusader in full armor holding a contemporary handgun, accompanied by a biblical quote: “Blessed be the lord my rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.”

My pro-Trump feeds are personalized e-commerce sites for Capitol invaders. The rare ads that do not sell tactical gear and accessories for armed combat pitch survival and security products, from enhanced door locks to backup generators. But the fact that you can buy stuff by clicking the links doesn’t even matter. What matters is what being surrounded by those ads does to your mind.

The Guardian for more

New global alliance defends UN charter in clear rebuke of U.S. imperialism

May 13th, 2021


The United States has long positioned its imperial ambitions as the definition of international law and rejected entirely the spirit and authority of the U.N. Charter.

“Since the end of World War II, the United States and its allies have spearheaded an international regime of terror.” 

new alliance  called the “Groups of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations” has formed in a clear act of resistance to the unilateral and aggressive policies of the United States and its junior partners. Representatives of the alliance reside fully in the Global South. Nations spearheading the initiative include the DPRK, Iran, Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Bolivia, Cambodia, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines, Syria, Venezuela, and Palestine in addition to the largest of the developing countries, Russia and China. The alliance makes clear its firm opposition to coercive measures such as sanctions and the obliteration of historic agreements that emphasize multilateral cooperation. 

There is a clear material foundation for the formation of the new alliance. The United States has long positioned its imperial ambitions as the definition of international law and rejected entirely the spirit and authority of the U.N. Charter. Hostility toward the U.N. Charter has only worsened over time whether in maneuvers such as the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty  and the JPCOA  or the imposition of starvation sanctions  on Iran, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela.

“U.S. Hostility toward the U.N. Charter has only worsened over time.”

These examples only scratch the surface of U.S. criminality in the international realm. Since the end of World War II, the United States and its allies have spearheaded an international regime of terror  whose primary mission is to pacify the planet to the dictates of private capital and militarism. Whether in the form of the ongoing U.S. war of aggression on Korea or the CIA overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian government in 1953, no nation in the Global South has come out unscathed from the U.S. empire’s destructive quest for hegemony.

Black Agenda Report for more

Toxic agriculture and the Gates Foundation

May 12th, 2021


Chemical fertilizer plant, San Joaquin Valley. PHOTO/Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in 2000 and has $46.8 billion in assets (December 2018). It is the largest charitable foundation in the world and distributes more aid for global health than any government. One of the foundation’s stated goals is to globally enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty.

The Gates Foundation is a major funder of the CGIAR system (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) – a global partnership whose stated aim is to strive for a food-secured future. Its research is aimed at reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources.

In 2016, the Gates Foundation was accused of dangerously and unaccountably distorting the direction of international development. The charges were laid out in a report by Global Justice Now: ‘Gated Development – Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?‘ According to the report, the foundation’s strategy is based on deepening the role of multinational companies in the Global South.

On release of the report, Polly Jones, the head of campaigns and policy at Global Justice Now, said:

“The Gates Foundation has rapidly become the most influential actor in the world of global health and agricultural policies, but there’s no oversight or accountability in how that influence is managed.”

She added that this concentration of power and influence is even more problematic when you consider that the philanthropic vision of the Gates Foundation seems to be largely based on the values of ‘corporate America’:

“The foundation is relentlessly promoting big business-based initiatives such as industrial agriculture, private health care and education. But these are all potentially exacerbating the problems of poverty and lack of access to basic resources that the foundation is supposed to be alleviating.”

The report’s author, Mark Curtis, outlines the foundation’s promotion of industrial agriculture across Africa, which would undermine existing sustainable, small-scale farming that is providing the vast majority of food across the continent.

Counterpunch for more

A growing anomaly- postcards from the energy frontier

May 12th, 2021


The LHCb experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) today released an update of a measurement that many of us physicists have been keeping a close eye on for quite some time.

Konstantinos Petridis from the University of Bristol gave a presentation at CERN, more-or-less in parallel with a presentation at the Moriond meeting (which is sadly online-only this year, absent the usual ski-breaks) by Razvan-Daniel Moise of Imperial College London. There is also a preprint available on arXiv

The reason for “keeping an eye” is that the result could be the first sign of a new fundamental force, or particle. Something beyond our “Standard Model” of particle physics.

The experiment measures the decays of B-hadrons, particles containing bottom quarks. Quarks make up the protons and neutrons inside every atomic nucleus, but those are “up” and “down” quarks. The bottom quark is one of their cousins, and is much heavier.

This means B-hadrons need something like the collisions at the LHC to produce them (that’s the “b” in LHCb). It also means they are unstable, because the b-quark inside them will decay to less massive particles.

One type of particles that can be produced in these decays is a lepton. In this case, either an electron, or their heavier cousin, the muon. The Standard Model makes a very firm prediction that both these decays should be equally likely. The measurement shows that the decay to pairs of muons only happens about 85% as often as the decay to pairs of electrons.

Of course, the devil is in the uncertainties.

This discrepancy first appeared a few years ago, and LHCb have been taking and analysing more data since. With the latest tranche of data, the central value – the 85% – hardly moved, but the uncertainty shrank a bit, pushing the “significance” above the arbitrary-but-well-established “3 sigma” level at which we traditionally declare “evidence” for something funny going on. They have 3.1 sigma, in fact, which means that if the Standard Model is correct, you would expect an anomaly like this to happen about twice in 1000 experiments.

Cosmic Shambles for more

Sometimes Rosa Luxemburg was depressed too

May 12th, 2021


This is not Rosa Luxemburg. It is actress Barbara Sukowa playing Rosa Luxemburg in a 1986 film. There do not appear to be any historical photos of Mimi the cat, so we chose this one.

Rosa Luxemburg was known as a ball of energy — “like a candle burning at both ends.” But like every person, she also suffered moments of despair.

We just celebrated Rosa Luxemburg’s 150th birthday. She is remembered as one of the most astounding revolutionaries in the history of the proletariat’s struggle for emancipation.

She was a woman in a society that excluded women from political life; she was an immigrant in a deeply racist country; she was a Jew in an antisemitic world. Despite facing so much discrimination, she terrified the Czar, the Kaiser, and all the capitalists.

Her friend Clara Zetkin wrote about her: “The small, frail Rosa was the embodiment of unparalleled energy.”1 Luxemburg’s motto was that a person must be “like a candle burning at both ends.”

In a sense, it is very hard to identify with someone like this. I feel inspired by Luxemburg, but I seldom feel “unparalleled energy.” Quite the opposite: I often feel depressed and despondent. I think a lot of people in 2021 feel this way.

So in a way, it was heartwarming to read that Luxemburg also felt despair and sometimes wanted to quit her work as a revolutionary. The sacrifices and the stress, the endless meetings, and the exhausting fights can wear on anyone — Luxemburg spent many hours occupied with other hobbies like collecting plants.

In spring 1917, while trapped in prison for her opposition to the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg wrote to her dear friend Sophie Liebknecht:

Deep down, I feel much more at home in a small garden like this or in a field among bumblebees and grass than — at a party congress. I can tell you all this: You will not immediately sniff a betrayal of socialism. You know that I will nonetheless hopefully die at my post: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my birds than to my comrades.2

Having other passions that were dear to her heart did not make her any less of a revolutionary. And this makes her tragic end kind of sweet: she went out exactly how she had hoped to.

The revolution on November 9, 1918 liberated her from prison, and the last two months of her life were spent in a maelstrom of speeches, writing, editing, and hiding from counterrevolutionary violence. One of those nights, returning from the editorial offices of The Red Flag to her apartment in Berlin-Südende, Luxemburg expressed herself to her friend and secretary Mathilde Jacobs:

Can you tell me why I am always living in a state to which I do not have the slightest inclination? I want to paint and live on a patch of earth where I can feed animals and love them. I want to study natural sciences. Above all I want to live peacefully by myself, and not in this endless hustle.3

That is a person I can identify with! So, if we aspire to be like Luxemburg, we don’t need to always feel “unparalleled energy.” We don’t always have to enjoy our political work. We can also acknowledge feelings of hopelessness, and try to fight against them, like she did. It doesn’t hurt to take time to feed birds and collect plants every once in a while too, like Luxemburg did between her political commitments.

Left Voice for more

The Canada Infrastructure Bank is a subsidy scheme for big business

May 11th, 2021


Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, Ontario, on December 18, 2020. PHOTO/Lars Hagberg / AFP via Getty Images

Justin Trudeau’s government claims that the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) can solve Canada’s infrastructure problems. In reality, the CIB is a vehicle for private interests to get their hands on public assets and revenue streams. It should be excluded from coronavirus recovery plans.

The Trudeau government knows that North American infrastructure is in jeopardy: for years, engineers have been sounding the alarm. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals claim to have a solution for this problem: the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB).

Canada’s then–finance minister Bill Morneau announced the CIB’s creation in 2016. The bank uses public-private partnerships (called “P3s”) to fund Canadian infrastructure projects.

P3 contracts allow private operators to assume responsibility for providing services that the public sector previously supplied. The government then pays the contracted companies to cover their financing, operations, and maintenance, assuming the risk while they retain the profits.

The pandemic has created unprecedented fiscal challenges for Canada’s cities and regions, and there will be strong pressure on local governments to accept public-private deals that appear to plug the gap. In reality, those deals are a rip-off promoted by corporate players like BlackRock that have a vested interest.

BlackRock Connections

There’s an obvious alternative to the public-private model. Canada’s central bank has a mandate to provide low-cost loans to provinces and municipalities for infrastructure. The federal government can float long-term bonds at rates of 2 percent or less.

However, the Liberals decided not to make use of this cheaper option when they created the CIB, opting for P3s instead. This drives up the costs of projects and locks the government into long-term contracts with private-sector owner-operators who expect to receive a 7 to 9 percent return on their investment.

In order to get the bank up and running, Trudeau’s government recruited an unnamed banker — who agreed to work on a pro bono basis — from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. They helped design the CIB and advised the federal infrastructure minister, Amarjeet Sohi, on the project.

Jacobin for more

China aces Western hypocrisy

May 11th, 2021


There’s a new dawn evident: China is not putting up with what it sees as hypocritical Western interference in its sovereign affairs. Sanctions are being met with rapid counter-sanctions, and Chinese officials are vociferously pointing out Western double standards.

There was a time when the United States and its allies could browbeat others with condemnations. Not any more. China’s colossal global economic power and growing international influence has been a game-changer in the old Western practice of imperialist arrogance.

The shock came at the Alaska summit earlier this month between US top diplomat Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterparts. Blinken was expecting to lecture China over alleged human rights violations. Then Yang Jiechi, Beijing’s foreign policy chief, took Blinken to task over a range of past and current human rights issues afflicting the United States. Washington was left reeling from the lashes.

Western habits die hard though. Following the fiasco in Alaska, the United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials over provocative allegations of genocide against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Australia and New Zealand, which are part of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence network, also supported the raft of sanctions.

Again China caused shock when it quickly hit back with its own counter-sanctions against each of these Western states. The Americans and their allies were aghast that anyone would have the temerity to stand up to them.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau bemoaned: “China’s sanctions are an attack on transparency and freedom of expression – values at the heart of our democracy.”

Let’s unpack the contentions a bit. First of all, Western claims about genocide in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang are dubious and smack of political grandstanding in order to give Washington and its allies a pretext to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

The latest Western sanctions are based on a report by a shady Washington-based think-tank Newlines Institute of Strategic Policy. Its report claiming “genocide” against the Uyghur muslim ethnic minority in Xinjiang has the hallmarks of a propaganda screed, not remotely the work of independent scholarly research. Both China and independent journalists at the respected US-based Grayzone have dismissed the claims as fabrication and distortion.

For the United States and other Western governments to level sanctions against China citing the above “report” is highly provocative. It also betrays the real objective, which is to undermine Beijing. This is a top geopolitical priority for Washington. Under the Biden administration, Washington has relearnt the value of “diplomacy” – that is the advantage of corralling allies into a hostile front, rather than Trump’s America First go-it-alone policy.

Granted, China does have problems with its Xinjiang region. As Australia’s premier think-tank Lowy Institute noted: “Ethnic unrest  and terrorism in Xinjiang has been an ongoing concern for Chinese authorities for decades.”

Due to the two-decade-old US-led war in Afghanistan there has been a serious problem for the Chinese authorities from radicalization of the Uyghur population. Thousands of fighters from Xinjiang have trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan and have taken their “global jihad” to Syria and other Central Asian countries. It is their stated objective to return to Xinjiang and liberate it as a caliphate of East Turkestan separate from China.

Indeed, the American government has acknowledged previously that several Uyghur militants were detained at its notorious Guantanamo detention center.

The United States and its NATO and other allies Australia and New Zealand have all created the disaster that is Afghanistan. The war has scarred generations of Afghans and radicalized terrorist networks across the Middle East and Central Asia, which are a major concern for China’s security.

Beijing’s counterinsurgency policies have succeeded in tamping down extremism among its Uyghur people. The population has grown to around 12 million, nearly half the region’s total. This and general economic advances are cited by Beijing as evidence refuting Western claims of “genocide”. China says it runs vocational training centers and not “concentration camps”, as Western governments maintain. Beijing has reportedly agreed to an open visit by United Nations officials to verify conditions.

Greanville Post for more

How the city of mud stays standing: Meet the masons of Djenné, Mali

May 11th, 2021


Masons climb up the sides of the Great Mosque to replaster the surface with mud. PHOTO/Trevor Marchand

The story of Djenné, Mali, is typically told through its architecture—monumental mud-brick structures that seem to rise out of the earth like a desert mirage. Every building in Djenné’s historic sector, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, has been molded and reinforced by generations of mud masons, following an indigenous tradition as old as the city itself. When Natural History Museum curator Mary Jo Arnoldi traveled to Djenné in 2010, she wanted to meet the masons behind the city of mud, to give them a chance to “tell this story in their own words.”

The new exhibition, “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D. (An older city, Djenné-Jeno, was founded southeast of the current town but was later abandoned.)

Djenné flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries as a hub for trade and Islamic scholarship, and to this day the city’s population is predominantly Muslim. The world-renowned Great Mosque of Djenné is the city’s spiritual and geographic center, and some of Djenné’s most impressive mud buildings—two-story houses with grand entrances and buttresses—reflect the influence of Moroccan architecture and the 19th-century reign of the Islamic Tukolor Empire.

Visitors to the exhibition can explore the city of Djenné through more than 50 photographs, films and objects. On display are some of the tools of the masons’ ancient trade, including a basket for carrying mud, a rectangular frame for shaping bricks and a rod of the same local palm wood used in the long beams that jut out of the Great Mosque’s exterior. Masons use these beams as a built-in scaffolding, clambering up the sides of the structure to replaster the mud.

Smithsonian Mag for more

Jordan coup allegations: The Israel and Saudi Arabia factor

May 10th, 2021


A poster of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, queen Rania and their son Crown Prince Hussein in Amman on 6 April 2021 PHOTO/AFP

The possibility of foreign interference cannot be dismissed, with Riyadh and Tel Aviv both potentially motivated to push for regime change

An attempted coup was reportedly foiled in Jordan last week. But according to a reliable Middle East scholar with inside knowledge of the events, if a coup indeed took place in Amman, it was one led by the kingdom against the popular Prince Hamzah

Jordan has long been burdened by internal fragilities, and faces a geopolitical conundrum, as brilliantly summarised by one analyst. The majority of its population is of Palestinian origin, while its ruling class comprises traditional East Bank tribes and families who have pledged their allegiance to the Hashemite dynasty since its rise to power a century ago.

In the last two decades, the country, which has a weak economy and few resources, has been further afflicted by waves of refugees and collapsed trade since the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion and the 2011 Syrian uprising

Buffer state

Jordan is a kind of buffer state, compelled to juggle ambitious neighbours with dangerous regional agendas, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with export instability and radicalism spilling out from Syria and Iraq. Considering the tensions generated by the Arab Spring in the last decade, its survival to this day verges on a miracle.

The kingdom’s security has always been guaranteed by Israel and the US, while its economic survival has relied on the benevolence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, along with the US. Without them it would be bankrupt.

The security relationship with Israel has enjoyed a long period of stability, built upon the excellent cooperation between their respective intelligence services, which has helped to foil numerous hostile projects. Jordan’s stability is essential for Israel’s security. More recently, however, this cooperation has suffered from the increasing right-wing turn in Israel.

Middle East Eye for more