Showing posts with label Human History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Human History. Show all posts

November 9, 2016

‘We Stay It Wont Happen Here’,1933{Good Wishes Wont Change Reality)

As I heard it, my great-grandmother was the one who wanted to stay. After all, they had lived there their entire lives. Why leave now? Everything they knew and loved was there.

It was Poland, 1933. They were secular Jews living a pleasant modern life. They knew about Hitler, of course, and Hindenburg’s pathetic enabling of his rise to power. They read the news. They knew about the Jewish business boycott, then the Nuremberg Race Laws, then the Night of Broken Glass—78 years ago today, as it happens. When Germany invaded, my great-grandmother insisted, we stay. Her Jewish friends panicked, fled, but she said, no, it won’t happen here. Then the soldiers moved them to the ghetto. A wealthy friend offered my family safe passage out, but my great-grandmother said: No. We stay.

Then they moved them to the camps. You can guess the rest of the story. My grandfather survived, just barely. My great-grandmother did not. I never met her, because she was murdered by the people who, she said, would simply never do such a thing. It won’t happen here.

As a Jew in America, I was raised to believe two rather contradictory things: The United States is safe for us, and our world can descend into bigoted violence at any moment. I held these two beliefs in my head at once as Donald Trump was declared president-elect in the early hours of Wednesday morning. On the one hand, America remains, for now, a liberal democracy with civil liberties and checks and balances. On the other hand, those liberties and checks appear to be fading fast. Trump and his enablers have seized control of every branch of government. Congress is toothless, a rubber stamp for Trump. The judiciary is about to be stacked with Trump appointees. What kind of judge is willing to stand by a man who said Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t rule impartially because he is “Mexican”? A judge with no interest in independence or fundamental principles of equality. A judge with no interest in anything but raw power.

I am a gay Jewish journalist who loathes Trump with a very public passion. Every week, I receive the emails, the tweets, the private messages: Kike. Faggot. Fucking Jew. Their leader deploys anti-Semitism as a dog whistle, but they hear it as loud as can be. I get death threats. They want to kill me, they explain; they have a plan. And not just me, but people like me. The Jews who want to ruin this country. The gays who defiled it. The journalists who committed treason. All of us will soon get what we deserve, they tell me. They have guns. They have a plan.

The United States is safe for us. Checks and balances. The Bill of Rights. But what’s a Bill of Rights without an impartial judiciary to enforce it? What are due process and equal protection without a court order that people actually comply with? Nothing. Abstract principles, nice on paper, meaningless in reality. Hundreds of judges will soon be appointed by a man who said Judge Curiel couldn’t rule on his case because he’s “Mexican.” What kind of judges does that man appoint? Judges who support his agenda, not the rule of law. Judges with no particular interest in protecting people like me.

Every week, the threats roll in. They know where I live, they say. Trump wants people like me gone. Dead. They tell me how they’ll do it. It’s always with a gun. Liberal gay Jews don’t have a place in the new order, they explain. Sometimes it’s almost nonchalant. People like me, they say, just don’t have a place in Trump’s America. Faggot, kike—I’d never heard those words directed at me before this election. Now I see them all the time. They have a place in Trump’s America.

I am scared. I have never been scared like this before. What do we do? This is not like anything we’ve lived through before. We are being pulled out farther and farther to sea by the riptide of history. The shore is receding. Do we fight the current? Or do we let it draw us out to sea, recognizing that there’s no use in fighting something beyond our control?

My great-grandmother on the other side of the family fled. Her family was comfortable, secular; they owned a popular photography studio, and sometimes I look at the portraits they took of themselves shortly before they packed their bags and left forever. There is no panic in their eyes. They knew what they had to do, and they did it. They weren’t especially happy when they came to America, but they were alive. They left their old lives behind, understanding that there would soon be little left of them to salvage. I am thinking of their eyes this morning. And I am thinking of my other great-grandmother, the one I never got to meet.

No, she told her family, over and over and over again. We stay. It won’t happen here.

By Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate.
 He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.

We Don’t Understand Human Intelligence Compared to Animals

The guests lining up outside a Brisbane gallery were not your typical culture vultures; in fact, until recently they’d never seen a painting in their life. But with just a little training, they developed their own artistic taste, showing a clear preference for Picasso’s crystalline constructions or Monet’s dreamy soft focus as they wandered lazily through the different rooms.
It’s little wonder that their talents created such a buzz, considering that they were working with a brain smaller than a pin head: these bona fide art critics were your common or garden honey bees, trained to find a syrupy surprise behind one or other of the artists' work.
(Credit: Getty Images)
 We have around 100 billion neurons, giving us a huge brain compared to our relatively puny bodies (Credit: Getty Images)
In fact, the ability to recognize artistic style was just the latest in a long list of achievements. Honey bees can count up to four, read complex signs, learn from observation and talk to each other in a secret code (the famous ‘waggle dance’). When foraging, they can weigh up the distance to different flowers, planning complex routes to collect the most nectar with the least effort. And within the hive, their individual responsibilities can include cleaning, undertaking (as they tend to the dead) and even air-conditioning, as they collect water to drop on the honey comb during hot weather.

The human brain has nearly 100,000 times as many neurons as the bee brain, yet the rudiments of many of our most valued behaviours can be seen in the teeming activity of the hive. So what’s the point of all that grey matter we hold in our skulls? And how does it set us apart from other animals? These are some of the questions that will be discussed at the BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney on 15 November.
About one-fifth of all you eat is used to power the electrical chit-chat between your 100 billion little grey cells. If a big brain didn’t give us any advantage, that would be an enormous waste.
And there are some clear benefits. If nothing else, it makes us more efficient at what we do. If honey bees are searching a scene, for instance, they will consider each object one by one, whereas larger animals have the extra brainpower to process it all at once. We can multi-task, in other words.
A bigger brain also boosts the amount we can remember: a honey bee can grasp just a handful of associations between signs signaling the presence of food, before it starts getting confused, whereas even a pigeon can learn to recognise more than 1,800 pictures, and that’s nothing compared to human knowledge. For a comparison, consider that a memory champions can remember the sequence of Pi to literally thousands of decimal places.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Magpies are known to be among some of the most cognitively advanced birds (Credit: Getty Images)
Darwin described these kinds of distinctions as “differences of degree, not kind” – a conclusion that some might find frustrating. If you look at human civilization and all we have achieved, surely we must have some particularly special ability that is completely lacking in all other animals?
Culture, technology, altruism and many other traits have all been touted as signs of human greatness – but the more you look, the narrower that list becomes.

Macaques, for instance, have long been known to pick up stones to crack nuts while New Caledonian crows can craft hooks from a broken stick to help them pick up food - both rudimentary forms of tool use. Even invertebrates are getting in on the act. Veined octopuses, for instance, appear to collect coconut shells, dragging them along the sea floor for later use as a shelter. 
A chimp in Zambia, meanwhile, has been caught wearing a fetching tuft of grass in her ear – apparently for no other reason than that she thought it looked nice. Soon, many of the other chimps in her group copied her fashion statement, a form of adornment that some researchers have interpreted as a form of cultural expression. 
Many creatures also seem to have an innate sense of fairness, and may even feel empathy for others – as our colleagues at BBC Earth recently explored – again suggesting a kind of rich emotional life that was once thought to be our specie's domain. Consider the case of a humpback whale, which was recently seen saving a seal’s life, protecting it from a killer whale attack – evidence that we are not the only animal to behave altruistically.
Perhaps the answer instead lies in a “sense of self”, a creature’s ability to recognise itself as an individual. This navel gazing would be a rudimentary
(Credit: Getty Images)
Elephants can recognise their own reflection (Credit: Getty Images)

 form of consciousness. Of all the different qualities that might make us unique, self-awareness is the toughest to measure with any certainty – but one common test involved daubing a spot of paint on the animal, and putting it in front of a mirror. If the animal notices the mark and tries to rub it off, we can assume that the animal recognises its reflection, suggesting it has formed some kind of concept about itself.
Humans don’t develop this capacity until they are around 18-months-old, but a handful of other animals appear to demonstrated this kind of awareness, including bonobos, chimps, orang-utans, gorillas, magpies, dolphins and orca whales.

Not so fast. A couple of mental capacities may be purely our own, and they are perhaps best understood by considering a family’s conversation around the dinner table.
The first astonishing fact is that we can speak at all, of course. No matter what you’ve been thinking and feeling throughout the day, you will be able to find words to express the experience and describe it to those around you. 
No other creature can communicate with such freedom. The honey bee’s waggle dance, for instance, can relay the location of a flower bed, and it can even warn the other bees about the presence of a dangerous insect, but it can’t express everything the bee has experienced: it is limited to a few facts about the immediate circumstances. Human language, in contrast, is open-ended. With infinite combinations of words to choose from, we can articulate our deepest feelings or lay down the rules of physics – and if we can’t quite find the right term, we can just invent a new one.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Bees may be stuck in the present, with no concept of future or past (Credit: Getty Images)
What’s even more remarkable though, is the fact that most of our conversation is not rooted in the present, but revolves around the past and the future, which brings us to one of the other traits that may define us. We’ve already explored how we may be able to recall more facts than most animals. This is ‘semantic’ memory. But as Thomas Suddendorf at the University of Queensland will point out at the World-Changing Ideas Summit, we also have ‘episodic’ recall – the ability to mentally relive past events, picturing them in multi-sensory detail. It’s the difference between knowing that Paris is the capital of France, and being able to bring back the sights and sounds of your first trip to the Louvre.

Crucially, the ability to think back to the past also allows us to imagine the future, too, as we use previous experiences to predict future scenarios. You might imagine your next holiday by recalling all your past trips, for instance, allowing you to picture what kind of hotel you like, plan the sights you want to visit and build a menu of food you want to eat.
No other animal appears to have such elaborate personal memories, combined with the ability to plan whole chains of actions in advance. Even bees, with their complicated housekeeping in the hive, are probably only responding to their present circumstances; their thoughts don’t go beyond the next flower they would like to visit or the danger of an intruder. They are not going to reminisce about what it felt like to be a larva. 
Together with language, mental ‘time travel’ allows us to share our experiences and our hopes with many other people, building networks of combined knowledge that are continually growing with each generation. Science, architecture, technology, writing – in short, everything that allows you to read this article – would be impossible without it.  
  • David Robson
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

April 17, 2014

“Jews Register, Gays Stone to Death”History Always Repeat

Much of the world, including the U.S. State Department, understandably reacted with horror today when Jewish residents of Donestk, Ukraine, reported being given flyers outside of a synagogue requiring them to "register" their citizenship and declare their property. According to reports first circulated by Israeli news site Ynet and USA Today, the pamphlets were delivered by masked men holding the Russian Federation flag and directed Jews to a government building currently occupied by pro-Russian forces.
But Denis Pushilin, the Russian separatist whose name is on the flyers, claims he has nothing to do with them, and that the documents were spread to make his side look bad.
"Evasion of registration will result in citizenship revoke and you will be forced outside the country with a confiscation of property," reads the flyer, according to a translation. It also lists a $50 fee for doing so.

"Some idiots yesterday were giving out these flyers in targeted areas," hoping "to blame the attack on separatists," said Pushilin. Nonetheless, the U.S. government condemned the flyers, which are indeed disgusting, whoever created them.

March 28, 2014

The Man Who Loved Dogs

“Even if it’s a lie, we’ll make it the truth,” declaims a character in Leonardo Padura’s monumental novel “The Man Who Loved Dogs.” “And that’s what matters.”

Book World: ‘The Man Who Loved Dogs,’ Leonardo Padura

Focused on Stalin’s murderous obsession with Leon Trotsky, an intellectual architect of the Russian Revolution and the founder of the Red Army, Padura has written a historical novel of Tolstoyan sweep. The bonus thrill stems from knowing that this horrific tale — and most of its characters — are all too true.
Padura made his name writing an entertaining quartet of Chandleresque detective novels set in Havana and featuring the erudite Lt. Mario Conde. But in “The Man Who Loved Dogs,” Padura attempts nothing less than an inquest into how revolutionary utopias devolve into totalitarian dystopias. At the same time, he has written an irresistible political crime thriller — all the more remarkable considering that we know the ending before we crack open this 576-page tome.
“The Man who Loved Dogs,” beautifully rendered into English by Anna Kushner, is an exhaustively reported work, chockablock with history — from the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism and Stalin’s show trials to the steely suffocation of post-Castro Cuba. Indeed, it is Padura’s careful reading of Orwell’s chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, “Homage to Catalonia,” that animates much of this tragic tale.
A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.
This unlikely trio of world-weary cynics shares one passion: a fervid love of dogs. In 1977, while running his Russian wolfhounds, or borzois, a breed that Trotsky loves, Iván serendipitously meets the mysterious Mercader on a beach outside Havana.
A carefully crafted web of relationships threaded through Padura’s characters drives this complex, sometimes over-written narrative. One unsavory triangle involves Mercader, his sociopathic motherand her Soviet handler, an uber-spy who could have fallen out of a le Carré novel and who is charged with orchestrating the murder of Trotsky. Not only must Trotsky be killed, so must his children, relatives and followers. Moreover, a propaganda campaign worthy of Goebbels is launched to erase Trotsky from Russian history and to depict him as a gutless pervert, secretly aligned with Hitler and the fascists. Never mind that Trotsky was Jewish and that it was Stalin who forged a pact with Hitler.
It is during Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico City, living in the house of Diego Rivera, that Mercader is deployed into action. Stalin wanted a savage, “spectacular” killing, not just a simple poisoning like the one he ordered for Trotsky’s son. More to his liking was the machine-gun siege, led by the mad muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, that Trotsky had miraculously survived. Three months later, on Aug. 20, 1940, Mercader plunges an ice ax into the back of Trotsky’s head. Nevertheless, when bodyguards tackle Mercader to the floor, the mortally wounded Trotsky calls out for them to desist, saving his assassin’s life: “This man has a story to tell.”
Indeed, Mercader did. Yet he never talked during his 20 years in a Mexican prison or in the 18 years thereafter while living in the Soviet Union and Cuba — knowing that to do so would be his own death warrant.
Padura opens his story in 2004, long after these events have passed into history. Iván Cárdenas Maturell has just lost his beloved wife to a bone cancer that began with “vitamin-deficient polyneuritis” incurred from subpar food rations throughout the 1990s. His brilliant brother, a doctor tossed out of his profession for being gay, had drowned earlier during an escape attempt. Alone and despondent, Iván reflects on his blighted ambitions and thwarted career.
The persecution of Iván for subversive writings is transparently modeled on the collective trials and tribulations of Cuba’s post-Revolution writers: the silencing of the great José Lezama Lima, the harassment of Virgilio Pinera and most pointedly, the shaming of Heberto Padilla, who after 38 days of arrest in 1971, read a mea culpa before his peers, condemning himself. It is within this airless, turgid ecosystem, where self-censorship trumps even the state’s minders, that Padura has lived and worked. Berated by his wife for not writing his story earlier, Iván confesses, “Fear kept me from writing.”
As such, like fellow novelist Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Padura writes along the razor’s edge. In his detective novels, he cagily navigated a quasi-permissible space, but in “The Man Who Loved Dogs” (first published in Spain in 2009), he finally lets it rip. Although Fidel Castro is never mentioned by name, his creation — the Cuban revolution — is rendered here as a crumbling tropical gulag.
It is a calculated risk by Padura, a keen student of Cuban chess, and one based on the fact that there is a wider opening today than ever before on the island since the revolution. Moreover, as Cuba’s greatest living writer and one who is inching toward the pantheon occupied by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Padura may well now be untouchable.
By Leonardo Padura
Translated from Spanish by Anna Kushne
Bardach is a journalist and author of “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington” and “Cuba Confidential” and editor of “Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.”

December 12, 2013

Politics Mix with Religion Usually Hurt The Humanists and Atheist the Most

MORE than 24 centuries have passed since Socrates was put to death (pictured) on charges that included non-belief in the state religion, and the situation doesn't seem to have changed all that much. In the great majority of countries, things are in some respect harder for atheists, humanists and the non-religious than they are for devout fellow-citizens. The extent of this disadvantage can vary a lot: from having to put up with political systems (including most democracies) that accord certain privileges to faith, to an immediate danger of death. Those are some of the main points in a report on Freedom of Thought by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (an umbrella group for humanist groups) that has just been published.
There are 13 countries, the survey finds, where being an atheist can lead to execution. In 12 cases, this reflects Islamic regimes that mandate the death penalty for abandoning the established religion. In addition, Pakistan prescribes execution for blasphemy, for which the threshold is very low; a court in that country has recently laid down that life imprisonment is insufficient for the crime of insulting Islam.
The report grades countries on a scale from "free and equal" to perpetrators of "grave violations" against those who dissent from religion. Some of the findings are surprising. A cluster of West African countries, some of which face Christian-Muslim tensions, are given a fairly clean bill of health: they include Sierra Leone, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal. Many Latin American states are ticked off for according privileges to Christianity, but Brazil and Uruguay get good marks. So does Japan. Most west European countries are deemed guilty of "systemic discrimination" against the non-religious by virtue of the special status that they grant to Christian churches. Many democracies also have anti-blasphemy laws, albeit rarely invoked. Norway, which has a national church and a Christian monarchy, is deemed "mostly satisfactory"—in part because it offers assistance to any belief-based group, including a large humanist association.
To its credit, the report observes that atheist tyrannies can crush human freedom at least as ruthlessly as theocratic ones. It notes that "totalitarian states like North Korea...impose a state ideology that is as all-controlling and intolerant as that of any theocracy" where "any hint of independent liable to meet with the severest punishment."
In the United States, the report suggests, most of the problems faced by the non-religious reflect the social and political atmosphere rather than any flaw in the political system, which strictly separates church and state. But there were at least seven American states where an atheist could be barred from holding public office, and the fact that hardly a single member of Congress dares to profess no religion is taken as a sign of strong societal pressure.
One thing emerges clearly from this report. Countries that make it impossible to disown all religious affiliation are usually pretty unpleasant places to profess a sincerely held faith. In any case, what comfort can there be, in this day and age, from a faith whose political patrons threaten with shackles all those who reject it?

October 18, 2013

Discovery of 1.8 Million Ancestor Shows We All Come From The Same Walker*

The discovery of a 1.8 million-year-old human ancestor, the most complete ancient hominid skull found to date, captures early human evolution on the move in a vivid snapshot and indicates our family tree may have fewer branches than originally thought, scientists say.
The discovery of a 1.8 million-year-old human ancestor captures early human evolution on the move. Photo: AP
A "time capsule" from 1.8 million years ago, located in Dmanisi, in the US state of Georgia, shows variations among five human skulls from that period that suggest long-debated distinctions about early human development may be overblown.
The differences between the skulls were no more than that seen in modern humans, according to a report released on Thursday in the journal Science. The findings suggest there may have been only one species of early human in a key period of time when they first began to migrate out of Africa, said David Lordkipanidze, an anthropologist at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi and the report's author.
The analysis drew immediate criticism from scientists who said other members of the hominid family — Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Homo rudolfensis — were identified using more than just their skulls. Lordkipanidze said the Dmanisi artifacts offer the earliest known representation outside of Africa of human development after the migration.
"Dmanisi has a uniqueness: it's a real snapshot in time, a time capsule from 1.8 million years ago," he said in a phone call with reporters.
The site, which sits below the ruins of the medieval town of Dmanisi, in the Mashavera River Valley, was discovered in 1983, when archaeologists studying the medieval town noticed bones of species they knew were extinct. In 1984, ancient stone tools were found there.
One of the five skulls found at the site recently had a small braincase, a long face, and large teeth, features never before seen together, according to the paper in Science. It was discovered with four other crania from the same place and time.
'Strange Combination'
The skull has "a strange combination of features we didn't see before in early Homo", said Marcia S. Ponce de León, a report co-author, of the Anthropological Institute and Museum in Zurich, in a call with reporters. Its location with other contemporary skulls allows the researchers to compare them to each other, she said.
The jaw of the skull was found first, in 2000, and the rest of the skull was found in 2005. Its braincase is "unexpectedly small", said Ponce de Leon, measuring only 33.3 cubic inches (546 cubic centimetres). Modern humans have an average brain volume of about 76 cubic inches (1250 cubic centimetres).
Given that the population of individuals showed no greater range of variation than that of 5 humans or bonobos, the researchers proposed that early Homo individuals may not represent three species, but one.
'Single Species'
"The variation within the samples from Africa is no more than our variation within homo erectus," said Christoph Zollikofer from the Anthropological Institute and Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, a co-author on the Science report. "We're pretty sure that the variation is within a single species, and we’re calling it homo erectus.”
Other anthropologists urge caution, saying the differences in cranial shapes may not reflect changes in other bones.
Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins at Georgetown University in Washington DC said he was convinced all the skulls from the site belonged to the same group. However, he didn't agree with the group's larger generalisation.
"They look at this overall cranial shape and say, 'If you look at Homo habilis and erectus, there isn't much more difference," Wood said by telephone. "You can't infer the latter from the former."
The reason why Homo habilis and Homo erectus are viewed as distinct isn't just the cranial shape, Wood said. Changes in the wrists and ankles, as well as in leg bones, took place at that time. Merging the classes doesn't make sense even if they share cranial shapes, he said.
'Splitters, Lumpers'
The finding likely won’t change expert's views on species diversity, where two groups are heavily entrenched said William Harcourt-Smith, an assistant professor at Lehman College and a research associate in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology.
Some, nicknamed "splitters", see the tree of evolution as having many species. Others, called "lumpers", see wider species categories and fewer limbs on the tree.
"To be honest it just adds some important fuel to the debate," Harcourt-Smith wrote in an email. "The lumpers, of course, will love this new paper, but I can see splitters saying that there is too much variation in both the African early Homo and Dmanisi sample for them to all be Homo erectus."
Bloomberg and AP
*Walker: from Walking Dead, a bitter, a Walker, Zombie

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