Sunday, 27 December 2009

The censorship of "Putin: The dark rise to power"

The following article was originally published in GQ in September 2009:
Putin: The dark rise to power: "Ten years ago this month, Russia was rocked by a series of mysterious apartment bombings that left hundreds dead. It was by riding the ensuing wave of fear and terror that a then largely unknown Vladimir Putin rose to become the most powerful man in the country. But there were questions about the nature of those bombings - and disturbing evidence that the perpetrators might actually have been working for the Russian government. In the years since then, the people who had been questioning the official version of events began one by one to go silent or even turn up dead. Except one man. Scott Anderson finds him."
A powerful tale, true or not, on power and corruption.

What reinforces the suspicion that this story is more than yet another wacky conspiracy theory is the effort that GQ spent on suppressing it, including, but not limited to, removing any mention from its cover, withdrawing it from its Website, and removing it from its Russian versions. The picture this affair draws on the state of human rights in the former soviet empire is not encouraging.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A sober look at Hanukkah

Those who underwent Jewish upbringing may have received the religious rationalization for Hanukkah: a standard take on the few vs. many/David and Goliath fable. A legend that contained the right mixture of miracles, self sacrifice, and reckless acts of "heroism", it mainly served in the propaganda of the religious right and settler terrorists, who are perhaps the only ones in Israel to commemorate it with fanfare.

But what has traditionally been a very minor Jewish holiday has become in the diaspora synonymous with "the Jewish Christmas" for no reason other than because Jewish parents in the complacent post-Christian West felt the pressure to compete with the popular ritual of shopping orgy and excess taking place every Christmas. Only naturally, the politically correct were quick to embrace the Hanukkah token as a rhetorical nod to the false god of tolerance (using the word 'Hanukkah' proves that I'm enlightened and open minded).

To those of us who were blissfully ignorant of it, David Brooks of the NY Times offers a synopsis of the religious and the secular versions of the Hanukkah story:
The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.
To summarize, looking at the picture as a whole, Hanukkah is pretty much the same three-G combination (God, Gore, and Greed) you see in the story behind every other religious holiday. Keep it in mind when you decorate your Hanukkah bush.

Jolly holiday and a happy new year!

Plant bill of rights?

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences delivered the following bizarre piece of news. Apparently, plants are much more capable for interacting efficiently with its animated environment than you would expect:

Another Challenge for Ethical Eating - Plants Want to Live, Too [, 23 Dec 2009]

Certain plants can sense when insect eggs have been deposited on their leaves and will act immediately to rid themselves of the incubating menace. ... when a female cabbage butterfly lays her eggs on a brussels sprout plant and attaches her treasures to the leaves with tiny dabs of glue, the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. Spying the anchored bounty, the female wasps in turn inject their eggs inside, the gestating wasps feed on the gestating butterflies, and the plant’s problem is solved.

Here’s the lurid Edgar Allan Poetry of it: that benzyl cyanide tip-off had been donated to the female butterfly by the male during mating. “It’s an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone, so that the female wouldn’t mate anymore,” Dr. Hilker said. “The male is trying to ensure his paternity, but he ends up endangering his own offspring.”

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Microcephaly genes associated with human brain size

Fresh from Science Daily are news on the genetic mechanism determining the size of the cerebral cortex:
Microcephaly genes associated with human brain size

ScienceDaily (Dec. 22, 2009) — A group of Norwegian and American researchers have shown that common variations in genes associated with microcephaly ... may explain differences in brain size ...

In relation to body size, brain size has expanded dramatically throughout primate and human evolution. In fact, in proportion to body size, the brain of modern humans is three times larger than that of non-human primates. The cerebral cortex in particular has undergone a dramatic increase in surface area during the course of primate evolution. ...

mutations in [The microcephaly] genes can reduce brain size by about two-thirds, to a size roughly comparable to our early hominid ancestors. There is also evidence that four of the genes -- MCPH1, ASPM, CDK5RAP2 and CENPJ -- have evolved rapidly and have been subject to strong selective pressure in recent human evolution....

The most statistically significant associations were consistently found with the areal expansion measure, which has implications also for future studies...

Highly significant associations were found between cortical surface area and polymorphisms in possible regulatory regions near the gene CDK5RAP2. ...

"One particularly interesting feature of this new discovery is that the strongest links with cortical area were found in regulatory regions, rather than coding regions of the genes," said Andreassen. "One upshot of this may be that in order to further understand the molecular and evolutionary processes that have determined human brain size, we need to focus on regulatory processes rather than further functional characterization of the proteins of these genes. This has huge implications for future research on the link between genetics and brain morphology."