Articles of Interest: Mercenaries and Fragmented Forests

How private military contractors are changing the future of warfare…

The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Technology allows [private armed groups] to punch above their weight class. And technology’s ever cheaper, ever more available, and so drones and other types of technologies—weapons systems, night-vision goggles—that’s all on the open market as well. So we’ve got an open market for force, swishing around with these markets of technologies. Supply and demand are going to find each other, and that allows a very small group of people to do some big damage.

Forests are fragmenting, at great cost to biodiversity…

[M]ore than 70% of remaining forest is within just 1km (about 0.6 miles) of an edge, while a 100 metre stroll from an edge would enable you to reach 20% of global forests … In Europe and the U.S., the vast majority of forest is within 1km of an edge – some of the most “remote” areas in these regions are a stones throw from human activity.

If you want remote forests on a large scale you’ll have to head to the Amazon, the Congo, or to a lesser degree, central and far eastern Russia, central Borneo and Papua New Guinea.

[B]y drawing together scientific evidence from seven long-term fragmentation experiments, Haddad and colleagues show that fragmentation reduces biodiversity by up to 75%. This exacerbates the extinction risk of millions of forest species, many of which we still don’t know much about.

The survival of large, carbon-rich trees – the building blocks of any intact forest ecosystem – is reduced in smaller and more isolated forest fragments. These patches thus fail to maintain viable populations, which over time are doomed – an “extinction debt” yet to be paid.

There is nothing wrong with technology in the classroom…

Students who have adapted to and now rely on using technology shouldn’t be cut off from this resource in the classroom. Many students use technological tools to overcome learning differences, to organize information, to engage in discussions that help them think through material. And they are more successful because of it. Some students with learning challenges have adapted to using technology without having to report a disability and announce that disability to their classmates or professors. Professors might not know that students in their classrooms are dealing with learning disabilities and are succeeding because of assistive technology. These students may not be registered with the “Office of Disability Services”, they might not be “diagnosed”, and have their learning differences medicalized — but then again, why should they have to in order to use the tools that help them?

Where the world’s economic elites live…

London is on top, besting New York City, which fell to fourth place. San Francisco, previously number four, has fallen out of the top 20 entirely. Singapore rises into the top 10, to number three, and Hong Kong is up three spots from 2013, to five. The top 10 also has two new European entrants: Frankfurt has the sixth most ultra-high-net individuals, and Paris has the seventh. Osaka, Beijing, and Zurich round out the top 10.

The dominance of Asian cities illustrates a larger trend. For the first time, Asia overtook North America as the region with the second-largest growth in ultra-high-net individuals. The wealthy in Asia also now hold more money overall than those in North America: $5.9 trillion compared to $5.5 trillion. However, Europe still reigns supreme, with the greatest growth in the number of super-rich and with the wealthiest super-rich overall. Europe’s high-net individuals hold $6.4 trillion.

[Adjusted for population,] smaller cities dominate. Geneva tops the list, with 144 super-rich individuals per 100,000 residents, followed by Swiss counterpart Zurich, with 71. Home to fabled Swiss banks, these cities have long been the favored locations of global plutocrats. As the table below shows, Singapore and Hong Kong retain their high placement, ranking third and fifth, respectively. London drops to eighth, New York to 19th, Paris to 24th and Tokyo to 32nd.

Articles of Interest — Ancient Mega-Temples and Vital Whale Feces

An incredible 6,000-year-old mega-temple is discovered in an unlikely place…

Sci-News reports that the ancient site belonged to the Trypillian culture, which lasted from approximately 5,400-2,700 B.C. and extended from the Carpathian piedmont to the Black Sea. The culture was complex, boasting early advancements in metallurgy, pottery and textiles.

According to researcher Mikhail Videyko, the temple was likely two stories tall, the largest of its kind on the site, and may have been the “center of a complex plan” as the “central temple of the whole village community.” Each single-habitation Trypillian settlement appears to have been burnt to the ground after about 60 to 80 years of continuous occupation for reasons unknown to current researchers, including the temple site.

The unexpected importance of whale waste provides a valuable lesson about complex ecosystems…

[T]he whales fertilise the plant plankton on which the krill and fish depend. This effect, known as the “whale pump” has been hypothesised for several years. But now there is some experimental evidence to support it. A team of scientists at the University of Tasmania collected some pygmy blue whale poo (who knew that marine biology was so rich with possibility?) and grew plankton in water containing varying concentrations of it. They found that the richer the mix, the greater the productivity. No surprises there.

Separate research, in the Gulf of Maine, estimates that whales and seals, by defecating at the surface and recycling nutrients there, would, before their numbers were reduced by hunting, have been responsible for releasing three times as much nitrogen into those waters as the sea absorbed directly from the atmosphere. The volume of plant plankton has declined across much of the world over the past century, probably as a result of rising global temperatures. But the decline appears to have been been steepest where whales and seals have been most heavily hunted. The fishermen who have insisted that predators such as seals should be killed might have been reducing, not enhancing, their catch.

But it doesn’t end there. Plant plankton, when they die, slowly descend into the abyss, taking with them the carbon they have absorbed from the atmosphere. It is hard to quantify, but when they were at their historical populations, whales are likely to have made a small but significant contribution to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The recovery of the great whales, which werereduced by between two-thirds and 90%, but whose numbers are slowly climbing again in some parts of the oceans, could be seen as a benign form of geoengineering.

This should not be the only, or even the main, reason why we should wish them to return, but the way in which whales change the composition of the atmosphere provides yet another refutation of the idea that we can manipulate the living world with simple, predictable results.

Random chance is biggest factor in two-thirds of cancer cases…

“This development has some rather striking implications. Improving certain lifestyle factors like weight, tobacco use, or alcohol consumption can certainly contribute to the prevention of some specific cancers, such as lung cancer. However, for other cancers that are more likely to be influenced by unpredictable cell mutations, the lifestyle choices might not make that much of a difference. This could warrant the need to more aggressively pursue ways to identify cancer in the earliest stages, when it can more easily be dealt with.”

“This study shows that you can add to your risk of getting cancers by smoking or other poor lifestyle factors. However, many forms of cancer are due largely to the bad luck of acquiring a mutation in a cancer driver gene regardless of lifestyle and heredity factors. The best way to eradicate these cancers will be through early detection, when they are still curable by surgery,” concludes Vogelstein.

Just for fun: nine interesting facts about flatulence, such as…

Modern society views flatulence as a negative. This is unfortunate, because in most cases, it’s the byproduct of a beautiful thing — the intricate ecosystem of bacteria living in your intestines.

“It’s a complex ecology, with various organisms coexisting and thriving,” Kashyap says. “When a complex carbohydrate reaches your colon, some bacteria will break it down first, and then some of their byproducts will feed other bacteria. The whole community benefits from a single carbohydrate that you consume.”

What’s more, you also benefit. Scientists are still unraveling the role of the microbiome in digestion, but it’s known that the same bacteria that produce gas also generate vitamins and fatty acids that help maintain our colon lining, and may support our immune systems.

Articles of Interest — Sacred Chickens and the Endearing Krampus

The humble chicken has played a big role in human civilization…

Like most people, I thought of it as a bird that provides us with meat and eggs but not much else. But when I started to dig into it, I discovered that the chicken has actually played more roles across human history, in more societies, than any other animal, and I include the dog and the cat and cows and pigs. The chicken is a kind of a zelig of human history, which pops up in all kinds of different societies.

If you go back to ancient Babylon, about 800 B.C., in what is now Iraq, you find seals used by people to identify themselves. Some of these have images of chickens sitting on top of columns being worshipped by priests. That expanded with the Persian Empire. Zoroastrians considered the chicken sacred because it crowed before dawn, before the light appeared. And in Zoroastrian tradition, the coming of the light is a sign of good. So the chicken became associated with an awakening from physical, as well as spiritual, slumber.

Different languages bring different advantages…

Some languages — namely, English — act as a hub for the world. And others like French, German, and Spanish serve as the hubs of other language families.

There are a few takeaways here. If you want your kids to be able to interact with large swathes of the world, teach them Spanish. But if you want them to be able to correspond with a more secluded group, go for Chinese.

From Saint Nicholas of Patara to Santa Claus…

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married.

Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland. The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). 

The Krampus makes a comeback…

Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word krampen, which means claw, is said to be the son of Hel, who rules the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. Krampus also shares characteristics with demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.

The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Austria and southern Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December.

“It’s really a pagan character which gets added onto Christmas, and stays in the Catholic countries,” said Peter Jelavich, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

Krampus is a counterpart to kindly St. Nicholas, who rewards children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, swats “wicked” children with birch sticks and takes them to his lair.

According to folklore, Krampus shows up the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 is Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they’d left out the night before contains presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod or twigs (for bad behavior).

Also, I hope everyone had a great holiday season!

Articles of Interest: Somali Bananas, Bibliophile Americans, and More

Somalia experiences an unlikely resurgence in an unlikely way…

Somalia elected a new president and adopted a constitution in 2012, bringing some stability, and attracting pledges of aid from international donors. Somali pirates, who once threatened international shipping in the Indian Ocean, have largely been contained and the Shabab have lost their grip over many towns.

“By any measure, Somalia today is in a better situation than it has been for the past 23 years,” said Nicholas Kay, the United Nations’ special representative for Somalia.

That stability has allowed farmers like Mr. Nasir, who studied agriculture at Mogadishu University, to return to a business that has been in his family for four generations.

How have Roman monuments endured all these centuries…?

In a new study, researchers drilled down into the chemistry of Roman concrete to find out what makes it so resilient. As suspected, the key ingredient is the specific blend of limestone and volcanic ash used in the mortar, says Gail Silluvan for the Washington Post.

Mixing mortar according to the recipe of 1st century Roman architect Vitruvius, the scientists’ analyses unveiled that the mortar included “dense clusters of a durable mineral called strätlingite.”

“The crystals formed because of a reaction that took place over time between the lime and volcanic matter in the mortar,” says Sullivan, and “helped prevent the spread of microscopic cracks by reinforcing interfacial zones, which researchers called ‘the weakest link of modern cement-based concrete.'”

The reasons why Pakistan and India are in perennial conflict…

Pakistan’s military leaders have known since the 1960s that they cannot take Kashmir by force. Why, then, have they persisted? The answer is simple: political solutions haven’t been forthcoming. India holds the balance of power, and for all its repression in Kashmir, the world sees no evil. For the Pakistani Army, confrontation has become the only way to keep the issue alive, forcing the world’s attention. India’s brutal counterinsurgency might not make news, but a shootout between two nuclear powers gets everyone’s attention. As long as the deadlock over Kashmir remains, Pakistan’s need for confrontation will persist.

Americans love books more than ever despite the Internet…

In 1957, not even a quarter of Americans were reading a book or novel. By 2005, that number had shot up to 47 percent. I couldn’t find a more recent number, but I think it’s fair to say that reading probably hasn’t declined to the horrific levels of the 1950s.

All this to say: our collective memory of past is astoundingly inaccurate. Not only has the number of people reading not declined precipitously, it’s actually gone up since the perceived golden age of American letters.

So, then why is there this widespread perception that we are a fallen literary people? I think, as Marshall Kirkpatrick says, that social media acts as a kind of truth serum. Before, only the literary people had platforms. Now, all the people have platforms. And so we see that not everyone shares our love for Dos Passos. Or any books at all. Or reading in general.