Archive for March, 2011
Scientists now believe that the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are expected to collide much sooner than previously anticipated. The cosmic smashup is supposed to take place at about the same time that are sun uses the remainder of its nuclear fuel or in about 7 billion years. According to estimates, our galaxy is moving at 600,000 miles per hour, and we previously thought it was moving at a mere 100,000 mph. Here is a simulation of collision day:
As you can see, after a dramatic collision, the two galaxies will be at separate poles for awhile and then eventually merge into one super galaxy.
I don’t write many film reviews on this site because most have limited or no real-world relevance. Some of my favorite movies, like “Agora” and “Doubt,” tend to be those that have something to say beyond the rudimentary goal of presenting an entertaining plot and compelling acting.
The 2005 film, “Syriana,” seems to have so much to say that it becomes a bit difficult to digest it all on a first viewing. The movie is a geopolitical drama that explores, through numerous subplots, the economic and political implications behind the global dependence on oil in the Middle East and the often devious risks that oil companies and governments take in securing a share of oil resources in Asia and the Middle East.
The plot generally centers around two characters, veteran CIA officer, Bob Barnes (George Clooney), and energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), whose paths largely take different routes through much of the movie until the final scene.
Barnes, who is known for his operations in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in the mid-1980s, is in Tehran, Iran, at the beginning of the film attempting to thwart illegal arms trafficking by killing a pair of arms dealers. While there, he witnesses piece of weaponry being diverted to an Egyptian source. After a brief stint back in Washington, he is again sent to the Middle East with the purpose of assassinating Prince Nassir, who was believed to be behind an arms deal with Egypt. We later learn, however, that Nassir, unlike his younger brother and father, is a reform-minded leader who hopes to bring wealth to his country and the Middle East at large by selling oil to China and funneling an oil pipeline directly from the Middle East to Europe. Woodman becomes Nassir’s top economic adviser in these endeavors after advising Nassir begin thinking about such a pipeline.
Nassir’s father and brother, in contrast, toe a friendly line with the United States government, while Nassir’s goals run counter to American interests, with the implicit message that it’s in America’s interest to keep parts of the Middle East poor, uneducated and undeveloped so that the we can remain the control of oil reserves, not the other way around, thus Barnes’ initial mission to kill Nassir.
The other major plot line involves a shady merger of American oil companies Connex and a smaller organization, Killen, the latter of which surprisingly secures a major deal to drill in Kazakhstan. Bennett Holiday, an attorney with a Washington law firm, is charged with smoothing out the merger and giving the appearance of due diligence in the process. Meanwhile, Holiday is certain that a Killen officially committed bribery in securing the oil deal.
One of the main subplots follows the family life of Woodman, whose young son is killed while visiting Nassir’s family at their resort in Spain. Woodman’s son jumped into a pool of electrically charged water prior to a faulty pool light being discovered. This, along with Woodman’s globe-jumping travels, puts a strain on his relationship with his wife.
Another minor plot traces the life of a young Middle Eastern worker and his father, both of whom are laid off when Connex is outbid by a Chinese company for drilling rights in the region. Nassir, as we later learn, was behind China winning the bid, rather than Connex, and it’s here that we see the clash between American interests and Nassir’s desire to see a prosperous and developed Middle East.
Yet another plot follows Barnes and the torn relationship between his wife, who also works overseas, and his son, who calls both his father and mother “professional liars” because of the “classified” nature of their jobs.
That’s all I will divulge of the plot. Needless to say, these elements come to a dramatic conclusion in the final scene.
Superb acting carries the film, from Clooney and Damon, down through the supporting cast. Clooney was particularly at the top of his game during one torture scene in which a character named Mussawi attempts to get information from Clooney by pulling out his fingernails one-by-one. I can imagine it takes a large measure of acting acumen to make a moviegoer wince when the actor himself is likely in little if any real pain, yet fains immense suffering.
I also enjoyed the camera work. At times, the view is a touch jittery, which gives a grittier impression that the camera man is actually holding the camera, and this also puts the viewer right in the middle of the dialog and on-screen action. For instance, in an elevator scene in which Clooney was supposed to have Nassir assassinated (He is kidnapped by Mussawi’s men instead), Clooney gets on an elevator, which also holds Nassir and Damon. The camera is looking at the back of Clooney’s head and the image of his face is reflected back through the elevator door. This, of course, gives the effect that the movie viewer is actually in the elevator. I think that added a nice effect.
Finally, that the director followed closely the individual lives of the main and secondary characters so closely certainly supplies a personal element. It makes the statement that, not only does the subject matter have huge implications for the U.S., the Middle East and the world, but that real people are and will be affected by the decisions of men of power. Thus, monolithic institutions like oil companies and governments stand in sharp contrast to the individual lives they implicate.
The nature of the plot makes the movie a touch hard to fully follow on a first viewing and becomes more concrete on a second watch, but I don’t think the complicated plot is a drawback. Life is complicated, all the more the functions and duties of giant corporations and governments. This movie vividly captures the complexities and ethical implications pregnant, not just in capitalism itself, but in attempts to bring largely undeveloped nations into a more modern era whilst sometimes being left behind in the power grab for their resources.
A Feb. 25, 2011 report from Gallup shows that the United States is becoming increasingly more conservative, not less. Here’s the map that shows wide swaths of the nation in dark green (more conservative) and two main pockets of liberal areas, mainly in the West and Northeast:
Richard Florida with The Atlantic has taken the time to present some graphs on what the map means as far as trends. While the conclusions are not surprising, they are disheartening for those of us who would actually like to see the country move forward not ever backward.
Be that as it may, here’s a brief roundup.
Conservative states were found to be:
- More religious than liberal states
- More blue collar than liberal states
- Less educated than liberal states
- Less diverse than liberal states
- Considerably poorer than liberal states
While rich voters trend Republican, (Columbia University’s Andrew) Gelman and his colleagues found, rich states trend Democratic.
That’s quite a statement: rich voters with influence in poor, less educated and less diverse states. This reminds me of a profound statement made by British politician Tony Benn while being interviewed for the movie, “Sicko:”
An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern, and I think there’s an element in the thinking of some people. We don’t want people to be educated, healthy and confident because they would get out of control (chuckle). The top 1 percent of the world’s population owns 80 percent of the world’s wealth. It’s incredible that people put up with it, but they’re poor. They’re demoralized. They’re frightened; and therefore, they think perhaps the safest thing to do is take orders and hope for the best.
Here is Florida’s conclusion about the inflated, and rather ironic, trend of conservatism in America:
Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America’s least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind. The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism’s hold on America’s states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.
If you’ve read this far, perhaps you know what I’m going to say: In essence, the very people who need some of the reforms that would come with more progressive policies vote, almost in blind lockstep, against liberalism in favor of politicians who, at best, don’t care about their interests, and at worst, actively seek to introduce programs and policies that purposefully keep people uneducated, unhealthy, poor and, in the end, hopeless. Voters in many of these states are too ignorant to catch on to this little game, so the poor stay poor and the wealthy interests happily glide above the fray on cloud nine. Not only is conservatism the ideology of the economically left behind, it is the left behind ideology, and the above more than bears this out.
Following are three of the more telling graphs:
To elucidate some of these points, here is the late comedian George Carlin:
One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.
Anyone who has studied the Civil War in depth well knows that the causes of America’s bloodiest four years on record are and have been in much contention during the 150 years since the first shots rung out at Fort Sumter (April 12 will mark 150 years since the Confederacy fired on Sumter). I’m under the firm belief, however, and in agreement with Lincoln, that while smaller issues were astir at the time (states rights, the different economies between the North and the South, western expansion, etc.) the only substantial dispute was, indeed, slavery. Or, as one of my professors at Clemson University once mused:
Both slavery and anti-slavery caused the Civil War.
True enough, many in the North were just as racist as folks in the South, Northern ships were often used in the slave trade and the North, to some degree, did benefit economically from the peculiar institution. But, we should remember that Lincoln did not initially wish to end slavery. If nothing else, he wanted to save the Union, and at the most acute level, the Civil War began because the Confederacy attacked a federal fort. Lincoln’s abolitionist tendencies only came later. All that said, slavery was at the heart of the war, and nearly all other concerns were sub-issues implicitly bound up with the one big issue. Of this we can be certain: in the days leading up to Election Day 1860, the word “secession” was already on tongue of many, if not most, Southern leaders if Lincoln were to take office. For good reason then, Lincoln used almost his entire first inaugural address to discuss the slave question and the divided nation in March 1861.
The Washington Post on Friday featured a fascinating article on the “V” hand signal which, at times, has represented peace and, at others, victory. But in most instances, as the story notes, it has symbolized resistance:
The story of the V symbol spans cultures, time zones and decades. From World War II through the Arab spring of 2011, it has been used by the powerful and the powerless, by young and old, by warriors and peacemakers. Its meaning has evolved, yet it is understood around the world as a symbol of resistance.
The hand signal may have originated in the 1940s when Doug Ritchie, known as Colonel Britton as his radio persona, exhorted those in German-occupied areas to begin using the “V” hand signal to symbolize “the unconquerable will of the occupied territories.”
Since then, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Lennon and many others have used the symbol to denote either electoral victories, military victories or, in Lennon’s case, peace during the 1960s anti-war movement.
Today, protesters in Egypt, Libya, Jordan and elsewhere have used the symbol in protests against their respective governments,
continuing its long history as a sign of popular resistance — a history that originated in Britain, crisscrossed the Atlantic, landed in the Middle East and Africa, and will no doubt continue to spread as long as people rally around causes and against oppression.
From an unlikely source, today’s entry comes from singer/songwriter, Ryan Adams, who posted a link to this marvelous video on his Facebook page. It presents a ground-to-space view of our place in the cosmos and expands out to as far back as 13.7 billion years ago to the infancy of our universe just before the Big Bang. It was made by the American Museum of Natural History.
A British theologian has come to the conclusion that the god of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament had a consort, commonly known as Asherah or Astarte. Here is an article on the theologian’s findings.
According to Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter,
You might know him as Yahweh, Allah or God. But on this fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the people of the great Abrahamic religions, are agreed: There is only one of Him,” Stavrakopoulou wrote in a recent article. “He is a solitary figure, a single, universal creator, not one God among many … or so we like to believe.
Archaeological evidence as well as details in the Bible, indicate not just that he was one of several worshipped in ancient Israel, but that he was also coupled with a goddess, who was worshipped in his temple in Jerusalem.
This, of course, rips holes in the idea that Judaism was a monotheistic religion from the start. The idea that it could have been polytheistic just like almost all religions around at the time would be more typical of what we would find in ancient civilizations. In fact, this would also make a lot of sense on a purely logical level. As Stephen Fry has said, the idea of polytheism is a tenable position on some levels. We can understand that ancient people might have been compelled to make gods out of the ocean, sky, trees, the sun, etc., because this helped them to explain a highly complicated and hostile world. Here’s Fry on the matter of polytheism:
It appears from research others have done that Yahweh’s “wife,” as some are calling her, was an early addition to some of the current books that are now in the OT, but Asherah was later redacted because monotheism, not polytheism, was taking hold. But researchers say that we can still find traces of Asherah in the OT.
Here is a detailed look.
And here is archaeologist Amihai Mazar in The Quest for the Historical Israel:
An analysis of the biblical sources as well as the archaeological remains shows that Israelite religion passed through several stages of development. The worship of Yahweh alongside a consort named Asherah is known from the inscriptions at Kuntillet Ajrud, a fortified citadel-like structure in the eastern Sinai desert dated to about 800 b.c.e. This unusual and remote site, located on the main highway between Gaza and the Red Sea, seems to have been used as a roadside station, but was also a place of religious activity. It seems to have been utilized by people from both Israel and Judah, as can be detected by pottery types that represent both kingdoms. Ink inscriptions and paintings found on the white plaster of the walls, as well as on large pottery containers and a stone trough, contain dedications, prayers, and blessings. The most revealing is a dedication or prayer to Yahweh and “his Asherah.” A similar combination of Yahweh and Asherah appears also on an inscription from a cave at Khirbet el-Kom (biblical Makedah?) in the Shephelah. This combination probably reflects a theology that is substantially different from the pure monotheistic religion as it is preserved for us in the Hebrew Bible.
This evidence indicates a strong continuity with Canaanite religion, where El was the head of the pantheon and Asherah was his consort. While the worship of Asherah was condemned by the Jerusalem prophets, they probably represent the new theology that was emerging towards the end of the monarchy among the Jerusalem intellectual elite, while the popular religion embraced by the common folk was much more traditional, preserving indigenous ideas and beliefs rooted in Canaanite religion.
Astronomers recently discovered perhaps the coldest known star in our viewable universe. So cold, in fact, that it’s thought to be about the same temperature as a cup of hot tea or about 212 degree Fahrenheit. By star standards, that’s extremely chilly. The Sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit by comparison.
This interesting study of serotonin in mice may change our knowledge of sexual preference in animals. Male mice in the study were found to have a decreased preference for females when they had low levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. It would be a stretch, however, to attempt to apply this to humans since humans are obviously much different than mice on a physiological level. But attempting to explain homosexuality by any means other than through science would also be fantastically foolish. We also tread in dangerous waters when talking about sexual preference at all in animals because they, more or less, mate like we do, with certain hard-wired components that determine to whom they are and are not attracted. I don’t prefer females over men, and I don’t choose women as a conscious decision. I don’t choose woman at all, actually. I don’t really have choice in the matter. Sexually speaking, I do not have free will. Neither do mice or other humans. It’s innate. So, I use “preference” with caution and for lack of a better word.
According to Elaine Hull, with Florida State University,
In terms of possible applications to humans, this may have implications for bisexual behavior. … Much more information is needed to specify the brain areas involved, and possible developmental regulation of serotonin in those areas, before we can jump to the conclusion that serotonin is the factor that inhibits male-to-male attraction.
It would be even more of a stretch to say that we could somehow “cure” humans of homosexuality by pumping them with more serotonin. We already know that some pastors and churches and even psychiatrists have offered programs to “treat” homosexuality through therapy, prayer, biblical studies and the like. This is absurd, of course, since, it’s not a disease that needs to be treated, no more than heterosexuality needs treated. The serotonin study, if it does nothing else, at least puts the focus squarely back on science with regard to this issue and reminds us of two things: first, as I have said, that homosexuality is not a choice anymore than being straight is a choice, and second, like everything else that is still unknown about life on this planet, a scientific explanation about homosexuality, whether based in genetics, brain physiology, hormone levels or something else, will be the better and more fulfilling answer every single time.
This image is a “close-up” view from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope of NGC 4755, or the Jewel Box cluster. Several very bright, pale blue supergiant stars, a solitary ruby-red supergiant and a variety of other brilliantly coloured stars are visible in the image, as well as many much fainter ones, often with intriguing colours. The huge variety in brightness exists because the brighter stars are 15 to 20 times the mass of the Sun, while the dim points are less than half the mass of the Sun. This is the first image of an open galactic cluster with imaging extending from the far ultraviolet to the near-infrared.
Did you catch that? The brighter stars in this photo are 15-20 times the mass of the Sun.