Month: March 2018

Centuries of Catalonia’s cultural struggle against Madrid

Centuries of Catalonia’s cultural struggle against Madrid

Like all constitutions, the 1978 Spanish constitution is a product of a very specific historical moment. General Francisco Franco had died in 1975 and his political heirs understood the need for change: Francoism without Franco in a rapidly modernising country was not sustainable. The democratic parties, including the Catalan nationalists, recognised they were too weak to impose a clean break and bring Franco’s henchmen to justice. The constitution was a pact between the most forward-looking Francoists and a heterogeneous opposition prepared to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed by Franco’s so-called nationalists during the Civil War and nearly four decades of dictatorship. It is from this uneasy compromise that all recent political upheaval in Catalonia stems – including the latest instalment, the region’s election on December 21. To understand the conflict, however, you have to go back much further than 1978. Neither can you confine yourself to politics; everything is underpinned by the rise of Catalan culture and its battle to express itself. Renaissance years Today’s Catalan nationalism has its origins in the 19th-century …

Facts on Diet and Inflammation

In health, as with so many things, our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness. Take our astonishingly sophisticated response to injury and infection. Our bodies unleash armies of cellular troops to slaughter invaders and clear out traitors. Their movements are marshaled by signaling chemicals, such as the interleukins, which tell cells where and when to fight and when to stand down. We experience this as the swelling, redness and soreness of inflammation—an essential part of healing. But when the wars fail to wind down, when inflammation becomes chronic or systemic, there’s hell to pay. I’m looking at you, arthritis, colitis and bursitis, and at you, diabetes, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the world’s biggest killer, and we’ve known for 20 years that inflammation (along with too much cholesterol) ignites the buildup of plaque in our arteries. Still, no one knew if runaway inflammation could actually pull the trigger on heart attacks and strokes—until this summer. Results from a large, well-designed trial showed that certain high-risk patients suffered fewer of these …

Does Gender Matter?

When I was 14 years old, I had an unusually talented maths teacher. One day after school, I excitedly pointed him out to my mother. To my amazement, she looked at him with shock and said with disgust: “You never told me that he was black”. I looked over at my teacher and, for the first time, realized that he was an African-American. I had somehow never noticed his skin colour before, only his spectacular teaching ability. I would like to think that my parents’ sincere efforts to teach me prejudice were unsuccessful. I don’t know why this lesson takes for some and not for others. But now that I am 51, as a female-to-male transgendered person, I still wonder about it, particularly when I hear male gym teachers telling young boys “not to be like girls” in that same derogatory tone. HYPOTHESIS TESTING Last year, Harvard University president Larry Summers suggested that differences in innate aptitude rather than discrimination were more likely to be to blame for the failure of women to advance in …

Should Atheism Be Taught?

Louis J. Appignani, an 84-year-old living in Florida, tells a compelling story about his conversion to atheism. Despite attending Catholic schools from a young age and through his teens, he didn’t really question belief in God growing up; people in his world, he said, sort of took faith for granted. Then he got to college and started reading the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who argued against traditional defenses of God’s existence and justified, as Appignani put it, “what I deep down believe.” Now, the proud atheist holds nothing back when it comes to his personal views on religion. The study of atheism, he said, “gave me strength to believe that faith is stupid … [that] mythology is not true.” Appignani started his career as a businessman, serving as the president and chairman of the famous Barbizon International modeling and acting school, among other endeavors. In 2001 he turned his focus to atheism, establishing the Appignani Foundation, which supports “critical thinking” and “humanistic values” and has given grants to organizations such as the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. Then, …

Can you weigh Cloud?

Have you ever wondered how much a cloud weighs? Even though a cloud seems to float in air, both the air and the cloud have mass and weight. Clouds float in the sky because they are less dense than air, yet it turns out they weigh a lot. How much? About a million pounds! Here’s how the calculation works: Finding the Weight of a Cloud Clouds form when the temperature becomes too cold for the air to hold water vapor. The vapor condenses into tiny droplets. Scientists have measured the density of a cumulus cloud at about 0.5 grams per cubic meter. Cumulus clouds are fluffy white clouds, but the density of clouds depends on their type. Lacy cirrus clouds may have a lower density, while rain-bearing cumulonimbus clouds may be more dense. A cumulus cloud is a good starting point for a calculation, though, because these clouds have a fairly easy-to-measure shape and size. How do you measure a cloud? One way is to drive straight across its shadow when the sun is overhead at …

China tests prototype air cleaner

 A 60-metre-high chimney stands among a sea of high-rise buildings in one of China’s most polluted cities. But instead of adding to Xian’s smog, this chimney is helping to clear the air. The outdoor air-purifying system, powered by the Sun, filters out noxious particles and billows clean air into the skies. Chinese scientists who designed the prototype say that the system could significantly cut pollution in urban areas in China and elsewhere. The technology has excited and intrigued researchers — especially in China, where air pollution is a daily challenge. Early results, which are yet to be published, are promising, says the project’s leader Cao Junji, a chemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Aerosol Chemistry and Physics in Xian in central China. “This is certainly a very interesting idea,” says Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has heard about the system but not seen it in action. “I am not aware of anyone else doing a project like this one.” The prototype, built with …

Struggles of self taught Artificial Intelligence

Until very recently, the machines that could trounce champions were at least respectful enough to start by learning from human experience. To beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, IBM engineers made use of centuries of chess wisdom in their Deep Blue computer. In 2016, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo thrashed champion Lee Sedol at the ancient board game Go after poring over millions of positions from tens of thousands of human games. But now artificial intelligence researchers are rethinking the way their bots incorporate the totality of human knowledge. The current trend is: Don’t bother. Last October, the DeepMind team published details of a new Go-playing system, AlphaGo Zero, that studied no human games at all. Instead, it started with the game’s rules and played against itself. The first moves it made were completely random. After each game, it folded in new knowledge of what led to a win and what didn’t. At the end of these scrimmages, AlphaGo Zero went head to head with the already superhuman version of AlphaGo that had beaten Lee Sedol. …

Is there an evolutionary advantage in being religious?

For a biologist like me, the interesting questions about religion have always been where did it come from and why did it evolve? I taught evolutionary biology in a Catholic University in the most Catholic country in the world – Brazil. Some of my colleagues here in the UK thought that must have been very challenging, but it wasn’t. The Brazilian population is unusual in that 60% of the population are religious and also believe in evolution by natural selection. The development of new religions looks like the way new species are formed and thrive. In case of protestants, the “evolutionary spark” would be Martin Luther with his calls for reform. Similarly the deliberate differences, such as religious rituals, were created to keep the two faiths separated in the same manner that speciation of songbirds often provides related species with similar, but distinct songs so they will not interbreed. A recent study by Bernard Crespi and Kyle Summers at Simon Fraser University attempts to explain religion in biological terms. They believe that evolution of religion …

Debate on Universal Basic Income in the U.S.?

Universal basic income is a controversial proposal under which the government provides regular, permanent cash payments to each citizen with the intent of lifting everyone out of poverty, encouraging their participation in the economy and covering the costs of their most fundamental needs including food, housing and clothing. Everyone, in other words, gets a paycheck – whether they work or not. The idea of setting a universal basic income has been around for centuries but remains largely experimental. Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Finland have launched trials of universal basic income variations. It gained some momentum among some economists, sociologists and tech industry leaders with the advent of technology that allowed factories and businesses to automate the manufacturing of goods and to reduce the size of their human workforces. How the Universal Basic Income Works There are many variations of the universal basic income. The most basic of these proposals would merely replace Social Security, unemployment compensation and public-assistance programs with a basic income for every citizen. The U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network supports such a …

Black Panther box office hit?

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, opening tonight in theatres across Canada and the United States, is pretty much guaranteed to be a hit. It set records for advance ticket sales on Fandango, its soundtrack album debuted in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts and industry estimates point to opening-weekend revenues as high as US$170 million. Director Ryan Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman appeared on the cover of the industry trade magazine Variety, while British GQ styled actor Michael B. Jordan to recall Black Panther Party activists. The red-carpet premiere made a splash on celebrity and fashion blogs, and it’s the most-tweeted-about film of the year. Marvel’s had big hits before. But this feels like something different. Ahead of its time The Black Panther, also known as King T’Challa of Wakanda, was created as a comic book hereo in 1966 by artist Jack Kirby and writer/editor Stan Lee. Although considered the first Black superhero in American comics, this is not the first time we’ve seen a Black superhero in the cinema. Comedian Robert Townsend gave …