Alexander Lukashenko: facing a big decision

Recent advances by Ukrainian forces on the Kharkiv front spell one barrowful of trouble for Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. [1] [2]. Trouble; but not yet terminal, as he still has cards to play. These could be economic, or nuclear. But there is one remaining conventional military option, sitting right on Ukraine’s border, which could still be deployed. It is Belarus and its lifelong dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

On the face of it, this option must look tempting to Putin and his advisers. Lukashenko owes them his position, and thereby a favour. Both share a common hatred of freedom and democracy. Ukrainian forces, heavily committed towards Kherson and the Eastern fronts would be incredibly vulnerable to a stab in the back. Belarussian forces could sweep across the lightly defended plains to be in Kiev in a week. War over.

But think again from the point of view of Lukashenko’s self-interest. Firstly: if he gave the order, how much of his army would obey? He’s not the most popular of men. Secondly: how many Belarussians would risk their lives for Vladimir Putin? And if Putin triumphs, what then? Lukashenko becomes one more provincial governor, just another subordinate in Putin’s power structure. And we all know what happens to them when they displease the Boss, or some more favoured member of the Court takes a fancy to their little fief. The current fashion is to fall out of a window, or a mysterious poisoning (often extended to wives and children). But as Putin treads ever more faithfully in the footsteps of Josef Stalin, how long before it’s a long slow death in Siberia, or a short, agonising one in the Lubyanka?

A victory for Ukraine would leave Belarus largely untouched, ready to integrate at its own pace into structures such as the EU and NATO, if it chose to do so. It would certainly take a generation or so. Meanwhile a general rising tide of prosperity which that victory would bring, will guarantee rising living standards and political stability to all nations in that region. Lukashenko must be an intelligent man, or he could not have lasted so long. Time for him to consider the old maxim:” “be careful what you wish for.”



#lukashenko #putin #belarus #ukraine #russia #war #stalin

Weekly round-up: nuclear fusion, clever people, discovering America, cat apps

some things we noticed this week which may be significant

Fusion, fusion We’ve said it before here, but one sure way out of our current energy problems will be the ability to harness the power of nuclear fusion; that bringing together of hydrogen atoms to make them into helium, thus replicating the processes of the Sun. Progress has been indifferent for many decades but two recent developments suggest that things may be looking up

First Anthony Cuthbertson for the Irish Independent showcases a South Korean team who have achieved 30 seconds’ run time at temperatures far hotter than the Sun. No one’s quite got this far before.

In research, trying to do things a bit differently sometimes helps. Up to now much fusion research has centred on tokamaks. Now team at Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute is trying out something called a “stellarator.” It’s early days yet, but this Insitute’s track record on anything is truly formidable. One to watch:

We thank Mr Gary Herbert for this lead

More wrangling over genes We are at LSS are always suspicious about a single genetic explanation for anything, from homosexuality to the disappearance of Neanderthal Persons in the late Paleolithic. Yet genes must do something, or why else would we have them? Which is why it’s worth a good look at this one from Nature, which puts down our own (self-proclaimed) superiority to a gene called TKTL-1

Researchers have pinpointed a fateful genetic mutation that might have contributed to a cognitive advantage for modern humans over Neanderthals. Tests in the laboratory suggest that a single change in the gene TKTL1 ultimately causes the brain to develop more neurons. The Neanderthal version of TKTL1 still exists in some modern humans, although it’s very rare and it’s unknown whether it causes any disease or cognitive differences.Nature | 4 min read
Reference: Science paper

Looking for America Given that the two American continents are so very big, it always seemed odd to us that everybody missed them before Colombus. Turns out they didn’t-at least seven other lots got there before the intrepid Italian. None of it could have been plain sailing, but we are in particular awe of the Polynesians who crossed the truly vast Pacific in tiny canoes. Nicolas Longrich expounds for the Conversation:

Time for a cat app Everyone thinks they know how to communicate with a feline friend. But can IT help clarify the conversations? Claire Cohen checks out the pros and cons of the latest apps which may help humans and cats understand each other more clearly. We don’t think there’s much to know beyond “I WANT MY DINNER” and “LET ME IN/OUT.”

May you and all your pets of whatever species have a good weekend

#nuclear fusion #max planck institute #tktl-1 #neanderthal #settlement of America #cats

No Friday Cocktails

Out of respect to our British readers, there will be no Friday Night Cocktails this week due to the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday.

We would like to thank readers in all countries for the condolences which your leaders have sent to our Government and Nation.

LSS will resume tomorrow with Weekly Round Up.

The Ancient Mariner: the world’s first piece of eco-art

We’re fond here of trying to trace back to who gave us the first warning of our impending ecological catastrophe. Was it Creedence Clearwater Revival? Joni Mitchell? No, it was long, long before. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 -1834) whose Rime of the Ancient Mariner represents, for us, the first heavee-message eco bit of art; in the western canon at least.

Coleridge was a great poet and author, and a personal disaster with private griefs such as a failed marriage, a major league opiate addiction and endless financial troubles. Yet he’s still important as a founding father of the new Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century. A breath of fresh air in science art and philosophy, it encompassed such luminaries as Wordsworth, Goethe, Beethoven, and David among many others. They disagreed on many things-but all were firm in their admiration for Nature. It was Coleridge who first warned of the terrible dangers of those who wantonly destroy it.

Nature appears in the poem in the shape of a beautiful albatross, who leads a group of sailors out of an Antarctic ice field,and accompanies their ship as guide and mentor. Then, just because he can, the ancient mariner blows it away with one bolt from his crossbow. The rest of the poem relates the troubles which befall the crew as the Powers That Be take vengeance for this swinish act. We won’t spoil it for you, but mass death and anguished remorse are always something to look forward to, particularly if they happen to someone else.

There’s a message here for eco campaigners too: the fickleness of public opinion, as represented by the other crew members. At first they berate him (ah, wretch, they said, the bird to slay/that made the breeze to blow), then change their minds (then all averred I had killed the bird/that brought the fog and mist). Their final opinions, when they realised what he had brought upon them by his act of gratuitous ecocide, we shall leave you to find for yourself, gentle reader [1].

As we write, the wanton destruction continues apace. Will Bolsonaro ever be like the Ancient Mariner, condemned to endlessly repent his actions in the Amazon? Will big oil ever be brought to account for all the heatwaves, fires and floods they have visited on us all? Coleridge longed for Divine justice in the world. What will happen to us if his wish comes true?[2]



#ecocide #climate change #global warming #samuel taylor coleridge #ancient mariner #romantic movement

Exciting microfossils point to key step in evolution

The biggest division in the living world is between procaryotes-those tiny, simple celled creatures that include things like bacteria-and the eucaryotes, with larger far more complicated cells. And this includes you, gentle reader, for your cells have a marvellous set of apps like an enclosed nucleus, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum and a host of other bright shiny things. Which make the poor old bacterial, with its free-floating DNA look like one of those early mobile phones we had back in 1998.

Except of course, the bacterial design is incredibly successful. It probably began 3.5 billion years ago has survived ever since and in terms of biomass, habitat niches and diversity, far outstrips its haughty, but relatively rare, eucaryote rivals. For every blue whale there are billions and billions and billions of bacteria. So why did eucaryotes evolve at all, and when?

Now some really exciting research among microfossils in the 1.9 billion year old Gunflint Chert formations of Canada may give some clues[1] Researchers have found a whole range of fossils that are procaryote in size but begin to exhibit the range and functions we’d normally expect from eucaryotes. It’s as if some transition was going on. And why? Researchers speculate it may have been driven by environmental stresses such as early plate tectonics. But we urge you to read the article by David Bresson of Forbes for yourself. It’s got great pictures, and a reference to the original paper if you really want to wade in deep.

And our takeaway? Up to now, paleontology has been dominated by big fossils you can see, like bits of dinosaurs. Maybe it’s time for more spend on microfossils, like bacteria, pollen grains, chemical residue traces and so on. They might tell us an awful lot more than we know now

#evolution #procaryotes #eucaryotes #precambrian

Weekly Round Up: Neanderthals live, planets pictured, eating meat, Pakistan’s revenge and Joni Mitchell

stories that caught our eye

Neanderthals Live on Life is ironic. Neanderthals went extinct 40 000 years ago. Yet there are so many Homo sapiens now who carry small amounts of Neanderthal DNA that it all adds up to more Neanderthal stuff than when they were in their Ice Age pomp. At least according to this excellent article by Peter Kjaergaard and his colleagues for The Conversation. We also liked their diagram that tries to make sense of the incredibly complicated gene flows during the last part of human evolution, when so many lines were interbreeding with each other. To the utter inconvenience of modern scientists, who must try to make sense of it all

James Webb makes you proud to be educated While the mass of humanity pass their time in pub brawls, burning witches, engaging in theological controversies, watching Fox News and other activities of that sort, it’s heartening to see what the more enlightened sections of our species get up to. Now the James Webb telescope is sending us pictures of actual, real planets orbiting round other stars. And this is just the start. All we can say is “watch this space” Nature Briefings, Webb wows with first exoplanet image

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much: just a handful of bright pixels. But the James Webb Space Telescope’s first image of an exoplanet demonstrates the observatory’s infrared prowess. Exoplanets are difficult to image directly because they are often lost in the glare of the star around which they orbit. Observing in infrared wavelengths, as Webb does, helps boost the contrast between star and planet. “It gives us wavelengths we’ve never seen planets at before,” says astronomer Beth Biller.Nature | 5 min read
Reference: arXiv preprint

Meat the counter-intuitive Before it becomes accepted wisdom that we’ll have to give up meat to save the planet, at least read this counter-intuitive argument from Thomasina Miers in The Guardian. We know farmers with land that really isn’t suitable for arable, but can produce good food by way of pasture. So maybe the answer is-keep it, but in much smaller amounts?

World Warms, Pakistan drowns The tragic floods in Pakistan are a case study in the devastation caused by global warming. It will take immense sums to repair the damage. Could Pakistan’s Government recoup some of it by claiming damages against the energy companies who have caused it and those politicians, journalists, think tanks and so many others who worked so assiduously to deny there was ever a problem at all?

Big Yellow Taxi-another canary in the mine We have alluded more than once to how the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song Bad moon rising gave early warnings of impending ecological catastrophe. Bought on by human greed, venality and concupiscence of course! Around that time Canadian singer Joni Mitchell wrote a deliciously ironic song, as only a woman could, called Big Yellow Taxi which said it all in one line “they paved paradise, out up a parking lot” We” end hoping you can play this link

#ecocide #global warming #climate change #NASA #space #dna #neanderthals #joni michell

Friday Night: The Moon Under Water, an English Pub

George Orwell (1903-1950) was one of the most influential writers of the last century. In works such as 1984 and Animal Farm he alerted the world to the dangers of Soviet Communism in general, and Josef Stalin in particular. Given the current activities of Vladimir Putin, these works might bear a little revisiting!

Despite that, Orwell’s politics remained firmly Left wing. To the fury of certain newspapers he saw this as perfectly compatible with a strongly English patriotism, And despite a prodigious output of journalism books, broadcasts and military service, he could relax in that most English of institutions: the pub. In private life he could be stubborn, cantankerous, amusing and thoroughly decent(we know, we’ve spoken to people who knew him) And his reflective, elegiac essay The Moon Under Water tries to capture the spirit of that most quintessentially English Institutions-the pub. [1]

The work was published in 1946, and it’s 2022 now. Many pubs have been transformed in ways that Orwell might not have approved of. Yet something of his ideal can still be found, both in quiet corners of London and other towns, or out in the folds of the country hills. if you know where to look. Language students should consider Orwell as a model of simple English prose. All others should read it and muse on the benefits of a Friday night pint.



#stalin #putin #george orwell #pub #beer

Freedom has consequences-it’s just that some people can’t face them

Some people take a funny line on individual liberty. “I should be free to do whatever I want whenever I want” is a fair representation of this view as it has been expounded to us in many a session in places like the Dog and Duck, or certain junior student common rooms. Leaving aside its obvious flaws, which we’ll hit on later, does untrammelled liberty benefit its disciples as much as they claim, or actually do them harm?

Many was the smoker of our youth who insisted on his inalienable right to ingest immeasurable quantities of burning vegetable matter. We watched countless motorcyclists protesting against the insufferable illiberty of having to wear a crash helmet. While back at the Dog and Duck, every drinker expected that someone else’s money would pay for his liver when it went wrong. (most of them seemed less keen to uphold the liberties of cannabis smokers-why was that?)

Now Nature Briefings has a marvellous take on the consequences of all this blissful, unfettered liberty, with a survey of all the deaths which have been caused by things like smoking and drinking. More of them seem to happen to men, but, ho hum, what’s new there? Most of them always did know best, like so many little monarchs. Which is why they forgot that there might be bigger monarchs, with bigger advertising budgets who were able to twist their delusions into some very profitable directions indeed. We show the results below. “Half of all cancer deaths are preventable”

Nearly 50% of cancer deaths worldwide are caused by preventable risk factors. The largest study yet of the link between cancer burden and risk factors used estimates of cases and deaths from more than 200 countries. Smoking, alcohol use and a high body-mass index — which can be indicative of obesity — were the biggest contributors to cancer. The study did not include some other known risk factors, including exposure to ultraviolet radiation and certain infections — such as HPV, which can cause cervical cancer.Nature | 4 min read
The Lancet paper

So-are a few restrictions on certain behaviours, in the general interest of preventing global warming, really such an intolerable assault on liberty?

#smoking #alcohol #cancer #premature death #climate change

a brief note to all the kind staff of wordpress who have helped with some dreadful technical problems today – lovely people!

Artificial Intelligence: scary or just a game changer?

Looking down from the height of our seven hundredth blog (count ’em-seven hundred!”), we couldn’t help a little mellow reflection on a constant theme of these posts-Artificial Intelligence, quantum Computers, robots and all that sort of thing. It also reflects many of the comments and suggestions we receive from you, gentle readers.

The theme is nothing new-these things are amazing. Powerful indeed. And that makes them scary. it’s been the theme of science fiction films, books, TV shows and endless learned discussions in ever-so-slightly unreadable books since at least 1950. They can even beat us at chess, goddammit, so what chance have we got? Well did we sympathise with the crying boy on the Brighton train the other week, who screamed to his mother that he was “frightened of the robot.” (None was visible on that train, or any other that day)

It was that wisest of Science Fiction writers, Arthur C Clarke who gave us the re-assurance we craved-with this explanation. The earliest toolmakers, entirely apelike beings had no intention of changing themselves or the world when they started bashing flints. They just wanted to get their dinner better. But as you use tools more and more, you need teeth less and less. So gradually the shape of their faces changed. Hunting got better because tools made it more effective, leading to bigger brains, and legs adapted for running, not climbing. And so on. Feedback loops were set up whereby cleverer creatures started improving their tools. By the time you got to something humanlike ,say Homo erectus, the toolmakers dared not drop their implements , because they had lost the big teeth and strong arms which might have let them survive without those tools. The tools and the creatures had formed a single symbiotic unit with its own niche.

It is likely that humans and machines will co evolve, maybe even fuse together, as Clarke predicted. In a few generations we may not look, feel or move in quite the same ways as we do now. Especially those who will choose to live on other planets like Mars. But the same chain of progress started so long ago in Africa will be carried forward. Our legacy will be secure.

#arthus c clarke #artificial intelligence #quantum computing #robots #human evolution