Archive for March, 2013

Night Lights

Last year, NASA posted a new high resolution map of the lights present across the world at night using the Suomi NPP satellite, which was launched in 2009.

While the overall appearance of the map is similar to those provided by older satellites, with a well-lit developed world and a global south shrouded in darkness, the higher level of detail allows a closer look at some of the smaller features around the globe

A River Of Fire

Along the shores of the southwestern Mediterranean lie the heirs of two ancient civilizations, whose modern cities are arranged in distinctly different patterns.

Along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, we can see a web of Levantine cities in Lebanon and Israel starting from the coast and expanding back toward their eastern borders. The countries to their east, Syria and Jordan, have their urban networks concentrated around the capital cities of Damascus and Amman respectively.

Of course, one of the most striking features of any nighttime satellite imagery of the Earth is the glowing strip of lights along the Egyptian Nile, starting with the triangular delta and stretching upstream until it comes to an abrupt end at the Aswan Dam, built at the site of the first cataract, the historic separation point between Egyptian civilization and the Nubians of what is now southern Egypt. While there are some scattered lights in Egypt outside of the Nile Valley, those can only be found in the oases of the Sahara, whose desiccated expanse otherwise impedes the growth of sedentary society, serving instead as the domain of a small number of nomads migrating across its vast waves of dunes.

The utter darkness of Nubia is a reflection both of the population displacement caused by the formation of Lake Nasser with the building of the the Aswan Dam and the extent to which the Nile cataracts impeded the extension of Egyptian civilization southward to a meaningful extent.

Further upstream, there is little in the way of lights until reaching the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, which serves as an island of urbanization in an otherwise dark Sudanese countryside. With six cataracts between its capital and the glowing thread of the Egyptian Nile Valley, Sudan’s darkness outside of its capital is representative of the African continent south of the Sahara.
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The OneZoom Tree Of Life

Recently, the OneZoom website, run by James Rosindell and Luke Harmon at Imperial College London, released an illustration of the ancestral tree of all tetrapods–that is, all birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians. Previously, the group had produced trees for birds, mammals, and amphibians alone, but now all three have been combined with the various groups of reptiles filled in as well. In the immediate future, the group is planning on adding fish and plants with the ultimate goal being an illustration of the ancestral relationships of all extant life on Earth.

Here’s the launch video the group released at the same time that the mammalian tree became available:

If you spend some time playing around with it, you can find out quite a few surprising relationships. For instance, as the tree above shows, crocodiles are more closely related to birds than they are to turtles or lizards.
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Just as I stopped blogging with a discussion of how fertility and proselytism shape the ideological landscape with a Bloggingheads discussion as its centerpiece, I’m returning with another Bloggingheads discussion, this time between two liberals, Allison Yarrow and Harry Siegel, the latter of whom co-wrote a Newsweek article concerning the future of fertility for the United States:

Unfortunately, the discussion is somewhat one-sided in terms of common sense.  Allison Yarrow repeats the widespread myth that women do not receive equal pay for equal work and seems to think that continued work by the elderly necessitated by economic conditions will fuel innovation in our economy.  However, the discussion is an interesting illustration of how liberals approach the issue of fertility.

Siegel expresses what is probably the largest liberal concern when it comes to matters of fertility and that is how age demographics will affect the stability of the welfare state. Like many liberals, he also sees immigration as a possible way of softening the blow to state coffers that will come with the wave of Baby Boomer retirements.

As for an explanation for the declining fertility rate, the conversation is a bit murky. Siegel proffers the notion that as more and more women are educated, many of them decide to strive for careers and decide that childbearing is unappealing while also discussing pessimistic economic prospects for couples in recent decades. While to some extent this may be true, I think that a shift in cultural values is playing a more important role. This comes out in a statistic from Siegel than among young people who do not think marriage is obsolete (those that do are 44% of the population), only 41% think that children are important for marriage, down from 65% in 1990.

I don’t think that materialist factors should be discounted entirely. For instance, Yarrow mentions that Obama’s Affordable Care Act doesn’t include many pro-fertility provisions: that employers must provide women a place to breastfeed their children is the only one she could think of, while it does require that all healthcare plans include funding for birth control. However, it seems like the arrow of causation may be moving more from the a culture that devalues having children while promoting careerism and consumerism to lawmakers’ favoring of policies that benefit the childless than those that benefit those with children rather than the other way around. If public policy were the driving factor, then pronatalist policies in various European countries from Sweden to Russia would yield replacement level fertility, a feat they have yet to achieve.

An interesting aside is what the two of them consider to be “normal”. At one point, Siegel, while arguing that the children of high fertility groups are more “normal than their parents, brings up a woman whose mother was an unspecified famous country singer who is now a childless anarchist tattoo artist. While I understand that famous country singers are not an everyday occurrence, anarchist tattoo artist hardly seem to be more normal to me, but then again, I’m not a writer for The Daily Beast.

The context for this was the discussion of high fertility subcultures such as Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, who Yarrow had proposed as a solution for the effect of declining fertility on the public purse. Siegel found this unpromising, in part because particularly high fertility groups often abuse the welfare system to fund their families, but more importantly because of what he saw as negative views on homosexuality and women. The irony is that while Siegel wants higher fertility, the last thing he is willing to consider is a cultural outlook conducive to that end.