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19 Apr 11:57

Renovation relic: Man finds hominin jawbone in parents’ travertine kitchen tile

by Jennifer Ouellette
closeup of fossilized jawbone in a piece of travertine tile

Enlarge / Reddit user Kidipadeli75 spotted a fossilized hominin jawbone in his parents' new travertine kitchen tile. (credit: Reddit user Kidipadeli75)

Ah, Reddit! It's a constant source of amazing stories that sound too good to be true... and yet! The latest example comes to us from a user named Kidipadeli75, a dentist who visited his parents after the latter's kitchen renovation and noticed what appeared to be a human-like jawbone embedded in the new travertine tile. Naturally, he posted a photograph to Reddit seeking advice and input. And Reddit was happy to oblige.

User MAJOR_Blarg, for instance, is a dentist "with forensic odontology training" and offered the following:

While all old-world monkeys, apes, and hominids share the same dental formula, 2-1-2-3, and the individual molars and premolars can look similar, the specific spacing in the mandible itself is very specifically and characteristically human, or at least related and very recent hominid relative/ancestor. Most likely human given the success of the proliferation of H.s. and the (relatively) rapid formation of travertine.

Against modern Homo sapiens, which may not be entirely relevant, the morphology of the mandible is likely not northern European, but more similar to African, middle Eastern, mainland Asian.

Another user, deamatrona, who claims to hold an anthropology degree, also thought the dentition looked Asiatic, "which could be a significant find." The thread also drew the attention of John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and longtime science blogger who provided some valuable context on his own website. (Hawks has been involved with the team that discovered Homo naledi at the Rising Star cave system in 2013.)

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15 Dec 14:36

MDMA—aka ecstasy—submitted to FDA as part of PTSD therapy

by Beth Mole
Girl with an ecstasy tablet on her tongue.

Enlarge / Girl with an ecstasy tablet on her tongue. (credit: Getty | UniversalImagesGroup)

A corporation dedicated to studying the benefits of psychedelic drugs filed an application with the Food and Drug Administration this week for approval to use MDMA—aka ecstasy or molly—in combination with talk therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

If approved, it would be the first-of-its-kind combination treatment—a psychedelic-assisted therapy. An approval would also require the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify MDMA, which is currently in the DEA's most restricted category, Schedule I, which is defined as drugs "with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." The category also includes LSD, heroin, and marijuana.

The public benefit corporation (PBC) that filed the FDA application was created by MAPS, The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has been supporting this type of work since 1986. The application is based on positive data from two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase III studies, which were funded and organized by MAPS and MAPS PBC.

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05 Oct 17:56

September’s record-setting temps were “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas”

figured silhouetted against the setting sun

Enlarge (credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The global temperature numbers for September are in, and they are not good. “This month was, in my professional opinion as a climate scientist—absolutely gobsmackingly bananas,” Zeke Hausfather posted Tuesday on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Kristina Dahl, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, read that post yesterday. “I've been sitting at my desk trying to think of a better way to describe that, but I can't,” Dahl says. “It's just shocking.”

“Concerning, worrying, wild—whatever superlative you want to use,” says Kate Marvel, senior scientist at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that fights climate change. “That's what it is.”

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18 Jul 14:13


The Atlantic is expanding at about 10 ppm (points per month).
18 Jun 13:53

Scientists conduct first test of a wireless cosmic ray navigation system

by Jennifer Ouellette
Artistic illustration of muons showering the Earth

Enlarge / Cosmic rays showering down on Earth's atmosphere are the basis of a new wireless alternative to GPS navigation. (credit: 2015 Hiroyuki K.M. Tanaka)

GPS is now a mainstay of daily life, helping us with navigation, tracking, mapping, and timing across a broad spectrum of applications. But it does have a few shortcomings, most notably not being able to pass through buildings, rocks, or water. That's why Japanese researchers have developed an alternative wireless navigation system that relies on cosmic rays, or muons, instead of radio waves, according to a new paper published in the journal iScience. The team has conducted its first successful test, and the system could one day be used by search and rescue teams, for example, to guide robots underwater or to help autonomous vehicles navigate underground.

"Cosmic-ray muons fall equally across the Earth and always travel at the same speed regardless of what matter they traverse, penetrating even kilometers of rock,” said co-author Hiroyuki Tanaka of Muographix at the University of Tokyo in Japan. “Now, by using muons, we have developed a new kind of GPS, which we have called the muometric positioning system (muPS), which works underground, indoors and underwater.”

As previously reported, there is a long history of using muons to image archaeological structures, a process made easier because cosmic rays provide a steady supply of these particles. Muons are also used to hunt for illegally transported nuclear materials at border crossings and to monitor active volcanoes in hopes of detecting when they might erupt. In 2008, scientists at the University of Texas, Austin, repurposed old muon detectors to search for possible hidden Mayan ruins in Belize. Physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been developing portable versions of muon imaging systems to unlock the construction secrets of the dome atop the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower in Florence, Italy, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century.

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11 Feb 11:37

Leonardo noted link between gravity and acceleration centuries before Einstein

by Jennifer Ouellette
Caltech researchers re-created an experiment on gravity and acceleration that Leonardo da Vinci sketched out in his notebooks.

Caltech researchers re-created an experiment on gravity and acceleration that Leonardo da Vinci sketched out in his notebooks. (credit: Caltech)

Caltech engineer Mory Gharib was poring over the digitized notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci one day, looking for sketches of flow visualization to share with his graduate students for inspiration. That's when he noticed several small sketches of triangles, whose geometry seemed to be determined by grains of sand poured out from a jar. Further investigation revealed that Leonardo was attempting to study the nature of gravity, and the little triangles were his attempt to draw a link between gravity and acceleration—well before Isaac Newton came up with his laws of motion, and centuries before Albert Einstein would demonstrate the equivalence principle with his general theory of relativity. [Edited for clarity.] Gharib was even able to re-create a modern version of the experiment.

Gharib and his collaborators described their discovery in a new paper published in the journal Leonardo, noting that, by modern calculations, Leonardo's model produced a value for the gravitational constant (G) to around 97 percent accuracy. What makes this finding even more astonishing is that Leonardo did all this without a means of accurate timekeeping and without the benefit of calculus, which Newton invented in order to develop his laws of motion and universal gravitation in the 1660s.

"We don't know if [Leonardo] did further experiments or probed this question more deeply," Gharib said. "But the fact that he was grappling with the problems in this way—in the early 1500s—demonstrates just how far ahead his thinking was."

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05 Jan 12:48

Everything I Do

by Doug
17 Dec 12:01


It's a long way down.
10 Dec 10:01

Comet Ice

by xkcd

Could I cool down the Earth by capturing a comet and dropping it in the ocean, like an ice cube in a glass of water?

Daniel Becker

No. In fact, it's honestly sort of impressive to find a solution that would actively make the problem worse in so many different ways.

Dropping a comet into the ocean to cool the planet, famously suggested by the 2002 Futurama episode None Like It Hot,[1] wouldn't work for a few reasons.

One is that dropping things from space creates heat. When water—or anything else—falls, it gains kinetic energy. When it stops falling, that energy has to go somewhere. Generally, it turns into heat. Water that goes over Niagara Falls, for example, gains enough kinetic energy during the 50-meter plunge to warm it up by about 0.1°C by the time it reaches the bottom. (This added heat is minor compared to the cooling effects of evaporation on the way down, so the actual temperature at the bottom is likely colder.)

Outer space is a lot higher up than Niagara Falls,[citation needed] so the plunge down into the atmosphere at the bottom of Earth's gravity well adds a lot more than 0.1 degrees worth of heat. A chunk of ice from space that falls to Earth gains enough energy to warm the ice up, melt it, boil it into vapor, and then heat the vapor to thousands of degrees. If you built an icy waterfall from space, the water would arrive at the bottom as a river of superheated steam.

Small chunks of ice falling from space disintegrate and boil away before they reach the ground, warming the upper atmosphere. Large comets can reach the ground intact and be vaporized on impact as their kinetic energy is converted to heat all at once. This heat energy would be about 100 times greater than the energy needed to bring even a very cold comet up to room temperature, so a comet falling from space would heat the Earth 100 times more than it cooled it.

But let's suppose you figure out a way to lower the comet slowly, using some kind of magical crane,[2] and gently set the comet in the ocean.

Comets are more dust than ice, but they're not particularly dense. A tiny piece of a comet would float for a short time until it became waterlogged, melted, and broke apart. A full-size comet wouldn't be strong enough to support its own weight, and would collapse like a drying sand sculpture.

If the comet were placed in the ocean,[3] the added ice would cool the water down by only about a millionth of a degree. If you set the comet on land, it would soak up heat from the atmosphere—which contains much less stored heat than the oceans—briefly cooling the air by an average of one or two thousandths of a degree.

Okay, so we just need thousands of comets, right? Each one will cool the air a little bit. With a large enough supply of comets, we can keep the Earth nice and cool, as long as we make sure they're lowered slowly.

Unfortunately, comets would affect the Earth's temperature in another way. In addition to dust and water, they contain a small amount of CO2, which would be released into the atmosphere as the comet melted. This CO2[4] would change Earth's radiation balance, trapping heat near the surface and raising the planet's temperature. After a few years, the comet's greenhouse effect would have trapped more heat than the ice absorbed, and over the decades to follow, the extra heat would keep piling up.

The CO2 released from the comet would raise the temperature of the Earth for centuries. It wouldn't just cancel out the cooling effect of the ice—over time, the comet's greenhouse effect would deliver as much heat as if you'd just let it slam into the planet and vaporize.[5]

It's okay. Despite all this, your scenario could fix global warming.

Remember that hypothetical crane that lets you lower comets to the surface? Well, if you hooked it up to a generator, you could use the slowly-descending comet to produce electricity.

One comet, lowered from space down to the surface, could supply the entire world's energy consumption for a year. Sure, it would release a little CO2, but it would be nothing compared to the pollution from our current sources of energy. A comet crane generator could cut our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero. The comet isn't the important part, the crane is.

Sadly, we don't have the technology to build comet-lowering cranes—certainly not in time to help mitigate climate change. But harvesting orbital energy like this is a neat idea! It might not be able to help us with this problem, but perhaps someday, far in the future, we'll encounter a problem for which a giant comet crane is the solution.

[1] I'm used to stuff making me feel old, but the fact that this episode aired 20 years ago is distressing in multiple ways.

[2] Magical storks deliver babies, magical cranes deliver comets.

[3] It actually wouldn't have much effect on global sea level, but the influx of cold water on the surface—and the dust released into the air—could definitely mess with the atmosphere.

[4] Along with carbon monoxide, which indirectly affects the climate in a similar way—see pg. 718-719 of the IPCC WG1 AR5 report for more.

[5] Although letting a comet slowly decay on the surface would definitely be preferable to a high-speed impact, as any dinosaur from the end of the Cretaceous can tell you.

21 Mar 18:12

So how do Russian cosmonauts feel about Russia’s war on Ukraine?

by Eric Berger
Screenshot of weightless astronauts addressing a camera.

Enlarge / Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov participate in a news conference after docking with the International Space Station. (credit: Roscosmos)

On Friday, three cosmonauts arrived at the International Space Station, having launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine and harsh Western sanctions, the International Space Station partnership has remained intact so far. Operations between Roscosmos and NASA were smooth on Friday.

There was a surprise, however, as cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov floated onto the space station and greeted their Russian, US, and European colleagues already on board. The new arrivals were wearing yellow flight suits with blue highlights—uniforms that bore a strong resemblance to the flag of Ukraine.

The attire raised eyebrows all over the world, and why the cosmonauts wore the uncharacteristically yellow flight suits was not immediately clear. Subsequently, news stories and opinions expressed on social media suggested that the cosmonauts had worn the suits to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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10 Mar 12:47

Ukraine Thoughts And Links

by Scott Alexander

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in international relations or military strategy, which is fine. In democracies, it’s normal and correct for ordinary citizens to have opinions on important world issues, and demands that they not do so are ahistorical and dangerous. Still, take anything I say with a grain of salt.

1: This isn’t “history restarting” . . . yet

Whatever Francis Fukuyama meant by “the end of history”, it probably wasn’t “nothing will ever happen”.

But that’s how it’s been interpreted, so fine. Maybe nothing will ever happen. I don’t think the Ukraine War is necessarily a counterexample. Fukuyama wrote in 1992, so he knew that eg the Gulf War could happen. Is this conflict bigger than the Gulf War?

I don’t think Ukraine proves that “history has restarted” or “the Pax Americana was a paper tiger” or anything of the sort. These kinds of local conflicts were always allowed. Just ask an Iraqi. Or a Chechen, or an Afghan, or a Syrian, or a Bosnian, or a Crimean, or a Tigrayan or go back and ask the Iraqi a second time.

But the vast majority of people reading this have probably never been personally affected by a war and might not even know anyone who has been. And a billion Chinese, and almost a billion Indians, and almost everyone in South America, and a lot of other people, can say the same.

Outside of lulls in history and Pax Somewheres, one nation invading another is met with indifference. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being met with internal protests, global condemnation, and crippling economic sanctions. This is what it looks like when a civilization that’s got strong and well-functioning norms against aggressive wars encounters one and launches an immune response.

2: If the Pax Americana is dead, we need to try something different; but if it’s still alive, we should stick with what works.

The Pax Americana playbook for international norm violations is: the US slaps sanctions on the offender. The EU expresses “concern”. The UN proposes a resolution condemning it, which gets vetoed by whichever Security Council member is most complicit. And the CIA secretly gives Stinger missiles to everyone involved.

Lots of people have lost faith in the Pax Americana, which would mean we need something other than the playbook. These people tend either towards extreme isolationism, where sanctions are an aggressive act and even expressions of deep concern are violations of national sovereignty. Or towards extreme bellicosity, where we’re cowards unless someone puts boots on the ground and start shooting the perpetrator directly.

But if the Pax Americana still holds, then the playbook is still the right call.

3: A strong response right now isn’t just about Ukraine, it’s also about the next time.

Everyone can sanction Russia as much as they want, and it can win anyway. Putin is in too deep to extricate himself easily; it’s become a matter of honor, of “not being seen to be weak”. The point isn’t to save Ukraine, it’s to establish expectations for next time. This is about Taiwan, Georgia, Iran, and all the other places that great powers want to invade but don’t.

The next time a big country wants to invade a little one, we want it to remember how much misery everyone inflicted on Russia for the Ukraine conflict and think “no thank you”. That involves inflicting lots of misery on Russia right now, whether or not it wins the current war.

This is true not just for the West considering sanctions, but for Ukrainians considering how hard to fight. Commentators have drawn connections between the Taliban easily ousting the US-backed Afghan government, and Putin expecting an easy victory in Ukraine. Maybe that’s why he took the chance. But the heroic Ukrainian resistance will set the opposite example. Next time someone considers an invasion, they’ll expect such high costs it won’t be worth it. In this sense, the Ukrainians are sacrificing not just for their countrymen, but for the world and for peace itself.

4: International norms may be annoying, but they’re all that stands between us and nuclear war, so we had better respect them

If you only get one thing from this essay, let it be: unless you know something I don’t, establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine might be the worst decision in history. It would be a good way to get everyone in the world killed.

The “usual playbook” can seem half-hearted and faintly ridiculous. “We’re Not Participating!!!” we insist, as we provide guns and missiles to the people who are. It feels like a bunch of arbitrary lines where we act with bluster and bellicosity on one side, then shrink like fainting violets away from the other. But those arbitrary lines are what save us from global annihilation.

Any sane person wants to avoid nuclear war. But this makes it easy to exploit sane people. If Russia said “Please give us the Aleutian Islands, or we will nuke you”, what should the US do? They can threaten mutually assured destruction, but if Russia says “Yes, we have received your threat, we stick to our demand, give us the Aleutians or the nukes start flying”, then what?

No sane person thinks it’s worth risking nuclear war just to protect something as minor as the Aleutian Islands. But then the US gives Russia the Aleutians, and next year they ask for all of Alaska. And even Alaska isn’t really worth risking nuclear war over, so you give it to them, and then the next year…

So people who don’t want to be exploited occasionally set lines in the sand, where they refuse to make trivial concessions even to prevent global apocalypse. This is good, insofar as it prevents them from being exploited, but bad, insofar as sometimes it causes global apocalypse. So far the solution everyone has settled on are lots of very finicky rules about which lines you’re allowed to draw and which ones you aren’t.

If there was ever a point at which two nuclear powers disagreed about who was in the wrong, one of them could threaten nuclear war to get that wrong redressed, the other could say they had drawn a line in the sand there to prevent being exploited, and then they’d have to either back down (difficult, humiliating) or start a nuclear war (unpleasant, fatal). So there are a lot of diplomats who have put a lot of effort into establishing international norms on which things are wrong and which things aren’t, so that nobody crosses anyone else’s lines by accident.

This system isn’t perfect. Nuclear powers disagree on lots of things. But they usually disagree in a bounded way, where they accuse each other of non-mortal sins and claim the right to non-nuclear responses. Russia crossed a line by invading Ukraine, in a way that gives Russia’s enemies the right to certain kinds of retaliation - arming Ukraine, imposing sanctions, etc. Russia will grumble about this, but it knows it would be in the wrong if it threatened a nuclear response - it would be violating the West’s lines in the sand, the West would have to call its bluff, and it would have to either go ahead with apocalypse or back down in humiliation.

I am not an international relations expert. But every international relations expert whose commentary I have read claims that the extent of Russia’s recent infraction does not give the West the right to declare a no-fly zone in Ukraine. The no-fly zone would be an extreme escalation that would, under international norms, allow Russia to threaten World War III if we didn’t back down. Then we would either have to back down, humiliated, or start World War III. In a situation like that, I pray we would have the courage to back down humiliated. But I would prefer not to test our leaders’ courage in this particular way.

Also, the last time this happened, in ‘62, it was the Russians who agreed to back down to prevent nuclear war. We owe them one, so this time it’s on us.

5: Really, I can’t emphasize this enough, a no-fly zone means shooting down Russian planes.

America does not actually have a way to prevent people from flying. A no-fly zone means that if they do fly, you shoot them down. It would be more reasonable to call this a “shoot-down-anything-that-flies zone”, but at some point some Pentagon official must have wanted to sell it to the public really hard and come up with an innocuous-sounding name for it.

If America actually shoots down Russian planes, there is a decent chance it causes World War III. At the very least, our strategy for preventing World War III would be “shoot them, hope really hard that they don’t shoot back”, WHICH IS NOT A GOOD STRATEGY.

But isn’t it possible that the US could declare the no-fly zone, and the Russians (who also don’t want World War III) would agree not to fly, rather than cause global annihilation?

I think this is where the lines-in-the-sand come in again. Imagine Russia declared a “no-sanctions zone” across the entire world, where if any corporation stopped doing business with them, they would bomb that corporation’s headquarters (even if the corporation was headquartered in eg the US). While this might give some corporations pause, a lot of Americans would feel honor-bound not to comply - it would be “giving into terrorism”.

The line between common-sense “don’t provoke a nuclear power” and “if we went along with this, it would be giving into terrorism” is set by international law, diplomatic norms, and various fuzzy rules of war. They say that some things are allowed, and other things are bullying and if someone threatens them you need to call their bluff. The silly “no-sanctions zone” idea would be the latter. And so would a no-fly zone.

Putin’s already proven a little irrational. He’s done good work establishing himself as the sort of person who calls all bluffs that it’s in his interest to call. So stop trying to put him in a position where sticking to his usual habits would cause World War III.

I also feel this way about letting Ukrainian jets use NATO bases, and anything else that diverges from the usual rules of noncombatants.

6: Huh, I guess we’re still capable of jingoism

One story you could tell - one story I think Putin was telling himself - goes something like: the West is pathetic and divided. The Western-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban in a few weeks. That’s because the Westernized Afghans were the kind of people who cared about trigger warnings and misgendering, and the Taliban was Traditional Masculine Warrior Types. The Taliban could say “kill the infidels!” and the Westerners would argue over whether considering the Taliban an “enemy” was racist.

The past few years have seen some of the most powerful players in the Western world, like the big tech companies, refuse to help their own military because they think it’s evil. They’ve seen American conservatives say nice things about enemy dictators because at least they’re not American liberals, and American liberals start treating guns like some kind of eldritch artifact that makes anyone who touches them or associates with them inherently polluted.

So a totally reasonable story would be that the West has become psychologically unsuited for war. Ukrainians would be unable to fight (at least successfully), and Westerners would be too complacent to unite behind Ukraine, especially if it meant higher gas prices or whatever.

(before the war, I saw people on both sides overestimating the relevance of the Azov Battalion, ie the neo-fascists, on the grounds that only neo-fascists would have enough traditional values left to put up a real fight)

That story has fallen apart in two ways. First, the valor of the Ukrainian people. I’m sure there will be debate over whether this is because Ukrainians aren’t as Westernized as Americans, or whether Westernization is more compatible with martial valor than previously expected. But it sure is a data point.

Second, the - let’s call it jingoism - of the broader West. I want to be clear here: so far, Westerners have not actually displayed any martial valor. They’ve mostly displayed the ability to be really pro-Ukraine on Reddit. Still, they sure have been really pro-Ukraine on Reddit. All the people who used to post cringeworthy comments about “Drumpf” are posting cringeworthy comments about “Putler”. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

Even so, I think this demonstrates an ability to unite against a foreign enemy beyond what me-a-month-ago would have expected. I think if we ever get in a really important war, we will do just fine on the home front.

Of course, jingoism is bad. People are going crazy, trying to take out their frustrations on individual Russians, or agitating for nuclear war, or otherwise embarrassing themselves.

All of this is terrible. But I was so concerned we were perma-stuck at the opposite extreme that it’s almost refreshing to see us fail in this particular way.

7: The Obligatory Acknowledgment That We Are Also Bad

America has invaded a lot of countries, even within my lifetime.

Sometimes its reasoning was noble: preventing genocide in Kosovo. Sometimes it was at least understandable: get vengeance for 9-11. Other times it was almost incomprehensible: we’ll debate what happened with Iraq II forever.

Part of me wants to say we’re different from the Russians - at least we haven’t launched a war of annexation in a while. Usually we have the decency to skulk around funding rebel groups and opposition parties instead of launching full scale invasions. The rare exceptions tend to be genuinely bad dudes - however unjust the Iraq War was, nobody wants to defend Saddam.

But there’s a failure mode where every villain can come up with at least one rule they followed which the other villains didn’t, then guiltlessly condemn the other villains for their villainy. Putin says that invading Ukraine is okay, because they’re Nazis; maybe he even believes it.

There’s a constant tension between axiology/consequentialism/Inside View morality and law/deontology/Outside View morality. The former says “the Good is indescribably complex, but you can usually recognize it when you see it; follow the Good and ignore the heuristics”. The latter says “bargain with other people until you find bright-line rules you can all agree on, then follow them.”

So, how bright-line rule is “never invade another country”? If the other country had a universally-hated dictator who was genociding millions of people, and it would be easy to invade them, and God Himself came down and assured you that nothing would go wrong - do you wash your hands of it and say “nope, there’s a bright line against ever invading another country, that’s Morally Wrong”?

What if, whenever you admit an exception to the bright line, you know that tyrants and aggressors will exploit it forever? “Fine, you can invade if the country is literally the Nazis, committing the literal Holocaust” - and then Putin says Ukraine is run by Nazis and genociding its people.

I have no good solution to this problem, but I admit that America’s standing to make the moral case against invading Ukraine is weaker than if it had shown the slightest ability to refrain from invading places it wanted to invade.

8: The Obligatory Acknowledgment That We Are Also Bad (2)

What to make of the claim that the West provoked this war by expanding NATO / refusing to rule out admitting Ukraine?

This is one of those times you have to be really careful with causal vs. moral language - in a purely historical sense, did the West cause the war by expanding NATO? And, as a separate question, does this make the West blameworthy?

(in case the distinction isn’t clear, a woman wearing skimpy clothing might be causally responsible for her being sexually harassed, but doesn’t make her blameworthy)

I found Cuban Missile Crisis analogies helpful here: the US also gets nervous when enemy powers are right on its doorstep. So it’s not crazy for Russia to be worried. Still, Putin also uses a lot of “Ukraine is a fundamentally illegitimate country whose very existence is an affront to Russia” rhetoric. Seems like he has a beef besides potential NATO membership (which everyone agreed wasn’t really going to happen).

But also, Russia keeps trying to turn nearby countries into puppet states, sometimes propping up really abhorrent dictators (eg Lukashenko) to do that. They already invaded Ukraine once, took some territory, and propped up some separatist movements. If Ukraine avoided requesting Western connections and military help, or the West avoided providing it, I think “Ukraine becomes Belarus 2” is more likely than “everything is great and war is averted with zero problems”.

Is it wrong for the West to support Ukraine in its efforts not to become Belarus 2? In terms of the lines-in-the-sand and vague-rules-of-international-diplomacy that prevent nuclear war, I think not really. Is it imprudent? It’s a risk, but at least it was taken in the defense of real principles, which is better than most of the imprudent things we do.

9: Peace is still the goal

Putting all of this together: Western countries have three conflicting goals here. First, avoiding nuclear war. Second, making this such a miserable experience for Russia that nobody tries anything like it again. Third, helping the people of Ukraine (and Russia) escape with as little death and suffering as possible.

In this spirit, I hope they encourage Ukraine to consider Russia’s recent peace offer.

As far as I understand it, the offer is: Ukraine declares neutrality, and recognizes Crimea as Russian and Donetsk/Luhansk as independent. Russia gives up and goes home.

These are concessions in name only. Russia already has de facto control of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, and has for years (I’m assuming Putin means the areas he already controls; if he means “Donetsk” and “Luhansk” in a broader sense, that’s a harder sell). Ukraine ceding them does nothing except take away Russia’s casus belli for future wars.

My understanding is that Russia operationalizes neutrality as “don’t join NATO or EU”. But NATO has shown no signs of being willing to accept Ukraine as a member anyway. EU seems sort of willing, but is infamous about dragging membership negotiations out for years or decades, and requires potential members to get their acts together to a degree that Ukraine might never accomplish. EU has previously allowed members to join its economic community without joining the EU proper, and this would probably provide most of the relevant benefits to Ukraine without angering Russia. Ukraine was not in either of these organizations before the war, and not being in them afterwards changes nothing.

(Neutrality does prevent them from gaining useful allies for a future war, but the only people who might declare war on them in the future are Russia, and they’ve already made it clear they’re a tough target. Some analysts say Putin attacked now because, given the rate at which Ukraine’s military is improving, he thought this would be his last chance. Given the popularity boost and boost in foreign interest this war will give them, they’ll only improve faster from here, so I think they should expect to be able to stand on their own in the future.)

These were most of Putin’s demands before the war, so one could argue that, if they’re a good idea now, they would have been a good idea then, and Ukraine should have agreed and prevented bloodshed. This might be true, but I don’t think it’s necessarily so. A big part of diplomacy is maintaining your honor and your reputation for not caving in to threats. If Russia had gotten everything it wanted from Ukraine with no effort, it would have legitimized using threats of war as a negotiating tactic and made it harder for Taiwan/Georgia/Iran etc in the future. This is easy for me to say on the other side of the world, not losing any friends or relatives, but it is potentially worth standing up for yourself, even to the point of war, in order to maintain the illegitimacy of such threats.

Now the situation is different. Russia has miscalculated, they know they’ve miscalculated, and the best ending for everyone is for them to leave in a way that sort of preserves what’s left of their honor - one that doesn’t humiliate them any more than they’re humiliated already. Giving Russia everything they wanted before the war lets Putin play it as a victory back home, saves the Ukrainian people, and defuses the chance of World War III. It might cost a small amount of honor, but the Ukrainians are rolling in honor right now. They have so much honor they don’t know what to do with it all. They can pay a little to make Russia go away, and still have enough left over to act as a deterrent in the future.

10: Links

a. Metaculus Alerts is a Twitter bot that alerts you when a Metaculus prediction on the Ukraine war has changed drastically in a short time. For example, “the chance of Russia taking Kiev by April has decreased 10% in the past 24 hours”. I find this a good substitute to refreshing the news every minute to see if something interesting has happened.

b. The origin of “Molotov cocktail”:

c. One of the Ukrainian cities on the front lines is named New York.

d. Reddit has quarantined their r/russia subreddit, which I think is a cowardly and outrageous act of censorship. But you can still see it if you have a verified email, and I find it an interesting window into the Russian perspective on the conflict.

e. Former oligarch Petro Poroshenko is Ukraine’s unpopular ex-president, recently placed under something like house arrest pending a corruption trial. He’s since gotten an Kalishnikov rifle and is patrolling the streets of Kiev against Russian invaders.

f. The Reply Of The Zaporizhian Cossacks is a famous historical insult sent by Ukrainian cossacks to the Turkish sultan (it’s worth clicking the links for the full text, content warning obscenity). It got made into a famous painting, and:

g. Maybe Russian propaganda, but still pretty funny:

h. Re: “the West is turning cancellation into a weapon of war”

i. Elon Musk sends Starlink terminals to Ukraine to ensure continued Internet, although there are worries that Russia can trace the signal. Pic related:

j. In Greek mythology, Snake Island, where Ukrainian soldiers famously defied a Russian warship, is the final resting place of Achilles, who sometimes appears to residents.

k. Metaculus thinks Russia might soon close its borders. It might be helpful to talk to Russians you know about getting out of Russia if they can, before things get worse. See also Letter: Russians Are Welcome In America - though I don’t know what the visa situation is like now and it might be terrible.

l. Servant Of The People is a 2015 Ukrainian comedy TV series about a poor teacher who implausibly gets elected President of Ukraine and has to clean up its corrupt politics. It went down in history when the star, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, got elected President of Ukraine in real life, apparently on the strength of his performance. The entire series is available for free on YouTube with English subtitles (though after a few episodes they disappear, and you have to use the Russian subtitles and then auto-translate them into English). I’m a few episodes in and it’s really good, which I guess I should have predicted given the consequences.

m. The EA Forum and Kelsey Piper have discussions on how best to help Ukrainians (this is still not the most efficient way to spend charitable donations - but it’s human to care about things other than efficiency). Ideas range from Polish Humanitarian Action (to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland) to Meduza (opposition Russian news source, apparently still sort of holding on) to direct donations to Ukraine’s Ministry of Health or Ministry of Defence.

17 Feb 20:40

Latest success from Google’s AI group: Controlling a fusion reactor

by John Timmer
A dark space with a toroidal material that glows purple.

Enlarge / Plasma inside the tokamak at the EPFL. (credit: EPFL)

As the world waits for construction of the largest fusion reactor yet, called ITER, smaller reactors with similar designs are still running. These reactors, called tokamaks, help us test both hardware and software. The hardware testing helps us refine things like the materials used for container walls or the shape and location of control magnets.

But arguably, the software is the most important. To enable fusion, the control software of a tokamak has to monitor the state of the plasma it contains and respond to any changes by making real-time adjustments to the system's magnets. Failure to do so can result in anything from a drop in energy (which leads to the failure of any fusion) to seeing the plasma spill out of containment (and scorch the walls of the container).

Getting that control software right requires a detailed understanding of both the control magnets and the plasma the magnets manipulate, or, it would be more accurate to say, getting that control software right has required. Because today, Google's DeepMind AI team is announcing that its software has been successfully trained to control a tokamak.

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19 Jan 18:52

Radian announces plans to build one of the holy grails of spaceflight

by Eric Berger
A rendering of the single-stage-to-orbit Radian One vehicle.

Enlarge / A rendering of the single-stage-to-orbit Radian One vehicle. (credit: Radian Aerospace)

A Washington-state based aerospace company has exited stealth mode by announcing plans to develop one of the holy grails of spaceflight—a single-stage-to-orbit space plane. Radian Aerospace said it is deep into the design of an airplane-like vehicle that could take off from a runway, ignite its rocket engines, spend time in orbit, and then return to Earth and land on a runway.

"We all understand how difficult this is," said Livingston Holder, Radian’s co-founder, chief technology officer, and former head of the Future Space Transportation and X-33 program at Boeing.

On Wednesday, Radian announced that it had recently closed a $27.5 million round of seed funding, led by Fine Structure Ventures. To date, Radian has raised about $32 million and has 18 full-time employees at its Renton, Washington, headquarters.

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05 Nov 17:24

New study suggests SARS-CoV-2 spreading widely within wild deer population

by John Timmer
Image of young deer leaping a roadside gulley.

Enlarge (credit: Raymond Gehman / Getty Images)

Earlier this year, researchers found that many wild deer in Michigan had antibodies that suggested the animals had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It was a significant cause for concern, as a large population of susceptible animals could act as a reservoir that allows the virus to spread back to humans.

At the time, however, uncertainties abounded. The study looked at only a small sample of the deer population of one state—we didn't know how the animals were exposed, and we didn't know whether the virus was actually spreading among wild deer. Since then, a few of the blanks have been filled in. Critically, deer-to-deer transmission has been observed in captivity. On Monday, a preprint of a new paper answered some more questions, showing that infection is widespread in a second state, driven both by its spread from humans and deer-to-deer transmission.

Overall, the news is not especially good, though we still don't understand what risks it may pose to humans.

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17 Oct 09:19

Superb sand art in a bottle

by Minnesotastan

Two examples of the work of Andrew Clemens.
Andrew Clemens (1857 – 1894) was a sand artist from Iowa in the United States. Clemens formed his pictures by compressing natural colored sands inside chemists' jars to create his works of art.

He would collect naturally colored grains of sand from an area in Pikes Peak State Park known as Pictured Rocks. At Pictured Rocks, the basal portion of the sandstone near the Sand Cave is naturally colored by iron and mineral staining. Clemens separated the sand grains into piles, by color, and used them to form the basis for his art... 

To create his art he inserted the presorted grains of sand into small glass drug bottles using homemade tools formed out of hickory sticks and florists wire. His process utilized no glue and pressure from the other sand grains alone held the artwork together. When Clemens completed a sand bottle he sealed the bottle with a stopper and wax...

Andrew returned to McGregor [Iowa] to live year-round after a fire at the State School for the Deaf destroyed the dorm where he had lived... Clemens showed his work at the Saint Paul Dime Museum in 1889. He earned an invitation to demonstrate his work at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, which he declined due to his failing health. His artwork sold for $5–7 at the time...
Image via.

Another (expensive) example found by reader shiningrobes.
29 Sep 17:53

Malaria seems to be evolving to hide from rapid tests

by John Timmer
A hand in a protective glove handles test kits and samples.

Enlarge / A technician performs rapid tests for malaria in Thailand. (credit: Thierry Falise / Getty Images)

The pandemic has introduced a lot of people to the idea of rapid antigen tests, which can quickly and conveniently reveal the presence of an infection. But in many parts of the world, rapid tests are a central feature of health care. If you don't have easy access to a testing lab infrastructure—and many in the developing world don't—rapid tests can provide a quick way of screening for common problems. In a number of countries, rapid test results are what determine whether people are given anti-malaria treatments or not.

But that may be causing a unique problem. A new paper suggests that the malarial parasite may be evolving so that it can't be recognized by the most commonly used rapid tests.

Make it quick

Most rapid tests detect the presence of one or more proteins on the surface of a pathogen. We can mass-produce antibodies that recognize this protein and couple them to a molecule that is colored. When a pathogen isn't present, the antibodies remain diffuse, and the color is imperceptible. When the pathogen is around, its protein and the antibodies aggregate, bringing enough of the colored molecule together that we can see it. The result is something like a red bar appearing at a specific location on the test hardware.

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29 Sep 17:52

A Virginia company has connected mobile phones directly to satellites

by Eric Berger
Lynk's "Shannon" satellite launched into space in June on SpaceX's Transporter-2 flight.

Enlarge / Lynk's "Shannon" satellite launched into space in June on SpaceX's Transporter-2 flight. (credit: SpaceX)

A space startup says it has successfully demonstrated the ability to use ordinary, unmodified mobile telephones to connect to satellite Internet services.

The Virginia-based company, Lynk, sent its "Shannon" satellite into orbit three months ago as part of a rideshare mission on a Falcon 9 rocket. After some initial tests, the company said "hundreds" of mobile phones in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Bahamas were able to connect with the satellite as it passed overhead, as if it were a virtual cell phone tower in space.

"Basically, our satellite looks to your cell phone like a standard cell tower," said Charles Miller, the co-founder and chief executive of Lynk.

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19 Sep 14:42

09/17/21 PHD comic: 'The COVID-19 Virus Explained'

Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "The COVID-19 Virus Explained" - originally published 9/17/2021

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

03 Aug 19:32

Why it breaks your brain to take a compliment

by Matthew Inman
Why it breaks your brain to take a compliment

The science and psychology of why taking compliments is so hard.

View on my website

04 May 18:05

This Remote Controlled Lego Domino Machine is Pretty Creative

by twistedsifter


JK Brickworks makes amazing machines out of Lego, and this automatic domino machine is no different! I love seeing the build process and the versatility of Lego never ceases to amaze.

If you enjoyed this vid be sure to check out their YouTube channel!


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31 Mar 19:07

In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked

by twistedsifter

indiana bell building2 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


In 1930, engineers accomplished something remarkable: they rotated an 8-story, 11,000 ton building a full 90 degrees, in order to allow the construction of a second building on the site (the company needed more office space). Check out a timelapse below by reddit user howmuchbanana:



Located in Indianapolis, the Indiana Bell Telephone Company headquarters was moved 15 inches an hour, all while 600 employees still worked inside. There was no interruption to gas, heat, electricity, water, sewage, and most importantly, the essential telephone service they were providing to the city. A movable wooden sidewalk allowed employees and the public to freely enter and exit the building. The whole move took a month took complete.

According to Amusing Planet, “most of the power needed to move the building was provided by hand-operated jacks while a steam engine also provided some support. Each time the jacks were pumped, the building moved 3/8th of an inch.”

[via u/howmuchbanana, Amusing Planet]



indiana bell building move 1930 1 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


indiana bell building move 1930 2 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


indiana bell building move 1930 3 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


indiana bell building move 1930 4 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


indiana bell building move 1930 5 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


indiana bell building move 1930 6 In 1930 the Indiana Bell Building was Rotated 90° While Everyone Inside Still Worked


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20 Mar 18:44

Absolutely awesome video of Iceland's glaciers

by Minnesotastan

Historic file footage combined with modern aerial photography using a slider to show changes in one lifetime.  This video cries out for clicking the full-screen icon in the lower right corner.
11 Mar 13:30

Researchers measure the gravity exerted by a 90 milligram object

by John Timmer
Image of two small gold spheres, each on a separate stick.

Enlarge / The experimental setup. (credit: Tobias Westphal / University of Vienna)

Gravity may feel like one of the most familiar forces, but it's actually among those we understand least. We know our current model of gravity is inconsistent with quantum mechanics. It also fails to account for the phenomena we've termed dark matter and dark energy. Unfortunately, studying gravity is extremely challenging because it's far and away the weakest of the forces. To get around this issue for the detection of gravitational waves, we've had to build two immense observatories, far enough apart so that the noise affecting one wouldn't be picked up at the other.

The gravitational waves we've detected come from utterly massive objects like neutron stars and black holes. Now, researchers in Vienna have announced progress toward detecting the gravitational force generated by tiny objects—in this case, spheres of gold only two millimeters across and weighing less than a tenth of a gram. Their work provides the first measurement of gravity at these scales, and the researchers are pretty sure they can go smaller.

It’s so noisy

The work in question involves a fairly typical device for these sorts of experiments. It involves a solid bar with a gold ball attached to each end. The bar is suspended at its center point, which allows it to rotate freely around the horizontal plane. There's also a mirror placed at its center point, which is used to reflect a laser.

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13 Dec 12:22

Zodiac Killer cipher is cracked after eluding sleuths for 51 years

by Dan Goodin
Side-by-side police sketches on a WANTED poster.

Enlarge / Composite drawings of the Zodiac Killer. (credit: Getty Images)

A coded message sent by a brutal serial killer who has never been caught has been cracked more than 51 years after it was sent.

The male suspect, known as the Zodiac Killer, killed at least five people and attempted to kill at least two more in Northern California in 1968 and 1969. In the first three attacks, he targeted couples. The first two murder victims were high school students who were parked in a car on their first date. In attacks on the other two couples, he managed to kill the women, but the men survived. A male San Francisco cab driver was the last known victim.

During the murder spree, the Zodiac Killer sent media outlets a series of letters taking credit for the slayings. To prove the authenticity of the claims, the letters included unreleased details and evidence from the crime scenes.

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10 Dec 10:46

Quantum device performs 2.6 billion years of computation in 4 minutes

by Chris Lee
Green lights illuminate what appears to be a glass box.

Enlarge / One beam enters, two beams leave. (credit: Melissa Meister / Flickr)

I am a great believer in solving problems with lasers. Are you suffering from a severely polarized society and a fast-growing population living below the poverty line? Well, I have the laser to solve all your problems.

OK, maybe not. But when it comes to quantum computing, I believe that lasers are the future. I suspect that the current architectures are akin to the Colossus or the ENIAC: they are breakthroughs in their own right, but they are not the future. My admittedly biased opinion is that the future is optical. A new paper provides my opinion some support, demonstrating solutions to a mind-boggling 1030 problem space using a quantum optical system. Unfortunately, the support is a little more limited than I'd like, as it is a rather limited breakthrough.

Photons flipping coins

The researchers have demonstrated something called a Gaussian boson sampling system. This is essentially a device designed to solve a single type of problem. It's based on devices called "beam splitters," so let's start with a closer look at how those work.

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03 Dec 19:37

NSF releases footage from the moment Arecibo’s cables failed

by John Timmer
Image of a large dome suspended from a metal lattice hanging from cables.

Enlarge / The instrument platform and the cables that until recently supported it, as viewed from the suspended walkway that allowed researchers to service them. (credit: University of Central Florida)

Today, the National Science Foundation released video taken at the moment the Arecibo Radio Observatory's cables failed, allowing its massive instrument platform to crash into the dish below. In describing the videos, the NSF also talked a bit about the monitoring program that had put the cameras in place, ideas it had been pursuing for stabilizing the structure pre-collapse, and prospects for building something new at the site.

A quick recap of the collapse: the Arecibo dish was designed to reflect incoming radio radiation to collectors that hung from a massive, 900-ton instrument package that was suspended above it. The suspension system was supported by three reinforced concrete towers that held cables that were anchored farther from the dish, looped over the towers, and then continued on to the platform itself. Failure of these cables eventually led to the platform dropping into the dish below it.

Let’s go to the video

The video of that collapse comes from a monitoring system put in place in the wake of the cable failures. Due to the danger of further cable breaks, the NSF had instituted no-go zones around each of the three towers that supported the cables. With no personnel allowed to get close enough to inspect the cables, the staff started monitoring them using daily drone flights, one of which was in progress during the collapse. In addition, a video camera was installed on top of the visitor's center, which had a clear view of the instrument platform and one of the support towers.

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25 Nov 20:32

Comic for 2020.11.25

New Cyanide and Happiness Comic
14 Oct 18:41

First room-temperature superconductor reported

by John Timmer
Image of a blue box surrounded by hardware lit in green.

Enlarge / Equipment including a diamond anvil cell (blue box) and laser arrays in the lab of Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester. Undoubtedly, they cleaned up the typical mess of cables and optical hardware before taking the photo.

In the period after the discovery of high-temperature superconductors, there wasn't a good conceptual understanding of why those compounds worked. While there was a burst of progress toward higher temperatures, it quickly ground to a halt, largely because it was fueled by trial and error. Recent years brought a better understanding of the mechanisms that enable superconductivity, and we're seeing a second burst of rapidly rising temperatures.

The key to the progress has been a new focus on hydrogen-rich compounds, built on the knowledge that hydrogen's vibrations within a solid help encourage the formation of superconducting electron pairs. By using ultra-high pressures, researchers have been able to force hydrogen into solids that turned out to superconduct at temperatures that could be reached without resorting to liquid nitrogen.

Now, researchers have cleared a major psychological barrier by demonstrating the first chemical that superconducts at room temperature. There are just two catches: we're not entirely sure what the chemical is, and it only works at 2.5 million atmospheres of pressure.

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21 Aug 11:11

This Talking Raven is Amazing

by twistedsifter


“Mischief” is an amazing white-necked raven with a gift for gab. Like all members of the Corvidae family, ravens are extremely intelligent. They use tools to get food if necessary, and can even mimic human speech!

In this video, Mischief chats with falconer and conservationist, Paige Davis.


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03 Aug 10:26

As COVID-19 rages around the globe, other infectious diseases shrink away

by Beth Mole
Few people and no cars dot a street amidst highrises.

Enlarge / A masked pedestrian crosses an empty street at a usually busy intersection in the Central Business District on February 3, 2020, in Beijing, China. (credit: Getty | Keven Frayer)

Reports of influenza and a host of other infectious diseases have plummeted as the COVID-19 pandemic has driven people into lockdowns.

In many places, social distancing measures aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus may be smothering the spread of other infectious diseases at the same time. But, in other places, the pandemic may simply be masking disease spread, as people may avoid seeking care for more routine infections while health care systems stretched thin by the pandemic may struggle to conduct routine surveillance, testing, and reporting.

Some of the resulting declines are dramatic. Countries across the Southern Hemisphere have reported much lower numbers of influenza than usual. Australia, for instance, began 2020 with a relatively high level of flu—reporting around 7,000 lab-confirmed cases in both January and February. But the outbreak crashed in March, with reports of only 229 cases in April, compared with nearly 19,000 in April 2019, as noted by the New Scientist.

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