July 22, 2013 10:00 am
Alan Turing was a codebreaker, inventor, mathematician and scientist. He designed the first stored-program computer, cracked the German’s Enigma code, built the famous Turing Machine and essentially founded the entire fields of computer science and artificial intelligence. But despite his incredible achievements and contributions, Turing’s life was not a happy one. In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency”—a crime used at the time to punish homosexuals—and chemically castrated. He committed suicide two years later. Now, the British government is set to issue Turing a pardon.
The Guardian reports that, as long as no amendments are made to the bill, the pardon would go through the House of Commons at the end of October. The Guardian also notes that the pardon isn’t a given:
The announcement marks a change of heart by the government, which declined last year to grant pardons to the 49,000 gay men, now dead, who were convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. They include Oscar Wilde.
While many applaud the decision, some point out that a single pardon based on his contributions to society might send the wrong message—that being gay is only pardonable if you’re also a genius and help Britain win wars. The Guardian ran an accompanying opinion piece arguing that the pardon doesn’t matter, but that teaching Turing’s story does:
A more proper apologia might be to ensure that Turing’s achievements, and his treatment by the nation that benefited, are included in every pupil’s school curriculum. The 55% of gay pupils in our secondary schools who were homophobically bullied in the last 12 months might derive lasting reassurance from that.
The UK blog So So Gay wonders whether pardoning is a way for the British Government to rewrite history:
Just as you can’t libel the dead, so pardoning them can’t erase a wrong that was done by an unjust law. The facts of what they did won’t change, nor will the harsh treatment they received during their lifetimes.
Pardoning him won’t change any of that. It won’t make him more of a hero. It won’t make him less gay, or less wronged. Remembering Turing the hero we can also remember Turing the victim, along with thousands of others, and be thankful that, in part due to men like him, we live in far, far better times.
Some have argued for a statue of Turing to be erected, to honor not only his work but what his life and death represent to those still facing discrimination and threats due to their sexual orientation.
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July 16, 2013 12:44 pm
In mid-June, it started to pour in India. The country’s annual monsoon rains had come earlier than usual and much, much heavier. “The rains are at least twice as heavy as usual in northwest and central India as the June-September monsoon spreads north, covering the whole country a month faster than normal,” said Reuters at the time. As is often the case, the monsoon rains caused flooding, over-topping the mighty Ganges river, among others. The flooding initially killed at least 60, but as the Associated Press reports today, that number has been revised upwards to 5,700 as thousands of people that went missing during the floods are now presumed dead.
The annual Indian monsoon is a fundamental facet of life on the subcontinent. Without the monsoon rains there is widespread drought. But an early onset means people are often not ready for the rains. Reservoirs and dams are used to control the water, which often comes in bursts. If the monsoon behaves unpredictably there may not be enough room in the reservoirs to hold it all, and flooding can ensue.
The struggle of dealing with the monsoon is only getting harder, too, as climate change is making the annual event more powerful and more variable. The Economist last year said that climate change could bring “more short and devastating downpours and storms, more frequent floods and droughts, longer consecutive dry days within monsoons, more rapid drying of the soil as the land heats, and a greater likelihood that plant and animal diseases might spread.”
Though monsoons often seem to be talked about as if they’re giant storms, like a hurricane or a typhoon, a monsoon is actually little more than a seasonal shift in the winds. In the winter, the wind in India tends to blow toward the northeast. In the summer, it blows toward the southwest. This change in wind direction means the air has a different source, and the southwesterly winds of the monsoon come bearing heaving rains. Monsoons are a fairly common weather system around the world. (In fact, the southwestern U.S. has a monsoon season.)
According to recent research, the emissions of aerosols like soot and smoke might be causing the monsoons to arrive earlier in the year, bringing heavy rains in June like we saw this year. Combined with the changes in temperature and atmospheric circulation patterns that are expected as the climate changes, Indians trying to live with their land’s annual cycle may face increased uncertainty. But with uncertainty comes an inability to prepare and devastating losses like the ones experienced this year.
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July 9, 2013 9:02 am
Less than 40 miles outside of Mexico City, the volcano Popocatépetl is erupting, sending ash plumes roughly two miles into the atmosphere. Over the weekend, airlines took the precaution of cancelling flights out of Mexico City, even though the airport itself remained open.
This means that the eruption at the volcano has moved from sporadic explosions (Phase II) to frequent small to intermediate explosions, usually caused by a dome collapse (that can generate pyroclastic flows). Tremor is almost constant at the volcano, along with constant emission of ash-and-steam from the summit vent.
Pyroclastic flows are extremely dangerous. Composed of a toxic stew of gases, ash and bits of solid and molten rock, they move like an avalanche down the side of a volcano, moving at speeds of over 60 miles an hour, way faster than any human can run.
Pyroclastic flows occurred during the eruption of two of the larger volcanic events of the 20th century, Mt. St. Helen’s and Mt. Pinotubo. Like those two volcanoes, Popocatépetl is a stratovolcano, a type of volcano known for its explosive eruptions.
It has a long history of eruptions, dating back to the Aztec times. It took a brief 50-year nap from 1944 through the early 1990s, but has since been erupting fairly regularly. On Sunday, scientists noticed that a lava dome about 820 feet across had grown in the middle of the crater at the top of the mountain.
Popocatépetl has been erupting for over a month now and reached the classification “Yellow Phase 3″ once before in May, before being downgraded in June. With roughly 25 million people living in the region around the volcano, the Mexican Government is keeping an eye on this one.
If you want to start your own volcano-watch, Mexico’s CENAPRED (Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres) has cameras pointed at the summit in four locations: Tochimilco, Tianguismanalco, Altzomoni, Tlamacas. The images update every minute.
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June 25, 2013 11:22 am
In response to the American government’s increasingly agitated international temper tantrums over their lost IT guy, Russia has decided to push back, saying that they don’t have him. The fact that—as President Putin just confirmed—he’s been chilling in the airport lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport? Totally beside the point, according to the Russians.
“Correspondents say [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov’s comments suggest that Mr Snowden remained air-side after landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, and so has technically never entered Russian territory.
“We are in no way involved with either Mr Snowden, his relations with US justice, nor to his movements around the world,” Mr Lavrov said.
“He chose his itinerary on his own. We learnt about it… from the media. He has not crossed the Russian border.
“We consider the attempts to accuse the Russian side of violating US laws, and practically of involvement in a plot, to be absolutely groundless and unacceptable.””
Russia is claiming that because Snowden hasn’t gone through customs, he isn’t in Russia, so they have no control of the situation. While there’s not really any doubt that if Russia wanted to give Snowden to the U.S., it could, Russian authorities don’t have any incentive to search for the legal loopholes that would make it possible for them to arrest someone in transit.
Plus, Russia has a history of using the international area of the Sheremetyevo airport to wash their hands of sticky extradition messes. In 2006, Iranian activist Zahra Kamalfar and her two children were placed in the airport by Russian authorities during an interminably long wait for asylum status. The family spent 11 months at the airport, refusing to board flights back to Tehran.
International zones of airports are strange places. Most travelers experience them as the lounges and halls between airport security and their departure gate, or connecting flights. Filled mostly with duty free shops, the international zone is a technicality that usually doesn’t crop up, except in extreme cases, like that of Merhan Karimi Nasseri (who spent 18 years in Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.)
Europe has a strong tradition of international zones. With that many countries on a continent, connecting flights would be a disaster if passengers had to go through customs every time they needed to connect through Schiphol, De Gaulle or Frankfurt. Simply having a designated area where travelers within the EU could pass through without setting foot on Dutch, French, or German soil makes air travel more efficient, but also creates a grey area.
This was never more apparent than in the case of Edwin P. Wilson, a former CIA operative who was charged with shipping (literally) tons of explosives to Libya among other charges (including planning to murder his wife).
After years of being pursued by the United States government, Wilson was lured to the Dominican Republic, with United States marshals following his flight plan and tracing him through international zones of European airports. The Swiss government did not interfere with Wilson’s movement in the international zone, but the Dominican government eventually did, forcing him onto a U.S.-bound flight.
“In late May, Mr. Wilson indicated he was ready to move. Another Dominican visa was obtained, and plane reservations were made. On Sunday, June 13, Mr. Wilson flew from Libya to Zurich.
After his arrival in the early evening, he met with Mr. Keiser, a lawyer from Geneva and several other associates, never leaving the international zone of the Zurich airport.
The Swiss authorities, alerted about his travel plans by the United States, did not interfere with his movements. Several United States marshals shadowed Mr. Wilson on his 24-hour stopover at the airport.
On Monday evening, accompanied by Mr. Keiser, he flew to Madrid and changed planes for a nonstop flight to Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. When Mr. Wilson and Mr. Keiser arrived before dawn on Tuesday, the Dominican authorities, also alerted by the United States, held Mr. Wilson in the international zone of the airport until minutes before a Dominicana Airlines nonstop flight for New York was scheduled to depart.
After advising Mr. Wilson that his passport was invalid, the authorities put him aboard the plane to New York. The marshals, who had traveled the same route from Zurich, arrested Mr. Wilson when the plane landed at Kennedy.”
The United States Justice Department later ruled that, even though the trip didn’t involve any sort of normal extradition process, it was still legal.
“The Justice Department officials observed that the Supreme Court had ruled that while a defendant must receive due process in the United States, the Court would not address the question of how the defendant came into the country.
The officials cited a 1952 case, Frisbie v. Collins, in which the Supreme Court reaffirmed an 1886 ruling that stated, ”The power of a court to try a person for a crime is not impaired by the fact that he had been brought within the court’s jurisdiction by reason of a ‘forceful abduction.’ ””
Wilson served 22 years of a 52-year sentence before proving that he had been working under the direction of the CIA when he sold the explosives to Libya. He was released in 2004 and died last year.
With all of the governments, activists, and basically the entire media world looking into his travel plans, Snowden isn’t likely to turn into the next Nasseri, or Kamalfar. Whether his tale ends like Wilson’s, trailed through the international terminals of the world, only to be arrested at an American airport, remains to be seen.
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May 14, 2013 9:43 am
In Belize, they needed to build a road. Roads require rocks, there happened to be a really convenient, large pile of rocks for the construction team to use nearby. It also happened to be one of the largest Mayan pyramids in the country. Now that pyramid is gone, destroyed by bulldozers and backhoes.
The construction company building the road appears to have extracted crushed rocks from the pyramid to use as road fill. The pyramid, called the Nohmul complex, is at least 2,300 years old and sits on the border of Belize and Mexico. It’s over 100 feet tall, the largest pyramid in Belize left over from the Mayans.
Jaime Awe, the head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology said that the news was “like being punched in the stomach.” The pyramid was, he said, very clearly an ancient structure, so there’s no chance the team didn’t realize what they were doing. “These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness,” Awe told CBS News. He also said:
“Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines. To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can’t these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It’s mind-boggling.”
And it turns out that this is an ongoing problem in Belize. The country is littered with ruins (although none as large as Nohmul), and construction companies are constantly bulldozing them for road fill. An archaeologist at Boston University said that several other sites have already been destroyed by construction to use the rocks for building infrastructure. There isn’t much in the way of protection or management of these sites in Belize, so many people who live in the country either aren’t aware of their significance, or aren’t taught to care.
The Huffington Post has photographs from the scene, showing backhoes and bulldozers chipping away at the stone structure. HuffPo ends this story on a lighter note, pointing out that due to the destruction, archaeologists can now see the inner workings of the pyramid and the ways they were built.
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