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News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

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News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
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News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
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News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
Sköna hem

or the past year and a half, people everywhere have been in the grip of a pandemic – but not necessarily the same one. In the affluent world, a viral respiratory disease, Covid-19, suddenly became a leading cause of death. In much of the developing world, by contrast, the main engine of destruction wasn’t this new disease, but its second-order effects: measures they took, and we took, in response to the coronavirus. Richer nations and poorer nations differ in their vulnerabilities.

Whenever I talk with members of my family in Ghana, Nigeria and Namibia, I’m reminded that a global event can also be a profoundly local one. Lives and livelihoods have been affected in these places very differently from the way they have in Europe or the US. That’s true in the economic and educational realm, but it’s true, too, in the realm of public health. And across all these realms, the stakes are often life or death.

The three countries I mentioned have a median age between 18 and 22 years, and the severity of Covid-19 discriminates sharply by age. A big way that Covid can kill is by hampering the management of other diseases, such as HIV, malaria and TB. In Africa alone, 26 million people are living with HIV and, in a typical year, several hundreds of thousands die of it, while malaria, which is especially deadly to infants and toddlers, claims almost 400,000 lives.

Those are big numbers, and yet they used to be much bigger – a major healthcare effort brought them down. Amid the pandemic, though, people stopped visiting clinics, in part because it became harder to get to them, and healthcare workers had to curtail their own movements. According to a Global Fund survey of 32 countries in Africa and Asia, prenatal care visits dropped by two-thirds between April and September 2020; consultations for children under five dropped by three-quarters.

Read the rest of this article at: The Guardian

News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

The setting was grand: the French Senate, a chamber as elegant as an opera house. The bill he was presenting was equally grand, at least in name: Principles of the Republic and the Fight Against Separatism. Blanquer spoke under the marble gaze of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the architect of early modern France, who stood high in an alcove behind him. Colbert’s shoulder-length curls made for a contrast with Blanquer’s polished crown. Now enshrined in law, the anti-separatism bill is the latest salvo in a centuries-old battle between the French state and organized religion. Pushed through by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, it was designed to put even more official weight behind the idea of laïcité, a term that loosely translates as “secularism” but is significantly more complicated and politically charged.

Everyone knows about “Liberté, egalité, fraternité.” But it is laïcité that defines the most ferociously contested battle lines in contemporary France. The term has come to express a uniquely French insistence that religion, along with religious symbols and dress, should be absent from the public sphere. No other country in Europe has followed this path. The word itself derives from the ancient Greek term for “the people,” or “the laity,” as opposed to the priestly class. Laïcité is not the same thing as freedom of religion (the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the French constitution). What it sometimes means is freedom from religion. At a time when religion-fueled terrorist attacks continue to traumatize France, laïcité has become inextricably tangled with questions of national identity and national security.

The bill that Blanquer was discussing in the French Senate that day represented a multifront political maneuver—a classic example of triangulation by Macron, a centrist who founded a new political party and has been trying to draw votes from the right. It was, first, part of France’s efforts to combat Islamist fundamentalism after years of violence. Second, it implicitly pushed back against Turkey, a main supporter of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is influential in some French mosques. And finally, because it appeals to the lofty notion of “republican values,” it was also a way to deprive the right and the far right of oxygen ahead of national elections next spring. Macron will likely face off once more against Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party, which thrives on fear of immigrants and Islam in a country where Muslims now make up 8 percent of the population.

In September, a network of jihadists went on trial for the 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, including 90 inside the Bataclan concert hall. Those attacks occurred only months after the slaughter by Islamic terrorists of staff members at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. For those who lived through that terrible time in the capital, as I did, the trial has brought back grim memories. It is the biggest trial in French history, with more than 1,000 plaintiffs, and is expected to last for nine months. A more recent tragedy has also darkened the mood: the October 2020 beheading outside Paris of a high-school teacher, Samuel Paty. Paty had shown his class offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in order to explain the principle of freedom of speech; he did so after reportedly urging anyone who might be disturbed—who might think the images blasphemous—to leave the room. Paty paid with his life at the hands of an 18-year-old terrorist, an immigrant from Chechnya who was soon cornered and killed by the police. The murder, provoked by Paty’s defense of a fundamental French value, freedom of speech, did not precipitate the anti-separatism bill, but it has haunted the country and weighed heavily on the government. “He wanted to strike the republic and its values,” Macron said of the killer. “This is our battle. And it is an existential one.”

Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic

The Balmoral in Chestnut

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“Let’s see, where is it,” he says, scrolling. He’s searching for a text message he sent to Carrie-Anne Moss, his costar in the Matrix movie franchise, almost two years ago. Keanu Reeves had appeared in the doorway of this restaurant exactly on time, on about five hours’ sleep, just a few minutes ago. It’s called Le Grand Colbert, and he was last here for one very long night with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, filming the end of the 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give. He hasn’t set foot in the place since.

He was wearing a surgical mask, a black knit cap over his long black straw hair, a black motorcycle jacket, and jeans. He showed his proof of vaccination to the maître d’. And he walked into the bright salon of a place, thirty-foot ceilings and big round bistro lights and brass railings and clinking glasses and waitstaff in clean white shirts and dark aprons.

As he removed his mask and walked down the center of the restaurant, diners (a good percentage of whom are tourists and are here because of the movie), waiters, and bartenders watched him, a surreal, time-warp moment. He was Meg Ryan stopping into Katz’s Deli for a pastrami sandwich.

Read the rest of this article at: Esquire

News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

In 2012, Joan Serrà and a team of scientists at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council confirmed something that many had come to suspect: that music was becoming increasingly the same. Timbral variety in pop music had been decreasing since the 1960s, the team found, after using computer analytics to break down nearly half a million recorded songs by loudness, pitch, and timbre, among other variables. This convergence suggested that there was an underlying quality of consumability that pop music was gravitating toward: a formula for musical virality.

These findings marked a watershed moment for the music discovery industry, a billion-dollar endeavor to generate descriptive metadata of songs using artificial intelligence so that algorithms can recommend them to listeners. In the early 2010s, the leading music-intelligence company was the Echo Nest, which Spotify acquired in 2014. Founded in the MIT Media Lab in 2005, the Echo Nest developed algorithms that could measure recorded music using a set of parameters similar to Serrà’s, including ones with clunky names like acousticness, danceability, instrumentalness, and speechiness. To round out their models, the algorithms could also scour the internet for and semantically analyze anything written about a given piece of music. The goal was to design a complete fingerprint of a song: to reduce music to data to better guide consumers to songs they would enjoy.

By the time Spotify bought the Echo Nest, it claimed to have analyzed more than 35 million songs, using a trillion data points. That data helped give Spotify extraordinary recommendation powers to track users’ listening habits and suggest new music accordingly, integrating data collection, analysis, and predictive intervention in a closed loop.

Philosopher of science Catherine Stinson describes such loops like this:

The sequence of events is a loop starting with a recommendation step based on the initial model, then the user is presented with the recommendations, and chooses some items to interact with. These interactions provide explicit or implicit feedback in the form of labels, which are used to update the model. Then the loop repeats with recommendations based on the updated model.

The result is that users keep encountering similar content because the algorithms keep recommending it to us. As this feedback loop continues, no new information is added; the algorithm is designed to recommend content that affirms what it construes as your taste.

Read the rest of this article at: Real Life

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News 24.11.21 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

FORT MCMURRAY, Canada—The first mine opened when Jean L’Hommecourt was a young girl, an open pit where an oil company had begun digging in the sandy soil for a black, viscous form of crude called bitumen.

She and her family would pass the mine in their boat when they traveled up the Athabasca River, and the fumes from its processing plant would sting their eyes and burn their throats, despite the wet cloths their mother would drape over the children’s faces.

By the time L’Hommecourt was in her 30s, oil companies had leased most of the land where she and her mother went to gather berries from the forest on long summer days or hunt moose when the leaves turned yellow and the air crisp.

Today, that same land, near her Indigenous community of Fort McKay, is surrounded by mines that have swallowed an area larger than New York City, stripping away boreal forest and muskeg and rerouting waterways.

Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and the Canadian giant Suncor have transformed Alberta’s tar sands—also called oil sands—into one of the world’s largest industrial developments. They have built sprawling waste ponds that leach heavy metals into groundwater, and processing plants that spew nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air, sending a sour stench for miles.

The sands pump out more than 3 million barrels of oil per day, helping make Canada the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and the top exporter of crude to the United States. Their economic benefits are significant: Oil is the nation’s top export, and the mining and energy sector as a whole accounts for nearly a quarter of Alberta’s provincial economy. But the companies’ energy-hungry extraction has also made the oil and gas sector Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And despite the extreme environmental costs, and the growing need for countries to shift away from fossil fuels, the mines continue to expand, digging up nearly 500 Olympic swimming pools-worth of earth every day.

COP26, the global climate conference in Glasgow earlier this month, highlighted the persistent gap between what countries say they will do to cut emissions and what is actually needed to avoid dangerous warming.

Scientists say oil production must begin falling immediately. Canada’s tar sands are among the most climate-polluting sources of oil, and so are an obvious place to begin winding down. The largest oil sands companies have pledged to reduce their emissions, saying they will rely largely on government-subsidized carbon capture projects.

Yet oil companies and the government expect output will climb well into the 2030s. Even a new proposal by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cap emissions in the oil sector does not include any plan to lower production.

Some lawyers and advocates have pointed to the tar sands as a prime example of the widespread environmental destruction they call “ecocide.” They are pushing for the International Criminal Court to outlaw ecocide as a crime, on a par with genocide or war crimes. While the campaign for a new international law is likely to last years, with no assurance it will succeed, it has drawn attention to the inability of countries’ existing laws to contain industrial development like the tar sands, which will pollute the land for decades or centuries.

Read the rest of this article at: Inside Climate News

P.S. previous articles & more by P.F.M.