What is it like to be a bee?


In the minds of many humans, empathy is the signature of humanity and yet if this empathy extends further and includes non-humans we may be suspected of indulging in anthropomorphism — a sentimental projection of our own feelings into places where similar feelings supposedly cannot exist.

But the concept of anthropomorphism is itself a strange idea since it seems to invalidate what should be one of the most basic assumptions we can reasonably make about living creatures: that without the capacity to suffer, nothing would survive.

Just as the deadening of sensation makes people more susceptible to injury, an inability to feel pain would impede any creature’s need to avoid harm.

The seemingly suicidal draw of the moth to a flame is the exception rather than the rule. Moreover the insect is driven by a mistake, not a death wish. It is drawn towards the light, not the heat, oblivious that the two are one.

If humans indulge in projections about the feelings of others — human and non-human — perhaps we more commonly engage in negative projections: choosing to assume that feelings are absent where it would cause us discomfort to be attuned to their presence.

Our inclination is to avoid feeling too much and thus we construct neat enclosures for our concerns.

These enclosures shut out the feelings of strangers and then by extension seal away boundless life from which we have become even more estranged.

Heather Swan writes: It was a warm day in early spring when I had my first long conversation with the entomologist and science studies scholar Sainath Suryanarayanan. We met over a couple of hives I had recently inherited. One was thriving. Piles of dead bees filled the other. Parts of the comb were covered with mould and oozing something that looked like molasses.

Having recently attended a class for hobby beekeepers with Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, I was aware of the many different diseases to which bees are susceptible. American foulbrood, which was a mean one, concerned me most. Beekeepers recommended burning all of your equipment if you discovered it in your hives. Some of these bees were alive, but obviously in low spirits, and I didn’t want to destroy them unnecessarily. I called Sainath because I thought he could help me with the diagnosis.

Beekeeping, these days, is riddled with risks. New viruses, habitat loss, pesticides and mites all contribute to creating a deadly labyrinth through which nearly every bee must travel. Additionally, in 2004, mysterious bee disappearances began to plague thousands of beekeepers. Seemingly healthy bees started abandoning their homes. This strange disappearing act became known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Since then, the world has seen the decline of many other pollinating species, too. Because honeybees and other pollinators are responsible for pollinating at least one-third of all the food we eat, this is a serious problem globally. Diagnosing bee problems is not simple, but some answers are emerging. A ubiquitous class of pesticides called neonicotinoids have been implicated in pollinator decline, which has fuelled conversations among beekeepers, scientists, policy-makers and growers. A beekeeper facing a failing hive now has to consider not only the health of the hive itself, but also the health of the landscape around the hive. Dead bees lead beekeepers down a path of many questions. And some beekeepers have lost so many hives, they feel like giving up.

When we met at my troubled hives, Sainath brought his own hive tool and veil. He had already been down a path of many questions about bee deaths, one that started in his youth with a fascination for observing insects. When he was 14, he began his ‘Amateur Entomologist’s Record’, where he kept taxonomic notes on such things as wing textures, body shapes, colour patterns and behaviours. But the young scientist’s approach occasionally slipped to include his exuberance, describing one moment as ‘a stupefying experience!’ All this led him to study biology and chemistry in college, then to work on the behavioural ecology of paper wasps during his doctoral studies, and eventually to Minnesota to help Spivak investigate the role of pesticides in CCD.

Sainath had spent several years doing lab and field experiments with wasps and bees, but ultimately wanted to shift from traditional practices in entomology to research that included human/insect relationships. It was Sainath who made me wonder about the role of emotion in science – both in the scientists themselves and in the subjects of their experiments. I had always thought of emotion as something excised from science, but this was impossible for some scientists. What was the role of empathy in experimentation? How do we, with our human limitations, understand something as radically different from us as the honeybee? Did bees have feelings, too? If so, what did that mean for the scientist? For the science? [Continue reading…]


Music: Fatoumata Diawara — ‘Sowa’


41 men targeted but 1,147 people killed: U.S. drone strikes – the facts on the ground

The Guardian reports: The drones came for Ayman Zawahiri on 13 January 2006, hovering over a village in Pakistan called Damadola. Ten months later, they came again for the man who would become al-Qaida’s leader, this time in Bajaur.

Eight years later, Zawahiri is still alive. Seventy-six children and 29 adults, according to reports after the two strikes, are not.

However many Americans know who Zawahiri is, far fewer are familiar with Qari Hussain. Hussain was a deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, a militant group aligned with al-Qaida that trained the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, before his unsuccessful 2010 attack. The drones first came for Hussain years before, on 29 January 2008. Then they came on 23 June 2009, 15 January 2010, 2 October 2010 and 7 October 2010.

Finally, on 15 October 2010, Hellfire missiles fired from a Predator or Reaper drone killed Hussain, the Pakistani Taliban later confirmed. For the death of a man whom practically no American can name, the US killed 128 people, 13 of them children, none of whom it meant to harm. [Continue reading…]


Iran’s supreme leader dismisses Western pressure on nuclear issue

The New York Times reports: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday that the West had failed to bring Iran “to its knees” over its nuclear program.

Meeting with Muslim clerics in Tehran, the Iranian capital, Mr. Khamenei dismissed the diplomatic and economic pressure that world powers have brought to bear on his country over its nuclear ambitions. He spoke the day after a deadline for concluding an agreement was extended for seven months.

“In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so — and they will not be able to do so,” Mr. Khamenei’s personal website quoted him as saying. [Continue reading…]


How powerful is Iran’s President Rouhani?

One of the key questions about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme is how powerful President Hassan Rouhani really is within Iran’s unique political system, and whether he and his colleagues have the ability to implement an international nuclear agreement despite their powerful opponents. As the country’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003–05, Rouhani agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and open nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unhappy with the attitude of the Western powers towards Iran, halted the implementation of these arrangements.

Rouhani and his associates emphasize that their objective is the resolution of the economic, administrative and international crises arising from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two presidential terms. In this context, they regard their highest priority as being the conclusion of an agreement with the international community over the nuclear dossier – which has been, in their view, the major source of Iran’s economic problems in the past few years.
However, the president is faced with opposition within the ranks of some of the most influential state institutions: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij volunteer militias, the intelligence-security apparatus, the judiciary and the parliament.

There is no doubt that Ayatollah Khamenei expects Rouhani to strive to achieve the removal of the sanctions against Iran, but he does not seem interested in sharing responsibility for any retreat from the nuclear programme. If he comes to the conclusion that the political costs of nuclear talks far outweigh the economic benefits they can bring, he will once again put an end to them.

See Hossein Bastani’s research paper: How Powerful is Rouhani in the Islamic Republic?


Want to avoid government malware? Ask a former NSA hacker

The Guardian reports: Many of the brightest minds from the National Security Agency and GCHQ staff tire themselves out from long years of service, moving out into the comfort of the private sector.

Unsurprisingly, the security industry welcomes them with open arms. After all, who better to hand out advice than alumni of two of the most sophisticated intelligence agencies on the planet?

A young British company called Darktrace, whose technology was spawned in the classrooms and bedrooms of Cambridge University, can now boast a covey of former spies among their executive ranks. Jim Penrose, who spent 17 years at the NSA and was involved in the much-feared Tailored Access Operations group (TAO), is one of Darktrace’s latest hires.

Though he declined to confirm or deny any of the claims made about TAO’s operations, including Edward Snowden leaks that showed it had hacked into between 85,000 and 100,000 machines around the world, Penrose spoke with the Guardian about how people might want to defend themselves from government-sponsored cyber attacks. [Continue reading…]


It’s impossible to laugh off the appalling sexism of the Turkish president

Alev Scott writes: On Monday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made headlines by announcing at a summit on women and justice in Istanbul that women are not equal to men “because it goes against the laws of nature”.

Understandably this caused some outrage around the world but in Turkey it was outflanked by weary cynicism. We’ve heard it all before, you see, most recently in July when the deputy prime minister told Turkish women not to laugh in public. “Don’t rise to the bait, ladies,” said one (female) journalist on Twitter. Another Middle East observer called the story a “waste of news space”.

Here’s why it isn’t: Erdoğan is neither a lone madman in a padded cell, nor a Victorian uncle caught in a time warp. He’s the president of a country of 75 million people where only 28% of women are in legal employment, an estimated 40% of women suffer domestic violence at least once in their lives, and where millions of girls are forced into under-age marriage every year (incidentally, Erdoğan’s predecessor, Abdullah Gül, married his wife when she was 15). Exact figures on domestic abuse and rape are hard to come by because it is socially frowned upon to complain about husbands, and police often tell women and girls who have been threatened with murder by their partners to go home and “talk it over”. [Continue reading…]


Why some Arabs are rejecting strict interpretations of Sharia

BBC Trending reports: A growing social media conversation in Arabic is calling for the implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law, to be abandoned.

Discussing religious law is a sensitive topic in many Muslim countries. But on Twitter, a hashtag which translates as “why we reject implementing Sharia” has been used 5,000 times in 24 hours. The conversation is mainly taking place in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The debate is about whether religious law is suitable for the needs of Arab countries and modern legal systems.

Dr Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started the hashtag. “I have nothing against religion,” she tells BBC Trending, but says she is against “using it as a political system”. Islamists often call for legal systems to be reformed to be consistent with Sharia principles, and some want harsh interpretations of criminal punishments to be implemented. Dr Gad says she is worried about young people adopting the extremes of this kind of thinking. “You see it everywhere now, Islamic State is spreading mentally as well as physically” she told BBC Trending. [Continue reading…]


UN: ISIS got up to $45M in ransoms

The Associated Press reports: The Islamic State group which controls a large swath of Syria and Iraq has received between $35 million and $45 million in ransom payments in the past year, a U.N. expert monitoring sanctions against al-Qaida said Monday.

Yotsna Lalji told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee that an estimated $120 million in ransom was paid to terrorist groups between 2004 and 2012.

Kidnapping for ransom “continues to grow,” she said, as demonstrated by the money the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State has collected, between $35 million and $45 million in the past years.

She said in recent years that al-Qaida and its affiliates have made kidnapping “the core al-Qaida tactic for generating revenue.” She pointed to an October 2012 recording in which al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri incites militants worldwide to kidnap Westerners. [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, Rudaw reports: The Islamic State (ISIS) has taken captive dozens of family members of Iraq’s defense minister in Mosul, a Kurdish official said.

Ismat Rajab, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official for the Mosul area said that on Sunday, ISIS militants arrested 78 family members of Khalid al-Obeidi, Iraq’s defense minister, among them brothers and cousins of the minister.


OPEC said to consider sparing Iraq, Iran and Libya from oil cuts

Bloomberg reports: OPEC is considering exemptions for three nations from any potential oil-production cuts, two people with knowledge of the proposal said. Saudi Arabia’s oil minister said he doesn’t anticipate a difficult meeting when the group meets on Nov. 27 to decide its response to slumping crude.

Iraq, Iran and Libya wouldn’t have to reduce supplies should the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agree to cut output at its gathering in Vienna, according to the people, who asked not to be identified in line with their national policies. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, told reporters in the Austrian capital yesterday that it’s not the first time the oil market has been oversupplied.


Complex life may be possible in only 10% of all galaxies

Science: The universe may be a lonelier place than previously thought. Of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, only one in 10 can support complex life like that on Earth, a pair of astrophysicists argues. Everywhere else, stellar explosions known as gamma ray bursts would regularly wipe out any life forms more elaborate than microbes. The detonations also kept the universe lifeless for billions of years after the big bang, the researchers say.

“It’s kind of surprising that we can have life only in 10% of galaxies and only after 5 billion years,” says Brian Thomas, a physicist at Washburn University in Topeka who was not involved in the work. But “my overall impression is that they are probably right” within the uncertainties in a key parameter in the analysis.

Scientists have long mused over whether a gamma ray burst could harm Earth. The bursts were discovered in 1967 by satellites designed to spot nuclear weapons tests and now turn up at a rate of about one a day. They come in two types. Short gamma ray bursts last less than a second or two; they most likely occur when two neutron stars or black holes spiral into each other. Long gamma ray bursts last for tens of seconds and occur when massive stars burn out, collapse, and explode. They are rarer than the short ones but release roughly 100 times as much energy. A long burst can outshine the rest of the universe in gamma rays, which are highly energetic photons. [Continue reading…]


Music: Grigoryan, Muthspiel & Towner — ‘Icarus’


Dangerous levels of global warming are unavoidable, says the World Bank

Vice News reports: Global temperatures will rise nearly 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels by the middle of the century regardless of actions taken to curb emissions, according to a report from the World Bank released Sunday. The rising temperatures are already disproportionately affecting developing countries and the world’s poorest citizens.

Current energy demands mean the world is committed to emitting more greenhouse gases, which will stay in the atmosphere for decades. That means that even with “very ambitious mitigation action,” the report states, temperatures will continue to rise past the 0.8 degrees Celsius increase already seen today.

“That’s a big message,” Samantha Smith, head of climate for the WWF, told VICE News. “Globally, what all countries have agreed to is that they’re going to keep warming under two degrees Celsius. This report is telling us that 1.5 degrees is too much for a lot of people.”

In the three areas examined in the new report — Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and the Western Balkans and Central Asia — climate change will lead to reduced crop yields and worsened drought, bringing threats to water supplies. In Brazil, soybean crop yields could decrease by as much as 70 percent, and wheat by as much as 50 percent, if temperatures increase two degrees by 2050. Jordan, Egypt, and Libya could see crop yields decrease by 30 percent. [Continue reading…]


The insignificance of Hagel’s arrival and departure

Peter Beinart writes: When I heard that Chuck Hagel was leaving as secretary of defense, I called someone close to the administration to try out the explanation bubbling up on Twitter: that Hagel had been hired to bury the “war on terror” and was being replaced because the White House now needed someone who wanted to vigorously prosecute it. My source sighed. “You guys tend to over interpret these things,” he said.

Oh yeah, I thought. I should know that by now. When Hagel was chosen I wrote a 3,000-word essay claiming his nomination “may prove the most consequential foreign-policy appointment of his [Obama’s] presidency. Because the struggle over Hagel is a struggle over whether Obama can change the terms of foreign-policy debate.” In one sense, that claim was correct. Hagel’s confirmation did spark a large, nasty fight over the terms of American foreign policy. Hawks blasted Hagel for casting doubt on military action against Iran and for criticizing what he called, inaccurately, “the Jewish lobby.” Hagel’s defenders argued that by nominating him, Obama was declaring independence from a foreign-policy establishment that had not reconsidered the assumptions that led America into Afghanistan and Iraq. And we argued that by nominating someone who had spoken uncomfortable truths about the influence groups like AIPAC wield in Congress, Obama was combatting the culture of hyper-caution that stymied provocative thinking inside the Democratic foreign-policy elite.

It was an interesting debate. It just didn’t have a lot to do with what Hagel would do as secretary of defense. Intoxicated by the symbolic significance of a Hagel appointment, both his defenders and his adversaries tended to overlook one mundane but crucial fact: That in the ultra-centralized Obama White House, Hagel’s foreign-policy views wouldn’t matter all that much. [Continue reading…]


Will politics kill a deal on Iran?

The deadline for Iran nuclear talks has now been extended by seven months. Yesterday, Joseph Cirincione wrote:

If it were left to the negotiators, we would have a deal already. Those close to the talks say that they have crafted technical solutions that can prevent Iran from using its program to build a bomb and verify any attempt to cheat.

The track record is encouraging. Iran has fully complied with the interim agreement negotiated last November. For the first time in a decade, progress on the program has been halted and even reversed. Iran has stopped enriching uranium over 5 percent and eliminated the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned 2 years ago could give Iran the core material for a bomb within “weeks.”

Iran is further away from a bomb today than before this interim deal. The nuclear sites are under unprecedented inspections. Some issues of compliance have arisen, but have been resolved. A comprehensive agreement could provide verifiable assurance that Iran’s program remains non-military, and impose intrusive inspections to provide substantial warning of cheating, break-out or “sneak-out.”

The main problems are political. Hardliners in Iran and the United States remain opposed to any deal. [Continue reading…]


The embargo against Rojava

TATORT Kurdistan: Although Rojava (in northern Syria) is a mosaic of languages and cultures, regional and international powers have isolated it both economically and politically—indeed, it is now entirely on its own. To the north, Turkey has walled the region off. To the east, South Kurdistan has lined its veritable ditch with military checkpoints. To the south, the radical Islamist combat units of ISIS and the Al Nusra Front have cut the region off from the rest of Syria.

This embargo is having severe consequences for the people of Rojava.

Taken by itself, Rojava is economically quite a wealthy place. It produces 60 percent of Syria’s wheat and oil, and it raises cotton for the Syrian market. Vis-à-vis Syria it had the status of a colony, in the sense of being a source of raw materials. Rojava doesn’t have processing industries. Thus it grows and harvests grains, but it doesn’t mill them. It doesn’t refine oil but shipped it at great expense to central Syria. That, at least, was the starting situation for Rojava.

The water supply for agriculture comes partly from deep wells, but after the jihadis took over the power stations in Raqqa, those pumps — and hence farming — were threatened. But Rojavans began to use diesel generators to produce power. First they had to develop the technology to generate diesel at all. Rojava’s first winter was very hard–snow fell for the first time in several years, and there was no heating oil. But today many small generators pollute the cities. Only a few of the large ones are available, and no more can be imported because of the embargo.

Turkey and South Kurdistan (the Kurdish region of Iraq) work closely together to maintain the embargo against Rojava. They recognize that Rojavans are attempting, through a grassroots organization, to go beyond capitalist modernity and Western intervention. If the Rojava project should turn out to function, the political and social consequences will ripple throughout the Middle East. That would interfere with the strategy of the NATO states, so they support the embargo. [Continue reading…]


U.S. air strikes in Syria driving anti-Assad groups to support ISIS

The Guardian reports: US air strikes in Syria are encouraging anti-regime fighters to forge alliances with or even defect to Islamic State (Isis), according to a series of interviews conducted by the Guardian.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic military groups are joining forces with Isis, which has gained control of swaths of Syria and Iraq and has beheaded six western hostages in the past few months.

Some brigades have transferred their allegiance, while others are forming tactical alliances or truces. Support among civilians also appears to be growing in some areas as a result of resentment over US-led military action.

“Isis now is like a magnet that attracts large numbers of Muslims,” said Abu Talha, who defected from the FSA a few months ago and is now in negotiations with other fighters from groups such as the al-Nusra Front to follow suit.

Assam Murad, a fighter from a 600-strong dissident FSA brigade near Homs said: “There’s no way we would fight Isis after the US military campaign against them.” [Continue reading…]


ISIS threatens last hope of Christians in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn reports: Two years ago Jalal Yako, a Syriac Catholic priest, returned to his home town of Qaraqosh to persuade members of his community to stay in Iraq and not to emigrate because of the violence directed against them.

“I was in Italy for 18 years, and when I came back here my mission was to get Christians to stay here,” he says. “The Pope in Lebanon two years ago had established a mission to get Christians in the East to stay here.”

Father Yako laboured among the Syriac Catholics, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, who had seen the number of Christians in Iraq decline from over one million at the time of the American invasion in 2003 to about 250,000 today. He sought to convince people in Qaraqosh, an overwhelmingly Syriac Catholic town, that they had a future in Iraq and should not emigrate to the US, Australia or anywhere else that would accept them. His task was not easy, because Iraqi Christians have been frequent victims of murder, kidnapping and robbery.

But in the past six months Father Yako has changed his mind, and he now believes that, after 2,000 years of history, Christians must leave Iraq. Speaking at the entrance of a half-built mall in the Kurdish capital Irbil where 1,650 people from Qaraqosh have taken refuge, he said that “everything has changed since the coming of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State). We should flee. There is nothing for us here.” When Islamic State (Isis) fighters captured Qaraqosh on 7 August, all the town’s 50,000 or so Syriac Catholics had to run for their lives and lost all their possessions.

Many now huddle in dark little prefabricated rooms provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees amid the raw concrete of the mall, crammed together without heat or electricity. They sound as if what happened to them is a nightmare from which they might awaken at any moment and speak about how, only three-and-a-half months ago, they owned houses, farms and shops, had well-paying jobs, and drove their own cars and tractors. They hope against hope to go back, but they have heard reports that everything in Qaraqosh has been destroyed or stolen by Isis. [Continue reading…]