Unfinished Perfection

Leonardo’s ‘The Virgin and Child With St. Anne’

Can we call something both unfinished and perfect? It’s not hard to say yes if the thing is literary (Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”) or even musical (Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony). With painting, the question is tougher to answer. Let me suggest at least one candidate for unfinished perfection.

A museum overbrimming with masterpieces and gawking visitors can challenge someone who wants to look at pictures. But patience is a virtue. Take the Louvre. Behind bullet-proof glass and a long rope hangs the Mona Lisa, impossible to see well through the crowds of camera-toting tourists, who rush through, snap their pictures to prove they have been there, and then leave.

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‘The Virgin and Child with St. Anne’

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a famously slow painter, and not many finished works survive. But once you leave the room where the Mona Lisa is enshrined you find yourself in the Grande Galérie, still crowded but less claustrophobic, and in the presence of five other Leonardo pictures. Tourists stop for a moment, but you can get close to any of these and enjoy (relative) solitude. The first is probably from Leonardo’s workshop, not entirely of the master’s own hand: St. John the Baptist, or perhaps Bacchus, whose raised finger is a Christian symbol, but whose thyrsis, vine leaves and panther skin are clearly pagan. The next is the elegant lady “La Belle Ferronière.” Then the famous “Virgin of the Rocks,” with its mysterious setting and its chiaroscuro lighting. Then another androgynous St. John with upward pointing finger.

Then, the masterpiece: “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” begun probably in 1500. Leonardo worked on it in both Milan and Florence, and kept it with him (as he did the Mona Lisa) until his death. Unfinished, it still offers a total aesthetic experience in terms of its design, form, color and human drama. (To take its measure, you can look at a preparatory study in London’s National Gallery, “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.”)

Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, coined the phrase “significant form” in 1914 and, along with Roger Fry, another Bloomsbury denizen, popularized the idea that form itself can convey and produce feeling. Leonardo’s picture, especially its human geometry, sublimely exemplifies such conveyance. Leonardo learned from Masaccio (1401-1428) how to give sculptural mass to flat figures through the principles of perspective. To the earlier master’s technique, however, he added a humanism that looks to our eyes distinctly, realistically modern.

The Virgin is balanced on the lap of her mother, St. Anne. She gently restrains or supports her son, who is himself grabbing a little lamb. A gently energetic flow of the life force extends from St. Anne, the largest, oldest and highest figure, down through her grandchild, to the animal and plant worlds below her. The two women gaze down in wonder at the child; the child and the lamb are both looking up.

The picture is a study in support, connection, direction, in separateness and unity. St. Anne’s left arm rests upon her invisible hip. Mary’s head is in front of her mother’s shoulder. The fullness of her robe and its unfolding across her lap suggest, almost, that her child is coming out of her body (again). We can trace a line from her knee to her elbow, to her shoulder and head, and thence to her mother’s shoulder. The picture combines straight lines and swirling ones so naturally that it obscures for a moment the difficult artistry that has made everything seem natural, indeed inevitable.

What does it all mean? Freud had a thing or two to say about this picture in his essay on the painter. Leonardo had written about a childhood dream in which a vulture attacked him in his crib. Freud detected within the Virgin’s robe the figure of the vulture (Egyptian hieroglyphs sometimes used the vulture as a maternal image), which he took as a symbol of Leonardo’s repressed homosexuality.

Freud got it wrong for two reasons. Leonardo’s German translator made Leonardo’s “vulture” out of what was actually a kite or hawk. More important, it strains credulity to see any bird shape in the Virgin’s lap. Freud came closer to a truth when he considered the two women. St. Anne hardly looks older than her daughter; they seem to be of one age. And Leonardo, himself illegitimate, had two mothers, his birth mother and then his father’s wife.

Theology tempts us too but, like psychoanalysis, ultimately fails to explain the picture’s power. The lamb symbolizes Christ and his future sacrifice; it’s also just a child’s pet. Is Mary pulling him away from his foredoomed fate? And his grandmother: Do her enigmatic Mona Lisa-like smile and her hand on her hip say “I am older and wiser. I know that boys will be boys. Let the kid play”? Does one woman resist the tragedy, and the other accept it?

Theological and biographical details pale by comparison to the picture’s formal and human aspects. Consider the colors. At the top we see an almost Chinese background of ice-blue mountains with both a horizontal and vertical sweep. The colors darken from the top of the canvas to the bottom. The Virgin’s face occupies a radiant spot in the center. On the right side we have a single tree. At the bottom are rocks, an earthly base. Those on the left are small and detailed; those on the right, vague. (The Virgin’s somewhat splotchy mantle is equally unfinished or else abraded.)

The Virgin knows that her son will die. She must be filled with sorrow. But the picture is all “luxe et calme,” a gentle family portrait of three generations. Without knowing the story, a viewer would assume that it depicts, with delicate humor, domesticity and soft feelings. Such tenderness mutes tragedy for a moment, and then deepens it. And the picture’s “unfinished” status? Its conception exceeds its execution, but this hardly matters. The picture takes us in. Its formal elegance and the humane portrayal of its characters are perfection enough.

Mr. Spiegelman, the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, writes about teh arts for the Journal. His latest book is “Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness” (Farrar Strauss Giroux).

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704596504575272681406945388.html

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The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets

A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series.

Hidden inside Ashley Hayes-Beaty’s computer, a tiny file helps gather personal details about her, all to be put up for sale for a tenth of a penny.

The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

The code knows that her favorite movies include “The Princess Bride,” “50 First Dates” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” It knows she enjoys the “Sex and the City” series. It knows she browses entertainment news and likes to take quizzes.

“Well, I like to think I have some mystery left to me, but apparently not!” Ms. Hayes-Beaty said when told what that snippet of code reveals about her. “The profile is eerily correct.”

Ms. Hayes-Beaty is being monitored by Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company that uses sophisticated software called a “beacon” to capture what people are typing on a website—their comments on movies, say, or their interest in parenting and pregnancy. Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person’s name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers. Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s tastes can be sold wholesale (a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand) or customized (26-year-old Southern fans of “50 First Dates”).

“We can segment it all the way down to one person,” says Eric Porres, Lotame’s chief marketing officer.

One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found, is the business of spying on Internet users.

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

• The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

The new technologies are transforming the Internet economy. Advertisers once primarily bought ads on specific Web pages—a car ad on a car site. Now, advertisers are paying a premium to follow people around the Internet, wherever they go, with highly specific marketing messages.

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen—tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks—competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.

The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges.

“It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”

The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer.

As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles.

But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

The top venue for such technology, the Journal found, was IAC/InterActive Corp.’s Dictionary.com. A visit to the online dictionary site resulted in 234 files or programs being downloaded onto the Journal’s test computer, 223 of which were from companies that track Web users.

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Dig Deeper

Glossary

Key tracking terminology

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How to Protect Yourself

Almost every major website you visit is tracking your online activity. Here’s a step-by-step guide to fending off trackers.

The Tracking Ecosystem

Surfing the Internet kickstarts a process that passes information about you and your interests to tracking companies and advertisers. See how it works.

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The information that companies gather is anonymous, in the sense that Internet users are identified by a number assigned to their computer, not by a specific person’s name. Lotame, for instance, says it doesn’t know the name of users such as Ms. Hayes-Beaty—only their behavior and attributes, identified by code number. People who don’t want to be tracked can remove themselves from Lotame’s system.

And the industry says the data are used harmlessly. David Moore, chairman of 24/7 RealMedia Inc., an ad network owned by WPP PLC, says tracking gives Internet users better advertising.

“When an ad is targeted properly, it ceases to be an ad, it becomes important information,” he says.

Tracking isn’t new. But the technology is growing so powerful and ubiquitous that even some of America’s biggest sites say they were unaware, until informed by the Journal, that they were installing intrusive files on visitors’ computers.

The Journal found that Microsoft Corp.’s popular Web portal, MSN.com, planted a tracking file packed with data: It had a prediction of a surfer’s age, ZIP Code and gender, plus a code containing estimates of income, marital status, presence of children and home ownership, according to the tracking company that created the file, Targus Information Corp.

Both Targus and Microsoft said they didn’t know how the file got onto MSN.com, and added that the tool didn’t contain “personally identifiable” information.

Tracking is done by tiny files and programs known as “cookies,” “Flash cookies” and “beacons.” They are placed on a computer when a user visits a website. U.S. courts have ruled that it is legal to deploy the simplest type, cookies, just as someone using a telephone might allow a friend to listen in on a conversation. Courts haven’t ruled on the more complex trackers.

The most intrusive monitoring comes from what are known in the business as “third party” tracking files. They work like this: The first time a site is visited, it installs a tracking file, which assigns the computer a unique ID number. Later, when the user visits another site affiliated with the same tracking company, it can take note of where that user was before, and where he is now. This way, over time the company can build a robust profile.

One such ecosystem is Yahoo Inc.’s ad network, which collects fees by placing targeted advertisements on websites. Yahoo’s network knows many things about recent high-school graduate Cate Reid. One is that she is a 13- to 18-year-old female interested in weight loss. Ms. Reid was able to determine this when a reporter showed her a little-known feature on Yahoo’s website, the Ad Interest Manager, that displays some of the information Yahoo had collected about her.

Yahoo’s take on Ms. Reid, who was 17 years old at the time, hit the mark: She was, in fact, worried that she may be 15 pounds too heavy for her 5-foot, 6-inch frame. She says she often does online research about weight loss.

“Every time I go on the Internet,” she says, she sees weight-loss ads. “I’m self-conscious about my weight,” says Ms. Reid, whose father asked that her hometown not be given. “I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it.”

Yahoo spokeswoman Amber Allman says Yahoo doesn’t knowingly target weight-loss ads at people under 18, though it does target adults.

“It’s likely this user received an untargeted ad,” Ms. Allman says. It’s also possible Ms. Reid saw ads targeted at her by other tracking companies.

Information about people’s moment-to-moment thoughts and actions, as revealed by their online activity, can change hands quickly. Within seconds of visiting eBay.com or Expedia.com, information detailing a Web surfer’s activity there is likely to be auctioned on the data exchange run by BlueKai, the Seattle startup.

Each day, BlueKai sells 50 million pieces of information like this about specific individuals’ browsing habits, for as little as a tenth of a cent apiece. The auctions can happen instantly, as a website is visited.

Spokespeople for eBay Inc. and Expedia Inc. both say the profiles BlueKai sells are anonymous and the people aren’t identified as visitors of their sites. BlueKai says its own website gives consumers an easy way to see what it monitors about them.

Tracking files get onto websites, and downloaded to a computer, in several ways. Often, companies simply pay sites to distribute their tracking files.

But tracking companies sometimes hide their files within free software offered to websites, or hide them within other tracking files or ads. When this happens, websites aren’t always aware that they’re installing the files on visitors’ computers.

Often staffed by “quants,” or math gurus with expertise in quantitative analysis, some tracking companies use probability algorithms to try to pair what they know about a person’s online behavior with data from offline sources about household income, geography and education, among other things.

The goal is to make sophisticated assumptions in real time—plans for a summer vacation, the likelihood of repaying a loan—and sell those conclusions.

Some financial companies are starting to use this formula to show entirely different pages to visitors, based on assumptions about their income and education levels.

Life-insurance site AccuquoteLife.com, a unit of Byron Udell & Associates Inc., last month tested a system showing visitors it determined to be suburban, college-educated baby-boomers a default policy of $2 million to $3 million, says Accuquote executive Sean Cheyney. A rural, working-class senior citizen might see a default policy for $250,000, he says.

“We’re driving people down different lanes of the highway,” Mr. Cheyney says.

Consumer tracking is the foundation of an online advertising economy that racked up $23 billion in ad spending last year. Tracking activity is exploding. Researchers at AT&T Labs and Worcester Polytechnic Institute last fall found tracking technology on 80% of 1,000 popular sites, up from 40% of those sites in 2005.

The Journal found tracking files that collect sensitive health and financial data. On Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.’s dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com, one tracking file from Healthline Networks Inc., an ad network, scans the page a user is viewing and targets ads related to what it sees there. So, for example, a person looking up depression-related words could see Healthline ads for depression treatments on that page—and on subsequent pages viewed on other sites.

Healthline says it doesn’t let advertisers track users around the Internet who have viewed sensitive topics such as HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders and impotence. The company does let advertisers track people with bipolar disorder, overactive bladder and anxiety, according to its marketing materials.

Targeted ads can get personal. Last year, Julia Preston, a 32-year-old education-software designer in Austin, Texas, researched uterine disorders online. Soon after, she started noticing fertility ads on sites she visited. She now knows she doesn’t have a disorder, but still gets the ads.

It’s “unnerving,” she says.

Tracking became possible in 1994 when the tiny text files called cookies were introduced in an early browser, Netscape Navigator. Their purpose was user convenience: remembering contents of Web shopping carts.

Back then, online advertising barely existed. The first banner ad appeared the same year. When online ads got rolling during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, advertisers were buying ads based on proximity to content—shoe ads on fashion sites.

The dot-com bust triggered a power shift in online advertising, away from websites and toward advertisers. Advertisers began paying for ads only if someone clicked on them. Sites and ad networks began using cookies aggressively in hopes of showing ads to people most likely to click on them, thus getting paid.

Targeted ads command a premium. Last year, the average cost of a targeted ad was $4.12 per thousand viewers, compared with $1.98 per thousand viewers for an untargeted ad, according to an ad-industry-sponsored study in March.

The Journal examined three kinds of tracking technology—basic cookies as well as more powerful “Flash cookies” and bits of software code called “beacons.”

More than half of the sites examined by the Journal installed 23 or more “third party” cookies. Dictionary.com installed the most, placing 159 third-party cookies.

Cookies are typically used by tracking companies to build lists of pages visited from a specific computer. A newer type of technology, beacons, can watch even more activity.

Beacons, also known as “Web bugs” and “pixels,” are small pieces of software that run on a Web page. They can track what a user is doing on the page, including what is being typed or where the mouse is moving.

The majority of sites examined by the Journal placed at least seven beacons from outside companies. Dictionary.com had the most, 41, including several from companies that track health conditions and one that says it can target consumers by dozens of factors, including zip code and race.

Dictionary.com President Shravan Goli attributed the presence of so many tracking tools to the fact that the site was working with a large number of ad networks, each of which places its own cookies and beacons. After the Journal contacted the company, it cut the number of networks it uses and beefed up its privacy policy to more fully disclose its practices.

The widespread use of Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash software to play videos online offers another opportunity to track people. Flash cookies originally were meant to remember users’ preferences, such as volume settings for online videos.

But Flash cookies can also be used by data collectors to re-install regular cookies that a user has deleted. This can circumvent a user’s attempt to avoid being tracked online. Adobe condemns the practice.

Most sites examined by the Journal installed no Flash cookies. Comcast.net installed 55.

That finding surprised the company, which said it was unaware of them. Comcast Corp. subsequently determined that it had used a piece of free software from a company called Clearspring Technologies Inc. to display a slideshow of celebrity photos on Comcast.net. The Flash cookies were installed on Comcast’s site by that slideshow, according to Comcast.

Clearspring, based in McLean, Va., says the 55 Flash cookies were a mistake. The company says it no longer uses Flash cookies for tracking.

CEO Hooman Radfar says Clearspring provides software and services to websites at no charge. In exchange, Clearspring collects data on consumers. It plans eventually to sell the data it collects to advertisers, he says, so that site users can be shown “ads that don’t suck.” Comcast’s data won’t be used, Clearspring says.

Wittingly or not, people pay a price in reduced privacy for the information and services they receive online. Dictionary.com, the site with the most tracking files, is a case study.

The site’s annual revenue, about $9 million in 2009 according to an SEC filing, means the site is too small to support an extensive ad-sales team. So it needs to rely on the national ad-placing networks, whose business model is built on tracking.

Dictionary.com executives say the trade-off is fair for their users, who get free access to its dictionary and thesaurus service.

“Whether it’s one or 10 cookies, it doesn’t have any impact on the customer experience, and we disclose we do it,” says Dictionary.com spokesman Nicholas Graham. “So what’s the beef?”

The problem, say some industry veterans, is that so much consumer data is now up for sale, and there are no legal limits on how that data can be used.

Until recently, targeting consumers by health or financial status was considered off-limits by many large Internet ad companies. Now, some aim to take targeting to a new level by tapping online social networks.

Media6Degrees Inc., whose technology was found on three sites by the Journal, is pitching banks to use its data to size up consumers based on their social connections. The idea is that the creditworthy tend to hang out with the creditworthy, and deadbeats with deadbeats.

“There are applications of this technology that can be very powerful,” says Tom Phillips, CEO of Media6Degrees. “Who knows how far we’d take it?”

Julia Angwin, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and pĥotos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703977004575393173432219064.html

A Food Chain Crisis in the World’s Oceans

It is the starting point for our oceans’ food chain. But stocks of phytoplankton have decreased by 40 percent since 1950, potentially as a result of global warming. It is an astonishing collapse, say researchers, and may have dramatic consequences for both the oceans and for humans.

A whale shark swims with its huge mouth open near the surface of the plankton-rich waters of Donsol, a town in the Phillippines. Like many sea creatures, the whale shark nourishes itself with plankton.

The forms that marine flora and fauna come in are varied and spectacular. From bizarre deep sea creatures to elegant predators and giant marine mammals, the diversity in our planet’s oceans is astounding.

But it is the microscopic organisms like diatoms, green algae, dinoflagellates and cayanobacteria that make it all possible. Phytoplankton is the first link in the oceanic food chain. It is eaten by zooplankton which is in turn eaten by other animals, which are then consumed by yet further sea creatures. Sometimes that chain can be quite short — the only thing that separates whales from phytoplankton in the food chain, for example, are the krill that come in between.

But it appears that humans may be in the process of destroying this fundamental link in the oceanic food chain. Temperatures on the surface of our oceans are rising because of climate change, resulting in a reduction of the stock of phytoplankton. Just how severe that reduction is, however, has long been a mystery.

Now, a frightening new study reveals the shocking degree of the die-off. Since 1899, the average global mass of phytoplankton has shrunk by 1 percent each year, an international research team reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature. Since 1950, phytoplankton has declined globally by about 40 percent.

“We had suspected this for a long time,” Boris Worm, the author of the study for Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “But these figures still surprised us.” At this point, he said, one can only speculate as to what the repercussions might be. “In principal, though, we should assume that such a massive decline is already having tangible consequences,” said Worm. He said that the lack of research on the food chain between phytoplankton and larger fish in the open ocean is a hindrance to knowing the extent of the damage.

‘The Entire Food Chain Will Contract’

In other words, it could be that humans have not yet been affected. But Worm fears that will not remain the case for long. If the trend continues and the phytoplankton mass continues to shrink at a rate of 1 percent per year, the “entire food chain will contract,” he predicts.

Worm’s research has found that the problem is not merely limited to certain areas of the world’s oceans. “This is global phenomenon that cannot be combatted regionally,” Worm said.

The data show that the decline is happening in eight of the 10 regions studied. In one of the other two, the phytoplankton is disappearing even more quickly, while one region showed an increase. Both of the two exceptions are in the Indian Ocean. “We suspect other factors are influencing (developments) there,” Worm says.

The situation in some coastal waters is different. In the North and Baltic Seas in Europe, for example, mass quantities of nutrients flow from land into the ocean. An enormous algae bloom in the Baltic has been the result this summer, but other microscopic organisms benefit as well. Still, coastal waters make up only a fraction of the total ocean.

Worm and his colleagues Daniel Boyce and Marion Lewis believe climate change is responsible for the disappearance of phytoplankton. In contrast to coastal areas, waters in the open sea are deeply stratified. Phytoplankton is found near the surface and gets its nourishment when cold and nutrient-rich water rises from the depths. “But when water on the upper surface gets warmer as a result of climate change, then it makes this mixing difficult,” Worm explained. As a result, the phytoplankton can no longer get sufficient nutrients.

‘So Serious It Is almost Unbelievable’

Other experts have also said they were struck by the sheer scale of the development. “A retreat of 40 percent in 60 years, that is so serious that it is almost unbelievable,” says Heinz-Dieter Franke of the Biological Institute Helgoland, part of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. He warned, however, against attributing the decline in phytoplankton solely to temperature increases. Higher temperatures, after all, could also result in more nutrients being delivered by air, he said. Other influences, like changes in cloud composition — and thus changes in sunlight on the oceans’ surface — complicate the situation.

The negative effect warmer surface temperatures have had on phytoplankton has long been well-documented, says Worm, just not over extended time periods. Continuous satellite measurements have only been available for the last 12 years or so. The researchers had to collect multiple data sets, including those taken by Pietro Angelo Secchi in the 19th century. The Italian researcher and Jesuit priest was ordered by the Papal fleet to measure the translucency of the Mediterranean Sea.

The so-called Secchi disk is still used today to measure water transparency, and the old data he collected remains enormously valuable for marine biologists. “There is a direct corollary between the transparency of water and the density of phytoplankton,” said Worm. The scientists also included measurements of micro-organisms as well as data about the ocean’s chlorophyll content. All phytoplankton organisms create chlorophyll and it is possible to draw conclusions about the biomass using that data. In total, the team of researchers evaluated close to 450,000 data from measurements taken between 1899 and 2008.

Phytoplankton’s Contribution to Global Warming

That humans have done serious damage to the world’s oceans is hardly a new finding. Over-fishing is an acute problem for several species with beloved types like blue fin tuna being threatened with extinction. Already, experts are warning that the world’s fisheries could collapse by 2050. But the decline in phytoplankton could make the situation even worse.

Franke of the Alfred Wegener Institute said he fears the decline in phytoplankton will make itself particularly apparent in fisheries. “If the oceans’ total productivity declines by 40 percent, then the yields of the fisheries must also retreat by the same amount,” Franke told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The loss of the oceans as a source of nutrients isn’t the only threat to humans. Half of the oxygen produced by plants comes from phytoplankton. For a long time, scientists have been measuring an extremely small, but also constant decline in the oxygen content of the atmosphere. “So far, the use of fossil fuels has been discussed as a reason,” said Worm. But it’s possible that the loss of phytoplankton could also be a factor.

In addition, phytoplankton absorbs a huge amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year. The disappearance of the microscopic organisms could further accelerate warming.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,709135,00.html

Iran starts feeling heat

They [the United States and Israel] have decided to attack at least two countries in the region in the next three months.

— Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, July 26

President Ahmadinejad has a penchant for the somewhat loony, as when last weekend he denounced Paul the Octopus, omniscient predictor of eight consecutive World Cup matches, as a symbol of decadence and purveyor of “Western propaganda and superstition.”

But for all his clownishness, Ahmadinejad is nonetheless calculating and dangerous. What “two countries” was he talking about? They seem logically to be Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah in Lebanon has armed itself with 50,000 rockets and made clear that it is in a position to start a war at any time. Fighting on this scale would immediately bring in Syria, which would in turn invite Iranian intervention in defense of its major Arab clients — and of the first Persian beachhead on the Mediterranean in 1,400 years.

The idea that Israel, let alone the United States, has the slightest interest in starting a war on Israel’s north is crazy. But claims about imminent attacks are serious business in that region. In May 1967, the Soviet Union falsely told its client, Egypt, that Israel was preparing to attack Syria. These rumors set off a train of events — the mobilization of Arab armies, the southern blockade of Israel, the hasty signing of an inter-Arab military pact — that led to the Six-Day War.

Ahmadinejad’s claim is not supported by a shred of evidence. So what is he up to?

It is a sign that he is under serious pressure. Passage of weak U.N. sanctions was followed by unilateral sanctions by the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union. Already, reports Reuters, Iran is experiencing a sharp drop in gasoline imports as Lloyd’s of London and other players refuse to insure the ships delivering them.

Second, the Arab states are no longer just whispering their desire for the United States to militarily take out Iranian nuclear facilities. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington said so openly at a conference three weeks ago.

Shortly before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Pat Buchanan famously said that the “only two groups” that wanted the United States to forcibly liberate Kuwait were “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.” That was a stupid charge, contradicted by the fact that George H.W. Bush went to war leading more than 30 nations, including the largest U.S.-led coalition of Arab states ever assembled.

Twenty years later, the libel returns in the form of the scurrilous suggestion that the only ones who want the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities are Israel and its American supporters. The UAE ambassador is, as far as ascertainable, neither Israeli nor American nor Jewish. His publicly expressed desire for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities speaks for the intense Arab fear, approaching panic, of Iran’s nuclear program and the urgent hope that the United States will take it out.

Third, and perhaps even more troubling from Tehran’s point of view, are developments in the United States. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden suggested on Sunday that over time, in his view, a military strike is looking increasingly favorable compared to the alternatives. Hayden is no Obama insider, but Time reports (“An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table.” July 15) that high administration officials are once again considering the military option. This may reflect a new sense of urgency or merely be a bluff to make Tehran more pliable. But in either case, it suggests that after 18 months of failed engagement, the administration is hardening its line.

The hardening is already having its effect. The Iranian regime is beginning to realize that even President Obama’s patience is limited — and that Iran may actually face a reckoning for its nuclear defiance.

All this pressure would be enough to rattle a regime already unsteady and shorn of domestic legitimacy. Hence Ahmadinejad’s otherwise inscrutable warning about an Israeli attack on two countries. (Said Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Fox News: “Who is the second one?”) It is a pointed reminder to the world of Iran’s capacity to trigger, through Hezbollah and Syria, a regional conflagration.

This is the kind of brinkmanship you get when leaders of a rogue regime are under growing pressure. The only hope to get them to reverse course is to relentlessly increase their feeling that, if they don’t, the Arab states, Israel, the Europeans and America will, one way or another, ensure that ruin is visited upon them.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072904901.html

The Missing Word in Our Afghanistan Strategy

Neither the British prime minister nor the U.S. president is talking about ‘victory.’

What President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t say during last week’s joint news conference may have mattered more than what they did say. The omissions could lead to a grave setback in the war on terror and deadly results for the Afghan people.

The president and prime minister declared their solidarity on the Afghanistan war. Both leaders “reaffirmed our commitment to the overall strategy,” in Mr. Cameron’s words. Mr. Obama said that approach aimed to “build Afghan capacity so Afghans can take responsibility for their future,” a point Mr. Cameron called “a key part” of the coalition’s strategy.

All well and good. But neither leader uttered the word “victory” or “win” or any other similar phrase. They made it sound as if the strategic goal was to stand up the Afghan security forces, leave as soon as that was done, and hope the locals were up to keeping things together.

Neither man called for the defeat of the Taliban or declared its return to power unacceptable. Instead, Mr. Obama offered a lesser goal, namely to “break the Taliban’s momentum.” That is hardly a strategy that will galvanize people—as the King James Bible expressed it, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

Nor did Messrs. Obama or Cameron emphasize, as their predecessors did, the importance of liberty and human rights in Afghanistan. One of the remarkable achievements of the removal of the Taliban was the emergence of a nascent (if still imperfect) Afghan democracy, one that respects the rights of Afghan women. It would be a brutal betrayal to allow these rights to be extinguished.

Wars involve tactical shifts and adjustments. But they also involve “red lines”—and in Afghanistan, the red line must be to defeat al Qaeda and the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban, and to keep them from seizing power again.

The American and British people who are being asked to support this costly effort must know that is our objective. So must the Afghan people, who have seen much the last year to raise doubts about our resolve. And so must the Taliban and al Qaeda. America’s enemies need to understand one thing above all else: They cannot outlast us and, if they try, they will be broken and defeated.

Victory in Afghanistan requires two things: the right strategy and the resolve to see it through. Mr. Obama wisely recruited Gen. David Petraeus to head the Afghan campaign. There is no one better equipped to execute a successful counterinsurgency campaign. He is both the father of the “surge” in Iraq and the person most responsible for implementing it. If Gen. Petraeus has the time and support he needs, he can bring similar success in Afghanistan.

But is Mr. Obama’s heart in this fight? The commander in chief has said stunningly little about the war. He rarely explains to the American people what is happening or asks for their support.

Some congressional Democrats are growing restive, speaking more often and more loudly against the war and now voting against its funding. Ordinary Americans will also come to question the mission if the goal is not victory. Mr. Obama needs to deal with this by making it clear that when it comes to Afghanistan, he’s all in.

Winston Churchill demonstrated that in war, words matter. They signal resolve or weakness, fortitude or doubt. Right now, the uncertain trumpet of Mr. Obama’s words—those he has said and those he has chosen not to say—is emboldening adversaries, alarming allies, undermining confidence in the U.S., and dispiriting those who fight in dark and dangerous places for our security and liberty.

The president can and must correct those impressions—beginning with an unambiguous statement that America will stay and get the job done. Only the president can reassure our partners and allies, and strike the fear of God into our enemies. The world is looking for him to act as a commander in chief.

Mr. Obama has acted impressively so far on Afghanistan. He changed strategy based on facts on the ground, increased our troops by tens of thousands, and picked exactly the right man to lead our military into battle.

The president has the right pieces in place. Now he needs to signal to the world that he believes in the cause with all his heart. Let’s hope he does.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703940904575395152474791466.html

WikiLeaks ‘Bastards’

The website has endangered the lives of Afghan informants

Julian Assange, the editor of the WikiLeaks website that on Monday released some 92,000 classified military documents, has told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel that he “loved crushing bastards.” We wonder if the “bastards” he has in mind include the dozens of Afghan civilians named in the document dump as U.S. military informants. Their lives, as well as those of their entire families, are now at terrible risk of Taliban reprisal.

The past decade has seen more than its share of debates about the government’s right to secrecy, the public’s right to disclosure, and where the line between them should be drawn: Think warrantless wiretaps, Swift bank codes and terror financing, Valerie Plame, Judy Miller. We’ve had our say on all of these issues.

But the WikiLeaks story is a new and troubling event. Our initial reaction was that the documents expose no big lies about the war and, judging from what we’ve seen so far, no small ones either. They reveal nothing that wasn’t already widely known about Iranian and Pakistani support for the Taliban. In other words, their value in terms of the public’s right to know is de minimis.

But the closer we and others have looked at the documents, it’s clear that the WikiLeaks dump does reveal a great deal about the military’s methods, sources, tactics and protocols of communication. Such details are of little interest to the public at large, and they are unlikely to change many minds about the conduct, or wisdom, of the war. But they are of considerable interest to America’s avowed enemies and strategic competitors such as Russia and China.

“If I had gotten this trove on the Taliban or al Qaeda, I would have called this priceless,” says former CIA director Michael Hayden. “If I’m head of the Russian intelligence, I’m getting my best English speakers and saying: ‘Read every document, and I want you to tell me, how good are these guys? What are their approaches, their strengths, their weaknesses and their blind spots?'”

In his defense, Mr. Assange dismisses concerns about harm to U.S. national security, calling it ridiculous. That may be his right as an Australian national, although Australia deploys some 1,500 troops to Afghanistan and has lost more than two dozen men in combat. But Mr. Assange also says he takes threats to individual safety seriously, and he boasts that he has withheld or edited thousands of documents as a precaution against potential harm.

If so, he hasn’t done a very good job of it. Yesterday, the Times of London noted that “in just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to U.S. forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names.”

The newspaper goes on to note that “named Afghans offered information accusing others of being Taliban. In one case from 2007, a senior official accuses named figures in the government of corruption. In another from 2007, a report describes using a middleman to talk to an alleged Taliban commander who is identified. ‘[X] said that he would be killed if he got caught interacting with any coalition forces, which is why he hides when we go into [Y].'” The deletions here were done by the London Times, not WikiLeaks.

Perhaps the various countries that host WikiLeaks’ servers can provide these informers and their entire families with refugee status now that their lives are in jeopardy. We’d say something similar about the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, which coordinated publication of the documents with Mr. Assange. The Times has made a show of seeking to corroborate the information it published, and to delete information the paper believed was especially sensitive (including the names of Afghan informants). It went so far as to urge Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents.

We don’t believe in prior restraint, but it is worth asking whether the Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel are really serving the public, much less allied security interests, in validating Mr. Assange’s methods by flying in publishing formation with him. “I don’t know, and I’ll bet they [WikiLeaks] don’t know, if publication of this mass of material is in some ways genuinely harmful to national security,” Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer, told the Journal yesterday. “That’s one of my problems with their modus operandi.”

Mr. Abrams went on to defend the behavior of the Times, which he credited for urging Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents. However, years after the Times exposed the Swift financing operation—an act we criticized at the time—we have still found no public benefit from that report. The most notable consequence is that Europe stopped cooperating with the U.S. on the program.

The Pentagon now says it is aggressively pursuing the source of the leak, and we hope the leaker is found and punished. As for Mr. Assange, governments should not be in the business of prosecuting publishers, a la Britain’s Official Secrets Act. But publishers should also understand that their rights to publish depend in part on publics that believe their media are doing a public service.

If American voters come to believe that newspapers or websites are cavalier about putting U.S. soldiers or allies at risk against our enemies, politicians will follow the public mood. The press will put its own freedom in jeopardy.

Wall Street Journal, Editorial

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703940904575395500694117006.html

The Limits of the Coded World

In an influential article in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, Joshua Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington sum up experiments aimed at discovering the neural basis of decision-making. In one set of experiments, researchers attached sensors to the parts of monkeys’ brains responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were then taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of two patterns. Computers reading the sensors were able to register the decision a fraction of a second before the monkeys’ eyes turned to the pattern. As the monkeys were not deliberating, but rather reacting to visual stimuli, researchers were able to plausibly claim that the computer could successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction. In other words, the computer was reading the monkeys’ minds and knew before they did what their decision would be.

The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they themselves make them?

Research of this sort can seem frightening. An experiment that demonstrated the illusory nature of human freedom would, in many people’s mind, rob the test subjects of something essential to their humanity.

If a machine can tell me what I am about to decide before I decide it, this means that, in some sense, the decision was already made before I became consciously involved. But if that is the case, how am I, as a moral agent, to be held accountable for my actions? If, on the cusp of an important moral decision, I now know that my decision was already taken at the moment I thought myself to be deciding, does this not undermine my responsibility for that choice?

Some might conclude that resistance to such findings reveal a religious bias. After all, the ability to consciously decide is essential in many religions to the idea of humans as spiritual beings. Without freedom of choice, a person becomes a cog in the machine of nature; with action and choice predetermined, morality and ultimately the very meaning of that person’s existence is left in tatters.

Theologians have spent a great deal of time ruminating on the problem of determination. The Catholic response to the theological problem of theodicy — that is, of how to explain the existence of evil in a world ruled by a benevolent and omnipotent God — was to teach that God created humans with free will. It is only because evil does exist that humans are free to choose between good and evil; hence, the choice for good has meaning. As the theologians at the Council of Trent in the 16th century put it, freedom of will is essential for Christian faith, and it is anathema to believe otherwise. Protestant theologians such as Luther and Calvin, to whom the Trent statement was responding, had disputed this notion on the basis of God’s omniscience. If God’s ability to know were truly limitless, they argued, then his knowledge of the future would be as clear and perfect as his knowledge of the present and of the past. If that were the case, though, then God would already know what each and every one of us has done, is doing, and will do at every moment in our lives. And how, then, could we be truly free?

Even though this particular resistance to a deterministic model of human behavior is religious, one can easily come to the same sorts of conclusions from a scientific perspective. In fact, when religion and science square off around human freedom, they often end up on remarkably similar ground because both science and religion base their assumptions on an identical understanding of the world as something intrinsically knowable, either by God or ourselves.

Let me explain what I mean by way of an example. Imagine we suspend a steel ball from a magnet directly above a vertical steel plate, such that when I turn off the magnet, the ball hits the edge of the plate and falls to either one side or the other.

Very few people, having accepted the premises of this experiment, would conclude from its outcome that the ball in question was exhibiting free will. Whether the ball falls on one side or the other of the steel plate, we can all comfortably agree, is completely determined by the physical forces acting on the ball, which are simply too complex and minute for us to monitor. And yet we have no problem assuming the opposite to be true of the application of the monkey experiment to theoretical humans: namely, that because their actions are predictable they can be assumed to lack free will. In other words, we have no reason to assume that either predictability or lack of predictability has anything to say about free will. The fact that we do make this association has more to do with the model of the world that we subtly import into such thought experiments than with the experiments themselves.

The model in question holds that the universe exists in space and time as a kind of ultimate code that can be deciphered. This image of the universe has a philosophical and religious provenance, and has made its way into secular beliefs and practices as well. In the case of human freedom, this presumption of a “code of codes” works by convincing us that a prediction somehow decodes or deciphers a future that already exists in a coded form. So, for example, when the computers read the signals coming from the monkeys’ brains and make a prediction, belief in the code of codes influences how we interpret that event. Instead of interpreting the prediction as what it is — a statement about the neural process leading to the monkeys’ actions — we extrapolate about a supposed future as if it were already written down, and all we were doing was reading it.

To my mind the philosopher who gave the most complete answer to this question was Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism.

Let’s return to the example of the experiment predicting the monkeys’ decisions. What the experiment tells us is nothing other than that the monkeys’ decision making process moves through the brain, and that our technology allows us to get a reading of that activity faster than the monkeys’ brain can put it into action. From that relatively simple outcome, we can now see what an unjustified series of rather major conundrums we had drawn. And the reason we drew them was because we unquestioningly translated something unknowable — the stretch of time including the future of the monkeys’ as of yet undecided and unperformed actions — into a neat scene that just needed to be decoded in order to be experienced. We treated the future as if it had already happened and hence as a series of events that could be read and narrated.

From a Kantian perspective, with this simple act we allowed reason to override its boundaries, and as a result we fell into error. The error we fell into was, specifically, to believe that our empirical exploration of the world and of the human brain could ever eradicate human freedom.

This, then, is why, as “irresistible” as their logic might appear, none of the versions of Galen Strawson’s “Basic Argument” for determinism, which he outlined in The Stone last week, have any relevance for human freedom or responsibility. According to this logic, responsibility must be illusory, because in order to be responsible at any given time an agent must also be responsible for how he or she became how he or she is at that time, which initiates an infinite regress, because at no point can an individual be responsible for all the genetic and cultural forces that have produced him or her as he or she is. But this logic is nothing other than a philosophical version of the code of codes; it assumes that the sum history of forces determining an individual exist as a kind of potentially legible catalog.

The point to stress, however, is that this catalog is not even legible in theory, for to be known it assumes a kind of knower unconstrained by time and space, a knower who could be present from every possible perspective at every possible deciding moment in an agent’s history and prehistory. Such a knower, of course, could only be something along the lines of what the monotheistic traditions call God. But as Kant made clear, it makes no sense to think in terms of ethics, or responsibility, or freedom when talking about God; to make ethical choices, to be responsible for them, to be free to choose poorly, all of these require precisely the kind of being who is constrained by the minimal opacity that defines our kind of knowing.

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre that Strawson quoted thus gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. His next book, “An Uncertain Faith: Atheism, Fundamentalism, and Religious Moderation,” will be published by Columbia University Press in 2011.

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/the-end-of-knowing/