Lygia Pape Venice Biennnale 2009

The latest (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.


Why I left immigration law
Jawziya F Zaman, Dissent, 12 July 2017

Our narratives about the rest of the world consist of interchangeable anecdotes of suffering, scarcity, and repression. There’s no room for complexity here, and nuance only muddles the case. We tell ourselves that what we describe on paper is just the facts absent interpretation—the client narrates and we transcribe. But the law demands just one story from our clients about their lives and where they come from, and it’s not a story of resilience and success. This narrative obstructs the possibility that an immigrant’s relationship with the country of her birth might be complicated in ways we don’t understand – that she could be forced from her home and still have no other, or that she could loathe it and long for it at the same time…

It’s the stories we tell about other countries that cause immigration attorneys rage and sympathy for would-be immigrants affected by the Trump administration’s draconian policies. We know better than anyone the bleak places they’ve left behind. ‘Let them in!’ we cry with a kind of self-righteous indignation, and when the other side asks, ‘But why?’ we give each other knowing looks and roll our eyes. We name the government racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic in response without acknowledging that this bitter tug of war reveals something peculiar about immigration law. The bedrock upon which the defense and the prosecution build their arguments in virtually every case is the same: America is the superior option—it’s better than wherever you came from.

Whether it’s the government attorney trying to deport immigrants or the attorney fighting to keep them in the country, both share a steadfast belief in the future promise of America, its uncommon hospitality. The only difference is, one side is motivated by bald-faced nativism while the other is motivated by a desire to save black and brown people from their tyrannical governments and their oppressive cultures. In the meanwhile, neither pays much attention to the hypocrisy of a country that congratulates itself on being inclusive and welcoming of immigrants while ignoring its part in creating conditions that make many of their native countries unlivable. We turn our watery gazes to the airport and the children we murdered in Yemen fade from the news because their lives and deaths are pointless abstractions.

Read the full article in Dissent Magazine.


Iran dominates in Iraq
after US ‘Handed the country over’

Tim Arango, New York Times, 15 July 2017

Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran – milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran. A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.

And that’s not even the half of it.

Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.

When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure – about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent – were poured into the cause. From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Buried tools and pigments tell a new history
of humans in Australia for 65,000 years

Chris Clarkson et al, The Conversation, 19 July 2017

Together with the Mirrar Aboriginal people, our team excavated the Madjedbebe rockshelter in Kakadu, near Jabiru in Australia’s Northern Territory. A small excavation in 1989 at this site had proposed evidence for human activity in Australia at 60,000-50,000 years ago…

These new dates throw light on a few puzzles in the overall picture of human evolution. Our ages suggest that modern humans and Homo floresiensis in eastern Indonesia may have co-existed for 15,000 years. This means that the arrival of modern humans did not necessarily cause other ancient human-like species to become extinct.

If it’s the case that people have lived in Australia since 65,000 years ago, it may also be true that humans and megafauna co-existed for 20,000 years before megafauna went extinct across the continent.

Until now we knew very little about the technology and lifestyles of the first Aboriginal people. The oldest artefacts from Madjedbebe help to tell this story. They indicate that the earliest Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia were innovative people who – like humans everywhere on earth – developed solutions to new problems and engaged in symbolic and artistic expression.

Read the full article in The Conversation.


The greatest crime
Ruth Balint, Sydney Review of Books, 11 July 2017

More recently, the rhetoric of border protection has shifted. We are no longer just protecting our own borders, we are fulfilling our duty as a global citizen by ‘stopping the deaths at sea’. The chutzpah of this claim is mindboggling, but it has been used to such great effect that it has effectively stymied any useful discussion on the politics of detention in this country. The government’s ‘turn-back’ policy, which involves Australian officials intercepting boats carrying asylum seekers destined for Australia and turning them back around, has meant Australia is potentially breaching its international treaty obligations of non-refoulement to any place, including transit countries like Indonesia, where there is risk of harm. Given the types of boats we are talking about here, the practice is also unsafe. As Klaus Neumann and his colleagues recently argued in The Monthly, the turn-back policy simply displaces the problem to other countries in the region rather than address the problem of refugee protection in our region. Nor will closing off one route simply stop people attempting to seek the protection of Australia, which has long signaled to the world its commitment to human rights and international law. It could simply drive people to take other routes as dangerous or more so.

The other component to Australia’s border protection strategy is the implanting in the Australian psyche the notion that asylum seekers who are detained are dangerous ‘illegals’. Asylum seekers have been variously described as potential Middle Eastern terrorists, as violent African criminals, as illiterates. They have become the pariahs of our society. Michael Ignatieff has observed that ethics typically follow ethnicity, and that empathy naturally takes root within our own tribal or national confines. Those we have outlawed outside of these boundaries are less likely to be on our empathic radar. We find it easier to look away, to feel away.

Read the full article in the Sydney Review of Books.



Forgetting Fanon, remembering Fanon
David Macey, Verso Blogs, 20 July 2017

The danger is that Fanon will be absorbed into accounts of ‘the colonial experience’ that are so generalized as to obscure both the specific features of his work and the trajectory of his life. Edward Said can cite Fanon and W B Yeats in a single paragraph. And whilst it is difficult to disagree with Homi K. Bhabha’s comment that the force of Fanon’s vision ‘comes . . . from the tradition of the oppressed, the language of a revolutionary awareness that, as Walter Benjamin suggests, “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule” ’, it is startling to find that he makes no mention of Martinique. The argument that ‘one of the original and disturbing qualities of Black Skin, White Masks [is] that it rarely historicizes the colonial experience. There is no master narrative that provides a background of social and historical facts against which emerge the problems of the individual or collective psyche’ is no less jarring, though it is less alarming than a Fanon Critical Reader, which tells the reader that ‘In Fanon’s seventeenth year, Martinique was under occupation by the Nazis’. It was not. Growing up in Martinique was a very specific, even peculiar, ‘colonial experience’ and, whether or not one believes in the relevance of master narratives, Peau noire does provide an autobiographical background of social and historical facts. Fanon himself prefaces Peau noire, masques blancs by restricting the validity of his observations and conclusions to the French West Indies. Given that he never visited Guadeloupe, this can only mean that, whatever post-colonial theorists may say, Fanon himself thought he was writing about Martinique. There are times when it is advisable to ignore the proclamation of the ‘death of the author’ and to take authorial statements very seriously indeed.

The recent crop of books and articles – and one film – on Fanon contains very little that is of relevance to a biographer, not least because they construct a Fanon who exists outside time and space and in a purely textual dimension. Little will be said about them here. Although there are obvious exceptions – notably Françoise Vergès, whose essays on Fanon and psychiatry are very valuable – few of the authors concerned stray far away from the most familiar of his texts and appear to have consulted nothing produced by the FLN. Post-colonial theorists’ enthusiasm for Derrida and Lacan tends to blind them to Fanon’s debts to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, not to mention the similarities between his work and that of his contemporaries Albert Memmi and Jean Amrouche. In a way, the very sophistication of the post-colonial readings of Fanon is the source of their weakness. Such sophistication can co-exist with the crude empirical errors that put Martinique under ‘Nazi occupation’. Psychoanalytic readings of Fanon may or may not be valid in their own terms, but it is futile to try to turn Fanon into the psychoanalyst he was not or, like Bhabha, to read him as a black Lacan in the making. He was a psychiatrist working in a very specific and important tradition and in purely quantitative terms his papers on psychiatry greatly outweigh his scattered (and often muddled) allusions to psychoanalysis. Bhabha’s claim that there is no ‘master narrative’ in Peau noire, masques blancs has surely to be countered by the argument that there is most definitely a master narrative at work in L’An V de la révolution algérienne and Les Damnés de la terre. It is the narrative of the Algerian Revolution. It may be difficult to believe in it at the beginning of a new millennium, but Fanon did believe in it and died for it.

The ‘post-colonial Fanon’ is in many ways an inverted image of the ‘revolutionary Fanon’ of the 1960s. Third Worldist readings largely ignored the Fanon of Peau noire, masques blancs; post-colonial readings concentrate almost exclusively on that text and studiously avoid the question of violence. The Third Worldist Fanon was an apocalyptic creature; the post-colonial Fanon worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity, but he is no longer angry. His anger was a response to his experience of a black man in a world defined as white, but not to the ‘fact’ of his blackness. It was a response to the condition and situation of those he called the wretched of the earth. The wretched of the earth are still there, but not in the seminar rooms where the talk is of post-colonial theory. They came out on to the streets of Algiers in 1988, and the Algerian army shot them dead. They have subsequently been killed in the thousands by authoritarian Algerian governments and so-called Islamic fundamentalists. Had he lived, Fanon would still be angry. His readers should be angry too.

Read the full article on the Verso blog.


Africa’s missing Ebola outbreaks
Derek Gatherer, The Conversation, 13 July 2017

It was only in the middle of March 2014, when all reasonable hypotheses had been considered and rejected, that the teams from Médecins Sans Frontières and the Guinean health ministry arrived in Meliandou village to investigate the unreasonable hypothesis and order the testing of samples for Ebola. As we all know, they came back positive. The unthinkable had happened, while the medical authorities had been refusing to think it. And, worse than that, by then the outbreak had spread through the regional hospitals in Guéckédou and Macenta, had reached the teeming shanty town slums of Guinea’s capital Conakry, and the first cases had already been noted in the neighbouring country of Liberia to the south-east.

And so a new consensus about Ebola developed. A freak transfer of the disease, possibly by the migration of fruit bats, to an area where it had never been seen before, had blindsided diagnostic efforts that had rightly concentrated on more likely causes. Medical textbooks needed rewriting to include the new fact that Ebola had appeared for the first time in West Africa in late 2013 and that we have now completely revised our conception of the risk zone for Ebola in Africa. Go to any virology or microbiology conference these days and you are liable to hear something very similar. There is just one problem – it isn’t true.

Read the full article in The Conversation.


Final fantasy
James Duesterberg, The Point, Issue 14

Since 1979 the divide between rich and poor has widened, while real wages for the non-managerial work that most people do have fallen and economic mobility has decreased. ‘Think different,’ Apple urged in the Nineties: words of wisdom, to be sure, for the new economy, although the rewards seem to concentrate in the same place. Apple is 325 times bigger than it was in 1997; the average real wage for college graduates hasn’t increased at all. Like postmodern theory, Apple’s slogan makes ‘difference’ into an opaque object of worship, a monolith or a space-gray smartphone: something intelligent but not quite human. ‘Think different,’ not differently: the point is not to change your mind but to contemplate something else. Meanwhile, as the Silicon Valley tech giants grow ever more ‘different,’ we sit around thinking about it in the academy, and living it on our phones. Tech executive or Uber driver, we find ourselves stuck in what Hito Steyerl calls ‘junktime,’ an empty expectancy, somewhere between work and play and going nowhere.

It is in this context that the new reactionary politics have generated such a strange mixture of excitement and fear. The alt right seems really to want something. And within this nebulous (and mostly virtual) world, a group of writers who call themselves neoreactionaries offer the most concrete and detailed map of an ‘exit’ from the status quo. Amid the diffuse politics and intractable ironism of the alt right, neoreaction promises a coherent ideology, a philosophical backbone and a political program directly opposed to what we have: they call it a ‘Dark Enlightenment.’ If these thinkers are especially disturbing to read it is because, unlike the meme warriors of 4chan and Twitter, they seem to have reasons for the nasty things they say.

As a rule the alt right is scattered, anonymous and obscure—thriving, as the curious metaphor has it, in the ‘dark corners of the internet.’ By contrast, neoreaction is centralized and public: darkness enlightened. It revolves around two well-known figures. The first is Curtis Yarvin, a software engineer who made money in the first internet boom developing an early protocol for mobile browsers. His current startup Urbit – backed by Peter Thiel – is a platform promising to ‘reboot’ the internet by privatizing the virtual real estate where cloud computing takes place. Since 2007, his other big project has been his blog, where, under the name Mencius Moldbug, he has written millions of words of revisionist history, pessimistic philosophizing, racist fearmongering and intellectual parlor games. His writing constitutes the canon of neoreaction, and it has found readers from Steve Bannon to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the finance expert known for predicting the 2008 crash, to New York Times editorialist Ross Douthat. While alt-righters trade memes about campus snowflakes, Moldbug one-ups the enemy soldiers of Enlightenment, drawing on David Hume, Thomas Carlyle and the obscure nineteenth-century English historian James Froude to prove that slavery is natural and monarchy is the only stable form of government.

Read the full article in The Point.


Science among the Ottomans
Daniel A Stolz, H-Net, July 2017

The current state of scholarship on Ottoman science cries out for synthesis. A rising tide of research has pulled down old pillars – decline, transfer, diffusion of modern sciences from Europe – that once gave shape to the historiography of science in the Ottoman Empire, as in most Islamic contexts. Recent studies point to Ottoman participation in early modern networks of knowledge production that transcended the empire’s borders, whether in terms of the exchange of material goods and technological artifacts; the movement of scholars, merchants, bureaucrats, and sailors; or the circulation and translation of books. Meanwhile, late Ottomanists have devoted increasing attention to the role of science, technology, and medicine in nineteenth-century projects of social and political reform. But nearly all of this historical revision has transpired in the pages of monographs and scholarly articles. Missing is the kind of synthetic analysis, legible to nonspecialists, that would assemble the work of diverse research projects into a new narrative of Ottoman science.

In other words, Miri Shefer-Mossensohn’s Science among the Ottomans: The Cultural Creation and Exchange of Knowledge is a timely book. Although the author’s background is in the history of Ottoman medicine, here she draws less on her original research than on the breadth of recent scholarship on Ottoman learning. Employing the lens of ‘culture,’ the book aims to show how specific institutions, spaces, epistemologies, methods of learning, and considerations of politics, gender, and commerce shaped a uniquely ‘Ottoman’ science that was diverse in its interests and productive of knowledge in its own way.

Read the full article on H-Net.


masih alinejad

My stealthy freedom: The hijab in Iran and the west
Mahlar Mali & Masih Alinejad,
Areo Magazine, 12 July 2017

MM: In the West, the hijab is portrayed by some as a symbol of empowerment and resistance for women. One of the iconic posters to come out of the Women’s March in Washington D.C. was of a woman wearing the hijab. Women participating in the march who were not Muslim even wore and celebrated the hijab. What are your thoughts on this and what would you say to them? I’m assuming you’re pro-choice — not anti hijab?

MA: Our campaign has never been against hijab and we personally do not have any problems with women wearing hijab. For example, my own mother wears the veil and I would support her right to dress the way that she wants. Hijab is neither a symbol of resistance, nor a symbol of oppression. However, ‘compulsory’ hijab is a source of oppression. It is merely some people’s interpretation of religion. We sympathize wholeheartedly with veiled Muslim women in the US who have been subjected to violence and discrimination due to their choice of attire; we find such attacks to be hideous. This being said, despite the clarity of our message about the fact that we support freedom of choice when it comes to the way that women dress, our campaign has unfortunately not received media attention from many liberal-minded people. There seems to be an uncanny fear amongst liberals to lend us their support. Many of them are scared of being labelled as Islamophobic. In reality, there is nothing Islamophobic about asking for freedom of choice. This barrier of fear should be crossed and liberals should start to see us as their natural allies.

Read the full interview on Areo Magazine.


Maryam Mirzakhani obituary
Martin Bridson, Guardian, 19 July 2017

Maryam’s earliest breakthroughs answered fundamental questions of classical origin concerning the hyperbolic geometry of individual surfaces. Straight lines on a torus are easy to understand: according to the slope it follows on our flat screen, the line will either wind around the torus indefinitely without intersecting itself, or it will wind around a few times and then close up, repeating its trajectory. The behaviour of lines (geodesics) on hyperbolic surfaces is vastly more complicated.

Counting how many closed geodesics there are of a given length is a subtle problem that requires ideas from number theory and analysis (advanced forms of calculus) as well as geometry. In her Harvard PhD thesis (2004), Maryam gave a precise estimate of how many of the closed geodesics of a given length do not cross themselves, though in order to solve a simply stated problem about curves on a single surface, it was necessary for her to understand all manner of additional structures on the space of all surfaces of the same genus.

Her later breakthroughs were rooted in dynamical systems. Such systems describe motion. They arise throughout mathematics and physics, and through appropriate abstractions one can transfer knowledge gained in one setting to whole classes of problems in another. Thus a penetrating study of how a billiard ball bounces around a polygonal table can provide insights into the behaviour of many physical systems (the motion of gases for example), and equally it can be used to build bridges between different aspects of the structure of moduli spaces.

This is a key theme in Maryam’s monumental project to illuminate the geometric and dynamical properties of moduli spaces, much of which was joint work with Alex Eskin from the University of Chicago.

Read the full obituary in the Guardian.


Big names in statistics want to shake up
much-maligned P value

Dalmeet Singh Chawla, Nature, 26 July 2017

Science is in the throes of a reproducibility crisis, and researchers, funders and publishers are increasingly worried that the scholarly literature is littered with unreliable results. Now, a group of 72 prominent researchers is targeting what they say is one cause of the problem: weak statistical standards of evidence for claiming new discoveries.

In many disciplines the significance of findings is judged by values. They are used to test (and dismiss) a ‘null hypothesis’, which generally posits that the effect being tested for doesn’t exist. The smaller the P value that is found for a set of results, the less likely it is that the results are purely due to chance. Results are deemed ‘statistically significant’ when this value is below 0.05.

But many scientists worry that the 0.05 threshold has caused too many false positives to appear in the literature, a problem exacerbated by a practice called P hacking, in which researchers gather data without first creating a hypothesis to test, and then look for patterns in the results that can be reported as statistically significant. So, in a provocative manuscript posted on the PsyArXiv preprint server on 22 July1, researchers argue that P-value thresholds should be lowered to 0.005 for the social and biomedical sciences…

‘Researchers just don’t realize how weak the evidence is when the P value is 0.05,’ says Daniel Benjamin, one of the paper’s co-lead authors and an economist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He thinks that claims with Pvalues between 0.05 and 0.005 should be treated merely as ‘suggestive evidence’ instead of established knowledge.

Read the full article in Nature.


Politics is a contest of domination
Nathan J Robinson, Current Affairs, 19 July 2017

Heer’s revulsion at the idea that politics could be a “contest of domination” is somewhat illuminating. One of the main criticisms launched by leftists against moderates like Heer is precisely that they have failed to understand this fact about politics. Barack Obama believed that political conflicts in America were superficial, that underneath it all there was no “red America” or “blue America” but a harmonious nation whose people just needed to set aside their differences and recognize what they had in common.

As the ongoing collapse of the Democratic Party’s political fortunes has shown, this view is both false and dangerous. It’s false because there are conflicting interests in society, and they are deep. Politics therefore has to be a contest to see which interests dominate over which. If my political value is: “we shouldn’t have an economy where employers can profit while sexually exploiting their workers, who will have no remedy because of the lack of available social support and the precarious nature of their financial well-being” and your political value is “I believe in an economic system where this can happen freely” (or “I am an employer who profits while sexually exploiting my workers”), then there is no available compromise. There is only a test to see which one of us can have our values enacted in the world. One of us will win and the other will lose. And because I think my values are good and your values are heinous, my job is to make sure you lose. Leftists should absolutely want to make sure their values dominate the other side’s values. That’s because the other side’s values are that people should struggle for subsistence in a miserably unequal, sexist, and racist economy. There is no degree to which this value should be accepted; it must be driven from the earth. “Dominating” it doesn’t mean hurting people. Quite the opposite. It means keeping people from getting hurt, by making sure that the values of compassion and fairness predominate. (And this doesn’t conflict with the idea of “forming coalitions.” Forming coalitions is essential to ensuring victory, and since those who believe politics is war value victory, they have no problem with coalitions.)

Read the full article in Current Affairs.


Raphael drawing

Raphael up close
Andrew Butterfield, NYR Daily, 15 July 2017

For viewers today, one surprise of the drawings is their unwavering focus on emotional intensity. This quality in Raphael’s work has not always been easy to see before, given the bland paintings of the Madonna and saints he produced in his youth, and his frequent reliance on shop assistants in making his frescoes and altarpieces during his maturity. But the drawings show that throughout his career, from his start as a precocious teenager in provincial Umbria until his death at thirty-seven in 1520 when he was the most celebrated painter in Rome, he sought to portray the interior life of thought and feeling, and to do so with ever greater accuracy and power.

Even the earliest drawings in the show are wonders of tenderness and sensibility. One sheet, drawn around 1503 when Raphael was only twenty years old, is a study in black chalk of the head of a young apostle (usually identified as Saint James) in the Coronation of the Virgin, an altarpiece made for a church in Perugia but now in the Vatican museum. In the painting he stands by the tomb of the Virgin, and stares above rapturously as in the sky overhead Jesus crowns Mary the queen of heaven. All the lines in the drawing seem to surge with excitement and shoot upward in the direction of his gaze. The ecstasy of revelation is conveyed as well by the softness of his parted lips, the sheen of his radiant eyes, and the tumult of his curls dancing around his head. Even the soft lines of black chalk making up the shadows on his neck appear to dash about with spirited impetuosity. Raphael’s father, the painter Giovanni Santi, wrote in a poem that drawings should have the quality of moventia – movement. Raphael’s own drawings overflow with expressive energy.

Read the full review in the NYR Daily.


What we are
Richard King, The Australian, 15 July 2017

Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton are not natural bedfellows. As a conservative philosopher in the Burkean mould, Scruton tends to regard the past as a country from which we have strayed too far, while the Marxist Eagleton looks forward to a world that has broken free from oppression and exploitation.

But while certain fundamental differences emerge in their latest books, there is also a remarkable element of overlap. Applying themselves to the question ‘What kind of thing is humankind?’ Scruton and Eagleton reject the dualism that makes a sharp distinction between body and soul, and between human beings and other animals, and reject as well the crude reductionism that sees humans as flesh-and-blood machines no different in kind from other species.

Eagleton’s short and entertaining Materialism blows the dust off philosophical materialism, a field that ‘stretches all the way from the mind-body problem to the question of whether the state exists primarily to defend private property’.

Read the full review in the Australian.


The abortion battlefield
Marcia Angell, New York Review of Books, 22 June 2017

In 1973 the Supreme Court, in the case of Roe v. Wade, took the next step. It found by a 7–2 majority that women had a constitutional right to end a pregnancy. The right was close to absolute in the first trimester, could be regulated by the states in the second trimester only to protect the woman’s health, and in the third trimester could be further regulated or even banned to protect ‘potential life,’ unless the woman’s health or life were at stake. Legal abortions rapidly became common. According to the Guttmacher Institute (a research institution that gathers data on reproductive health in the US), about 3 percent of women in the United States had legal abortions in 1980 (one of the peak years), and it was later estimated that roughly a third of American women would obtain an abortion at some time in their lives.

Almost immediately, Roe v. Wade became a moral and political—and sometimes a literal—battlefield, and it remains so. Two excellent books, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century, by Karissa Haugeberg, and About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America, by Carol Sanger, tell the story. Both authors support abortion rights, but they also present the opposition to abortion fairly and, in the case of Haugeberg, sometimes sympathetically.

Read the full article in the New York Review of Books.


The paradox of Mexico’s mass graves
Ioan Grillo, New York Times, 19 July 2017

The Colinas de Santa Fe neighborhood on the outskirts of this port city looks like hundreds of other residential housing developments built across Mexico in recent decades. Streets are lined with identical brick homes — bungalows with two bedrooms, painted pink, blue or green and advertised as being close to a shopping mall. Yards are cluttered with children’s bikes, basketball hoops and satellite dishes. But on the edge of the estate, investigators announced in March, fields for grazing cattle hid thousands of decaying body parts, including more than 250 skulls, buried in a number of pits.

Drug cartels are widely believed to be behind the mass grave. Most of the victims are yet to be identified. A mother living a few blocks from the field said she had no idea it was there. In April, residents filed a complaint that the smell of rotting corpses being unearthed was seeping into their homes.

I’ve covered Mexico’s violence since 2001, but I am still dumbstruck by the extent to which normal life seems to carry on next door to such terrors. A study released last month found that at least 1,400 bodies were dug up from mass graves across the country between 2009 and 2014. And those are just a fraction of the 176,000 murders that police have counted here over the last decade.

Read the full article in the New York Times.



Operation: Neutrino
David Kaiser, Aeon, 20 July 2017

Neutrinos are fundamental to the construction of the Universe. They are tremendously abundant, outnumbering atoms by about a billion to one. They modulate the reactions that cause massive stars to explode as supernovas. Their properties provide clues about the laws governing particle physics. And yet neutrinos are among the most enigmatic particles, largely due to their reticent nature: they have no electric charge and practically no mass, so they interact only extremely weakly with ordinary matter. Some 65 billion of them stream through every square centimetre of your body – an area the size of a thumbnail – every second, without your ever noticing them.

Through elaborate sleuthing, physicists have identified three distinct types of neutrinos, which differ in their subtle interactions with other particles. Stranger still, the neutrinos can ‘oscillate’ between types, shedding one identity and adopting another as they travel through space. That discovery led to a significant expansion of the standard theory of how particles behave. Now neutrinos and their subtle oscillations have helped physicists prove an even deeper mystery of matter.

Colleagues and I at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have recently used data on the detection of neutrinos in the Soudan mine to complete one of the longest-distance tests of quantum mechanics ever conducted. In scarcely more than half a century, neutrinos have gone from wispy, exotic particles at the edge of detectability to tools for investigating matter at its most essential – from prize-worthy quarry to something more like a forensics kit. In retracing that transformation, we catch glimpses of a larger story, of physicists groping toward an abstruse, beguiling account of nature, set against (and at times engulfed by) larger dramas of the nuclear age.

Read the full article in Aeon.


For Jews and Muslims of Morocco,
a supportive relationship built on a complex history

Yardena Schwartz, NBC News, 15 July 2017

‘We are praying to the same God after all,’ said Youssef Safine, a member of Mimouna, a Muslim organization that works to preserve Morocco’s Jewish history. Mimouna organized Iftar dinners throughout the country as a reflection of the age-old tradition here where Jews and Muslims invite each other to their religious festivities.

‘Jews were here long before Islam,’ said Safine, speaking in fluent Hebrew. The 24-year-old Muslim learned the Jewish language while growing up next to another synagogue in Marrakech, which was founded in 1492 and still hosts daily prayers.

Indeed, Jews have been living in the North African nation of Morocco since their exile from Jerusalem after the destruction of the first temple in 587 BC — before Christianity and Islam were born. A second wave came in 1492, when Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition, finding refuge and a thriving Jewish community in Spain’s southern neighbor.

The ancient Jewish history of Morocco is deeply embedded in the identity of this Muslim-majority Arab country. So deeply that in 1940, when Morocco was under French rule and Paris fell to the Germans, the king of Morocco refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime. When the Nazis wanted to impose anti-Jewish laws and eventually send the nation’s Jews to concentration camps, King Mohammed V reportedly told the Nazis, ‘There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only Moroccans.’

Read the full article on NBC News.


Why the White House is reading Greek history
Michael Crowley, Politico, 21 June 2017

The Trump White House isn’t known as a hot spot for Ivy League intellectuals. But last month, a Harvard academic slipped into the White House complex for an unusual meeting. Graham Allison, an avuncular foreign policy thinker who served under Reagan and Clinton, was paying a visit to the National Security Council, where he briefed a group of staffers on one of history’s most studied conflicts—a brutal war waged nearly 2,500 years ago, one whose lessons still resonate, even in the administration of a president who doesn’t like to read.

The subject was America’s rivalry with China, cast through the lens of ancient Greece. The 77-year-old Allison is the author of a recent book based on the writings of Thucydides, the ancient historian famous for his epic chronicle of the Peloponnesian War between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta. Allison cites the Greek scholar’s summation of why the two powers fought: ‘What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.’ He warns that the same dynamic could drive this century’s rising empire, China, and the United States into a war neither wants. Allison calls this the ‘Thucydides Trap,’ and it’s a question haunting some very important people in the Trump administration, particularly as Chinese officials arrive Wednesday for ‘diplomatic and security dialogue’ talks between Washington and Beijing designed, in large part, to avoid conflict between the world’s two strongest nations.

Read the full article on Politico.


Mecca of revolution: Algiers, decolonization
and the Third World order

Natalya Vince, Reviews in History, July 2017

Jeffrey James Byrne’s monograph takes its title from an oft-cited quote by Amílcar Cabral, a leading figure in the fight against Portuguese colonial rule in Africa: ‘Christians go to the Vatican, Muslims go to Mecca, revolutionaries go to Algiers’. Cabral’s African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was one of the many liberation movements supported by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) during its own anti-colonial struggle against France (1954–62) and by the Algerian state during its first years of post-colonial rule. Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization and the Third World Order is a fascinating account of how senior Algerian politicians – notably those in diplomatic roles and Ahmed Ben Bella, once he became head of state after independence – sought to position Algeria at the vanguard of the Third Worldist movement. In this vision, Algeria was both an intercontinental brother-in-arms and a pilot state, steering a path which simultaneously sought to avoid being subsumed into the capitalist or communist blocs and broke free from the yoke of neo-colonial domination.

Byrne’s book is clearly positioned in an approach, now well established in the field, of seeing the processes of decolonization and the Cold War as enmeshed and mutually dependent. Bryne readily acknowledges both the path-breaking work of his former thesis supervisor, Odd Arne Westad, and Matthew Connelly’s A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era. In the latter, Connelly demonstrated the skill of the wartime FLN in playing Cold War rivals off against each other on the international stage in order to obtain what in the mid-1950s seemed like the impossible goal of national independence. However, Byrne also takes this important work forward in new ways. By extending out beyond the moment of independence – a chronological cut off point in so many accounts – and placing more emphasis on South–South relations (as opposed to East–West or indeed North–South relations), Byrne argues that ‘the net result of decolonization was a dramatically more state-centric world order than had been true of even the very late colonial post-World War II years’ (p. 9). Byrne describes a shift in Third Worldism, away from a transnational movement which challenged the sovereignty and borders of colonial rule towards a form of ‘international cooperation that legitimized and zealously defended the authority of the postcolonial state’ (p. 10). Algeria, the author argues, provides the ideal case study to demonstrate this argument, and in doing so also explore what Third Worldism looked like in practice.

Read the full review in Reviews in History.


Edouard Manet Woman Reading in Cafe de Flore, Paris

Why is it so hard for a woman
to read alone in America?

Susan Harlan, Literary Hub, 14 July 2017

It was in Paris that I learned how to sit. In 1997. Junior year abroad.

It can be hard to find places to sit. When I lived in New York, I would go out by myself and read. It was one of my favorite things to do, to camp out in a café or a bar for hours. Now I live in a small city in the South, where I moved for a job at a university seven years ago, and if I go out by myself to read, people talk to me. They won’t leave me alone. This is true when I travel, too—when I drive around North Carolina and Tennessee and Georgia and Virginia. What are you doing here all alone? they say. Shame that you’re all by yourself, they say, insisting that you talk to them, join them, come sit with them.

But it’s not a shame. They don’t understand…

If you sit for many hours and look down at a book and then up at a city and then down at the book again, eventually the two blend into one, and there is no longer any difference between them. This is how the collapse between literature and life happens. Lots of people distinguish between books and life. The page and beyond the page. But in those cafés, when I was younger, I mixed them up in my mind, so I didn’t carry that line between the written and the real with me into adulthood, if I ever had it.

Read the full article on Literary Hub.


Whose fault is it anyway?
James Ryerson, New York Times, 30 June 2017

At some point in the last half-century, American politicians started talking about responsibility in a new way. Where ‘responsibility’ once referred to the duties of the nation to its citizens, or of the citizens to the nation, or of fellow citizens to one another, it now came to mean the obligations of the individual to himself. Responsibility was personalresponsibility. You might date the beginning of this shift to 1968, when Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, announced in a speech at the Republican National Convention that it was time to stop blaming ‘society’ for people’s failings and to start accepting that ‘each individual is accountable for his actions.’ You might date the completion of this shift to 1993, when President Bill Clinton exhorted Americans in his first Inaugural Address to ‘demand responsibility from all’ and ‘to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing.’

This was more than just a change in political rhetoric. As the political theorist Yascha Mounk argues in his smart and engaging book, The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State, the move from ‘responsibility-as-duty’ to ‘responsibility-as-accountability’ was also evident in scholarly debates about distributive justice, in everyday moral language and, most consequentially, in public policy. In 1971, Reagan turned his words into reality by signing a welfare-reform bill in California that made state assistance conditional on people’s good behavior, as judged by work status, child-support arrangements and other proxies for conscientious conduct. In 1996, Clinton signed a similar welfare reform bill that withheld benefits from those thought to show an inadequate willingness to work or an overlong history of requiring assistance. Responsibility, Mounk observes, was no longer, in the first instance, about looking after those in need; it was about rewarding the good and punishing the bad…

To appreciate how deeply the paradigm of accountability has penetrated our culture, Mounk suggests, you need only look at how it has shaped — and distorted — the arguments of those who take themselves to be resisting it. Would-be defenders of the poor and powerless spend a lot of time and effort ‘denying that people bear responsibility for the way their life has turned out,’ because helplessness seems the sole condition for granting them assistance. The underprivileged are depicted as mere playthings of the forces of poverty and racism, ‘perennial victims,’ incapable of agency. Their defenders might have chosen to argue that although the underprivileged sometimes make bad decisions, our duties toward them don’t disappear ‘merely because they could have avoided needing our assistance’ — indeed, that the right policies can help them make better decisions. Instead, Mounk contends, too many advocates unwittingly accept the punitive framework of accountability and, following its logic, end up patronizing those they want to help.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Quantum common sense
Phillip Ball, Aeon, 21 June 2017

Quantum theory contradicts common sense. Everyone who has even a modest interest in physics quickly gets this message. The quantum view of reality, we’re often told, is as a madhouse of particles that become waves (and vice versa), and that speak to one another through spooky messages that defy normal conceptions of time and space. We think the world is made from solid, discrete objects – trees and dogs and tables – things that have objective properties that we can all agree on; but in quantum mechanics the whole concept of classical objects with well-defined identities seems not to exist. Sounds ridiculous? The much-lauded physicist Richard Feynman thought so, yet he implored us to learn to live with it. ‘I hope you can accept Nature as She is – absurd,’ he said in 1985.

Except that much of the popular picture is wrong. Quantum theory doesn’t actually say that particles can become waves or communicate in spooky ways, and it certainly does not say that classical objects don’t exist. Not only does it not deny the existence of classical objects, it gives a meaningful account of why they do exist. In some important respects, the modern formulation of the theory reveals why common sense looks the way it does. You could say that the classical world is simply what quantum mechanics looks like if you are six feet tall. Our world, and our intuition, are quantum all the way up.

Why, then, is it still so common to find talk of quantum mechanics defying logic and generally messing with reality? We might have to put some of the blame on the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. He was probably the deepest thinker about the meaning of quantum theory among its founding pioneers, and his intuitions were usually right. But during the 1920s and ’30s, Bohr drove a lasting wedge between the quantum and classical worlds. They operate according to quite different principles, he said, and we simply have to accept that.

Read the full article in Aeon.


Why everybody’s mad at Anish Kapoor
Janaki Challa, Architect’s Newspaper, 11 July 2017

Enter Vantablack: the blackest synthetic material on Earth. It absorbs almost all the light and radiation that hits its surface (99.96 percent of it) and was originally developed by British researchers in 2014 for aerospace, engineering, and optics. Vantablack, which is a substance made of ‘vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays’ (hence, ‘Vanta’), is ‘grown in a forest’ of carbon nanotubes and is hydrophobic—absorbing no water. It makes everything around it look cartoonish against its unsettling lack of dimension. When sprayed on, it causes an optical illusion that flattens features and forms to render objects into a two-dimensional void. It’s so black that Surrey NanoSystems (the company that manufactures Vantablack) notes on its website that ‘it is often described as the closest thing to a black hole we’ll ever see.’

If there is any living artist with the clout, savvy, and the Nietzschean impulse to monopolize the closest incarnation of a black hole, it’s to no one’s surprise (and to many people’s chagrin) that the person would be Kapoor. He bought an exclusive license to use the material—making it impossible for other artists to access and experiment with it. Immediately, painter Christian Furr told the Daily Mail, ‘I’ve never heard of an artist monopolizing a material. This black is like dynamite in the art world…. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man.’

All this caused a visceral irritation in the art world, at least on social media, and something else was afoot. Amid the high tempers over the ethics of access arrived Stuart Semple, a British artist nearly half Kapoor’s age who had a real problem with this whole situation. Semple, who creates and sells pigments on his website, showed up with his little bottle of fluorescent pink—or as he labeled it, The Pinkest Pink. Semple called Kapoor a ‘rotter’ in a YouTube video because he refused to ‘share the black’ and thus inspired social media warfare with its seminal tool: the hashtag #Sharetheblack became a trending topic. So did Stuart Semple’s website, which disparagingly addresses Kapoor’s monopoly and also states a legal caveat about The Pinkest Pink’s purchase:

Purchasers of PINK will be required to make a legal declaration during the online checkout process though, confirming that: ‘you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into that hands of Anish Kapoor.

If you order some I hope you love it. And please if you get a chance tell @anishkapoor_art to #ShareTheBlack

Semple bagged both empathy and sales. If Twitter and Instagram commentaries were any indication of the general feeling of discontent, they also mobilized a marketing campaign for Semple, who sold not only oodles of color but perhaps a philosophy—or maybe a protest against monopoly.

Read the full article in the Architects’ Paper.


The joyous homecoming for New York City’s whales
Katie Knibbs, The Ringer, 12 July 2017

This is not the first time that whales have populated these waters. In Moby-Dick, Melville’s Ishmael abandons Manhattan for Massachusetts, and during the heydey of whaling, New York’s coastline was overshadowed by Nantucket and New Bedford. But its streets were lit with the oil made from slain whales, and Long Island’s Sag Harbor was a smaller-scale whaling hotbed during the 19th century. When New York was New Amsterdam, the North Atlantic was brimming with whales, until it was brimming with whaling ships.

During the 20th century, the whale population was decimated by commercial whaling, their abundance made scarce by overhunting. The United States joined an international moratorium on commercial whaling during the 1980s, but by that time, an unprecedented ecological pillage had taken place. (Norway, Iceland, and Japan continue controversial whaling operations today.)

Before we saw the whales, I sat in the corner on the upper deck and listened to Sieswerda give his naturalist’s spiel about how extraordinary it is to have these creatures back in these waters. ‘This is a new phenomenon,’ he told the small crowd. ‘Humpback whales have been increasing in numbers and frequency since 2010.’ Gotham Whale releases its numbers at the end of every season, and the count has grown from five whales in the New York City area in 2011 to more than 100 by 2014.

But why are the whales back? The question is the kind that has an easy answer, and then a much more complicated one.

Read the full article in the Ringer.


The images are, from top down: Lygia Pape’s installation at the Venice Biennale 2009; Frantz Fanon (photographer unknown); Masih Alinejad (photographer unknown); a Raphael drawing from the Ashmolean Museum; neutrino tracks from an illustration in Discover Magazine, based on an image from  Fermilab Bubble Chamber; Edouard Manet’s ‘Woman Reading in a Cafe’.


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