Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #49

web 49

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.


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Exiled: the disturbing story of a citizen made unBritish
Kamila Shamsie, Guardian, 17 November 2018

Although the powers to strip citizenship were increased in 2003, they were still very rarely used. But in 2013, 18 people were deprived of citizenship, a huge increase from the six of the previous two years. In 2014, the number was 23. In July 2017 the Times reported that the number of those who had their citizenship revoked so far that year was already over 40. And yes, the rise in numbers occurred at the same time that increased numbers of British citizens first went to join Islamic State, and then tried to return after the collapse of Isis’s so-called caliphate. And yes, that makes it a little difficult to sympathise. Wasn’t it, after all, as the government insisted, a matter of national security? It was impossible to gather sufficient evidence for prosecution against people who had committed their crimes in Syria, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be a threat to the UK if allowed to return.

Let us look at it from another angle: the government has said, we don’t have the evidence to prosecute these people. We don’t really know what some of them did beyond the fact that they went to a country that we don’t want people to go to. So the only thing to do is to strip them of their citizenship – unless they’re British born and without dual nationality in which case we’ll have to find a way to deal with them when they come back.

This two-tiered system of justice should not be consoling to anyone. Consider, though, the case of a man whose son went to join Isis; the father, desperate, went to Syria to try to find a way to bring his son back. He failed, he returned alone and was arrested for joining Isis. He’s lucky, I suppose, that he didn’t have his nationality revoked – but the case does highlight what is so problematic in the ‘we don’t have the evidence to prosecute them so we’ll just send them into exile’ approach.

Exile. It’s an oddly medieval word, isn’t it? Exile at the discretion of a single person (the home secretary), entirely bypassing the court system or the need for evidence. What are we doing, in Britain, making greater and greater use of this medieval system of justice?

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Two decades after 9/11, militants have only multiplied
Eric Schmitt, New York Times, 20 November 2018

Nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants are operating around the world today as on Sept. 11, 2001, despite nearly two decades of American-led campaigns to combat Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, a new independent study concludes.

That amounts to as many as 230,000 Salafi jihadist fighters in nearly 70 countries, with the largest numbers in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The report’s conclusions, drawing on multiple databases dating to 1980 to compile one of the most extensive studies of its kind, underscore the resiliency of these terrorist groups, and the policy failures by the United States and its allies in responding. The findings also highlight the continuing potency of the groups’ ideology and social-media branding in raising money and attracting new recruits as they pivot from battlefield defeats in strongholds like Iraq and Syria to direct guerrilla-style attacks there and in other hot spots.

‘Some of these groups do want to target Americans overseas and at home, particularly the Islamic State and Al Qaeda,’ said Seth G. Jones, the director of the center’s transnational threats project and one of the report’s six authors. ‘All this indicates that terrorism is alive and well, and that Americans should be concerned.’…

‘The good news is that there has not been an attack anywhere near the scale of 9/11 in the U.S. since that day, a significant achievement,’ the center said. ‘The bad news is that the ideology that leads someone to fly a plane into a building or drive a car into a crowded sidewalk seems to have metastasized.’

‘Many of the conflicts that comprise America’s global counterterrorism campaign have a fiercely local component to them, meaning there is little that a Western country and its military can actually do to impact events on the ground for a sustained period of time,’ the center added.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Twitter wants me to shut up and the right wants me
to join them; I don’t think I should have to do either

Meghan Murphy, Feminist Current, 20 November 2018

On November 15th, my account was locked again. This time, I was told I must delete a tweet from October, saying, ‘Women aren’t men,’ and another, asking, ‘How are transwomen not men? What is the difference between a man and a transwoman?’

After dutifully deleting the tweets in question in order to gain access to my account again, I tweeted, angrily, ‘This is fucking bullshit, @twitter. I’m not allowed to say that men aren’t women or ask questions about the notion of transgenderism at all anymore? That a multi-billion dollar company is censoring basic facts and silencing people who ask questions about this dogma is insane.’ This tweet went viral, racking up 20,000 likes before Twitter locked my account again on Monday morning, demanding I delete it. This time they offered no explanation at all — not even a vague accusation of ‘hateful conduct.’

To be fair, it’s not that insane. Multi-billion dollar companies are clearly primarily interested in profit, not free speech or women’s rights. But Twitter is a company that represents itself as a platform for communication, for debate, and for sharing ideas, news, and information. While of course, as a private company, Twitter has the right to limit who participates on the platform and what is said, we, the public, have become accustomed to understanding this social media platform as a relatively free space, wherein everyone from politicians, to celebrities, to pornographers, to activists, to students, to anonymous gamers, to feminists, to men’s rights activists may say what they wish.

Despite my disinterest in seeing graphic pornography on Twitter and in being called a ‘TERF cunt’ who should ‘drink bleach,’ I accept that this is something I am likely to be exposed to on Twitter, and choose to use the platform anyway. Cruel and graphic comments are things, for better or for worse, I am accustomed to and that, frankly, don’t bother me much at this point. If you are a public figure, you do just get used to this kind of thing.

What is insane to me, though, is that while Twitter knowingly permits graphic pornography and death threats on the platform (I have reported countless violent threats, the vast majority of which have gone unaddressed), they won’t allow me to state very basic facts, such as ‘men aren’t women.’ This is hardly an abhorrent thing to say, nor should it be considered ‘hateful’ to ask questions about the notion that people can change sex, or ask for explanations about transgender ideology. These are now, like it or not, public debates — debates that are impacting people’s lives, as legislation and policy are being imposed based on gender identity ideology (that is, the belief that a male person can ‘identify’ as female or vice versa). That trans activists and their allies may find my questions about what ‘transgender’ means or how a person can literally change sex uncomfortable, as they seem not to be able to respond to them, which I can imagine feels uncomfortably embarrassing, feeling uncomfortable is not a good enough reason to censor and silence people.

Read the full article in Feminist Current.


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The eurozone is having an identity crisis
and Italy will bear the brunt

Ashoka Mody, Prospect, 16 November 2018

The eurozone’s tragedy arises not just from the hubris of an enterprise that many warned would go badly wrong. It arises also from the mindset that came with the project.Early on, it became clear that member countries would not establish a fiscal union to transfer funds to countries in recession, to compensate them for the lack of their own currency and independent monetary policy. As I describe in my book EuroTragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts, a fiscal union was politically impossible: countries protected their core national sovereignty and refused to give up their tax revenues. In April 1998, chancellor Helmut Kohl stated bluntly that Germany would never pay the bills of other countries. If he had not made that commitment, there would have been no euro.

Given the impossibility of a fiscal union, the right response would have been to abandon the idea of a monetary union. Instead, at Maastricht in 1991, under German insistence, European authorities created fiscal rules—at whose core lay a 3 per cent of GDP limit on the budget deficit—as the basis for moving forward. National frugality, the accompanying narrative said, would ensure a ‘stable’ eurozone.Economists immediately warned that the rules were deeply harmful. They enforce austerity precisely when a country is about to enter recession, making the recession worse, possibly much worse. Former European Commission president Romano Prodi famously said the fiscal rules were ‘stupid.’

Yet, lemming-like, European authorities insisted on them. The rules became a part of EU identity. Leaders believe that they are not ‘good’ Europeans if they do not pay homage to them. They formed a deeply flawed monetary union and, for them, the rules and the narrative of ‘stability’ justify that decision and underpin their claim that the eurozone will survive. Identification with such damaging principles has profound macroeconomic consequences, as Nobel laureate George Akerlof has emphasised.

Read the full article in Prospect.


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Jean-Paul Sartre by Ida Kar, National Portrait Gallery, London

The philosophy of our time
Ronald Aronson, Boston Review, 14 November 2018

Sartre’s philosophical engagement with Marxism became more systematic in the late 1950s. He explicitly declared himself a Marxist in Search for a Method (1957), affirming that Marxism was the ‘philosophy of our time.’ But he also asserted that in the hands of ‘today’s Marxists’—meaning the PCF—it had stopped developing. Marxism, Sartre argued, needed the kind of rethinking that existentialism could provide. To return to life Marxism had to replace its mechanical determinism with an understanding of what Sartre called human praxis:

Men make their history on the basis of real, prior conditions (among which we would include acquired characteristics, distortions imposed by the mode of work and of life, alienation, etc.), but it is the men who make it and not the prior conditions. Otherwise men would be merely the vehicles of inhuman forces which through them would govern the social world.

Until Marxism did justice to the individual, Sartre contended, existentialism would endure as a semiautonomous body of thought. Here Sartre came into his own as an independent authority on Marxism, spelling out key themes of a method for grasping both one’s social being and one’s individual self-determination. His early stress on freedom remains, but it is now explicitly understood as conditioned by history and society.

These themes were developed at greater length in Critique of Dialectical Reason, for which Search for a Method became the preface. The Critique began from individual praxis and sought to lay Marxism’s philosophical foundations as well as to understand why Marxism had become ‘frozen.’ Volume one—The Theory of Practical Ensembles (1960)abstractly traces the origins of group struggle, describing the steps by which individuals band together to form a revolutionary movement. Whether this was meant to be an actual historical process, the general logic of any revolution, or the itinerary a successful Leninist party must follow was not clear, and Sartre would not live to finish the second volume, which was published posthumously only in 1985. His next major work, The Family Idiot, also combined Marxist and existentialist ideas, demonstrating how a specific individual could be understood through social determinations. In this multivolume biography, the first of which was published in 1971, Sartre showed how the novelist Gustave Flaubert internalized and then ‘re-exteriorized’ social reality in a characteristically modernist, anti-popular withdrawal from the world. Like the Critique, it too would remain unfinished.

Taken together, these works—Search for a Method, the Critique, the biography of Flaubert, and many of the essays of Situations—elaborate a theory of existential Marxism. The two -isms were equally important to Sartre. On the one hand, the infusion of existentialism was meant to counteract Marxism’s premature aging, its ‘sclerosis.’ His goal was not to ‘reject Marxism in the name of a third path or of an idealist humanism, but to reconquer man within Marxism.’ Yet true to his existentialist tenets, he insists on seeing human action as praxis—always self-determining, always in situation.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


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A call to ‘smash Brahmanical patriarchy’ is not
hate speech – it’s progressive, anti-caste politics

Shoaib Daniyal, Scroll, 20 November 2018

It is unclear how much Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey knows about India’s socio-political system but on Monday he found himself at the centre of a raging debate around it. Dorsey was in India the past week and met a group of women journalists for an off-the-record conversation. However, a photo of him from the session did make it to the outside word, in which he was seen holding a poster titled ‘smash Brahmanical patriarchy’.

The photo set off a storm. ‘By holding that offensive poster Twitter head, Jack just proclaimed he is a Brahmin hating, racist, bigot, masquerading as a woke Feminist,’ thundered columnist Smita Barooah. Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Eduction, called it a ‘hate poster’ which served to ‘malign a community’ and Bollywood screenwriter Advaita Kala termed it ’hate speech’. Most confusingly, Chitra Subramaniam, editorial advisor with Republic TV, drew an analogy between Brahmanical patriarchy and Chinese totalitarianism, rhetorically asking whether Dorsey would ever ‘hold up a poster asking Xi Jinping to hold free and fair elections?’

Alarmed, Twitter apologised immediately, dissociating itself from the poster. ‘I’m very sorry for this. It’s not reflective of our views,’ said Twitter’s ‘Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead’.

Not only was it odd that there was outrage over a call to end a system as obviously oppressive as Brahmanical patriarchy, it was even odder that Twitter thought the point of view so controversial that it distanced itself from it and apologised. Would a call to end, say, racism or White patriarchy in the United States also see a similar reaction from Twitter? After all, there would also be people in the United States who might be outraged over attempts to end such a system. Should those people be allowed to dictate policy at the social media giant?

That social order and patriarchy are linked has long been recognised by historians and social commentators. Such is also the situation with India’s Brahmanical caste order and the oppression of women as well. ‘The purity of women has a centrality in brahmanical patriarchy, as we shall see, because the purity of caste is contingent upon it,’ wrote historian Uma Chakravarti in 1993, one of the first academics to explore the concept of how the two are linked. Chakravarti points out that social organisation in India consists largely of a ‘closed structure to preserve land, women, and ritual quality within it’ and it is ‘impossible to maintain all three without stringently organising female sexuality’.

This theory connects brutally to present-day Indian reality, given that this system requires the ‘lower caste male, whose sexuality is a threat to upper caste purity, has to be institutionally prevented from having sexual access to women of the higher castes’. The modern-day result: India’s horrific record of killings involving so-called caste ‘honour’ in case a woman marries a man of a supposedly lower caste. Just a few days ago, on November 11, an intercaste couple from Tamil Nadu – the husband was Dalit and the wife Vaniyar – were allegedly killed by the woman’s family. The wife was three months pregnant at the time of her murder.

Read the full article in Scroll.


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The ACLU declines to defend civil rights
Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic, 19 November 2018

Last week, the NRA kept defending gun rights, the AARP kept advocating for older Americans, and the California Avocado Commission was as steadfast as ever in touting ‘nature’s highest achievement.’ By contrast, the ACLU issued a public statement that constituted a stark, shortsighted betrayal of the organization’s historic mission: It vehemently opposed stronger due-process rights for the accused.

The matter began when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos put forth new guidelines on how to comply with Title IX, the law that forbids colleges that receive federal funding to exclude any students, deny them benefits, or subject them to any discrimination on the basis of sex.

The most controversial changes concern what happens when a student stands accused of sexual misbehavior. ‘Under the new rules, schools would be required to hold live hearings and would no longer rely on a so-called single investigator model,’ The New York Times reports. ‘Accusers and students accused of sexual assault must be allowed to cross-examine each other through an adviser or lawyer. The rules require that the live hearings be conducted by a neutral decision maker and conducted with a presumption of innocence. Both parties would have equal access to all the evidence that school investigators use to determine facts of the case, and a chance to appeal decisions.’ What’s more, colleges will now have the option to choose a somewhat higher evidentiary standard, requiring ‘clear and convincing evidence’ rather than ‘a preponderance of the evidence’ in order to establish someone’s guilt.

The ACLU doesn’t object to any of those due-process protections when a person faces criminal charges. Indeed, it favors an even higher burden of proof, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ to find an individual guilty.

But the ACLU opposes the new rules for campuses. ‘Today Secretary DeVos proposed a rule that would tip the scales against those who raise their voices. We strongly oppose it,’ the organization stated on Twitter. ‘The proposed rule would make schools less safe for survivors of sexual assault and harassment, when there is already alarmingly high rates of campus sexual assaults and harassment that go unreported. It promotes an unfair process, inappropriately favoring the accused and letting schools ignore their responsibility under Title IX to respond promptly and fairly to complaints of sexual violence. We will continue to support survivors.’

One line in particular was shocking to civil libertarians: It promotes an unfair process, inappropriately favoring the accused. Since when does the ACLU believe a process that favors the accused is inappropriate or unfair?

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Online conspiracy theories: The guide
Emma Grey Ellis, Wired, 5 October 2018

The kind of conspiracy theories that wreak havoc on the internet have knowable ancestors: the conspiracies that erupt every time there’s a significant advance in communication technology. Take mass printing. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a fictitious pamphlet cooked up in 1903 to spread the idea that a ghoulish Jewish cabal was bent on overthrowing the virtuous (Christian, white) nation state. Thanks to the high-speed rotary printing press, the conspiracists were able to slip it into libraries across Europe, and because people trusted their libraries, it was believed. The result: populations turning a blind eye to Russia’s Jewish pogroms, and, later, to Nazi concentration camps. Around the same time, the (also anti-Semitic) Dreyfus affair used newly cheap and reproducible lithographs to spread anti-Jewish imagery.

Then came the radio. People heard ghosts in its crackles and echoes. Enigmatic ‘number stations’ have fascinated conspiracy theorists since World War I. (There’s a station called the Buzzer that’s been broadcasting a continuous pulse since the 1970s—conspiracy fans think it might be part of an automated Soviet doomsday project, and that the world will end when it goes off the air.) Television was subjected to the same kind of scrutiny and symbol hunting: In the 1940s, some thought Tom and Jerry was Nazi propaganda; footage of the moon landing has been checked and rechecked for evidence of fakery for decades.

With new technology comes new gaps in the public’s understanding of their world, and, for conspiracy theorists, new ways to manipulate those gaps. So the thing that makes the internet wonderful—that it is a near-endless, low-cost repository of information accessible by billions—is also what makes its so fertile for conspiracy. Early internet users were a generation trained on in-person and over-the-phone communication. Digital slang was in its infancy, the emoji that give context to chats didn’t exist, and users were faced with more information than they’d ever been exposed to before. Not only did you often confuse your peers with your ambiguous late-night typing, it was easy to wade into the web and emerge confused and overstimulated yourself.

Which brought forth communities united by laser-focused citizen sleuthing. In 1996, a spate of anonymous word-salad gibberish posts, all entitled Markovian Parallax Denigrate, flooded Usenet groups. Internet sleuths noticed that one of these messages seemed to come from controversial (and conspiracy-minded) antiwar activist Susan Lindauer, who claimed to be a CIA asset and to have reliable intel that 9/11 was an inside job. The conspiracy engines started turning and suddenly phrases like ‘refrigerate morphine napkin inland Janeiro nameable yearbook hark’ were seen as the CIA’s digital-age take on the number station. At the same time, usenets devoted to Whitewater (a corruption probe focusing on Clinton real estate investments) sprang up and connected dots like Bill Clinton’s alleged cocaine habit, handwriting samples, and plane crashes to claim that White House deputy counsel Vince Foster’s suicide was actually a murder.

Read the full article in Wired.


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Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed

Driverless cars and a new kind of ‘trolley problem’
Philip Ball, Prospect, 16 November 2018

The Trolley Problem always struck me as a little dubious. First posed in its modern form in 1967 as a conundrum in ethical philosophy, it generally runs something like this. You see a runaway trolley (of lethal size) rolling down a track towards five prone people, all of whom will die if it hits. But there is a lever that, if pulled, will divert the trolley onto a side track where just a single person lies in its path. Do you pull the lever?

There are now many variations. You could stop the trolley instead by pushing a fat man off a bridge into its path. You could just press a button which activates a mechanism that pushes him over. The fat man is a fiend who has put these people in peril. The person on the side track is a young child. And so on. There are all sorts of potential problems with these thought-experiments—can they be mapped onto real-world dilemmas? Can there be a meaningful optimum among so many variables?—but nonetheless they are popular in moral philosophy. The point here is to see whether there is any ethical calculus that can tell you what to do.

Yet at a talk I chaired recently by Yuval Noah Harari, today’s trending futurologist and author of the phenomenally successful book Sapiens, he argued that new technologies may take philosophical questions like this out of the cerebral sphere of the hypothetical and into the very real and harsh arena of the marketplace. ’Even if you say in theory, yes this is the right thing to do, when you actually find yourself in that real-life situation, you very often behave in a completely different way,’ Harari began. But if you are programming a particular decision into a machine, that is then precisely how the machine will behave come what may.

And this is what we are now having to do. For driverless cars, the Trolley Problem is no longer hypothetical. Faced with an impending and unavoidable accident, what should it do? What if the only options are to kill the driver and passengers or to kill pedestrians? ‘This is [now] a practical question of engineering, not a theoretical question of philosophy,’ said Harari.

His answer? ‘Given that we live in a capitalist, neoliberal society, I guess somebody up there in Google or Toyota will say, let’s just leave it up to market forces. We’ll design and build two cars: the Toyota Altruist and the Toyota Egoist. And the customers will decide.’ The audience laughed, but he was only half-joking.

Read the full article in Prospect.


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‘Pakistan is likely to continue its state of
stable instability,’ says historian Farzana Shaikh

Suhasini Haidar, The Hindu, 14 November 2018

How does one understand the events of the past few weeks in Pakistan? The Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, but protests broke out and she couldn’t be freed. Prime Minister Imran Khan said he wouldn’t bow to extremists, but the government caved in and signed an agreement with them.

Well, the judiciary is just one branch of the state. While the acquittal was a landmark judgment which should have been praised, but without an act of Parliament changing the blasphemy laws and [making them] less vulnerable to the kind of abuse that led to Asia Bibi’s incarceration for more than a decade, we will have many more such cases. Parliament and the government must support this judgment, heed the message they have sent out that the law itself is flawed and open to abuse. Instead, there is abject capitulation. Mr. Khan is making a habit of making grand, progressive statements and following them up by backtracking. We saw this over the appointment of Atif Mian as an economic adviser, when the government made him step down within three days after protests from extremists. Similarly, he promised to bring the “might of the state” to bear on those questioning the judgment, and within days his government caved in and signed a peace agreement, which was just an “appease agreement” with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) promising not to oppose a review petition against Asia Bibi’s acquittal and move to stop her from leaving the country to where her family is. The TLP hasn’t stopped its threats despite that.

Such surrenders have been seen in the past too, so what is new now? Is Pakistan heading towards becoming a full theocracy, like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?

I don’t think so. I don’t see the state being taken over by a Taliban-type clergy. Pakistan is not Afghanistan, for better or for worse. The military will not countenance the prospect, nor would the international community. There is some truth in the old adage about Pakistan being “too important to fail” which its leaders have used to their advantage. It is a nuclear weapons state in a tough neighbourhood, and the great powers are deeply engaged with Pakistan for Afghanistan. There is a sense of frustration with Pakistan, but it is unlikely to change that engagement drastically in the short to medium term. Pakistan is, in fact, likely to continue its state of ‘stable instability’, which is built into its structure because of the perennial tension between the military and the political classes, and that of Islam’s relationship with the state.

Yet the contradiction remains, that religious parties haven’t won a large majority of votes in any election, including the most recent one this year?

They don’t win many seats. But ultimately it doesn’t matter much, because they have the clout to set national agendas, as we are seeing at present with the Asia Bibi case. The reason they can do that is that mainstream parties are now appropriating the discourse of the religious right. The manifesto and campaign of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and also the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and to a lesser degree the Pakistan Peoples Party on issues like blasphemy and women… their stance is indistinguishable from extremists. On issues like blasphemy which are seen as the index of the good Muslim against the bad Muslim, we see mainstream political parties using the language of political Islam. So instead of religious parties entering the electoral fray, we must look at so-called moderate mainstream parties radicalising their discourse.

Read the full article in The Hindu.


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Google’s ‘smart city of surveillance
faces new resistance in Toronto
Ava Kofman, The Intercept, 13 November 2018

In keeping with the utopian rhetoric that fuels the development of so much digital infrastructure, Sidewalk Labs has pitched Quayside as the solution to everything from traffic congestion and rising housing prices to environmental pollution. The proposal for Quayside includes a centralized identity management system, through which ‘each resident accesses public services’ such as library cards and health care. An applicant for a position at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto was shocked when he was asked in an interview to imagine how, in a smart city, ‘voting might be different in the future.’

Other, comparatively quaint plans include driverless cars, ‘mixed-use’ spaces that change according to the market’s demands, heated streets, and ‘sensor-enabled waste separation.’ The eventual aim of Sidewalk Labs’s estimated billion-dollar investment is to bring these innovations to scale — first to more than 800 acres on the city’s eastern waterfront, and then to the world at large. ‘The genesis of the thinking for Sidewalk Labs came from Google’s founders getting excited thinking of ‘all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge,’’ explained Eric Schmidt, Google’s former executive chair, when Quayside was first announced.

From the start, activists, technology researchers, and some government officials have been skeptical about the idea of putting Google, or one of its sister companies, in charge of a city. Their suspicions about turning part of Toronto into a corporate test bed were triggered, at first, by the company’s history of unethical corporate practices and surreptitious data collection. They have since been borne out by Quayside’s secret and undemocratic development process, which has been plagued by a lack of public input — what one critic has called ’a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.’ In recent months, a series of prominent resignations from advisory board members, along with organized resistance from concerned residents, have added to the growing public backlash against the project.

A few weeks ago, Ann Cavoukian, one of Canada’s leading privacy experts and Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, became the latest stakeholder to resign from the project. Cavoukian was brought on by Sidewalk Toronto (as the collaboration between Waterfront Toronto and Google-sibling Sidewalk Labs is known) as a consultant to help institute a proactive, ‘privacy by design’ framework. She was initially told that all data collected from residents would be deleted and rendered unidentifiable. Cavoukian learned last month, however, that third parties would be able to access identifiable information gathered at Quayside. ‘I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,’ Cavoukian wrote in her resignation letter. Her concerns echoed those of residents who have long pointed to the privacy implications of handing over streets to the world’s most profitable data hoover.

Read the full article in The Intercept.


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Psychology’s replication crisis is running out of excuses
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 18 November 2018

Over the past few years, an international team of almost 200 psychologists has been trying to repeat a set of previously published experiments from its field, to see if it can get the same results. Despite its best efforts, the project, called Many Labs 2, has only succeeded in 14 out of 28 cases. Six years ago, that might have been shocking. Now it comes as expected (if still somewhat disturbing) news.

In recent years, it has become painfully clear that psychology is facing a ‘reproducibility crisis,’ in which even famous, long-established phenomena—the stuff of textbooks and ted Talks—might not be real. There’s social priming, where subliminal exposures can influence our behavior. And ego depletion, the idea that we have a limited supply of willpower that can be exhausted. And the facial-feedback hypothesis, which simply says that smiling makes us feel happier.

One by one, researchers have tried to repeat the classic experiments behind these well-known effects—and failed. And whenever psychologists undertake large projects, like Many Labs 2, in which they replicate past experiments en masse, they typically succeed, on average, half of the time.

Ironically enough, it seems that one of the most reliable findings in psychology is that only half of psychological studies can be successfully repeated.

That failure rate is especially galling, says Simine Vazire from the University of California at Davis, because the Many Labs 2 teams tried to replicate studies that had made a big splash and been highly cited. Psychologists ‘should admit we haven’t been producing results that are as robust as we’d hoped, or as we’d been advertising them to be in the media or to policy makers,’ she says. ‘That might risk undermining our credibility in the short run, but denying this problem in the face of such strong evidence will do more damage in the long run.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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By Edel Rodriguez for the Washington Post

The state of hate
David Montgomery, Washington Post, 8 November 2018

The SPLC was founded in 1971 to take on legal cases related to racial injustice, poverty and the death penalty. Then, in the early 1980s, it launched Klanwatch, a project to monitor Klan groups, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. Their hate seemed self-evident. But eventually the SPLC began tracking — and labeling — a wider swath of extremism. And that’s when things became more complicated.

Today the SPLC’s list of 953 ‘Active Hate Groups’ is an elaborate taxonomy of ill will. There are many of the usual suspects: Ku Klux Klan (72 groups), Neo-Nazi (121), White Nationalist (100), Racist Skinhead (71), Christian Identity (20), Neo-Confederate (31), Black Nationalist (233) and Holocaust Denial (10). There are also more exotic strains familiar only to connoisseurs: Neo-Volkisch (28; ‘spirituality premised on the survival of white Europeans’) and Radical Traditional Catholicism (11; groups that allegedly ‘routinely pillory Jews as ‘the perpetual enemy of Christ’ ’). Then there are the more controversial additions of the last decade-and-a-half or so: Anti-LGBT (51), Anti-Muslim (113), Anti-Immigrant (22), Hate Music (15), Male Supremacy (2). Finally, the tally is rounded out by a general category called Other (53) — ‘a hodge-podge of hate doctrines.’

For decades, the hate list was a golden seal of disapproval, considered nonpartisan enough to be heeded by government agencies, police departments, corporations and journalists. But in recent years, as the list has swept up an increasing number of conservative activists — mostly in the anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim categories — those conservatives have been fighting back. Boykin, of the FRC, recently sent a letter to about 100 media outlets (including The Washington Post) and corporate donors on behalf of four dozen groups and individuals ‘who have been targeted, defamed, or otherwise harmed’ by the SPLC, warning that the hate list is no longer to be trusted. Mathew Staver, chairman of the Christian legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel, told me 60 organizations are interested in suing the SPLC.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


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Delay, deny and deflect:
How Facebook’s leaders fought through crisis

Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore,
Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg & Jack Nicas,
New York Times, 14 November 2018

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and it faced a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

In Washington, allies of Facebook, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, intervened on its behalf. And Ms. Sandberg wooed or cajoled hostile lawmakers, while trying to dispel Facebook’s reputation as a bastion of Bay Area liberalism.

This account of how Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg navigated Facebook’s cascading crises, much of which has not been previously reported, is based on interviews with more than 50 people. They include current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed confidentiality agreements, were not authorized to speak to reporters or feared retaliation.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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FGM rates in east Africa drop
from 71% to 8% in 20 years, study shows

Rebecca Ratcliffe, Guardian, 7 November 2018

The number of girls undergoing female genital mutilation has fallen dramatically in east Africa over the past two decades, according to a study published in BMJ Global Health.

The study, which looked at rates of FGM among girls aged 14 and under, suggests that prevalence in east Africa has dropped from 71.4% in 1995, to 8% in 2016.

The reported falls in the rates of FGM are far greater than previous studies have suggested, though some in the development community have advised caution over the figures.

In February, the United Nations Population Fund warned the number of women predicted to be mutilated each year could rise to 4.6 million by 2030, an increase driven by population growth in communities that carry out the practice.

According to the study in the BMJ, the rates of FGM practised on children have fallen in north Africa, from 57.7% in 1990 to 14.1% in 2015. In west Africa, prevalence is also reported to have decreased from 73.6% in 1996 to 25.4% in 2017.

The study aimed to assess if FGM awareness campaigns targeted at mothers had been successful. Unlike many other studies, older teenagers and adult women – who tend to have higher rates of FGM – were not included. The research developed estimates by pooling and comparing FGM data by proportion across countries and regions, using a meta-analysis technique.

Nafissatou Diop, coordinator of UNFPA-Unicef joint programme, said it was possible that girls included in the study would still undergo FGM at a later point in their teenage years.

‘Some girls who have not undergone FGM may not have reached the customary age for cutting and may still be at risk,’ said Diop. ‘The age at which the girls are undergoing FGM changes from ethnic group to ethnic group. In Kenya, for example, the Somali community practice FGM on girls aged three to seven. But in the Maasai community they practice FGM when the girl is a teenager, aged between 12 and 14.’

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Twitter is not the echo chamber we think it is
Jesse Shore, Jiye Baek & Chrysanthos Dellarocas,
MIT Sloan Management Review, 22 October 2018

We are in the midst of a public conversation about whether social media echo chambers facilitate the spreading of fake news or prevent constructive dialogue on public issues. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that he was experimenting with features to reduce echo chambers on Twitter by inserting content with alternative viewpoints into people’s feeds. In response, an op-ed in The New York Times predicted that this idea would backfire, citing recent research showing that exposing people to alternate viewpoints only makes them more partisan. The problem with this otherwise important debate is that it assumes that Twitter users exist in echo chambers in the first place. They don’t.

We had the opportunity to study data from Twitter over a period of 12 days to evaluate how users share news across the entire network. (See ‘Related Research.’) We found localized evidence of polarization but no widespread evidence of echo chambers. (With polarization, people are aware of the ‘other side’ and in conflict with it; in echo chambers, people are ignorant of other opinions because they are not exposed to them.) Specifically, the most active and highly followed 1% of users, whom we call core users, were as polarized as past research and conventional wisdom predicted, posting more partisan content than what they read. However, the vast majority of active users tended to be less polarized, posting more politically moderate content than what they read, on average. Our data also shows that typical Twitter users received news articles from across the political spectrum and core users followed an even more politically diverse group of Twitter accounts, so neither group lacked exposure to alternate views…

Typical Twitter users — the diverse, quiet, and, on average, moderating majority — turn to the social platform for a variety of personal and professional reasons. They follow friends, family, and people whose opinions and content they find interesting. They post original ideas, but they also like and retweet posts of others. The people they follow do not belong to a single community, so most users are exposed to a range of perspectives, whether they were seeking them or not. Interestingly, however, the articles that typical users choose to post or retweet are even more centrist than what they are exposed to. (See ‘Range of Political Slant on Twitter.’) For example, a strongly left-leaning user might be exposed to content written for a clearly partisan audience but post content written for a more centrist (if still somewhat left-leaning) audience. A possible explanation for such behavior is that because a typical user’s followers do not belong to a single community, most users refrain from posting content that some of their followers might object to.

Read the full article in MIT Sloan Management Review.


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Tree of Life

Theorists debate how ‘neutral’ evolution really is
Viviane Callier, Quanta Magazine, 8 November 2018

When Charles Darwin articulated his theory of evolution by natural selection in On the Origin of Species in 1859, he focused on adaptations — the changes that enable organisms to survive in new or changing environments. Selection for favorable adaptations, he suggested, allowed ancient ancestral forms to gradually diversify into countless species.

That concept was so powerful that we might assume evolution is all about adaptation. So it can be surprising to learn that for half a century, a prevailing view in scholarly circles has been that it’s not.

Selection isn’t in doubt, but many scientists have argued that most evolutionary changes appear at the level of the genome and are essentially random and neutral. Adaptive changes groomed by natural selection might indeed sculpt a fin into a primitive foot, they said, but those changes make only a small contribution to the evolutionary process, in which the composition of DNA varies most often without any real consequences.

But now some scientists are pushing back against this idea, known as neutral theory, saying that genomes show much more evidence of evolved adaptation than the theory would dictate. This debate is important because it affects our understanding of the mechanisms that generate biodiversity, our inferences about how the sizes of natural populations have changed over time and our ability to reconstruct the evolutionary history of species (including our own). What lies in the future might be a new era that draws from the best of neutral theory while also recognizing the real, empirically supported influence of selection.

Read the full article in Quanta Magazine.


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How populism became the concept that defines our age
Cas Muddle, Guardian, 22 November 2018

‘Populism’ as a term was rarely used in the 20th century; it was limited to US historians describing, in highly specific terms, the original agrarian populists of the mid-19th century. Latin American social scientists (often Marxists) focused it primarily on the Peronists in Argentina. I only started to really engage with the term in the mid-1990s, while researching my dissertation on what was then still predominantly called ‘rightwing extremism’.

The German political scientist Hans-Georg Betz had just published what is still the best book on the topic, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, and I dived into Leiden University’s library to find anything I could find on this odd term. The great British political theorist Margaret Canovan had written an excellent overview, simply titled Populism, in 1981, but argued that, while there were seven different subtypes, populism itself could not be defined.

So I delved deeper, trying to engage with the work of the late Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinian post-Marxist theorist, undoubtedly the most influential scholar of populism for academics and politicians alike. For instance, at a workshop in Brussels this summer, Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador, and broadly considered a populist himself, approvingly cited Laclau. Unfortunately, I was not as smart as Correa, and never really understood Laclau’s complex 1977 book, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, so I decided to move on without the term.

I had noticed the growing use of Rechtspopulismus (rightwing populism) among German scholars, however. They were using the term to distinguish parties such as Austria’s Freedom party and the German Republicans from ‘extreme right’ or ‘radical right’ parties such as the French Front National or the Flemish Bloc in Belgium. This seemed to me to reflect a broader acceptance of these parties in mainstream society, rather than a difference in their ideologies.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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End intellectual property
Samir Chopra, Aeon, 12 November 2018

The phrase ‘intellectual property’ was first used in a legal decision in 1845 and acquired formal heft in 1967 with the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that represents and protects the commercial interests of holders of copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. The ubiquitous use of ‘intellectual property’ began in the digital era of production, reproduction and distribution of cultural and technical artifacts. As a new political economy appeared, so did a new commercial and legal rhetoric. ‘Intellectual property’, a central term in that new discourse, is a culturally damaging and easily weaponised notion. Its use should be resisted.

There are four areas of US federal law linked under the rubric of ‘intellectual property’ that we ought to keep separate in our minds. In an essay published in The Politics of Law(2010), Keith Aoki defines each as follows. Copyright protects ‘original works such as books, music, sculpture, movies and aspects of computer programs’ that are ‘embodied or fixed in a tangible medium’. This protection does not require a work to be entirely novel and extends only to its ‘original aspects’, to ‘a particular expression … not the underlying ideas’, and not to ‘independently created or similar works’. Under the umbrella of copyright law are original, concrete expressions, not ideas – the same story and script idea can generate many distinct movies, for instance. Then there are patents, which cover ‘new and useful inventions, manufactures, compositions of matter and processes reduced to practice by inventors’ with ‘rigorous requirements of subject matter, novelty, utility and non-obviousness’. Patents protect realised inventions and ideas in gestation – eg, here is a new method for collecting rainwater, and this is a machine that does just that. Trademarks(and the related ‘trade dresses’) meanwhile protect consumers from ‘mistake, confusion and deception’ about the sources of commercial goods: the ‘G’ in Gucci, Apple’s apple, a distinctive packaging. Finally, there are trade secrets, or secret information that confers economic benefits on its holder and is subject to the holder’s reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.

Each regime has a public-policy justification: copyright law incentivises the production of creative works, which populate the public domain of culture. Patent law lets inventors and users benefit from the original ideas disclosed in a patent filing, and aims to make research and development economically feasible by producing investment in new technologies and products. Trademark law protects customers by informing them that their preferred vendor – and not some counterfeiter making inferior goods – is the source of the goods they’re buying. Copyright- and patent-holders extract monopoly rent from protected subject matter, or its concrete expression, for a limited period. Such limited exclusivity is meant to encourage the further production of original expressions and inventions by providing raw materials for other creators and inventors to build on.

In the United States, media and technology have been shaped by these laws, and indeed many artists and creators owe their livelihoods to such protections. But recently, in response to the new ways in which the digital era facilitates the creation and distribution of scientific and artistic products, the foundations of these protections have been questioned. Those calling for reform, such as the law professors Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle, free software advocates such as Richard Stallman, and law and economics scholars such as William Landes and Judge Richard Posner, ask: is ‘intellectual property’ the same kind of property as ‘tangible property’, and are legal protections for the latter appropriate for the former? And to that query, we can add: is ‘intellectual property’ an appropriate general term for the widely disparate areas of law it encompasses?

The answer to all these questions is no.

Read the full article in Aeon.


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Tech CEOs are in love with their principal doomsayer
Nellie Bowles, New York Times, 9 November 2018

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious ‘useless class.’

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?

‘One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?’ a puzzled Mr. Harari said one afternoon in October. ‘For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?’

When Mr. Harari toured the Bay Area this fall to promote his latest book, the reception was incongruously joyful. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, threw him a dinner party. The leaders of X, Alphabet’s secretive research division, invited Mr. Harari over. Bill Gates reviewed the book (‘Fascinating’ and ‘such a stimulating writer’) in The New York Times.

‘I’m interested in how Silicon Valley can be so infatuated with Yuval, which they are — it’s insane he’s so popular, they’re all inviting him to campus — yet what Yuval is saying undermines the premise of the advertising- and engagement-based model of their products,’ said Tristan Harris, Google’s former in-house design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Lise Meitner

The nuclear pioneer who escaped the Nazis
Philip Ball, Science Focus, 7 November 2018

Meitner’s career launched in 1901, when she decided to start studying physics at the University of Vienna. After achieving a doctorate, she arrived in Berlin in  1907 to take her studies further, but at the time Prussia (an historic German state, with Berlin as its capital) still did not admit women to its universities. That changed the following year, but attitudes did not. Hahn first met Meitner that autumn and they decided to work together. But women were not permitted inside Hahn’s chemistry institute, allegedly because its director was convinced they would set their hair on fire. As a compromise, Meitner was given a room in the basement, but forbidden to come upstairs, even to talk to Hahn.

In 1912, Hahn and Meitner moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry (KWIC) to study radioactivity. This was the early 20th Century, and radioactivity was an exciting field for scientists because it offered clues about what atoms were made from. Researchers established that atoms have an internal structure, consisting of a positively charged super-dense nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, surrounded by negatively charged particles called electrons.

Scientists had also discovered that nuclear decay, and nuclear reactions triggered by collisions of subatomic particles with atoms, could convert one chemical element into another. And they found a whole bunch of new elements: Meitner and Hahn discovered protactinium in 1917.

During her time at KWIC, Meitner’s determination and sharp mind soon earned her respect. By the 1930s, she was considered one of Germany’s foremost nuclear scientists. But then everything changed.

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and he moved swiftly to transform Germany from a democracy to a dictatorship. In April that year, the Nazis expelled Jews from all places of power and influence, including academic jobs. Yet somehow, Meitner managed to retain an academic post for a further five years. She was dismissed from the University of Berlin, barred from speaking at scientific meetings, and all but erased from the official narrative of German nuclear physics during that time, so that her joint discoveries with Hahn were attributed to him alone. Nevertheless, she was able to stay in active research at KWIC. Hahn and Meitner, assisted by a young German chemist named Fritz Strassmann, began to gather evidence for new types of radioactive substances created from uranium, perhaps including some hitherto unknown elements.

Read the full article in Science Focus.


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Back of the class
Julia Bell. TLS, 13 November 2018

There are three people in the room; a woman is lying on a chaise longue by the door and, standing in the corner a man with a black moustache and curly hair, who I discover is the admissions tutor and later, when I read Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, I imagine that Howard Kirk looks just like him. There is an empty chair in the room, which when I sit makes me higher than everyone else, and behind this chair, slouched against a bookshelf, sits another man.

The room seems so impractical. Why are they not all sitting behind a desk? The woman seems bored, not even looking at me, and being higher in the room makes me feel as if I’m at sea. The floor appears to move around me. I can sense there are rules here, but I don’t understand what they are.

By now I am irradiated by nerves. My jaw feels loose, and my face is starting to colour. I am full of cortisol, the small vessels of my body on high alert. The animal part of my body is entering a primal mode of defence. Fight or flight or freeze. Perceiving high danger, the processes of my body act as if I am about to be attacked. My blood vessels contract to conserve blood, this, and my pounding heartbeat is having a ruinous effect on my mind….

‘You said in your essay that for Keats the Grecian urn is beautiful because it is evidence. Evidence of what? What did you mean?’

This question comes at me from behind. From someone I can’t see. Panic, now. I can’t remember. I can’t remember. And the question is phrased in such a way as to sound like an accusation. Am I wrong? I feel wrong.

I can’t remember what I said, another mumble, and then the woman, stretching herself, and looking at the ceiling as if she’d rather be anywhere but here, interviewing me, says ‘You said you work for hospital radio on your form’.

I nod. I do. Saturday mornings in the Portakabin outside Bronglais Hospital. The lonely old ladies wanting to listen to Jim Reeves sing ‘Amazing Grace’.

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you think people listen to the radio?’

This at least is a question I know the answer to, although I’m still unsure. In this situation I feel as if anything I say could be written down and used in evidence.

‘Erm, because they’re lonely.’

She smirks. Naive again, but what else should I say?

Read the full article in TLS.


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The freedom to be free at work
Nicholas Smith, IAI News, 8 October 2018

In her book The Human Condition (1958), Arendt argued that most of what we now do when we say we ‘work’ has the essential character of what she calls ‘labour’. Labour resembles the artisanal work of previous times in that it is a means to an end, but unlike work in its true sense, which leaves some enduring useful object behind, it produces something to be consumed, and is done for the sake of empowering one’s consumption. Labour is our ‘metabolism with nature’, a phrase Arendt borrows from Marx, which ties us to the eternally recurring cycle of life. Labouring activity, no less than the behaviour of any other living organism, inherently lends itself to scientific measurement and enhancement. For this reason, well-meaning efforts to humanise labour were, in her view, futile and ill-conceived.

But labour, however highly valued it is in the modern world, represents only one aspect of the human condition. Human beings are also capable of what Arendt calls ‘speech and action’, in which they deliberate over matters of common concern and act together. It is only through action in this true sense, Arendt believed, that human beings show themselves to be more than members of a species, or cogs in a machine, and appear to themselves in their uniqueness and plurality. When we act, in this sense, we break out of the cycle of endless repetition and bring about something genuinely new, something unpredictable. In the making and retelling of history, Arendt thought, we attain a kind of immortality, or at least some redemption of our earth-bound, life-bound condition, our condition qua labouring animal.

Arendt had a dim view of the opportunities afforded for action in this lofty sense in the modern world. The labouring animal had won the day, she thought, and there was no way back for the political animal, the human type who prevailed, at least as an ideal, in ancient times.

But was Arendt too pessimistic? A desire for something like a return of the political animal in Arendt’s sense is behind demands for a shorter working week and a Free-Time Index, at least from some quarters. Freedom from the pressures of work, and in particular more time away from work, seems to be precisely what is needed to make the life of political engagement and participation in communal affairs, what Arendt took to be the highest expression of the active life, a real possibility once more (and, unlike the past, a possibility available to everyone). What seemed impossible by way of opportunities for action, as distinct from labour, in Arendt’s time might be within reach today.

Read the full article in IAI News.


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Rectangle after rectangle
Amy Knight Powell, Cabinet, winter 2018

Episode One: The triumph of the rectilinear codex—the form of the book we still know today—over the curvilinear scroll, around the year 300.3 This is not the beginning. The rectangular format appeared sometime after cave painting, let’s say, and well before the invention of the codex, in the murals, mosaics, relief sculptures, textiles, and other media of the ancient world. But with the invention of the codex, the rectangle acquired the force of a given, by virtue of the fact that codices, unlike murals, mosaics, and so on, almost universally adhere to that shape.

Before there were codices, there were curvilinear scrolls and rectilinear tablets. Most scrolls were made of papyrus, though some were made of parchment, including some of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Tablets were made of metal, clay, leather, or wood, sometimes with shallow depressions filled with wax that could be inscribed with a stylus and then smoothed again for another use. Several tablets could be strung together to form a rudimentary book.

In Greco-Roman antiquity, the tablet was a humble notepad for conducting business. As the repository for scripture and literature, the scroll had all the prestige. In the sixth century, the Roman statesman Cassiodorus wrote that tablets are ‘bits of sluggish wood,’ whereas the papyrus scroll ‘is always plentiful; and it is so pliant that it can be rolled together, although it is unfolded to a great length. Its joints are seamless, its parts united.’4 These sinuous structures were pulled straight in order to be read, but only ever partially and temporarily, before being rolled up again. The scroll, therefore, falls under the sign of the spiral, whose curvilinear lines go on indefinitely. By contrast, the tablet falls under the sign of the rectangle, whose straight edges intersect to form finite enclosures.

In the first century, the tablet evolved into the parchment codex. The codex then became the dominant form of the book in the fourth century in the Latin West and in the following century in Byzantium, displacing the scroll, though never completely. The furniture built to store the scroll and the codex reflects their respective shapes. In a tenth-century Byzantine gospel book, John the Evangelist is shown seated at a lectern mounted on a stem shaped like a dolphin, next to which stands a capsa, a cylindrical container for scrolls. The Codex Amiatinus (anachronistically) shows Ezra writing in a codex in front of a large bookcase. The rectilinear lines of this bookcase reflect its codices, while the curvilinear lines of John’s capsa reflect its scrolls.

In a twelfth-century gospel book from Constantinople, Mark is pictured writing his gospel, as if this were a process of translation from the one format into the other, and as if this translation were a matter of setting things straight.5 Gravity unfurls the scroll, straightening and cutting it into page-like segments where it falls over the lectern and again where it meets the floor. This process of rectification brings the scroll into alignment with the codex on Mark’s knees.

Read the full article in Cabinet.


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The end of time
Carlo Rovelli, Nautilus, 6 September 2018

This is the image of time that is familiar to us: something that flows uniformly and equally throughout the universe, in the course of which all things happen. A present that exists throughout the cosmos, a ‘now’ that constitutes reality. The past for everyone is fixed, is gone, having already happened. The future is open, yet to be determined. Reality flows from the past, through the present, toward the future—and the evolution of things between past and future is intrinsically asymmetrical. This, we feel, is the basic structure of the world.

This familiar picture has fallen apart, has shown itself to be only an approximation of a much more complex reality.

A present that is common throughout the whole universe does not exist. Events are not ordered in pasts, presents, and futures; they are only ‘partially’ ordered. There is a present that is near to us, but nothing that is ‘present’ in a far-off galaxy. The present is a localized rather than a global phenomenon.

The difference between past and future does not exist in the elementary equations that govern events in the world. It issues only from the fact that, in the past, the world found itself subject to a state that, with our blurred take on things, appears particular to us.

Locally, time passes at different speeds according to where we are and at what speed we ourselves are moving. The closer we are to a mass, or the faster we move, the more time slows down: There is no single duration between two events; there are many possible ones.

The rhythms at which time flows are determined by the gravitational field, a real entity with its own dynamic that is described in the equations of Einstein. If we overlook quantum effects, time and space are aspects of a great jelly in which we are immersed.

But the world is a quantum one, and gelatinous spacetime is also an approximation. In the elementary grammar of the world, there is neither space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another, from which it is possible to calculate probabilities and relations.

Read the full article in Nautilus.

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The images are, from top down: Portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre by Ida Kar (© National Portrait Gallery); ‘Abstract Speed’ by Giacomo Balla; Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for the Washington Post; Tree of life (illustrator unknown); Portrait of Lise Meitner (photographer unknown).