web 51

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.


Citizenship v the surveillance state
Matthew Longo, Boston Review, 6 December 2018

As a society, we have accepted as self-evident that a secure border protects our national sovereignty (and, by extension, citizens). But in fact, the opposite is increasingly true. New forms of bordering rely extensively on data and information sharing at levels heretofore unimagined. Much of our new border security enterprise actually cedes classic markers of sovereignty, and devalues citizenship—compromising the rights not merely of migrants, but of Americans too. Indeed, in many ways, border security policies are ending citizenship as we know it. To understand why this is true, we need to start by reconsidering what a border is. Only then can we appreciate how they are changing, and why this matters.

When we speak about borders, more often than not we refer to lines on the map. Actual borders are more complicated, but this captures the essential idea that Earth is divided between states, and states are separated by borders. We think of sovereignty in this way too: it connotes the territorial space over which a state has ultimate jurisdiction (i.e., within a bounded state container). When defined in this way, borders, sovereignty, and security go hand in hand. The state secures its borders to protect its sovereignty. This worldview, often referred to as Westphalian—borne of the treaty of Westphalia (1648) that ended the Thirty Years’ War—is so airtight, it seems impossible to challenge. Indeed, despite the promise of globalization and the mid-1990s euphoria over borderlessness, by and large this model remains unchanged. After 9/11, it further gained currency, as evidenced by the rise of border fences and walls worldwide.

By and large, ours is still a Westphalian world. But over the past dozen years or so, a new consciousness has emerged within security communities, in the United States and globally, that walls are inadequate to secure a border. They are too easy to fly over, or tunnel under. And anyway, nearly all ‘illegal’ migrants enter the country legally and choose to overstay their visa—a problem that no wall can solve, no matter how high or wide. Instead, to really make borders secure, a far more extensive system is needed, relying heavily on cooperation with (and help from) partners across the border. While researching for my book, The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen after 9/11, the border guards I interviewed spoke repeatedly of the need for ‘defense in depth’—that the border should be ‘the last line of defense,’ not the first. By the time something is a threat at the border, it is already too late. The goal is to stop threats before they materialize. For this, you need to collaborate with your neighbors. We usually assume that states love borders, while in fact the opposite is often true. The stronger the state, the more likely the border is an impediment to law enforcement (which would like to push past the border, not be hemmed in by it). New efforts at border security aim to ‘solve’ the problem of the border, as much as secure it. The way to do this is through cross-border coordination, or ‘co-bordering.’

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


Think Riyadh’s Netflix ban was bad?
Imagine if Hasan Minhaj was a Saudi citizen
Safa Al Ahmad, Guardian, 4 January 2018

In terms of these laws, the US comic Hasan Minhaj’s satirical Netflix episode on Saudi Arabia – controversially taken down by the streaming service after complaints from the kingdom – ticked all the boxes. If Minhaj were a Saudi citizen, he would have been hauled in for ‘questioning’. All his electronic devices confiscated. Every comment he had made online and in private downloaded and analysed for previous transgressions against the state (even if they were legal at the time) and his picture printed in local newspapers with a red stamp on it, branding him a traitor and possibly a spy for an external enemy (Iran).

He would have been humiliated, tortured, sexually assaulted, disappeared.

The Saudi electronic army would have been mobilised to harass into silence anyone online who dared to come to his defence. They would defame him and his family. Accuse his mother of being a spy, a whore of the liberal left. Make fun of his ethnic background and how he was never truly a Saudi. Muse on how best he – and she – should die.

His family would spend weeks trying to locate him in the labyrinth of the Saudi prison system. After months of denials and deafening silence, his mother crying and begging authorities to let her hear his voice, to know if he is alive, his family would finally get to see him. He would shuffle in, bruised, shaking. He would wonder if working for Netflix was even worth it. The anguish he brought on his family. What a high price for a few jokes.

If he made it out alive, he might get an award for ‘courage’. Netflix would state that it must ‘respect’ local laws if it wants to do business around the world. Hasan Minhaj, it would turn out, is expendable. His friends inside the country would text each other on Signal (a secure messaging app) to ask worriedly about him. What’s the latest? What should we do? Do we speak out and risk being arrested as well? They would be overwhelmed with guilt. They would feel crushed. They would have nightmares after news of his torture and attempted suicide. They would all quietly wonder how things got so bad, and plot their escape from the kingdom. Who has a second passport? Where can we apply for asylum? What country takes the most Saudis? Canada? Germany?

Read the full article in the Guardian.


‘The gilets jaunes are unstoppable’
Christophe Guilluy & Fraser Myers,
spiked-online, 11 January 2019

spiked: What is the role of culture in the yellow-vest movement?

Guilluy: Not only does peripheral France fare badly in the modern economy, it is also culturally misunderstood by the elite. The yellow-vest movement is a truly 21st-century movement in that it is cultural as well as political. Cultural validation is extremely important in our era. One illustration of this cultural divide is that most modern, progressive social movements and protests are quickly endorsed by celebrities, actors, the media and the intellectuals. But none of them approve of the gilets jaunes. Their emergence has caused a kind of psychological shock to the cultural establishment. It is exactly the same shock that the British elites experienced with the Brexit vote and that they are still experiencing now, three years later. The Brexit vote had a lot to do with culture, too, I think. It was more than just the question of leaving the EU. Many voters wanted to remind the political class that they exist. That’s what French people are using the gilets jaunes for – to say we exist. We are seeing the same phenomenon in populist revolts across the world.

spiked: How have the working-classes come to be excluded?

Guilluy: All the growth and dynamism is in the major cities, but people cannot just move there. The cities are inaccessible, particularly thanks to mounting housing costs. The big cities today are like medieval citadels. It is like we are going back to the city-states of the Middle Ages. Funnily enough, Paris is going to start charging people for entry, just like the excise duties you used to have to pay to enter a town in the Middle Ages. The cities themselves have become very unequal, too. The Parisian economy needs executives and qualified professionals. It also needs workers, predominantly immigrants, for the construction industry and catering et cetera. Business relies on this very specific demographic mix. The problem is that ‘the people’ outside of this still exist. In fact, ‘Peripheral France’ actually encompasses the majority of French people.

Read the full article on spiked online.


Why are boys falling behind in schools?
Simon Kuper & Emma Jacobs,
Financial Times, 14 December 2018

In developed countries, on average, boys underperform girls at school. They are much worse at reading, less likely to go to university, and their lead in maths is shrinking (to nothingness, in countries such as China and Singapore). In Britain, white working-class boys perform especially badly.

The boy problem reverberates through our societies and politics. Adults with poor literacy tend to have bad health, low wages and little trust in others, says the OECD, the Paris-based international organisation that monitors education globally.

The sorts of jobs traditionally dominated by men (such as driving) are among the most likely to be automated in the coming decades. Growing numbers of adult men live with their parents; in the UK in 2017, almost a third of males aged 20-34 were doing so, compared with a fifth of females. Across the west, many discontented lesser-educated men vote for rightwing populists such as Donald Trump.

Educationalists have only recently started focusing on the boy problem in earnest, though Smith says: ‘I don’t think there’s a school in the country that hasn’t thought about it.’ So what can be done for boys?…

Historically, sexism has protected boys. Into the 1970s, some British school systems deliberately upgraded boys’ results in the frequently life-determining 11+ exam, writes Wendy Webster of Huddersfield University. Girls were often ignored by teachers, sexually harassed and negatively stereotyped in textbooks, according to a report commissioned by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 1992.

But as sexism diminished in schools, girls began outperforming boys. In a reversal of history, in parts of the developed world some girls now have higher expectations than boys for their future education and careers. In 2000, there were still more males than females with tertiary education in OECD countries, yet by 2014, women led, 34 to 30 per cent, mainly because women are now more likely to apply for university than men. Meanwhile, the very worst pupils — children who don’t reach proficiency in any subject on the OECD’s Pisa tests — are overwhelmingly male.

Read the full article in the Financial Times.


refugee in kutupalong camp with satellite picture of his old e village

Point of no return
Poppy McPherson, Simon Lewis,
Thu Thu Aung, Shoon Naing & Zeba Siddiqui,
Reuters, 18 December 2018

Myanmar’s leaders are promising to bring home hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled a brutal military crackdown. But the government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is taking steps that make their return increasingly unlikely.

The areas where the Rohingya lived in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State before the army ousted them are being dramatically transformed. The northern reaches of this region were once a Muslim-majority enclave in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.

Hundreds of new houses are now being built in villages where the Rohingya resided, satellite images show. Many of these villages were burned, then flattened and scraped by bulldozers. The new homes are being occupied mainly by Buddhists, some from other parts of Rakhine. The security forces are also building new facilities in these areas.

A clear picture of the changes on the ground has been elusive, however, because of restrictions on travel to the region. To document Myanmar’s plans for the Rohingya, Reuters analysed satellite photographs of construction work in the region from the past year and an unpublished resettlement map drafted by the government.

Reporters also interviewed national and state-level government officials in charge of resettlement policy, aid workers, refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, and Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine.

The government is both building some of the new homes and helping to facilitate the Buddhist resettlement push, according to local officials and new settlers. The campaign is being spearheaded by Buddhist nationalists who want to establish a Buddhist majority in the area.

And the Rohingya resettlement map drafted by the government, described here for the first time, reveals that many refugees who do return to Rakhine won’t go back to their homes or even their original villages. The map shows they would be herded into several dozen Rohingya-only settlements, segregating them from the rest of the population.

Read the full article on Reuters.


The death of job stability
Robin Kaiser-Shatzlein, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 January 2019

Hyman’s history is incisive when it comes to Silicon Valley’s questionable labor practices. Through the ’80s, people like Steve Jobs boasted that their computers would be made entirely by robots. Hyman drills down: ‘To understand the electronics industry is simple: every time someone says ‘robot,’ simply picture a woman of color.’

Silicon chips and other electronic components are extraordinarily toxic to make. Santa Clara County has 23 Superfund sites from electronics production alone. This work was done by migrants and undocumented workers. And as Hyman mentions, this allowed electronics manufacturers to threaten employees who spoke up. If they complained about pay or working conditions, they could be deported at a moment’s notice.

In the 1980s, Apple, like many companies, adopted lean principles. It cut inventory and staff to free up capital to be spent elsewhere. This was often known as ‘downsizing.’ But this is paradoxical, like pawning everything you own to pay your rent. Sure, you get to keep your apartment, but what are you going to do there? Apple almost downsized itself out of existence. And strangely, when the company did bounce back, the downsized positions never reemerged. This became a trend. The end of the 1991 recession was called the ‘jobless recovery’ because when the recession concluded, jobs didn’t return.

Hyman notes that many temps would have been unemployed without the option of temporary jobs. But all this means is that temp employment is the spackle that smooths over the real cracks in the foundation of employment. Workers might technically be employed, but they weren’t secure. Their futures were unpredictable and hazy. Job security was, by the early ’90s, a relic of the past.

As the digital economy got underway, things didn’t get any better for workers. But Hyman wants to emphasize that Uber is not the villain. ‘The digital economy made visible what was hidden,’ he says, ‘Uber did not cause this precarious economy, Uber was possible because of a precarious economy. It is the waste product of the service economy.’ The crash of 2008 only revealed how insecure work already was. It revealed how reliant many were on the rising value of home prices — instead of rising wages — to fund their lives.

Read the full article in the Los Angeles Review of Books.


Learning China’s forbidden history, so they can censor it
Li Yuan, New York Times, 2 January 2019

Li Chengzhi had a lot to learn when he first got a job as a professional censor. Like many young people in China, the 24-year-old recent college graduate knew little about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. He had never heard of China’s most famous dissident, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in custody two years ago. Now, after training, he knows what to look for — and what to block. He spends his hours scanning online content on behalf of Chinese media companies looking for anything that will provoke the government’s wrath. He knows how to spot code words that obliquely refer to Chinese leaders and scandals, or the memes that touch on subjects the Chinese government doesn’t want people to read about. Mr. Li, who still has traces of youthful acne on his face, takes his job seriously. ‘It helps cleanse the online environment,’ he said.

For Chinese companies, staying on the safe side of government censors is a matter of life and death. Adding to the burden, the authorities demand that companies censor themselves, spurring them to hire thousands of people to police content. That in turn has created a growing and lucrative new industry: censorship factories…

It’s easy to make mistakes. One article about Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady, mistakenly used the photo of a famous singer rumored to be linked to another leader. It was caught by someone else before it went out, Mr. Yang said.

Mr. Li, the young censor, said the worst mistakes were almost all related to senior leaders. He once missed a tiny photo of Mr. Xi on a website not on the whitelist because he was tired. He still kicks himself for it. When asked whether he had shared with family and friends what he learned at work, such as the Tiananmen crackdown, Mr. Li vehemently said no. ‘

This information is not for people outside to know,’ he said. ‘Once many people know about it, it could generate rumors.’ But the crackdown was history. It wasn’t a rumor. How would he reconcile that? ‘For certain things,’ he said, ‘one just has to obey the rules.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Why should my newspaper pledge not to boycott Israel?
Alan Leveritt, ACLU, 3 January 2019

Last year, letters from the state of Arkansas began drifting across my desk, demanding that our weekly newspaper, the Arkansas Times, either sign a pledge not to boycott Israel or forfeit all state advertising. The letters were the result of an obscure, cookie-cutter law passed in 2017 by our Republican-controlled legislature. Specifically, it requires any company entering into a contract with a public entity to certify that it ‘is not currently engaged in, and agrees for the duration of the contract not to engage in, a boycott of Israel.’

Initially, we and our longtime state agency clients simply ignored it and went about our business of producing a newspaper. But when the University of Arkansas System began strictly enforcing the law last fall, it told us that we had to sign the anti-boycott pledge in order to continue running advertisements for the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College.

At that point, we had a decision to make. Times are hard in the publishing industry, and we really needed the business. But at what price? It had never occurred to us to boycott anyone, but the idea that the state would force a publishing company to take a political position in return for business was offensive.

We then learned the law offered to let us continue to do business without signing the pledge, so long as we accepted a 20 percent cut in our ad rates. I said, ‘Well, to hell with them.’ We were not going to pay a 20 percent tax for the right to hold beliefs independent of the Arkansas Legislature, at least not without a fight…

We’re focused on Arkansas at the Arkansas Times and have never editorially advocated for a boycott of Israel. But as journalists, citizens, and taxpayers, we dispute the right of the state to impose any ideological litmus test on a publisher or other business, when the only consideration in awarding a state contract should be merit.

Read the full article on ACLU.


the 'neo' cranium of homo naledi - john hawks

Three big insights into our African origins
John Hawks, Medium, 4 January 2019

I will emphasize three big insights.

First, modern humans did not originate in a bottleneck after 200,000 years ago. Our origin was much deeper in time than this. Second, our species originated in Africa from deeply structured ancestral populations. These were much more different from each other than any human populations are today. We do not know how they interacted or which gave rise to living peoples. Third, some of these deeply divergent populations survived in Africa until recent times. During the time of human origins, ‘modern’ humans were not alone.

Let’s look at the first big insight.

All living people are what anthropologists call modern humans. Today we know that modern humans did not originate in a single small bottleneck less than 200,000 years ago. Our roots go much farther back.

In the 1990s, anthropologists had the idea that they might find the ‘first’ modern humans. They were working under the idea from mitochondrial DNA that Africans survived a bottleneck within the last 200,000 years. By finding the right skull, they hoped to discover the unique place where this small bottleneck population must have lived. What makes a skull ‘modern’? Today’s people share some features that are pretty rare in Neanderthals or other archaic humans. We have a higher, more rounded forehead, a small browridge or no browridge at all, a more rounded or ‘globular’ skull, and a smaller face. Our jawbones have a chin.

When a fossil skull had features like these, it became a candidate for an ‘early modern’ potential ancestor of today’s humans. Specialists focused on fossils like the ones from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. Today we know that these fossils are much older, but during the 1990s, anthropologists thought they were around 130,000 years old. They considered fossils like this skull from Laetoli, Tanzania, and this one from Singa, Sudan, both around 130,000 years old. There are two fossil specimens from southern Ethiopia, from the Omo Kibish formation. Richard Leakey and his team found these at the end of the 1960s, and at the time thought that these fossils were also around 130,000 years old.

Fossils like these established an expectation. They were not precisely modern. But they were akin to living people, well before modern humans appeared anywhere else. Could these have been the original modern humans?

Twenty years ago, new discoveries and dating started to push such fossils back in time. In 1997, Tim White’s research team in Ethiopia unearthed new fossils from the Middle Awash, around 165,000 years old. Then, attention turned to the remains of two Omo Kibish individuals. Thirty years after Leakey’s team unearthed the specimens, John Fleagle led a team back to this site and did some new geological work. They found that these two fossil individuals might be 195,000 years old.

Most recently, a team of archaeologists led by Jean-Jacques Hublin and Shannon McPherron have reinvestigated the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco. They dug more, and re-identified some of the layers with fossils and stone tools. Last year they showed that the fossil hominins from this site may be up to 300,000 years old.

View at

Read the full article in Medium.


With the Citizenship Bill, India just took a turn to becoming a religion-based state
Abheek Harman, Economic Times, 10 January 2019

India’s founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Acharya Kripalani, Abul Kalam Azad and — above all — Mohandas Gandhi, were determined to prove Ambedkar, Jinnah and Savarkar wrong. So, they wrote a secular Constitution, guaranteeing the right of people to practice any faith of their choice and equality before law. Administration can’t discriminate on faith.

January’s citizenship rules tries to bury that ideal, making religion a marker for Indian-ness, excluding Muslims immigrants from citizenship, resurrecting Savarkar and Jinnah. The excuse: our neighbours hound non-Muslims.

Really? After a brief lurch towards Islamism, in 2010, Bangladesh’s courts ensured that secularism, written in its 1972 constitution, must be enforced. Its Hindu population trebled from 3% in 1974 — after liberation from Pakistan — to 10% in 2011. After India and Nepal, Bangladesh hosts most Hindus globally.

Pakistan is not just an Islamic State, but a Sunni Muslim one. It persecutes Ahmadiyas, Shias and Sufis. Imambaras, Shia places of worship, are a favourite target of bombers during prayers. Will the Narendra Modi government allow these ‘Islamic’ minorities into India too? If the Bill is about sheltering people persecuted for being in the religious minority, will India let in the Rohingyas from Myanmar too? Fat chance.

The lurch towards a ‘Hindutva-Pakistan’ is possibly illegal. In 1973, a 13-judge bench of the Supreme Court produced India’s most significant ruling. The ‘Kesavananda Bharati’ judgment, it said that no government can fiddle with the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. However you define this core, equality before law and freedom of worship tops every list.

But this attempt to ignite bigotry will scar lives and property. Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, mostly with BJP or BJP-linked administrations, are boiling over with rage. Each is a cauldron of ethnic, religious and tribal loyalties, now incensed by the idea of encroaching ‘outsiders’. Regularising (non-Muslim) illegals is anathema here. The northeast states account for 24 Lok Sabha seats, which the BJP covets for polls later this year. It can kiss goodbye to that.

Read the full article in Economic Times.


The other abortion ban
Stephanie Ho, Washington Post, 4 January 2019

Last year brought one of the toughest moments I’d ever faced as a family doctor. A woman had shown up for her appointment after a three-hour drive to one of our clinics in Arkansas, and we had to turn her away. A state restriction had gone into effect, requiring that abortion providers contract with a physician who has hospital-admitting privileges. It works by weaponizing antiabortion attitudes within the medical community.

My staff and I had been attempting to comply with the law since it was passed in 2015. We reached out to every OB/GYN we could find. Receptionists would hang up on us or refuse to take a message. The doctors who did answer said that while they might personally support a woman’s right to choose, their colleagues did not. One told me that for him to sign on as a backup, he’d need permission not only from his hospital administrator but also from the Diocese of Little Rock — ‘and after that,’ he added, ‘the pope.’ We finally found a willing obstetrician in November.

This fear doesn’t surprise me. Medication abortion is one of the safest procedures out there; it’s less risky than wisdom-tooth extraction (which requires anesthesia). But doctors and nurses in Arkansas are so afraid of abortions — and the attendant politics — that it’s almost impossible to learn about them as a medical student, let alone administer them.

Where I grew up, in the River Valley of western Arkansas, nobody said the word ‘abortion’ out loud. When I went to medical school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock, that censorious silence didn’t relent. Over four years, the most exposure we got to the topic was a half-hour guest lecture. (At that time, 17 percent of medical schools offered no formal abortion education, according to a national survey published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.)

That implicit disapproval carried over to my residency in family medicine, which I began in 2008 at UAMS West in Fort Smith. Second-year residents gave presentations on a topic of their choice — and mine, on abortion, was the most highly attended and contentious that year. A senior faculty member vocally disagreed with my description of abortion as a common medical service, interrupting every few sentences and quoting the Bible at me. Someone dubbed me the ‘abortion chick,’ and the nickname stuck. Whenever a patient at the clinic wanted to learn more about terminating a pregnancy, the staff would call me in to talk her through her options, even when I wasn’t scheduled on a shift. My fellow physicians didn’t feel comfortable sharing information about abortions.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


I’m Bengali and I’m black –
in the same way that my parents were
Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian, 30 October 2018

Before I was Asian, I was black. No, I haven’t since undergone some Jacko-style operation, or doused myself in Fair & Lovely. Rather, black was one of the terms my family and I used to describe ourselves. I grew up in 80s London, which still echoed with the Anti-Nazi League’s chant of ‘We are black, we are white, together we are dynamite’. At her primary school, my sari-wearing mother was a member of the local NUT black teachers’ caucus. As late as university in the mid-90s, I was handed a black prospectus, featuring action shots of a Punjabi pointing at a noticeboard (sadly, this was to prove an all-too-accurate guide to student entz).

Discussing that period, those terms and the politics with which they were freighted, feels like remembering the era before email: so recent, so different. True, my mother’s old union branch still runs its black teachers section for ‘all teachers who face racism’. But the notion that someone of my background growing up today would refer to themselves as black is, frankly, fantastical.

Now you are black, or you are Asian – a categorical wall has been put up. And on either side of that wall other divisions are hurriedly being erected: you are a Gujarati Hindu from Leicester; he is a Bangladeshi Muslim from Whitechapel; they are Nigerian Christians from Lewisham. And so endlessly on, until you end up with what a sprawl of what A Sivanadan terms ‘cultural enclaves and feuding nationalisms’.

Isn’t this just the inevitable flowering of minor differences in an ever more diverse society? Quite the opposite. ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ identities are just as badly bolted together as anything else. Take that cosy, cliched history of black Britain that begins with the Pathe newsreel of Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury. On which decks would have been the arrivals from Nairobi or Accra? Similarly Britain’s black history month, which ends today, takes its lead from the US – where the celebration began in 1926. But despite being an ‘Asian’, I might have as much in common with a black Trinidadian Hindu whose ancestors came from Uttar Pradesh as with a ‘fellow-Asian’ whose parents hail from Multan, via Luton.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


chinese chang'e-4 poster

The space race is back on – and is China in the lead?
Mary Dejevsky, Guardian, 3 January 2019

At a popular level, space has not lost its power to fascinate. The proximity of the moon and the mystery of its far side guarantee that China’s latest mission will command global attention beyond the scientific space fraternity. It will enhance China’s international standing, and could well inspire an interest in China and space among young people, as the US-Russia space race once did.

The mix of admiration and anxiety that accompanied early Soviet space successes helped prompt the government of the then UK prime minister Harold Wilson to encourage (and fund) Russian teaching in the country’s schools and universities – and is one reason why I, and other Britons of my generation, had the opportunity to study Russian. Today the challenge, the excitement, and to some the perceived threat comes from a rising China – and now not just on planet Earth.

An open question is how far China will be welcomed – or not – into the existing space ‘club’. After the no-holds-barred space rivalry of the US and the Soviet Union that constituted a part of the cold war, the US and Russiahave settled into a more collaborative relationship in space that has largely withstood the worst of diplomatic tensions. The US suspended its space shuttle programme in 2011, but it has continued to send astronauts into space using Russian rockets, and the International Space Station has remained in use as a shared venture. Diplomatic expulsions, accusations of election interference and terrestrial disputes most recently over Ukraine and Syria have not affected cooperation in pursuit of national scientific and security interests in space. Space has remained a sanctions-free zone.

It has taken more than half a century for US-Russia space cooperation to reach this point of relative equanimity, but the arrival of China as a serious player – graphically illustrated by its latest success – has the potential to disturb this. Will Russia, for instance, see China, with its recent successes and innovations, as a future partner in space or a deadly rival? The US – through its long-Sinophobic Congress – seems already to have made up its mind. Not only is it increasingly treating China as an economic and military competitor, but President Donald Trump recently ordered the creation of a new Space Command for the US armed services, suggesting the direction of his thinking here, too.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


The populist specter
Steven Hahn, The Nation, 10 January 2019

The literature of the current moment is a bit reminiscent of the immediate post–World War II era, when historians and political scientists began to construct an idea of the American liberal political tradition and heaped scorn on movements like late 19th-century populism, which they likened to fascism and blamed for the rise of McCarthyism in their own time. Populism, they argued, was backward-looking, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, prone to conspiracy theories, and a product of status anxieties and economic insecurity. Richard Hofstadter, one of the most distinguished historians of the period, not only wrote about populism in this way but also saw it as part of a wider ‘anti-intellectualism in American life’ and a ‘paranoid style in American politics.’ Fears of popular unrest abounded (tied to communism and socialism in particular), while the importance of the ‘vital center’ was proclaimed. It wasn’t until new movements on the left emerged, especially those in pursuit of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, that a more sympathetic reassessment of 19th-century populism gained traction—and that reassessment was soon superseded by growing interest in a new populism of the right, beginning with George Wallace (who mostly goes unmentioned in the books under review, as in many others like them).

Still another meaningful historical perspective is, quite remarkably, ignored by liberal analysts and observers who associate the spread of populism with the recent ‘waves’ of immigration: empire. It is true, of course, that the international circuits of migration causing much of the stress took shape well after decolonization and the Cold War. But it is a mistake to overlook the relationship between Western empire and the longer-term movement of people from colonies and former colonies that has been diversifying the populations of Britain, France, and the Mediterranean for decades. It is also a mistake to overlook how the movement of laborers and their families from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to the United States has been produced, in part, by the US’s domineering presence in the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century and, in part, by its continental conquests during the 19th.

The term ‘globalization’ quite simply obscures the power relations across continents and on the ground that have been producing massive inequalities of income and wealth, while the nationalist responses obscure the global vision and politics that will be necessary to create a more secure and equitable world, especially in the face of climate change. There is a need, that is, for a version of what Henry Wallace prescribed during the Second World War: not just an American New Deal but a global one.

Read the full article in the Nation.


Must writers be moral? Their contracts may require it
Judith Shulevitz, New York Times, 4 January 2019

One writer who did was the fantasy and science-fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last year. When she discovered the morality clause in her HarperCollins contract in 2011, she posted on her blog a satirical letter from a fictional writer confessing sins to Rupert Murdoch, who owns the company: ‘It was nothing really materially damaging, only just the money and I.D. I stole from the old man with the walker and some things I said about some schoolgirls with big tits.’ Please, the letter went on, don’t ‘make me pay back the money because I can’t because I already had to give most of it to some stupid lawyer who said I had defaulted on a loan and was behind on my child support, which is just a lie. That stupid brat was never mine.’

Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard Law School professor who writes regularly for The New Yorker, a Condé Nast magazine, read the small print, too, and thought: ‘No way. I’m not signing that.’ Ms. Gersen, an expert in the laws regulating sexuality, often takes stands that may offend the magazine’s liberal readers, as when she defended Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s rollback of Obama-era rules on campus sexual-assault accusations. When I called Ms. Gersen in November, she said, ‘No person who is engaged in creative expressive activity should be signing one of these.’

It’s not that a company should have to keep on staff a murderer or rapist, she added. But when the trigger for termination could be a Twitter storm or a letter-writing campaign, she said, ‘I think it would have a very significant chilling effect.’

Masha Gessen, another New Yorker writer, also said she wouldn’t sign her new contract, at least not as it was originally worded. Ms. Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who won the 2017 National Book Award for ‘The Future Is History,’ about the return of totalitarianism in post-Communist Russia, has spent her career challenging prevailing nostrums.

Last year, as prominent men fell like bowling pins after being accused of sexual misconduct, Ms. Gessen published columns on the New Yorker website describing the #MeToo movement as an out-of-control ‘moral panic’ bent on policing sexual behavior by mob justice. Needless to say, many readers did not agree. ‘I’m extremely uncomfortable with it,’ Ms. Gessen said about the contract, ‘because I have in the past been vilified on social media.’ Having once been fired from a job as the director of Radio Liberty in Russia after what she called a disinformation campaign, she added, ‘I know what it’s like to lose institutional support when you most need it.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


This age of semiotics is breaking us
Graeme Archer, UnHerd, 4 January 2019

We all do this – imbue meaning to signs – what’s more, we must, because without them you can’t draw a map to navigate life, and without learning the meaning of the signs on the map, you’d just be blundering around in a life-long game of blind man’s buff. Willfully to understand nothing beyond immediate sensation, and never to recall similar sensations from the past, is never to learn from experience.

But it’s gone wrong: a vicious circle has taken hold. Because of the mild correlation between signs and politics, irrelevant facets of our make-up are fashioned into the armour of our caste: signage as tribe. I’ve heard myself in recent years apologising to guests for my diet, not because I worry they’ll dislike lentils, but because of what I fear they’ll infer about my politics.

I’d call this the age of semiotics, and it has terrible consequences. As more and more signs are tribalised, so the deconstruction of signs – semiotics – has become our chief political diagnostic: Pink hair? Vegan? Probably a Corbyn supporter, so probably anti-Semitic. Safely hated. Or: England flag in window? White working-class? Probably a Leave voter, so probably a racist. Safely hated. I haven’t even mentioned the hijab. Or the saltire. It’s like looking at a street sign and deliberately believing that name tells you everything about the infinitely-varied human life on the street itself. Everything…

The solution to this isn’t ‘big’, but it does require courage. Once, in a more innocent time – all of thirty years ago – my father was driving me down Great Western Road to my student digs in Glasgow, and we passed a green-haired girl pushing her bike up from the Kelvin river-path (to feel the city air rush past her body, in the words of the beautiful song.) Isn’t it great, mused my dyed-in-the-wool Conservative father, isn’t it great that there’s a space for everyone to be themselves?

Even at the time I knew he was speaking to me and about me, his newly gay son. My father had the ability to note signs but not to be skewed by them; to see them, but never to assume that life is no more than its visible surface. He never reduced me to the sum of my labels.

Read the full article on UnHerd.


british empire poster

The myth of Brexit as imperial nostalgia
Robert Saunders, Prospect, 7 January 2019

The Brexit debate spoke to deep-rooted ideas about history, identity and loss, none of which could be easily disentangled from Britain’s imperial past. Yet the emphasis on imperial nostalgia, as a core engine of the Leave vote, has been overstated. The Leave campaign brought together a remarkably broad coalition, stretching from George Galloway on the radical left to Nigel Farage on the radical right. Its 17.4m voters constituted the largest electoral alliance ever constructed in Britain, and it would not be difficult, amidst such a cacophony of discordant voices, to find some extolling the merits of empire. Yet we should be wary of erecting this into a general theory, for four key reasons.

First, it carries an obvious polemical charge. The appeal to ‘imperial nostalgia’ marks out the Leave vote as a psychological disorder: a pathology to be diagnosed, rather than an argument with which to engage. It is deployed almost exclusively by Remainers (of whom I am one), whose interests it clearly serves. In the absence of compelling evidence, beyond vague appeals to ‘Global Britain’ and civil-service jokes about ‘Empire 2.0,’ we should be wary of arguments that play so directly to our own political preferences.

Second, such accounts suggest, at least implicitly, that it is only Leave voters who are haunted by the ghosts of Empire. As such, they reduce postcolonialism to something that happens to other people. Yet if we are to take seriously the continuing power of empire, we need a closer attention to its impact across the European debate. As Roy Jenkins grumbled in the 1960s, ministers frequently combined an enthusiasm for the European project with ‘an attachment to imperial commitments worthy of… Joseph Chamberlain, Kitchener of Khartoum and George Nathaniel Curzon.’ For the Labour Foreign Secretary, George Brown, Europe offered a new platform for British leadership: a ‘European bloc which would have same power and influence in the world’ as the former Empire. The Daily Mail celebrated accession in 1971 with the headline, ‘Now we can lead Europe!,’ while the Sun told readers that membership offered ‘an unrepeatable opportunity for a nation that lost an empire to gain a Continent.’ The idea that Britain should lead the EU—widely deployed in 2016—has as strong an imperial heritage as the aspiration to leave it; and in loading membership with unrealistic aspirations, it may have contributed to disillusionment with the European experience. By contrast, the anti-colonial left tended to be hostile to membership, and the idea that Brexit marks a liberation from Britain’s own colonial status—however perverse—has a long history in Eurosceptic thought.

Read the full article in Prospect.


Dangerous minds: the writers hounded by the FBI
Douglas Kennedy, New Statesman, 9 january 2019

Reading through dossier after dossier on 16 American writers contained in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, what strikes you immediately is the terrifying absurdity of Hoover’s obsession with anyone who didn’t follow his patriotic party line and dared to express critical concern about the national psyche in well-written words. Susan Sontag got a big file opened on her for visiting Hanoi during the Vietnam War and speaking out on the bellicose campaign of ‘American intervention’. The African-American sociologist and civil rights advocate, WEB Du Bois, was investigated for being a communist (even though he was known not to be) because he was ‘in sympathy with the Southern Negro Youth Congress’. The FBI agent did mitigate this with the following racist comment – that Du Bois was considered ‘one of the most outstanding and competent negroes in Atlanta’.

As can be gathered, this remarkable volume makes for compulsive and deeply unsettling reading. Compiled by MuckRock, a laudable and important ‘non-profit collaborative news site’, its editors have used the still viable and crucial US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the manifold files which show that even a right-wing true believer such as the infamous Ayn Rand didn’t escape Hoover’s concern – over her ‘vocal atheism’. It is an understatement to say that there was something decidedly Theatre of the Absurd on the FBI’s part in fearing that Truman Capote was a threat to national security for signing a ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ petition (especially given his beau monde predilections).

As you peruse hand-typed classified document after document – frequently with key passages blacked out by the secret powers that be before they were released through the FOIA – you cannot help but marvel at the paranoid insanity of all secret state organisations. Just as the East German Stasi’s aim was ‘to know everything about everyone’, Hoover and his equally compulsive operatives believed that anyone who raised a questioning voice about the blessed American Way of Life was worthy of serious scrutiny.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Earth’s magnetic field is acting up
and geologists don’t know why
Alexandre Witz, Nature, 9 January 2019

Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January, they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. ‘The error is increasing all the time,’ says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.

The problem lies partly with the moving pole and partly with other shifts deep within the planet. Liquid churning in Earth’s core generates most of the magnetic field, which varies over time as the deep flows change. In 2016, for instance, part of the magnetic field temporarily accelerated deep under northern South America and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Satellites such as the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission tracked the shift.

By early 2018, the World Magnetic Model was in trouble. Researchers from NOAA and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh had been doing their annual check of how well the model was capturing all the variations in Earth’s magnetic field. They realized that it was so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors.

Read the full article in Nature.


Spain’s open wounds
Stephania Taladrdid, New Yorker, 10 January 2019

Martín de la Cruz, a reaper, met Faustina López in Pedro Bernardo, a town in the center-west province of Ávila. Flanked by a valley and a mountain range, Pedro Bernardo is known for its vast, picturesque views over the Tiétar River. In September of 1936, barely two months after the military coup that marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Francoist troops occupied the town.

Martín López’s parents were not especially political, but they had wed, in 1921, in a discreet civil ceremony in France, and they upset Catholic sensibilities by refusing to remarry before the Church in Spain. On September 20th, while Martín de la Cruz hid in a town north of Pedro Bernardo, Francoist vigilantes detained his wife and two other women in the local girls’ school, shaved their heads, and paraded them naked around the town. At the time, Martín López was six years old. The last memory she has of her mother’s abduction is of her older sister trying to prevent it and being pushed aside by a member of the Civil Guard with the stock of his rifle. A day later, the remains of two women and four men were found on a roadside a few miles away from her home, by a tributary that flows into the river. As the two sisters waited for their father’s return, in the care of an aunt, they were forced to expiate the sins of their deceased mother. For several years after, vigilantes often disciplined Martín López with a dose of six chili peppers and half a liter of castor oil, a noxious laxative. Every now and then, she found herself running from a throat-slitting gesture or a gun-wielding guard.

During those years, Martín López refused to disclose any details about her suffering, or about her mother’s murderers, many of whose children attended school with her. Only silence would guard her family from another loss, she thought. When the war came to an end, in the spring of 1939, and Francoist troops emerged victorious, the murder of Martín López’s mother was relegated to a buried chapter in history. Francisco Ferrándiz, a cultural anthropologist working with the Spanish National Research Council, has described the treatment of Franco’s victims as a ‘funerary apartheid,’ manifest in the more than two thousand mass graves scattered across Spain.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


luttrell psalter, 14th century, british library

Why a medieval woman had lapis lazuli
hidden in her teeth
Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, 9 Januaru 2019

What Anita Radini noticed under the microscope was the blue—a brilliant blue that seemed so unnatural, so out of place in the 1,000-year-old dental tartar she was gently dissolving in weak acid.

It was ultramarine, she would later learn, a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts.

Who was that person? A woman, first of all. According to radiocarbon dating, she lived around 997 to 1162, and she was buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. And so these embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.

If pigments can be preserved in tartar—the gunky yellow stuff on teeth that dental plaque hardens into—that means that fibers, metals, and other dyes could be, too. ‘This is genuinely a big deal,’ says Mark Clarke, a technical art historian at Nova University Lisbon who was not involved in the new study. You could imagine identifying metalworkers, carpenters, and other artisans from the particles embedded in tartar, Clarke says. ‘It’s opening up a new avenue in archaeology.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


Michel Houellebecq hated Europe before you did
Robert Zaretsky, Foreign Policy, 5 January 2019

Yet crane your head above this mix of misogyny and misanthropy and you might catch an unsparing and unsettling view of the social fractures widening on both sides of the Atlantic. Christened in the German magazine Der Spiegel as ‘our era’s poet‘ and the French journal Challenges as the ‘ethnologist of the West’s decline,’ Houellebecq seems to channel the discontents not just of those relegated to our social peripheries, but also to the well-educated elites hunkered down in the metropoles. Herein lies another, though elusive fracture: While the peripheries are subject to a material mal à vivre, or hard life, the metropoles are spiritually mal à l’aise, or ill at ease.

For Houellebecq, both sides of this divide are symptomatic of a yet another mal—namely, a mal du siècle. The phrase, coined in the early 19th century and popularized by the poet and politician François-René de Chateaubriand, pointed to the disillusion and disappointment that afflicted Europe’s literary avant-garde at the time. This odd malady resulted, in part, from the rise of science and technology and decline in traditional social roles and rituals. In a sense, this is also true in its current version, but our seemingly parlous condition is now measured by real or perceived threats to the collective identity of a nation. In the diagnosis made last month by the French budget minister, Gérald Darmanin, France has been seized by an ‘identity crisis.’ It is as if France itself risks becoming one vast Front de Seine suffering from terminal anomie.

If there is something vaguely Spenglerian to all of this, it is because it is Spenglerian. An admirer of the author of the pessimistic and potted Decline of the West, Houellebecq was last year’s recipient of the Oswald Spengler Society Prize. According to the organization’s director, all of Houellebecq’s writings are ‘characterized by the intense pain of a society reaching its end without knowing how to defend itself.’

Defend itself against what or whom? Elementary, my dear reader: the European Union. In his acceptance speech, Houellebecq declared he was less interested in the decline of the West than in its murder. By bringing its member states under a single set of laws, the EU ‘assassinated’ them, Houellebecq concluded. To be sure, Houellebecq has never made a secret of his hatred for Brussels and all that it represents. As early as 1992, when France held a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, Houellebecq voted against it; as recently as in this month’s Harper’s magazine, he praised U.S. President Donald Trump for his hostility toward the EU. In fact, Houellebecq mixed the banal and bizarre in his observations on America’s president. He declared that Trump thinks that Europeans ‘don’t have a lot in common, especially not ‘values’; and I call this fortunate, because, what values? ‘Human rights’? Seriously?’

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.


When it comes to intelligence,
do schools and parents make a difference?
Payal Lal, Medium, 20 December 2018

Ultimately I think Plomin’s message is a little sneaky. By focusing on variability in intelligence, which contains a genetic component, Plomin distances himself from the historical and social contributions to intelligence, which are vastly larger, more environmentally controllable, and of greater significance.

Plomin admits that social changes will impact intelligence in ways that genetic studies will not detect. Genetic studies won’t detect the impact of social change because social change lifts everybody upwards in similar ways, and genetic studies can only find effects relating to how people differ. Genetic studies cannot find effects relating to how people are the same. What genetic studies fail to detect, therefore, is the bulk of what makes us similar and similarly intelligent. Sharing a common national language, for example, means that people can more easily share in a common national story and share in the political, cultural, and scientific advances that will be part of that story. But sharing a common national language is relatively new in human history. At the time of the French Revolution, for example, only half the French population spoke French, and only 12–13 percent spoke it well. More recently, after Singapore became independent, Lee Kuan Yew constructed a language policy to unite Singaporeans. He used English as a tool of social cohesion to unite a country made up of Chinese, Malay and Indian peoples. English was the platform for common government, shared social interaction, and a common, equitable school education.

The Singaporean school system was radically reformed after 1965 so that Singaporean children could catch up with levels of literacy and numeracy already achieved in other modern industrialised countries. In the early 1970s, less than half the pupils entering primary grade in Singapore went on to secondary grade. Today, approaching 90% of Singaporeans have a post-secondary education. Raffles Junior College in Singapore ranks number one for the highest number of offers to attend Cambridge and is consistently one of the top feeder colleges for attendance at Oxford, Cambridge and the US Ivy League. Dramatic improvements in the living standards of Singaporeans has also freed parents to provide the kind of physically and mentally supportive home environment that can enable their children to benefit from education. All those social changes, school reforms, and parental inputs will benefit Singaporean children similarly and so will be missed by Plomin in his hunt for genetic influence on variation in intelligence. That’s why Plomin can say that schools and parents matter, but they don’t make difference.

That message is sneaky because when we read that genes are important for intelligence we tend not to separate the average level of intelligence from the variation in intelligence, and we tend to assume that genes are somehow dictating intelligence per se rather than just influencing the variation in intelligence. In the quote above, for example, Plomin states that ‘DNA is the most important factor in making us who we are’ — who we are rather than variation in who we are. Plomin makes a mistake in eliding the person with the variation in personal characteristics. The mistake is a serious one. Who you are is massively dependent on when and where you were born, and much less dependent on your genes.

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Read the full article in Medium.


The periodic table is an icon.
But chemists still can’t agree on how to arrange it
Sam Lemonick, Chemical & Engineering News, 7 January 2019

One hundred fifty years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published his system for neatly arranging the elements, the periodic table it gave birth to hangs in every chemistry classroom in the world and is one of the field’s most recognizable symbols. But the solid squares and familiar patterns of today’s table mask one of its fundamental characteristics: ‘the’ periodic table does not exist.

It’s been mutable from the beginning. Not only has it grown as new elements have been discovered; it has also added columns and changed shape as we’ve gained new understanding of the elements’ properties and their relationships to one another. And scientists are still debating its optimum configuration.

Some believe chemical properties should dictate how the elements line up on the periodic table. Others think a more fundamental principle is needed, like electronic configuration or simply atomic number. Partisans are clashing over which elements belong in group 3, where helium should go, and how many columns the periodic table should have. They follow a long line of chemists and physicists who have worked and reworked the elements into a semblance of order. ‘What I find interesting about the current debate is there are people who insist on there being one right table,’ says Michael D. Gordin, a Princeton University historian who has written about Mendeleev, Julius Lothar Meyer, and other creators of early periodic tables. ‘It would have struck people like Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer as weird.’

Gordin says the periodic table pioneers understood their tables to be a reflection of natural laws but recognized that different tables could represent those laws in different ways. That might be hard to imagine for those of us used to seeing the familiar shape of the table on our coffee mug or shower curtain…

What made Mendeleev’s table special was his recognition that the periodic system was strong enough to predict undiscovered elements, which he left holes for, and even their properties. Lothar Meyer was independently working on an almost identical table, but Mendeleev beat him to publication by a few months and secured his place in history.

One can trace today’s controversies over how the periodic table should look to the discovery of quantum mechanics and atomic numbers. Mendeleev ostensibly organized his table by increasing atomic weight, but he gave chemical properties a deciding vote. For example, tellurium is slightly heavier than iodine, but Mendeleev put tellurium first because it has the same valence as oxygen, sulfur, and other elements in its group. Tables have retained that ordering. Mendeleev didn’t know that tellurium has one fewer proton—and thus is one atomic number less—than iodine, which explains why they each belong where they do. ‘When you get atomic number, it provides logic’ to the periodic table, Gordin says.

Read the full article in Chemical & Engineering News.


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