Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #52

web 52

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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Martin Luther King Jr
and the meaning of emancipation

Asad Haider, n+1, 18 January 2019

The contemporary betrayal of King lives on in the suppression of this voice of intransigence, and the reduction, by liberals and conservatives alike, of King to an empty symbol. Reagan’s neutralization of his politics is repeated, year after year, in the purple prose of politicians who seek an icon for the transfiguration of business as usual.

Partly to refute this decades-long betrayal, many contemporary scholars have focused on King’s apparent turn from the democratic and reformist dream of the March on Washington to a radical and internationalist vision. This is epitomized in King’s speech ‘A Time To Break the Silence’ on April 4, 1967, delivered exactly a year before his assassination. Distancing himself from his mainstream political allies, King announced his opposition to the Vietnam War and recognized the legitimacy of ‘a revolutionary government seeking self-determination’ in Vietnam, declaring his solidarity with global movements against colonialism: ‘All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.’ The remaining year of King’s life revolved around the Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes that while planning the Poor People’s March in Washington, DC, King ‘called for extralegal protests not aimed at undoing unjust laws but in the name of political and economic demands that represented the interests of the majority. In Memphis, during the sanitation workers strike in 1968, he called for a general strike to shut down the entire city.’

King was not the empty symbol Reagan and others claimed he was. He was a revolutionary, if one committed to nonviolence. But nonviolence does not exhaust his philosophy. As political theorist Brandon M. Terry puts it, King was not only an icon, but ‘a vital political thinker.’ A half a century ago, Terry argues, King theorized the foundations of racism in a way that vastly surpasses the fashionable contemporary ideologies that ‘treat racism as near-immutable and overstate its explanatory effects.’ As Terry points out, King understood that the racial question was overdetermined by wage stagnation, the declining power of organized labor, and the expulsion of workers from employment by automation. King had come to believe that transforming this structural injustice could only be achieved through mass civil disobedience.

As a theorist of inequality, King is our contemporary. But he was also a philosopher of equality, and thus of emancipation. At the core of his thought one finds the political subjectivity that the civil rights struggle was helping to engender. Important as his final year was, the radical outlines of this project are visible from 1955 to 1963, as King was drawn deeper into political activism and answered the call to engage in a political sequence that exceeded the boundaries of the existing situation.

Read the full article in n+1.


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Panic is on the agenda at Davos –
but it’s too little too late

Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian, 23 January 2019

Pity the poor billionaire, for today he feels a new and unsettling emotion: fear. The world order he once clung to is crumbling faster than the value of the pound. In its place, he frets, will come chaos. Remember this, as the plutocrats gather this week high above us in the ski resort of Davos: they are terrified.

Whatever dog-eared platitudes they may recycle for the TV cameras, what grips them is the havoc far below. Just look at the new report from the summit organisers that begins by asking plaintively, “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” In the accompanying survey of a thousand bosses, money men (because finance, like wealth, is still mainly a male thing) and other “Davos decision-makers”, nine out of 10 say they fear a trade war or other “economic confrontation between major powers”. Most confess to mounting anxieties about “populist and nativist agendas” and “public anger against elites”. As the cause of this political earthquake, they identify two shifting tectonic plates: climate change and “increasing polarisation of societies”.

In its pretend innocence, its barefaced blame-shifting, its sheer ruddy sauce, this is akin to arsonists wailing about the flames from their own bonfire. Populism of all stripes may be anathema to the billionaire class, but they helped create it. For decades, they inflicted insecurity on the rest of us and told us it was for our own good. They have rigged an economic system so that it paid them bonanzas and stiffed others. They have lobbied and funded politicians to give them the easiest of rides. Topped with red Maga caps and yellow vests, this backlash is uglier and more uncouth than anything you’ll see in the snow-capped Alps, but the high rollers meeting there can claim exec producer credits for the whole rotten lot. Shame it’s such a downer for dividends.

This week’s report from Oxfam is just the latest to put numbers to this hoarding of wealth and power. One single minibus-load of fatcats – just 26 people – now own as much as half the planet’s population, and the collective wealth of the billionaire class swells by $2.5bn every day. This economic polarisation is far more obscene than anything detested by Davos man, and it is the root cause of the social and political divide that now makes his world so unstable.

No natural force created this intense unfairness. The gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us did not gape wide open overnight. Rather, it has been decades in the widening and it was done deliberately. The UK was the frontline of the war to create greater inequality: in her first two terms as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher more than halved the top rate of income tax paid by high earners. She broke the back of the trade unions. Over their 16 years in office, Thatcher and John Major flogged off more public assets than France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia and Canada put together.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Is big tech merging with big brother?
Kinda looks like it
David Samuels, Wired, 23 January 2019

The machines and systems that the techno-monopolists have built are changing us faster than they or we understand. The scale of this change is so vast and systemic that we simple humans can’t do the math—perhaps in part because of the way that incessant smartphone use has affected our ability to pay attention to anything longer than 140 or 280 characters.

As the idea of a “right to privacy,” for example, starts to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the face of ever-more-invasive data systems—whose eyes and ears, i.e., our smartphones, follow us everywhere—so has our belief that other individual rights, like freedom of speech, are somehow sacred.

Being wired together with billions of other humans in vast networks mediated by thinking machines is not an experience that humans have enjoyed before. The best guides we have to this emerging reality may be failed 20th-century totalitarian experiments and science fiction. More on that a little later.

The speed at which individual-rights-and-privacy-based social arrangements collapse is likely to depend on how fast Big Tech and the American national security apparatus consummate a relationship that has been growing ever closer for the past decade. While US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—as far as we know, anyway—there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.

These troubling trends are accelerating in part because Big Tech is increasingly beholden to Washington, which has little incentive to kill the golden goose that is filling its tax and political coffers. One of the leading corporate spenders on lobbying services in Washington, DC, in 2017 was Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent more than $18 million. Lobbying Congress and government helps tech companies like Google win large government contracts. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as a shield against attempts to regulate their wildly lucrative businesses.

If anything, measuring the flood of tech dollars pouring into Washington, DC, law firms, lobbying outfits, and think tanks radically understates Big Tech’s influence inside the Beltway. By buying The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos took direct control of Washington’s hometown newspaper. In locating one of Amazon’s two new headquarters in nearby Northern Virginia, Bezos made the company a major employer in the area—with 25,000 jobs to offer.

Read the full article in Wired.


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Free speech is a left-wing value
Chip Gibbons, Jacobin, 9 January 2019

Perversely, today’s judicial reactionaries have co-opted the First Amendment for a Lochner-like deregulatory agenda. Striking down everything from campaign finance laws to public sector bargaining fees, the First Amendment is quickly becoming a weapon for the Right. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Weinrib has argued that while elites may have at first have been hostile to civil liberties, they came to accept them as they saw how civil liberties could be partially refashioned to serve their own ends.

Today’s merger of First Amendment jurisprudence with economic liberalism comes at a time when some on the Left have soured on stringent free speech protections, especially on issues like hate speech. But weakening free speech rights will come back to haunt the Left — providing our opponents tools to silence us. The Left needs free speech. And the juxtaposition between today’s First Amendment Lochnerism and the radical aims of early civil libertarians shows that free speech also needs the Left.

The labor agitators, anticapitalists, and antimilitarists who made up the ranks of the early civil liberties movement did so because their survival depended on it. They understood that the battles for free speech rights were connected to the wider movement struggling for a more just world. Today’s civil liberties advocates often seem divorced from this struggle for radical change, making free speech at times seem soulless.

The radical vision of civil liberties presents an antidote to the modern day Lochnerites’ co-option of free speech rhetoric. Early radicals viewed both employers’ and the state’s assaults on workers’ right to agitate for better conditions as civil liberties deprivations. While judicial reactionaries may cloak their actions in the language of the First Amendment, weakening public sector unions or allowing corporate money to overrun elections are defeats for free expression. And with so much of our modern-day public forum existing on private social media platforms, we need a free speech advocacy that recognizes the tyranny of the market as an equal threat to free expression as state repression.

Such a radical vision of free speech doesn’t have much grounding in case precedent. It certainly won’t find many friends on our business-friendly Supreme Court. But when early civil libertarians set out to redefine free speech, they faced the same obstacles. And as the fight to free Debs one hundred years ago shows, powerful social movements for a more democratic world can alter history.

Read the full article in Jacobin.


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Shut up and write
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
New Statesman, 9 January 2019

And so to be a Nigerian writer published in what we call the West is to be a repository of both pride and suspicion. It is to be scrutinised for the right kind of African representation. You are required to perform the rituals. You are required to bow to the expectations of citizenship.

Once, years ago, I discussed this question with a Senegalese friend, a brilliant academic historian. He told me quite simply, ‘You no longer belong to yourself.’

And what he meant was that by making the choice to write and publish realistic fiction about a place like Nigeria, I have become, to many people from where I come from, a part representing a whole. There are now expectations of citizenship that come with my writing.

But on whose terms do I no longer belong to myself?

And that is why that question I was asked, ‘Are you an African Writer?’, was not about geography but about loyalty.

And my answer was ‘No’.

I have no objection at all to being African, in fact it is all I know how to be and so I cannot possibly be anything else. And so my answer to the question ‘Are you an African Writer?’ was no, and not because I am not proudly African – because I most certainly am, and the idea, by the way, of being proudly anything, of linking pride and identity, is a preoccupation of people who are inhabitants of the periphery; if you are in the centre, you have the automatic privilege of not needing to declare your pride, because your place in the world has never been in question.

‘Are you an African Writer?’

I said no because I have increasingly been troubled by the subtle and not-so-subtle constraints that the question implies.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


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gerard sekoto senegalese women

The dangers of NGO-isation of women’s rights in Africa
Hala Al-Karib, Al Jazeera, 13 December 2018

By the 1980s and 1990s, the collapse of trade unions and privatisation led to, among other things, polarisation and armed conflicts across the region – exacerbating the problems faced by vulnerable women.

Those who were forced to adjust – commonly by migrating to urban centres and across borders in search of alternative work – assumed any form of livelihood available to them, such as vending, domestic work, petty trading and low-paid service jobs.

Subsequently, the women’s movement lost its collective power. Women lost their solidarity, their connection to each other and most significantly and sadly, their capacity to engage in politics collectively because they had been uprooted, displaced and polarised.

The civil space in the Horn of Africa is now fully occupied by NGOs. For the past 40 years, we have been living in times of what I regard as ‘the NGO-isation of civil space’, where the language and rhetoric of gender equality is mostly generated by international NGOs. The challenge of NGO-isation is that it is predominantly subject to the imagination, assumptions, and interest of Northern funding institutions and their surrogates.

For example, challenging female genital mutilation (FGM) has been a priority issue that dominated the work on women’s human rights across the Horn of Africa for over 40 years – meaning that to be an activist for women’s rights and gender equality, one is obligated to work on and speak out about FGM – constructing a distorted view of what it means to be a women’s rights activist and institution.

This has occurred despite the fact that women in this region have a long history of political and social struggle, which endures to this day. Yet most Northern institutions reduce women’s rights and violations against women to a one-dimensional fight against FGM.

Read the full article in Al Jazeera.


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No escape from Hell
Human Rights Watch, 21 January 2019

Senior EU officials are aware of the plight facing migrants detained in Libya. In November 2017, EU migration commissioner, Dimitri Avramopoulos, said, ‘We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.’  He and other senior EU officials have repeatedly asserted that the EU wants to improve conditions in Libyan detention in recognition of grave and widespread abuses. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with detainees, detention center staff, Libyan officials, and humanitarian actors revealed that EU efforts to improve conditions and treatment in official detention centers have had a negligible impact.

Instead, European Union (EU) migration cooperation with Libya is contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse. The EU is providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard to enable it to intercept migrants and asylum seekers at sea after which they take them back to Libya to arbitrary detention, where they face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.

Since 2016, the EU has intensified efforts to prevent boat departures from Libya. EU policy-makers and leaders justify this focus as a political and practical necessity to assert control over Europe’s external borders and ‘break the business model of smugglers,’ as well as a humanitarian imperative to prevent dangerous boat migration. In reality, the externalization approach has the effect of avoiding the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territory by outsourcing migration control.

EU institutions and member states have poured millions of euros into programs to beef up the capacity of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord—one of two competing authorities in Libya, and one whose power rests largely on fungible alliances with militias and no real control over territory—to intercept boats leaving Libya and detain those intercepted in detention centers where they face appalling conditions. Italy—the EU country where the majority of migrants departing Libya arrive—has taken the lead in providing material and technical assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard and abdicated virtually all responsibility for coordination of rescue operations at sea in a bid to limit the number of people arriving on its shores.

Read the full report by Human Rights Watch.


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The plight of the political convert
Corey Robin, New Yorker, 23 January 2019

The ex-Communist didn’t merely defect. He created the modern right, clearing a path for others, not just Communists and leftists, to follow. Twentieth-century conservatism is unthinkable without Chambers or Burnham or Irving Kristol, who, despite leaving the left, remained loyal to its imagination. They transmuted its energy into a movement that found traction in magazines like the National Review or journals like The Public Interest and, eventually, a home in the White House. The same goes for Frank Meyer, the ex-Communist intellectual who devised the Republican strategy of fusionism, which enabled free-market libertarians to ally with social traditionalists and statist Cold War warriors. In this way, the right has often relied on the kindness of strangers.

Though Burke launched his political career decades before left and right emerged as terms of political discourse—that happened only with the French Revolution—he spent much of his time in Parliament a committed reformer, inveighing against the suffering of the Irish and the Catholics, the American colonists and the colonized Indians, and slaves throughout the Americas. From that intimate knowledge of the reformer’s sensibility, he was able to craft a right that might lure liberty-minded defectors from the left. When he took aim at the Revolution, he knew where to shoot.

Curiously, the movement from right to left has never played an equivalent role in modern politics. Not only are there fewer converts in that direction, but those conversions haven’t plowed as fertile a field as their counterparts have. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been a handful of notable defections from the right: Arianna Huffington, Michael Lind, Bruce Bartlett, Glenn Loury, and, in Britain, John Gray. They’ve had virtually no effect on the left. The best the convert from the right can do, it seems, is say goodbye to his comrades and make his way across enemy lines…

Counter-revolution critically depends upon revolution. As much as it reacts to the left, so does the right learn from the left. The reason counter-revolutionaries tend to be older than revolutionaries—Chambers, Burnham, and the rest were well into their thirties, if not their forties and fifties, when they broke with the left—is that acquiring an intimacy with revolution takes time. To make that right turn, at least with any precision or efficacy, you have to have been around the block a few times. But that’s not true of revolution. Revolutions don’t react to or borrow; for better or worse, they create an untried form. They have no need for defectors, no need to turn the other side. As Hannah Arendt taught us, they always begin something new.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


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Tyranny of the algorithm: how Uber
replaced one exploitative boss with another
James Farrar, New Statesman, 17 January 2019

Uber insists that drivers are completely free to refuse jobs, but the current cancellation policy is unambiguous:

‘Uber reserves the right to enforce a breach of your contractual agreements or restrict access to the platform if you are found to be in breach of the cancellation policy.’

This policy is enforced through soft nudges on the app. I received messages such as:

‘Your confirmation rate is based on the percentage of trip requests you confirm. High rates don’t affect your account but often mean shorter waiting times.’ 

The message, from a driver’s perspective, is clear – take the work you are given, or you may find the quality and quantity of the work subsequently offered starts to deteriorate. This sets up a dilemma for a jobbing driver. Should I accept a job 24 minutes away that might just yield me just £4 for an elapsed time from dispatch to finish of 45 minutes? Or risk having the algorithm slowly start to make me a ‘starved driver’?…

Uber sends drivers constant warnings about the illegality of using a mobile phone while driving. Yet its own messaging system pressures drivers to interact with the app while driving to confirm the next job while still on the current one. The message says:

‘you recently missed requests that came in during other rides. Next time accept the request…’

Perhaps the biggest nudge of all is Uber’s dynamic pricing, more commonly known as ‘the surge’. At times of high demand, Uber increases the price by two or three times. It argues that this is the best way to ensure any customer can access a car.

In reality, what happens on a typical Saturday night is a cat and mouse game between the driver and customer. Drivers log out until the surge comes on, and then they log in. But customers are increasingly conditioned to wait, knowing the surge will soon pass. When the surge falls away the drivers log out again. Uber takes a dim view of such driver behaviour, which it describes as ’gaming the surge’, a disciplinary offence.

While Uber paints itself as a Randian poster child of the free market, free economic choice is denied to the drivers it insists are sovereign. This goes to the heart of Uber’s dysfunctional relationship with drivers – it wants complete power over workers but none of the attendant responsibilities.

This double standard is reflected in government, too. At a 2018 Demos forum on the gig economy, Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, declared herself to be ‘an Uber riding, Deliveroo eating, Airbnb-ing freedom fighter for the gig economy’. I asked her if she would honour the current legal position, as established in law and confirmed by the judgement against Uber, that platform workers should be guaranteed the minimum wage for every hour logged on. She dodged, diverted and waffled but never answered. It would seem the minister’s fight for freedom in the gig economy doesn’t extend to the freedom for workers to earn the minimum wage and be protected by employment law.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


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Postcolonial theory and the strong arm of identity
Wahbie Long, Africa is a Country, 26 November 2018

But there is a second problem with the term decolonization: it seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of colonizer and colonized, white and black become impossible to displace. If we are committed to a nonracial future as enshrined in our constitution, it is difficult to imagine how that can ever be realized for as long as we continue to reify—and weaponize—certain highly contentious markers of social difference. I am of course speaking about race, for despite the common sense that it is a social construction, some of us continue to assert the value of strategic essentialism. It cannot be denied that racism remains an integral part of lived experience in South Africa, but it has to be distinguished from race, which, again, has no external referent.

Postcolonial theory proceeds from the premise of social difference, an insistence that underpins its trademark critiques of Eurocentrism, colonial ideology and economic determinism (Chibber, 2013). The result is an abiding suspicion of grand theory and a corresponding focus on marginality, alterity, and particularity instead. Inevitably, identity becomes the basis for political mobilization as the possibility for universal comradeship slowly disintegrates.

The influence of postcolonial theory on student movements in South Africa has been substantial. Unwilling to frame their struggle in terms of the universal values of dignity, security and equality, protestors have opted for the particulars of white privilege and black pain, practicing a form of identity politics that is unmistakably middle-class. Trapped in a self-referential form of protest, certain narcissism has set in, as self-styled radicals reveal a decidedly un-radical preoccupation with their own bourgeois destinies. Whereas the May 1968 generation pursued causes that extended far beyond the confines of the academy, to date our students have shown little interest in backing the causes of the South African majority—most of whom will never set foot inside a university. Young people who are functionally illiterate and virtually unemployable have no interest in decolonizing consciousness let alone in resurrecting the past glories of the color black.

I am not attempting to disavow or trivialize the lived experiences of protesting students. What they perceive more than anything is an acute sense of dislocation—a feeling of otherness that is the fate of anyone entering an institutional space that is deeply alienating. But these psychological concerns must be recognized for what they are, namely, an emergent elite’s struggle for a coherent sense of self, rather than a movement for radical social change. The future of South Africa does not depend on the middle class—black or white. It depends on the millions of South Africans whose terminal state of wretchedness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for revolution.

Read the full article in Africa is a Country.


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skull from prehistoric burial site near teouma bay, vanuatu david maurice smith:new york times

Is ancient DNA research revealing new truths —
or falling into old traps?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, New York Times, 17 January 2019

There thus reigns, in the world of ancient DNA, an atmosphere of intense suspicion, anxiety and paranoia, among archaeologists and geneticists alike. In dozens of interviews with practitioners of both disciplines, almost everyone requested anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. Many archaeologists described a ‘smash and grab’ culture in which hopeful co-authors source their bones by any means necessary. Among teams at work on any given excavation, it takes only a single colleague to deliver a bone to one of the industrial giants for the entire group to lose control of their findings. Museums, too, are being swept up by the perverse incentives: One of the geneticists told me stories about having brokered an agreement to sample a particular collection, only to arrive and discover that someone else showed up the previous day to claim the same bones under a false pretense. The weaker the institutions of the country, the harder it is for local researchers to have a fighting chance. Scientists in Turkey and Mexico told me that museum curators routinely had to explain that they had promised their native bone collections elsewhere. As one ancient-DNA researcher in Turkey put it to me, ‘Certain geneticists see the rest of world as the 19th-century colonialists saw Africa — as raw-material opportunities and nothing else.’

(Reich, Krause and Paabo strenuously denied the characterization of their labs as colluding in a manner that harms competitors. Krause noted that his lab employs students and scientists from 30 nations and supports foreign researchers. Reich commented via email: ‘The fact that the substantial majority of the world’s human ancient DNA data has been produced by a small number of laboratories is not because of any special access to samples, but rather because of the high quality of work these laboratories deliver.’)

It has not gone unnoticed that the stunning, magisterial sweep of genetic revisionism, on the one hand, and a genetic emphasis on radical prehistoric migrations, on the other, bear more than a little in common. Some anthropologists and archaeologists accept this analogy with gallows humor. One told me that I should model this article after the format of the standard Nature paper: ‘Ancient DNA Reveals Massive Population Turnovers in the Humanities,’ she suggested as a title, and proposed this as an abstract: ‘The aristocratic lab scientists arrived with their superior technology and displaced the pre-existing researchers and their primitive truth-implements and overcomplicated belief systems.’

Others saw less to laugh at. Some archaeologists who had collaborated on the 2015 paper about Indo-European invasions withdrew their names to protest conclusions they saw as echoes of Kossinna — the mass migrations of advanced Indo-Europeans into Central Europe. (Reich got the critics back on board by adding a note, on Page 138 of their paper’s 141-page supplementary materials, that said their work in fact contradicted Kossinna, not because he was wrong about mass migration but on a technicality: The European ancestral homeland had, in fact, been far to the east, near the Caucasus and nowhere near present-day Germany.) The analogue was hard to counter. Geneticists had indeed swept down from their laboratory enclaves to extend their sovereignty over what had always been the terrain of archaeology. And no single individual had as much influence or power as Reich.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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The exaggerated promise of
so-called unbiased data mining
Gary Smith, Wired, 11 January 2019

A Dartmouth graduate student used an MRI machine to study the brain activity of a salmon as it was shown photographs and asked questions. The most interesting thing about the study was not that a salmon was studied, but that the salmon was dead. Yep, a dead salmon purchased at a local market was put into the MRI machine, and some patterns were discovered. There were inevitably patterns—and they were invariably meaningless.

In 2018, a Yale economics professor and a graduate student calculated correlations between daily changes in Bitcoin prices and hundreds of other financial variables. They found that Bitcoin prices were positively correlated with stock returns in the consumer goods and health care industries, and that they were negatively correlated with stock returns in the fabricated products and metal mining industries. ‘We don’t give explanations,’ the professor said, ‘we just document this behavior.’ In other words, they may as well have looked at correlations of Bitcoin prices with hundreds of lists of telephone numbers and reported the highest correlations.

The director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab authored (or coauthored) more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and wrote two popular books, which were translated into more than 25 languages.

In a 2016 blog post titled ‘The Grad Student Who Never Said No,’ he wrote about a PhD student who had been given data collected at an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet.

Email correspondence surfaced in which the professor advised the graduate student to separate the diners into ‘males, females, lunch goers, dinner goers, people sitting alone, people eating with groups of 2, people eating in groups of 2+, people who order alcohol, people who order soft drinks, people who sit close to buffet, people who sit far away, and so on…’ Then she could look at different ways in which these subgroups might differ: ‘# pieces of pizza, # trips, fill level of plate, did they get dessert, did they order a drink, and so on…’

He concluded that she should ‘work hard, squeeze some blood out of this rock.’ By never saying no, the student got four papers (now known as the ‘pizza papers’) published with the Cornell professor as a coauthor. The most famous paper reported that men eat 93 percent more pizza when they eat with women. It did not end well. In September 2018, a Cornell faculty committee concluded that he had ‘committed academic misconduct in his research.’ He resigned, effective the following June.

Good research begins with a clear idea of what one is looking for and expects to find. Data mining just looks for patterns and inevitably finds some.

Read the full article in Wired.


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

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.

Martín López’s story – and those of many victims of Franco’s regime – have been captured in the documentary ‘The Silence of Others,’ which was produced by Pedro Almodóvar and shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. The idea for the film emerged when its directors, Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, watched the scandal over thousands of children who were abducted during Franco’s dictatorship unfold. The topic resonated strongly with Carracedo and Bahar, who were first-time parents, and they moved to Madrid to work on the project. ‘We wanted to spark a conversation anew, because the common view is that these are trite subjects and that we need to move on,’ Carracedo told me. ‘But so many people are suffering because they can’t forget, and they cannot be forced to forget.’

The hope to restore historical memory is, in many ways, a response to the Franco regime’s appropriation of the past. For decades after the Civil War, children were taught that the 1936 coup was justified; later on, the notion that both sides were equally to blame for the war’s atrocities gained ground. (The conflict claimed an estimated five hundred thousand lives.) Even today, historical reckoning is often seen as an undesirable subject, inciting resentment and sorrow. For the most part, Spanish governments have remained on the sidelines of these debates, although Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, who became Prime Minister last June, has pledged to redeem the memory of the vanquished. Until he does, testimonies such as those presented in ‘The Silence of Others’ constitute a plea against inaction. The film raises ‘a human-rights question,’ Bahar told me. ‘What is the reason, in a democracy with forty years of trajectory behind it, that María Martín cannot exhume her mother’s remains?’

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


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Egos and experiments
Andrew Scull, TLS, 15 January 2019

Gina Perry, author of a previous book on the Milgram experiments, has now resurrected another study of this type, known in the psychology textbook marketplace as the Robbers’ Cave experiment. Designed by the Turkish-born, Harvard-trained psychologist Muzafer Sherif, and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, it was carried out almost a decade before Milgram got to work. It turned out that a large, unexploited collection of Sherif’s papers survived at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at Akron, Ohio, and, using these materials, supplemented by interviews with such participants in the experiment as she could find, Perry has tried to reconstruct what happened, and to decide what we should make of it. One of the things Perry has found is that Sherif had conducted two studies, the first one hidden away and unpublished, the second the famous Robbers’ Cave experiment.

Psychologists continue to embrace Sherif’s findings, giving them the label of ‘realistic conflict theory’. His first study, undertaken just outside Middle Grove in New York State, is the one that has hitherto been buried and forgotten. Sherif spoke little about it, and published less, probably because his first effort to ‘prove’ his theory ended in chaos and disappointment. He had gathered together a group of eleven-year-old boys in what purported to be a summer camp, allowed them to make friends, split them into two groups, the ‘Eagles’ and the ‘Rattlers’, that ripped apart nascent friendships, and then had them compete for prizes. The result, he hoped, would be to create enmities and savage conflicts, which he then would show resolved themselves when the two groups faced common danger: a forest fire he planned to set

Mercifully, the fire never happened, because the experiment collapsed long before that. For example, the baseball team that benefited from obviously biased umpiring responded by calling out ‘kill the umpire’. And when the men in charge deliberately damaged the possessions of one group, the supposed offenders swore on the Bible that they had nothing to do with it, and were believed. ‘The only enduring resentment among [the losing group in the staged competition] was against the staff.’ The boys resolutely refused to follow the script, and Sherif was forced to retire from the fray and lick his wounds. But there was a problem: the Rockefeller Foundation had invested the equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds in Sherif’s work, and would eventually expect him to report on what he had done with the money. When the Foundation enquired about his results, Sherif prevaricated. But eventually, he knew, there would be a reckoning. So the following summer, with the small amount of funding he had left, Sherif repaired to the wilds of Oklahoma and set about creating the findings he needed to satisfy his sponsors.

Read the full article in TLS.


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Border walls are big business –
and not just in Trump’s America
TM Brown, Fast Company, 17 January 2019

We’re currently in the middle of a golden era for border wall contractors. Companies are building everything from fences lined with concertina wire to military-grade drones to high-tech lidar sensors to monitor borderlands, and budgets for holistic frontier defenses are ballooning in tandem. The global market for border security technology is expected to grow to nearly $53 billion in the next few years, with major security companies like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin leading the way.

The last large-scale border barrier project in the United States was initiated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which sought to construct 700 miles worth of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 650 miles of the fencing system has been completed and a 2008 Government Accountability Office estimate pegged the cost of comprehensive border fencing between $4.8 million and $6.5 million per mile. The Office of Management and Budget’s estimates for Trump’s border wall put the per-mile cost at $24.4 million, almost four times the cost of the current border fence.

There are a couple of reasons for this: DHS has already built much of the ‘easier’ sections of the border fence in California and Arizona. The federal government owns much of the land along the Mexican border in those states, which eliminates the need for expensive and drawn-out processes like eminent domain compensation and negotiating with the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has said it will not allow the federal government to build a wall on its reservation. Neither complication, according to border expert Reece Jones, has been baked into the estimates provided by the Trump Administration.

‘All the places where it’s accessible and on relatively flat ground where you can put a wall pretty easily–those have all been built,’ Jones, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, told Fast Company. ‘So the places that aren’t fenced are the places that are really remote or are really rugged or are over a mountain range. The wall in those places is going to cost a lot more than it cost the last time around.’ Jones adds that ‘almost all’ of the land along the Texas stretch of the border is privately owned, which means that the federal government will have to engage in protracted conversations with folks who own border-adjacent property.

Read the full article in Fast Company.


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rachel weisz & rachel mcadams in disobedience

Playing it straight: should gay roles
be reserved for gay actors?
Ryan Gilbey, Guardian, 14 January 2019

The actor Chris New, who starred opposite Cullen in Weekend, feels he has been pigeonholed by his sexuality. ‘I’m known as being an out gay actor,’ he says. ‘But I’m not – or, at least, I’m not just that. I’m an actor, yes, and in my private life I have mainly found that men attract me. I don’t see that, or any other singular aspect of my identity, as defining me or as something that I wish to trade on. In my work, I am increasingly allowed to engage in my culture only when that engagement centres on being gay. Being out has done nothing but restrict my career. In the current cultural climate I am invited to participate only on the basis of my supposed oppression. Nothing more is required of me. I live in a cultural ghetto.’

His response has been a drastic one. ‘Any role where the character’s sexuality is their defining characteristic I turn down. Which means I don’t work very much. Or, at least, nowhere near as much as I’d like to.’ How does he feel seeing a straight actor playing outside his own sexuality? ‘I really don’t mind at all. I just hope they are the best actor. And I quietly wish that the role could be defined as something a little more than just gay.’

But what’s it like for those on the other side of the divide? Dan Krikler, a straight actor, agrees to be the voice of the heterosexual community for this article. The distinction became relevant when he played a gay man last year in the European premiere in London of Jordan Seavey’s explosive play Homos, Or Everyone in America. ‘As with any form of acting, you substitute the things that aren’t familiar with those that are,’ he says. ‘Playing someone who’s attracted to guys, it’s not a big leap to substitute the feelings I usually have for women. There were other things that were new to me, so I had to ask a gay co-star, ‘How do you feel holding hands with a man in public?’ That doesn’t even cross your mind as part of a heterosexual couple. But it’s the kind of research you’d do with any role that doesn’t fit you exactly. It seems ridiculous to only play parts within your own experience. That would go against everything anyone’s ever learned about acting.’

It may expand opportunities for LGBT performers, but the idea of like-for-like casting can only inhibit the scope of acting in general. Cate Blanchett, who played a lesbian in Carol and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, has promised to ‘fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience’. For his part, Seavey has no problem with it. ‘I used to feel that a straight person could not know, on a molecular level, the exact and particular experience of being queer,’ he says. ‘But then a straight actor played a gay character in one of my plays and, being a brilliant actor, gave a brilliant performance. He was the right actor for the role – that’s all that mattered. It would be such a bad use of my time and energy to even think of complaining.’

Seavey sees Darren Criss’s statement as sincere, if perhaps misguided. ‘It’s his choice to make, though I don’t think a straight actor playing a gay role is ‘taking’ the role from a gay actor. What would be nice is if gay actors got cast more often, especially in straight roles, and if film and television featured queer characters way more prominently. Parity and equality feel most important.’

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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We are asking psychology to do too much
James Davison Hunter & Paul Nedelisky,
Psychology Today, 1 January 2019

How can we live together with our deepest differences? This has long been a major challenge of liberal society. The partisan politics. The politicization of everything. Each viewpoint seems so entrenched. Disagreement runs deep, and it seems to be getting deeper.

This disagreement matters. After all, how can we have any hope for a good society if we can’t agree on what that would look like? In the midst of the confusion, where do we turn for guidance? To whom do we look for help?

Psychology. Or at least, this is where society currently is looking. After every school shooting, after Trump’s latest bizarre outburst, when we want to figure out how to make our children good and happy people, to whom do we turn? To what authority do we appeal? Not the sociologist. Not the biologist. Not the historian. Never a philosopher. No, we’re going to hear from a psychologist. Many of the biggest public intellectuals of our day either are in the mind sciences or ultimately draw their expertise from them. Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist. Sam Harris’s Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, is, of course, a psychologist. The list goes on.

There are two underlying assumptions in our turn to psychology. First, that our problem is fundamentally psychological. That is, the source of and solution to our moral problems—including why we can’t agree—lies in our minds. Second, that the way to figure out the nature of our psychological predicament is through science. We want testable, demonstrable evidence of what’s going wrong, and how to fix it. The thought is that only this sort of approach has any chance of getting people onto the same page from different sides of the aisle.

As a result, we psychologize everything.

Read the full article in Psychology Today.


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Celgene, sold for $74 billion, leaves a legacy
of chutzpah in science and drug pricing
Matthew Herper, STAT, 22 January 2019

Want to know why an industry that views itself as lifesaving and heroic is viewed by much of the public as price gouging and venal? Look here…

Celgene was spun out of the chemical company Celanese in 1986. Its original business plan was to look for microbes that ate toxic waste. But the company’s fate changed in 1991, when a Celgene chemist named Sol Barer heard about thalidomide from a scientist at Rockefeller University.

Thalidomide wasn’t just a toxic drug. It was the very basis of modern drug regulation. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a reviewer at the FDA in the 1960s, refused to approve the medicine at the same time it wreaked havoc in Europe. Now the FDA gives an award in her name. But Barer believed thalidomide could have potential in many other diseases.

Celgene licensed Rockefeller’s thalidomide intellectual property in 1992. At first it planned to seek approval to use the drug to treat wasting effects such as weight loss in AIDS patients. Instead, Celgene would get approval for leprosy, which the drug was used to treat in the developing world. It would be prohibited from marketing the medicine for other uses, such as HIV. But doctors would be free to prescribe it for whatever they wanted under U.S. law.

The FDA’s main concern was that Celgene develop safeguards, including multiple pregnancy tests, to make sure no one became pregnant while taking the drug.

What changed Celgene’s fortunes was the discovery that thalidomide could be effective in cancer…

Thalidomide was not actually approved as a myeloma treatment until 2006. That same year, Revlimid, which causes less sleepiness and nerve pain than thalidomide, was approved, and Barer, the chemist behind Celgene’s thalidomide strategy, took over as chief executive. He made good on thalidomide’s promise, churning out one blockbuster after another. In 2017 Revlimid generated $8.2 billion. Another cancer drug derived from thalidomide, Pomalyst, generated $1.6 billion. Otezla, a very different drug also based on thalidomide’s chemistry, treats psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Its 2017 sales: $1.3 billion.

With persistent price increases, quarter after quarter, Celgene pioneered something else: what Wall Street calls ‘modern pricing.’ Cancer drug prices have risen inexorably. In 2006, Genentech felt the need to cap a lung cancer drug’s annual cost at $55,000 a year. By 2009, cancer drugs approached the $100,000-a-year mark. Now, breakthrough immunotherapies touted on TV cost $150,000 per patient per year.

Read the full article in Stat News.


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American extremism has always
flowed from the border
Greg Grandin, Boston Review, 9 January 2019

A different kind of western writer, the novelist Cormac McCarthy, had a name for the place where the frontier meets the border. He called it the blood meridian, where endless sky meets endless hate. His novel Blood Meridian (1985) tells of the marauding of a roving gang of borderland scalp-hunters around the time of the Mexican–American War (1846–48). The blood meridian signaled the place where the conceit of progress gave way to an infernal timelessness, to a land ‘filled with violent children orphaned by war,’ where soldiers and settlers got caught in a dervish swirl, powered by demonic rages, moving in circles going nowhere. That place used to be out there, beyond the frontier. But the United States crossed it so many times that the line was erased.

Now, rather than the frontier opening up, the border is closing in. The nation’s archetype is no longer the pioneer. The icons now are the ICE raider and border agent. The log cabin has given way to detention centers where uniformed men and women—or private contractors—lock children in freezing rooms and force drugs on them so they will sleep, even as they deny them medicine. In The Line Becomes a River (2018), his memoir of his time working with the U.S. Border Patrol, Francisco Cantú tells of what he and his coworkers would do when they came across a stash of supplies hidden by migrants: ‘We slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth . . . we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.’

Such reports from the borderlands read like pages from Blood Meridian, from a world completely devoid of morality, stripped of the ability (or the need) to justify violence as necessary to bring about progress: ‘I still have nightmares,’ writes Cantú, ‘visions of them staggering through the desert . . . men lost and wandering without food or water, dying slowly as they look for some road, some village, some way out. In my dreams I seek them out, searching in vain until finally I discover their bodies lying facedown on the ground before me, dead and stinking on the desert floor, human waypoints in a vast and smoldering expansion.’

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


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The Indonesian counter-revolution
Alex de Jong, Jacobin, 2 January 2019

In recent years, several important books have detailed the scope of the violence in 1965–66, the crucial role of the army in perpetrating it, and the ways in which the bloodshed paved the way for a new political regime, Suharto’s ‘New Order.’ Unmarked Graves builds on this scholarship. Through the use of oral history, Hearman gives readers an idea of how the party worked on the local level and how it became so influential. Hearman’s interviews with surviving PKI supporters show that, like the party’s leadership, many cut their teeth in the anti-colonial movement and considered their struggle an extension of the struggle for Indonesian self-determination.

It is striking how many of the activists were teachers or were otherwise engaged in educational activities. Hearman writes that the PKI and allied mass organizations came to represent modernity through their educational and campaigning activities — so much so that ‘whole families and neighbourhoods observed loyalty to the party and its linked organizations.’

Gerwani, a women’s organization, was an important player in this work. It reached out to women to discuss equality and women’s rights, dispensing political education while giving members a chance to be active outside the household and learn about Indonesia and the world. ‘In our conversations,’ Gerwani activist Putmainah says in an interview with Hearman, ‘we told women that they were left with an unequal burden compared to men. We encouraged them to suggest that they should play more of a role in the family.’ Gerwani also campaigned on international issues, including the atomic bomb and the trial of accused Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

But the PKI and its allies were unprepared for the army’s campaign of violence. Even after the bloodshed began, many held out hope the party’s alliance with Sukarno would save the movement. Instead, the slaughter continued. Many decided to flee their villages for the anonymity of bigger cities. In places like the port city of Surabaya, where the PKI enjoyed substantial support among workers and squatters, exiled leftists formed entire communities.

For a time, it seemed they might escape death. But after purging pro-PKI officials and military commanders, Suharto’s administration moved on to pro-Sukarno officials, who had offered some measure of protection for the refugees. The systematic hunt for leftists in cities had begun.

Read the full article in Jacobin.


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kim ryu:new york times

The desert should not be a death sentence
Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler,
New York Times, 18 December 2019

The desert borderlands of the Southwest are a death trap for migrants. In the summer, the temperature can rise past 115 degrees, and in the winter it can drop below freezing. Water is scarce; shade is almost nonexistent.

Some 8,000 people attempting to enter the United States have died in this region since the 1990s. Their shoes, empty water jugs and abandoned rosaries litter the landscape

Volunteers from our organization, No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, hike year-round along remote trails in the Arizona section of the Sonoran Desert, which spans Arizona, California and northwestern Mexico. We leave water, food, blankets and other basic necessities along the desert’s migration corridors.

But the federal government is trying to make our humanitarian aid criminal.

Eleven months ago, a longtime volunteer with us, Scott Warren, was arrested in the small border town of Ajo, Ariz., for having provided food, water and shelter to two undocumented people. He was charged with two federal counts of harboring and one count of conspiracy to harbor. If convicted at his trial, which begins next month in Federal District Court in Tucson, he will face up to 20 years in prison.

The harboring charge against Mr. Warren is part of a long-term government strategy to send a dangerous message: Humanitarian aid to migrants is a crime. The government has tried all sorts of maneuvers to prosecute good Samaritans in the desert — from charging our volunteers with harboring and transporting to issuing misdemeanors for ‘abandoning personal property’ in a wildlife refuge (by leaving gallons of water for migrants) and using restricted roads without a permit.

These legal actions against our volunteers are just one component of a wider movement against undocumented people in the United States. The deployment of active-duty troops to the border, widespread family separations and increasingly violent rhetoric from the Trump administration are all churning wheels in an apparatus of policies intended to make crossing the border a death sentence.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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In some cases, our duty to hurt sentiments
Nayantara Sahgal, The Indian Express, 8 January 2019

I write novels and my material for story-telling has been political. As we writers know, we do not choose our material. We make stories out of the material and atmosphere around us, and because I grew up during the years of the fight for freedom, the values of that time and of the nation it created have been the stuff of my fiction and non-fiction. I have thought of my novels as being about the making of modern India. But because my last two novels are about the times we are now living in, they are about the un-making of modern India.

As we are writers, let us look at what is happening to our fellow writers and artists in this political atmosphere. We are seeing that the questioning mind, the creative imagination, and freedom of expression have no place in the present political climate, and where there is no respect for freedom of thought or for democratic rights, writing becomes a risky activity. This has always been the case in authoritarian regimes all over the world where art is kept under state control and writers face punishment and persecution if they step out of line. Take the example of a young poet called Josef Brodsky in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Brodsky is arrested and his interrogator waves a paper at him and says, ‘Do you call yourself a poet? Do you call this a poem? It is not a poem if it makes no material contribution to the Soviet Union.’ And he throws Brodsky into jail. Years later, Josef Brodsky wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Another famous Russsian case is of Solzhenitsyn, who was condemned to hard labour in Siberia for many years for criticising the government, and who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And now the same ignorance about art and literature is in action here, and writers are facing the anger of ignorant criticism, and much worse. Three eminent Maharashtrian rationalists, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, have been shot dead for rejecting superstition in favour of reason, and Gauri Lankesh of Bengaluru for her independent views and her opposition to Hindutva. Others have been threatened with death and forbidden to write. We are told, ‘Don’t publish your book or we will burn it. Don’t exhibit your paintings or we will destroy your exhibition.’ Filmmakers are told, ‘Change the dialogue in this scene and cut out the next scene or we will not let your film be shown, and if you show it we will attack the cinema hall. Don’t do anything to hurt our sentiments’.

In other words, they are saying: do as you are told, or your life and your art are not safe. But the creative imagination cannot take orders from the state, or from the mob. And the question of hurting sentiments is, of course, nonsense. A population of one billion people cannot be made to think alike. Every community has its own views and its own sensitivities on various issues. But sentiments cannot decide what is right or wrong. In some cases it is even our duty to hurt sentiments. If we had been forbidden to hurt sentiments, we would still be burning widows, and no reform of any kind would have taken place.

Read the full article in the Indian Express.


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Will people ditch cash for cryptocurrency?
Japan is about to find out
Mike Orcutt, MIT Technology Review, 22 January 2019

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he wants 40% of payments to be cashless by 2025. In August, the government announced plans to offer tax breaks and subsidies for companies that get on board. And while everything from credit card payments to transactions using QR codes would qualify, some of the country’s biggest financial players think the way to wean Japan off cash lies in the technology that runs Bitcoin.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), the country’s largest bank and the fifth largest in the world by total assets, has teamed with American internet company Akamai to build a blockchain-based consumer payment network in time for the Olympics. If they pull it off, it could be the fastest and most powerful consumer payment network to date.

They claim that in tests it’s been able to handle more than a million transactions per second, with each transaction confirmed in two seconds or less, and say it could eventually achieve 10 million transactions per second. (Visa’s credit card network, by comparison, handles several thousand transactions per second. Bitcoin tops out at about seven transactions per second, and each transaction can take up to an hour to confirm.) The system is designed to handle all kinds of payments, from automated highway tolls to payment-card swipes to in-app purchases.

MUFG, which has also tested its own crypto-token, is far from alone. Mizuho Financial Group, a large holding company, has been experimenting with blockchain technology for several years as part of a project dubbed ‘J-Coin’ and plans to release its own digital currency for retail payments in March. SBI Holdings, a big financial-services firm, says it’s building its own token, also for retail payments, called S Coin.

The wager all these companies are making is that Japan’s society is primed to start using digital cash. It is relatively technologically savvy, cryptocurrency trading has been uniquely popular in the country for years, and Japan’s financial regulators are more familiar with blockchain technology than any others in the world. With the government’s pressure to go cashless, and little competition from credit cards and other forms of e-payment, Japan could leapfrog the technology underlying today’s electronic payment networks and go straight to blockchains.

Read the full article in Technology Review.


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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.

This was especially true of writers for their ability to think independently; to view life in non-Manichean terms; to expose national hypocrisies; to question the conformist status quo; and to see that calling to account our immense internal contradictions is patriotism in the best sense of the world – one free of the xenophobia, the toxic nationalism, the ‘you are with us or against us’ message that Hoover pioneered and which is a key construct of the Trumpian world view.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


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Muslim, Islamic, Indian, or all of the above:
on Pakistan’s identity crisis
Mohammed Ayoob, The Hindu, 7 January 2019

The continued tussle between the three trends of modernist Islam, traditional Islam, and Islamism has contributed to the perennial instability in the country that threatens to turn it into a failed state. But, this is not the end of the story. A major factor adversely affecting Pakistan’s search for a national identity is its love-hate relationship with its Indian past. The close affinity in terms of language, cuisine, music and other attributes that are subsumed under the term “culture” make it impossible for Pakistan to break away from its Indian roots. Although Pakistan was created in the name of Islam, it is a progeny of Indian Islam and not of Islam in an abstract sense. In fact all the major strands of Pakistani Islam — Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahle-Hadees — have their roots in Indian Islam and mirror the divisions witnessed among Muslims in India, both before and after Partition.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s boundaries conform to the boundaries of British Indian provinces and its territorial identity is defined by the geographic contours of the subcontinent. In sum, Pakistan’s inability to shed its Indian geopolitical, cultural and Islamic identity has forced it to adopt anti-Indian postures in order to differentiate itself from the mother country. It is its inability to define itself without reference to India that lies at the base of Pakistan’s hostility toward India.

Pakistan is, therefore, caught in a double bind. On the one hand, it is unable to resolve the contradictions among the three forms of political Islam battling to impose their own definition of Islam on the country. On the other, its inability to define its identity in non-Indian terms has forced it into an anti-Indian mould that is almost impossible to break. Both these factors contribute hugely to Pakistan’s current predicament. For, failure to successfully define a country’s national identity is a sure recipe for domestic instability as well as unpredictable, even aggressive, behaviour abroad.

Read the full article in the Hindu.


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red blood cells

The history of blood
Jerome Groopman, New Yorker, 14 January 2019

In a wide-ranging and energetic new book, ‘Nine Pints’ (Metropolitan), the British journalist Rose George examines not only the unique biology of this substance but also the lore and tradition surrounding it, and even its connections to the origins of the earth and of life itself. ‘The iron in our blood comes from the death of supernovas, like all iron on our planet,’ she writes. ‘This bright red liquid . . . contains salt and water, like the sea we possibly came from.’ George charts the distance that our blood (as her title suggests, we contain, on average, between nine and eleven pints of it) travels in the body every day: some twelve thousand miles, ‘three times the distance from my front door to Novosibirsk.’ Our network of veins, arteries, and capillaries is about sixty thousand miles long—’twice the circumference of the earth and more.’

Ancient peoples knew none of this biology, but they were certain of blood’s importance and fascinated by its mystery. For them, blood was something hidden—visible only when flowing from a wound, or during childbirth, miscarriage, and menstruation—so it became a symbol both of life and of death. George returns often to this dichotomy, which she terms the ‘two-faced nature of blood’ and sees as embodied in the figure of the Gorgon Medusa. In addition to her famous serpentine coiffure, Medusa was said to have two kinds of blood coursing through her veins: on her left side, her blood was lethal; on her right side, it was life-giving. To control blood was to master mortality, so it is unsurprising that blood features prominently in many religious traditions, and that, though our understanding of its functions is more sophisticated than ever, we remain in thrall to its primal mystique. The membrane between medicine and myth is thinner than we suppose, and blood is continually circulating back and forth across it.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


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Is our future really written in our genes?
Kevin Mitchell, Scientific American, 7 January 2019

The prospect of either genetic selection or genome editing for intelligence or other traits has led to an outcry over the lack of consideration that has so far been given to the associated ethical concerns, and rightly so. But it is interesting to note that the backdrop to many of these discussions is the implicit assumption that, even if our ability to predict intelligence from our genome is currently imperfect, it is only a matter of time before it becomes much more accurate.

Indeed, researchers are finding more and more genetic variants associated with intelligence all the time, as sample sizes in these studies continue to increase. And we are used in more general terms to the application of machine learning in dredging these kinds of high-dimensional data for meaningful patterns that give almost godlike powers of classification and prediction in other areas. It seems reasonable to assume that the power of genetic information will continue to increase, even for complex traits like intelligence, which involves variations in thousands of genes.

But these discussions have overlooked a much more fundamental limit in our ability to predict or control our psychological traits. Most such traits are only partly heritable—that is, only a certain proportion of the variation we see in the trait across the population can be attributed to genetic differences between people. For intelligence, the heritability is about 50 percent, at least in developed nations and in samples with relatively uniform socioeconomic status. The rest of the variation is nongenetic.

The common inference is that if it’s not genes making us different from each other, it must be something in the environment. If this were true, and we could identify the causal environmental factors, then maybe we could control those too. And we do know of many environmental factors that do affect intelligence, such as maternal and infant health, nutrition and education.

But even in situations where the variation in these factors is very low, there is still substantial nongenetic variance in the trait that remains unexplained.

Read the full article in Scientific American.


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Our obsession with taking photos
is changing how we remember the past
Giullana Mazzoni, The Conversation, 4 January 2019

There are some rather profound risks when it comes to personal memory. Our identity is a product of our life experiences, which can be easily accessed through our memories of the past. So, does constant photographic documentation of life experiences alter how we see ourselves? There is no substantial empirical evidence on this yet, but I would speculate that it does.

Too many images are likely to make us remember the past in a fixed way – blocking other memories. While it is not uncommon for early childhood memories to be based on photos rather than the actual events, these are not always true memories.

Another issue is the fact that research has uncovered a lack of spontaneity in selfies and many other photos. They are planned, the poses are not natural and at times the image of the person is distorted. They also reflect a narcissistic tendency which shapes the face in unnatural mimics – artificial big smiles, sensual pouts, funny faces or offensive gestures.

Importantly, selfies and many other photos are also public displays of specific attitudes, intentions and stances. In other words, they do not really reflect who we are, they reflect what we want to show to others about ourselves at the moment. If we rely heavily on photos when remembering our past, we may create a distorted self identity based on the image we wanted to promote to others.

That said, our natural memory isn’t actually perfectly accurate. Research shows that we often create false memories about the past. We do this in order to maintain the identity that we want to have over time – and avoid conflicting narratives about who we are. So if you have always been rather soft and kind – but through some significant life experience decide you are tough – you may dig up memories of being aggressive in the past or even completely make them up.

Having multiple daily memory reports on the phone of how we were in the past might therefore render our memory less malleable and less adaptable to the changes brought about by life – making our identity more stable and fixed.

But this can create problems if our present identity becomes different from our fixed, past one. That is an uncomfortable experience and exactly what the ‘normal’ functioning of memory is aimed to avoid – it is malleable so that we can have a non-contradictory narrative about ourselves. We want to think of ourselves as having a certain unchanging ‘core’. If we feel unable to change how we see ourselves over time, this could seriously affect our sense of agency and mental health.

So our obsession with taking photos may be causing both memory loss and uncomfortable identity discrepancies.

Read the full article in the Conversation.

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The images are, from top down: ‘Senagalese Women’ by Gerard Sekoto; A skull found at a prehistoric burial site near Teouma Bay, Vanuatu, credit David Maurice Smith for the New York Times; Rachel Weisz & Rachel McAdams in ‘Disobedience’; Illustration by Kim Ryu for the New York Times; Red blood cells (photographer unknown).