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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.


Doing more, getting less
Malcolm Harris, The Nation, 7 March 2019

In Gigged, we get a national tour of the new labor relations that provide the basis for Silicon Valley’s prosperity. Kessler began covering the gig economy in 2011, when she was herself a casualty of the post-financial-crisis labor market. Her first post, ‘Online Odd Jobs: How Startups Let You Fund Yourself,’ was published on Mashable and offered a concise articulation of the way that many people viewed contingent labor at the outset of this new era. ‘You can really just create your own little economy around the things you’re good at,’ one Skillshare teacher told Kessler enthusiastically. ‘It pays to get as many skills as possible,’ said a user of Zaarly, a TaskRabbit competitor. This was the age of ‘an ATM in your pocket’ and the dawn of ‘Uber for everything.’

The new middleman-app companies never planned to build futuristic infrastructure the way Webvan did; while becoming profitable, they were not interested in helping to raise living standards for consumers and workers. What they were interested in, above all else, was increased efficiency. But instead of using technology to reduce the role of labor in production through automation and cybernetics, they perform what is essentially arbitrage with human life. If Person A’s time is worth $50 an hour on the market, and Person B’s time is only worth $10, Person A should have a strong incentive to hire Person B to perform life’s unpleasant tasks. This kind of shallow thinking is what current Silicon Valley fortunes are made of.

It’s an old joke that ride-share companies are slowly inventing the bus, but it’s more accurate to say that they have reinvented the servant. Few Americans have ever been prosperous enough to afford the full-time, one-on-one attention of servants, but most can afford at least some small amount of personal service on occasion, if only the rare cab ride. The goal was to bring these personal services to middle- and upper-middle-income consumers at the expense of those who are forced to do the work. In a perfectly efficient world, people would be served by others to the exact degree that the market values their time more—and in the 21st century, the market doesn’t value most people’s time that highly. If middlemen-app companies can lower the barriers to service in such a world and charge a small fee in the process, they should, in essence, have a license to print money.

It has not escaped the critics of the gig economy that much of this work is also ‘women’s work’ and that gender has long functioned, at least in part, as a technology that matches masters and servants.

Read the full article in The Nation.


An open letter to the American left:
Don’t make the mistakes we did in Britain
Rachel Shabi, Buzzfeed News, 25 February 2019

First, deal with anti-Semitism on the left — and yes, that’s an actual thing, not a smear concocted by political opponents. In fact, this might be the most important advice, namely: Do not let your opponents define the terms of your response to a very real problem.

When accusations of anti-Semitism come from the right, it is all too easy to react defensively, rail against double standards, and cast the issue solely as a weapon of attack rather than a genuine problem. After all, isn’t the right — and especially its Trumpist, far-right faction — far more anti-Semitic? Why is everyone going after one of the first Muslim women in Congress, rather than the white supremacist president and his cronies? Don’t supporters of a rightist, expansionist Israeli government use accusations of anti-Semitism to shut down criticism of its policies?

It’s true: Cynical exploitation of anti-Semitism is as real as anti-Semitism itself.

But focusing only on this creates a decoy that will divide your movement. As we have found to our dismay in the UK, defensiveness can swiftly turn into denialism. And it can bleed into the creation of competing hierarchies of race hate, with the terrible attendant subtext that hatred against Jews is getting special attention.

A progressive movement should instead be built on the premise that an attack on one minority is an attack on all. This is not only how far-right racism actually works, it is also the best way to grow a movement in collective defense against it. With the far-right so frighteningly resurgent politically, Jewish communities look to the left with the expectation of solidarity. Claiming that the left is not as bad as the right on anti-Semitism is not the standard that progressives should aspire to, nor is it one that Jewish people will find reassuring. It’s a good idea to work closely with progressive Jewish groups, even when anti-Semitism isn’t a raging issue and especially with those already part of the left movement. They want to help. Let them.

A refusal to turn anti-Semitism into a political football applies to your own camp too. When complaints of anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party were amplified by the right of the party, this was seen as another means of undermining the leftist leadership. With supporters of the Corbyn project keen to defend it, anti-Semitism quickly became part of an ongoing factional battle, despite constant pleas from the Jewish community to just not do this.

Read the full article in Buzzfeed News.


America’s Kurdish allies risk being wiped out – by Nato
David Graeber, Guardian, 1 February 2019

But Turkey is not a rogue state. Turkey is Nato. Its army guards Europe’s eastern flank. Its police and security forces are charged with halting the flow of refugees from Middle Eastern wars to Europe – which increasingly involves opening fire with machine guns on refugees at the border – a service for which it is paid millions of euros in direct compensation.

It is only because Turkey is a member of Nato that its government managed to have the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK (the Kurdish Worker’s Party), the guerrilla insurgents that have been fighting for autonomy in south-east Turkey since the 1990s, placed on the ‘international terror list’ in 2004, at precisely the moment the PKK renounced demands for a separate state and offensive operations and attempted to enter into peace negotiations. It should be noted that this ‘terror’ designation applies almost exclusively among Nato countries; the PKK is certainly not listed as a ‘terror’ organization by the United Nations, India, China or even Switzerland.

It is because Turkey is Nato that the western press has to take seriously its bizarre claims that the experiment in feminist democracy underway in Rojava is itself a form of ‘terrorism’.

It is because Turkey is Nato, and guards Europe’s borders, that the US and European powers looked the other way or even expressed support when its army descended on the hitherto peaceful enclave of Afrin, in violation of all international law. As the Turkish army did so, it suggested it would not just to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish population and put an end to their ownexperiment with feminist democracy, but also to use the district to resettle the families of the most avid Islamist rebels who might otherwise have migrated to Europe.

It is because Turkey is Nato that the western press feels obliged to play along with the charade that it is an enemy of Isis, despite endless evidence of active Turkish collaboration with Isis, and the fact, known to everyone in the region, that Turkish ‘offensives’ against Isis in Syria have largely consisted of bribing Isis commanders to switch sides.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Women who fought for Salman Rushdie
Salil Tripathi, Live Mint, 21 February 2019

Together with Southall Black Sisters (SBS), WAF campaigned to support women subjected to acid attacks or forced into marriage. They challenged the British government to discard its deep-rooted paternalism, under which it allowed the keepers of various faith (usually men) to decide how women should be controlled. SBS has defended black and minority women from all religious and ethnic backgrounds in the face of racism, fundamentalism, and inequality. SBS was founded by remarkable women who had experienced racism and wanted to take it head-on.

One of them was Patel, who spoke last week at Conway Hall. Kenyan-born Patel who came to the UK as a child, recalls racism in schoolyards and in casual remarks from a teacher who suggested she’d make a fine ground stewardess at Heathrow airport. She found a kindred spirit among many women, including Hannana Siddiqui, Meena Patel, and Gita Sahgal, and Shakila Taranum Maan.

Indian-born Sahgal (who made Hullaballoo Over The Satanic Verses) had worked with women’s groups in India and was active in student politics in London. She was part of the second wave of Indian feminists, active after the Emergency. ‘We wanted to bring a feminist analysis and activism to the issue (of fundamentalism). I was quite critical of black identity politics and wanted to develop a feminist organization which brought together women on a common basis of opposing all religious fundamentalism,’ says Sahgal.

On 9 March 1989, SBS passed a resolution, saying: ‘As a group of women of many religions and none, we would like to express our solidarity with Salman Rushdie. Women’s Voices have been largely silent in the debate where battle lines have been drawn between liberalism and fundamentalism. Often it has been assumed that the views of local community leaders are our views, and their demands are our demands. We reject this absolutely….We will take up our right to determine our own destinies, not limited by religion, culture, or nationality. We call upon the government to abolish the outdated blasphemy law and to defend without reservation, freedom of speech.’

Read the full article in Live Mint.


Reading in an Age of Catastrophe
Edward Mendelson, New York Review of Books,
7 March 2019

Facing the Abyss widens and deepens Hutchinson’s demonstrations of what goes wrong when, in his phrase, ‘categorization precedes interpretation.’ Jewish writers of the 1940s typically held views that ‘fly in the face of more recent efforts to constitute Jewish American literature as an academic field.’ Muriel Rukeyser’s poems ‘suggest…how a Jewish woman can speak for Christians, for all humanity,’ because ‘Jewishness, in Rukeyser’s view, is not a particularist identity but a pathway to a universal subject position, a crossroads, made ethically obligatory in an age of global catastrophe, in which the extermination of the Jews takes on planetary significance.’ About the novelist Jo Sinclair, he writes:

If her Jewishness, and queerness, inflected her writing and her choice of subject matter, it made her no different as a writer from others whose experience as gentile, as Negro, as straight, as male, inflected their work. This insistence, difficult and contradictory as it may seem, was ubiquitous and indicates a trajectory of shared aspirations, particularly among ‘minoritized’ writers.

He redraws the cultural map of the 1940s by tracing connections that critics and historians have mostly ignored:

Championing gay or lesbian identity as such…was rarely the point of the work of gay, lesbian, or ‘queer’-oriented writers; they attacked homophobia and the need to ‘label’ people according to their desires or sexual practices. And this critique, surprisingly often, connected with related, explicit critiques of racism and anti-Semitism. Identity politics is what fascists and anti-Semites practice, what homophobes practice, what white supremacists and segregationists practice. Again and again the intersection of such attitudes—how they ‘interlock,’ as James Baldwin would put it in 1949—emerge in the work of the 1940s…

Jewish writers in the 1940s, Hutchinson observes, had little interest in the ‘cultural-identity politics’ espoused everywhere today. ‘Who, after all,’ he asks,

were the greatest exponents of identity politics in the 1930s and early 1940s? Mussolini, Hirohito, Hitler. At home: Father Coughlin, the German Bund, Southern senators, nativists, racists, and anti-Semites.

The answer to category-hatred of all kinds is not, in Hutchinson’s view, category-celebrations or category-pride.

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



How migration deals lead to refugee commodification
Gerasimos Tsourapas, Refugees Deeply, 13 February 2019

Western states appear less receptive to hosting refugee populations and prefer to outsource the management of forced displacement to the global south. So why should the proliferation of migration deals be a cause for concern? To put it simply, such arrangements encourage the treatment of refugees as commodities. They empower host states to view displaced populations as a resource – or, more aptly, a source of economic ‘rent’…

What are the implications of adopting an instrumentalist, development-centered strategy? Even if we set aside the (salient) moral implications of such policymaking, three notable issues are apparent.

First, given that this form of economic aid is based, by definition, on a host state’s treatment of its refugee population, migration deals create new ways for developing countries to become dependent on international donors. International aid comes with conditions: In Jordan, for instance, the compact expected policymakers to provide 200,000 employment opportunities for Syrian refugees. By mid-2017, due to slow economic growth, only 60,000 work permits had been issued. The growing tension between Jordan and the international donors led the Jordanian Ministry of Labor to give out multiple work permits to each Syrian, in order for it to appear as if more permits had been granted. At the same time, authorities began harassing, imprisoning and deporting low-skilled Egyptian migrants – many of whom live in precarious conditions and have been used as political leverage in the past – in the ongoing scramble to secure employment for Syrian refugees at the Egyptians’ expense. Despite Western donors’ ambition to balance the needs of refugees and host communities, conditionality terms provide significant challenges.

Second, the commodification of refugee populations skews host-state policies with a view to attracting external funding. A few months back, news broke of Uganda inflating refugee numbers by creating fake names in refugee settlements and defrauding millions of dollars in aid. In Jordan, the decision to construct refugee camps was intended to make the Syrian displaced population visible to potential international donors. Narratives of imminent state collapse are also aimed at lending urgency to host states’ international appeals for economic aid. ‘‘Unemployment is skyrocketing. Our health sector is saturated. Our schools are really going through difficult times. It’s extremely, extremely difficult. And Jordanians … just have had it up to here. I mean, we just can’t take it anymore,’ Jordan’s King Abdullah stated in 2016. Lebanese officials have expressed similar sentiments. While each country faces challenges, they also feel the need to exaggerate in order to extract more money from donors. The effects of such alarmist narratives on societal attitudes toward refugees is significant, with the risk of promoting racist reactions.

Read the full article in Refugees Deeply.


Why has it taken us so long to see Trump’s weakness?
Corey Robin, New York Magazine, 20 February 2019

There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.

When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle…

Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: ‘To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.’ Less cited is what follows: ‘One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.’ To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.

The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as ‘every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.’ The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.

Read the full article in New York Magazine.


Iraq’s post-ISIS campaign of revenge
Ben Taub, New Yorker, 31 December 2018

For three years, the Islamic State controlled half of Syria and a third of Iraq, a swath of territory approximately the size of Great Britain, which included millions of people. Several members of its senior leadership had been high-level military and intelligence officers in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime; they combined the structural prowess of a police state with the cosmic certainty of radical jihadism. The group blew up mosques and ancient archeological sites, and pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing through mass murder and sexual slavery. It conscripted local bureaucrats, doctors, and teachers, often on pain of death, and devoted enormous effort to radicalizing a generation of children and inuring them to violence, suffering, and loss. At the height of its success, in 2014, there was a real possibility that Isis would capture Baghdad, and the Iraqi state would collapse. Now, more than a year after Isis lost Mosul—its largest source of legitimacy, wealth, and power—hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators. Anyone with a perceived connection to Isis, however tenuous or unclear, is being killed or cast out of society.

Not long ago, I met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official who is deeply involved in counterterrorism operations. For three hours, over tea and cigarettes, he described systematic criminality within the security forces, detailing patterns of battlefield executions, murders in detention centers, and cover-ups organized by the state. He spoke as a witness, but also as a participant; although he is in a position to have stopped certain abuses, by intervening he would have risked incurring accusations that he is sympathetic to the group he has sought to destroy.

He believes that the Iraqi government’s response is as much a tactical blunder as it is a moral one; it plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative – that Sunnis, who make up a minority of the Iraqi population, cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites. ‘The reaction is one of vengeance – it is not well thought out,’ he told me. ‘We rarely abide by the law.’

Thousands of men and boys have been convicted of Isis affiliation, and hundreds have been hanged. But, according to the senior intelligence official, these cases represent only a small fraction of the total number of detainees. ‘A few of the suspects are sent to court, but only to maintain the illusion that we have a justice system,’ he said.

Suspects are tried under a law that makes no distinction between a person who ‘assists terrorists’ and one who commits violent crimes on behalf of an extremist group. The conviction rate is around ninety-eight per cent. Family members of the accused rarely show up to watch the hearings, out of fear that they will be detained, too. It’s not uncommon for relatives to be rounded up by the security forces and sent to remote desert camps, where they are denied food, medical services, and access to documents. ‘We’re deleting thousands of families from Iraqi society,’ the official told me. ‘This is not just revenge on isis. This is revenge on Sunnis.’

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


She’s a force of nature, and she just
declared war on peace with the Taliban
Rod Norland, New York Times, 15 February 2019

The driver of a car that was stopped in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, was shocked when a passing motorist rolled down the window and shouted at him, ‘Dirty donkey.’

He was even more surprised when he looked up to see that the insult came from a woman. A woman driving a car. A woman driving a car without wearing the obligatory hijab.

That was Laila Haidari, who runs a popular cafe in Kabul that allows men and women to dine together, whether married or not, with or without a head scarf, and uses the profits to fund a rehabilitation clinic for drug addicts.

Nearly everyone addresses Ms. Haidari, 39, as ‘Nana,’ or ‘Mom,’ and her supporters describe her as the ‘mother of a thousand children,’ after the number of Afghan addicts she has reportedly saved.

Now, Ms. Haidari plans to start a popular uprising against the continuing peace talks with the Taliban.

‘Guys, the Taliban are coming back,’ she said one day recently to a mixed group of diners at her restaurant, Taj Begum, which has been subjected to virulent attacks in the local media that have all but compared it to a brothel.

‘We have to organize,’ she told her customers. ‘I hope to find 50 other women who will stand up and say, ‘We don’t want peace.’ If the Taliban comes back, you will not have a friend like me, and there will be no restaurant like Taj Begum.’

Her nearly always crowded restaurant, on the banks of the sewage-drenched Kabul River, is named after a 15th-century warrior princess from Herat who helped rule a vast kingdom, a rare example of female power from that time.

Ms. Haidari is as unusual in her own age.

While most women’s activists in Afghanistan have been Western-financed and supported, she has insisted on organizing her political activity herself, and on her own terms.

‘We need to change our own men and our own families first,’ Ms. Haidari said in an interview. ‘Don’t think of me as a victim, like so many of our women in public life seem to be. I’m not going to sit across from the Taliban wearing hijab begging for my rights.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


The controversial tech used to
predict problems before they happen
Rowland Manthorpe, Sky News, 1 March 2019

At least 53 councils are using computer models to detect problems before they happen, according to new research by Cardiff University and Sky News, which shows the scale of the controversial technology in UK public services.

So-called predictive algorithms are being used by councils for everything from traffic management to benefits sanctions.

The real figures could be much higher, as not every local authority responded fully to freedom of information requests.

Almost a third of the UK’s 45 police forces are also using predictive algorithms.

Fourteen forces, including the UK’s largest force, the Metropolitan Police, are employing for tasks such as providing guidance when considering which crimes should be investigated.

Advocates say these algorithms mean problems can be predicted and therefore prevented. Critics say lack of oversight means it is not clear how exactly the extensive personal data needed to build the algorithms is being used.

One local authority pioneering the use of predictive algorithms is Bristol City Council.

Its Bristol Integrated Analytics Hub takes in data such as benefits, school attendance, crime, homelessness, teenage pregnancy and mental health from 54,000 local families to predict which children could suffer from domestic violence, sexual abuse or go missing.

Gary Davies, head of early intervention and targeted services at Bristol City Council, told Sky News that the system worked by comparing the data of at-risk children to children who have gone missing several times.

Each child is then given a score which out of 100 and marked as high, medium or low risk, a designation which is used to flag cases to social workers for intervention.

The system works in the same way as the recommendation engines of Silicon Valley tech giants.

Amazon uses a predictive algorithm to suggest items to buy, based on a customer’s previous purchases and viewing history. Facebook’s suggested friends feature predicts who users might know but aren’t connected with online.

Read the full article in Sky News.


Blade Runner Replicant

Will AI achieve consciousness? Wrong question.
Daniel Dennett, Wired, 19 February 2019

Wiener foresaw several problems with this incipient state of affairs that Alan Turing and other early AI optimists largely overlooked. The real danger, he said, is

that such machines, though helpless by themselves, may be used by a human being or a block of human beings to increase their control over the rest of the race or that political leaders may attempt to control their populations by means not of machines themselves but through political techniques as narrow and indifferent to human possibility as if they had, in fact, been conceived mechanically.

Sure enough, these dangers are now pervasive.

In media, for instance, the innovations of digital audio and video let us pay a small price (in the eyes of audiophiles and film lovers) when we abandon analog formats, and in return provide easy—all too easy?—reproduction of recordings with almost perfect fidelity.

But there is a huge hidden cost. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is now a practical possibility. AI techniques for creating all-but-undetectable forgeries of ‘recordings’ of encounters are now becoming available, which will render obsolete the tools of investigation we have come to take for granted in the past 150 years.

Will we simply abandon the brief Age of Photographic Evidence and return to the earlier world in which human memory and trust provided the gold standard, or will we develop new techniques of defense and offense in the arms race of truth? (We can imagine a return to analog film-exposed-to-light, kept in ‘tamper-proof’ systems until shown to juries, etc., but how long would it be before somebody figured out a way to infect such systems with doubt?

One of the disturbing lessons of recent experience is that the task of destroying a reputation for credibility is much less expensive than the task of protecting such a reputation. Wiener saw the phenomenon at its most general: ‘In the long run, there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies.’ The information age is also the disinformation age.

What can we do? A key phrase, it seems to me, is Wiener’s almost offhand observation, above, that ‘these machines’ are ‘helpless by themselves.’ As I have been arguing recently, we’re making tools, not colleagues, and the great danger is not appreciating the difference, which we should strive to accentuate, marking and defending it with political and legal innovations.

Read the full article in Wired.


The airstrikes had three targets,
but hit bullseye in just one
Siddharth Varadarajan, The Wire, 27 February 2019

The Indian foreign secretary may have had his eye on international law when he spoke of ‘pre-emptive action’ against the imminent threat of suicide attacks but any honest analysis of the military, diplomatic and political consequences of India’s airstrike at what it said was a terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan must begin by acknowledging what it really was: an act of revenge intended to send a message to three different audiences.

Its military objective was to tell the Jaish-e-Muhammad and other Pakistan-based terrorist groups in the wake of the terrorist attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, that the safe havens provided to them by the Pakistani military are not so safe after all.  The diplomatic objective was to get the the world at large to see that they cannot afford a business-as-usual approach to Pakistan’s support for terrorism. And the political objective was to send a message to the domestic audience on the eve of a general election – that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a leader who has the ‘political will’ to set everything right and make India great again.

Of these, it is only the political objective which Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be confident of having achieved.

The Indian Air Force was tasked with executing a difficult and risky mission and the government has declared the operation a success – though without sharing any verifiable information. Perhaps the official readout is muted because the greater the noise that is made, the greater the likelihood that Pakistan’s military leadership will feel compelled to retaliate. However, the unverifiable and seemingly exaggerated accounts of the airstrike making their way to the Indian media will make it very difficult for the Pakistani side to do nothing…

When the dust from Balakot settles – and there is no telling when that will happen – it will be evident that Prime Minister Modi has no coherent or consistent strategy to deal with Pakistan and the problem of terrorism.

From his 2014 inauguration to the Ufa meeting with Nawaz Sharif, his bizarre Lahore-Raiwind visit, the Pathankot terror attack and the flagging of the Balochistan ‘card’ that year, the 2016 surgical strikes, the first-scheduled-and-then-aborted meeting between Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mahmood Qureshi and now Balakot, each of his diplomatic and military initiatives have lacked the kind of rigorous internal preparation, analysis and audit that are the hallmark of serious policymaking. What these initiatives have in common is domestic politics as the common denominator for determining his next course of action.

Read the full article in The Wire.


‘Men are scum’: Inside Facebook’s war on hate speech
Simon Van Zuylen-Wood, Vanity Fair, 26 February 2019

Facebook has a 40-page rule book listing all the things that are disallowed on the platform. They’re called Community Standards, and they were made public in full for the first time in April 2018. One of them is hate speech, which Facebook defines as an ‘attack’ against a ‘protected characteristic,’ such as gender, sexuality, race, or religion. And one of the most serious ways to attack someone, Facebook has decided, is to compare them to something dehumanizing.

Like: Animals that are culturally perceived as intellectually or physically inferior.

Or: Filth, bacteria, disease and feces.

That means statements like ‘black people are monkeys’ and ‘Koreans are the scum of the earth’ are subject to removal. But then, so is ‘men are trash.’

See the problem? If you remove dehumanizing attacks against gender, you may block speech designed to draw attention to a social movement like #MeToo. If you allow dehumanizing attacks against gender, well, you’re allowing dehumanizing attacks against gender. And if you do that, how do you defend other ‘protected’ groups from similar attacks?

DeBree and one of her colleagues, a China expert named David Caragliano, float a handful of fixes. Idea one: punish attacks against gender less harshly than, say, attacks against race. ‘Men are scum’ would stay up. But so would ‘women are scum.’ This doesn’t seem quite right.

Another idea is to treat the genders themselves differently. Caragliano cues up a slide deck. On it is a graph showing internal research that Facebook users are more upset by attacks against women than they are by attacks against men. Women would be protected against all hate speech, while men would be protected only against explicit calls for violence. ‘Women are scum’ would be removed. ‘Men are scum’ could stay.

Problem solved? Well … not quite. Bickert foresees another hurdle. ‘My instinct is not to treat the genders differently,’ she tells me. ‘We live in a world where we now acknowledge there are many genders, not just men and women. I suspect the attacks you see are disproportionately against those genders and women, but not men.’ If you create a policy based on that logic, though, ‘you end up in this space where it’s like, ‘Our hate-speech policy applies to everybody—except for men.’ ‘ Imagine how that would play

Read the full article in Vanity Fair.


Islam after Salman
Bruce Fudge, Aeon, 21 February 2019

But the problem is that many historical texts do contain the anecdote, in around 50 slightly varying versions. Moreover, as the book Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam (2017) by Shahab Ahmed convincingly shows, the first generations of Muslims did not question the incident. Only gradually, with the development of certain doctrines regarding the sinlessness of prophets, did the story become impossible to accept. Even Ibn Taymiyyah, the 14th-century firebrand and intellectual forefather of Salafism, accepted the veracity of the satanic verses story.

In his book, Ahmed proposed that the story served particular functions in different contexts for the very first generations of believers: it might have originated to explain certain obscure Quranic verses; it might have been an uplifting narrative of triumph over adversity, of succumbing to temptation at a moment of despair, and then returning to the straight path. In other words, it is possible for believers to find meaning in a non-orthodox interpretation of the anecdote. Likewise, it is possible for a nonbeliever such as Rushdie to find something valuable in the life of the prophet, even when God is out of the picture. The Muhammadan revelation becomes a matter of human history and behaviour, a story of belief and credulity, of power and knowledge, one that has echoes throughout human experience.

None of this is to say that The Satanic Verses does not offend. It clearly does. For those who make it that far into the novel, the scenes in which the prostitutes adopt the names and personae of Mahound’s wives are guaranteed to send the faithful into fits. Neither the novel nor its author makes any suggestion that this is meant as a comment on the prophet’s wives, real or fictional, and to claim otherwise, as many have, is simply incorrect. At the same time, one can hardly claim surprise that people are offended.

One might argue that whatever his criticisms, Rushdie should have been more respectful. But this is a dangerous path, one that misjudges what is at stake. Is it not the case that many great works of Western literature, from François Rabelais to Voltaire, James Joyce to Philip Roth, offended a good number of religious groups and authorities? This was the argument of Sadik Jalal al-Azm, a Syrian philosophy professor who was arrested in 1970 on blasphemy charges stemming from his book Critique of Religious Thought (1969), in which he condemned religiosity in the Arab world, and blamed it for many social and political ills. He wrote various pieces in defence of The Satanic Verses and its author, including ‘The Importance of Being Earnest About Salman Rushdie’ (1989), an extended comparison with Rabelais and Joyce, noting the difference between the canonical status granted to Western authors who challenged religious authority or orthodoxy and the, at best tepid, support for Rushdie

Read the full article in Aeon.


20 Years of the Euro: Winners and losers
Alessandro Gasparotti & Matthias Kullas, CEP, February 2019

In particular, the problem of the divergent competitiveness of the Eurozone countries remains unsolved. It arises from the fact that individual eurozone countries can no longer devalue their currency in order to remain internationally competitive; a method commonly used before the euro was introduced. Since introduction of the euro, an erosion of international competitiveness leads to lower economic growth, a rise in unemployment and falling tax revenues. Greece and Italy in particular are currently experiencing major difficulties due to the fact that they are unable to devalue their currency.

In virtually every eurozone country, this trend has led to a discussion about the pros and cons of the single currency. Whilst the citizens of the troubled eurozone countries are lamenting low economic growth and high unemployment, other eurozone countries criticise Mario Draghi’s intervention and the fact that financial assistance makes them liable for the problem countries. Twenty years after its introduction, the euro is therefore more controversial than ever.

There is still a lack of reliable empirical data about which eurozone countries have gained from the introduction of the euro and which ones have lost out. Although there have been studies of whether the euro has promoted trade between eurozone countries,2 the results are not clear-cut. In addition, focussing on trade only throws light on a small aspect of the introduction of the euro. Disadvantages of introducing the euro arising from the fact that eurozone countries can no longer devalue their currencies, remain unaccounted for.

One meaningful indicator of whether, for individual eurozone countries, the euro has on balance led to a growth or a fall in prosperity, is the trend in gross domestic product per head of population (GDP per-capita). This therefore forms the basis of the following empirical examination in which the synthetic control method is used on selected eurozone countries to determine how per-capita GDP would have developed if they had not joined the eurozone. Comparing this with the actual trend in per-capita GDP indicates the impact that accession to the euro has had on prosperity.

Read the full report in CEP.


james baldwin 2

How a dispute over the N-word became a dispiriting farce
Randall Kennedy, Chronicle of Higher Education,
8 February 2019

According to several undisputed news reports, it began in October, when a student read a sentence in class from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: ’You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.’

Airing the N-word caused a commotion. The professor leading the class, Philip Adamo, asked the students if they felt it was appropriate to voice the word Baldwin had written. In doing so, Adamo repeated the word. Later, he sent to the class two essays on the politics of the N-word. The next day, some students asked Adamo to leave the classroom while they discussed the lingering controversy. They were joined by other students who were not enrolled in the course. He complied with their request. Later, after a flurry of emails in which Adamo continued to try to explain himself, the university removed him from the course. He has since been suspended, pending the outcome of a formal review.

This dispiriting farce discredits those who have played a role in it and undermines Augsburg’s claim to be a serious institution of higher learning.

First, there are the students who complained that they had been shocked, hurt, and made to feel unsafe by the professor’s ‘use’ of the N-word. How can anyone sensibly think that Adamo was ‘using’ the N-word, in the sense of deploying it destructively? As Adamo stated in his own defense, there is ‘a distinction between use and mention. To use the word to inflict … harm is unacceptable. To mention the word in a discussion of how the word is used is necessary for honest discourse.’

This is not a case of a professor calling someone ‘nigger.’ This is a case of a professor exploring the thinking and expression of a writer who voiced the word to challenge racism. This is not a case of a professor negligently throwing about a term that’s long been deployed to terrorize, shame, and denigrate African-Americans. This is a case of a professor who, attentive to the sensibilities of his students, sought to encourage reflection about their anxieties and beliefs.

None of those distinctions require deep insight. They should be obvious. Students unable to appreciate them are students unprepared for university life.

Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Gloria De Piero is wrong: there’s nothing socialist
about opposing free movement
Jonathan Portes, New Statesman, 15 February 2019

A better analogy is China’s hukou system, which controls internal migration. As my colleague Adrian Favell has written, ‘Just as some Chinese cities and regions are now adopting measures to limit or marginalise migrant labour despite economic growth, some European countries – notably the UK after Brexit – are seeking to re-impose the ‘hukou’ of national citizenship on demand-led labour mobility which previously enjoyed the free movement rights of European citizenship.’

As with the EU, China is a continent sized economy, with very large differences in productivity, wages and job opportunities between different regions, which means people have a strong incentive to move. And as with the EU, people are mostly free to travel internally where they want – internal migration is not controlled at the borders – but, unlike with free movement, there are very considerable restrictions on their rights to reside permanently, work, and access public services. Moreover, this relatively restricted system for labour mobility coexists with free trade, capital mobility and so on. This is presumably the sort of system that De Piero (a strong supporter of the UK remaining in the EU customs union) would like to see operating in the EU, or between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

Is there anything ‘socialist’ about this? Well, it would certainly be hard to argue that, overall, it’s inhibited China’s economic development to date. And I don’t want to enter into the difficult debate about whether China is socialist, capitalist or its own unique mixture.

But what is clear, and relevant here, is that the idea that the hukou system is good for Chinese workers is delusional. Quite the contrary. It creates a two-tier workforce, with migrant workers having fewer rights and less job security, enabling employers to pay them less and treat the worse; and at the same time, to use the availability of this class of workers with inferior rights to undermine the bargaining power of workers in general. Indeed, to the extent that there are genuine issues with ‘undercutting’ of wages and conditions in the EU, they typically relate not to workers’ rights to move, but to employers’ ability to do exactly this, under for example the pre-reform Posted Workers Directive.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


This may be the world’s deadliest job.
But there’s ‘No choice except to join.’
David Zucchino & Fahim Abed,
New York Times, 27 February 2019

Afghanistan’s war is killing at a staggering rate. President Ashraf Ghani said in January that 45,000 soldiers and police officers had died in combat since late 2014. In recent months, the pace has been 30 to 40 deaths a day, a toll that one senior American commander described to Congress as ‘not sustainable.’

In a country that has endured 40 years of war, each death is a fresh blow to families and communities that have already borne too much.

That is one reason for heightened interest in peace talks between the United States and the Taliban that for some have raised hopes for an end to war — or at least for an interlude of peace. Taliban delegates are meeting with American negotiators in Qatar this week.

But parents like Ms. Bebe and Shen Gul, 70, who lost two policemen sons to Taliban ambushes in northern Afghanistan, are uneasy about what peace might bring.

Mostly, they fear that a deal might bring the Taliban into government, putting a hated enemy of their families into power. But there is also the worry that a truce might lead to reprisals against their family members in the security forces — or end their jobs and the salaries that have become so important to their families.

‘If they dissolve the army, the Taliban may kill them,’ Mr. Gul said of his five sons who still serve in the security forces.

Many soldiers and police officers say they join out of patriotism and a sense of national duty. But their salaries also sustain extended families and, in villages like Shemal, an entire local economy.

‘We depend so much on their salaries — without them, we have nothing,’ said Malik Ajmer Khan, 53, a village elder whose own son is among some 300 village men he said have joined the security forces in the 18-year war.

Mr. Khan said the village cannot survive solely on its wheat and corn crops, or on the goats that roam steep mountain paths leading to the village. Accessible by car and then by foot via a muddy track beneath the snow-dusted peaks of eastern Afghanistan, Shemal is so remote that Mr. Khan said some villagers have never visited nearby Jalalabad — or any city.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Muslim, Islamic, Indian, or all of the above:
on Pakistan’s identity crisis
Mohammed Ayoob, The Hindu, 17 January 2019

Maududi had opposed Partition for two reasons. One, he believed that nationalism was the very antithesis of Islam which enjoined a universal community of all true believers. Two, he intensely distrusted the modernist leaders of the Pakistan movement, who he compared to Ataturk, as the harbingers of a secular, not Islamic, state.

However, after Pakistan came into existence, Maududi moved to the new country and changed his tune. He began agitating for a purely Islamic state that combined the most intrusive aspects of the modern Westphalian state in terms of social control with a government run by a vanguard Leninist party like the Jamaat-i-Islami committed to the implementation of Islamic law. In his conception of the ideal Islamic state, the legislature’s power would be circumscribed by the dictates of the Sharia, but the executive under persons of exceptional probity and commitment to Islam would possess near-dictatorial powers.

Although the traditionalist ulama and the Islamists were often at daggers drawn with one another, they combined forces against the modernists to introduce ‘Islamic’ provisions in Pakistan’s first and subsequent Constitutions. Under their joint pressure, the modernists have been steadily losing ground, especially since the 1980s when the fallout of the Afghan ‘jihad’ began to radicalise the Pakistani polity.

However, the modernists, represented by mainstream Pakistani parties, even if weakened, have retained enough residual authority, often with the military’s support, to remain in control of most of the levers of state. This situation has had two consequences. One, the religious parties and the Islamists feeling they have been politically marginalised have often taken recourse to extra-constitutional means, such as mammoth demonstrations, to assert their clout. Two, it has led to an emergence of extremist and terrorist manifestations of political Islam, several of them Frankenstein’s monsters created by the Pakistani military over whom it now has little control.

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.

Read the full article in the Hindu.


Led willingly by Fate
Peter Adamson, TLS, 12 February 2019

What then is the case for broadening our horizons, as both want us to do? The first point to be made is of course that worthwhile philosophy has, in fact, been produced in other cultures. Once you are convinced of this, you cannot deny that the typical Philosophy department is in the same situation as, say, a Literature department that refuses to accept the existence of literature not written in English, or a History department that only covers European history. But is it so obvious that ‘philosophy’, in the sense that has come down from the Greeks, did exist in cultures like China and India, which were mostly or entirely untouched by the Greek philosophical tradition? In a word, yes. Van Norden’s frustration with the sceptics is understandable. As he rightly says: ‘any acquaintance with Indian philosophy reveals that, in terms of both methodology and subject matter, it is philosophical even according to the most narrow standards that Anglo-European philosophy might supply. Just open a book!’ Someone who does open a book will readily find that Indian philosophers, beginning around the same time as the Greeks, engaged in elaborate discussions and debates concerning the structure of sound arguments, the relation between desire and action, the possibility of non-physical entities, the nature of political rule, the contribution of sense experience to knowledge and pretty well everything else philosophers standardly worry about.

As Van Norden also recognizes, it is even easier to show that there has been philosophy in the Islamic world, because it engaged directly with the Greek tradition. The Islamic world produced many commentaries on Aristotle, as well as original treatises on all the departments of Greek philosophy – writings that then had a decisive impact on scholastic European philosophy. That impact was so immense that, even if you only cared about European philosophy, you would still need to know quite a bit about philosophy in the Islamic world. For such Eurocentric purposes you could still skip the ‘post-classical’ (after 1200 AD, or so) authors, who wrote too late to be translated into Latin and have thus been until recently excluded from histories of philosophy written in European languages. As it turns out, historians of philosophy in the Islamic world are currently debating whether post-classical texts should be classified as philosophy or rather mere theology. Baggini reports stumbling across an argument along these lines at a conference. Van Norden’s ‘Just open a book!’ advice is relevant here, too, because the post-classical authors were quite obviously doing plenty of philosophy and at just as high a level as authors of the classical period. True, they were often offering their subtle arguments in a broadly theological context, but as Baggini says at one point: ‘In separating theology from philosophy the modern West is the global exception, not the rule’.

Read the full article in TLS.


Molar tooth from Denisova cave

Siberia’s ancient ghost clan starts to surrender its secrets
Ewan Callaway, Nature, 27 February 2019

Almost one decade after their discovery, Denisovans are finally coming into focus. Scientists are gaining confidence that they will soon uncover more remains of this ancient population from sites other than Denisova cave — if they haven’t already. Researchers have raised the possibility that some unusual fossils in China might be Denisovan.

‘It’s really a hunt to find Denisovans,’ says Andrey Krivoshapkin, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, who is excavating caves near Denisova and sites in central Asia for clues.

Denisova 3, as the bone is now known, raised questions that scientists are still grappling with. As well as revealing the existence of the mysterious new hominins1, the DNA found in it suggested that Denisovans and Neanderthals are both descended from an ancestral population that, further research has shown, diverged from that of modern humans in the past 800,000 years, and probably lived throughout Asia3. Humans across the continent still carry Denisovan ancestry in varying proportions.

Denisova Cave is still the only place where Denisovans have been found, and discoveries such as Denny suggest that the site was once a nexus for various groups of human. When it comes to understanding such interactions, Pääbo adds: ‘It’s one of the most — if not the most — important sites in the world.’

In the years that followed the discovery of Denisovans, scientists used DNA sequencing to attribute a few molar teeth from the cave to the same group4. They have also found other remains that harboured Neanderthal DNA. The analysis of Denny fills in some important details about the two groups. ‘We knew that Denisovans and Neanderthals had been there. We just didn’t think they interacted this intimately,’ says Pääbo. ‘It was so amazing to find direct proof — to find these people in the act, almost, of mixing.’

Read the full article in Nature.


Wider definition of harm can be manipulated
to restrict media freedom
Index on Censorship, 18 February 2019

Despite a number of reports, including the government’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper, that have examined the issue over the past year, none have yet been able to come up with a definition of harmful content that goes beyond definitions of speech and expression that are already illegal. DCMS recognises this in its report when it quotes the Secretary of State Jeremy Wright discussing ‘the difficulties surrounding the definition.’ Despite acknowledging this, the report’s authors nevertheless expect ‘technical experts’ to be able to set out ‘what constitutes harmful content’ that will be overseen by an independent regulator.

International experience shows that in practice it is extremely difficult to define harmful content in such a way that would target only ‘bad speech’. Last year, for example, activists in Vietnam wrote an open letter to Facebook complaining that Facebook’s system of automatically pulling content if enough people complained could ‘silence human rights activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam’, while Facebook has shut down the livestreams of people in the United States using the platform as a tool to document their experiences of police violence.

‘It is vital that any new system created for regulating social media protects freedom of expression, rather than introducing new restrictions on speech by the back door,’ said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. ‘We already have laws to deal with harassment, incitement to violence, and incitement to hatred. Even well-intentioned laws meant to tackle hateful views online often end up hurting the minority groups they are meant to protect, stifle public debate, and limit the public’s ability to hold the powerful to account.’

The select committee report provides the example of Germany as a country that has legislated against harmful content on tech platforms. However, it fails to mention the German Network Reinforcement Act was legislating on content that was already considered illegal, nor the widespread criticism of the law that included the UN rapporteur on freedom of expression and groups such as Human Rights Watch. It also cites the fact that one in six of Facebook’s moderators now works in Germany as ‘practical evidence that legislation can work.’

‘The existence of more moderators is not evidence that the laws work,’ said Ginsberg. ‘Evidence would be if more harmful content had been removed and if lawful speech flourished. Given that there is no effective mechanism for challenging decisions made by operators, it is impossible to tell how much lawful content is being removed in Germany. But the fact that Russia, Singapore and the Philippines have all cited the German law as a positive example of ways to restrict content online should give us pause.’

Read the full article in Index on Censorship.


Promises, promises, and precision medicine
Michael J. Joyner & Nigel Paneth,
Journal of Clinical Investigation, 28 January 2019

Precision medicine asserts a tight linkage between individual variability in DNA sequence and disease causation. For rare diseases, DNA sequencing has improved the clinical eval- uation of many patients. Yet interventions making use of this new information have been limited, and a problematic side effect, especially for family members, is that estimates of the penetrance of pathogenic DNA variants decline as more unaffected individuals are screened. Reclassification of vari- ants initially thought to be pathogenic has proven to be a common problem.

A few gene variants were once thought to explain much of the risk of most common complex diseases — the ‘common disease/common variant’ hypothesis. GWAS, however, have made it clear that hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, many cancers, and traits such as obesity are each linked to many hundreds of gene variants that individually and even collectively explain only a small fraction of the variance in disease frequency. Extensive analyses of thou- sands of potential gene-health outcomes often fail to match, let alone exceed, the predictive power of a few simply acquired and readily measured characteristics such as family history, neighborhood, socio- economic circumstances, or even measurements made with nothing more than a tape measure and a bathroom scale (6). Many of the gene variants uncovered in these expensive studies are also remote from any known or plausible biological mechanism. The failure of hundreds of GWAS to find actionable relationships between exposure and disease shows that this key foundational assumption of preci- sion medicine is unfounded.

Absent the expected tight linkage between a few DNA variants and disease, the diagnostic and prognostic power of DNA testing has been limited to a few highly penetrant examples such as BRCA variants in breast cancer. The argument, therefore, has shifted to ‘polygenic risk scores,’ which use large numbers of gene variants with very small effect sizes as tools for predicting disease. But finding correlations between these risk scores and disease is only the first step in using them for population screening and early intervention. To minimize both missed cases and overdiagnosis, screening parameters such as sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value must be determined in specific populations and evidence produced that such screening improves health (7). Notably, arguments in favor of polygenic risk scores are, like traditional prediction models, probabilistic and not precise as envisioned.

The operative question, however, should not be whether genes predict but whether genes add explanatory value to what we already know. In the case of coronary heart disease, gene scores add little to traditional risk prediction models. Thus, a second foundational idea underpinning precision medicine has major limitations.

Read the full article in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.


One of the biggest at-home DNA testing companies
is working with the FBI
Salvador Hernandez, Buzzfeed News, 31 January 2019

For detectives across the country desperate for leads, investigative genealogy has become the newest frontier for law enforcement agencies. By uploading DNA collected from a crime scene to genealogy databases, detectives have been able to locate distant relatives of suspected serial killers and rapists. Then, assembling a genealogical tree from that information, they have worked to identify suspects of crimes.

Until now, investigators have limited their searches to public and free databases, where genealogy enthusiasts had willingly uploaded the data knowing it could be accessible to anyone.

Now, under the previously undisclosed cooperation with Family Tree, the FBI has gained access to more than a million DNA profiles from the company, most of which were uploaded before the company’s customers had any knowledge of its relationship with the FBI.

Despite the concerns over privacy, officials at Family Tree touted their work with the FBI.

‘Without realizing it [Family Tree DNA founder and CEO Bennett Greenspan] had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever,’ the company said in a statement.

Officials at Family Tree said customers could decide to opt out of any familial matching, which would prevent their profiles from being searchable by the FBI. But by doing so, customers would also be unable to use one of the key features of the service: finding possible relatives through DNA testing.

For people who used the service not knowing the FBI had access to it, the news was concerning.

‘All in all, I feel violated, I feel they have violated my trust as a customer,’ Leah Larkin, a genetic genealogist based in Livermore, California, told BuzzFeed News. ‘I’ve got to decide whether I want to opt out of matching or delete my kits.

Read the full article in Buzzfed News.


Surgical stitch-up: meet the placebo surgeon
Xan Rice, New Statesman, 20 February 2019

Soon after her follow-up visit to the hospital Carol Brennan forgot about the trial. It felt so much like she had experienced proper surgery – the post-operative pain, the loss of voice, the sling – and she had got better, so she assumed she had not been in the placebo group.

Three years later, in 2017, she bumped into Carr at a social occasion in their village. By then, the trial was over, and Carr was allowed to reveal to her the truth. An endoscope had been inserted in her shoulder, allowing him to see inside, but that was the extent of the operation. She had received sham surgery.

’I was flabbergasted,’ Brennan told me. ‘I started questioning what had happened in my brain.’

The results of Carr’s study were published in the Lancet in November that year. The groups that received genuine surgery (90 patients) and placebo surgery (94 patients) reported substantial improvement six months and one year after the operation. This suggested that the ‘treatment effect’ of the surgery was not due to the removal of bone and soft tissue.

The third group of 90 patients, who had received no treatment – not even physiotherapy or pain relief – also reported feeling much better, if not by quite the same amount.

This small difference in improvement between the surgical and non-surgical groups, Carr and his co-authors wrote, could be due to a number of factors, including a ‘surgical placebo effect’ of the procedure and the rest and physiotherapy treatment that were prescribed to patients following the operation. The most plausible conclusion, they said, was that shoulder decompression surgery ‘does not provide patients with a clinically important benefit’.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Picasso Guernica

A philosopher argues that an AI can’t be an artist
Sean Dorrance Kelly, MIT Technology Review,
21 February 2019

Creativity is among the most mysterious and impressive achievements of human existence. But what is it?

Creativity is not just novelty. A toddler at the piano may hit a novel sequence of notes, but they’re not, in any meaningful sense, creative. Also, creativity is bounded by history: what counts as creative inspiration in one period or place might be disregarded as ridiculous, stupid, or crazy in another. A community has to accept ideas as good for them to count as creative.

As in Schoenberg’s case, or that of any number of other modern artists, that acceptance need not be universal. It might, indeed, not come for years—sometimes creativity is mistakenly dismissed for generations. But unless an innovation is eventually accepted by some community of practice, it makes little sense to speak of it as creative.

Advances in artificial intelligence have led many to speculate that human beings will soon be replaced by machines in every domain, including that of creativity. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, predicts that by 2029 we will have produced an AI that can pass for an average educated human being. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, is more circumspect. He does not give a date but suggests that philosophers and mathematicians defer work on fundamental questions to ‘superintelligent’ successors, which he defines as having ‘intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.’

Both believe that once human-level intelligence is produced in machines, there will be a burst of progress—what Kurzweil calls the ‘singularity’ and Bostrom an ‘intelligence explosion’—in which machines will very quickly supersede us by massive measures in every domain. This will occur, they argue, because superhuman achievement is the same as ordinary human achievement except that all the relevant computations are performed much more quickly, in what Bostrom dubs ‘speed superintelligence.’

So what about the highest level of human achievement—creative innovation? Are our most creative artists and thinkers about to be massively surpassed by machines?


Human creative achievement, because of the way it is socially embedded, will not succumb to advances in artificial intelligence. To say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to.

Read the full article in the MIT Technology Review.


Pint-size philosophers
Mchael W berger, Penn Today, 8 February 2019

In the Mindfulness Room at Benjamin B. Comegys School in southwest Philadelphia, nine fifth graders sit around a large rectangular table made from four smaller tables pushed together. The staccato chatter and constant movement evoke a feeling of organized chaos, with students bobbing up and down, and at least one sitting at his chair’s front edge, coat and backpack firmly in place on his body.

When the bell rings and the classroom door closes, the noise mostly wanes and Penn philosophy professor Karen Detlefsen stands in front of the group to introduce the day’s teaching team—two Penn undergrads and one from Haverford College—then hands over the reins to Ethan Nelson, a soft-spoken Penn senior who starts discussing beauty. Detlefsen moves to the back of the room.

After a short video about first cousins named Lisa and Lida, Nelson asks the students how the girls act before they notice they have different skin colors. Ten-year-old Kynai Tindell raises her hand. ‘They’re looking out for each other,’ she says. ‘They’re always together, no matter what happened.’

Nelson counters: How does their grandma make them feel when she learns they’re upset about their appearance? ‘That no matter how different they are, they’re still family,’ Kynai answers.

Before Nelson moves on, he asks the students to put up a hand if they’ve heard someone say something negative about another person’s skin color. Five hands shoot up and several students talk at once. ‘I felt disappointed,’ Kynai says. ‘I felt mad,’ says a 10-year-old boy named Hamzah Thompson. ‘There are a lot of people who do it.’

It’s almost hard to believe it’s the same group from a few minutes prior, such is the transformation from verging-on-boredom to energetic participation. And though it’s not easy to get 10- and 11-year-olds to discuss race, particularly with adults they don’t know well, Detleftsen and the three undergraduates have done just that. During a dozen sessions, they’ve also fostered conversations about friendship and logic, about jumping to conclusions and moral dilemmas, all under the auspices of Detlefsen’s Making a Difference in Diverse Communities grant awarded by the School of Arts and Sciences.

Read the full article in Penn Today.


DNA gets a new — and bigger — genetic alphabet
Carl Zimmer, New York Times, 21 February 2019

In 1985, the chemist Steven A. Benner sat down with some colleagues and a notebook and sketched out a way to expand the alphabet of DNA. He has been trying to make those sketches real ever since.

On Thursday, Dr. Benner and a team of scientists reported success: in a paper, published in Science, they said they have in effect doubled the genetic alphabet.

Natural DNA is spelled out with four different letters known as bases — A, C, G and T. Dr. Benner and his colleagues have built DNA with eight bases — four natural, and four unnatural. They named their new system Hachimoji DNA (hachi is Japanese for eight, moji for letter).

Crafting the four new bases that don’t exist in nature was a chemical tour-de-force. They fit neatly into DNA’s double helix, and enzymes can read them as easily as natural bases, in order to make molecules.

‘We can do everything here that is necessary for life,’ said Dr. Benner, now a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida.

Hachimoji DNA could have many applications, including a far more durable way to store digital data that could last for centuries. ‘This could be huge that way,’ said Dr. Nicholas V. Hud, a biochemist at Georgia Institute of Technology who was not involved in research.

It also raises a profound question about the nature of life elsewhere in the universe, offering the possibility that the four-base DNA we are familiar with may not be the only chemistry that could support life.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Google Translate is a manifestation
of Wittgenstein’s theory of language
Olivia Goldhill, Quartz, 13 February 2019

More than 60 years after philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories on language were published, the artificial intelligence behind Google Translate has provided a practical example of his hypotheses. Patrick Hebron, who works on machine learning in design at Adobe and studied philosophy with Wittgenstein expert Garry Hagberg for his bachelor’s degree at Bard College, notes that the networks behind Google Translate are a very literal representation of Wittgenstein’s work.

Google employees have previously acknowledged that Wittgenstein’s theories gave them a breakthrough in making their translation services more effective, but somehow, this key connection between philosophy of language and artificial intelligence has long gone under-celebrated and overlooked.

Crucially, Google Translate functions by making sense of words in their context. The translation service relies on an algorithm created by Google employees called word2vec, which creates ‘vector representations’ for words, which essentially means that each word is represented numerically.

For the translations to work, programmers have to then create a ‘neural network,’ a form of machine learning, that’s trained to understand how these words relate to each other. Most words have several meanings (‘trunk,’ for example, can refer to part of an elephant, tree, luggage, or car, notes Hebron), and so Google Translate has to understand the context. The neural network will read millions of texts, focusing on the two words preceding and following on from any one word, so as to be able to predict a word based on the words surrounding it. The artificial intelligence calculates probabilistic connections between each word, which form the coordinates of an impossible-to-imagine multi-dimensional vector space.

Read the full article on Quartz.


The images are, from top down: ‘Immigrants’, created by students of St. Luke School at Colossi, Limassol and winner of the 2016 Saatchi Gallery/ Deutsche Bank Art Prize for Schools; An image of a replicant from ‘Bladerunner’; James Baldwin (photographer unknown); A molar tooth found at Denisova Cave, photograph by Robert Clark; ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

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