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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.


How the UK lost Brexit battle
Tom McTague, Politico, 27 March 2019

Nowhere was the imbalance of power more important than on the Irish border.

By February, 2017 — before Britain had even triggered Article 50 — Brussels had taken ownership of the problem and come up with the beginnings of a solution.

In a confidential Brexit note, titled ‘Brexit and the Border between Ireland the U.K.,’ the Commission proposed a soft land border for goods — and no border controls for agriculture and food. In effect, the island of Ireland would be treated as unified when it came to food and farming. Northern Ireland would be subject to EU law even after it had left.

The kicker: This meant there would have to be border controls within the U.K. — between Britain and Northern Ireland.

‘Ireland asked for something,’ one European Commission official said. ‘But so did the EU: single market integrity in Northern Ireland.’

According to Connelly’s ‘Brexit & Ireland,’ the memo ‘acknowledged the sensitivity of this idea,’ because of the fury it would cause among unionists in Northern Ireland. ‘As the Commission’s Irish interlocutors have indicated,’ the note stated, ‘insisting on such a solution could harm the peace process.’

But it was the only way under EU law, the Commission concluded, given the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU’s customs union.

The discussion about the border was part of the EU’s work on its Brexit negotiating ‘bible,’ in preparation for the U.K.’s official declaration of departure. It was published, after extensive consultation with national governments, at the April leaders’ summit shortly after Theresa May triggered Article 50 on March 29, 2017.

Like a balloon slowly expanded from its original form, the negotiating guidelines were simply a blown-up version of the statements published by the EU in the hours after the result was announced. As the talks dragged on, the balloon continued to expand but never substantially changed shape.

There must be a ‘balance of rights and obligations’ the agreement declared. ‘The integrity of the single market must be preserved, which means the four freedoms are indivisible and excludes any cherry-picking,’ it read.

Read the full article in Politico.


New age of warfare: How Internet mercenaries
do battle for authoritarian governments

Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman, Ronen Bergman & Nicole Perlroth, New York Times, 21 March 2019

The man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s ruthless campaign to stifle dissent went searching for ways to spy on people he saw as threats to the kingdom. He knew where to go: a secretive Israeli company offering technology developed by former intelligence operatives.

It was late 2017 and Saud al-Qahtani — then a top adviser to Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince — was tracking Saudi dissidents around the world, part of his extensive surveillance efforts that ultimately led to the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In messages exchanged with employees from the company, NSO Group, Mr. al-Qahtani spoke of grand plans to use its surveillance tools throughout the Middle East and Europe, like Turkey and Qatar or France and Britain.

The Saudi government’s reliance on a firm from Israel, an adversary for decades, offers a glimpse of a new age of digital warfare governed by few rules and of a growing economy, now valued at $12 billion, of spies for hire.

Today even the smallest countries can buy digital espionage services, enabling them to conduct sophisticated operations like electronic eavesdropping or influence campaigns that were once the preserve of major powers like the United States and Russia. Corporations that want to scrutinize competitors’ secrets, or a wealthy individual with a beef against a rival, can also command intelligence operations for a price, akin to purchasing off-the-shelf elements of the National Security Agency or the Mossad…

The company has established an ethics committee, which decides whether it can sell its spyware to countries based on their human rights records as reported by global organizations like the World Bank’s human capital index, and other indicators. NSO would not sell to Turkey, for example, because of its poor record on human rights, current and former employees said.

But on the World Bank index, Turkey ranks higher than Mexico and Saudi Arabia, both NSO clients. A spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Defense, which needs to authorize any contract that NSO wins from a foreign government, declined to answer questions about the company.

A lawsuit alleged last year that in the months before his death, Saudi Arabia used NSO products to spy on Mr. Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist strangled and dismembered in October by Saudi operatives inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. NSO denies the accusation. Several of Mr. Khashoggi’s closest contacts were targets of NSO hacking tools, Citizen Lab reported. Without access to Mr. Khashoggi’s devices, researchers have not confirmed whether he was a direct target of NSO surveillance.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Debunking the myth that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic
Peter Beinart, Forward, 27 February 2019

It is an understandable impulse: let the people threatened by antisemitism define antisemitism. The problem is that, in many countries, Jewish leaders serve both as defenders of local Jewish interests and defenders of the Israeli government. And the Israeli government wants to define anti-Zionism as bigotry because doing so helps Israel kill the two-state solution with impunity.

For years, Barack Obama and John Kerry warned that if Israel continued the settlement growth in the West Bank that made a Palestinian state impossible, Palestinians would stop demanding a Palestinian state alongside Israel and instead demand one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither Jewish nor Palestinian, that replaces Israel.

Defining anti-Zionism as antisemitism reduces that threat. It means that if Palestinians and their supporters respond to the demise of the two-state solution by demanding one equal state, some of the world’s most powerful governments will declare them bigots.

Which leaves Israel free to entrench its own version of one state, which denies millions of Palestinians basic rights. Silencing Palestinians isn’t a particularly effective way to fight rising antisemitism, much of which comes from people who like neither Palestinians nor Jews. But, just as important, it undermines the moral basis of that fight.

Antisemitism isn’t wrong because it is wrong to denigrate and dehumanise Jews. Antisemitism is wrong because it is wrong to denigrate and dehumanise anyone. Which means, ultimately, that any effort to fight antisemitism that contributes to the denigration and dehumanisation of Palestinians is no fight against antisemitism at all.

Read the full article in Forward.


Doomed Boeing jets lacked 2 safety features
that company sold only as extras
Hiroko Tabuchi & David Gelles,
New York Times, 21 March 2019

As the pilots of the doomed Boeing jets in Ethiopia and Indonesia fought to control their planes, they lacked two notable safety features in their cockpits.

One reason: Boeing charged extra for them.

For Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, the practice of charging to upgrade a standard plane can be lucrative. Top airlines around the world must pay handsomely to have the jets they order fitted with customized add-ons.

Sometimes these optional features involve aesthetics or comfort, like premium seating, fancy lighting or extra bathrooms. But other features involve communication, navigation or safety systems, and are more fundamental to the plane’s operations.

Many airlines, especially low-cost carriers like Indonesia’s Lion Air, have opted not to buy them — and regulators don’t require them…

Add-on features can be big moneymakers for plane manufacturers.

In 2013, around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737 Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2 million on various options for such a narrow-body aircraft, according to a report by Jackson Square Aviation, an aircraft leasing firm in San Francisco. That would be about 5 percent of the plane’s final price.

Boeing charges extra, for example, for a backup fire extinguisher in the cargo hold. Past incidents have shown that a single extinguishing system may not be enough to put out flames that spread rapidly through the plane. Regulators in Japan require airlines there to install backup fire extinguishing systems, but the F.A.A. does not.

‘There are so many things that should not be optional, and many airlines want the cheapest airplane you can get,’ said Mark H. Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former engineering test pilot. ‘And Boeing is able to say, ‘Hey, it was available.’’

But what Boeing doesn’t say, he added, is that it has become ‘a great profit center’ for the manufacturer.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Eric Hobsbawm: Historical cosmonaut
David Kynaston, TLS, 5 March 2019

Yet to look at the index to The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm’s survey of ‘The Short Twentieth Century’ that in 1994 became his bestselling, most celebrated book, and see no mention of three of the greatest witnesses-cum-chroniclers of man’s inhumanity to man under communist regimes – Vasily Grossman and Nadezhda Mandelstam in Russia, Jung Chang in China – is in its way shocking. There is also arguably a vacuum at the level of causation (his most prized level). ‘The concession that the USSR was ‘bound’ to fail is simply an inversion of the previous assumption that it was ‘bound’ to succeed’, reflected Tony Judt in his initially generous but ultimately searing 2003 reappraisal of Hobsbawm. ‘Either way the responsibility lies with History, not men, and old Communists can sleep easy. This retroactive determinism is nothing but Whig History plus dialectics.’ And Judt quotes a cynical communist dictum about how dialectics ‘is the art and technique of always landing on your feet’.

In 1969 the TLS’s anonymous reviewer of Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire (his overview of Britain from the 1750s to the 1960s) was E. P. Thompson, the other great British left-wing historian of the era and who had left the Communist Party after Hungary, becoming a key figure in the New Left. The praise was sincere – especially of how his ‘analytic method’ showed the reader ‘how to ask historical questions, how to set them out and argue them, how to resist immersion in trivia, how to scrutinize those hidden conceptual assumptions which often decide the criteria by which facts are selected’ – but in the end Hobsbawm’s type of history was not Thompson’s: in part because ‘a high proportion of his facts are expressed in numerical form and sometimes give a spurious impression of hardness and indisputability’; but mainly because ‘we are invited to see history as the hawk or the helmeted airman – even, perhaps, as the cosmonaut – might see it, with a detachment which insists upon large temporal phrasing and a high level of generalization’. The price of such detachment, claimed Thompson, was that ‘he appears to forget at times – as Marx never forgot – that it is men who make their own history’. Or in short: ‘The historical cosmonaut in his orbit must often miss the hand-to-hand struggles, the patches of blood in the sand’.

Read the full article in TLS.


Lloyd's Building

The utopian dreams of 1960s architecture
Lynsey Hanley, New Statesman, 27 March 2019

Otto Saumarez Smith’s detailed and engrossing book about the mid-20th-century boom in urban redevelopment is as much a history of what might have been as one of what actually happened. The built environment bequeathed by the 1960s, he writes, has been ‘denigrated in books such as Crap Towns and Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards’: they document a ‘gimcrack modernism of tacky pedestrian precincts, grim underpasses, budget mega-structures, and gargantuan car parks’. What we ended up with was a long way from the bracing visions of architect-planners, working against constraints that were mainly social, historical and political, but increasingly financial as the decade wore on.

The book starts, as did the Sixties, in a rush of optimism and enthusiasm for a generation of architect-planners whose epic schemes to remould Victorian cities for the late 20th century were led by a collective social conscience rather than individual megalomania. They were influenced less by Le Corbusier than by the concept of ‘Townscape’, which advocated ‘urban forms that privileged the pedestrian’ and designs which, while often bracingly modern, complemented, rather than obliterated, existing buildings such as churches.

They perceived their task as immense, urgent and morally necessary, particularly in the north of England. In 1964, the Guardian reported on a ‘man-made hell in South Lancashire’, created by the Industrial Revolution and exacerbated by the onset of industrial decline. The Rector of Warrington claimed he worked in a ‘muck heap’, while a consultant at the town’s general hospital stated that nearly a tenth of acute admissions in the previous year were of women having taken overdoses ‘in a state of mental depression’ due to the poverty and misery of their surroundings.

But there was something missing: namely, money. The schemes proposed at the start of the 1960s were based on two assumptions: first, that economic growth would be sustainable and infinite (cue hollow laughter), and second, that a general trend towards mass affluence raised everyone with it. The reality in places such as Blackburn and Liverpool, which put forward two of the most drastic redevelopment schemes, was that they lagged far behind other parts of the country in terms of average income and car ownership, both predicates for new schemes based on driving and shopping. A new town for 100,000 ex-Londoners at Hook, Hampshire, its design influenced by the ‘dry beauty’ of Scandinavian modernism, never materialised, albeit for political as much as economic reasons.

There was also, in Saumarez Smith’s words, ‘an astonishing lack of imaginative foresight’ in plans that depicted, for instance, ‘people happily promenading’ under a giant flyover rather than scurrying under it as fast as possible. Graeme Shankland was known as ‘the butcher of Liverpool’ for his plan to sort out the city’s traffic problem by building a six-lane motorway through the middle of it. The failure of the scheme was a mixed blessing for Liverpudlians, who grew used to thinking its wartime bomb sites would never be filled – with motorways or anything else. The sociologist Tony Lane wrote of the city in 1978 that ‘the decline of Liverpool is not simply statistical, it is visible. ‘It looks as if it’s been bombed’ is a favourite local expression that does not exaggerate.’

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


To fix its problems now,
Labour must face the racism in its past
Maya Goodfellow, Guardian, 8 March 2019

This is a label people in Labour have long claimed. And to prove it, there are particular facts they point to. The introduction of the UK’s various Race Relations Acts all happened under Labour governments. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was established in the early years of the Blair government – crucially, though, after years of campaigning by Lawrence’s family. And even though it was often met with a frosty reception, there is a rich tradition of anti-racist and anti-colonial organising within Labour; leftwing activists and politicians, including shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, have helped drive some of the party’s positive changes.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are the party of Islamophobia, Go Home vans, the hostile environment, the deeply racist campaign in Smethwick and the still-revered former prime minister Margaret Thatcher who refused to enforce sanctions against South Africa during apartheid while deepening racial inequality at home. Surveying these pieces of British history and comparing these two wildly different parties against one another, how could you arrive at any conclusion other than that Labour has been the party of anti-racism? Labour and the Conservatives are so obviously not the same.

But the 1968 act was not some one-off aberration sullying Labour’s otherwise pristine record on anti-racism. The slightest glance at the party’s past demonstrates that any simple account of what it ‘has always been’ is pure fantasy. All through Labour history you find a more complicated story, which can’t be explained away as a few ‘bad apples’. There have been labourers who resented organising with Jewish workers in the early 1900s and trade unionists who played a part in attacking people of colour in 1919’s so-called ‘race riots’.

A little over 10 years ago, New Labour politicians were describing children whose parents were seeking asylum as ‘swamping’ UK schools, running a campaign that declared Labour as on ‘your side’ and the Lib Dems as ‘on the side of failed asylum seekers’, treating people of colour as not belonging to the nation, defending colonialism and overseeing policies that made asylum seekers destitute. And then there was the post-New Labour ‘controls on immigration’ mug under Ed Miliband.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Auden on no-platforming Pound
Edward Mendelson, NYR Daily, 27 February 2019

In 1945, when Bennett Cerf of Random House was preparing to send to the printer An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry, edited by William Rose Benét and Conrad Aiken for the Modern Library series, he omitted twelve early poems by Ezra Pound that Aiken had included in a 1927 anthology on which the new book had been based. In place of the poems, a note explained that, over Aiken’s protest, the publishers ‘flatly refused at this time to include a single line of Mr. Ezra Pound. This is a statement that the publishers are not only willing but delighted to print.’

In the years since Pound wrote those poems, he had become notorious for his fascist politics, florid anti-Semitism and racism, and hero-worshipping praise for Hitler and Mussolini. He stayed in Italy during the war, insisting on making radio broadcasts to American troops, urging them to drop their weapons and stop fighting on behalf of Jews and everyone else whom Pound hated. For these broadcasts, he was arrested after the war and charged with treason against the United States. At the end of 1945, he was awaiting trial in Washington, D.C.

In the eyes of many writers at the time, Cerf’s refusal to reprint Pound’s poems adopted the same logic that the Nazis had used when burning books by Jews and leftists. In January 1946, a few weeks after the anthology appeared, the critic of the New York Herald Tribune, Lewis Gannett, criticized Cerf’s decision in his widely read column, Cerf replied, in a letter that Gannett printed: ‘Pound, by his deliberate and consistent actions over a long period of years, sacrificed any claims, in my opinion, either to the title ‘poet’ or the title of ‘American.’’ Cerf continued, ‘Damn it, Lewis, this war is not over. The same ideology that caused it… is still too prevalent in the world. Every time you parade the work of a man who represents such ideas, especially while he still lives, you are in a sense glorifying him, and giving tacit approval to his point of view.’ Cerf wrote that his partners Donald Klopfer and Robert Haas ‘firmly agree on this point.’

The controversy spilled into national magazines, and Cerf met with both wide support and wide disagreement. Two months later, under pressure from writers he valued, especially Henry Steele Commager and Max Lerner, Cerf reversed his decision, and agreed to print the poems in future printings of the anthology. But he continued to insist that he had been right the first time.

The issues at stake in the arguments over the anthology have never ceased to be contentious. The same questions recur in recent arguments—to choose only one among dozens of possible examples—over whether Martin Heidegger should be banished from philosophy reading lists because he was a Nazi. W.H. Auden, one of Cerf’s authors at Random House, wrote Cerf some letters about Cerf’s action and its consequences that may still be clarifying today.

Read the full article in NYR Daily.


Why the left should unite behind open borders
Lea Ypi, New Statesman, 28 March 2019

The left-wing case against open borders is typically commited to class politics and is hostile to the depoliticising attitudes of humanitarian liberals. Leftist critics of immigration argue that this attitude fails to acknowledge the impact that globalisation has on working people. The wealthy cosmopolitan elites who advocate free trade and benefit from free movement are not those whose salaries, jobs and welfare benefits are undermined by uncontrolled flows of migrants, so the argument goes.

But there is also a different left-wing case for immigration: one that takes class politics seriously but doesn’t end up pitting domestic and migrant workers against one another. Karl Marx made this case in an important but little-known letter to internationalist activists Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt  in 1870. He was commenting on Irish immigration to England, but his words still resonate today. Marx wrote:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. […] He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the ‘niggers’ in the former slave states of the U.S.A.’

In turn, the Irish ‘pay him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English ruler in Ireland’. Marx’s letter offers an important insight that we can build upon when thinking about left-wing parties’ approach to immigration.

The left-wing criticism of open borders, that condemns liberal hypocrisy by emphasising how cheap labour benefits wealthy elites and harms poor workers, presents a distorted understanding of how social class functions in relation to the state. Marx was one of the first political philosophers to draw attention to the devastating effects this argument had on workers’ struggles.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Scientists rise up against statistical significance
Valentin Amrhein, Sander Greenland & Blake McShane,
Nature, 20 March 2019

In 2016, the American Statistical Association released a statement in The American Statistician warning against the misuse of statistical significance and P values. The issue also included many commentaries on the subject. This month, a special issue in the same journal attempts to push these reforms further. It presents more than 40 papers on ‘Statistical inference in the 21st century: a world beyond P < 0.05’. The editors introduce the collection with the caution ‘don’t say ‘statistically significant’’. Another article with dozens of signatories also calls on authors and journal editors to disavow those terms.

We agree, and call for the entire concept of statistical significance to be abandoned.

We are far from alone. When we invited others to read a draft of this comment and sign their names if they concurred with our message, 250 did so within the first 24 hours. A week later, we had more than 800 signatories — all checked for an academic affiliation or other indication of present or past work in a field that depends on statistical modelling (see the list and final count of signatories in the Supplementary Information). These include statisticians, clinical and medical researchers, biologists and psychologists from more than 50 countries and across all continents except Antarctica. One advocate called it a ‘surgical strike against thoughtless testing of statistical significance’ and ‘an opportunity to register your voice in favour of better scientific practices’.

We are not calling for a ban on P values. Nor are we saying they cannot be used as a decision criterion in certain specialized applications (such as determining whether a manufacturing process meets some quality-control standard). And we are also not advocating for an anything-goes situation, in which weak evidence suddenly becomes credible. Rather, and in line with many others over the decades, we are calling for a stop to the use of P values in the conventional, dichotomous way — to decide whether a result refutes or supports a scientific hypothesis.

Read the full article in Nature.


chagall exodus moses sees the sufferings of his people

The death and life of the Jewish century
Benjamin Balthaser, Boston Review, 20 March 2019

The defect in the liberal view of anti-Semitism is the same as the defect in the liberal view of all forms of racist and ethnic oppression: construing it as a matter of personal psychology rather than structural or institutional injustice, the likes of which can be fixed through education and legislation. On this view, anti-Semitism, like racism against African Americans or anti-queer bias, is something ‘deplorables’ engage in, presumably because they have not been to college or attended a Tim Wise anti-bias training on the job.

The anti-racist left arrives at a similar conclusion – that anti-Semitism isn’t ‘structural’ – by a different route. Where the liberal is blind to all structural oppression, the leftist only denies that it operates against Jews. Activist Linda Sarsour argued as much at a 2017 forum on anti-Semitism co-sponsored by Jacobin, Jewish Voice for Peace, Haymarket Books, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Unlike racism against people of color, anti-Semitism is ‘is not codified into law,’ she explained. While one might point out most forms of structural racism in the U.S. function within a colorblind legal framework, Sarsour was getting at a kind of materialist common sense around race most leftists share (myself included). Racism has been central to the regimes of capital accumulation since the country’s founding, and the law perpetuates these inequalities. As racial theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant articulated in their groundbreaking study Racial Formation in the United States (1986), race is a way of constructing and mobilizing economic and political rule by referring to ‘different types of human bodies.’ Anti-Semitism, in this scheme, may be vile, unfortunate, violent, but it is not central to the national—even global—system of capitalism. For this reason, Sarsour argued, Jews should have a seat at the table among coalitions against racism, but they shouldn’t hold the mic.

Far from contradicting Sarsour, most of the scholarship on Jewish-American identity by progressive Jewish authors has underscored that a firm line can be drawn between the structural racism faced by people of color and another variety of racism faced by European-descended Jewish Americans. Most notably, Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks(1998) charts how European-descended Ashkenazi Jews experienced the postwar boom the way most other ‘white ethnics’ did: with expanded economic opportunity, state and private employment, publicly funded higher education, and access to suburban home loans. Other books, such as Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise (1996) and Matt Jacobsen’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999), trace similar teleologies: as for other non-WASP Europeans, the inevitable assimilation into whiteness is predicated on a rejection of blackness and an embrace of suburban segregation patterns and segregated schooling. Whatever historical trauma Jews may collectively bear, this line of thinking goes, they still generally live among white people, and they are seen as just other white people by African Americans.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


A third wave of autocratization is here:
what is new about it?
Anna Luhrmann & Steffan I Lindberg,
Democratization, 1 March 2019

Many have noted that the optimism spurred by the force of the third wave of democratization was premature, including Fukuyama’s relegation of the reverse process – autocratization – to the history books. A plethora of autocracies defied the trend or made some half-hearted reforms while remaining in the grey zone between democracy and autocracy.

Yet, when assessments about ‘freedom in retreat’ or ‘democratic rollback’ emerged, they were frequently challenged. At the time, global measures of democracy had merely plateaued and established democracies did not appear to be in distress. Now evidence is mounting that a global reversal is challenging a series of established democracies, including the United States who were downgraded by both Freedom House and V-Dem in 2018.  Substantial autocratization has been recorded over the last 10 years in countries as diverse as Hungary, India, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. An increasingly bleak picture is emerging on the global state of democracy, even if some maintain that the achievements of the third wave of democratization are still noticeable.

Waldner and Lust recently concluded that ‘[t]he study of [democratic] backsliding is an important new research frontier’. A series of new studies on autocratization seems to have generated an emerging consensus on one important insight: the process of autocratization seems to have changed. Bermeo for example suggests a decline of the ‘most blatant forms of backsliding’ – such as military coups and election day vote fraud. Conversely, more clandestine ways of autocratization – harassment of the opposition, subversion of horizontal accountability – are on the rise. Svolik similarly argues that the risk of military coups has declined over time in new democracies, while the risk of self-coups remains. Mechkova et al. demonstrate that between 2006 and 2016 autocratization mainly maimed aspects such as media freedom and the space for civil society leaving the institutions of multiparty elections in place. Coppedge singled out the gradual concentration of power in the executive as a key contemporary pattern of autocratization – next to what he calls the more ‘classical’ path of intensified repression. ‘Executive aggrandizement’ is the term Bermeo uses for this process when ‘elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences’.

While the literature thus agrees that the process of autocratization has changed, it does not yet offer a systematic way of measuring the new mode of autocratization. The contributions build on case examples statistics on selected indicators of gradual autocratization – that is, military coups and electoral fraud, opinion polls, or on changes in quantitative measures over a set time period. Most existing studies on the causes of autocratization as well as descriptive overviews are also biased in that they include only cases of complete breakdown of democracies. Such binary approaches not only fail to capture the often protracted, gradual and opaque processes of contemporary regime change, but also exclude important variations: autocratization in democracies that have not (yet) lead to complete breakdown (for example Hungary) and reversals in electoral autocracies that never became democracies (for example Sudan).

Read the full article in Democratization.


The myth of fingerprints
Clive Thompson, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2019

Yet it also became clear, over time, that fingerprinting wasn’t as rock solid as boosters would suggest. Police experts would often proclaim in court that ‘no two people have identical prints’—even though this had never been proven, or even carefully studied. (It’s still not proven.)

Although that idea was plausible, ‘people just asserted it,’ Mnookin notes; they were eager to claim the infallibility of science. Yet quite apart from these scientific claims, police fingerprinting was also simply prone to error and sloppy work.

The real problem, Cole notes, is that fingerprinting experts have never agreed on ‘a way of measuring the rarity of an arrangement of friction ridge features in the human population.’ How many points of similarity should two prints have before the expert analyst declares they’re the same? Eight? Ten? Twenty? Depending on what city you were tried in, the standards could vary dramatically. And to make matters more complex, when police lift prints from a crime scene, they are often incomplete and unclear, giving authorities scant material to make a match.

So even as fingerprints were viewed as unmistakable, plenty of people were mistakenly sent to jail. Simon Cole notes that at least 23 people in the United States have been imprisoned after being wrongly connected to crime-scene prints. In North Carolina in 1985, Bruce Basden was arrested for murder and spent 13 months in jail before the print analyst realized he’d made a blunder.

Nonetheless, the reliability of fingerprinting today is rarely questioned in modern courts. One exception was J. Spencer Letts, a federal judge in California who in 1991 became suspicious of fingerprint analysts who’d testified in a bank robbery trial. Letts was astounded to hear that the standard for declaring that two prints matched varied widely from county to county. Letts threw out the fingerprint evidence from that trial.

‘I don’t think I’m ever going to use fingerprint testimony again,’ he said in court, sounding astonished, as Cole writes. ‘I’ve had my faith shaken.’ But for other judges, the faith still holds.

Read the full article in the Smithsonian Magazine.


‘State capture’: How the Gupta brothers
hijacked South Africa using bribes instead of bullets
Karan Mahajan, Vanity Fair, 3 March 2019

What the Guptas pulled off in South Africa has been extensively documented: the backroom deals, the rigged contracts, the wholesale plunder of national resources. The brothers, who declined to comment for this story, have denied all the accusations against them, and have yet to face charges. But the global arc of the tale—from a provincial town in India to the corporate boardrooms of London and New York—offers a case study in a new, systemic form of graft known as ‘state capture.’ This was a modern-day coup d’état, waged with bribery instead of bullets. It demonstrates how an entire country can fall to foreign influences without a single shot being fired—especially when that country is ruled by a divisive president who is skilled at fueling racial resentments, willing to fire his own intelligence chiefs to protect his business interests, and eager to use his elected position to enrich himself with unsavory investors. The Guptas had immigrated to South Africa from a backwater in India, but the skills they learned there proved indispensable in an age of globalized corruption.

Tragically, the scandal has also inflamed racial tensions in a country still struggling to recover from decades of apartheid. Indians, who came to South Africa under British rule in the 1860s as indentured laborers and traders, played a prominent role in the country’s anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles. Gandhi invented satyagraha in Johannesburg, and two of Nelson Mandela’s closest allies during his three decades in prison were South African Indians. But in a few short years, the Guptas had wiped away any lingering goodwill toward Indians, who make up less than 2.5 percent of the population. ‘Some miners are even saying that white people were better than these Indians,’ Richard Mgzulu, a union representative, told me. In one leaked e-mail, an employee complained that Rajesh Gupta referred to his black security guards as ‘monkeys.’

Arriving soon after the fall of apartheid, the Guptas showed that it was possible to hijack the best of Mandela’s intentions—that nonwhites should be given a chance to prosper—by turning them against the country. The Guptas ‘would have heard that these A.N.C. guys are suckers,’ said Ronnie Kasrils, a former African National Congress minister and comrade of Mandela’s. ‘They’re friendly, they’re open, they don’t have prejudice.’ After years of enduring corrupt and ruthless white rule, many A.N.C. members were also hungry for self-enrichment, believing it was their ‘time to eat,’ as one anti-apartheid activist told me. In the Guptas, they found the perfect enablers of their greed.

Read the full article in Vanity Fair.


White nationalism’s deep American roots
Adam Serwer, The Atlantic, April 2019

The concept of ‘white genocide’—extinction under an onslaught of genetically or culturally inferior nonwhite interlopers—may indeed seem like a fringe conspiracy theory with an alien lineage, the province of neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers. In popular memory, it’s a vestige of a racist ideology that the Greatest Generation did its best to scour from the Earth. History, though, tells a different story. King’s recent question, posed in a New York Times interview, may be appalling: ‘White nationalistwhite supremacistWestern civilization—how did that language become offensive?’ But it is apt. ‘That language’ has an American past in need of excavation. Without such an effort, we may fail to appreciate the tenacity of the dogma it expresses, and the difficulty of eradicating it. The president’s rhetoric about ‘shithole countries’ and ‘invasion’ by immigrants invites dismissal as crude talk, but behind it lie ideas whose power should not be underestimated.

The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of ‘race suicide’ during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. Perhaps the most important among them was a blue blood with a very impressive mustache, Madison Grant. He was the author of a 1916 book called The Passing of the Great Race, which spread the doctrine of race purity all over the globe.

Grant’s purportedly scientific argument that the exalted ‘Nordic’ race that had founded America was in peril, and all of modern society’s accomplishments along with it, helped catalyze nativist legislators in Congress to pass comprehensive restrictionist immigration policies in the early 1920s. His book went on to become Adolf Hitler’s ‘bible,’ as the führer wrote to tell him. Grant’s doctrine has since been rejuvenated and rebranded by his ideological descendants as ‘white genocide’ (the term genocide hadn’t yet been coined in Grant’s day). In an introduction to the 2013 edition of another of Grant’s works, the white nationalist Richard Spencer warns that ‘one possible outcome of the ongoing demographic transformation is a thoroughly miscegenated, and thus homogeneous and ‘assimilated,’ nation, which would have little resemblance to the White America that came before it.’ This language is vintage Grant.

Most Americans, however, quickly forgot who Grant was—but not because the country had grappled with his vision’s dangerous appeal and implications. Reflexive recoil was more like it: When Nazism reflected back that vision in grotesque form, wartime denial set in. Jonathan Peter Spiro, a historian and the author of Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (2009), described the backlash to me this way: ‘Even though the Germans had been directly influenced by Madison Grant and the American eugenics movement, when we fought Germany, because Germany was racist, racism became unacceptable in America. Our enemy was racist; therefore we adopted antiracism as our creed.’ Ever since, a strange kind of historical amnesia has obscured the American lineage of this white-nationalist ideology.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


Betty Lee, White matter fibre tracts, 2011 Brain Art winner

Neurosexism: the myth that
men and women have different brains
Lise Eliot, Nature, 27 February 2019

The history of sex-difference research is rife with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias, weak statistical power, inadequate controls and worse. Rippon, a leading voice against the bad neuroscience of sex differences, uncovers so many examples in this ambitious book that she uses a whack-a-mole metaphor to evoke the eternal cycle. A brain study purports to discover a difference between men and women; it is publicized as, ‘At last, the truth!’, taunting political correctness; other researchers expose some hyped extrapolation or fatal design flaw; and, with luck, the faulty claim fades away — until the next post hoc analysis produces another ‘Aha!’ moment and the cycle repeats. As Rippon shows, this hunt for brain differences ‘has been vigorously pursued down the ages with all the techniques that science could muster’. And it has exploded in the past three decades, since MRI research joined the fray.

Yet, as The Gendered Brain reveals, conclusive findings about sex-linked brain differences have failed to materialize. Beyond the ‘missing five ounces’ of female brain — gloated about since the nineteenth century — modern neuroscientists have identified no decisive, category-defining differences between the brains of men and women. In women’s brains, language-processing is not spread any more evenly across the hemispheres than it is in men’s, as a small 1995 Nature study proclaimed but a large 2008 meta-analysis disproved. Brain size increases with body size, and certain features, such as the ratio of grey to white matter or the cross-sectional area of a nerve tract called the corpus callosum, scale slightly non-linearly with brain size. But these are differences in degree, not kind. As Rippon notes, they are not seen when we compare small-headed men to large-headed women, and have no relationship to differences in hobbies or take-home pay.

Rippon’s central message is that ‘a gendered world will produce a gendered brain’. Her book stands with Angela Saini’s 2017 Inferior and Cordelia Fine’s 2010 Delusions of Gender in rooting out the ‘neurosexism’ that has pervaded attempts to understand difference at the brain level. It’s a juicy history that would make for super-fun reading, if it were all truly in the past. Sadly, the moles keep surfacing. Rippon begins with an 1895 quote from social psychologist Gustave Le Bon, who used his portable cephalometer to declare that women ‘represent the most inferior forms of human evolution’. She ends in 2017, with Google engineer James Damore blogging to co-workers about ‘biological causes’ for the dearth of women in tech and leadership roles.

Read the full article in Nature.


What immigration restrictionists can’t foresee
Elizabeth F Cohen, The Atlantic, 13 March 2019

But in the past, when the government has tried to control demographics with immigration policy, it hasn’t gotten what it wished for.

Consider the country’s response to the wave of immigration in the early 20th century, to which Frum compares our current wave, and which represents the largest episode of mass migration the United States has ever experienced in proportion to its population. People in power thought it was harmful to let so many minimally educated poor, nonwhite immigrants into the country, into American neighborhoods, schools, and eventually even families. So Congress passed the first version of ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act.

The act used the 1890 census to create benchmarks for allowing immigration only from countries that had sent early settlers to the United States (primarily England) and for restricting immigration from European nations whose residents were considered racially inferior and had not been part of the country’s original demographics, for example, Italy, Poland, Germany, Scandinavian nations, and even Ireland.

The law was supposed to reestablish a population similar to the settlers—but that’s not what happened. Its authors failed to recognize the consequences of cutting off most immigration, and they therefore omitted provisions to restrict immigration from the Americas. As European immigration plummeted, undocumented immigration from Mexico ticked upward to meet the demand for cheap labor. Brutally exploitive temporary-work provisions, such as the bracero program and the H-2 program to supply sugar-cane farmers with cutters, exacerbated this effect. By 1960, the population of the United States that had been born in Mexico and other Latin American countries had increased to 2.5 times its former size, despite the fact that the total population of foreign-born persons had gone down by 40 percent. Instead of engineering a population of highly educated, northwestern Europeans, the authors of the legislation created new immigrant communities that persist to this day.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


Why science needs philosophy
Lucie Laplane, Paolo Mantovani, Ralph Adolphs, Hasok Chang, Alberto Mantovani, Margaret McFall-Ngai, Carlo Rovelli, Elliott Sober & Thomas Pradeu,
PNAS, 5 March 2019

The study of cognition and cognitive neuroscience offers a striking illustration of the deep and long-lasting influence of philosophy on science. As with immunology, philosophers have formulated influential theories and experiments, helped initiate specific research programs, and contributed to paradigm shifts. But the scale of the influence dwarfs the immunology case. Philosophy had a part in the move from behaviorism to cognitivism and computationalism in the 1960s. Perhaps most visible has been the theory of the modularity of mind, proposed by philosopher Jerry Fodor . Its influence on theories of cognitive architecture can hardly be overstated. In a tribute after Fodor’s passing in 2017, leading cognitive psychologist James Russell spoke in the magazine of the British Psychological Society of ‘cognitive developmental psychology BF (before Fodor) and AF (after Fodor)’.

Modularity refers to the idea that mental phenomena arise from the operation of multiple distinct processes, not from a single undifferentiated one. Inspired by evidence in experimental psychology, by Chomskian linguistics, and by new computational theories in philosophy of mind, Fodor theorized that human cognition is structured in a set of lower-level, domain-specific, informationally encapsulated specialized modules and a higher-level, domain-general central system for abductive reasoning with information only flowing upward vertically, not downward or horizontally (i.e., between modules). He also formulated stringent criteria for modularity. To this day, Fodor’s proposal sets the terms for much empirical research and theory in many areas of cognitive science and neuroscience, including cognitive development, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive anthropology. Although his theory has been revised and challenged, researchers continue to use, tweak, and debate his approach and basic conceptual toolkit.

Philosophy and science share the tools of logic, conceptual analysis, and rigorous argumentation. Yet philosophers can operate these tools with degrees of thoroughness, freedom, and theoretical abstraction that practicing researchers often cannot afford in their daily activities.

The false-belief task constitutes another key instance of philosophy’s impact on the cognitive sciences. Philosopher Daniel Dennett was the first to conceive the basic logic of this experiment as a revision of a test used for evaluating theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. The task tests the capacity to attribute others with beliefs that one considers false, the key idea being that reasoning about others’ false beliefs, as opposed to true beliefs, requires conceiving of other people as having mental representations that diverge from one’s own and from the way the world actually is. Its first empirical application was in 1983, in an article whose title, ‘Beliefs About Beliefs: Representation and Constraining Function of Wrong Beliefs in Young Children’s Understanding of Deception,’ is in itself a direct tribute to Dennett’s contribution.

Read the full article in PNAS.


Pakistan is betrayed by its blasphemy laws
Farzana Shaikh, UnHerd, 19 February 2019

In a break with British colonial laws on blasphemy dating from the 1860s, which had until then formed the basis of Pakistan’s laws, the new measures aimed squarely to enhance protection for the religious beliefs of the Muslim majority rather than to safeguard the religious freedom of minorities.

But the new laws were also noteworthy on other counts: there were no agreed standards of evidence; no requirement to prove intent; no penalties for false allegations, and no clear guide-lines for what actually constituted blasphemy. Most remarkably, accusers retained the right not to repeat offending statements in court in case it aggravated the blasphemy, leaving the accused vulnerable to a sentence without knowing what was said or done to have constituted blasphemy.

These features continue to define Pakistan’s blasphemy laws though it is worth noting that no one convicted of blasphemy has yet been executed.

Nevertheless, the laws have been flagrantly abused. The flimsy burden of proof attached to accusations of blasphemy has led to an escalation in vigilante justice in which at least 70 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by mobs since 1990. Most of the victims were non-Muslims.

Lax standards of evidence have also encouraged the laws to be used to settle personal scores and disputes over money in which Muslims as well as non-Muslims have faced prosecution on false charges of blasphemy. Indeed, more Muslims than non-Muslims have been prosecuted for blasphemy.

The flaws in the laws make them ripe for reform. Yet calls for change have been fraught with risk and the price exacted quite simply intolerable. In the same year – 2011 – that Taseer was shot dead, another Christian government minister who had sided with him was also killed. A senior parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman, who had sought to table a bill proposing amendments was forced to abandon her campaign after receiving death threats.

But arguably the greatest obstacle to reform lies in profound national uncertainty over Pakistan’s Islamic identity. Much of it stems from rival conceptions of Pakistan, which juxtapose the country’s responsibilities as a modern Muslim homeland ready to take its place in the global community of nations, against its obligations to fulfil some Divine purpose as a guarantor of Islam. The blasphemy laws with their accent on religious boundaries and ever more rigid definitions of ‘the Muslim’, must be seen as symptomatic of these anxieties about the raison d’etre of the Pakistani state – even as they serve for some as powerful weapons to tame those anxieties.

Read the full article in UnHerd.


The tumultuous path from emancipation to segregation
James Goodman, New York Times, 18 February 2019

There is no escaping exclusion and elimination in a book about race in the United States, but Luxenberg’s focus is on the battle against segregation. He begins in Massachusetts in the 1840s with an abolitionist-led victory over Jim Crow cars on the railroads and ends 50 years later with two crushing defeats. In what came to be known as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had guaranteed equal access to public conveyances, accommodations, recreation and juries. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court upheld a Louisiana law mandating separate railroad cars, thereby upholding the constitutionality of segregation. Luxenberg, a senior editor at The Washington Post and the author of ‘Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret,’ braids brief narratives of legal battles together with intimate, cradle-to-grave portraits of three key figures in Plessy: John Marshall Harlan, Henry Billings Brown and Tourgée.

Harlan was a slaveholding Kentucky lawyer and politician. In his first run for Congress he accused his Democratic opponent of being soft on the expansion of slavery in the territories. Harlan ultimately opposed secession and fought against the Confederacy, but he also opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s re-election bid, and the 13th and 14th Amendments. He was nominated to the Supreme Court by Rutherford B. Hayes, who was eager to appoint a Southerner but feared that he could not get a nominee from farther south than Kentucky confirmed.

There is no escaping exclusion and elimination in a book about race in the United States, but Luxenberg’s focus is on the battle against segregation. He begins in Massachusetts in the 1840s with an abolitionist-led victory over Jim Crow cars on the railroads and ends 50 years later with two crushing defeats. In what came to be known as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had guaranteed equal access to public conveyances, accommodations, recreation and juries. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court upheld a Louisiana law mandating separate railroad cars, thereby upholding the constitutionality of segregation. Luxenberg, a senior editor at The Washington Post and the author of ‘Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret,’ braids brief narratives of legal battles together with intimate, cradle-to-grave portraits of three key figures in Plessy: John Marshall Harlan, Henry Billings Brown and Tourgée.

Harlan was a slaveholding Kentucky lawyer and politician. In his first run for Congress he accused his Democratic opponent of being soft on the expansion of slavery in the territories. Harlan ultimately opposed secession and fought against the Confederacy, but he also opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s re-election bid, and the 13th and 14th Amendments. He was nominated to the Supreme Court by Rutherford B. Hayes, who was eager to appoint a Southerner but feared that he could not get a nominee from farther south than Kentucky confirmed.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Martin Luther King Jr

Beyond Gandhi and King: A project traces
the solidarity between Indians and African Americans
Soumya Rao & Anirvan Chatterjee,, 9 March 2019

Tell us about The Secret History of South Asians and African American Solidarity project. What was your aim when you began this website in 2015? There’s been a significant amount written on [the] connections between South Asian and African American communities. This includes the work of Vijay Prashad [Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting; The Karma of Brown Folk], Nico Slate [Colored Cosmopolitanism], Gerald Horne [The End of Empires: African Americans and India] and Sudarshan Kapur [Raising Up A Prophet: The African-American Encounter With Gandhi].

The Secret History of South Asians and African American Solidarity builds on this work, and helps make it accessible to a much larger audience. For me, and for many South Asians, these are secret histories that we were never taught. We know that we don’t bear the brunt of American racism, but we don’t always know why. We know that our communities express anti-Black racism, but we don’t always know what it looks like to stand together in solidarity.

The site is a starting point for a conversation, and I’m excited to see [the many] ways [in which] it continues to draw community members into the topic. Just [a few days ago], I heard from a college student using the website as part of a course curriculum.

What do you think explains this close collaboration between South Asians and African Americans? Is it a common experience of oppression and colonisation? From about the 1920s to 1947, there was an emerging consensus in South Asia and African America that there were connections to be made between European colonisation in India, and a kind of internal colonisation of African Americans. On both sides, there were activists and writers finding strength in making those connections.

But Black and Dalit activists have gone much further with this, seeing both as a kind of internally colonised people in their own lands. From Ambedkar and King to Cornel West and Dalit Women Fight, generations of activists have seen explicit connections between race in the US and caste in India, even while acknowledging that the two systems operate differently.

Read the full article in Scroll.


Why do majority of Indian writers
remain obsessed with myth?
Samhiti Arni, The Hindu, 23 February 2019

We Indian writers, with a few exceptions, haven’t been quite as successful as the West in producing science fiction, though we have fared better with fantasy. The majority of writers and readers remain obsessed with myth. Why can’t we imagine the future? Why are we stuck instead re-imagining the past?

The answer is simple, it is not the future that has captured our political imagination and our dreams for society. We map, we project our ideas of utopias, of good governance, onto our myths — and not onto the future. To return to the anecdote concerning Zakaria, we are more interested in where have come from than in where we are headed to. We often re-imagine a golden age, an ideal time. So we map our present onto the literature of the past.

The Ramayana is often employed with conjuring ideas of a utopia — but many recent works (my own included) reflect an unease with this sort of utopia, particularly as it is regarded as a prescription for the present. Nonetheless, we look back to the mythic past as a place of great imaginative power, that can shape our political fantasies and destinies.

In contrast, I would suggest, science fiction writers map the present onto the future, creating utopias and dystopias that reflect either their ease or unease with the present. That’s where Americans are going to. But both science fiction and the epics that we keep returning to share many themes, and both genres share a concern with the issues of governance, power, justice; the themes of the ideal society and ruler, as well as the relationships between gender and society, justice, the ideal ruler and so on. Where Americans are going to and where Indians are coming from are bizarrely similar — both the imagined past and imagined future reflect one thing: our hopes and fears in the present.

Read the full article in the Hindu.


The moral clarity of The Slaughter House Five at 50
Kevin Powers, New York Times, 6 March 2019

There is an eminently useful thought experiment with which I suspect you are familiar. It goes something like, ‘What would an alien think of ____?’ The blank is typically filled in with something like sex, or our destructive relationship to the natural world, or money. War is sometimes used to fill that blank, too. The point of the thought experiment is to invent a kind of critical distance between a particular aspect of human behavior and ourselves, the ones behaving un-self-consciously like humans.

This thought experiment is useful precisely because it forces a perspective so separate, or alien, that with a little luck we gain some insight into why we are the way we are or why we do the things we do, like procreate, or poison our habitat, or hoard digital proxies for paper proxies for bits of rare but not all that rare metals, or watch old people get machine-gunned to death, or firebomb medium-size German cities. I’ve often thought that ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is a variation on this kind of thought experiment; it has few if any equals in creating the kind of distance that can offer insight into the mass insanity of modern warfare.

But it is so much more than a uniquely useful thought experiment on war. It is equally remarkable in the innovative way its structure is married to, and made necessary by, the story itself. Just before his capture by the Germans during the war, our hero, Billy Pilgrim, becomes ‘unstuck in time.’ Later in the narrative we learn that this is a consequence of Billy’s subsequent abduction by Tralfamadorians, aliens who happen to be unbound by the normal limitations of time and space. Through this ingenuous device Kurt Vonnegut shows the past as an irresistible force, particularly in the case of those who have trauma at the center of their experience.

The war intrudes on Billy’s later life in a way that will be immediately familiar to those who have fought in one. His past arrives without invitation, bouncing between the war, his childhood and his unremarkable later life as an optometrist, which is itself punctuated by visits to mental and veterans hospitals. As the narrative progresses we begin to understand that for a man who has witnessed the horrors that Billy has, the Tralfamadorians’ belief that the past, present and future are merely the primitive notions of Earthlings starts to sound like a comforting explanation for the intrusive nature of traumatic experience.

This all may sound very strange to you. It is, beautifully strange. But let me be more direct about what I really think this book is. ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is wisdom literature. It is a book of awe and humbling clarity. Its lessons are so simple that by adulthood most of us have forgotten or taken them for granted only to be stunned upon being reacquainted with their fundamental gravity.

Read the full article in the New York Times.

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