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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.


Europe’s treatment of migrants is shameful
Mathieu von Rohr,
Spiegel International Editorial, 4 July 2019

A father and his daughter lie dead on the bank of the Rio Grande, entwined in an embrace, after drowning in their attempt to reach the United States. The man is Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramírez; his 23-month-old daughter was named Angie Valeria. They came from El Salvador and had attempted to swim across the border and the image of their bodies went around the world last week. It is absolutely heart-breaking.

t would seem that we need periodic reminders — in the form of shocking, iconic images — that the immigrants who are a source of conflict in the political arena are, in fact, vulnerable human beings. In the United States, the photo triggered a response similar to the one in Germany in 2015, when pictures of the deceased three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on the beach in Turkey, made the rounds. The image is illustrative of Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy and of the new rules requiring that asylum applications be submitted on Mexican soil. In addition came the revelations last week that U.S. authorities in Texas exposed around 300 children to inhuman conditions in cells with open toilets in the middle of the room and a lack of soap, clothing and food.

As if that’s not enough, Trump’s pick as the next director to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency once said that when he looks into the eyes of detained migrant children, he sees future gang members. Little more needs to be said about a government that, in its battle against immigration, has declared children to be its enemies. Without a doubt, America is no longer the country that was once proud to offer a new home to immigrants from around the world.

It has, one could argue, become more European.

Today’s migration policies in the European Union are even more brutal than those pursued by Donald Trump. It may be true that the Europe doesn’t have border officials separating children from their parents, but the Europeans have entered into pacts with Libyan militias that operate horrific camps where torture and rape are commonplace, and they work together with the so-called Libyan coast guard, which is little more than a militia at sea. Sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean have practically been shut down, and Italian hardliner Matteo Salvini is no longer allowing private rescue ships to come ashore in the country.

Read the full article in Spiegel International.


The image America shouldn’t need
Tina Vasquez, NYR Daily, 27 June 2019

I’m a journalist, and a person of color in the United States. Unlike those who’ve suggested that no one should dare look away from the image, I’ve never needed convincing that ‘the other’ is human. The photos people need to see are of Óscar and Valeria together, alive, to remind them they were people, not bodies. They were a father and daughter whose lives were taken suddenly, rather than convenient symbols of failed US immigration policies. They are, in a real sense, my people: I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who first entered the United States in the 1970s without authorization. My father only began to tell me bits and pieces of his migration story when I was in my mid-twenties. I still don’t know the full story; he says he will tell me on his deathbed.

But I can guess at the lingering pain of his journey to the United States, and I know it continues to show up in his life in unexpected ways, all these years later. Although he will not tell me the whole story, I know that when my father was migrating, another young man developed bleeding blisters on his feet and then broke his ankle. He was barely able to walk and was slowing my father’s group down. The coyote, or paid smuggler, who was helping my father, another family member, and other migrants across the border told the group that they had to leave the young man behind, that someone else would find him and help him.

My father said he felt like had no choice but to keep moving, but decades later I know he still thinks about the man they left behind. He worries whether anyone ever found that boy, wonders if he became one of the borderlands’ many disappeared. Border Patrol finds the remains of 375 migrants on average every year, according to The New York Times. But because the accounting is limited to only those remains CBP agents come across, an accurate border-wide death count cannot be determined.

My father’s trauma belongs to him, but it has also been transmitted across the generations of our family. Even as a kid—unaware of my father’s immigration status—I nevertheless picked up on his anxiety. In elementary school, if my dad was just a few minutes late picking me up, I’d sit on the school’s front steps and weep. The crosswalk guard couldn’t understand my distress. He couldn’t piece together the logic behind my sense, haltingly expressed between sobs, that someone must have ‘taken’ my father.

Read the full article in NYR Daily.


Britain’s disappeared:
how refugees get stuck in indefinite detention
Jonathan Wittenberg, Guardian, 28 June 2019

Jean Paul explained that the Home Office periodically required inmates to sign a standard letter agreeing to their continued detention on the basis that they could not be released because they had insufficient connections and support in London. The Home Office understood this as authorising them to keep the signatories in detention indefinitely.

‘I saw everyone in front of me sign. But they didn’t understand the contents of the letter. ‘Have you read it?’ I asked one man. ‘No, I can’t read English,’ he said.

‘When my own turn came, I tried to read the letter first. ‘Why can’t you just sign?’ the lady insisted. I went out for 15 minutes and read the document. I came back and told her I wasn’t signing. ‘You have to,’ she said. ‘It’s just our routine.’ ‘No, I don’t,’ I replied. I’d been living in London for 10 years; I refused to sign. I asked the lady what had happened to my file. The administration isn’t fit for purpose.

‘One man told me how he’d been in and out of detention for two years. For the last couple of months inside, he’d heard nothing about his case. ‘I’m going back to my home country,’ he said. He’d had enough; he was giving up. They wear people down until they lose hope and agree to be deported.’

Jean Paul was allocated a duty solicitor and a different official was sent from the Home Office to interview him. He again gave his statement. The Home Office official explained that his application had been refused. ‘They make a decision, then you have the right to appeal,’ Jean Paul explained. He prepared the appeal himself: ‘If you can’t write out your case for yourself, your solicitor can’t do anything, as he or she has at least 50 other people to deal with.’

Meanwhile, Jean Paul became ill; the removal centre was so dusty and dirty that he began to cough. ‘They pay people £1 an hour to clean,’ he said – less than a tenth of the London living wage. One day, he coughed up blood. This really frightened him, so he reported to the doctor who came to Harmondsworth twice a week. He was taken to the infirmary, where he was kept in isolation, suspected of having tuberculosis. He had to wear a mask and was not allowed out. After three days, he had still been given no medicine, not even paracetamol; he was simply left to sit all day in the sick bay, waiting. But conditions were better in there; he had a room with a toilet and a small TV. Eventually, he was asked to do a spittle test, which came back inconclusive. A second, and finally a third test, proved negative.

Still, Jean Paul had to attend his appeal hearing in a mask. When the judge asked him why he was wearing such an item, he explained that he was suspected of having TB.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Fears, misinformation and measles spread in Brooklyn
Amanda Schaffer, Wired, 24 June 2019

Vaccines protect individuals, but they also protect the most vulnerable people in communities through a process called herd immunity. If enough people are immunized, there simply aren’t enough susceptible individuals for a virus to spread easily throughout a group. The virus runs out of steam ramming the doors of impenetrable fortresses before it can reach those who are too young to be vaccinated or whose immune systems are weak. Communities come in various sizes – whole countries, but also small pockets of people who live near each other or who have a strong group identity. To achieve herd immunity against measles, about 95 percent of a community needs to be immunized. And so its success depends on a high degree of cooperation; even a small number of holdouts can precipitate a crisis.

That is what happened in Brooklyn – slowly, then all at once. Five years ago, the average vaccination rate at Jewish schools in Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Bushwick was 97.8 percent. Today it’s 96.2. About 9 percent of private schools in Brooklyn have vaccination rates of less than 90 percent. At one yeshiva in the Borough Park neighborhood, almost 97 percent of students were immunized against measles in 2012; today, the rate at that same school has fallen to 72.7 percent.

The loss of herd immunity made it almost inevitable that measles would spread rapidly once it was introduced in Williamsburg and Borough Park, where extended families live in close quarters and gather frequently at synagogues and community halls. Measles cases worldwide were rising, with over 170,000 reported in 2017. And in October 2018, measles arrived in Brooklyn not once but at least six times. At least one child carrying the disease arrived from Israel, and other travelers brought it back to the US from Ukraine, where the border war with Russia had disrupted public health efforts. In Indonesia, Madagascar, and the Philippines, poverty and lack of health care access contributed to measles outbreaks. In the UK and a number of other European countries, the misinformation was largely responsible for heightened vulnerability.

Misinformation has been spreading for years on tech platforms, thriving within what researchers call ‘small world’ networks—clusters of people who are highly interconnected and tend to reinforce each other’s views. Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube had done little to limit the spread of propaganda, but as measles flared across the country, and pressure from lawmakers and journalists mounted, they succumbed and took modest steps. Facebook, for instance, announced it would stop letting antivaccine information be promoted through ads or recommendations, though plenty of well-known agitators remain active. On Amazon, books skeptical of vaccines still dominate search results.

Read the full article in Wired.


Reading like a citizen
Lida Maxwell, LA Review of Books, 5 July 2019

The problem right now, as Taylor shows us in lucid and deep detail, is that we live in a society designed to disempower most people and to render their lives precarious and meaningless. We live, in other words, in a society that works to keep the people from being able to negotiate democratic dilemmas in a democratic way. Our institutions are built, Taylor argues, to segregate and isolate, to enable voter suppression and limit political participation, to train most people for the ‘servile arts’ instead of the liberal arts, to ransack the planet for the sake of the enrichment of a few, and to keep most people in precarious economic situations while some elites become wildly wealthy. In such a de-democratized society, most people are kept from having the tools to think freely, live equally, and exercise power in public affairs. In other words, most people are deprived of the status of citizen, understood as a category that must be enacted, taken, and demanded, not legally conferred. Due to the paucity of opportunities to act democratically, Taylor argues that we also have trouble reflecting on what democracy is or should be.

For Taylor, democratizing our society is thus not just about saving certain liberal procedures, norms, and institutions — indeed, some of those procedures and norms are likely part of the ‘constraining common sense’ that limits our ability to act and think more democratically. For her, democratizing our society demands that we save democracy from capitalism by creating greater economic equality, making public goods like college and health care free, aggressively regulating and taxing fossil fuel companies, and radically reducing popular indebtedness. Looking to the writings, speech, and actions of democratizing movements, she shows that they consistently demand economic equality as necessary to the exercise of free democratic governance. Without it, the economically powerful will inevitably hold disproportionate political power and use it — as history has shown — to favor their narrow interest.

In making this argument, Taylor joins a chorus of recent intellectuals (including Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Corey Robin) who insist that economic equality is vital to freedom, social justice, and democracy. Writers like these are doing important work in this political moment, reinvigorating the leftist intellectual imagination. As Taylor and others show (Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains comes to mind here), the right wing recognized the power of big ideas to shape public life just as the left was turning away from those big ideas toward the end of the ’70s. This was, as Taylor rightly says, a deeply consequential mistake that left a huge void, where the only ideas of ‘freedom,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘democracy’ on offer in the public realm were narrowly defined in terms of the market, parties, and electoral institutions. Taylor helps to fill that void by offering a major left rethinking of democracy for a general audience.

Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.


Apidima 2 reconstructions

The story of humans and Neanderthals
in Europe is being rewritten
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 10 July 2019

In 1978, in a cave called Apidima at the southern end of Greece, a group of anthropologists found a pair of human-like skulls. One had a face, but was badly distorted; the other was just the left half of a braincase. Researchers guessed that they might be Neanderthals, or perhaps another ancient hominin. And since they were entombed together, in a block of stone no bigger than a microwave, ‘it was always assumed that they were the same [species] and came from the same time period,’ says Katerina Harvati from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

That’s wrong. By thoroughly analyzing both skulls using modern techniques, Harvati and her colleagues have shown that they are very different, in both age and identity.

The one with the face, known as Apidima 2, is a 170,000-year-old Neanderthal – no surprises there. But the other, Apidima 1, was one of us – a 210,000-year-old modern humanAnd if the team is right about that, the partial skull is the oldest specimen of Homo sapiens outside Africa, handily beating the previous record holder, a jawbone from Israel’s Misliya Cave that’s about 180,000 years old. ‘I couldn’t believe it at first,’ Harvati says, ‘but all the analyses we conducted gave the same result.’

Until now, most researchers have focused on the more complete (but less interesting) of the two skulls. ‘Apidima 1 has just been ignored,’ says Harvati. But its antiquity matters for three reasons. First, it pushes back the known presence of modern humans outside Africa by some 30,000 years. Second, it’s considerably older than all other Homo sapiens fossils from Europe, all of which are 40,000 years old or younger. Third, it’s older than the Neanderthal skull next to it.

Collectively, these traits mess up the standard story of Neanderthal and modern-human evolution. According to that narrative, Neanderthals slowly evolved in Europe, largely isolated from other kinds of hominins. When modern humans expanded out of Africa, their movements into Europe might have been stalled by the presence of the already successful Neanderthals. That explains why Homo sapiens stuck to a more southerly route into Asia, and why they left no European fossils until about 40,000 years ago. ‘The idea of Europe as ‘fortress Neanderthal’ has been gaining ground,’ says Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an archaeologist from the University of Bordeaux, but identifying a 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull from Europe ‘really undermines that.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


No dignity, no rights, but filth forever
Naomi Barton & Sudharak Olwe, The Wire, 4 July 2019

‘There was a lady in one of the places we visited. She cleaned the latrines in one of the dispensaries in the village. She had been cleaning them for 10 years. She had not got a single paisa in remuneration.’

‘Then what was she getting?’

‘Nothing. She was had the hope that one day, someone would come and recognise her work, and give her all her money – one big sum – all at once. She said, ‘Kam se kam ye toh hai mere paas, agar ye nahi tha toh mein kya karti? (At least I have this. If I didn’t have this, what would I do?)’.’

‘She only had hope,’ he says. ’For every story, we’re desperate. We don’t know where it will go, or what it will do. We just keep doing it.’

Sudharak Olwe, with the NGO WaterAid, went to 16 locations across Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to document the state of manual scavengers today, with a particular focus on women who are still forced to be in the outlawed profession. The photographs taken during this journey were showcased at the exhibition ‘Including the Excluded at the India Habitat Centre till July 4. The Wire spoke to him about the issues he saw over this time.

Mamata Valmik sweeps the ground of the Amanganj bus stand without gloves or shoes in the thick of winter. Mamata is what is called a ‘pity case’. Her husband, Kirpal Valmik, died in a septic tank accident in 1992 – when work carried out by manual scavengers was yet to be recognised as a punishable offence. He drowned when a septic tank that they believed was six feet deep was actually 13 feet deep. His wife was given a job as a sweeper, and no compensation. His son has also now joined her.

‘This is an inherited job,’ says Olwe. ‘We are all criminals. We are insensate to what is happening right in front of us’…

Mukeshdevi began cleaning toilets, dry latrines and drains 25 years ago, when her mother-in-law grew to weak to keep doing it.

Veiling her face and hair with her dupatta, she cleans the toilet with her bare hands and calls out to the owners of the house to release water so the sewage flows into the open drain outside the house, according to WaterAid. From there, she scrapes up the sewage with a broom and a bicycle mudguard. Meerut was full of open drain toilets like this one, Olwe says.

Read the full article in The Wire.


Torn apart: the vicious war over young adult books
Leo Bendictus, Guardian, 15 June 2019

Many of the battles around YA books display the worst features of what is sometimes called ‘cancel culture’. Tweets condemning anyone who even reads an accused book have been shared widely. I have heard about publishers cancelling or altering books, and asking authors to issue apologies, not because either of them believed they ought to apologise, but because they feared the consequences if they didn’t. Some authors feel that it is risky even to talk in public about this subject. ‘It’s potentially really serious,’ says someone I’ll call Alex. ‘You could get absolutely mobbed.’ So I can’t use your real name? ‘I would be too nervous to say that with my name to it.’ None of the big three UK publishing groups, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins or Hachette, was available for comment…

For publishers, supporting a book accused of racism could seriously harm their reputation, yet the price of withdrawing one could be enormous. ‘It is a topic that is discussed on a daily basis in private groups on Facebook,’ says an author I will call Paris, who has twice been nominated for the Carnegie medal. ‘There is a huge demand for books to be more sensitive to minority groups, but there is also a concern that this censorship, pre-publication, is the wrong way to go about it.’ In Paris’s case, after months of debate, an entire series was withdrawn by the publisher. ‘The books were literally going to print that morning,’ Paris remembers. ‘They ended up paying for the entire series, so I got all my advances and it never got published … It was mind-boggling. Just bizarre.’

Does Paris know why they pulled it? ‘Because the publisher was scared of Twitter. They admitted this, because there are things like a racist character in the book. They were worried that people would say, ‘This has got a racist character. The author must be racist.’’ The publisher was certain that the books were fine, Paris says, but felt it could not risk an accusation of racism. ‘They are paranoid, and [the] sales [department] were second-guessing everything. They went through [the books] and went, ‘That could be misconstrued as offensive. That could be offensive. That could be offensive …’’

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Face value
Rachel Connoly, The Baffler, 18 June 2019

Facial recognition technology seems like the sort of thing that might have lots of exciting futuristic uses, and in the spaceships and spy lairs of popular films, for example, it does. In the real world, my friends find it slightly less convenient than using a fingerprint to buy things, and slightly more convenient than using a bank card. It can also be used to, say, mass tag people in Facebook photo uploads, in security doorbells, or in some of the other smart home features made by Nest, among others.

It’s hard to argue that any of these represent a life-altering usefulness, but part of their function is to train the technology so that sleeker, more responsive systems can be put to other uses. A camera such as the Apple TrueDepth used in Face ID can only learn to pick out faces in a crowd by practicing on lots of faces at a glance first. At CES 19, a yearly symposium of human-facing technologies, the Proctor and Gamble-owned skincare brand SK-II showcased a new ‘Future X Smart Store,’ in which facial recognition is used to track people walking around the shop and guide them toward recommended products based on their skin and apparent age. Meanwhile, some shopping malls in the UK and Australia already use surveillance cameras with facial detection technology installed in digital billboards to identify the age, gender, and mood of shoppers and screen them advertisements accordingly. Frankly, who wants this, other than the advertisers themselves?

The conspiratorial line of thinking that targeted advertisements have sinister mind control powers may be overblown, but it certainly doesn’t do us any good to move through the world in a constant, swirling vortex of fragments of information we have had some vague virtual interaction with. I don’t want to walk around shops and have pictures of weird jokes or things I clicked on accidentally flashed at me constantly on the off chance I might spend some money. Something I want even less is to be monitored while I shop so that pictures of things I pick up or glance at can haunt me on the internet for weeks later. A popular privacy campaign slogan is ‘the right to be forgotten’; we should also have the right to forget about products we don’t want and don’t care about.

There is one group that stands to benefit from the widespread adoption of facial recognition technology, however: the very wealthy, with their smart home digital assistants like Google’s Nest Hub Max, which uses facial recognition to display different family members’ messages, schedules, and music recommendations. In the future, such products could even adjust temperature and light to different family members’ preferences (presumably family members in such a home have very particular and diverging preferences and never all find themselves in the house at the same time). Notice the inequity here: those who can’t afford a fancy surveillance doorbell live under the watchful eye of those who can, and the data of the masses is harvested to make minor improvements to the smart homes of the tiny proportion of people who can afford them.

Read the full article in The Baffler.


Gilets Noirs – the undocumented
migrant collective taking Paris by storm
Luke Butterly, openDemocracy, 20 June 2019

‘They are scared of immigrants who fight for their dignity, who inspire others to do the same – so here we are! ….Our strength is in our unity, that’s why they try everything to divide us’ Gilets Noirs statement

On Wednesday, June 12, several hundred undocumented migrants occupied the office of the French multinational catering company Elior. Based in the La Défense business district of Paris, Elior has over a hundred thousand employees across 15 countries. And according to the activists, they have been exploiting undocumented migrants.

Activists held the occupied lobby for several hours, demanding to speak with the company’s CEO, while members and supporters held a rally outside. In their speeches they accused the company of withholding wages from undocumented workers, and holding workers precarious migration status over their heads – if they complain about their working conditions, they will get handed over to the police.

The gilets noirs are a collective of undocumented migrants living in Paris, who have been engaged in high profile actions in the French capital to expose the conditions under which they are forced to live – including precarious employment, homelessness and poor housing conditions, and police repression.

In a statement handed out to press and onlookers, they claimed that ‘When you confront the boss [over your pay, work conditions], they say ‘we can’t keep you, you’re undocumented’. But when you work in silence, they don’t care at all whether you have papers or not!’

The group’s militancy paid off, and after several hours they were granted a meeting with management. Campaigners left with a written agreement to a meeting next month between company representatives and undocumented activists, where they will work through a list of undocumented employees and see how Elior can help regularise their immigration status through the ‘regularisation through work’ scheme.

Read the full article in openDemocracy.


Victor Arnautoff Life of Washington

San Francisco will spend $600,000 to erase history
Bari Weiss, New York Times, 28 June 2019

By now stories of progressive Puritanism (or perhaps the better word is Philistinism) are so commonplace — snowflakes seek safe space! — that it can feel tedious to track the details of the latest outrage. But this case is so absurd that it’s worth reviewing the specifics.

Victor Arnautoff, the Russian immigrant who made the paintings in question, was perhaps the most important muralist in the Bay Area during the Depression. Thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, he had the opportunity to make some enduring public artworks. Among them is ‘City Life’ in Coit Tower, in which the artist painted himself standing in front of a newspaper rack conspicuously missing the mainstream San Francisco Chronicle and packed with publications like The Daily Worker.

Arnautoff, who had assisted Diego Rivera in Mexico, was a committed Communist. ‘‘Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me,’ he said in 1935. ‘The artist is a critic of society.’

This is why his freshly banned work, ‘Life of Washington,’ does not show the clichéd image of our first president kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Instead, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural, which was painted in 1936 in the just-built George Washington High School, depicts his slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American.

‘At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,’ Robert W. Cherny writes in ‘Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.’

In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.

‘This is a radical and critical work of art,’ the school’s alumni association argued. ‘There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.’

Such appeals to reason and history failed to sway the school board. On Tuesday, it dismissed the option to pull an Ashcroft and simply cover the murals, instead voting unanimously to paint them over.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


What does it mean to be genetically Jewish?
Oscar Schwartz, Guardian, 13 June 2019

But according to Yosef Carmel, an Orthodox rabbi and co-head of Eretz Hemdah, a Jerusalem-based institute that trains rabbinical judges… the Rabbinate are not using a generalized Jewish ancestry test, but one that screens for a specific variant on the mitochondrial DNA – DNA that is passed down through the mother – that can be found almost exclusively in Ashkenazi Jews.

A number of years ago Carmel consulted genetic experts who informed him that if someone bears this specific mitochondrial DNA marker, there is a 90 to 99% chance that this person is of Ashkenazi ancestry. This was enough to convince him to pass a religious ruling in 2017 that states that this specific DNA test can be used to confirm Jewishness if all other avenues have been exhausted, which now constitutes the theological justification for the genetic testing.

For David Goldstein, professor of medical research in genetics at Columbia University whose 2008 book, Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, outlines a decade’s worth of research into Jewish population genetics, translating scientific insights about small genetic variants in the DNA to normative judgments about religious or ethnic identity is not only problematic, but misunderstands what the science actually signals.

‘When we say that there is a signal of Jewish ancestry, it’s a highly specific statistical analysis done over a population,’ he said. ‘To think that you can use these type of analyses to make any substantive claims about politics or religion or questions of identity, I think that it’s frankly ridiculous.’

But others would disagree. As DNA sequencing becomes more sophisticated, the ability to identify genetic differences between human populations has improved. Geneticists can now locate variations in the DNA so acutely as to differentiate populations living on opposite sides of a mountain range.

In recent years, a number of high-profile commentators have appropriated these scientific insights to push the idea that genetics can determine who we are socially, none more controversially than the former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade argues that genetic differences in human populations manifest in predictable social differences between those groups.

His book was strongly denounced by almost all prominent researchers in the field as a shoddy incarnation of race science, but the idea that our DNA can determine who we are in some social sense has also crept into more mainstream perspectives.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Knowledge is crude
David Papineau, Aeon, 3 June 2019

I’m against knowledge. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as keen on the facts as the next person. I’m no friend of fake news. I want truth rather than falsity. It is specifically knowledge I’m against, not true belief. Knowledge asks more of us than true belief, and it isn’t worth it. In reality, the concept of knowledge is a hangover from a stone-age way of thinking that has long outlived its usefulness. We’d be far better off without it.

Philosophers are fond of showing how knowledge goes beyond mere true belief. To see the difference, imagine that you are convinced, on no very good grounds, that a horse called Meadowlark will win the 3:40 race at Ascot tomorrow. And then suppose it does in fact romp home. We wouldn’t say you had knowledge it would win, just because your belief turned out to be true.

What more than true belief is required for knowledge? A natural thought is that your belief needs to be backed by good reasons. It can’t just be a guess that happens to turn out right. But this doesn’t seem enough either. Imagine a friend buys you a lottery ticket as a gift. You don’t think much of the present, because you’re convinced that it won’t win, for the very good reason that it’s one in a million. And in due course it indeed turns out not to be the winner. Even so, we still wouldn’t say that you had knowledge that the ticket was worthless. Your belief might have been eminently reasonable, as well as true, but it still seems too happenstantial to qualify as knowledge.

For those philosophers who work in epistemology (the ‘theory of knowledge’), the holy grail is to pin down the nature of knowledge and explain why it matters. But despite thousands upon thousands of articles devoted to the topic, the philosophers haven’t been able to come up with a good story. I say that’s because they’re barking up the wrong tree. The notion of knowledge doesn’t in fact pick out anything important. It’s a crude concept we have inherited from our prehistoric ancestors, and it positively handicaps us in our dealings with the modern world.

Read the full article in Aeon.


A field goes to war with itself
Tom Bartlett,
The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2019

Lately, medievalists have been warring among themselves. Hanging over this spring’s conference were complaints from the group Medievalists of Color that several sessions on race proposed by its members and others were turned down by the meeting’s organizers. Among the rejected proposals were ‘How to Be a White Ally in Medieval Studies 101,’ ‘Decentering Privilege,’ and ‘Toxic Medievalisms: Misuses and Abuses of the Medieval in Contemporary Culture.’ A letter from the Babel Working Group, a scholarly collective founded in 2004, argued that there ‘seems to be a bias against, or lack of interest in, sessions that are self-critical of medieval studies, or focused on the politics of the field in the present, especially relative to issues of decoloniality, globalization, and anti-racism.’

While squabbles over session approval are not uncommon at academic conferences, the conflict in medieval studies feels like a struggle for the future of the field, one that sometimes pits older scholars against a younger generation, and those with a traditional approach against those with a more activist bent. And it’s turned personal at times, even nasty and disturbing, with medievalists lobbing insults over Twitter, squaring off in blog posts, and calling for colleagues to be more or less excommunicated from the discipline.

The most controversial combatant skipped the recent gathering, held, as it is every year, at Western Michigan University, here in Kalamazoo, though the debate she kick-started is still going strong. In 2015 Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, published a post on her blog, Fencing Bear at Prayer, whose title alone — ’Three Cheers for White Men’ — seemed engineered to raise hackles. Dorothy Kim, then an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, responded in a post of her own, calling Brown’s 228-word, somewhat cheeky paean to the historical upside of white men, which included praising knights for embracing courtly love as an alternative to rape, an example of ‘white fragility+benevolent sexism.’

They’ve been trading jabs ever since, in dueling essays and on Facebook and podcasts. When Kim wrote a warning on the blog ‘In the Middle’ to her colleagues in 2017 about the importance of ‘not upholding white supremacy in the classroom,’ it seemed directed, at least in part, at Brown. Brown responded that colleagues like Kim who suggest that medievalism is rife with racism should learn ‘some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.’

As if that weren’t enough, last fall Milo Yiannopoulos, a journalist-turned-troll-turned-pariah, published a 15,000-word dissection of the Brown v. Kim saga, in which he unsurprisingly sided with Brown, portraying Kim as a hysterical, slipshod scholar and Brown as a beacon of reasonableness and verity.

Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Amazon is watching
Will Oremus, OneZero, 27 June 2019

The Amazon of tomorrow, as sketched out in patents, contract bids, and marketing materials, could be more omnipresent still. Imagine Ring doorbell cameras so ubiquitous that you can’t walk down a street without triggering alerts to your neighbors and police. Imagine that these cameras have face recognition systems built in, and can work together as a network to identify people deemed suspicious. Imagine Ring surveillance cameras on cars and delivery drones, Ring baby monitors in nurseries, and Amazon Echo devices everywhere from schools to hotels to hospitals. Now imagine that all these Alexa-powered speakers and displays can recognize your voice and analyze your speech patterns to tell when you’re angry, sick, or considering a purchase. A 2015 patent filing reported last week by the Telegraph described a system that Amazon called ‘surveillance as a service’, which seems like an apt term for many of the products it’s already selling.

Behind it all is a company whose leaders too often see privacy concerns as overblown, internal dissent as insignificant, and the potential for abuse of Amazon’s technologies as someone else’s problem.

‘Just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it,’ said Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon’s cloud business, at the Code Conference earlier this month. He suggested that banning face recognition systems, which can be potent surveillance tools but tend to discriminate against people of color, would be akin to banning email or knives — two pieces of technology, one new and one very old, that could also be employed for good or ill. ‘You could use a knife in a surreptitious way,’ he said.

Everything Amazon is building, it should be said, has the potential to be used for good. Its doorbell cams can catch porch pirates; its face recognition software can help authorities track down suspects; Alexa can be useful around the house in myriad ways (usually). But when you put together the pieces, the company’s cloud-connected eyes and ears can take on an Orwellian dimension that makes Facebook and Google — the two tech companies that tend to loom largest in the privacy fears of consumers — look modest by comparison.

Read the full article in OneZero.


Ana Kova Nature

Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents:
the promise of gene drives
Megan Scudellari, Nature, 9 July 2019

Austin Burt and Andrea Crisanti had been trying for eight years to hijack the mosquito genome. They wanted to bypass natural selection and plug in a gene that would mushroom through the population faster than a mutation handed down by the usual process of inheritance. In the back of their minds was a way to prevent malaria by spreading a gene to knock out mosquito populations so that they cannot transmit the disease.

Crisanti remembers failing over and over. But finally, in 2011, the two geneticists at Imperial College London got back the DNA results they’d been hoping for: a gene they had inserted into the mosquito genome had radiated through the population, reaching more than 85% of the insects’ descendants.

It was the first engineered ‘gene drive’: a genetic modification designed to spread through a population at higher-than-normal rates of inheritance. Gene drives have rapidly become a routine technology in some laboratories; scientists can now whip up a drive in months. The technique relies on the gene-editing tool CRISPR and some bits of RNA to alter or silence a specific gene, or insert a new one. In the next generation, the whole drive copies itself onto its partner chromosome so that the genome no longer has the natural version of the chosen gene, and instead has two copies of the gene drive. In this way, the change is passed on to up to 100% of offspring, rather than around 50% (see ‘How gene drives work’).

Since 2014, scientists have engineered CRISPR-based gene-drive systems in mosquitoes, fruit flies and fungi, and are currently developing them in mice. But that’s just the beginning of the story. Questions about whether a gene drive is possible have been supplanted by other unknowns: how well they will work, how to test them and who should regulate the technology. Gene drives have been proposed as a way to reduce or eliminate insect-borne diseases, control invasive species and even reverse insecticide resistance in pests. No engineered gene drive has yet been released into the wild, but the technology could in principle be ready as soon as three years from now, says Crisanti. He collaborates with Target Malaria, a non-profit international research consortium seeking to use gene-drive mosquitoes for malaria control in Africa. On 1 July, the group released a test batch of mosquitoes — genetically engineered but not yet equipped with gene drives — in a village in Burkina Faso.

Gene drives are unlike any ecological fix ever tested before, says Fredros Okumu, director of science at the Ifakara Health Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. ‘Gene drives will spread by themselves,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to prepare people and share information openly with all the countries concerned.’

The technical challenges are not as daunting as the social and diplomatic ones, says bioengineer Kevin Esvelt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in Cambridge, who was among the first to build a CRISPR-based gene drive. ‘Technologies like this have real-world consequences for people’s lives that can be nearly immediate.’

Read the full article in Nature.


Bodies in seats
Casey Newton, The Verge, 19 June 2019

In February, I wrote about the secret lives of Facebook contractors in America. Since 2016, when the company came under heavy criticism for failing to prevent various abuses of its platform, Facebook has expanded its workforce of people working on safety and security around the world to 30,000. About half of those are content moderators, and the vast majority are contractors hired through a handful of large professional services firms. In 2017, Facebook began opening content moderation sites in American cities including Phoenix, Austin, and Tampa. The goal was to improve the accuracy of moderation decisions by entrusting them to people more familiar with American culture and slang.

Cognizant received a two-year, $200 million contract from Facebook to do the work, according to a former employee familiar with the matter. But in return for policing the boundaries of free expression on one of the internet’s largest platforms, individual contractors in North America make as little as $28,800 a year. They receive two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch each day, along with nine minutes per day of ‘wellness’ time that they can use when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of the job. After regular exposure to graphic violence and child exploitation, many workers are subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

My initial report focused on Phoenix, where workers told me that they had begun to embrace fringe views after continuously being exposed to conspiracy theories at work. One brought a gun to work to protect himself against the possibility of a fired employee returning to the office seeking vengeance. Others told me they are haunted by visions of the images and videos they saw during their time on the job.

Conditions at the Phoenix site have not improved significantly since I visited. Last week, some employees were sent home after an infestation of bed bugs was discovered in the office — the second time bed bugs have been found there this year. Employees who contacted me worried that the infestation would spread to their own homes, and said managers told them Cognizant would not pay to clean their homes.

Read the full article in The Verge.


Smartphones aren’t making millennials grow horns.
Here’s how to spot a bad study

Nsikan Akpan, PBS News Hour, 25 June 2019

  1. The study doesn’t actually measure cellphone usage

This is the most basic flaw. The study does not measure the cellphone usage of its 1,200 patients.

There are now smartphone apps that can record a person’s screen time, but the researchers did not employ them. I asked one of the co-authors — David Shahar, a chiropractor who specializes in biomechanics at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia — about why the team didn’t directly measure smartphone usage.

‘Other studies have reported on that issue,’ Shahar, who co-authored the paper with sports biomechanicist Mark Sayers, told the PBS NewsHour via email. ‘This study was not about the use of mobile devices, but it is about the prevalence of EEOP across the age groups.’

Still, the study starts by hypothesizing a possible link between how bad postures ‘associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets.’

‘They’re arguing that young people are spending a lot of time hunched over their laptops and their phones,’ said Jeff Goldsmith, a biostatistician at Columbia University. ‘But they don’t actually have any data about screen time, their [subjects’] typical posture or about any of the things that might give you a way to evaluate that hypothesis.’

The study assumes that the people age 18 to 30 in this study used their phones more than older subjects, based purely on the general habits of society. But Shahar and Sayers did not provide data on their subjects to support that assumption.

‘The overall tone of the paper is at odds with the data that they actually have to make any of these particular claims,’ Goldsmith added.

  1. The findings mean nothing for the general population

Shahar and Sayers write that the study ‘demonstrated the prevalence of [EOP] to be 33% of the total population’ and that ‘our findings raise a concern about the future musculoskeletal health of the young adult population.’

But a study must have a random, demographically representative sample in order to be applicable to the public at-large. And these subjects did not represent a general population, or close to it.

‘If you notice, they worked from a database that was based on people who went to the chiropractor for help, so first of all, the study is not a random, representative sample,’ said Regina Nuzzo, senior advisor for statistics communication and media innovation at the American Statistical Association.

Read the full article on PBS News Hour.


The mismeasure of minds
Michael E Staub, Boston Review, 8 May 2019

Meanwhile, the hunt for firm evidence that early educational intervention improved cognitive function for children of the poor has continued to the present day. Developmental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Kimberley G. Noble wrote in the Washington Post in 2015, ‘The political battles for major expansion of these types of programs are unlikely to be won until we can provide hard scientific proof of their effectiveness. Until then, we need to do all we can to support policies that offer our most vulnerable children the best chance of reaching their full potential.’ And in 2016 the journal Pediatrics also described research on interventions that might undo the neurocognitive damages of poverty to the developing brain as still very much ‘in its infancy,’ adding, ‘Perhaps most urgently, experimental studies that assess the impact of changing SES on brain development are needed to determine causal links.’ However inadvertently, these statements conceded quite a lot about the fragility of their own case.

Has the search for ‘hard scientific proof’ been an instance of needing to be careful what you wish for? As early as 2003 the journalist Ann Hulbert had suggested as much. Arguments that emphasized the damage done to ‘young brains subjected to deprived conditions’ could well serve to ‘inspire a liberal social agenda,’ she wrote. But it remained equally possible, Hulbert cautioned, that a ‘reading of the data’ could ‘all too easily fuel defeatism’ and ‘just as readily be invoked in the service of a deeply pessimistic position that was not at all what they intended.’

The insight was prescient. In 2009, when University of Pennsylvania cognitive psychologists Daniel A. Hackman and Martha J. Farah surveyed the available neuroscientific literature on the effects of poverty on the developing brain, they came to a similar conclusion. ‘Although the cognitive neuroscience of SES has the potential to enable more appropriately targeted, and hence more effective, programs to protect and foster the neurocognitive development of low SES children,’ they wrote, ‘it can also be misused or misunderstood as a rationalization of the status quo or ‘blaming the victim.’ . . . The biological nature of the differences documented by cognitive neuroscience can make these differences seem all the more ‘essential’ and immutable.’ Put another way, would solid proof of this or that biological relationship necessarily support the policy arguments already being made on other grounds? Rather than calling for remediating childhood poverty as a baseline social goal—in purely political or moral terms—commentators often got tangled in their efforts to adduce biological evidence while worrying that it could be turned against their cause.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


Inside the bizarre US government programme
sending British influencers to America
Sarah Manavis, New Statesman, 1 July 2019

‘It just sounds really weird,’ I say to Cliona, 25, from Belfast. We’re speaking on the phone about a recent trip she’s just taken. ‘It’s so weird, I know,’ she says. ‘I mean I’ve done it now, and I’m still like, what the fuck was that?’

Cliona has just returned from a two-week tour across the United States. She went to Washington, DC, Los Angeles, New Mexico and Indiana. She met with staff from high-profile organisations, government officials, and visited celebrity-studded sites. She visited expensive film sets and studios, often just doing whatever the hell she wanted, and she didn’t pay for a single thing.

Why did Cliona go on this trip? Because she’s a social media influencer. And who funded the entire thing? The United States government.

liona’s trip was the third of its kind, and is part of a relatively new programme organised by the US embassy in the UK. The programme, ‘Exploring American Values’, takes a varied group of social media influencers, working across beauty, travel, politics, and fashion, and allows them to explore the United States through the lens of pop culture phenomena. Run through an organisation called Cultural Vistas, the programme takes the social media stars to locations across America, which are all themed around topical issues and trends that are popular during that particular year. This soft-power ‘influencer diplomacy’ aims to promote American values through Britain’s social media stars.

‘We’re offering an exciting opportunity for young social media influencers from across the UK to apply to take part in an exchange to learn more about important issues shaping American culture as portrayed in popular US television shows,’ reads the description. Its website explains how influencers on this year’s programme would learn about American culture through the cities where certain cult television shows are set: DC (The West Wing), Indiana (Parks and Recreation), Alburqerque (Breaking Bad)as well as LA, for a look at the entertainment industry in general.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Buzz Aldrin as photographed by Neil Armstrong

Apollo 11 and the path to Tranquility Base
Mark Wolverton, Undark, 7 June 2019

Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, refused to be caught up in the 1957 post-Sputnik panic about supposed Soviet superiority, supporting only a modest and inexpensive space effort. But as the young and hungry Kennedy’s ambitions turned to the White House at the end of the 1950s, he realized that space offered an as-yet untapped source of political capital. ‘Kennedy believed that leadership was about galvanizing a slumbering public (via speeches, articles, and radio addresses) to achieve great things,’ writes Brinkley.

More than that, Sputnik had made clear that missiles and space flight were now critical aspects of national defense, and the supposed ‘missile gap’ between the U.S. and the USSR provided a handy political cudgel for Kennedy to batter his 1960 opponent: Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon. Yet as Donovan notes, ‘In truth, there was no such thing — or if there was, it was actually in America’s favor — but Kennedy’s repeated use of the term persuaded much of the electorate that the Eisenhower administration was weak on defense and that Nixon would be too.’

Once Kennedy bested Nixon in the 1960 election, space travel wasn’t high on his initial list of concerns. He had other things to worry about, chiefly a Communist adversary eager to test his resolve by pushing limits in Cold War hot points such as Berlin and Cuba. And he wasn’t off to an auspicious start. ‘The first hundred days of Kennedy’s presidency, while dazzling in style compared with the Eisenhower era, were short on tangible accomplishments, beyond the establishment of the Peace Corps,’ Brinkley writes.

Then came two major national humiliations. First, the USSR again kicked America’s smug complacency where it hurt the most by launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, destroying U.S. confidence that its Project Mercury would put the first man into space.

Two days later, Kennedy implored his advisors for some response: ‘Is there any place we can catch them? What can we do? Can we go around the moon before them? Can we put a man on the moon before them?’ He was casting about for some way for the U.S. to ‘leapfrog’ the Soviets before their next inevitable space triumph.

Later that night, 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in an ill-conceived invasion attempt that turned into a catastrophe. ‘In the span of one stinging week, the young president had been thoroughly embarrassed both militarily and scientifically,’ writes Brinkley. It was ‘a nasty one-two punch that damaged Kennedy’ and brought worldwide criticism on both himself and the United States. ‘We’ve got to do something to show the Russians we’re not paper tigers,’ the president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, complained.

Read the full article in Undark.


Why Hannah Arendt is the philosopher for now
Lyndsey Stonebridge, new Statesman, 20 March 2019

When Hannah Arendt was herded into Gurs, a detention camp in south-west France in May 1940, she did one of the most sensible things you can do when you are trapped in a real-life nightmare: she read – Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Clausewitz’s On War and, compulsively, the detective stories of Georges Simenon. Today people are reading Arendt to understand our own grimly bewildering predicament.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Arendt’s 1951 masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism entered the US bestseller lists. Tweet-size nuggets of her warnings about post-truth political life have swirled through social media ever since. Arendt, the one time ‘illegal emigrant’ (her words), historian of totalitarianism, analyst of the banality of administrative evil and advocate for new political beginnings, is currently the go-to political thinker for the second age of fascist brutality.

It is not just the opponents of far-right nationalism who are rediscovering her work. Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has attempted to garnish its claims to serious research with a half-quotation from Arendt. The AfD’s intellectual mission, in case you hadn’t guessed, is to create ‘clarity and transparency’ in public discourse. They warn us sagely that power, according to Arendt, ‘becomes dangerous exactly where the public ends’. Power, Arendt also said, becomes dangerous when the capitalist elite align with the mob, when racism is allowed to take over the institutions of state, and when the aching loneliness of living in a fact-free atomised society sends people running towards whatever tawdry myth will keep them company.

It is true that Arendt loved the public space of politics for the robust clarity it gave to the business of living together. It is also true that she argued for a political republic based on common interest. These are both reasons why we should be reading her today. But her commitment to plurality is not an invitation to nationalism. Arendt wanted politics dragged into the light so that we might see each other for what we are. But that didn’t mean we had to accept what was evidently ruinous to politics itself, merely that we had to acknowledge that what we find most repellent actually exists – and then resist it.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Tell me everything
Christian Lorentzen, Bookforum, Summer 2019

Hidden disfigurements, a wife in the attic, a baby in a basket on the doorstep. Inheritances of unknown provenance, missing diamonds, parties paid for with dirty money. Addictions conducted behind closed doors, youthful radicalism never entirely abandoned, a reel of film that shows the dictator having sex. Codes, symbols, handshakes, languages nobody ever spoke. How old is your grandmother?

Outside the realm of the autobiographical, it’s to a writer’s advantage to muddy characters’ identities and conceal their inner souls. Secrets in conventional novels are the engines of plots. Asymmetrical distribution of information makes action happen. Narrative itself is the sequential disclosure of details. When the narrator is unreliable, the author is often passing secrets to the reader that the narrator registers without understanding their meaning. Vladimir Nabokov, in novels like Laughter in the Dark, Despair, Lolita, and Pale Fire, was the master of creating narrative frames around characters so enamored of their own cleverness that they are blind to the true import of the stories they’re telling, leaving readers in the position of solving riddles in works that reward rereading (and rereading and rereading) and always yield new secrets.

These games are out of fashion in an age that prizes and largely enforces transparency, not least because novelists and their characters are often engaged in a performance of elaborate self-consciousness. The end of the Cold War and the rise of omnipresent surveillance have brought new challenges for the spy novelist and the crime novelist, but transformations in feeling may have deeper effects on the novel generally. Spies and criminals always operate at the cutting edge of deception, and so novelists are burdened with treating intrigue and detection in more and more technological terms (or else, like John le Carré and any number of detective novelists, they retreat into historical fiction). But what happens in the realm of psychology when that staple of the novel, adultery, becomes a forgivable sin? Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends represents a revolution in the form, because it combines the novel of manners with the novel of adultery by resolving its conflicts (a breakup, marital infidelity, jealousy between friends) and dissolving its characters’ secrets in amicably negotiated polyamory. Well, that’s all to the good if you can pull it off, but something novelistic is sacrificed when characters don’t have to sacrifice anything to get what they want. Or when what they want the most is for everyone to get along.

Read the full article in Bookforum.


An actual sequence view of freedom
Carolina Sartorio & Richard Marshall, 3:16

3:16: You’ve looked at the challenges of determinism to our idea of free will. Causation is given a prominent role by some, but others, like van Inwagen, give it no role. Is van Inwagen right to say that causal determination plays no role and that the problem is pure determinism? What’s his argument – and why do you say causation still plays a role even if we concede his point?

CS: Causation is one of the most fruitful concepts in philosophy (as evidenced by the fact that there are causal theories of action, reference, perception, knowledge, and more), but it is at the same time one of the most intriguing and controversial. It has famously resisted analysis in terms of more basic concepts (although a few brave souls keep trying!); on the other hand, it is also hard to believe that it’s a primitive, unanalyzable notion. Hence the mystery surrounding causation. van Inwagen thinks we can bypass these issues because the real threat to our free will is not causal determination (our acts having deterministic causes) but simply determination (our acts being necessitated by past events and the natural laws), since this is enough to guarantee that we cannot ever do otherwise. I think this is wrong, in that the problem only arises given that we don’t have any causal control over the (remote) past. If we had that kind of control over the past (say, if we could travel back in time and causally influence the past), then it wouldn’t be a challenge to our free will if our acts were determined by past events, given that those past events themselves would be partly under our control. For this reason, I think that causation (or the concept of what is/is not under our causal control) has an important role to play in the generation of the problem of determinism and free will.

3:16: You also argue that if causation has a role in the problem it also has a role in the solution? You talk about the right kind of cause giving us freedom – what’s this?

CS: I think that the connection between causation and free will has been way underappreciated. How our acts are brought about, or the causal history of our acts, is clearly relevant to our freedom. Think about severe forms of coercion, manipulation, brainwashing, or compulsion. Intuitively, it matters if what we do is the result of one of those causal sources or, instead, of an ordinary process of deliberation. So, what I’m after is an account of what makes for a ‘good’ causal history and what makes for a ‘bad’ causal history. A good causal history is one that results in acts that are done freely, and a bad causal history is one that results in acts that are not done freely. Given that I am a compatibilist about the free will problem (that is, I think that the truth of determinism is compatible with acting freely), I believe that ‘good’ causal histories can be deterministic.

Read the full article in 3:16.


Move over, DNA: ancient proteins
are starting to reveal humanity’s history
Matthew Warren, Nature, 26 June 2019

Some time in the past 160,000 years or so, the remains of an ancient human ended up in a cave high on the Tibetan Plateau in China. Perhaps the individual died there, or parts were taken there by its kin or an animal scavenger. In just a few years, the flesh disappeared and the bones started to deteriorate. Then millennia dripped by. Glaciers retreated and then returned and retreated again, and all that was left behind was a bit of jawbone with some teeth. The bone gradually became coated in a mineral crust, and the DNA from this ancient ancestor was lost to time and weather. But some signal from the past persisted.

Deep in the hominin’s teeth, proteins lingered, degraded but still identifiable. When scientists analysed them earlier this year, they detected collagen, a structural support protein found in bone and other tissues. And in its chemical signature was a single amino-acid variant that isn’t present in the collagen of modern humans or Neanderthals — instead, it flagged the jawbone as belonging to a member of the mysterious hominin group called Denisovans1. The discovery of a Denisovan in China was a major landmark. It was the first individual found outside Denisova Cave in Siberia, where all other remains of its kind had previously been identified. And the site’s location on the Tibetan Plateau — more than 3,000 metres above sea level — suggested that Denisovans had been able to live in very cold, low-oxygen environments.

But the finding also marked another milestone: it was the first time that an ancient hominin had been identified using only proteins.

It is one of the most striking discoveries yet for the fledgling field of palaeoproteomics, in which scientists analyse ancient proteins to answer questions about the history and evolution of humans and other animals. Proteins, which stick around in fossils for much longer than DNA does, could allow scientists to explore whole new eras of prehistory and use molecular tools to examine bones from a much broader part of the world than is currently possible, according to the field’s proponents.

Read the full article in Nature.


Football is getting VAR wrong –
it should learn from cricket
Johnny Singer, New Statesman, 21 June 2019

There are all sorts of wonderful sights in cricket – a Virat Kohli cover drive, Jos Buttler biffing the ball into the stands, Mitchel Starc sending a stump cartwheeling past the wicket-keeper.

But over the past few years a new one has emerged as a fan favourite – the non-review. Picture this: A bowler thuds the ball into the batsman’s pads and begins to appeal, joined by his entire team – keeper, slips and just about everyone else imploring the umpire to put his finger up. Sometimes the bowler might even take a breath and then launch into a second shout, so sure is he that the official must see things his way.

The umpire remains unmoved and captain, wicket-keeper and bowler congregate to decide if they should call on Hawkeye and the Decision Review System to attempt to overturn this injustice. ‘Probably pitched outside leg,’ admits the keeper. The bowler, seconds ago so adamant, shrugs his shoulders. The umpire, they concede, was probably right. On with the game.

During the ongoing Cricket World Cup, you’ll probably see this scene, or something like it, at least once a match – sometimes more. The bowler’s disbelief at not getting a decision dissolving, inside the 15-second limit, into acceptance. From that moment, even if it turns out the umpire was wrong, the players have no reason to complain – they didn’t really think it was out either.

The contrast to football could not be starker. The FIFA Women’s World Cup, taking place concurrently with cricket’s showpiece, has been blighted by controversy around the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). Penalties are given, then reversed. Or not given, and then awarded after a protracted delay. And then retaken once they’ve been saved.

The Copa America, which got underway last week in Brazil has seen similarly chaotic scenes. The correct decisions may be being reached, mostly, but the idea that VAR might somehow clear things up and make them simpler is being quickly exposed as a pipe dream.

So why has football got it so wrong? While most mass-market sports have been using technology for a decade, the world’s biggest one is only just catching up. But rather than learning from what others have done right, football has developed just about the worst system possible.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


On the run
Joel Whitney, Poetry Foundation, 8 July 2019

In April 1949, the poet Pablo Neruda strolled onstage at the First World Congress of Partisans for Peace, in Paris, and apologized for being late. He’d been unavoidably detained, he joked. Over the preceding months, he’d lived in hiding, shuttling between a series of safe houses in South America. He had to cross the ocean on a fake passport to arrive in Europe. A photograph from that day shows him in a pinstriped suit, embraced by Picasso, who also addressed the rapt audience at Pleyel Hall. The two men look ecstatic, perhaps because of the turnaround in Neruda’s fortunes.

Neruda had gone into hiding in his native Chile more than a year before. After he helped elect Gabriel González Videla as president on a radical left platform, González Videla launched a campaign of repression that included roundups of leftists and labor leaders, and violent repression of workers’ strikes. As copper prices plummeted after World War II, the Truman administration convinced González Videla that he would need the United States’ economic help and that war between the US and Russia was looming. This convinced González Videla to ban communism in Chile.

In addition to being a poet, Neruda was a senator and a new member of the Chilean Communist Party, and in response to the communist ban, he delivered a pair of dissident speeches from the senate floor. In his coup de grâce in January 1948, in a speech called ‘I Accuse,’ Neruda read the names of incarcerated or missing Chileans and contrasted the repressions of González Videla and Truman with the ‘Four Freedoms’ promoted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: freedom of speech and of worship, and freedom from want and from fear. Despite his invocation of FDR, Neruda defied the North Americans’ man in Chile and was summarily stripped of his senatorial immunity. Fearing for his life, he went into hiding, staying in safe houses by day and making several failed attempts to leave Chile by night. The day before he appeared onstage in Paris, the Chilean police chief Luis Brum D’Avoglio gloated to reporters about the poet’s imminent capture. After the Paris appearance shattered this as fake news, González Videla retorted that it was a fake Neruda. One reporter joked that he went to the conference to see what Neruda’s alleged ‘twin’ looked like.

But in exile in Paris and across several continents, Neruda wasn’t safe; he was surveilled wherever he went and sometimes detained. Neruda’s saga marks one of the 20th century’s greatest literary chase scenes, and the Cold War’s first global manhunt. It wasn’t a hunt for a nuclear engineer, a spy, or even a dissident journalist but for a poetpoet!whose love poetry had won him acclaim and book sales around the world, and later earned the 1971 Nobel Prize.

Read the full article on the Poetry Foundation.


The great summer read
Joseph Luzzi, The American Scholar, 17 June 2019

Now that the days are long and vacation is on hand, it’s time to dream, especially inside the pages of some book we’ve been meaning to get to all year. The more daunting the literary challenge the better—forget old standbys like Hamlet and Hemingway; this summer we can tackle the really ambitious stuff. Maybe doorstopper-sized Don Quixote, that mighty intellectual puzzle Ulysses, or even an obscure Shakespeare play. Bring on King John and Thackeray, make way for Ford Madox Ford!

But by early August our literary dreams of late May might, in retrospect, seem like what invading Russia must have looked like to Napoleon: a good idea at the time but ultimately a crushing overreach. You might bring Shakespeare to the beach only to find that he’s even more difficult to read under the glare of a hot sun than in the comfort of a library. And as far as Ulysses goes, well, Joyce was right when he said that it would keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over its meaning. Trying to solve its enigmas while your kids pour wet sand over its pages will likely produce a migraine, not enlightenment.

So why do we persist in our often futile quest for the Great Summer Read? Why not just load the beach bag with the latest Lee Child instead of Leo Tolstoy? I think Henry James said it best: ‘Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’ James repeats the two words, savoring them on his tongue like ice cream or chocolate—it is the sweetest time of the year, a time for grand literary plans. Of course, we tackle more elaborate books in summer because we have more time on our hands, with the season’s longer days, the time off from work, and the promise of leisure in the air. But there’s also a psychological effect at work. From our childhood days, the coming of summer and the end of the school year meant the end of our ‘required’ reading: no more homework, no more chapter assignments, no more mandatory synopses of The Scarlet Letter or historical summaries of ‘Everyday Life in Dickens’ London.’ Come the solstice, many of us experienced something that will never disappear: the exhilaration of setting our own literary agenda—a private summer syllabus devoid of grades and fueled by love alone.

Read the full article in the American Scholar.


The images are, from top down: Computer reconstructions of the Apidima 2 skull (from Nature); Part of Victor Arnautoff’s ‘Life of Washington’ mural; Illustration by Ana Kova for Nature; Photo of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface taken by Neil Armstrong.

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