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.
Britain’s infrastructure is breaking down.
And here’s why no one’s fixing it
Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian, 14 August 2019
When I am out reporting it is not uncommon to go into a suburban postcode short of money yet still bustling with people – but the banks have nearly all cleared out, the church has gone and all that’s left of the last pub is an empty hulk. The private sector has buggered off, the state is a remote and vengeful god who dispenses benefits or sanctions, and the ‘big society’ never made it out of the pages of a report from a Westminster thinktank. I’ve seen this in the suburbs of London and in the valleys of south Wales, and the word that most comes to mind is ‘abandoned’.
Politicians bemoan the loss of community, but that resonant word is not precise enough. A large part of what’s missing is social infrastructure. It can be public or private. It is often slightly dog-eared and usually overlooked. But when it vanishes, the social damage can be huge.
The American sociologist Eric Klinenberg lists some in his recent book, Palaces for the People: ‘People reduce the time they spend in public settings and hunker down in their safe houses. Social networks weaken. Crime rises. Older and sick people grow isolated. Younger people get addicted to drugs … Distrust rises and civic participation wanes.’ A New York University professor, Klinenberg’s observations hold as true for Brexit Britain as they do for Trump’s America. How often have you read about a grandmother found dead in her own home, with no one popping by for days? How many news stories do you read about teenagers experiencing mental illness as they compare themselves to the images on their screens? And how many times have you complained that everyone is so stuck in their own bubble that politics is hopelessly polarised?
In ripping out our social infrastructure, we are outraging a wisdom that goes back centuries and spans countries. Millions of Britons will spend part of this summer on a plaza or a piazza or people-watching on the public square outside Paris’s Centre Pompidou. The architectural historian Shumi Bose points out that library designs proliferated during the Enlightenment, alongside blueprints for monuments ‘to the exercise of the sovereignty of the people’. During the second world war, the Mass Observation collective wrote of the British pub: ‘Once a man has bought or been bought his glass of beer, he has entered an environment in which he is participant, rather than spectator.’
Read the full article in the Guardian.
The new fugitive slave laws
Manisha Sinha, NYR Daily, 17 July 2019
Today, in criminalizing the provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants we have resurrected the fugitive slave laws of antebellum America. Just as abolitionist activists were once targeted, human rights activists have found themselves in the sights of the Trump administration for surveillance and prosecution, according to a recent Amnesty International report.
Last month, as many noted, the washed-up bodies of a Salvadoran father, Óscar Ramírez, and his young daughter, Valeria, who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande recalled the inert, lifeless body of the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi, on a Turkish beach four years ago. The Kurdi photograph aroused worldwide condemnation and a spotlight on the plight of refugees from war-torn Syria. Many hoped that the tragedy of the Ramírez case would similarly arouse public outrage at the inhumanity of this administration’s draconian immigration policies—its overcrowded detention camps, the separation of families, the deaths and abuse of children, some merely infants. In the Ramírezes’ desperate bid for safety and a new life was also an echo of an earlier crossing attempt, which, though fictional, captured the imagination of a nation. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), an enslaved mother and her infant succeeded in fleeing across the frozen Ohio river to freedom.
Some historical analogies can mislead, granted, but we should be mindful of the lessons from history that can shine light on our current humanitarian crisis. The first is that evils we had thought long banished from civilized societies can reappear, and with alarming speed. From concentration camps for Uighurs in China, the largest mass-detention since the Holocaust, to migrant detention centers in America, we’re seeing an increase in the systemic internment of human beings worldwide. In the US, perhaps the most fraught example is Fort Sill, Oklahoma, an Army post proposed as a migrant detention center. Fort Sill symbolizes a bloodline of state-sponsored cruelty throughout American history, first as a reservation for dispossessed Native Americans, then as an internment camp for Japanese-American citizens during World War II, and now in its present planned use by ICE as a holding pen for migrants.
The second lesson from history is how quickly such measures can be accepted as necessary, even ‘natural.’ That ordinary people of any ethnicity or nationality can partake in and support evil actions at any time is not news to historians. The blithe assurance of top advisers like Stephen Miller and senior bureaucrats like Kirstjen Nielsen who devise cruel policies to suit the needs of the system they’re working within, and implement them seemingly without thought, recalls Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil.’ More shocking is that many border patrol agents appear not only to be following orders but, according to a recent ProPublica report, have paraded their own racist, misogynistic, and sadistic tendencies in Facebook posts. That the Trump administration has announced new nationwide raids by ICE agents recalls the kidnappings and roundups by nineteenth-century slave-catchers and federal marshals.
Read the full article on NYR Daily.
Why liberals now believe in conspiracies
John Gray, New Statesman, 14 August 2019
The mistrust began with disinformation surrounding the Iraq War, increased with the global financial crisis and reached a recent peak with successive iterations of “Project Fear” in the Brexit information war. In Europe, distrust of liberal elites is reflected in the continuing advance of populist parties in Italy and Hungary, among other countries. In all these cases, such elites are being rejected because of their inability to handle crises seen to be of their own making. The near-meltdown of the financial system and chronic difficulties with immigration have all but destroyed the credibility of the liberal centre. No external intervention could have inflicted anything like the damage these episodes have done in undermining its authority. But it is a safe bet that plenty of liberals will continue to believe that outside forces have masterminded the decomposition of the political order they once believed permanent. Nothing will induce them to accept that they have authored their own undoing. With typically unthinking brio, David Cameron has explained Brexit as being a result of “populism”. His partner in the coalition government of 2010-15, Nick Clegg, seems to think much the same. Neither of them seems to have considered the possibility that their policies might have produced the populist reaction.
This is why liberals find conspiracy theory attractive. It serves to exonerate them from responsibility for what has gone wrong. Supported by liberals in all parties, a decade of austerity produced cuts in public services and infrastructure that damaged much of the British population. Liberals in all parties also promoted large-scale immigration. Anyone who suggested it might have costs as well as benefits, especially for the working poor, was denounced as racist. The rise of Ukip, and then of the Brexit Party, was the predictable result. Populism is the creation of a liberal political class that blames its decline on the stupidity of voters. If the liberal idea is dead, as Vladimir Putin has claimed, it is liberals who have acted as his useful idiots and killed it.
To be sure, liberals will reject any idea that they have brought about their downfall. If they were ever at fault, it was in not being liberal enough. The remedy for the failings of liberalism can only be more liberalism. To think otherwise would be to accept that their view of politics is fundamentally flawed. How could the most rational ruling elite in history – as liberals perceive themselves to be – fail to comprehend the world around them? Like the nativists they attack, liberals find a strange comfort in the belief that their societies are being subverted by external forces.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
The myth of Eurabia:
How a far-right conspiracy theory went mainstream
Andrew Brown, Guardian, 16 August 2019
On these varied online forums, the narrative was always the same: a liberal cabal was conspiring with hostile Muslim powers to hand over the decent working people to Islam. This was the animating myth of the bloggers, calling themselves the “counter-jihad”, who congregated at Gates of Vienna and other like-minded sites – and inspired both the violence of Breivik and the message of the racist far-right parties that have transformed European politics in the past decade.
But all of these later conspiracy theories took inspiration from a founding myth of contemporary Islamophobia: an invented plot, known as “Eurabia”, to destroy European civilisation. This is the doctrine that Jensen promoted and Breivik acted on, a hidden underpinning of a movement that has changed the world.
Once an ideology confined to the kookier corners of the internet, the idea of Eurabia is now visible in the everyday politics of the US, Australia and most of Europe: when Trump tweets about stabbings in London and falsely claims that crime in Germany is “way up”, he is invoking the Eurabian myth, taken as fact on Fox News, that European liberals have surrendered their cities to Muslim criminals.
The spread of the belief that elites conspired to push Muslim immigration on their native populations is also the story of a conspiracy theory that was nourished on some of the very first blogs and message boards, started appearing in mainstream discourse after 9/11, and then took on a life of its own, even while the supposed facts behind it were exposed as ridiculous. It is a lesson in the danger of half-truths, which are not only more powerful than truths but often more powerful than lies.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
The radical roots of free speech
Laura Weinrib & Chase Burghgrave,
Jacobin, 25 July 2019
Your book shows that, prior to the ACLU’s founding, free speech activists were fighting businesses’ use of censorship to quash labor organizers. At the center of this was something you call ‘the right of agitation.’ Can you explain what this was, and how it was connected with civil liberties activism in the early twentieth century?
LW We are accustomed to thinking of freedom of speech as protecting the exposition and advocacy of ideas. The heroes in most accounts of the modern First Amendment are the soapbox speakers who demanded the right to espouse their visions of a just society, however radical or revolutionary.
But the right of agitation articulated by the labor activists who spearheaded the civil liberties movement in the late 1910s and early 1920s aligns only partially with this understanding. Drawing on a then-familiar distinction between agitation and propaganda, these advocates envisioned agitation as an arousal to action, in contrast to the dissemination of ideas. And the breed of direct action they had in mind was labor action, designed to counter the consolidation of capital with the organized power of workers.
What early free-speech activists sought to protect above all were labor’s most powerful weapons: the rights to strike, picket, and boycott. These were tactics that judges had routinely construed as economic rather than expressive, and coercive rather than persuasive. To claim them as constitutional rights, as early labor activists did and the ACLU eventually did, too, was bold.
The forerunner to the ACLU, the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), was established in 1917 amid labor agitation and intense class struggle. How did this environment shape its early activity?
LW Historians and constitutional law scholars have long emphasized the wartime work of the NCLB in extending legal representation to draft resisters and critics of the war. But to understand the early ACLU properly, we need to shift our focus from world war to class war.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
Daughters of Toni: A remembrance
Zadie Smith, PEN America, 7 August 2019
I read Toni Morrison’s early novels very young, probably a little too young, when I was around ten years old. I couldn’t always follow her linguistic experiments or the density of her metaphoric expressions, but at that age what mattered more even than her writing was the fact of her. Her books lined our living room shelves and appeared in multiple copies, as if my mother was trying to reassure herself that Morrison was here to stay. It’s hard now, in 2019, to recreate or describe the bottomless need she answered. There was no ‘black girl magic,’ in London, in 1985. Indeed, as far as the broader culture was concerned, there was no black girl anything, outside of singing, dancing, and perhaps running. On my mother’s shelves there certainly were ‘black woman writers,’ and ‘Toni’ was first amongst them, but no such being was ever mentioned in any class I ever attended, and I can’t remember ever seeing one on the TV or in the papers or anywhere else. Reading The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby for the first time was therefore more than an aesthetic or psychological experience, it was existential. Like a lot of black girls of my generation, I placed Morrison, in her single person, in an impossible role. I wanted to see her name on the spine of a book and feel some of the same lazy assumption and smug confidence of familial relation, of inherited potential, that any Anglo-Saxon boy in school felt—no matter how unlettered or indifferent to literature—whenever he heard the name of William Shakespeare, say, or John Keats. No writer should have to bear such a burden. What’s extraordinary about Morrison is that she not only wanted that burden, she was equal to it. She knew we needed her to be not just a writer but a discourse and she became one, making her language out of whole cloth, and conceiving of each novel as a project, as a mission—never as mere entertainment. Just as there is a Keatsian sentence and a Shakespearean one, so Morrison made a sentence distinctly hers, abundant in compulsive, self-generating metaphor, as full of sub-clauses as a piece of 19th century presidential oratory, and always faithful to the central belief that narrative language—inconclusive, non-definitive, ambivalent, twisting, metaphorical narrative language, with its roots in oral culture—can offer a form of wisdom distinct from and in opposition to, as she put it, the ‘calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science.’
Read the full article on PEN America.
Maryam Namazie, Sisterhood, 19 June 2019
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia has mainly been framed as a free speech issue. The definition adopted by some parties and councils will certainly limit criticism of Islam and Islamism even further than it already is currently. To say it will not is dishonest at best. This has already been the case for a long time now. For those of us who have fled Iran, it has been so since the expropriation of the Iranian revolution by the Islamists; in Britain, at least since the Rushdie affair.
Examples abound. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, of which I am a Spokesperson, was placed under investigation for eight months by Pride in London because of the accusation of Islamophobia levelled against us by the East London Mosque and Mend. I myself have been barred from Warwick University, harassed by Islamic Society students at Goldsmiths, and had my talk cancelled at Trinity College over the same accusations. I haven’t had issues for a while now – but that is only because I am hardly invited to speak at universities any more. It is just too much trouble. The accusations stick; uncomfortably so.
Whilst this is a free speech issue (blasphemy is clearly not racism), what I find even more disturbing about this definition is the Parliamentary Group’s open promulgation of the idea that there is something that can be called ‘expressions of Muslimness.’ It is absurd to assume that this is the case, any more than one can speak of expressions of Christianness or Jewishness or Hinduness. This is no different from saying there are ‘expressions of Britishness’; something that the far-Right – and increasingly, mainstream politicians – imply in order to exclude migrants and minorities.
Certainly, we can discuss what it means to be British – or Muslim for that matter. This will inevitably mean different things to different people. But with the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Tommy Robinson, the Windrush scandal, May’s ‘Go Home’ vans, and her ‘hostile environment’, along with the far-Right fascist parties gaining seats across Europe, the promotion of expressions of ‘Britishness’ isn’t as innocent as it is made out to be. In this context, Britishness becomes whiteness. Likewise, promoting ‘Muslimness’ in a world in which the religious-Right is in power and causing havoc is far more ominous than it might initially seem.
Read the full article in SisterHood.
A crime scene at the border
Teju Cole, New York Times, 10 July 2019
The media’s defense of the publication of Le Duc’s photograph was familiar: that it is the job of the press to disseminate the truth, no matter how bitter, and that by showing the bitterest truth, some justice might be done. But a photograph of a dead child on the United States-Mexico border is not, by itself, the bitterest truth. A bitterer truth might be to convey that what we are looking at is not an accident: It is a crime.
The bitterest truth might be to show that the crime was committed by the viewers of the photograph — that this is not news from some remote and unconnected reality but that it is rather something you have done, not personally but as a member of the larger collective. It is you who have undermined their democracy, you who have devastated their economy, you who have denied their claim to asylum. These are not strangers requesting a favor. They are people you already know, confronting you with your misdeeds.
That is not how such images are typically presented or understood. So, what happens if evidence of your crimes is presented to you over and over again but you do not accept culpability? What happens is that your assessment of this evidence becomes ever more disingenuous. It’s a pity, you say. It’s unfortunate, outrageous, heartbreaking. You make these declarations — which are partly true but mostly false — and life goes on.
But what also happens is that the images enter an aesthetic realm, detached from the human pain from which they emerged. It is too easy to forget Rosa Ramírez standing in her home, mourning as many of us would, and it is too easy to remember the striking photo of her dead son and granddaughter. The publication of such images is often followed by speculation about which among them is likely to win prizes. In certain cases, the photographer of the spectacularly terrible image is immediately congratulated by his or her peers, for some glory is surely on its way: a Pulitzer Prize perhaps, or a World Press Photo award.
And this slope slips down to that ever-louder demographic that exults in making America great again, among whom the brutal images do more direct work. The images show foreigners getting what they deserve and, far from being an indictment, they portray a natural order. ‘Reality is don’t be illegal,’ as one commenter on the Times site puts it. ‘The bad judgment of the father in attempting to swim a river with a toddler on his back is his responsibility,’ another suggests.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The French elites against the working class
Andrew Hussey, New Statesman, 24 July 2019
However, the originality of Guilluy’s argument, or rather his critique, about gentrification, is that in France it does not merely concern house prices, but rather a wholescale restructuring of society. More precisely, the stable geographical unity of France – from the traditional quartiers of the big cities to the small towns and villages of La France Profonde (the mythologised ‘deep France’ dear to the French sense of identity) has been broken up, which has impacted political life as well as the economic landscape.
‘Until now France has always been like a family, divided between right and left, who might hate each other but everyone knows their place in society because it has a structure,’ Guilluy says. ‘But now, as the cities change shape, the old structures have disappeared – literally cafés and markets, where local people lived and worked together have gone. Now, it’s about who can afford to live in a city and those who can’t. So instead of class structures within the city you have something which is more like America – a country of ‘winners and losers’, or ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.’
This is also broadly what he means by ‘Peripheral France’ – places outside the affluent city centres whose distance from those centres is not to be measured by kilometres but by access to jobs, medical services, good schools, basic transport infrastructure and cultural events. The mirror image of the gentrification of the French cities has been the ‘desertificaton’ of much of the rest of the country. Not a day goes by without a news story on the main French TV channel TF1 about the lack of doctors or the closure of schools; intriguingly, this is happening not just in remote rural areas but in medium-sized towns and larger villages whose only bad luck is to be cut off from the thriving metropolitan economies.
Guilluy is by training a geographer whose speciality is the economics of real estate. He makes a living in his day job by acting as a consultant to regional French towns and cities on how to develop housing projects.
He has seen at first hand, therefore, how very little thought has gone into the development of French cities, and how most development has been ‘sauvage’ – unplanned and driven by a free market in real estate prices. The problem, says Guilluy, is that this kind of urban development is subject to its own economic laws, which lie beyond the control and reach of French government, either at local or national level. Instead, they are governed by global market forces. He emphasises the lack of planning, that there has been no great conspiracy to move the working class out of the cities. But it has happened all the same, and it is still happening. Put simply, many ordinary French people have been priced out of their own communities and no longer have any control over where they live.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
The hidden costs of automated thinking
Jonathan Zittrain, New Yorker, 23 July 2019
Like many medications, the wakefulness drug modafinil, which is marketed under the trade name Provigil, comes with a small, tightly folded paper pamphlet. For the most part, its contents—lists of instructions and precautions, a diagram of the drug’s molecular structure—make for anodyne reading. The subsection called ‘Mechanism of Action,’ however, contains a sentence that might induce sleeplessness by itself: ‘The mechanism(s) through which modafinil promotes wakefulness is unknown.’
Provigil isn’t uniquely mysterious. Many drugs receive regulatory approval, and are widely prescribed, even though no one knows exactly how they work. This mystery is built into the process of drug discovery, which often proceeds by trial and error. Each year, any number of new substances are tested in cultured cells or animals; the best and safest of those are tried out in people. In some cases, the success of a drug promptly inspires new research that ends up explaining how it works—but not always. Aspirin was discovered in 1897, and yet no one convincingly explained how it worked until 1995.
The same phenomenon exists elsewhere in medicine. Deep-brain stimulation involves the implantation of electrodes in the brains of people who suffer from specific movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease; it’s been in widespread use for more than twenty years, and some think it should be employed for other purposes, including general cognitive enhancement. No one can say how it works.
This approach to discovery – answers first, explanations later – accrues what I call intellectual debt. It’s possible to discover what works without knowing why it works, and then to put that insight to use immediately, assuming that the underlying mechanism will be figured out later. In some cases, we pay off this intellectual debt quickly. But, in others, we let it compound, relying, for decades, on knowledge that’s not fully known.
In the past, intellectual debt has been confined to a few areas amenable to trial-and-error discovery, such as medicine. But that may be changing, as new techniques in artificial intelligence – specifically, machine learning – increase our collective intellectual credit line. Machine-learning systems work by identifying patterns in oceans of data. Using those patterns, they hazard answers to fuzzy, open-ended questions. Provide a neural network with labelled pictures of cats and other, non-feline objects, and it will learn to distinguish cats from everything else; give it access to medical records, and it can attempt to predict a new hospital patient’s likelihood of dying. And yet, most machine-learning systems don’t uncover causal mechanisms. They are statistical-correlation engines. They can’t explain why they think some patients are more likely to die, because they don’t ‘think’ in any colloquial sense of the word—they only answer. As we begin to integrate their insights into our lives, we will, collectively, begin to rack up more and more intellectual debt.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
‘Some suburb of Hell’:
America’s new concentration camp system
Andrea Pitzer, NYR Daily, 21 June 2019
Concentration camps, however, don’t typically result from the theft of land, as happened with Native Americans, or owning human beings in a system of forced labor, as in the slave trade. Exile, theft, and forced labor can come later, but in the beginning, detention itself is usually the point of concentration camps. By the end of the nineteenth century, the mass production of barbed wire and machines guns made this kind of detention possible and practical in ways it never had been before.
Under Spanish rule in 1896, the governor-general of Cuba instituted camps in order to clear rebel-held regions during an uprising, despite his predecessor’s written refusal ‘as the representative of a civilized nation, to be the first to give the example of cruelty and intransigence’ that such detention would represent. After women and children began dying in vast numbers behind barbed wire because there had been little planning for shelter and even less for food, US President William McKinley made his call to war before Congress. He spoke against the policy of reconcentración, calling it warfare by uncivilized means. ‘It was extermination,’ McKinley said. ‘The only peace it could beget was that of the wilderness and the grave.’ Without full records, the Cuban death toll can only be estimated, but a consensus puts it in the neighborhood of 150,000, more than 10 percent of the island’s prewar population.
Today, we remember the sinking of the USS Maine as the spark that ignited the Spanish-American War. But war correspondent George Kennan (cousin of the more famous diplomat) believed that ‘it was the suffering of the reconcentrados, more, perhaps, than any other one thing that brought about the intervention of the United States.’ On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war. Two weeks later, US Marines landed at Fisherman’s Point on the windward side of the entrance to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. After a grim, week-long fight, the Marines took the hill. It became a naval base, and the United States has never left that patch of land.
As part of the larger victory, the US inherited the Philippines. The world’s newest imperial power also inherited a rebellion. Following a massacre of American troops at Balangiga in September 1901, during the third year of the conflict, the US established its own concentration camp system. Detainees, mostly women and children, were forced into squalid conditions that one American soldier described in a letter to a US senator as ‘some suburb of hell.’ In the space of only four months, more than 11,000 Filipinos are believed to have died in these noxious camps.
Meanwhile, in southern Africa in 1900, the British had opened their own camps during their battle with descendants of Dutch settlers in the second Boer War. British soldiers filled tent cities with Boer women and children, and the military authorities called them refugee camps. Future Prime Minister David Lloyd George took offense at that name, noting in Parliament: ‘There is no greater delusion in the mind of any man than to apply the term ‘refugee’ to these camps. They are not refugee camps. They are camps of concentration.’ Contemporary observers compared them to the Cuban camps, and criticized their deliberate cruelty. The Bishop of Hereford wrote to The Times of London in 1901, asking: ‘Are we reduced to such a depth of impotence that our Government can do nothing to stop such a holocaust of child-life?’
Read the full article on NYR Daily.
Myanmar’s other reporters
E Tammy Kim, Columbia Journalism Review, 13 August 2019
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were interrogated and locked up at Insein prison, in Yangon, a vast circular compound known for its human-rights abuses. Swe Win served part of his long sentence there, two decades ago, as did Suu Kyi. But unlike Swe Win, whose legal proceedings never drew much attention, the Reuters reporters became the center of a global campaign for press freedom, involving countless acts of public and private diplomacy. Amal Clooney, the superstar human-rights lawyer, signed on to represent the men, and Vice President Mike Pence called for their release. The Pulitzer Prize Board honored them with the 2019 award for international reporting.
Finally, this past May, after more than 500 days in custody, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were set free. Myanmar President U Win Myint, who essentially serves at Suu Kyi’s pleasure, pardoned them as part of an annual mass amnesty of 6,520 prisoners. Immediately after the reporters’ release, world leaders and human-rights advocates broadcast their relief and acclaim for the decision. But the cheers came with a heavy asterisk. It wasn’t clear whether the military or Suu Kyi had driven the prosecution of the journalists—or, for that matter, the routing of more than 730,000 Rohingya, one of the largest stateless groups in the world. These chilling unknowns spooked everyone in Myanmar’s press.
The Reuters case was, in many ways, exceptional, and drew wide attention: it became a model campaign for journalists’ rights. It also bore dreary witness to Myanmar’s democratic transition, and to the larger project of advancing free speech when, across the globe, cynical leaders wield ‘fake news’ as a scythe. Behind the story of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, however, are dozens of other prosecutions that, like Swe Win’s, relate to the assault on the Rohingya and go largely unseen. One highly visible victory may have served to mask dozens of defeats. ‘There are many bizarre cases that have been going on,’ Swe Win told me. ‘My case is not an isolated case.’
Read the full article in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Mandate vaccination with care
Saad B. Omer, Cornelia Betsch & Julie Leask,
Nature, 22 July 2019
Thousands of people worldwide have been affected by recent measles outbreaks, even though there is a safe and effective vaccine.
In the first four months of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported about 226,000 measles cases — almost three times the count recorded in the same period last year. Already, the number of cases in the United States this year has exceeded the reported tally in any year since the country halted sustained transmission of the disease in 2000. Similarly, in Europe, the 2018 figures were the highest this decade (see ‘Measles on the rise’).
Partly in response to these outbreaks, some governments are now considering making vaccination for measles and other diseases a legal requirement. The state of New York signed legislation to that effect last month.
Such mandates, which began with smallpox vaccination in nineteenth-century Europe, are in place for numerous vaccines in various countries. And several studies show that requiring vaccination can improve rates in high-income countries (see, for example, ref. 2), although there is limited evidence of the impact of such requirements in low- or middle-income nations.
However, mandatory vaccination can worsen inequities in access to resources, because penalties for not complying can disproportionately affect disadvantaged groups. What’s more, the evidence suggests that there is no simple linear relationship between the forcefulness of a policy and its impact on the rate of vaccination.
It is crucial that policies don’t inadvertently entrench inequity or fuel anti-vaccine activism. As specialists in vaccination policy and programmes, we lay out here what’s known, to help governments consider whether a mandate is the right fit for their situation. We also discuss what other changes should be made before introducing requirements. And we distil how mandates should be designed to ensure effectiveness.
Read the full article in Nature.
A clash of loyalties in the Parisian suburbs
Fabien Truong & Seth Ackerman, Jacobin, 21 July 2019
Tell me about Amédy Coulibaly. What was his background, and how does it relate to this portrait?
FT I spent more than two years, staying several days a week, in the Paris suburb of Grigny. Amédy Coulibaly was already dead when I arrived, and I didn’t know him when he was alive. But I quickly started to talk with people who knew him, and what they were saying was definitely not what I was seeing in the press. So I thought there was a possibility to do a postmortem ethnographic study, like a historian who works on oral sources, trying to recall the ordinary story of this guy.
You can tell that he was so badly in need of social recognition: he actually left a lot of public traces before he died. I found, for instance, several press interviews he gave at the time (not always under his real name). He made a hidden-camera movie in prison that he smuggled out, which was quite a big deal at the time in France. He met Nicolas Sarkozy. So you can tell he needed some sort of recognition. So the interesting question for me was: What had happened before all of that? What gradually led to this trajectory? And it was interesting to juxtapose him with other young men in the neighborhood who followed a different path. In the radicalization literature, there is a tendency to look out for the thing that explains what ‘turned’ a person. Usually it’s like, ‘one predictor,’ ‘one trauma,’ ‘one group of friends,’ etc. But that’s simplistic — it’s much more complicated and gradual than that. Looking at him in juxtaposition with the other guys, like Adama for example, is a good way to sort this out.
Adama and Amédy were best mates; they’re from the same generation, both their parents coming from Mali, both heavily involved in drug trafficking. They go through the same upheavals, they leave school at the same time. In many respects, they are cut from the same cloth. But Adama now works as a social worker. You can see by looking at Adama that he didn’t experience things in the same way as Amédy. Rather than pinpointing one moment as ‘the reason why,’ you can understand by looking at other people’s trajectories: ‘Oh, at this point, there was a possibility of experiencing prison in a different way, of experiencing the loss of your friend in a different way, etc.’ It’s difficult to summarize it because it’s like a puzzle. As you read the book, you gradually understand the logic.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
The economics of migration
Jonathan Portes, Contexts, 18 (2), 2019
Public and policy concern in the United States and other developed countries tends, for obvious reasons, to focus on the impacts on existing residents and especially the distributional impacts of immigration—the potential negative impacts on employment and wages for low-skilled workers. Many non-economists (and even some economists) simply assert as an article of faith that such effects must exist—usually suggesting that it’s a matter of ‘supply and demand.’
But this is very bad economics. It’s entirely true that immigrants add to labor supply. Indeed, it’s even true to say that immigrants ‘take our jobs’ (I work and live in London, and I’m sure that I, like many UK-born economists, have at some point failed to get a job because my prospective employer preferred to hire an immigrant). But the point is that immigrants (directly or indirectly) add to labor demand as well as labor supply; they earn money and spend it.
Ignoring this effect, as many do, is what economists call the ‘lump of labor fallacy’—the idea that there are only a certain number of jobs to go around, so that if an immigrant to the United States (or an old person or a woman) takes one, then an American (or a young person or a man) must lose out. But while an immigrant may ‘take’ one job from an American worker directly, they may also ‘create’ one job for American workers. Similarly, wages for American workers might rise or fall. So the only way to find out what immigration does to jobs and wages is to look at the data.
The economic impacts of immigration go beyond the direct impact on the jobs and wages of natives, just as the economic impacts of trade aren’t only about reduced prices for cheap consumer good imports.
The most famous research evidence on this in the developed world comes from David Card’s 1990 study of the Mariel boatlift. The 1980 movement of Cuban refugees to the United States represented a huge ‘supply shock’ of mostly low-skilled immigrants into Miami, Florida’s labor market. Card found, surprisingly, that the impact on native wages was very small. This result was so controversial that economists are still arguing about it, nearly 30 years after it was published, with the leading U.S. immigration economist George Borjas disputing his conclusions (although the consensus, as outlined by development economist Michael A. Clemens for Vox in 2017, remains that Card’s original result stands). More broadly, a huge body of subsequent research, both in the United States and elsewhere, has largely supported Card’s conclusions (reviewed, for example, in a 2011 NBER working paper by economists Sari Pekkala Kerr and William R. Kerr). The consensus is that negative impacts of migration for native workers in developed countries are, if they exist at all, relatively small and short-lived.
Read the full article in Contexts.
As face-recognition technology spreads,
so do ideas for subverting it
The Economist, 15 August 2019
In 2010, for instance, as part of a thesis for a master’s degree at New York University, an American researcher and artist named Adam Harvey created ‘cv [computer vision] Dazzle’, a style of make-up designed to fool face recognisers. It uses bright colours, high contrast, graded shading and asymmetric stylings to confound an algorithm’s assumptions about what a face looks like. To a human being, the result is still clearly a face. But a computer—or, at least, the specific algorithm Mr Harvey was aiming at—is baffled.
Dramatic make-up is likely to attract more attention from other people than it deflects from machines. HyperFace is a newer project of Mr Harvey’s. Where cv Dazzle aims to alter faces, HyperFace aims to hide them among dozens of fakes. It uses blocky, semi-abstract and comparatively innocent-looking patterns that are designed to appeal as strongly as possible to face classifiers. The idea is to disguise the real thing among a sea of false positives. Clothes with the pattern, which features lines and sets of dark spots vaguely reminiscent of mouths and pairs of eyes (see photograph), are already available.
An even subtler idea was proposed by researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Indiana University Bloomington, and Alibaba, a big Chinese information-technology firm, in a paper published in 2018. It is a baseball cap fitted with tiny light-emitting diodes that project infra-red dots onto the wearer’s face. Many of the cameras used in face-recognition systems are sensitive to parts of the infra-red spectrum. Since human eyes are not, infra-red light is ideal for covert trickery.
In tests against FaceNet, a face-recognition system developed by Google, the researchers found that the right amount of infra-red illumination could reliably prevent a computer from recognising that it was looking at a face at all. More sophisticated attacks were possible, too. By searching for faces which were mathematically similar to that of one of their colleagues, and applying fine control to the diodes, the researchers persuaded FaceNet, on 70% of attempts, that the colleague in question was actually someone else entirely.
Read the full article in the Economist.
Think Republicans are disconnected from reality?
It’s even worse among liberals
Arlie Hochschild, Observer, 21 July 2019
In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: ‘How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?’ Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe ‘most police are bad people’. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%.
The survey, published by the thinktank More in Common as part of its Hidden Tribes of America project, was based on a sample of more than 2,000 people. One of the study’s findings: the wilder a person’s guess as to what the other party is thinking, the more likely they are to also personally disparage members of the opposite party as mean, selfish or bad. Not only do the two parties diverge on a great many issues, they also disagree on what they disagree on.
This much we might guess. But what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview.
‘This effect,’ the report says, ‘is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.’ And the more politically engaged a person is, the greater the distortion.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
How a colonial-era law used against Gandhi
is now being deployed against the BJP’s critics
Ramachandra Guha, Scroll.In, 4 August 2019
Earlier this month, I joined a group of film-makers and scholars in sending a letter to the prime minister, alerting him to the high number of hate crimes committed in India in the name of caste and religion. ‘The lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities must be stopped immediately,’ we urged.
Knowing the Central government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism, our letter reminded the prime minister that ‘criticising the ruling party does not imply criticising the nation. No ruling party is synonymous with the country where it is in power. It is only one of the political parties of that country. Hence anti-government stands cannot be equated with anti-national sentiments. An open environment where dissent is not crushed, only makes for a stronger nation’.
The letter concluded with these words: ‘We hope our suggestions will be taken in the spirit that they are meant — as Indians genuinely concerned with, and anxious about, the fate of our nation.’
The letter I had signed was met immediately with a counter-letter, calling our modest initiative a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘defame the nation’. The critics claimed our aim was ‘tarnishing India’s international standing and to negatively portray Prime Minister Modi’s untiring efforts to effectuate governance on the foundations of positive nationalism and humanism’. We might have thought our letter an appeal for civic decency, a call to honour the ideals of the Indian Constitution, which mandates us not to discriminate on the basis of caste, gender, or religion. Our critics, however, darkly alleged that we were ‘working to a certain agenda and are only playing into the hands of those forces that are out to Balkanise India and destabilise her’.
That there was a rejoinder so soon and so vehemently worded did not surprise me. That the likes of Aparna Sen and Shyam Benegal were called anti-national was entirely consistent with the zeitgeist, the poisonous spirit of what passes for public discourse in India today. What was more dismaying, however, was that this counter-letter was followed by a brazen attempt at legal intimidation. A criminal complaint was filed in a Bihar court, charging that our letter was in violation of specific sections of the Indian Penal Code: namely, Sections 124A (sedition), 153B (assertions prejudicial to national integration), 290 (public nuisance), 297 (trespass to wound religious feelings), 504 (intentional insults) of the IPC.
Read the full article on Scroll.In.
How mindfulness privatised a social problem
Hettie O’Brien, New Statesman, 17 July 2019
In December 2008, while forcibly evicting tenants from a concrete high-rise in south London, Southwark Council pulled off a remarkable feat of complacency. Though residents didn’t know it at the time, every flat in the development that replaced the Heygate Estate would be sold to foreign investors, despite the council’s repeated promises of new social housing.
Recognising that people were ‘stressed’, councillors hired life coaches and ‘spiritual ministers’ to run workshops teaching residents how to progress emotionally. The company behind the workshop, the Happiness Project, was founded by the British positive psychologist Robert Holden, the author of Shift Happens! The firm’s motto was: ‘Success is a state of mind; happiness is a way of travelling; love is your true power.’
That people about to lose their homes were stressed is hardly surprising. The council encouraged residents to look inwards, towards their brain chemistry, and in doing so cast itself as a solution, rather than a cause of the problem. Its response typified the idea of ‘magical voluntarism’, which the writer Mark Fisher described as ‘the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be’
The connection between stress and economics is well documented. In their 2009 book The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson identified a strong correlation between inequality and poor reported mental health. In a report published last month, Dr Dainius Puras, the UN’s special rapporteur on health, stated that confronting inequality would be a more effective prophylactic for poor mental health than excessive therapy or medication.
Yet governments often opt for treatments that focus on the individual rather than social maladies. ‘Most don’t want to be thinking about how their policies might be contributing to problems in the first place,’ says David Harper, a clinical psychologist at the University of East London. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a treatment that focuses on raising awareness of negative emotions and developing coping strategies.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
Law and border
Jacob T Levy, Niskanen Center, 25 July 2019
Any system of mostly-closed borders and immigration control, as became common from the early 20th century onward, and as characterizes the US today — will be a regime of only imperfect and partial protection of the rule of law. But, as with the difference between law-governed POW imprisonment and Guantanamo, there are degrees of lawlessness that matter profoundly.
Note that the way restrictionists talk about law and lawlessness is, from the perspective of the liberal rule of law, basically backward. Even at the best of times border policing veers toward lawlessness: at the point of entry, the enforcement officer makes a basically unreviewable and processless decision to exclude by armed force.
And these are not the best of times. As both Amy Erica Smith and Dara Lind have argued, the supposed ‘law and order’ agenda noisily proclaimed by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is very different from, and in important ways opposed to, the rule of law.
Restrictionists treat the fact that some people overstay their visas (a civil offense) and others enter the United States between official points of entry (a misdemeanor) as a breakdown of lawfulness. This circumstance is no more corrosive of the rule of law, however, than the fact that millions of American drivers speed on the highway every day without getting a ticket. The threat of lawlessness comes instead from a president who makes demands like this:
We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents…
Congress must pass smart, fast and reasonable Immigration Laws now. Law Enforcement at the Border is doing a great job, but the laws they are forced to work with are insane. When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave without our Country being forced to endure a long and costly trial. Tell the people ‘OUT,’ and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing on your front lawn. Hiring thousands of ‘judges’ does not work and is not acceptable – only Country in the World that does this!
As was widely noted when Trump wrote these tweets over the last month, due process is how we ensure that citizens and legal residents aren’t among those swept up and deported. Mass expulsions without judicial oversight or procedural protection would be not only a violation of international law and of the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees due process to persons, not only citizens). It would also be a grave threat to the liberty-as-security of all American residents. It stands as starkly as anything this side of Guantanamo as a rejection of the rule of law and its underlying values. For the sake of a militarized ‘order’ on the border, Trump proposes to undermine law and liberty alike. In the most obvious way, Trump proposed to let the lawlessness of border control seep into domestic American space.
Read the full article at the Niskanen Centre.
All along the Ivory Tower
Kevin Dettmar, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 July 2019
The public image of the Dylan fan, going back a half century, isn’t entirely flattering. According to one popular label, these amateurs are ‘Dylanologists.’ I’d always understood the term as mildly mocking. As a group, Dylanologists have got a lot to live down. The term was coined in 1969 by A.J. Weberman, called ‘the king of all Dylan nuts’ by Rolling Stone, who is best known for his subspecialty, ‘garbology’: He rooted through the trash outside Dylan’s Greenwich Village apartment looking for clues to the state of the artist’s mind and health, and the ‘hidden meanings’ of his songs. But the fans at the conference wore it as a badge of honor. During her keynote address on ‘Bob Dylan’s Body,’ the NPR Music critic Ann Powers shouted out a couple of times to ‘my Dylanologists in the front row’ for real-time fact checking, which they gladly (and nonjudgmentally) provided. So, perhaps the moniker’s charge depends on who’s wielding it, and to what end.
Certainly, I came to the conference in thrall to some of the stereotypes, but they proved impossible to sustain. A rich spirit of intellectual generosity reigned among the Dylan fans; I think all of the scholars were impressed with how unstinting they were with their considerable knowledge. We were also more than a little freaked out by them, truth be told, and even a little envious. It’s no secret that academics are routinely beset with professional anxieties, jealousies, and endless self-doubts. The fans, on the other hand, seemed completely untouched by things like ‘impostor syndrome.’ But then again, they’re not impostors: What they know, they really know.
That’s not to say that impostor syndrome is any more justified for academics — we really know our stuff, too. But it says a lot about the kinds of knowledge-sharing communities that we build — and feel like we are able to build — in and outside the professionalized machinery of academia. As a member of the institute’s advisory board, I’m ashamed now to say that had I been asked months ago about reaching out to the Dylan fan community, I would have been agin’ it. Thank heavens I wasn’t asked. The prospect would have triggered visions of Comic-Con; and it’s true, there was an awful lot of geeking out (from which the scholars were hardly immune). The event even called forth its own brand of cosplay, though it consisted mostly of tour T-shirts and jackets (the older, obviously, the better). A clutch of five men who had attended high school with one another — during the Johnson or Nixon administrations, I’m going to guess — went everywhere together in matching, custom-made, Dylan-emblazoned varsity baseball jackets. If I hadn’t seen but only heard about them, I would have thought them pathetic. But I did see them, bound together through the years by their shared love for Dylan, and the sight was strangely cheering.
Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
SA not immune to the global state of untruth
Benjamin Fogil, Mail & Guardian, 17 July 2019
Fake news has become an explanation for political rupture, a byword for our current age of crisis and resurgent extremism, responsible for everything from Donald Trump to Brexit. South Africa has also been beset by its own fake news scandals over the past few traumatic years, through Bell Pottinger and other assorted clandestine operators who created havoc in our public debate through legions of bots, failed columnists and disgraced politicians.
Perhaps one of the greatest casualties of the Zuma era has been truth itself. Wild claims, disinformation and fake news are normalised to such an extent that the former president calling a minister he himself appointed ‘an apartheid spy’ is met with a shrug and then regurgitated as a ‘revelation’ rather than a wild accusation by an, at times, disturbingly pliant media.
Although politicians lying is as old as history itself, there is something new and significant about the current wave of social media-driven disinformation.
Contrary to narratives of a self-correcting ‘public sphere’, there are no or very few consequences for blatant lies emanating from the mouths of sullied politicians and it seems that, more often than not, a not-insignificant section of society will believe you. This is no accident; it is a consequence of long-term, deliberate and ongoing disinformation campaigns that are more widespread than those peddled by Bell Pottinger.
But what are the actual effects and goals of these campaigns? They are more subtle and perhaps more dangerous to democracy than the conventional narrative of fake news winning over the public with seductive lies. These types of disinformation campaigns undermine the foundations of democracy, closing possibilities for public engagement through this civic action itself, not because media lies or disinformation have not been with us in ages past, but precisely because it takes advantage of understandable scepticism that exists among the South African people.
Read the full article in the Globe & Mail.
Leonardo da Vinci’s laboratory: Studies in flow
Martin Kemp, Nature, 16 July 2019
The most conspicuous of Leonardo’s innovations is his perfection or invention of almost all the illustrative techniques known before the X-ray. In his notebooks, he depicted subjects using perspective; showed solid forms modelled systematically in light and shade; sectioned them to reveal their inner structures; used transparency to show underlying features; portrayed ‘exploded’ views of body and machine parts to disclose their forms and articulations; invented diagrammatic representations to disclose the functions of bodily and mechanical systems; and drew thought experiments to explore how things worked. He deployed these techniques widely across his scientific and technical endeavours.
Among the vast range of phenomena that Leonardo explored and depicted was the behaviour of liquids. Now, in Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester — a new four-volume edition of the 72-page scientific notebook, composed after 1508 — science historian Domenico Laurenza and I show how his revolutionary ideas on fluid dynamics operated in the specific context of the ancient history of the ‘body of the world’.
The outer pages of the codex deal in part with Leonardo’s theories on the passage of light from the Sun to Earth and the Moon, involving reflections from seas real or putative. Most of the notebook, however, is devoted to the study of water in motion, in seas, rivers and canals in the form of vene d’aqua (veins of water), on Earth’s surface and underground. The principle underlying Leonardo’s thinking is that of the micro- and macrocosm: he saw the human body as a ‘lesser world’, mirroring the forms and functions of the wider world.
Whereas earlier authorities, such as the second-century Roman astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, had seen Earth as undergoing relatively local changes, Leonardo saw it as having an ancient life-story of vast transformations. In his geological theories, sections of Earth’s crust collapsed, violently transforming the relationship between earth and water. As centres of gravity shifted, portions of crust extruded to form lands and mountains.
Read the full article in Nature.
Your data were ‘anonymized’?
These scientists can still identify you
Gina Kolata, New York Times, 23 July 2019
Your medical records might be used for scientific research. But don’t worry, you’re told — personally identifying data were removed.
Information about you gathered by the Census Bureau might be made public. But don’t worry — it, too, has been ‘anonymized.’
On Tuesday, scientists showed that all this information may not be as anonymous as promised. The investigators developed a method to re-identify individuals from just bits of what were supposed to be anonymous data.
In most of the world, anonymous data are not considered personal data — the information can be shared and sold without violating privacy laws. Market researchers are willing to pay brokers for a huge array of data, from dating preferences to political leanings, household purchases to streaming favorites.
From the team at NYT Parenting: Get the latest news and guidance for parents. We’ll celebrate the little parenting moments that mean a lot — and share stories that matter to families.
Even anonymized data sets often include scores of so-called attributes — characteristics about an individual or household. Anonymized consumer data sold by Experian, the credit bureau, to Alteryx, a marketing firm, included 120 million Americans and 248 attributes per household.
Scientists at Imperial College London and Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, reported in the journal Nature Communications that they had devised a computer algorithm that can identify 99.98 percent of Americans from almost any available data set with as few as 15 attributes, such as gender, ZIP code or marital status.
Even more surprising, the scientists posted their software code online for anyone to use. That decision was difficult, said Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, a computer scientist at Imperial College London and lead author of the new paper.
Ordinarily, when scientists discover a security flaw, they alert the vendor or government agency hosting the data. But there are mountains of anonymized data circulating worldwide, all of it at risk, Dr. de Montjoye said.
So the choice was whether to keep mum, he said, or to publish the method so that data vendors can secure future data sets and prevent individuals from being re-identified.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
I feel better now
Jake Bittle, The Baffler, 11 July 2019
The question of whether these apps are demonstrably effective at alleviating depression is less interesting than the question of why the market is so saturated with them in the first place. We frequently speak of mental illness as ‘stigmatized,’ but at least in young, urban, middle-class segments of American society, this no longer seems to be the case. Existential dread is now one among many inconveniences that you might as well digitally outsource, but the fact that we can now find an app for curing depression is just one symptom of a larger shift in the discourse around mental illness. The same consumerist culture that once shunned mention of depression now also seeks to cannibalize its language for use in advertising and media.
A ubiquitous truism about marketing holds that advertisements sell us a better and more beautiful version of ourselves—if you smoke Virginia Slims, you will be skinny; if you take Cialis, you will be able to play catch with your son—but increasingly advertising seems to appeal to a vision of well-off millennials as lazy, depressed homebodies, prone to ordering food online every night and binging Netflix for eight hours at a time. You order delivery from the restaurant across the street not because you’re awesome or want to be awesome, but precisely because you’re not, these ads tell us, and that’s just fine. If the end goal of Instagram and Candy Crush was always to numb us into contentment, isn’t it easier just to come out and say we will take away your pain?
Much ink has been spilled about the odious trend of corporate social media accounts pretending to be people, but fewer commentators have considered why masquerading as a depressed person in particular might be a viable marketing strategy. Steak-Umm, which produces thinly sliced frozen steaks, went on a Twitter rant last year about how young people are ‘isolated from real communities’ and ‘living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems,’ while the juice brand SunnyD put it more succinctly in February, tweeting, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ In early May, Burger King rolled out a line of ‘Real Meals’ tailored to less-than-glamorous moods—there’s an angry meal, a sad meal, a ‘DGAF’ meal. The company claimed the promotion was more than just an obvious spoof of the McDonald’s Happy Meal.
Read the full article in the Baffler.
First moon landing was nearly a US–Soviet mission
Roger D Launius, Nature, 10 July 2019
The Apollo programme that took humans to the Moon is properly viewed as an outgrowth of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, as strained US relations with foreign powers threaten science once more, it is worth recalling how surprisingly close the Moonshot came to becoming a cooperative venture.
On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the US commitment to astronauts reaching the Moon by the end of the decade, stoking Americans’ patriotism and pioneer spirit — a particularly fascinating period for me, a former chief historian of NASA. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s successful Moon landing, few people are aware that almost immediately afterwards, Kennedy explored the possibility of bringing the Soviet Union — then the only other spacefaring nation — into the venture as a full partner. This would have reshaped the programme from one of competition into one that fostered international cooperation.
Kennedy proposed as much to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, at their first and only summit in June 1961. Khrushchev insisted that such discussion should await the negotiation of a nuclear-test-ban treaty. Kennedy revisited the idea of cooperation repeatedly thereafter. By autumn 1963, his vision was to form an Apollo programme that would build bridges between the two superpowers, instead of heightening cold-war rivalries.
But the timing never worked. A series of conflicts between the two nations in 1961 and 1962 — in the stand-off that led to the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis and so on — blunted efforts at genuine cooperation.
Nonetheless, by September 1963, relations had improved and Kennedy invited the Soviet Union to work with the United States. Addressing the United Nations, he offered the vision of a joint lunar expedition. ‘Space offers no problems of sovereignty,’ he said, and spoke of sending scientists to the Moon as representatives of all countries, not of a single nation.
By that time, Khrushchev had started to think the idea had merit, but Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963 scotched the plan. The Americans went on to win the space race, and landed Apollo astronauts on the Moon six times between July 1969 and December 1972. The Soviets tried and failed in their own landing programme, although their robotic sample-return missions were a success.
Read the full article in Nature.
The Human Brain Project hasn’t lived up to its promise
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 22 July 2019
On July 22, 2009, the neuroscientist Henry Markram walked onstage at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, England, and told the audience that he was going to simulate the human brain, in all its staggering complexity, in a computer. His goals were lofty: ‘It’s perhaps to understand perception, to understand reality, and perhaps to even also understand physical reality.’ His timeline was ambitious: ‘We can do it within 10 years, and if we do succeed, we will send to TED, in 10 years, a hologram to talk to you.’ If the galaxy-brain meme had existed then, it would have been a great time to invoke it.
It’s been exactly 10 years. He did not succeed.
One could argue that the nature of pioneers is to reach far and talk big, and that it’s churlish to single out any one failed prediction when science is so full of them. (Science writers joke that breakthrough medicines and technologies always seem five to 10 years away, on a rolling window.) But Markram’s claims are worth revisiting for two reasons. First, the stakes were huge: In 2013, the European Commission awarded his initiative—the Human Brain Project (HBP)—a staggering 1 billion euro grant (worth about $1.42 billion at the time). Second, the HBP’s efforts, and the intense backlash to them, exposed important divides in how neuroscientists think about the brain and how it should be studied.
Markram’s goal wasn’t to create a simplified version of the brain, but a gloriously complex facsimile, down to the constituent neurons, the electrical activity coursing along them, and even the genes turning on and off within them. From the outset, the criticism to this approach was very widespread, and to many other neuroscientists, its bottom-up strategy seemed implausible to the point of absurdity. The brain’s intricacies—how neurons connect and cooperate, how memories form, how decisions are made—are more unknown than known, and couldn’t possibly be deciphered in enough detail within a mere decade. It is hard enough to map and model the 302 neurons of the roundworm C. elegans, let alone the 86 billion neurons within our skulls. ‘People thought it was unrealistic and not even reasonable as a goal,’ says the neuroscientist Grace Lindsay, who is writing a book about modeling the brain.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Can you spot a deepfake? Does it matter?
Max Read, New York Magazine, 27 June 2019
Early in the morning of June 11, a number of Malaysian journalists and politicians were anonymously invited into two WhatsApp groups, where a video of two men having sex had been shared. One of the two men in the clip, accompanying documents implied, was the Economics Affairs Minister of Malaysia, Mohamed Azmin Ali. The WhatsApp video was fairly low quality, but an accompanying was ‘confession’ posted to Facebook a few hours later by a 27-year-old Cabinet aide named Muhammad Haziq Abdul Aziz, who identified Azmin, and claimed to be the other man in the clip. What more proof would anyone need? Malaysia is a relatively socially conservative, democratic country with a high rate of smartphone penetration, and the clips quickly went viral across WhatsApp.
On the other hand … can you trust everything you see? Almost immediately, just as police launched an investigation and rivals called for Azmin to resign, his supporters began loudly crying that the minister had been victimized by deepfakes. Haziq, one Azmin ally insisted, is too out of shape to be the fit man you see in the Facebook confession: ‘He has not been working out at the gym in a while, and his body isn’t as built as in the video.’ The investigation continues, and there is still pressure on Azmin, but the possibility that either or both of the videos were deepfaked seems to have saved the minister’s job. ‘Nowadays you can produce all kinds of pictures if you are clever enough,’ Azmin’s boss, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said. ‘One day you may also see my picture like that. It would be very funny.’
Were either of the videos ‘deepfakes,’ or even just regular old staged fakes? Probably not — but the difficulty of ascertaining, clearly, one way or another, the veracity of the videos, is the point. Deepfakes aren’t a cause of misinformation, so much as a kind of symptom — a technology that’s only really relevant to us because we already live in a world that’s having trouble settling on a consensus account of reality, and whose greatest use isn’t creating fakes but undermining our ability to ascertain what’s true. If you want a vision of the future, don’t imagine an onslaught of fake video. Imagine an onslaught of commenters calling every video fake. Imagine a politician saying ‘he has not been working out at the gym in a while, and his body isn’t as built as in the video,’ forever.
Read the full article in the New York Magazine.
On the run
Joel Whitney, The 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 poet—a poet!—whose love poetry had won him acclaim and book sales around the world, and later earned the 1971 Nobel Prize.
Grapes and the Wind, Neruda’s poetic account of those years, was published in 1954, but has never appeared in English. Last summer, Spuyten Duyvil, a small press in Brooklyn, brought out the first English edition, translated by Michael Strauss. The book restores a key part of Neruda’s legacy while offering insights that go beyond traditional North American simplifications of his politics. Neruda considered Grapes and the Wind his most ignored book. Along with his masterpiece Canto General (1950), the book best documents Neruda’s anti-imperialist politics, and it reveals a side of the poet—pugilistic yet graceful—many readers have rarely seen.
Read the full article at the Poetry Foundation.
The images, from top down, are: Toni Morrison (photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders via the Toni Morrison Society); One of Dorothea Lange’s photos of a Second World War US Japanese detention camp; Facial recognition graphic (source unknown); Detail from Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ album cover; Image of Earthrise from lunar orbit, part of the NASA Apollo 11 image gallery.