The latest (somewhat random) collection of essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
Praveen Donthi, The Caravan, 22 September 2019
The Indian government has devised certain indicators to find and prove normalcy in Kashmir: the number of primary schools reopened, the number of police stations that have relaxed restrictions in their neighbourhood, the number of active landlines in an age of mobile phones. Reducing an entire people to a few conveniently chosen activities, it has, in effect, declared that only violent deaths in clashes with security forces will be considered abnormal.
To understand Kashmir today, however, it is important to understand how everyday life is being lived. The insularity of the Valley was so intense that it seemed to have gone back in time. People were bringing out old radios and DVD players, and cycles to get around. ‘Don’t throw anything away in Kashmir; it’s gone back twenty to thirty years,’ a Srinagar resident said, not entirely in jest. Most newspapers had stopped publication. The largest daily, Greater Kashmir, published only four pages and carried no news that contradicted the government’s narrative. Its main utility became the classifieds page, where many announced cancellations of weddings and other events, ‘due to prevailing situation in the Valley.’
Though the government claimed the restrictions would gradually be removed, nobody believed it. Most people told me they expected the restrictions to continue until at least the winter. In the past, separatist leaders – Syed Ali Shah Geelani most prominent among them—had led agitations in the Valley, calling for protests and shutdowns. But even young kids knew that this time, it was not Geelani who had given them holidays. It was Narendra Modi.
It is easier to explain with stories from other countries, and other times. ‘In every war zone, there is another battle, a shadow conflict that rages quietly behind the scenes,’ the American journalist Annia Ciezadlo writes in her book Day of Honey, set in war-ravaged Iraq and Lebanon. ‘You don’t see much of it on television or in the movies. This hidden war consists of the slow but relentless destruction of everyday civilian life: The children can’t go to school. The pregnant woman can’t give birth at a hospital. The farmer can’t plow his fields. The musician can’t play his guitar. The professor can’t teach her class. For civilians, war becomes a relentless accumulation of can’ts.’
Telecommunications were replaced by word of mouth, and journalism by the telling and retelling of stories. Every now and then, wandering journalists brought a new set of rumours to the press club, which were then analysed threadbare. Most conversations would lead to, and end with, the mention of war. ‘All this talk of war, what do you think it is?’ a senior journalist asked me. He answered his own question: ‘Fatalism. Depression.’
Read the full article in Caravan Magazine.
Gabriel Bristow, Eurozine, 6 September 2019
Like many people, the first I saw of the gilets jaunes was on the television. On Saturday 17 November 2018, sitting in a kebab shop with a friend in central Paris, we watched the images of yellow-vested protestors streaming through the streets of the capital, blocking up the périphérique ring road, and slowing traffic on rural roundabouts across the country. The headline on the 24-hour news channel read ‘Gilets jaunes protest against the rise in fuel tax’. I was impressed – and more than a little suspicious. Who were these protestors?
It certainly looked like a popular uprising. And yet my genteel political sensibilities bristled at the anti-tax impetus – surely this was a revolt from, or for, the right. Whatever it was, it looked big. The following Saturday I went to see the protests on the Champs Élysées, the most famous shopping street in Paris, which was gearing up for the Christmas season. By the time I arrived the fires were already lit. The habitual rhythm of shopping had been interrupted as yellow-vested demonstrators wandered up and down the boulevard and lingered next to burning wheelie bins. And not a police officer in sight.
In the intervening week I had heard differing accounts of who exactly the gilets jaunes were. Naively eager for an answer, I approached three men in their thirties and asked them why they were there. Their response could not have been more incisive: ‘And you? Why are you here?’ My role of innocent observer was cut to shreds. A quick explanation sufficed: they were sick of getting up in the morning and going to work just to scrape by at the end of each month; sick of paying taxes; sick of the lives they felt stuck with. Their rage and suffering was palpable. And if I didn’t understand these sentiments – instinctively and immediately – there was only one possible reason: I clearly wasn’t in the same boat.
In many ways, my initial reaction to the gilets jaunes – from vague suspicion to a slow grasp of the sufferings driving the movement – mirrors that of the bulk of the French left. Indeed, such was the blindness of political classes and autonomous activists alike who thought that the movement appeared to come ‘out of nowhere’. In reality, the momentum had been building for months.
Read the full article in Eurozine.
Moheb Constandi, Aeon, 12 September 2019
Autism is arguably one of the most controversial subjects of our time. Due partly to a lack of understanding of its causes, current discourse on this subject is a narrative jungle strewn with young, overgrown and ill-conceived ideas jostling for a spot in the sun, including uncompassionate ‘refrigerator mothers’, microbial infections, vaccinations, and environmental pollutants and toxicants, to name but a few.
Into this maelstrom came the neurodiversity movement, whose advocates celebrate autism as a gift that is an integral part of identity. They promise to make the voices of autistics heard, and to improve their quality of life by making the world more accepting of, and accommodating for, them, after decades of being marginalised and victimised. However, in recent years, there has been a backlash against this – growing numbers of people are now speaking out against the neurodiversity movement, claiming that it does not represent them and, more importantly, that it ignores the plight of those with severe autism.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined in the late 1990s by the sociologist Judy Singer, who argued that autistic people had been oppressed in much the same way as women and gay people, and suggested that their brains are merely wired differently from those of ‘neurotypical’, or nonautistic, people. The movement is an extension of the civil rights movement and the deaf pride movement that emerged after the introduction of cochlear implants. Writing in The Atlantic magazine in 1998, the investigative journalist Harvey Blume said: ‘Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.’
In the past decade, neurodiversity’s popularity has grown enormously, largely because of the buzz surrounding Steve Silberman’s book NeuroTribes (2015). Today, the internet and mass media are replete with articles proclaiming the benefits of employing people with autism, who have a hidden potential that can benefit endeavours such as branding and design – if only we can stop thinking of them as being disabled. This way of thinking has now entered the mainstream: in the US, for example, representatives of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network have advised federal government policymakers on how they believe issues such as healthcare and community integration will affect autistic people; and in the UK, the Labour Party in 2018 launched an Autism Neurodiversity Manifesto, with the social model of disability as one of its key principles.
On the face of it, this sounds admirable – the neurodiversity movement has indeed empowered many with autism, most recently, the young climate campaigner Greta Thunberg who described it as her ‘superpower’. But the movement is proving to be harmful in a number of ways.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Chased into ‘self-deportation’:
the most disturbing Windrush case so far
Amelia Gentleman, Guardian, 14 September 2019
In my two years of reporting on what became known as the Windrush scandal, Joycelyn John’s experience was the most disturbing case I came across. Joycelyn arrived in London in 1963 at the age of four, travelling with her mother on a Grenadian passport as a British subject. She went to primary and secondary school in Hammersmith, west London, before working in hotels in the capital – including the Ritz and a Hilton.
Some time around 2009, she lost her Grenadian passport, which contained the crucial stamp giving her indefinite leave to remain. She had trouble getting a new passport, because her mother had married and changed her daughter’s surname from Mitchell to John. Because she never registered the change, there was a discrepancy between Joycelyn’s birth certificate and the name she had used all her adult life. She spent several years attempting to sort out her papers, but by 2014, aged 55, she had been classified as living in Britain illegally. She lost her job and was unable to find new work. For a while, she lived in a homeless hostel, but she lost her bed, because the government does not normally fund places for people classified as illegal immigrants. She spent two years staying with relatives, sleeping on sofas or the floor.
In that time, Joycelyn managed to gather 75 pages of evidence proving that she had spent a lifetime in the UK: bank statements, dentists’ records, medical files, tax records, letters from her primary school, letters from friends and family. But, inexplicably, this was not enough. Every letter she received from the Home Office warned her that she was liable to be deported to Grenada, a country she had left more than 50 years ago. She began to feel nervous about opening the door in case immigration officers were outside.
A Home Office leaflet encouraging people to opt for a voluntary departure, illustrated with cheerful, brightly coloured planes and published about the same time as the ‘Go Home’ vans were launched, said: ‘We know that many people living in the UK illegally want to go home, but feel scared of approaching the Home Office directly. They may fear being arrested and detained. For those returning voluntarily, there are these key benefits: they avoid being arrested and having to live in detention until a travel document can be obtained; they can leave the UK in a more dignified manner than if their removal is enforced.’ This appeal to the desire for a dignified departure was a shrewd tactic; the idea of being forcibly taken away terrified Joycelyn, who saw the leaflets and knew of the vans. ‘There’s such stigma… I didn’t want to be taken off the plane in haendcuffs,’ she says. She was getting deeper into debt, borrowing money from a younger brother, and felt it was no longer fair to rely on him.
When the hostile environment policy is working well, it exhausts people into submission. It piles up humiliations, stress and fear until people give up. In November 2016, Joycelyn finally decided that a ‘voluntary’ departure would be easier than trying to survive inside the ever-tightening embrace of Home Office hostility. Officials booked her on a flight on Christmas Day; when she asked if she could spend a last Christmas with her brother and five sisters, staff rebooked her for Boxing Day. She was so desperate that she felt this was the best option. ‘I felt ground down,’ she says. ‘I lost the will to go on fighting.’
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Seven dilemmas the Jeffrey Epstein
funding scandal creates for universities
Angela Chen & Gideon Lichfield,
MIT Technology Review, 18 September 2019
After the MIT Media Lab came under fire for accepting funding from alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, its cofounder, Nicholas Negroponte, outraged a lot of people by asking the awkward question on a lot of other people’s minds: why, exactly, was Epstein’s money beyond the pale? ‘Epstein is an extreme case,’ he told the BostoneGlobe. ‘But then do you take Koch money? Do you take Huawei money? And on and on?’
Negroponte was right. Around the corner from the Media Lab stands a cancer research institute funded by David Koch, who along with his brother Charles poured money into climate-change denial. In February, MIT refused to cut its funding ties with Saudi Arabia after the country’s leaders allegedly ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2016, four months of student protest failed to convince the university to divest money from fossil-fuel companies.
In the absence of clear guidelines, fund-raisers’ chief ethical criterion appears to be to just avoid scandal. And one might well ask, as Negroponte did, why funding for serious research should be hostage to what’s scandalous at any given moment.
But just because there haven’t been clear ethical guidelines up to now doesn’t mean there never will be. Funding is increasingly coming under scrutiny. Most prominently, world-famous museums like the Guggenheim and the Louvre have begun to turn down money from the Sacklers, the family whose company manufactured OxyContin, the painkiller blamed for worsening the US’s opioid crisis.
So let’s say that a university like MIT—or Harvard, or any of the other numerous institutions and scientists whom Epstein graced with his largesse—wanted to institute a clear ethical policy, henceforth and forever more, on what kinds of money it was and was not okay to take. What might that policy look like?
Read the full article in the MIT Technology Review.
Is Trump’s America tougher
on asylum than other Western countries?
Patrick Kingsley, New York Times, 14 September 2019
The Supreme Court this week allowed the Trump administration to move forward with a plan to bar most migrants, particularly Central Americans, from seeking asylum in the United States.
Under President Trump’s plan, migrants cannot apply for asylum unless they have already tried — and failed — to receive it in one of the countries they passed through on their way to the United States. Guatemalans would be sent back to Mexico, for example, while people from El Salvador and Honduras would be returned to Guatemala.
Given how unsafe those countries can be for their own citizens — much less for migrants — the move has been portrayed by critics as another deviation from global rights standards under Mr. Trump. It follows his frequent attempts to expand barriers along the United States-Mexico border, as well as a deterioration in the treatment of migrants after they reach America.
But Mr. Trump’s plan is also in keeping with a wider international trend of curtailing the right to asylum, as Western nations try to curb migration from the global south, where the overwhelming majority of displaced people live.
To stifle record levels of migration to Europe in 2015 and 2016, the continent’s big powers reached deals with neighboring countries like Turkey to keep migrants from European shores. Australia, determined to stop maritime migration from Indonesia, now deports asylum seekers to its neighbors in the Pacific Ocean. Israel tried to send African migrants to Rwanda.
‘It is currently the objective of most countries of the global north to prevent migrants’ from entering their territory, said François Crépeau, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on migrant rights and an expert on international refugee law at McGill University.
‘Probably the U.S. are taking actions a bit further from what the Europeans are doing,’ said Mr. Crépeau. ‘But the Europeans have also been very good at getting neighboring countries to do their dirty work.’
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The future of political philosophy
Katrina Forrester, Boston Review, 17 September 2019
Since the upheavals of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turbulence of 2016, it has become clear to many that liberalism is, in some sense, failing. The turmoil has given pause to economists, some of whom responded by renewing their study of inequality, and to political scientists, who have since turned to problems of democracy, authoritarianism, and populism in droves. But Anglo-American liberal political philosophers have had less to say than they might have.
The silence is due in part to the nature of political philosophy today—the questions it considers worth asking and those it sidelines. Since Plato, philosophers have always asked about the nature of justice. But for the last five decades, political philosophy in the English-speaking world has been preoccupied with a particular answer to that question developed by the American philosopher John Rawls.
Rawls’s work in the mid-twentieth century ushered in a paradigm shift in political philosophy. In his wake, philosophers began exploring what justice and equality meant in the context of modern capitalist welfare states, using those concepts to describe, in impressive and painstaking detail, the ideal structure of a just society—one that turned out to closely resemble a version of postwar social democracy. Working within this framework, they have since elaborated a body of abstract moral principles that provide the philosophical backbone of modern liberalism. These ideas are designed to help us see what justice and equality demand—of our society, of our institutions, and of ourselves.
This is a story of triumph: Rawls’s philosophical project was a major success. It is not that political philosophers after Rawls didn’t disagree; fine-grained and heated arguments are what philosophers do best. But over the last few decades they built a robust consensus about the fundamental rules of the game, conceiving of themselves as engaged in a common intellectual project with a shared conceptual framework. The governing concepts and aims of political philosophy have, for generations, been more or less taken for granted.
But if modern political philosophy is bound up with modern liberalism, and liberalism is failing, it may well be time to ask whether these apparently timeless ideas outlived their usefulness. Rawls’s ideas were developed during a very distinctive period of U.S. history, and his theory bears an intimate connection to postwar liberal democracy. Is liberal political philosophy complicit in its failures? Is political philosophy, like liberalism itself, in crisis, and in need of reinvention? And if so, what does its future look like?
Read the full article in the Boston Review.
Censoring the working class
Kathy M Newman, Working Class Studies, 9 September 2019
Our relative freedom to see and read artistic and educational works by and about working-class people is one way to understand the relationship between class and the First Amendment. Another way to think about this relationship is to examine the status of free speech protections on the job.
In the era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, we might cheer when someone loses their job for a racist Facebook post or because they were accused of sexual misconduct. But Political Science professor Corey Robin reminds us that corporations are not free speech zones, and that ‘the American workplace is one of the most coercive institutions around.’
In a rare case with a happy ending, in 2010, social services provider Mariana Cole-Rivera asked her co-workers in a Facebook post how they felt about being told they weren’t working hard enough. When she was fired for posting this question she sued her employer for wrongful termination and won her case.
Free speech rights on the job are especially important to any kind of worker collective action. If you don’t have the right to speak freely at work, how can you possibly organize a union? Classic union busting techniques such as captive audience meetings, veiled or open threats to close workplaces if they become unionized, and other kinds of workplace coercion threaten the rights of workers to speak freely—as well as to organize. And in the Trump era, attacks on workers have been designed to curtail their collective ability to organize as well as to strike. As a result, earlier this year a group of Democratic House and Senate leaders introduced legislation called the PRO act that would strengthen the ability of workers to form unions—thus boosting workers’ voices on the job.
Workers have long been on the front lines of First Amendment protections. Legal historian Laura Weinrib has argued in her recent book, The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise, that labor organizers were amongst the earliest free speech crusaders and that the founders of the ACLU were especially focused on the rights of workers to strike, picket and boycott.
At the end of this month, when the ALA kicks off Banned Books Week, pick up one of these great novels about labor, and when you do, remember to thank the great heroine librarians like Judith Krug and Gretchen Knief who fought for your right to read controversial books. While you’re at it pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives to pass the PRO act and to fight for your right to organize!
Read the full article in Working Class Studies.
Fossil DNA reveals new twists in modern human origins
Jordana Cepelwicz, Quanta, 29 August 2019
As scientists peer further back in time and uncover evolutionary relationships in unprecedented detail, their findings are complicating the narrative of human history and rescuing some formerly missing chapters from obscurity. Clues are emerging about the unexpected influence of gene flow from ancient hominins on modern human populations before the latter left Africa. Some researchers are even identifying the genetic contributions modern humans might have made to those other lineages, in a complete reversal of the usual scientific focus. Confusing and intertwined as these many effects can be, all of them shaped humanity as we now know it.
When researchers first recovered DNA from Neanderthal bones, the available techniques for making sense of it were powerful but relatively simple. Scientists compared ancient and modern sequences, tallied up shared sites and mutations, and conducted bulk statistical analyses. That’s how they discovered in 2010 that Neanderthal DNA makes up approximately 2% of the genome of people today of non-African descent, a result of interbreeding that occurred throughout Eurasia beginning 50,000-60,000 years ago. That’s also how they discovered that Denisovan DNA makes up approximately 3% of the genome of people in Papua New Guinea and Australia.
‘But that kind of very simple approach isn’t very good at sorting out the complexity’ of how those lost populations interacted, said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Nor does it allow researchers to test specific hypotheses about how that interbreeding unfolded.
Population geneticists could backtrack through the DNA data to identify common ancestors from hundreds of thousands of years ago, and they could detect recent incidents of gene flow from the past few tens of thousands of years. But discerning interbreeding that occurred between those periods, from events ‘old enough not to be recent but young enough not to be ancient,’ Hawks said, ‘that actually takes an extra trick.’ That’s because the more recent events smear their footprints over the older ones; the DNA sequences left behind from those older events are so fragmented and mutated that they are difficult to recognize, and even more difficult to label with a date and location.
Adam Siepel, a quantitative biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and his colleagues decided to focus on such gaps in the narrative. They were particularly interested in looking for signs of gene flow from modern humans into Neanderthals. That flow of genetic information is harder to study than the reverse, not only because of how long ago it happened, but also because there are fewer genomes to refer to: Think of all the present-day genomes at researchers’ disposal, versus the handful of Neanderthal genomes left intact, or the single genome recovered from Denisovan remains. The challenge again prompted the need for new methods.
Read the full article in Quanta.
Heidegger, the homesick philosopher
Samuel Earle, New Statesman, 11 September 2019
The recognition of a spiritual homeland is at the heart of Heidegger’s appeal today. When large numbers of citizens describe no longer feeling at home in their country, or say they would rather live elsewhere, Heidegger’s belief that ‘homelessness is becoming the destiny of the world’ seems to have been borne out. Amid our global crisis of unbelonging, Heidegger’s homesickness resonates with those who see themselves as strangers in their own land.
Inadvertently or not, most of today’s far right speak in Heideggerian terms: lamenting the rootlessness of modern life and the ravishing of national character by the liberal world order; longing for a lost social harmony between land and people. So while, say, Nietzsche – another favourite philosopher among the far right – fulminates on the fate of man, Heidegger’s emphasis on home has made a compelling political philosophy easier to find. On this basis, Aleksandr Dugin – who has been described as ‘Putin’s brain’ – finds in his thought a ‘Fourth Political Theory’, against fascism (ostensibly), Marxism and – above all – liberalism.
Just as Heidegger argued that a Volk is not simply ‘placed in an arbitrary unrelated strip of land’, so does Dugin declare that a homeland is not one of those ‘artificial societies that have broken ties with their ethnic base’. Rather, Dugin says a true home is ‘a community of language, religious belief, daily life, and shared resources and goals’ – a Heimat, filled with a feeling of belonging. ‘All philosophy is a form of homesickness,’ Heidegger liked to say, quoting the 18th-century poet, Novalis.
For Heidegger and his politically minded pupils, the cause behind our unsettled condition is clear: liberalism. His understanding of liberalism was expansive, encompassing all notions of abstract equality (including Marxism) and stemming from the misguided ‘metaphysics’ of mind-body dualism.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
What the data say about police shootings
Lynne Peoples, Nature, 4 September 2019
In the United States, police officers fatally shoot about three people per day on average, a number that’s close to the yearly totals for other wealthy nations. But data on these deadly encounters have been hard to come by.
A pair of high-profile killings of unarmed black men by the police pushed this reality into the headlines in summer 2014. Waves of public protests broke out after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death by chokehold of Eric Garner in New York City.
Those cases and others raised questions about the extent to which racial biases — either implicit associations or outright racism — contribute to the use of lethal force by the police across the United States. And yet there was no source of comprehensive information to investigate the issue. Five years later, newspapers, enterprising individuals and the federal government have launched ambitious data-collection projects to fill the gaps and improve transparency and accountability over how police officers exercise their right to use deadly force.
‘It is this awesome power that they have that no other profession has,’ says Justin Nix, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska Omaha. ‘Let’s keep track of it.’
Social scientists and public-health researchers have begun to dig into these records and have produced more than 50 publications so far — up from a trickle of papers on the topic before 2015. They are mining the new numbers to address pressing questions, such as whether the police are disproportionately quick to shoot black civilians and those from other minority groups. But methods and interpretations vary greatly. A pair of high-profile papers published in the past few weeks1,2 come to seemingly opposite conclusions about the role of racial biases.
Scientists are now debating which incidents to track — from deadly shootings to all interactions with the public — and which details matter most, such as whether the victim was armed or had had previous contact with the police. They are also looking for the best way to compare activities across jurisdictions and account for misreporting.
Read the full article in Nature.
Unmaking the myth of Ben-Gurion
Joshua Leifer, The Baffler, 16 September 2019
One of the first myths at which Segev takes aim relates to perhaps the most sensitive of topics for Jews in Israel and abroad: the connection between the creation of the state of Israel and the Holocaust. It is common to hear the Holocaust framed as the reason for Israel’s founding. That, Segev stresses, is not true. Drawing on his research for One Palestine, Complete, his study of the British Mandate period—in particular, the Zionist movement’s establishment of a nascent state apparatus under British auspices—Segev shows how a Jewish state in British Palestine was already well on its way into being when the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews began. Though ‘it was still not clear when exactly the Jewish state would be born,’ Segev writes, ‘there was no longer any doubt that it would be – the social, cultural, political, economic, and military infrastructure of the state-to-be was already solid, and the Jewish population’s sense of national community was adamant.’ Christian Europe’s guilt after the war no doubt made it easier for the Zionist movement to achieve its goal of an independent Jewish state when it did, but, Segev definitively concludes, ‘there is thus no basis for claiming the state was founded as a result of the Holocaust; the British played a much larger role.’
The other myths Segev tackles are no less charged. If in Israel, acknowledgment of the Nakba and atrocities committed by Zionist forces during the 1948 war and after is not only taboo but illegal – the Knesset passed a law in 2011 that made commemorating the Nakba a fineable offense – liberal Zionists in the United States tend to take a slightly different view. The Nakba was no doubt regrettable, they argue, but the Arab rejection of partition and the subsequent invasion of the fledging state of Israel by several Arab armies in 1948 left the Zionist forces no other choice. Segev shows that this, too, is a fantasy of Zionist nobility, one that continues to live on in Israel’s laughably cynical boasts of having ‘the most moral army in the world.’ As if that were not a contradiction in terms.
In fact, Segev, writes, ‘the hope of emptying Palestine of its Arab inhabitants had been part of Zionist discourse from its first days.’ Theodor Herzl imagined in his diary how the Zionist movement would, through a combination of force and financial inducement, transfer Palestine’s Arabs to the surrounding countries. During the British Mandate, ‘the evacuation of the Arabs from the territory of the projected Jewish state came up for discussion again and again, in a variety of contexts,’ according to Segev. A special Jewish Agency committee examined the feasibility of doing so. And Ben-Gurion personally discussed the possibility of transferring Palestine’s Arabs to Transjordan with Mandate authorities.
Read the full article in The Baffler.
The controversial use of rap lyrics as evidence
Briana Youger, New Yorker, 20 September 2019
Dennis says that bringing rap lyrics into a trial is common because ‘prosecutors often argue the lyrics are either the defendant’s confession to the crime or circumstantial evidence the defendant committed the crime, e.g., proof of intent, knowledge, ability, motive,’ she said. (Dennis said that prosecutors then use lyrics during sentencing to portray rappers as dangers to their communities.) The case of YNW Melly could hinge on this misguided idea. His lawyer has said that Melly’s harrowing single ‘Murder on My Mind’ will likely be entered as evidence for his alleged role in the shooting deaths of two of his associates, in October, 2018. (Melly has pleaded not guilty to both murder charges. He faces the death penalty.) Never mind that the song was released a year and a half before the killings. Certainly, the music of a rapper such as Melly is reframed by his alleged actions: how we hear and enjoy it shifts once the feeling of being intrigued is replaced by the uncomfortable weight of potential real-life bad behavior. But it’s way too far a leap to suggest that these songs constitute proof of that bad behavior.
In many of these cases, an artist’s very participation in hip-hop is painted as a moral shortcoming that suggests a propensity for real-world violence and degeneracy. One Louisiana judge went so far as to tell the perpetually troubled rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, ‘Your genre has a lot to do with the mindset people have. Your genre has normalized violence.’ It’s a stunning statement. Violence has been embedded in the fabric of this country since its inception, and hip-hop, like all great art, tells you something about the society that cultivated it. ‘In other cases,’ Dennis said, ‘prosecutors use music or video to show gang membership or connections between gang members. In an increasing number of cases, the lyrics are allegedly themselves a crime,’ Dennis said. ‘In particular, prosecutors have convicted defendants on the theory that their lyrics were used to make a threat to another person.’
The scrutiny of lyrics is what happened in the case of Drakeo the Ruler, the details of which are so nonsensical that the story could be read as satire. He was charged in the murder of a man outside a warehouse party in California in December, 2016. Investigators found that Drakeo was not the gunman, nor did he have a hand in the violence, but prosecutors sought to present the murder as the result of an old beef between Drakeo and another rapper, who was not even at the party or otherwise connected to it. When those ties proved nonexistent, prosecutors combed Drakeo’s music for menacing gestures and proximity to weapons, in an attempt to, as the writer Jeff Weiss observed in his comprehensive and damning reporting for The Fader, ‘terrify the jury into believing that there is no difference between real life and rap videos.’ (Drakeo was acquitted of the murder charge, though prosecutors refiled charges of gang conspiracy and shooting from a moving vehicle after the previous jury was unable to reach a verdict.)
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
The race to create a perfect lie detector –
and the dangers of succeeding
Amit Katwala, Guardian, 5 September 2019
In the past couple of decades, the rise of cheap computing power, brain-scanning technologies and artificial intelligence has given birth to what many claim is a powerful new generation of lie-detection tools. Startups, racing to commercialise these developments, want us to believe that a virtually infallible lie detector is just around the corner.
Their inventions are being snapped up by police forces, state agencies and nations desperate to secure themselves against foreign threats. They are also being used by employers, insurance companies and welfare officers. ‘We’ve seen an increase in interest from both the private sector and within government,’ said Todd Mickelsen, the CEO of Converus, which makes a lie detector based on eye movements and subtle changes in pupil size.
Converus’s technology, EyeDetect, has been used by FedEx in Panama and Uber in Mexico to screen out drivers with criminal histories, and by the credit ratings agency Experian, which tests its staff in Colombia to make sure they aren’t manipulating the company’s database to secure loans for family members. In the UK, Northumbria police are carrying out a pilot scheme that uses EyeDetect to measure the rehabilitation of sex offenders. Other EyeDetect customers include the government of Afghanistan, McDonald’s and dozens of local police departments in the US. Soon, large-scale lie-detection programmes could be coming to the borders of the US and the European Union, where they would flag potentially deceptive travellers for further questioning.
But as tools such as EyeDetect infiltrate more and more areas of public and private life, there are urgent questions to be answered about their scientific validity and ethical use. In our age of high surveillance and anxieties about all-powerful AIs, the idea that a machine could read our most personal thoughts feels more plausible than ever to us as individuals, and to the governments and corporations funding the new wave of lie-detection research. But what if states and employers come to believe in the power of a lie-detection technology that proves to be deeply biased – or that doesn’t actually work?
And what do we do with these technologies if they do succeed? A machine that reliably sorts truth from falsehood could have profound implications for human conduct. The creators of these tools argue that by weeding out deception they can create a fairer, safer world. But the ways lie detectors have been used in the past suggests such claims may be far too optimistic.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Will Macron’s move against his alma mater
make France’s HE system fairer?
John Morgan, THES, 19 September 2019
Following the shock of the gilets jaunes protests, France’s president embarked on a two-month mass public consultation in an attempt to address the concerns underlying the unrest, announcing his response to this Grand Débat in an April press conference at the Élysée Palace. After lamenting that the highest levels of government in France did not reflect society and were ‘no longer meritocratic’ places that allowed someone from a family of workers to reach the ‘elite of the republic’, Emmanuel Macron made clear that he wanted to supprimer (remove) ‘among others the ENA’ to ‘build something which works better’.
The abolition of ENA – one of the grandes écoles that crown France’s intensely hierarchical higher education system – has been floated by politicians before. Nevertheless, the move was seen as a surprise coming from Macron, himself an ‘énarque’ (the term combining ENA’s name with ‘monarque’, widely used as a sardonic comment on the prevalence of its graduates in positions of power).
His ENA plan has been described by The Economist as the most ‘controversial and spectacular’ of all his announcements in response to the Grand Débat, as a surrender ‘to a populist demand’.
But how radical would the ‘abolition’ of ENA, if it happens, really be? Would it do anything to make French society fairer? Would it open the door to a more sweeping reform of the grandes écoles and French higher education?
As to whether Macron’s plan to abolish ENA has wider relevance for the world of higher education, there is much about the move that does not translate from the French. But what is undoubtedly relevant beyond France is the political context that pressed him into action – intensifying inequality driven by globalisation, potentially impacting on public perceptions of the privileges afforded by elite education institutions.
An understanding of ENA explains much about the social hierarchy of the French higher education system. ENA – whose relocation from Paris to Strasbourg was completed in 2005 – is not a university but rather a civil service college. It was ‘set up as a school for recruiting an elite’ to staff the highest levels of the country’s civil service, says Ezra Suleiman, IBM professor of international studies at Princeton University, a veteran scholar of French hierarchy whose books include Politics, Power, and Bureaucracy in France: The Administrative Elite.
ENA graduates are ranked at the end of their studies. The highest scoring enter the grands corps, the band of grandes écoles graduates who qualify for the most select jobs in the French government.
Read the full article in THES.
The repatriation debate:
should museums return colonial artefacts?
Alasdair Soussi, The National, 10 September 2019
Imagine the British Museum in London without Egypt’s Rosetta Stone. The city’s Victoria and Albert Museum without Ethiopia’s Maqdala treasures. Or the British capital’s Natural History Museum without the scientific wonders that are Gibraltar’s Neanderthal skulls.
After a summer of repatriation requests, the debate over the right of British museums to retain contested artefacts – objects that were often ‘removed’ by British citizens from territories once ruled by the UK during its centuries as a colonial power – has gathered pace. In August, a Jamaican government minister requested that the British Museum hand back objects taken from the island when it was a UK colony. Only a month earlier, renowned Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif resigned her position as a member of the museum’s Board of Trustees, citing its ‘immovability on issues of critical concern’, including repatriation.
But speaking to The National, Soueif acknowledges that ‘on the issue of restitution there is no one-size-fits-all solution’.
‘It has to be a case-by-case deliberation, and the solutions [must] stretch across the whole spectrum,’ says Soueif, 69, who had served as a trustee since 2012.
She says the spectrum ranged ‘from the object remaining where it is in the ‘colonial’ museum, but is provided with an appropriate context, to the object returning to the location where it was made – with lots of varied possibilities in between’.
Last month, a historic dispute between London and Athens over the so-called Elgin Marbles reared its head once more. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis made a request to take the marbles from Britain on loan, with a view to putting them on show in 2021 to commemorate the Greek War of Independence, which began in 1821.
On display at the British Museum, this collection of classical Greek marble sculptures assumed their name after they were acquired by Britain’s Lord Elgin from Greece in the early 1800s. But, according to media reports, the museum’s precondition for any loan would be to acknowledge British ownership of the sculptures, which are about 2,500 years old and known in Greece as the Parthenon Marbles. But former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras was critical of the notion, writing on Facebook that, far from asking to simply borrow them, Mitsotakis ‘should ask for the permanent return of the Parthenon Marbles’.
Read the full article in The National.
All work, no pay
Amnesty International, September 2019
Amnesty International followed in depth the cases of 33 of these workers, consulted documents relating to hundreds of others, observed Committee hearings, met with the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (MADLSA), and requested information and sought responses from the companies concerned and the Qatari authorities. The Ministry did not provide any information regarding the number of cases heard by the Committees, the delays in processes, or the number of complaints successfully resolved, but said that they intervened to help negotiate payments for hundreds of workers, as well as work with local organizations to provide food and generators in workers’ camps.
The stories of workers from the three companies are illuminating. Deepak, originally from Nepal, was one of approximately 680 workers from HKH who submitted complaints in March 2018 when their company ceased to operate. He had worked for six months without salary, after a manager told him that if he kept working he would eventually be paid. ‘Deepak’ won his case at the Committees and followed it through implementation at the civil courts. However, to date and over a year since securing his decision, he is still waiting to receive his compensation.
‘Dalia’, originally from Kenya, spent nine months pursuing her case against United Cleaning, first through the Committees and then through the civil courts, after she worked four months without salary before the company made hundreds of workers redundant. For many months she resisted offers from the company to pay her just a portion of what she was owed, but in December 2018, exhausted after a long legal battle, she eventually ceded. She returned home with just 50% of her dues, telling Amnesty that she and others had to finally accept the offer because – in a phrase that captures the burden of high recruitment fees on workers – ‘we need money to buy our next job.’
‘Bijoy’, originally from India, was one of more than 860 workers at Hamton who had submitted complaints in September 2018, after their company ran into financial problems and stopped operating. When he met Amnesty International’s researchers in December 2018, he explained how he had just received notification of his first Committee hearing, three months after submitting his complaint – and seven months since he last received a salary. He felt compelled to abandon his case and return to India the following day, however, because his father was sick. Despite being owed more than QAR13,000 (about US$3,750), he ended up accepting an offer from the company of just QAR1,000 (US$275) and an air ticket home, in return for dropping his case. Torn between his family responsibilities and pursuing his claim, he told Amnesty ‘I have to forget about the money and go… I am forgetting this because I want to see my father.’
Read the full report by Amnesty International.
The shift in private sector union participation:
Explanation and effects
Ryan Nunn, Jimmy O’Donnell & Jay Shambaugh,
The Hamilton Project, August 2019
The decline in union membership (also referred to as union density) over the past 45 years has occurred almost entirely within the private sector. By contrast, public sector union density has been roughly constant at just over one third since the wave of state and federal laws recognizing public-sector workers’ rights to organize in the 1960s and 1970s (Hirsch and Macpherson 2019). It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME – which held that public sector unions may not collect fees from nonmembers – will have a large impact on public sector union density.
Figure 2 plots union membership as a fraction of employed wage and salary workers, showing that the number of public and private sector union members were roughly equal in 2018.
However, public sector employment is only 15.1 percent of total wage and salary employment, and the fractions of public and private sector workers who are union members are 33.9 and 6.4 percent, respectively. Forty-five years ago, the bulk of unionized workers were in the private sector, and the overall decline since the early 1970s has been driven by a reduction in the share of private sector unionized workers.
Although this decline in union density has been a nationwide phenomenon, it has been particularly pronounced in some regions and states. For example, some states in the Rust Belt (including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) experienced union density declines of 20 percentage points or more. By contrast, some states in the South (including Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas) saw their union densities decline by 10 percentage points or fewer.
One key reason for these different levels of decline is that the states had different union densities at the beginning of the period we consider. e Rust Belt historically had high union rates, whereas business and policy in the South have traditionally been more hostile to unions (Marshall 1967). e result of these regional declines has been a convergence of union density at low levels nationwide. Figure 3 shows the share of private sector workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement in each state.3 Even the states with the highest collective bargaining coverage (New York, Michigan, Nevada, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii) only have coverage rates between 10 and 16 percent.
Read the full report by the Hamilton Project.
Looking for ‘Reason’ in Modi’s India
Ratik Asokan, NYR Daily, 7 September 2019
The first murder came as a shock; the second suggested there might be a larger plot; by the third there was talk of government collusion; and when the fourth happened one felt it would not be the last. The victims – Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh – were all killed in the same way, shot point-blank with a 7.65mm pistol by a gunman who came and fled on a two-wheeler. All beloved activists and thinkers, who wrote in the vernacular press, they had been vocal opponents of the BJP and its brand of Hindu nationalism. Their assassinations were meant to send a message, and far-right trolls on social media duly rejoiced. ‘One bitch died a dog’s death,’ a man from Gujarat wrote on Twitter, referring to Lankesh; his account was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
These killings, which happened between 2013 and 2017, lie at the heart of Vivek (Reason), a four-hour documentary by Anand Patwardhan. (The version I viewed was re-edited and posted to YouTube ahead of India’s general election earlier this year.) Each chapter opens with an allusion to the crimes – a motorcyclist is seen driving down a dark road – and some third of the show is given over to telling the victims’ life stories. Yet the murders are only the starting point. Behind the grisly events, Patwardhan sees the broader threat of religious intolerance that is once again spreading across India. It is this trend that he sets out to chart.
Shot across the country between 2013 and 2018, Vivek is a work of great ambition, really a report on Modi’s first term in power. It covers most of the big and small abominations now committed almost daily in India in the name of Hinduism: from cow vigilantism and the lynchings of Dalits, to the rewriting of history and attacks on higher education. But Patwardhan also spends time in the pockets of secular resistance that have emerged, profiling many activists (including the four murdered), journalists, students, and politicians. These are the two poles of the series, the villains and heroes. Their struggles and clashes are the highlights of an unfolding battle between faith and reason whose outcome Patwardhan believes will shape the future of Indian democracy.
Read the full article in the NYR Daily.
Niger: Has securitisation stopped traffickers?
Alexandre Bish, ISPI, 9 September 2019
The EU-backed enforcement of law 2015-036 criminalising migrant smuggling in mid-2016 delivered a first, considerable blow to northern Niger’s informal economy. Transporting foreign migrants to Libya, a practice that had become a source of livelihood for thousands of people in northern Niger, was outlawed overnight. Dozens of passeurs (migrant smugglers) and coxeurs (middlemen who gather migrants for passeurs) were arrested and hundreds of vehicles were seized in a crackdown that shocked the system.
The second blow, which was closely linked to the first, was the closure of the Djado goldfield in February 2017. Up until its closure, the gold economy had been a vital back-up for ex-passeurs. Many had repurposed their activities towards the transport of artisanal miners to and from northern Niger’s gold mines to compensate for lost revenue from the outlawing of migrant smuggling. Many passeurs also invested in artisanal gold extraction. The goldfield was officially shut down for security reasons, as it had become a key hub for the operations of armed bandits. However, the fact that it was also a key stopover location for migrants travelling north was perhaps more influential in the government’s decision-making.
Many analysts have attributed the rise in banditry and convoy hijackings over the past two years to these two economic blows. While it is difficult to determine whether the actors involved in these attacks are the same as those previously involved in the migration industry, it is clear that the lack of economic opportunities have pushed some to seek alternative sources of revenue.
Although the migration industry initially shrank, it has now partially recovered (albeit still very far from 2015/2016 levels) with the transport of Nigerien migrants who are increasingly seeking seasonal work in Libya. But although a majority of passeurs have repurposed their activities towards the tolerated practice of transporting Nigeriens to Libya, many passeurs are still ready to transport foreign migrants, who pay up to eight times what local Nigeriens pay. To do so, smuggling networks have become both more professional and clandestine. Passeurs also take more dangerous and remote routes through the desert that avoid security forces. This has posed a significant risk to migrants, who are increasingly vulnerable to death from unexpected breakdowns in the desert. The number of recorded migrant deaths increased from 71 in 2015 to 427 in 2017.
Currently, the number of active drivers is close to that before the peak of migration in 2015/2016. But the number of migrants who can afford the journey has lessened. In some reported cases, the price for the Agadez-Sebha journey has increased five-fold since 2016. Passeurs incur higher costs primarily as a result of longer, more clandestine routes that require more fuel. They must also pay higher fees to coxeurs, whose role in gathering migrants for passeurs has become central since migrants have been more difficult to find in Agadez. Prior to 2016, migrants could easily reach the town with commercial bus companies. Today, these undergo stringent checks by Nigerien police. Even migrants from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who have the right to visa-free travel to Niger with valid documentation, are having to pay higher bribes to security forces to reach Agadez through commercial transportation.
To compensate for this lack of more lucrative foreign migrants, many passeurs have turned to the smuggling of synthetic opioids (especially Tramadol), the demand for which has boomed across the Sahel-Sahara in recent years. Smugglers can sell Tramadol purchased from Nigeria for up to 15 times the price in Libya, transporting the drugs along the Chadian border through Niger.
Read the full report by ISPI.
The buried Nazism of expressionist Emil Nolde
Brendan Simms & Constance Simms,
New Statesman, 4 September 2019
Until recently, the Nolde most of us knew was the man he wanted us to see. ‘Hitler is dead, he was my enemy,’ Nolde wrote a few days before Germany surrendered in early May 1945. The artist put it about that the regime had forbidden him to paint, but that he had produced ‘unpainted pictures’ in defiance of Gestapo surveillance. This notion drove the plot of Deutschstunde, as well as a major two-part adaptation for German television in the early 1970s, and is at the heart of an unfortunately timed new adaptation of the novel for the big screen by director Christian Schwochow.
The prominent display of his paintings in the first ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition of 1937 provided Nolde with the perfect alibi. A new postwar generation of Germans, seduced by the vivid colours and apparent naiveté of the work, embraced Nolde enthusiastically. The great and the good, including former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, gave their imprimatur by displaying his pictures. Even those who knew better, such as the legendary left-liberal literary critic Walter Jens, played along. Jens did not deny Nolde’s Nazi past, but argued that it should be ‘painted over’ in orrder to ‘protect’ the great man ‘from himself’.
To be sure, our understanding of Nolde and the wider relationship between Nazism and modern art has shifted substantially over the past 20 years or so. Historians such as Jonathan Petropoulos have shown that key figures, such as the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, were sympathetic to expressionism, at least of the ‘Nordic’ variety, and indeed to Nolde himself. By the time of a major retrospective Nolde exhibition in Frankfurt in 2014, in which Fulda and Soika were closely involved, the edifice was already crumbling. Yet none of this made much impact on the popular view of the artist, whom the public still generally viewed as a resister, and whose paintings were deemed safe enough to adorn the office of the notoriously cautious Angela Merkel.
But thanks to a current exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin – curated by Fulda, Soika and the courageous director of the Nolde Foundation, Christian Ring – all that has changed. ‘Emil Nolde: A German Legend. The Artist during the Nazi Regime’ not only draws together all the material already in the public domain, which is incriminating enough, but also provides copious fresh evidence from the artist’s private correspondence. The exhibits of original letters are supported by two massive volumes of essays and documents. Nolde emerges not merely as a committed National Socialist from the beginning to the end of the Third Reich, but also as a fervent anti-Semite.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
The making of Mugabe’s intolerance
Brooks Marmon, Africa Is A Country, 12 September 2019
The recent spate of obituaries on the late Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe have wrestled with efforts to balance the apparent discrepancy between his contributions to the country’s liberation struggle versus his betrayal of human rights and justice while head of Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. However, a closer inspection of Mugabe’s early political record indicates that this chasm is not nearly so paradoxical as the surface view suggests. While revelries of Mugabe’s pan-Africanism, as embodied in a tweet by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa announcing his predecessor’s death, are largely responsible for the spate of interest in the 95-year-old’s passing, Mugabe’s commitment to the ideology was a double-edged sword.
Pan-Africanism helped ignite Zimbabwe’s independence struggle in the early 1960s, but it also injected a strain of intolerant authoritarianism into the liberation movement of which Mugabe played a leading role from mid-1960. A number of prominent scholars of pan-African governance such as Ali Mazrui, Thandika Mkandawire, and Claude Ake have pointed to the consolidation of authoritarian influences across Africa at this time as pan-African movements became governments and struggled to adjust to new realities.
Mugabe’s quest for unchallenged power as Zimbabwe’s leader following independence in 1980 was profoundly shaped by pan-Africanism’s abhorrence of division and disunity and the ideology’s emphasis on unquestioned unity as the basis of political power in early post-colonial Africa
In late May 1960, Mugabe returned home on leave from his teaching position in Ghana, then the mecca of pan-Africanism. Ghana was led by Kwame Nkrumah, an icon of post-colonial Africa, but a leader swiftly implementing autocratic governance at home. Abroad, Nkrumah believed that multiple anti-colonial liberation movements operating in one territory caused ‘despondency.’ In early July, the world’s attention turned towards one of the most fraught cases of decolonization, in the former Belgian Congo. In the same month, Mugabe formally joined the nationalist struggle, joining the National Democratic Party (NDP) to oppose white settler rule in the then Southern Rhodesia.
By early 1961, the Congo’s Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was dead due to the intrigue of neocolonial forces and the country was temporarily partitioned. Divisions in Africa escalated with the formation of the Casablanca and Monrovia Groups, which clashed over divergent visions of Africa’s development trajectory. A spirit of contentious pan-Africanism was the background to Mugabe’s formative political years. The lengthy guerrilla war that culminated in Zimbabwe’s negotiated independence only served to further bolster Mugabe’s claim of holding a ‘degree in violence.’
Read the full article in Africa Is A Country.
Even physicists don’t understand quantum mechanics
Sean Carroll, New York Times, 7 September 2019
‘I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics,’ observed the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. That’s not surprising, as far as it goes. Science makes progress by confronting our lack of understanding, and quantum mechanics has a reputation for being especially mysterious.
What’s surprising is that physicists seem to be O.K. with not understanding the most important theory they have.
Quantum mechanics, assembled gradually by a group of brilliant minds over the first decades of the 20th century, is an incredibly successful theory. We need it to account for how atoms decay, why stars shine, how transistors and lasers work and, for that matter, why tables and chairs are solid rather than immediately collapsing onto the floor.
Scientists can use quantum mechanics with perfect confidence. But it’s a black box. We can set up a physical situation, and make predictions about what will happen next that are verified to spectacular accuracy. What we don’t do is claim to understandquantum mechanics. Physicists don’t understand their own theory any better than a typical smartphone user understands what’s going on inside the device.
There are two problems. One is that quantum mechanics, as it is enshrined in textbooks, seems to require separate rules for how quantum objects behave when we’re not looking at them, and how they behave when they are being observed. When we’re not looking, they exist in ‘superpositions’ of different possibilities, such as being at any one of various locations in space. But when we look, they suddenly snap into just a single location, and that’s where we see them. We can’t predict exactly what that location will be; the best we can do is calculate the probability of different outcomes.
The whole thing is preposterous. Why are observations special? What counts as an ‘observation,’ anyway? When exactly does it happen? Does it need to be performed by a person? Is consciousness somehow involved in the basic rules of reality? Together these questions are known as the ‘measurement problem’ of quantum theory.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
First portrait of mysterious Denisovans
drawn from DNA
Ewan Calloway, Nature, 19 September 2019
Computational biologists have produced a rough sketch of Denisovan anatomy based on epigenetic changes — chemical modifications to DNA that can alter gene activity. Their approach reveals that Denisovans were similar in appearance to Neanderthals but had some subtle differences, such as a wider jaw and skull.
‘It does help to paint a clearer picture of how they might have looked. Just the idea that it’s possible to use the DNA to predict morphology so well is very impressive,’ says Bence Viola, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Toronto in Canada who has analysed Denisovan remains, but was not involved in this research.
Epigenetic modifications to DNA have a profound influence on development, disease and most biological traits throughout life. They can help to determine differences between cells with otherwise identical genomes. One of the best-studied epigenetic changes is the addition to a DNA base of a methyl chemical group — made up of one carbon atom and three hydrogens — which often quells the activity of a gene.
The methyl group degrades after death, so cannot be spotted in ancient DNA. But a team co-led by Liran Carmel, a computational biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered a way to identify parts of ancient DNA that had once been methylated, by analysing patterns of chemical damage that accrues to the DNA over time. In 2014, Carmel’s team mapped methylation patterns across the genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans, and identified a limb-development gene for which these patterns differed between the extinct groups and modern humans.
In the latest study, Carmel and computational biologist David Gokhman, also at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led a team that identified thousands more regions of the genome in which the methylation patterns of Denisovans and Neanderthals were distinct from those of modern humans. They compared these with databases of epigenetic modifications in human tissue — where the impacts on gene expression are known — and produced a list of hundreds of genes for which expression levels probably differed between archaic groups and modern humans.
Read the full article in Nature.
Can methylation of DNA in ancient bones
really predict the morphology of Denisovans?
John Hawks, 19 September 2019
Last week, Cell published a new paper by David Gokhman and coworkers that tries to infer the skeletal form of Denisovans from signatures of methylation in the Denisovan genome data. The paper is here: ‘Reconstructing Denisovan Anatomy Using DNA Methylation Maps’.
I’m a skeptic about the paper. The authors follow an approach that has not been shown to predict the morphology of any living humans or any other species.
The study tries to justify its method by looking at Neanderthal methylation and saying that the methylation pattern can accurately predict Neanderthal bone shapes. This may look convincing on the surface. But it’s actually not. This is a case where ‘researcher degrees of freedom’ are very high.
I am working on a comment to submit to Cell about the study, focusing on some technical issues. I hope that the editors will be interested in publishing a critical exchange on the approach.
In the meantime, I want to point readers to a related study by another group of researchers that has been mostly ignored in the press coverage on this new paper.
Genevieve Housman and coworkers released a preprint earlier this year on biorXiv that looked at methylation patterns in several primate species (chimpanzees, macaques, vervet monkeys, baboons, and marmosets) to see if methylation could predict skeletal morphology within species or between species…
Housman and coworkers found some methylation differences that seemed to associate with morphology in their samples. But these were small effects that they could not separate from other possible influences (genetic and environmental differences). I would add that the small sample sizes in the study (only 4 chimpanzees, for example) make it possible that the observed effects might be spurious effects of small samples.
When they looked between species, Housman and colleagues found differences in methylation, similar to Gokhman and coworkers in this new study. Some of those differences in methylation are near genes that matter to skeletal form. Gokhman and coworkers found the same thing for Denisovans and Neanderthals. But in the living primates, the methylation differences actually did not correlate well to the phylogenetic relationships of the primate species. While Housman and coworkers suggest that the methylation differences between species might make some difference to the evolution of their traits, they did not try to predict what those differences were. That’s very reasonable considering the lack of clear signatures within species and the small proportion of the genome included in these regions with different methylation.
Read the full article by John Hawks.
‘This tape rewrites everything
we knew about the Beatles’
Richard Williams, The Guardian, 11 September 2019
The Beatles weren’t a group much given to squabbling, says Mark Lewisohn, who probably knows more about them than they knew about themselves. But then he plays me the tape of a meeting held 50 years ago this month – on 8 September 1969 – containing a disagreement that sheds new light on their breakup.
They’ve wrapped up the recording of Abbey Road, which would turn out to be their last studio album, and are awaiting its release in two weeks’ time. Ringo Starr is in hospital, undergoing tests for an intestinal complaint. In his absence, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison convene at Apple’s HQ in Savile Row. John has brought a portable tape recorder. He puts it on the table, switches it on and says: ‘Ringo – you can’t be here, but this is so you can hear what we’re discussing.’
What they talk about is the plan to make another album – and perhaps a single for release in time for Christmas, a commercial strategy going back to the earliest days of Beatlemania. ‘It’s a revelation,’ Lewisohn says. ‘The books have always told us that they knew Abbey Road was their last album and they wanted to go out on an artistic high. But no – they’re discussing the next album. And you think that John is the one who wanted to break them up but, when you hear this, he isn’t.
Doesn’t that rewrite pretty much everything we thought we knew?’
Lewisohn turns the tape back on, and we hear John suggesting that each of them should bring in songs as candidates for the single. He also proposes a new formula for assembling their next album: four songs apiece from Paul, George and himself, and two from Ringo – ‘If he wants them.’ John refers to ‘the Lennon-and-McCartney myth’, clearly indicating that the authorship of their songs, hitherto presented to the public as a sacrosanct partnership, should at last be individually credited.
Then Paul – sounding, shall we say, relaxed – responds to the news that George now has equal standing as a composer with John and himself by muttering something mildly provocative. ‘I thought until this album that George’s songs weren’t that good,’ he says, which is a pretty double-edged compliment since the earlier compositions he’s implicitly disparaging include Taxman and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. There’s a nettled rejoinder from George: ‘That’s a matter of taste. All down the line, people have liked my songs.’
Read the full article in the Guardian.
The other periodic table
Phillip Ball, Chemisty World, 24 June 2019
It’s clear in retrospect that The Periodic Table had been in gestation for much of Levi’s life. During his earliest chemical enthusiasms he had imagined the story ‘Carbon’, which tells of the journey of a carbon atom across hundreds of millions of years – fixed in limestone, liberated by a pickaxe and becoming carbon dioxide, photosynthesised into a grape vine, drunk as wine and exhaled, and finally finding its way into Levi’s own brain to guide his hand ‘to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one’ – with which the story, and the book, concludes.
Nothing like The Periodic Table had ever been attempted before, and it’s not clear that anything has since; the book is sui generis. There are bursts of pure chemistry, alive with his love of the subject: ‘Nothing of the generous good nature of tin, Jove’s metal, survives in its chloride… This salt is an energetic reducing agent, that is to say, it is eager to free itself of its two electrons and does so at the slightest pretext, sometimes with disastrous results.’
But here too is chemistry as metaphor for human relations – a trick not tried since Goethe’s 1809 novel Elective Affinities. Inert argon and its sibling noble gases represent Levi’s ancestors, Jewish settlers in Turin from Spain: alien like xenon, hidden like krypton, reserved and separate in ‘an attitude of dignified abstention’.
The Periodic Table was even more successful than If This Is a Man: it won prizes, sold tens of thousands, and made Levi a literary superstar. When it was published in English in 1984, literature Nobel laureate Saul Bellow chose it as his book of the year, saying ‘everything this book contains is essential’. It gave Levi the confidence to pursue this ‘science in fiction’ with a novel, The Wrench (1978), which tells the story of an engineer named Faussone through the eyes of a chemist narrator – a ‘rigger-chemist’ who worked in a paint factory, and who is obviously an alter ego of the author. The device gives Levi the opportunity for his most marvellous exposition on the art and craft of molecule-building, and the desires of synthetic organic chemists to find more precise tools:
But we are still blind, even in the best circumstances, that is, with structures that are simple and stable. Blind, and we don’t have those tweezers we often dream of at night, the way a thirsty man dreams of springs, that would allow us to pick up a segment, hold it firm and straight, and paste it in the right direction on the segment that has already been assembled. If we had those tweezers (and it’s possible that, one day, we will), we would have managed to create some lovely things that so far only the Almighty has made, for example, to assemble – perhaps not a frog or a dragonfly – but at least a microbe or the spore of a mold.’
It’s easy to imagine how delighted Levi would have been to see nanochemistry, click chemistry, molecular and DNA nanotechnology and synthetic biology come to pass.
Read the full article in Chemistry World.
Jeremy Black’s Imperial Legacies
Jeff Roquen, History News Network, 18 July 2019
In the process of furnishing a broad, composite sketch of a world strewn with competing and emerging empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and delving into the complex relations between Britain and the Indian subcontinent in the fourth chapter, Black challenges sweeping stereotypes of British plunder and conquest. Hence, the author begins by noting that the British East India Company, which maintained an army to protect its surging commercial interests in the region, actually recruited Dalits or ‘untouchables’ from the lowest Indian caste to wage an armed struggle against the formidable Maratha Empire (1674-1818). At the Battle of Koregaon near the Bhima River (south of present-day Mumbai) on 1 January 1818, the combined British East India Company-Dalit forces crushed the army of Peshwa (leader) Baji Rao II and hastened the collapse of Maratha rule. Far from subjugation, Black contends that the victory at Koregaon constituted a substantive opening salvo against the oppressive caste system and symbolized an oft-forgotten and underappreciated dynamic of British imperialism – the willing cooperation of indigenous peoples eager for liberation, trade and/or protection from other empires. In further crediting the British administration for its valiant attempts to eradicate two ultra-patriarchal traditions, female infanticide and Sati (an ancient Hindu-Sikh custom whereby widows immolated themselves upon the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands as a final expression of love and grief) and ushering in lengthy periods of peace in parts of India, the author bolsters his portrayal of the British as a largely civilizing influence. Although Britain developed commerce, transferred medical and transportation technology to the subcontinent and combatted socially-destructive superstitions, Black vastly understates the baleful underside of British rule.
In fact, that underside appears in the foundation of East India Company and its evolution from a trading presence of less than three hundred representatives to wielding effective control of India by the mid-nineteenth century. As commerce spiked through exports from Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai), the East India Company and its army formed alliances with princes. Six years after repelling an attack mounted by a Mughal viceroy (nawab) and allied soldiers from the French East India Company at Arcot (1751), Major General Robert Clive established British supremacy in Bengal by gaining the support of Hindu elites with shrewd diplomacy, achieving an armed victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and replacing the disesteemed nawab with a pliant, pro-Company governor. Thereafter, the reorientation of the agricultural economy in Bengal to suit British ideology and interests plunged a significant percentage of Indian farmers into poverty, despair and death. In some cases, the pursuit of well-intentioned, paternalistic policies disrupted socio-economic mores maintained by indigenous populations and resulted in deleterious outcomes. Due to their unshakeable faith in largely unregulated free-markets (laissez-faire) and the ‘laws’ of supply and demand to produce prosperity, colonial officials, who adhered to the non-interventionist economic dogma of Adam Smith and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776), initially refused to set-up direct relief programs during the Agra Famine of 1837-38 – a catastrophe that claimed 800,000 lives. Subsequently, the British directed additional time, effort and resources to preventing and ameliorating the effects of drought and disease in India.
Read the full article on History News Network.
A famous argument against free will
has been debunked
Bahar Gholipour, The Atlantic, 10 September 2019
Two years later, Schurger and his colleagues Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.
But Libet’s experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains ‘decide’ to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.
Other recent studies support the idea of the Bereitschaftspotential as a symmetry-breaking signal. In a study of monkeys tasked with choosing between two equal options, a separate team of researchers saw that a monkey’s upcoming choice correlated with its intrinsic brain activity before the monkey was even presented with options.
In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.
In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision – what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion – appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.
Read the full article in The Atlantic.
The images are, from top down: The way on theUS- Mexico border (photographer unknown); Henry Taylor’s ‘The Times They Ain’t Changing Fast Enough’; The Rosetta Stone (courtesy the British Museum); Emil Nolde’s ‘Holy Sacrifice’; Cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road.