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.
The West’s obsession with border security
is breeding instability
Ruben Anderson & David Keen,
Foreign Policy, 16 November 2019
Or consider Sudan, where the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group formerly linked to the genocidal janjaweed in Darfur, have trumpeted their credentials in fighting migration. This is the same force that killed dozens of protesters in Khartoum earlier this year and whose leader had by this summer by most accounts become the de facto, Saudi-backed ruler of Sudan.
EU leaders have suspended migration control cooperation with Sudan amid the turmoil, insisting that the EU has never supported the RSF. However, this is too little too late. The RSF, like Erdogan, has played a clever game within the rules set in part by the EU and has presented itself as helping the EU to fulfill its priorities—while simultaneously acting as a smuggling conduit. In effect, border security has been given a premium in the political marketplace, helping the guys with the guns to capture a larger market share.
This is happening not just in Sudan but across the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions, where the EU is now lavishing migration-related funds and political recognition on shady regimes and their frequently repressive security personnel. One of the countries targeted is Niger, which has become a laboratory for border security, with dire consequences.
The draconian law on migrant smuggling that the EU pushed has hit not just cross-border human smuggling but all sorts of cross-country transport, and it has involved Niger’s authorities selectively targeting members of certain ethnic groups. This risks fueling ethnic and political grievances while depriving northern Niger of its economic lifeblood, which includes not just irregular migration but also ordinary cross-border trade with, and travel to, Libya.
Meanwhile, the EU and its member states are plowing funds into the country’s security apparatus, no questions asked. The unpopular president, Mahamadou Issoufou, asked for a billion euros to halt migration; and soon after, the EU duly provided it—showing any willing partner state how little importance the EU gives to its avowed values, ignoring the government’s failure to provide free and fair elections. Amid growing popular discontent, and with an emboldened security state and a reeling economy, Niger is today a tinderbox thanks in no small part to the very security measures imposed by Europe.
Or take Libya, bizarrely held up at times next to Turkey and Niger as a sign of the success of the outsourced fight against migration. Building on former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi’s sordid deal-making with Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi a decade earlier, Italy and the EU have since 2015 tried to get around legal responsibilities at sea by funding and training a so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which in large part is simply a front for dolled-up militias.
These forces are pushing people back into limbo and dangerous detention in a Libya racked by renewed conflict where migrants are a prime target, as Sally Hayden reported recently in Foreign Policy. Meanwhile, reports have shown how militias’ tussling for position to deal with migration on Europe’s behalf risks deepening the chaos that followed NATO’s military campaign and the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.
The myth of the undeserving poor
Jonathan Wolff, New Statesman, 22 November 2019
Today that scepticism is likely to take on a different form: how can someone be poor if they have a smartphone? Anyone who asks this question is likely to think that if you have money for such luxuries, you must have enough money to meet your basic needs, if only you spent wisely. Any shortage of necessities is your own selfish fault: a result of imprudence or desires above your station.
Not long ago, the satellite dish filled the role the smartphone plays today. Decades before, in 1937, the poverty research pioneer Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree confronted the same complaint. How can people be poor, the middle classes said, if they can afford to go to the cinema? Rowntree responds:
[W]orking people are just as human as those with more money. They cannot live just on a ‘fodder basis’. They crave for relaxation and recreation just as the rest of us do. But… they can only get these things by going short of something which is essential to physical fitness, and so they go short …. They pay dearly for their pleasures!
The critical factor for Rowntree is not how people spend their money, but what they have to give up in order to have what they regard as essential to a normal human life. The middle-class commentators did not have to choose between a wedding ring and vitamin C for their newborns. They did not have to choose between going to the cinema and eating lunch the next day. On this view, to understand whether someone is in poverty, the best test is not what they buy but the choices they face and the sacrifices they have to make to do what is taken for granted by others…
Poverty researchers and activists have to battle against an ideological tide which insists that if you are in poverty it is either your own fault for not trying hard enough to get a job, or for failing to acquire the skills that would qualify you for a better-paid job. And if it is no one’s fault but your own, you have no justified claims against others or the state. At most, we might give assistance out of the goodness of our hearts, but there are no claims of right or justice.
What makes this argument so stubborn is that it contains a tiny grain of truth. For some people, if they had made different choices in the past, they might be faced with better prospects now. If they showed more determination, perhaps they would have a job now. Norman Tebbit famously told his audience that his father got on his bike to look for a job in the 1931 depression. But these bicycle expeditions did not create new jobs, and someone else’s father would suffer the misery of unemployment if Tebbit senior did manage to edge ahead in the ruthless struggle for work.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
I am a union organiser. Len McCluskey’s
migrant clampdown will only benefit bosses
Ewa Jasiewicz, Guardian, 15 November 2019
My job, as a trade union organiser, was to organise with workers. All workers. One class: the working class. They had different languages, different religions, different beliefs, but one common experience of exploitation by a system that treats them all as labour, giving some more status than others, but all under the same boot when it comes to the needs of capital. Workplaces where three agencies functioned simultaneously, playing workers off against one another. Workplaces where cleaners were registered at Companies House as directors and had to pay £30 a week to an agency just to have their wages processed. Workers who weren’t paid at all. Workers on zero-hours contracts who were ‘switched off’ and sent home as per the needs of warehouse orders.
How did the UK become such a perfect arena for a race to the bottom? Over the past few decades, Labour and Tory reluctance to change anti-union legislation, and their failure to amend the Agency Workers Regulations to ensure parity between agency (mostly migrant) and contract (mostly British) workers, crushed the conditions under which the poorest workers could organise and fight back. The legal, structural barriers to organising – try to fight back as a group of agency workers and suddenly you have no shifts any more – meant workers who rose as leaders, British or migrant, were shot down. But this isn’t the only factor in undermining solidarity: mainstream trade union bureaucracy also plays a significant and enduring role.
From the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, most trade unions in this country have pursued a ‘servicing’ approach to members rather than an ‘organising’ one. Servicing treats a member as a service user – they’ll get representation when the proverbial hits the fan in the form of advice and casework, with cheap car insurance thrown in. Organising hails the member as a potential activist and organiser in the union: they are the union, capable of taking collective action to change their terms and conditions. Servicing focuses on casework and individuals; organising focuses on collective change.
Both approaches are needed in a trade union. Not everyone will want to step forward and confront the boss, but, as hyper-individualising neoliberalism has risen over the past 30 years, so has the focus on servicing in unions. As injunctions and lawsuits have become more accessible for companies to use to prohibit strikes and silence workers (see the Communication Workers Union’s recent treatment at the high court), mainstream union establishment culture has, unsurprisingly, become risk-averse: workers representing themselves and publicly speaking out have been replaced by men in suits sharing pre-prepared statements to national media.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Big Pharma’s response to the opioid epidemic:
Pay but deny
Chris McGreal, NYR Daily, 11 November 2019
Hours after some of the biggest names in the pharmaceutical industry caved on the courthouse steps and agreed to pay a quarter of a billion dollars to two Ohio counties blighted by the opioid epidemic last month, a pair of emails landed in my inbox, both with a hint of menace. One came from a New York public relations firm representing one wing of the Sackler family that jointly owns Purdue Pharma and made billions from the sale of its notorious opioid painkiller, OxyContin. A D.C.-area law firm for another branch of the Sacklers sent the other.
Both made the same demand: that I withdraw a claim in an article for The Guardianabout the court settlement that OxyContin played a leading part in firing up an epidemic that has cost more than 400,000 lives over the past two decades. The lawyer’s letter said the statement was ‘false and damaging hyperbole.’ The letter regurgitated manipulated statistics long pushed by Purdue’s PR strategists to claim the company’s drug was only a bit player in the crisis. Never mind that, alongside the stack of evidence of the devastation wrought by OxyContin, there is Purdue’s 2007 guilty plea to a federal criminal offense for lying in an aggressive marketing campaign that claimed the drug was less addictive and more effective than other opioids. Or that the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, formed in 2017 to advise the Trump administration, said Purdue Pharma’s unprecedented sales campaign and influence over medical policy was responsible for a tenfold increase in opioid prescribing that flooded the country with billions of narcotic pills and provided fertile ground for a surge in addiction.
Part of this is about reputation management for the Sacklers, who’ve gone from being philanthropic billionaires with their name plastered on museums, galleries, and medical institutions across several continents to pariah billionaires who are now an embarrassment to many of those who used to fete them. But there is more to it. Even as the pharmaceutical industry agrees to ever larger payouts to settle an onslaught of lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, it continues to deny the conspiracy of greed that caused what the Trump commission called ‘this national nightmare.’ Instead, its PR operations and lawyers use manipulated statistics and make claims that the epidemic is ‘a complex problem with root causes that are difficult to disentangle’ in an attempt to disperse responsibility so widely that, in the end, everyone is to blame and so no one is.
The principal author of the commission’s report, Professor Bertha Madras of Harvard Medical School, describes the drug industry ‘pouring massive amounts of money’ into perverting medical policy and subverting regulation in order to push opioids. ’Using that money they literally bought off, and I don’t use that phrase lightly, they bought off the Joint Commission (which accredits hospitals and sets medical policies), they bought off the Federation of State Medical Boards, they bought off several American pain associations,’ Madras told me earlier this month. The industry wrote policy to influence medical practice, manipulated doctor training, and distorted the conduct of the very institutions that were supposed to protect Americans from unscrupulous drug companies. Pharma also effectively bought off Congress, blocking the efforts of a few of its members who recognized the epidemic early on and tried to rein in the wide prescribing of opioids for relatively minor pain and in quantities no other country dispensed. In the decade to 2016, drug makers poured close to $2.5 billion into lobbying and funding members of Congress on opioids and other issues, and the industry’s registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill far outnumber elected representatives.
Read the full article in NYR Daily.
The hostile environment confuses unlawful with undocumented, with disastrous consequences
Colin Yeo, Migration Mobilities Bristol, 21 November 2019
If a policy that deprives residents of jobs, homes and money is going to be introduced, one would hope it would be targeted using the best available data with strong failsafe mechanisms in place to reverse any errors. It would, you would have thought, be a disaster if innocent individuals ended up being forced into penury and out of the country as a result of incorrect information.
In reality, Home Office data on the immigration status of residents of the United Kingdom is often wrong and this has become increasingly clear in the years following Theresa May’s announcement in 2012 of her intention to make Britain a ‘really hostile environment for illegal immigrants‘. Public confirmation was provided as early as 2013 after a contract was awarded to the private company Capita to track down 174,000 suspected unlawful residents on the Home Office database. As soon as the company started sending out threatening text messages, though, it became clear that lawful residents and even British citizens were somehow on the database. In 2016 it emerged that hostile environment bank account checks were throwing up incorrect results as much as 10% of the time. In these cases, people were wrongly being refused permission to open a bank account. Officials admitted that relevant changes to a person’s status might not be entered on the relevant database ‘until some months after the event, and that data was often entered in the wrong field, commonly as free text.’
Similar issues arose with the new duty on the DVLA to cancel driving licences. The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration examined the use of these powers in 2016. The Home Office made 9,732 revocation requests to the DVLA in 2015, all but meeting the target set of 10,000 per year. Some of these licences were wrongly revoked, though. The same year, 259 licences had to be reinstated after complaints. In the meantime, those affected would have been unable to drive or would have committed the strict liability criminal offence of driving without a licence. As the Chief Inspector said, ‘the Home Office did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of such errors for the individuals affected’…
One of the fundamental flaws in the whole conception of the hostile environment scheme is that it is intended to affect unlawful residents but it is actually aimed at undocumented residents. Sometimes these things overlap and a person who has no documents is also unlawfully resident. But that is very far from always being the case.
Read the full article in Migration Mobilities Bristol.
Classics for the people
Edith Hall, Aeon, 13 November 2019
Even the language used to define class difference was derived from the ancient languages. ‘Classics’ and ‘class’ share a lexical stem that relates them to ancient Roman tax bands. Upper-class snobs call their perceived inferiors hoi polloi (‘the many’, a classical Greek term for the ruling majority in a democracy) or plebeians or plebs (Roman citizens who were not patrician). But there is another dimension to the chronicle of access to classical material in Britain, for non-elite individuals and groups across the same historical period persistently attempted, with varying degrees of success, to educate themselves in ancient Greek and Roman civilisation and languages. For every Jude Fawley and Uriah Heep, there has been a working-class autodidact like Charles Kingsley’s Chartist hero in Alton Locke (1850), an impoverished tailor who does eventually improve his socioeconomic situation. He also comes to a greater understanding of his historical moment by teaching himself classical languages and literature with the help of a Scottish working-class intellectual who is a thinly disguised Thomas Carlyle.
Working-class libraries and archives, the writings of autodidacts and the annals of adult education reveal a dynamic tradition of working-class access to the ancient Greeks and Romans, not only through language study but through translations and visual culture. Classical materials have been present in the identity construction and psychological experience of substantial groups of working-class Britons. Dissenting academies, Nonconformist Sunday schools and Methodist preacher-training initiatives all encouraged those who attended them to read widely in ancient history, ideas and rhetorical handbooks. Classical topics were included on the curricula of Mutual Improvement Societies, adult schools, Mechanics’ Institutes, university extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association, trade unions and the early Labour Colleges. These initiatives did much to counter the sluggish legislative response to workers’ demands for education: it was not until the Elementary Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that even rudimentary instruction in literacy and numeracy, let alone access to classical culture, became universally and freely available to children under 13.
But there had long been other ways to learn about the Greeks and Romans. Museums in Britain were visited by a far wider class cross-section than their Continental equivalents, where the admission of visitors to the princely galleries was closely monitored. There was a sense that art and archaeology somehow belonged to the nation rather than exclusively to wealthy individuals; free admission was customary. A Prussian traveller in London was disturbed to find in 1782 that the visitors to the British Museum were ‘various … some I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes, for as it is the property of the nation, everyone has the same right … to see it, that another has’. And classical sculptures such as the Parthenon frieze and the Venus de Milo were endlessly reproduced in forms accessible even to the poorest Briton: plaster reproductions in municipal museums across the nation, cheap self-education magazines such as Cassell’s Popular Educator, and volumes published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, available in libraries of Mechanics’ Institutes. Lower-class visitors’ memoirs often imply that what they saw in museums nurtured an impulse towards self-education.
Read the full article in Aeon.
The online left goes to war
Connor Kilpatrick, Jacobin, 27 August 2019
It was in university that Bertram-Lee joined a small anarchist group, and in the summer of 2014, after their first year, they found themselves browsing the Syrian Civil War Wikipedia page, trying to make sense of the various forces involved in the struggle. ‘One group, it said ‘YPG,’ and it was like ‘libertarian socialists’ or something. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, well, I guess maybe there’s some people I could support in this war.’’ Whereas roughly half the YPG Western volunteers join up simply to fight Jihadism, the other half are attracted to the revolutionary socialism of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader and founding member of the PKK, the party associated with the YPG.
In Öcalan, Bertram-Lee finally found a voice that cut through the online storm. Having built the PKK as a staunchly Leninist party, Öcalan pushed the organization in libertarian-socialist directions from his Turkish prison cell after his 1999 arrest. In this tension between old and new, the PKK was reborn. Unlike what Bertram-Lee had encountered on radical web forums, Öcalan promoted a practical-minded politics oriented toward patient organizing in real-world communities with real stakes and very real contradictions. This meant marrying a more traditional Marxist-Leninist focus on state power with a commitment to grassroots democracy, federalism, and the representation of minorities. And, unlike other radical ideologies, Öcalan’s was being tested right then and there in the cauldron of war — and it seemed to be working.
While much of Syria was being devoured by civil war, in Rojava, where the YPG were dominant, workers’ cooperatives, women’s community centers, and ‘cantons’ governed by direct democracy were sprouting up everywhere. There were even experiments in restorative justice, a remarkable transformation for those who’d been living under Assad’s regime. ‘Öcalan’s the greatest philosopher of the twenty-first century,’ Bertram-Lee says. ‘Not that there is a lot of competition.’ But it was only after the siege of Kobanî that Bertram-Lee decided to take the plunge and join up.
After graduating in 2016, Bertram-Lee first moved to Greece. ‘I thought it was the best place to do all the contacts stuff without any police attention or police interest or police desire to stop me.’ They started firing off emails trying to enlist, but nothing came of it until January 2017, when the YPG officially replied. ‘You had to fill out this weird kind of survey, like hundreds of questions, trying to ascertain if you’re a lunatic, which is … obviously, you could just lie, but it even has a personality disorder quiz in it, which is from some kind of a quiz site. And I knew this because I, obviously, as a very online person, I had done this exact personality disorder quiz in the past.’
Read the full article in Jacobin.
The cancellation of Colin Kaepernick
Ta Nehisi Coates, New York Times, 22 November 2019
We are being told of the evils of ‘cancel culture,’ a new scourge that enforces purity, banishes dissent and squelches sober and reasoned debate. But cancel culture is not new. A brief accounting of the illustrious and venerable ranks of blocked and dragged Americans encompasses Sarah Good, Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells, Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and the Dixie Chicks. What was the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, but the cancellation of the black South? What were the detention camps during World War II but the racist muting of Japanese-Americans and their basic rights?
Thus any sober assessment of this history must conclude that the present objections to cancel culture are not so much concerned with the weapon, as the kind of people who now seek to wield it.
Until recently, cancellation flowed exclusively downward, from the powerful to the powerless. But now, in this era of fallen gatekeepers, where anyone with a Twitter handle or Facebook account can be a publisher, banishment has been ostensibly democratized. This development has occasioned much consternation. Scarcely a day goes by without America’s college students being reproached for rejecting poorly rendered sushi or spurning the defenders of statutory rape.
Speaking as one who has felt the hot wrath of Twitter, I am not without sympathy for the morally panicked who fear that the kids are not all right. But it is good to remember that while every generation believes that it invented sex, every preceding generation forgets that it once believed the same thing.Besides, all cancellations are not created equal. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings of sexual assault, was inundated with death threats, forced from her home and driven into hiding. Dave Chappelle, accused of transphobia, collected millions from Netflix for a series of stand-up specials and got his feelings hurt.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The real reason for the UK’s
record employment: we’re poorer
Torsten Bell, New Statesman, 12 November 2019
Why are three million more of us working today in the UK than in 2008? How has our employment rate reached 76 per cent, when full employment before the crisis meant 73 per cent of us working?
These are employment levels no one thought possible a decade ago (see graph below). There is almost no bigger change to our economy over the past decade than the jobs boom. And yet it is poorly understood.
So why are so many of us working? Because we’re a lot poorer than we expected to be. That’s the fundamental cause of record employment.
Some have argued that, instead, policy changes are the key factor. Conservative and Labour politicians, for very different reasons, like to say it’s because of the UK’s flexible labour market. It’s true that flexibility has enabled swift employment growth, and the less welcome rise in insecure work within it. But it cannot explain why more people are working today than before the crisis for the simple reason that the labour market is not significantly more flexible than it was in 2008.
Conservative ministers often say the jobs boom is attributable to Universal Credit and the improved incentives to work it provides. But this rather misses the fact that the new benefit’s roll-out has been so slow that it only accounted for 2 per cent of the working-age population as late as 2018 (see graph below) – five years into the employment boom.
Better arguments are made by the Bank of England, among others, which argues that firms have chosen to prioritise new workers over new machines. This might be because it has become relatively cheaper to do so – after all, real wages fell after the crash – or because post-crisis and pre-Brexit uncertainty means they’d rather take on workers that can quickly be shed, than machines that they’d be stuck with.
But an increase in firms’ demand for workers can’t be the main driver of rising employment – because that would lead to upward pressure on wages. In fact, wage growth has not been this weak for generations – average earnings have still not returned to their pre-crisis peak.
Instead, an increase in labour supply by households – more people wanting to work, or wanting to work longer, for a given wage – is consistent with the twin features of our labour market: high employment and subdued pay.
Why might this have happened? Because a deep recession, dramatic wage falls and weak earnings recovery have meant household incomes being much lower than expected – and staying lower. A typical earner is today earning a fifth less than would have been the case had pre-crisis earnings trends continued (see graph below). A rational response from households has been to shield family finances from the depth of such earnings reductions by trying to increase the number of workers, or working more hours.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
Why deep-learning AIs are so easy to fool
Douglas Heaven, Nature, 9 October 2019
In 2011, Google revealed a system that could recognize cats in YouTube videos, and soon after came a wave of DNN-based classification systems. ‘Everybody was saying, ‘Wow, this is amazing, computers are finally able to understand the world,’’ says Jeff Clune at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, who is also a senior research manager at Uber AI Labs in San Francisco, California.
But AI researchers knew that DNNs do not actually understand the world. Loosely modelled on the architecture of the brain, they are software structures made up of large numbers of digital neurons arranged in many layers. Each neuron is connected to others in layers above and below it.
The idea is that features of the raw input coming into the bottom layers — such as pixels in an image — trigger some of those neurons, which then pass on a signal to neurons in the layer above according to simple mathematical rules. Training a DNN network involves exposing it to a massive collection of examples, each time tweaking the way in which the neurons are connected so that, eventually, the top layer gives the desired answer — such as always interpreting a picture of a lion as a lion, even if the DNN hasn’t seen that picture before.
A first big reality check came in 2013, when Google researcher Christian Szegedy and his colleagues posted a preprint called ‘Intriguing properties of neural networks’4. The team showed that it was possible to take an image — of a lion, for example — that a DNN could identify and, by altering a few pixels, convince the machine that it was looking at something different, such as a library. The team called the doctored images ‘adversarial examples’.
A year later, Clune and his then-PhD student Anh Nguyen, together with Jason Yosinski at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, showed that it was possible to make DNNs see things that were not there, such as a penguin in a pattern of wavy lines5. ‘Anybody who has played with machine learning knows these systems make stupid mistakes once in a while,’ says Yoshua Bengio at the University of Montreal in Canada, who is a pioneer of deep learning. ‘What was a surprise was the type of mistake,’ he says. ‘That was pretty striking. It’s a type of mistake we would not have imagined would happen.’
New types of mistake have come thick and fast. Last year, Nguyen, who is now at Auburn University in Alabama, showed that simply rotating objects in an image was sufficient to throw off some of the best image classifiers around6. This year, Hendrycks and his colleagues reported that even unadulterated, natural images can still trick state-of-the-art classifiers into making unpredictable gaffes, such as identifying a mushroom as a pretzel or a dragonfly as a manhole cover7.
Read the full article in Nature.
Rap on trial
Erik Nielson & Andrea L. Dennis,
Boston Review, 8 November 2019
On the night of February 20, 2000, Mac was performing during an open mic night at Club Mercedes in Slidell, Louisiana, a small venue about thirty miles outside of New Orleans. A fight broke out and a young fan, Baron Victor, Jr., was shot and killed in the melee. When he heard the gunshots, Mac initially made his way to the back door before returning inside the club to make sure his parents, who were there collecting money for the performance, were safe. He drew his own (legally registered) gun for protection, meaning witnesses saw him with a gun in his hand, a fact that authorities seized on. They immediately identified Mac as the primary suspect and arrested him later that evening.
The ensuing process was a nightmare. Numerous witnesses at the scene described a shooter who looked nothing like Mac. The gun Mac was carrying hadn’t been fired, and police never recovered the weapon that had been. No other forensic evidence tied Mac to the crime. Another man even went to police and confessed to the shooting. Nevertheless, authorities charged Mac—who had no criminal record—with first-degree murder. At trial they produced a number of their own eyewitnesses, who have subsequently recanted their testimony and said that prosecutors threatened to put them in jail if they didn’t finger Mac as the shooter. One of them, a pregnant woman named Yulon James, was told she could identify Mac as the killer or have her baby in prison.
During the trial, the prosecutor took pains to depict Mac as the brutal character in his songs, quoting extensively from his 1998 album. ‘This defendant who did this is the same defendant whose message is, ‘Murder murder, kill, kill, you fuck with me you get a bullet in your brain,’’ the prosecutor said during his closing argument. ‘You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that one plus one equals two.’
Mac was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to thirty years in prison, a term he is still serving despite mountains of evidence that he was wrongly convicted. He refuses to accept parole because that would require him to admit guilt…
Stories like these are playing out all across the country: with alarming regularity, young men are finding themselves in handcuffs, in courtrooms, and often in prison because of their rap lyrics. No other art form, musical or otherwise, is treated this way in court. Uses of rap lyrics by police and prosecutors share the common assumption that the lyrics are accurate reflections of the defendant’s thoughts, intentions, and actions. Rarely do authorities acknowledge—as they do with films, novels, and other musical genres—that there’s a distinction between the author and the narrator telling the story. Consider how that assumption would play out with other forms of entertainment: crime novelists, radical poets, and screenwriters of horror films would all be in trouble juries were convinced that their art was a reflection of their real lives.
Read the full article in the Boston Review.
Pity the poor avocado-eating graduates
Mary Harrington, UnHerd, 11 November 2019
The first election in which I was old enough to vote saw the election of Tony Blair, which makes me just middle-aged enough to remember this Britain arriving. Coffee not tea (and not instant coffee either); cities not towns; low-cost flights, not Butlins; multiculture not monoculture; Jamie Oliver, avocados, broadband, the restyled Mini Cooper; mass customisation; 50% of young people going to universities; everything done on a mountain of debt, especially that 50% graduate rate.
If Thatcherism opened the country economically, Blair’s Britain did so culturally. This double ‘openness’ is the heart of ‘cultural Remain’.
There are many desirable things about this ‘open’ world and lifestyle. I am a big fan of avocados and European minibreaks, but even leaving aside these caricature ‘left behind’ curmudgeons in the stagnant provinces, openness is a double-edged sword. One of its side effects has been a boom in the cost of living and, with it, a rising inequality (that began under Thatcher) and continued — particularly in the South — under Blair, only to get worse in the 2008 crash.
Meanwhile, the boom in openness-promoting tertiary education produced not so much a boom in graduate jobs as inflation in the qualification levels required to do the jobs we already had. This has left many young people struggling to service a mountain of debt on salaries that are never likely to show much of the ‘graduate premium’ they were promised.
Today, thanks in part to the ‘open’ economy whose values form the foundation of the ‘cultural Remain’ identity, the cost of living — and especially home ownership — has rocketed. Simple aspirations that were within the reach of the working class in the 20th century are an unattainable dream today for millions of young people far higher up the sociocultural pile. And yet those young graduates have all, in the course of moving away to get their degree, absorbed the ‘open’ value set now explicitly taught in tertiary education.
The result is an Everywhere precariat, that has absorbed the values of a world that has little to offer it in terms of concrete benefits, and resolves this conflict by renting the heavily-subsidised and internet-enabled perks of a smarter lifestyle than it can afford to buy. Where once rentals might have just been housing and cars, today that can even include clothing.
Read the full article in UnHerd.
The tangled web of US border security around the world
Laura Weiss, LA Review of Books, 31 October 2019
Miller argues that in order to fully understand US immigration policy, we must go far beyond the borders of the United States itself and much further back in time than the Trump era. His investigation takes him from Hispaniola and the Philippines to southern Mexico to Central America to Jordan, from sub-Saharan Africa to Israel — through which he paints a portrait of a convoluted web of enforcement training programs, technologies, and strategies, guided and often funded by the United States. These efforts intend to stop would-be migrants or border-crossers long before they reach the United States itself.
The sheer geographic scope of the book is a feat in and of itself that immediately sets Miller’s book apart from much of the literature on the US-Mexico border.
‘[T]he evidence of U.S. international border expansion is everywhere,’ Miller writes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has offices in 48 countries. The International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau is active in 90 countries. The US Border Patrol’s special forces and tactical unit, BORTAC, has conducted trainings of border police in at least 20 countries, by Miller’s count.
For example, in Puerto Rico, he writes, Customs and Border Protection officers knock on doors in search of undocumented Haitians and Dominicans. Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard intercepts boats of Haitians and Dominicans landing on Mona Island coming from nearby Hispaniola. As a US territory, Puerto Rico serves as a ‘lily pad’ for US enforcement efforts, allowing it to expand geographically.
And thousands of miles away, the Philippines, where the United States has funded a multimillion-dollar Coastal Watch Center, also acts as such a ‘lily pad,’ a legacy of its colonization of the islands after the Spanish-American War. During the 35-year colonial government instituted by the United States, the US established the blueprint for some of the same surveillance and intelligence-gathering efforts it today uses to control its own borders.
Nearly everywhere he travels, Miller meets with border security forces and officials, the vast majority of whom tell Miller they have participated in some kind of training program in Miller’s home state of Arizona. In Guatemala, the Kaibiles, an elite military unit that plays a role in patrolling the Guatemala-Honduras Border, receive an annual ‘dosis,’ or ‘dose’ of training from Customs and Border Protection, one soldier tells Miller.
Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.
Race, genetics and pseudoscience: an explainer
Ewan Birney, Jennifer Raff, Adam Rutherford & Aylwyn Scally, Bioinformatician at Large, 24 October 2019
‘Human biodiversity’ proponents sometimes assert that alleged differences in the mean value of IQ when measured in different populations – such as the claim that IQ in some sub-Saharan African countries is measurably lower than in European countries – are caused by genetic variation, and thus are inherent. The purported genetic differences involved are usually attributed to recent natural selection and adaptation to different environments or conditions. Often there are associated stories about the causes of this selection, for example that early humans outside Africa faced a more challenging struggle for survival, or that via historical persecution and restriction of professional endeavours, Ashkenazi Jews harbour genes selected for intellectual and financial success.
Such tales, and the claims about the genetic basis for population differences, are not scientifically supported. In reality for most traits, including IQ, it is not only unclear that genetic variation explains differences between populations, it is also unlikely. To understand why requires a bit of background.
It is certainly the case that some traits are the result of local or regional adaptation, corresponding to differences in particular genes. Indeed, one of the reasons for humankind’s success as a global species is local adaptation. The majority of this adaptation is via behaviour and the cultural transmission of successful behaviours, but there are also cases where the adaptation is genetic, that is, small modifications occur within our genomes that enhanced survival in different environments. For example, genetic changes have meant that coastal populations have DNA variants that help them more readily process diets that are rich in oily fish; pastoralist farmers all over the world evolved the ability to metabolise milk after weaning, largely through genes that continued to produce a particular enzyme into adulthood that would otherwise be switched off by the age of five. Lighter skin evolved to allow more sunlight, and thus Vitamin D synthesis, into our bodies as we migrated away from the equator. We can see these local adaptations in our DNA. But they only hold for a minority of traits. Most traits have very real genetic and physical differences between individuals, but any group differences do not correspond to traditional race categories such as height, or the susceptibility to type 2 diabetes in an environment with ready access to food.
Read the full article on Bioinformatician at Large.
A guided tour of AI and the murky ethical issues it raises
Howard Schneider, Undark, 22 November 2019
The book is exemplary, however, when discussing where AI is now and where it might be going, as well as the moral issues involved. ‘Should we be terrified about AI?’’ she writes. ‘Yes and no. Superintelligent, conscious machines are not on the horizon. The aspects of humanity that we most cherish are not going to be matched by a ‘bag of tricks.’ At least I don’t think so. However, there is a lot to worry about regarding the potential for dangerous and unethical uses of algorithms and data.’
Mitchell’s message is that AI-phobes can chill out because we’re not now and we probably won’t ever be facing a dystopic future controlled by machines. One of the themes of the book is that while it’s impressive that AI devices have defeated human experts in ‘Jeopardy’ and Go, no matter how remarkable such tours de force are, those were the only things those particular machines were programmed to do, and they required human input. And in such areas as object recognition, transcribing or translating language, and conversing with Homo sapiens, AI is, to use a word Mitchell favors, ‘brittle.’
Which is to say that even though great strides have been made (and will be made) in AI, such technology is a long way from being omnipotent, because it is error prone when faced with perplexing — to its way of thinking — tasks (be cautious, she warns, of riding in self-driving cars). And AI machines are still vulnerable to being manipulated by hackers who might work for foreign governments or are simply motivated to cause mayhem.
Near the end of the book, Mitchell asks, ‘How far are we from creating general human-level AI?’ She quotes a computer scientist, Andrej Karpathy, who says, ‘We are really, really far away,’ and then she concurs: ‘That’s my view too.’
Above all, her take-home message is that we humans tend to overestimate AI advances and underestimate the complexity of our own intelligence. ‘These supposed limitations of humans are part and parcel of our general intelligence,’’ she writes. ‘The cognitive limitations forced upon us by having bodies that work in the world, along with the emotions and ‘irrational’ biases that evolved to allow us to function as a social group, and all the other qualities sometimes considered cognitive ‘shortcomings,’ are in fact precisely what enables us to be generally intelligent.’
Read the full article in Undark.
Got mutation? ‘Base editors’ fix
genomes one nucleotide at a time
Sandeep Ravindran, Nature, 18 November 2019
When Xingxu Huang began thinking about correcting disease-causing mutations in the human genome, his attention turned naturally to CRISPR–Cas9. But it quickly became clear that the popular gene-editing tool wasn’t ideal for the majority of human disease mutations, which result from errors in single DNA nucleotides known as point mutations. More than 31,000 such mutations in the human genome are known to be associated with human genetic diseases. But CRISPR is not particularly efficient at correcting them.
Then Huang learnt about base editors, a new class of genome-modifying proteins that excel at single-site mutations.
Base editors chemically change one DNA base to another without completely breaking the DNA backbone. The first cytosine base editor (CBE), which chemically converts a cytosine–guanine (C–G) base pair into a thymine–adenine (T–A) base pair at a targeted genomic location, was developed in 2016 by chemical biologists David Liu and Alexis Komor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Another researcher in Liu’s laboratory, Nicole Gaudelli, developed the first adenine base editor (ABE) a year later; it chemically transforms A–T to G–C base pairs.
‘Base editing gives very, very good efficiency, about 40–50% efficiency for cell lines,’ says Huang, a geneticist at ShanghaiTech University in China. ‘That’s very high efficiency compared with traditional genome editing,’ which is only one-tenth as efficient, he says.
But base editors are not just more efficient than CRISPR–Cas9; they also cause fewer errors. CRISPR–Cas9 acts as molecular scissors that cut both strands of DNA. As the cell repairs the break, random bases can be inserted or deleted (indels), altering the gene sequence. Large chromosomal segments might even be deleted or rearranged. By altering just a specific nucleotide without making double-stranded breaks, base editors cause fewer unwanted mistakes.
Researchers have applied these tools across the evolutionary tree, from bacteria and yeast to rice, wheat, zebrafish, mice, rabbits and monkeys. They have used them to knock out genes, and to create and correct animal models. They have applied them in very early human embryos in the laboratory. And they might one day use base editors to treat human genetic diseases.
Read the full article in Nature.
How immigration became Britain’s most toxic political issue
Rachel Shabi, Guardian, 15 November 2019
Records of parliamentary debates show objections – roundly ignored – to New Labour’s hostile and punitive immigration policies dating back to when it took office in 1997, often raised by then backbenchers Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn. Bill Morris, then secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (the precursor to Unite), spearheaded a campaign against asylum vouchers, which led to them being scrapped in 2001, albeit to resurface in 2006. And in 2003, a Trade Union Congress report argued that the ‘blurring by media and governments of the distinction between refused asylum seekers, illegal working, illegal entry and criminal activity such as trafficking’ was feeding a general suspicion around all migrants.
In the early years of Blair’s government, it was riding high on a historic victory, while the prime minister enjoyed extraordinary popularity, support from the Sun and the Daily Mail. Abbott, among others, views this period as a missed opportunity to reset the terms of the debate. ‘Tony Blair could have used his considerable persuasion in middle England to make a different case about the role of immigration and what causes asylum seekers,’ she says. ‘He was in a very good position to change the conversation.’
But New Labour did not want to go against public sentiment. ‘There was a sense of real public hostility,’ recalls a special adviser to the Home Office at the time. ‘And we couldn’t just turn around and say to people: ‘Your hostility is misplaced and wrong.’’ This exact same instinct is raised by one of Miliband’s advisers from 2010 to 2015: ‘You can’t have your first sentence [to the public] being ‘You’re wrong about the thing that you’re thinking, the thing that you’re worried about.’’
Political scientists Anthony Geddes and Jonathan Tonge have written of a ‘ratcheting effect’ whereby tough words and policy on immigration gives it more salience, creating, in turn, a public hunger for tougher words and policy. As Abbott puts it: ‘If the Labour party is banging on about immigration, our people feel legitimised in banging on about immigration. If we turn their attention to other things, they stop feeling as though it is the most terrible thing affecting their lives.’
That politicians and tabloids are no longer ‘banging on’ about immigration – certainly not at the fever pitch of the years prior to the EU referendum – may partly explain why immigration has dropped in prominence as a public concern: it now ranks just below the environment as the sixth biggest issue of the December general election. Brexit, which tops this same YouGov poll from last week, may for some be acting as a proxy for immigration. But perhaps the Windrush scandal has also had an impact, as well as staff shortages across health and social care, hospitality and farming. Labour’s own internal polling shows little public disagreement with the statement that: ‘Politicians blame immigrants or people on benefits to distract from their own failures.’
Read the full article in the Guardian.
The imperial legacy in scholarship
Bruno Charbonneau, Africa is a Country, 22 October 2019
I learned later that three issues bothered the journal’s political overseers. One was my article, which criticized the French-led counterterrorist approach to Mali and the Sahel, exposing its limits and effects on conflict resolution. The article is the least critical piece that I have written on the matter, but it was still too much. I knew full well that questioning the French strategy in Mali was taboo or sensitive in certain circles, so I avoided using ‘radical’ terms and emphasized a general ‘counterterrorist approach’ wording instead of a specific ‘French policy’ one.
The second sensitive issue was the references made, in almost all articles, to the corruption of the Malian state and its effects. A short piece on the Malian army’s abuses, written by Rémy Carayol, was said to be particularly problematic, susceptible to legal liability, and dangerous, even though it was based on public sources, discussed and documented events, and the fact that the UN itself had already blamed Malian forces. One could not, it seemed, criticized too much France’s key allies in Bamako.
The third issue was that our research was deemed to be unidirectional, one-sided, leading to the same or similar conclusions about the worsening situation in Mali and the failures of the counterterrorist approach. They wanted the special issue to include or consider the ‘other side’ of the picture. This was clearly politics, not research. Despite all indications, a broad consensus in the literature, and several UN reports demonstrating that the situation in Mali has been increasingly worsening since 2015, with no end in sight to the armed conflicts, it was us who were ‘radicals’ and ‘extremists’ for not wanting to consider a ‘debate.’
There is no doubt in my mind that the whole episode speaks loudly to the specificities of Francophone Africa as a space of intervention. The imperial legacies of this space mean that France is always at the centre of diplomatic, political, and military efforts at conflict management. It is a world that Franco-African elites ‘own,’ including who and what can be said about it.
This speaks to the politics of knowledge production in and about a context-specific space. If you write in English about France in Africa, there is more room for critique (I have published in both languages). Writing in French, however, in a French journal, is to be confronted with colonial legacies that have not spared the academy. Through my years of research, I have met various forms of neocolonial and nationalist paternalism that circumscribes the tolerable parameters of debate.
Read the full article on Africa is a Country.
Deficient democracies, democratic deficits
John Tasioulas & Jonathan Wolff , TLS, 30 October 2019
The worldwide advance of democracy since the fall of the Iron Curtain has gone into reverse over the past decade or so – not only in newer democracies, such as Brazil, but arguably also in long-established bastions like the United States. In tandem with this democratic backsliding, opinion polls reveal a declining faith in democracy. It seems that a majority of younger people in countries such as Britain, France and the United States do not regard democracy as fundamentally important.
Such developments make it urgent to re- examine the value of democracy today. In doing this, we must not assume that those disillusioned with it are inevitably populist authoritarians. To deny that democracy is ‘fundamental’, for example, is to locate its significance relative to other values. What might those values be?
Some concern identities – religious, ethnic, gender, and so forth – that are vulnerable to being suppressed by a democratic politics that privileges the majority. Those anxious to protect minority identities are naturally drawn to the universal language of human rights. Such rights are typically – but, I think, mistakenly – understood as norms that transcend democratic politics and as being the special province of unelected judges.
Other concerns focus on securing global common goods – most importantly, taming economic globalization and climate change. Here the mechanisms of national democratic politics are often judged to be woefully ineffective. This is either because democracies are seen as mired in the short-termist outlook of their citizens, or because global solutions are needed in the absence of democratically accountable global governance institutions. Both sets of concerns converge on the idea that technocratic rule – rule by experts such as judges, economists, scientists, and others – is required to deliver vital goods. Is there a compelling democratic response?
‘Only the shoemaker can make a shoe, but only the customer can tell where the shoe pinches.’ I have a feeling I read this line somewhere in Bentham, but not even the finest search engines can verify. Never mind. The point is that it helps us to address the scepticism about democracy, described by John as a rising concern, but which is probably older than democracy itself. Plato’s argument against democracy is that just as we don’t leave tricky medical decisions to the people’s vote, it’s equally irrational to leave tricky decisions of statecraft to the people. Yet the shoemaker example reminds us that even in the medical case, we can’t leave medical decisions entirely to the doctors – or at least we don’t anymore. Medical decision-making and political decision-making are partnerships between the people on the one hand, and, with luck and our good judgement, experts on the other. Of course, in the political case we might question whether either the people or the experts really are holding up their own end of the bargain at the moment. But sadly, no system is immune from decay or misuse.
If we are to think clearly about democracy in practical terms, two familiar complications need to be added. The first is the distinction between direct and representative democracy. Direct democracy, in which people vote for policies directly, seems in some sense the purest form of democracy, but it is highly vulnerable to Plato’s critique. How can the people develop sufficient expertise? Representative democracy – ideally a system where people vote for experts, and, more important still, can vote them out when the shoe pinches – is more than second best. It is our only practical democratic option in a complex world.
Read the full article in the TLS.
A health care algorithm affecting millions
is biased against black patients
Colin Lecher, The Verge, 24 October 2019
A health care algorithm makes black patients substantially less likely than their white counterparts to receive important medical treatment. The major flaw affects millions of patients, and was just revealed in research published this week in the journal Science.
The study does not name the makers of the algorithm, but Ziad Obermeyer, an acting associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked on the study says ‘almost every large health care system’ is using it, as well as institutions like insurers. Similar algorithms are produced by several different companies as well. ‘This is a systematic feature of the way pretty much everyone in the space approaches this problem,’ he says.
The algorithm is used by health care providers to screen patients for ‘high-risk care management’ intervention. Under this system, patients who have especially complex medical needs are automatically flagged by the algorithm. Once selected, they may receive additional care resources, like more attention from doctors. As the researchers note, the system is widely used around the United States, and for good reason. Extra benefits like dedicated nurses and more primary care appointments are costly for health care providers. The algorithm is used to predict which patients will benefit the most from extra assistance, allowing providers to focus their limited time and resources where they are most needed.
To make that prediction, the algorithm relies on data about how much it costs a care provider to treat a patient. In theory, this could act as a substitute for how sick a patient is. But by studying a dataset of patients, the authors of the Science study show that, because of unequal access to health care, black patients have much less spent on them for treatments than similarly sick white patients. The algorithm doesn’t account for this discrepancy, leading to a startlingly large racial bias against treatment for the black patients.
The effect was drastic. Currently, 17.7 percent of black patients receive the additional attention, the researchers found. If the disparity was remedied, that number would skyrocket to 46.5 percent of patients.
‘Cost is a reasonable proxy for health, but it’s a biased one, and that choice is actually what introduces bias into the algorithm,’ Obermeyer says.
Read the full article in the Verge.
Who really discovered how the heart works?
Pippo Carmona, JSTOR Daily, 20 November 2019
To a handful of medical historians and doctors, the name Ibn al-Nafis gently tugs at the heartstrings, but for most, it is undoubtedly unfamiliar. Ibn al-Nafis did what so many medical thinkers and doctors could not: He correctly explained how the heart pumps blood, and he did so centuries before the advent of modern medicine. Although the discovery of the heart’s true anatomy is commonly credited to the English physician William Harvey, it was al-Nafis who first mounted the challenge to the received wisdom of ancient Greece. So, who was he? And why does he hold a special place in some doctors’ hearts?
Before we get to know him better, we need to take a side-trip back to 1628, when a 50-year old Harvey published a short but revolutionary treatise. In 80 succinct pages, Harvey succeeded in correcting the reigning and almost sacrosanct theory of blood circulation in his time, put forward by the 2nd century CE Greek doctor Galen, who commanded utmost authority in medicine. Galen’s unparalleled success as a doctor to the gladiators of Pergamon – and his appointment as physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius – gave him a prestige that no other doctor achieved in the ancient world. His excellent service to the throne led Aurelius to celebrate him as ‘first among doctors.’ The rank and honor stuck as dogma for a millennium.
In Galen’s system, there was a middle membrane called the septum between the heart’s two ventricles. Galen believed that the septum had invisible pores that permitted the movement of blood from the right ventricle to the left. This perforated passage was an essential feature in Galenic anatomy, which held that blood movement was centrifugal and not circulatory. Blood rushed through the vessels in a one-way trip away from their central origins. Blood transported to the kneecaps, for example, was absorbed by the tissues around the patella, never to be seen again. If blood was constantly consumed, then it was also necessary that the body produce it perpetually. Galen assigned one organ to do just that: the liver.
In her biography of Galen, The Prince of Medicine, the historian Susan Mattern explains that for Galen, ‘[t]he liver was the central organ of nutrition.’ The liver processed and converted food sent from the stomach into nutritious dark blood. Once this type of blood was produced, it was immediately distributed to the body through channels called veins. As Mattern explains it: ‘In Galen’s system, the liver was the source of the veins.’ In other words, veins branched out from the liver, which delivers blood. The pumping effect of the heart was therefore unnecessary, as the blood exiting the liver travelled independently by ebbs and flows through the veins.
Read the full article in the JSTOR Daily.
Following the Levellers
Elliot Vernon, Reviews in History, 24 November 2019
After being relegated almost to the status of bit players in the 1980s historical debate between Revisionists and their critics over the New Model Army, the Levellers have returned to the fore of historical publishing. In 2012 Philip Baker and I edited a collection of essays that aimed to reinvigorate debate on the various Agreements of the People. This was followed in 2013 by Rachel Foxley’s substantial monograph exploring the roots and consequence of Leveller political thought. More recently John Rees has provided a well-researched ‘biography’ of the Leveller movement, Mike Braddick a new biography of John Lilburne, and David Como a groundbreaking monograph exploring the early 1640s origins of many of those who would become Levellers.
If the field of study is currently buzzing with new scholarship, Gary De Krey’s two books attempt to cut a new path: to chart the Levellers’ followers and successors from the 1640s into the later 17th century. De Krey’s thesis is that the Levellers are best seen as having a ‘heterogeneous loose following with divergent and even contradictory ideas’ (p.2) rather than being the ‘first political’ party advocated in 20th-century historiography. De Krey takes up the insights of Murray Tolmie’s groundbreaking 1977 study The Triumph of the Saints to find a stable locus for Leveller followers in the political and socio-economic milieu of Baptist and Separatist congregations in London and the Home Counties. The methodology — as well befits a student of Lawrence Stone — is to read the Levellers and their followers’ printed literature in its immediate context and to apply a prosopographical approach to understanding that context.
The first volume of this study covers the history of the Levellers to 1649. The introduction sets out a brief summary of the historiographical landscape. De Krey pins his colours to the mast here, adopting Jason Peacey’s innovatory arguments from a 2000 article setting John Lilburne — and thus the pre-history of the Levellers — in the wider political Independent coalition.(1) The Levellers, De Krey argues, emerged as ‘a unique historical development’ (p. 9) from the tensions caused by the almost successful machinations of the political Presbyterian faction within Parliamentarianism to control the settlement with Charles I. Against such a peace, which would have entailed concessions to the King’s traditional government and a national Presbyterian ecclesiastical settlement, the emerging Levellers pressed for fundamental alterations to the English constitution. In seeking such change the Leveller leadership looked to the radical margins of the Independent coalition, members of the gathered churches in London and its linked counties, and among the soldiery.
The trolls have infested academic peer review
Ryan Bullock, University Affairs, 21 August 2019
Fifteen years and several published articles later, my ongoing participation in academic peer review has paralleled the proliferation of cyberbullying and troll culture that remains a serious problem in other parts of the internet. Recently, a colleague approached me with concerns about reviews they received on their first attempt at a journal article. This time, Reviewer B went so far as to make assumptions about the authors’ ethnicity and made derogatory comments about the relationship between junior and senior authors. Rather than engage with the content of the paper and critique the analysis, they offered opinions based on their own agenda.
These ‘reviews,’ although 15 years apart, shared common traits: an overall negative tone; snide, off-point comments based on erroneous assumptions and personal bias; and vague criticisms that lacked connections with those offered by other reviewers or editors. Finally, the reviews were hypocritical. That is, they could be criticized for the same issues they were condemning: unsupported claims, sloppiness and brevity. They provided nothing constructive to work on, indicating that the troll reviewer didn’t care about their role, the journal that provided them the service opportunity, nor their supposed colleagues – their counterparts in the review process.
The experience leaves me asking: what is the value of academic peer review in the social sciences? The process is intended to subject research to objective or at least arm’s-length inspection by other specialists. It is supposed to encourage work that meets high standards and thus provide assurances to readers and knowledge users that gratuitous claims and unacceptable analyses are not published without close review by qualified people. Review processes follow established protocols to guide criticism of content but also to structure the conduct of academic exchange.
After much consideration, I believe that current peer-review processes often do the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve. That is, the double-blind system provides no assurance to me – and, by extension, the readers – that reviewers are qualified professionals. The blind review process can reduce accountability, leading to poor-quality service work, which reviewers can no doubt still count on in their annual evaluations without having properly served their journal, their discipline or their colleagues. The blinded format can encourage boorish and unethical behaviour. To top it off, troll reviews waste an incredible amount of professional time and energy of authors, editors and colleagues who reviewed earlier drafts.
Read the full article in University Affairs.
Physics and imagination
Philip Ball, Homunculus, 5 September 2019
It would seem perverse, almost rude, not to begin a discussion of imagination in physics with Einstein’s famous quote on the topic, voiced during a newspaper interview with the writer George Viereck in 1929:
I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
For a fridge-magnet inspirational quote to celebrate the value of imagination, you need look no further. But context, as so often with Einstein, is everything. He said this after talking about the 1919 expedition led by the British physicist Arthur Eddington to observe the sky during a total solar eclipse off the coast of Africa. Those observations verified the prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity that starlight would be bent by the gravitational field of a massive body like the sun. Einstein told Viereck that ‘I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.’ Viereck – a fascinating figure in his own right, who had previously interviewed (and showed some sympathy for) Adolf Hitler and wrote a psychological and gay-inflected Wildean vampire novel in 1907 – responded to that supremely confident statement by asking: ‘Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?’
You could say that Einstein’s reply was a qualified affirmative. And this seems very peculiar, doesn’t it, for a ‘man of science’?
The story dovetails with Einstein’s other well-known response to the eclipse experiment. Asked by an assistant (some say a journalist) how he should have felt if the observations had failed to confirm his theory, he is said to have responded ‘Then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.’
Compare that with the statement of another celebrated aphoristic physicist, the American Richard Feynman:
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
Who is right? Einstein trusting to imagination, intuition and artistry, or Feynman to the brutal judgement of empiricism? If we’re talking about scientific methodology, Feynman is right in spirit but nonetheless displaying the limitations of the physicist’s common ‘naïve realist’ position about science, which assumes that nature delivers uncomplicated, transparent answers when we put to it questions about our physical theories. Yet Einstein’s general relativity was a theory so profoundly motivated and so conceptually satisfying, despite the mind-boggling shift it demanded in conceptions of space and time, that it could not be lightly tossed on the scrapheap of beautiful ideas destroyed by ugly facts.
Read the full article on Homunculus.
Sea rescue NGOs:
A pull factor of irregular migration?
Eugenio Cusumano & Jean Monnet Fellow, European University Institute, November 2019
Our analysis suggests that non-governmental SAR operations do not correlate with the number of migrants leaving Libya by sea. Rather than being influenced by the pull effect of NGOs’ SAR operations, our analysis suggests that departures from Libya have mainly been shaped by weather conditions and Minniti’s policies of ‘onshore containment’, which played a key role in bringing down irregular arrivals since July 2017.
Given the limited data available, this study of the alleged pull effect of NGOs’ rescue activities has been exploratory in nature. Clearly, more data and further research are needed on this issue. Nevertheless, our analysis has important implications for policy debates. Drawing on the results of our analysis as well as ethical considerations, we suggest the following policy recommendations.
First, claims that non-governmental SAR operations act as a pull factor are not supported by the available evidence. Besides being problematic on legal grounds, the policies devised to limit NGOs’ activities off the coast of Libya and disincentivize SAR operations at large may have indirectly magnified the deadliness off the crossing without significantly contributing to reducing irregular departures, and should therefore be reconsidered.
Second, the disengagement of EU military and law enforcement assets from the Central Mediterranean occurred on the basis of disputable factual premises. If NGOs – which operate closer to Libyan coasts and lack the power to deter and apprehend human smugglers – do not seem to incentivize departures, warships deployed at a much larger distance from African shores are even less likely to act as a pull factor. As governmental assets operating farther from Libyan coasts are unlikely to significantly incentivize irregular migration and can both save lives at sea and prevent undetected arrivals, we argue that decision-makers should consider gradually restoring missions combining SAR and border enforcement like Mare Nostrum.
Finally, containment measures taking place in countries of transit and departure, such as Italy’s involvement of Libyan tribes in the management of migratory flows, affect migratory flows to a much larger degree than rescue and border control activities taking place at sea. However, these externalization policies are deeply problematic due to the horrific conditions suffered by migrants in Libya. Effective, lawful, and ethically defensible migration governance across the Central Mediterranean should there- fore combine attempts to disrupt human smuggling on land with activities aimed both at tackling the push factors of migration and improving migrants’ living conditions and access to protection on Libyan territory.
Read the full report from the European University Institute.
Perceptions of musical octaves
are learned, not wired in the brain
Elena Renken, Quanta Magazine, 30 October 2019
Musical systems around the world and across historical eras have been diverse, but octaves are commonly a feature of them. The acoustic structure of octaves is always the same: The frequency of a note in one octave is half the frequency of the same note in the octave above. For example, middle C, or C4, is 261.63 hertz, while C5, one octave up, is 523.25 hertz. These physical qualities of sound in the ear have routinely led to assumptions that octave equivalence — the perception of pitches in different octaves as variations on the same note — is universal, according to Elizabeth Margulis, a professor of music at Princeton University.
McDermott and an international team of colleagues have now tested that assumption with their experiments, in which they asked Tsimané volunteers to listen and sing. A machine played two notes, one after the other, and the subject would sing them back into a microphone. The researchers played pairs of notes different distances apart on the scale and in different pitch ranges.
Computer analyses that compared the Tsimané participants with those in the United States found that both groups generally preserved the pitch intervals between the notes played to them — for example, maintaining the difference between a middle C and middle A. Both groups could also discriminate well between pitches only up to about 4,000 hertz, near the highest key on a piano, C8. For pairs of notes higher than that, everyone seemed to have trouble characterizing the differences.
A curious difference emerged, however, in how they sang the notes back. When the notes played were very high or low, U.S. participants accurately shifted the notes into an octave within their vocal range. The Tsimané didn’t. To them, it seemingly wasn’t clear what notes in their range best corresponded to the ones they heard. Their responses didn’t seem to reflect a perception of octave structure at all.
The researchers went so far as to coach the Tsimané to switch octaves. They gave feedback, like ‘excellent!’ (Anic jäm’ in Tsimané) or ‘OK’ (Dam’ jäm’), depending on how close their responses were to the notes of the prompt. The villagers did not get closer, however. It appeared that the same notes in different octaves, like high C and middle C, didn’t sound alike to the Tsimané as they did to people in the U.S.
Read the full article in Quanta Magazine.
Has humanity’s homeland been found?
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 28 October 2019
Earlier this year, while flying over northern Botswana, Vanessa Hayes looked out over the Makgadikgadi Pans – giant salt flats that stretch for more than 6,000 square miles. They are the remnants of what was once Africa’s largest lake. Hayes could see traces of the lake’s shoreline from the air. She glimpsed massive fault lines running across its former bed—signs of the tectonic activity that eventually broke it apart into a patchwork of lush wetlands. For Hayes, who is a geneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the view carried a special significance. She thinks that this region was once humanity’s homeland—the place where the ancestors of modern humans got their start.
Hayes and her team analyzed the DNA of 1,217 people from southern Africa who represent a particularly important and poorly studied slice of human genetic diversity. By using that DNA to create a family tree, the team calculated that anatomically modern humans originated in the Makgadikgadi wetlands about 200,000 years ago. They then stayed put for about 70,000 years, before climatic changes allowed some of them to venture outward to other parts of Africa, and eventually to other continents.
But her claims are proving controversial, and other researchers I contacted were either skeptical or outright mad. The study, they noted, is based on just a sliver of DNA from living people, and doesn’t account for the rest of the genome, DNA from ancient human specimens, fossils, or stone tools and other cultural artifacts – all of which suggest that humans arose much earlier, and in a variety of locations. ‘It ignores a swath of evidence supporting an older origin for our species’, said Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist who studies human origins at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
‘The conclusions are far-fetched and very much overstated’, added Carina Schlebusch, a geneticist at Uppsala University who specializes in southern Africa. ‘It tells us very little about human origins as a whole. It only tells us about the origin of a very small part of the human genome, and nothing more.’
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
The global expansion of AI surveillance
Steven Feldstein, Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, September 2019
- AI surveillance technology is spreading at a faster rate to a wider range of countries than experts have commonly understood. At least seventy-five out of 176 countries globally are actively using AI technologies for surveillance purposes. This includes: smart city/safe city platforms (fifty-six countries), facial recognition systems (sixty-four countries), and smart policing (fifty-two countries).
- China is a major driver of AI surveillance worldwide. Technology linked to Chinese companies—particularly Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE—supply AI surveillance technology in sixty-three countries, thirty-six of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries worldwide. No other company comes close. The next largest non-Chinese supplier of AI surveillance tech is Japan’s NEC Corporation (fourteen countries).
- Chinese product pitches are often accompanied by soft loans to encourage governments to purchase their equipment. These tactics are particularly relevant in countries like Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan—which otherwise might not access this technology. This raises troubling questions about the extent to which the Chinese government is subsidizing the purchase of advanced repressive technology.
- But China is not the only country supplying advanced surveillance tech worldwide. U.S. companies are also active in this space. AI surveillance technology supplied by U.S. firms is present in thirty-two countries. The most significant U.S. companies are IBM (eleven countries), Palantir (nine countries), and Cisco (six countries). Other companies based in liberal democracies—France, Germany, Israel, Japan—are also playing important roles in proliferating this technology. Democracies are not taking adequate steps to monitor and control the spread of sophisticated technologies linked to a range of violations.
- Liberal democracies are major users of AI surveillance. The index shows that 51 percent of advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems. In contrast, 37 percent of closed autocratic states, 41 percent of electoral autocratic/competitive autocratic states, and 41 percent of electoral democracies/illiberal democracies deploy AI surveillance technology.1 Governments in full democracies are deploying a range of surveillance technology, from safe city platforms to facial recognition cameras. This does not inevitably mean that democracies are abusing these systems. The most important factor determining whether governments will deploy this technology for repressive purposes is the quality of their governance.
Read the full report at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The city where food breaks down divisions
Niren Tolsi, New Frame, 22 November 2019
Food, and its fusion into new communities, has always reinforced the dynamic nature of society and the idea that civilisation’s greatest achievements have emerged from movement. The evolution of what we eat owes as much to endeavour and exploration as it does to celebration and circumstance … or violence and bloodshed.
It was the trauma of Partition – which, at independence from British colonial rule, separated India and Pakistan in 1947 – that apparently brought the tandoor oven to Delhi, and led to the invention of murgh makhani or butter chicken. Or so the legend goes.
According to said legend, a young chef, Kundan Lal Gujral, who was working the tandoor ovens in a sweet shop in Peshawar (in what is today Pakistan), eventually bought the place from his ailing boss, renaming it Moti Mahal.
A Hindu, Gujral closed his Peshawar restaurant and relocated to Delhi at Partition. It was a journey that millions of others did, in one direction or the other, depending on one’s religion, sense of nationalism or fearfulness around personal and familial safety as communal rioting and murders escalated on the cusp of independence.
In Delhi, Gujral reopened Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, an area close to Old Delhi’s walled city which was founded in the 1600s by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when he relocated his court from Agra.
The newly installed Moti Mahal was where, one evening, scanning the drying out pieces of unsold chicken tikka hanging on seekhs above the tandoor, Gujral is reputed to have struck upon the idea of enlivening them with a sauce, rather than having to throw them away – or sell them tough the next day.
Gujral is said to have added butter, cream, tomatoes and additional spices to the tikka marinade to create a sauce that returned moisture to the unsold chicken when added, and a new curry was thus born.
Moti Mahal is proud of its history, and popularity among celebrities and politicians, especially in the 1950s when it attracted people including the Shah of Iran; India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; American president John F Kennedy and latterly, Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister of India. More recently, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay filmed a cooking show in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Read the full article in New Frame.
Are my beliefs about free will freely chosen?
Emrys Westacott, 3 Quarks Daily, 18 November 2019
There is also a persistently troubling problem with determinism that, at least to my mind, has never been adequately dealt with: the problem of how and why determinists, according to their own account, come to hold the beliefs they do. Or, what amounts essentially to the same issue, what they think they are doing when seek to persuade other people by means of rational arguments to adopt their views.
Here is what Harari has to say about rational deliberation. Faced with any decision, such as whom to vote for in an election,
there are many possible trains of argument that I could follow, some of which will cause me to vote Conservative, others to vote Labour, and still others to vote UKIP or just stay at home. What makes me board one train of reasoning rather than another? In the Paddington of my brain, I might be compelled to embark on a particular train of reasoning by deterministic processes, or I might hop on at random. But I don’t ‘freely’ choose to think those thoughts that will make me vote Conservative.
Presumably, this description applies to any ‘train of reasoning,’ including the one that leads people to believe or not believe in free will. But either rational deliberation is a process that, so to speak, leaves causal determination behind; or it can be identified with causal determination. In the former case, the process is the kind that allows free choice; in the latter case it doesn’t. But identifying reasoning with causal determination, or reducing the former to the latter, as Harari seems to do (except if the connections are random), is decidedly odd. We talk about reasoning and causation in completely different ways. They are distinct spheres of discourse. An argument can be assessed as valid or invalid, sound or unsound. Evidence can be judge relevant or irrelevant, weak or strong. These concepts apply to the relation between premises and conclusion; but they don’t apply to the relation between cause and effect. It makes no sense to say that one neural event fails to logically entail or provide sufficient justification for a second neural event that it happens to trigger. That would be like saying that the moon rhymes with a spoon. Moons and spoons, being physical objects, not words, can’t rhyme with one another. Only ‘moon’ and ‘spoon’ can do that.
Read the full article on 3 Quarks Daily.
The images are, from top down: Raphale’s The School of Athens; cover of Mac’s album ‘Shell Shocked’; CRISPR graphic (artist unknown); The circulatory system as described by Ibn al-Nafis; sheet music (photographer unknown).