The latest monthly (and somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
What are we allowed to say?
David Bromwich, London Review of Books, 22 September 2016
Two contradictory thoughts now dominate the Anglo-American approach to feelings in the context of public debate. For the speaker, feelings must be restrained – a neutral style of rational euphemism is recommended. On the other hand, the emotion felt by the listener in response to a speech must be treated as authoritative, unarguable, closed to correction or modification by other witnesses. ‘The group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place’; so, too, the person who listens and testifies on behalf of his or her group. Reproach from a traumatised listener admits of no answer, only apology, even though apologies are only interesting in proportion as they are spontaneous and warranted. The apology that is demanded and forked out has the moral stature of hush money: it makes a fetish of insincerity. With some help from the jargon of political and religious heresy, one would say these are not so much apologies as formal acts of self-criticism and recantation. Thus far, they have mostly been extorted in communities the size of a guild or a college. At the same time the rigour of exclusion within these mini-communities is itself a cause of the near autistic breakdown of political speech in America.
The History Thieves by Iain Cobain:
How Britain covered up its imperial crimes
Ian Jack, Guardian, 6 October 2016
When Britain quit India in 1947, a colonial official noted that ‘the press greatly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi with the mass destruction of documents’. By the time of Malayan independence in 1957, the authorities were learning discretion. British soldiers drove cratefuls of papers in a civilian truck from the colony’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, to what an administrator referred to as ‘the Navy’s splendid incinerator’ in Singapore. This 220‑mile journey to a secret burning exemplified the ‘considerable pains’ taken by the colony ‘to avoid exacerbating relationships between the British government and those Malayans who might not have been so understanding’. Four years later, in 1961, the colonial secretary Iain Macleod laid down some groundrules for British territories preparing for independence. No documents should be handed over to the successor regime that might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government or its police, military and public servants; or that might compromise its sources of intelligence or be used ‘unethically’ by the country’s new government.
Bonfires alone were too blunt a method of concealment. A newly liberated country might wonder why it inherited so few archives, while Britain might need to retain, for sentimental or other reasons, documents that in the wrong hands could damage its interests. The Colonial Office devised a system known as ‘Operation Legacy’ that worked on the principle of parallel registries. Reliable civil servants, which in the government’s eyes meant only those who were ‘British subjects of European descent’, were given charge of identifying and collecting all ‘sensitive’ documents and passing them up the bureaucratic chain. This meant that when the moment of independence came, if not before, they could either be destroyed on site or removed (‘migrated’ became the official term) to the UK. As to the so-called ‘Legacy’ files that the colony’s new government would inherit, it was important that they gave an impression of completeness, either by creating false documents to replace those that had been weeded out or by making sure there was no reference to them in the files that remained.
The irrational idea that humans are mostly irrational
Paul Bloom, The Atlantic, 16 September 2016
One sees this a lot – a psychologist (or a philosopher, or a neuroscientist) presents a mental quirk or limitation of humans and then draws a pessimistic conclusion about human nature in general, forgetting for the moment that their argument presupposes that we are also savvy enough to appreciate when things go awry. The same point applies in other domains, where certain biases lead people to make errors, such as over-estimating the likelihood of rare but salient events, like shark attacks. These are cool findings but we shouldn’t forget that the same creatures who make these mistakes are also smart enough to identify and laugh at them.
Marine Le Pen’s youth brigade
Claire Sergent & Katy Lee, Foreign Policy, 7 October 2016
In the context of other recent populist movements, it may seem surprising that the FN, an anti-EU party that is calling for an abrupt halt to immigration, has earned the backing of so many young French people. It was young British voters, for instance, who turned out in droves in June to back an open, cosmopolitan vision of the European Union. In the United States, Donald Trump’s nationalist presidential campaign has struggled with so-called millennials.
But in France, young people are particularly afflicted by the economic and cultural insecurity that tends to motivate populism. A quarter of people under 24 are unemployed in France, and for the rest it is common to survive on precarious short-term job contracts, a far cry from the cast-iron security enjoyed by their parents and grandparents. ‘What has François Hollande done for young people? He has handed us a totally uncertain future’, said Dieulafait’s friend Antoine Kieffer, a 19-year-old entrepreneur.
How the government built a trap for black youth
Kelly Lyttle Hernández, Boston Review, 10 October 2016
That the federal government planned for the mass incarceration of young black men at the close of the twentieth century is the unnerving punch line of Hinton’s work. Was it a conspiracy? No. Hinton stops short of making any such claim. Rather, she documents how diverse federal authorities consistently advanced a set of laws, policies, programs, and practices that pressed toward the same ending: ‘remov[ing] an entire generation of young men of color from their communities.’ Her work leaves little room to doubt that the federal government played a leading role in making mass incarceration a national phenomenon and that the objective of mass incarceration was to criminalize and cage young black men.
A single migration from Africa populated the world, studies find
Carl Zimmer, New York Times, 21 September 2016
Examining their data separately, all three groups came to the same conclusion: People everywhere descend from a single migration of early humans from Africa. The estimates from the studies point to an exodus somewhere between 80,000 and 50,000 years.
Despite earlier research, the teams led by Dr. Willerslev and Dr. Reich found no genetic evidence that there was an earlier migration giving rise to people in Australia and Papua New Guinea.’The vast majority of their ancestry – if not all of it – is coming from the same out-of-Africa wave as Europeans and Asians’, said Dr. Willerslev.
But on that question, Dr. Metspalu and his colleagues need up with a somewhat different result. In Papua New Guinea, Dr. Metspalu and his colleagues found, 98 percent of each person’s DNA can be traced to that single migration from Africa. But the other 2 percent seemed to be much older.Dr. Metspalu concluded that all people in Papua New Guinea carry a trace of DNA from an earlier wave of Africans who left the continent as long as 140,000 years ago, and then vanished.
The fantastic Ursula K Le Guin
Julie Phillips, New Yorker, 17 October 2016
Stubbornness and a self-confessed arrogance about her work helped Le Guin through her unpublished years. Then and now, she feels that she is the best judge of her writing; she is unmoved by literary trends, and not easily swayed by editorial suggestion. ‘Writing was always my inmost way of being in the world’, she says, but that made rejections increasingly painful: ‘I suffered a good deal from the contradiction between knowing writing was the job I was born for and finding nowhere to have that knowledge confirmed.’ Then, in 1961 and 1962, two of Le Guin’s stories were published. One, set in Orsinia, a meditation on the consolations of art, went to a small literary journal. The second, about a junior professor liberated from academia by an act of magic, was bought by the science-fiction magazine Fantastic.
‘I just didn’t know what to do with my stuff until I stumbled into science fiction and fantasy’, Le Guin says. ‘And then, of course, they knew what to do with it.’
Why Doctors Without Borders refused a million free vaccines
James Hamblin, The Atlantic, 14 October 2016
This week the medical-aid organization Doctors Without Borders refused a donation of one million vaccine doses from the pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer. It offered inoculations against a commonly fatal pneumonia -deliverable immediately, to people in need anywhere – and the doctors said no.
The decision is the result of a fundamental impasse in modern healthcare. The heart of the refusal – which could well imperil children who would have received those vaccines – is a principled stand against the extremely high cost of many vaccines.
The no-censorship approach to life
Lee C Bollinger, Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 September 2016
Just because we cannot and will not stop or censor expression does not mean we will or should do nothing; that we are powerless. The burden we impose on ourselves by forgoing censorship is the responsibility to engage the debate. We can express counterviews, give reasons why the contrary view was wrong, offensive, and dangerous. We can be upset and angry, organize an opposition, ignore or shun a speaker, or deploy humor to deflect injury. We can also listen, reflect, reconsider, and forgive. To say that we can’t ban speech is, in a sense, easy. To say what follows next is very, very hard.
The problem with p-values
David Colquhoun, Aeon, 11 October 2016
The problem is that the p-value gives the right answer to the wrong question. What we really want to know is not the probability of the observations given a hypothesis about the existence of a real effect, but rather the probability that there is a real effect – that the hypothesis is true – given the observations. And that is a problem of induction.
Confusion between these two quite different probabilities lies at the heart of why p-values are so often misinterpreted. It’s called the error of the transposed conditional. Even quite respectable sources will tell you that the p-value is the probability that your observations occurred by chance. And that is plain wrong.
Bob Hutton, Jacobin, 1 October 2016
Hillbilly Elegy invites us to return to the ‘culture of poverty’ theory popularized by Michael Harrington, Oscar Lewis, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1950s and 1960s. Moynihan, especially, was accused of crafting his proposals around innately racist preconceptions about black families involving single mothers, child abandonment, drug use, and other forms of wantonness that Vance also details in his personal narrative.
By virtue of their whiteness, the images of hydrocodone-addicted ‘rednecks’ become, in the words of Harkins, set apart from politics. Like all other Americans, Vance’s subjects are categorized by their productivity as workers. The author is worried that they aren’t as productive workers as they could be.
Vance’s is an argument that conservatives like Kevin Williamson can get behind because capitalism requires its mudsill. Liberals might also be interested too, since they don’t consider ‘hillbillies’ their political allies and, in cities like Knoxville, Tennessee, they do not properly clean up their yards when academics move to their neighborhood (or so I have been told by more than one liberal colleague).
Displaced people: where is the real crisis?
the numbers behind the noise
Farsight Report, September 2016
When we hear that around 65 million people have been displaced due to armed conflict, persecution, human rights violations or other generalized violence, we need to understand this number contains all categories of displaced people and makes no reference to the world’s ability to cater to refugees.
While this emphasizes the existence of real needs, which may be useful as a method for building support for international protection, when the media communicates these figures without nuance, the numbers can become unclear and confusing. The lack of clarity can alarm publics in donor countries and paint a picture of unmanageable need, which could undermine support for humanitarian protection.
In reality, the majority of displaced people do not travel internationally. Rather, they are internally displaced persons still living in their country of origin. They do not need to be hosted by another country and do not represent an immigration ‘threat’ as many publics and populist politicians fear.
The strange second life of string theory
KC Cole, Quanta Magazine, 15 September 2016
Like many a maturing beauty, string theory has gotten rich in relationships, complicated, hard to handle and widely influential. Its tentacles have reached so deeply into so many areas in theoretical physics, it’s become almost unrecognizable, even to string theorists. ‘Things have gotten almost postmodern’, said Dijkgraaf, who is a painter as well as mathematical physicist.
The mathematics that have come out of string theory have been put to use in fields such as cosmology and condensed matter physics – the study of materials and their properties. It’s so ubiquitous that ‘even if you shut down all the string theory groups, people in condensed matter, people in cosmology, people in quantum gravity will do it’, Dijkgraaf said.
‘It’s hard to say really where you should draw the boundary around and say: This is string theory; this is not string theory’, said Douglas Stanford, a physicist at the IAS. ‘Nobody knows whether to say they’re a string theorist anymore’, said Chris Beem, a mathematical physicist at the University of Oxford. ‘It’s become very confusing.’
‘I didn’t want to be the guy of Arab origin
who makes comics about Arab people’
Angelique Chrisafis, Guardian, 30 September 2016
‘I think it’s lucky to be from two different origins. Seeing things from two points of view is always enriching’, he says, while warning: ‘I don’t want to be representative of something. This was just my experience when I was young … I’m recounting what I have seen in the most honest way I can. I know it’s a subjective way. But I won’t be involved in the politics or geopolitics. I don’t have the knowledge for that. I’ve seen things in my youth and I’m just telling them and I let the reader make their own interpretation.’
Book Review: The Colonel Who Would Not Repent
by Salil Tripathi
Paul Gilbert, LSE Review of Books, 28 September 2016
Tripathi’s book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, also revisits a number of iconic figures and moments from 1971 whose biographies long ago became public property. Indeed, a number of the figures whose stories Tripathi tells also make an appearance in Sarmila Bose’s rightly controversial book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2011). There is not much else to unite Bose and Tripathi, however. For Bose, the Bengali ‘uprising’ was ‘the violent xenophobic expression of a narrow ethno-linguistic “Bengali” nationalism’ (Bose, 26). But for Tripathi, the actions of Dhirendranath Datta – the Hindu politician who chose to remain in East Pakistan after partition before campaigning for the recognition of Bengali as an official language (and who figures in both books) – can only be understood in light of ‘the elemental hold of Bengali nationalism, where the love of the language and the culture it represents is larger than spiritual values shared with people of the same faith’… Throughout The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, interviews and archival work are interwoven with references to Bengali poetry, the Baul tradition of Lalon Fakir, the novels of Tahmima Anam and Shaheen Akhtar, the films of Satyajit Ray and the poetry of Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore and Tarfia Faizullah.
A radical revision of human genetics
Erika Check Hayden, Nature, 12 October 2016
ExAC is a simple idea. It combines sequences for the protein-coding region of the genome – the exome – from more than 60,000 people into one database, allowing scientists to compare them and understand how variable they are. But the resource is having tremendous impacts in biomedical research. As well as helping scientists to toss out spurious disease–gene links, it is generating new discoveries. By looking more closely at the frequency of mutations in different populations, researchers can gain insight into what many genes do and how their protein products function.
ExAC has turned human genetics upside down, says geneticist David Goldstein of Columbia University in New York City. Instead of starting with a disease or trait and working backwards to find its genetic underpinnings, researchers can start with mutations that look like they should have an interesting effect and investigate what might be happening in the people who harbour them. ‘This really is a new way of working’, he says.
Give natural history museums back to the grown ups
Brian Switek, Aeon, 7 October 2016
We are facing the gradual extinction of what makes us uniquely human, our yearning for discovery. The strength of museums isn’t in loud displays that deliver pat answers, or in flashy diversions to keep the little ones busy. Their most potent elements are the authentic wonders silently on display, items that cannot be seen anywhere else. I’ll always treasure my memory of visiting the old dinosaur halls in the American Museum of Natural History when I was five, standing beneath the bones of the ‘Brontosaurus’ with my imagination running full tilt about what this animal looked like, moved like, and sounded like. It’s what set me on the path of writing about prehistoric life as a career. In years to come, I’m sure we’ll hear the next generation convey similar stories, focusing on the one exhibit or display that warmed their hearts to natural history – if we give them the chance. I hope they’ll have the same room for contemplation that I had as a child, but I fear that they will share my other experience: ambling the dim halls to ponder life from the darkest ocean depths to prehistoric lost worlds, only to run headlong into barely supervised day camps and school groups howling at interactive screens and meaningless sand pits.
American apartheid: A Georgia county drove out
all its black citizens in 1912
Carol Anderson, New York Times, 28 September 2016
After Edwards was dragged, beaten and shot on the town square, his bullet-riddled body was strung up and left as a warning. Unsated, the lynch mob then went after the other defendants, but they had already been secreted away to Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail, known as the Tower. Denied their pound of flesh, bands of night riders turned their attention to the remaining black community and finished the job with dynamite, gunfire, arson and sheer terror. Within a matter of weeks, Forsyth County was racially cleansed.
Months later, when the state militia escorted the defendants back to the county seat of Cumming, Ga., to stand trial, the only black faces in the county were theirs. The subsequent court proceedings, designed to exude an aura of decorum amid the lawlessness of vigilante justice, snuffed out the last black lives in Forsyth County for nearly 80 years.
The Battle of Algiers At 50:
From 1960s radicalism to the classrooms of West Point
Madeleine Dobie, LA Review of Books, 25 September 2016
If The Battle of Algiers at 50 seems as relevant to viewers in the defense community as it did in the 1960s, can the same be said for the film’s left-wing audience? The film critic Pauline Kael famously wrote that The Battle of Algiers is ‘probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people.’ But if the film undoubtedly inspired both real and armchair revolutionaries in the 1960s and ’70s, tolerance of revolutionary violence has waned, not least in response to the proliferation of jihadist movements. A half century after the film’s making, the film inspires more left-wing nostalgia than genuine revolutionary fervor.