Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #14

web-14

The latest collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.


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Trump’s America and the Pakistani dream
The Herald, 16 February 2017

In an ironic twist, rather than us becoming like Americans (as is the dream of almost every upper middle class and upper class Pakistani), it is the Americans who are becoming and looking a lot like us: prejudiced, xenophobic, vulnerable.

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And as the American dream turns sour, it appears more and more like our national and official ideology. An ideology that declares Pakistan to be a fortress of religion, created to keep the religion pure and preserved; to keep enemies away; to ensure that its denizens are not corrupted by foreign influence. When Trump orders a wall to keep the Mexicans away, he is also building a fortress America: to keep the country pure and preserved from the depredations of the marauders from the South. When he signs executive orders to ban visas for the residents of certain countries, another invisible part of his fortress is cemented. When he calls Australia’s prime minister, reprimanding him for sending ‘bombers’ to America, another portion rises on the horizon.

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From their own horrid experience, Pakistanis know what life in a fortress is like: stultifying, inert and, most importantly, lacking in harmony, peace and camaraderie. That is why every one of us wants to leave the fortress at the first opportunity. And that is why we have such a thing as an exit control list — so that we can keep our own people in, so that they cannot run away. Now that Trump’s ‘project fortress’ is well under way and now that the Americans have embarked on the same route to the that we have been treading on for a long time, they might as well have their own exit control list soon.

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The man who invented Trumpism
Naomi O’Leary, Politico, 23 February 2017

His idiosyncratic leadership style is a weakness in the fragmented Dutch political landscape, which requires multiple parties to band together and hash out complex programs to form a government. A series of political rivals have ruled out working with him. But in other ways, Wilders has already won. ‘Mainstream parties have shifted to the right’, said Matthijs Rooduijn, a political sociologist at Utrecht University. ‘He has changed Dutch politics.’

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Rutte, the prime minister, has imitated Wilders’ rhetoric on immigration and multiculturalism throughout the campaign. And a constellation of small parties offer voters a sanitized version of Wilders’ Euroskeptic, low-tax, tough-borders program.

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PPE: The Oxford degree that runs Britain
Andy Beckett, Guardian, 23 February 2017

More than any other course at any other university, more than any revered or resented private school, and in a manner probably unmatched in any other democracy, Oxford PPE pervades British political life. From the right to the left, from the centre ground to the fringes, from analysts to protagonists, consensus-seekers to revolutionary activists, environmentalists to ultra-capitalists, statists to libertarians, elitists to populists, bureaucrats to spin doctors, bullies to charmers, successive networks of PPEists have been at work at all levels of British politics – sometimes prominently, sometimes more quietly – since the degree was established 97 years ago.

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‘It is overwhelmingly from Oxford that the governing elite has reproduced itself, generation after generation’, writes the pre-eminent British political biographer, John Campbell, in his 2014 study of the postwar Labour reformer and SDP co‑founder Roy Jenkins, who studied PPE at the university in the 1930s. The three-year undergraduate course was then less than two decades old, but it was ‘already the course of choice for aspiring politicians’: the future Labour leaders Michael Foot and Hugh Gaitskell, the future prime ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

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But Oxford PPE is more than a factory for politicians and the people who judge them for a living. It also gives many of these public figures a shared outlook: confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible, and above all sure that small groups of supposedly well-educated, rational people, such as themselves, can and should improve Britain and the wider world. The course has also been taken by many foreign leaders-in-the-making, among them Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Australian prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. An Oxford PPE degree has become a global status symbol of academic achievement and worldly potential.

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The Internet made fake news a thing – then made it nothing
Henri Gendreau, Wired, 25 February 2017

Factual falsehoods and straight-up lies started when the first first caveman claimed that, yes, that handprint on the wall is mine, and it is huge. Fast-forward a few millennia, and you’ll find hoaxes circulating online since Usenet was how people mainly communicated online. But ‘fake news’ as an epithet, if not an accurate description of a story about, say, a child sex ring at a pizza joint, is something new—a seemingly straightforward concept that has shattered into a kaleidoscope of easily manipulated meanings.

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But how did the discourse around this so quickly spiral from ‘Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump’ (he didn’t) to Donald Trump shouting ‘fake news’ at a CNN reporter during a press conference before his inauguration and incessantly tweeting about it after his inauguration? The origin story of ‘fake news’ reflects the dizzying speed at which semantic shifts occur in the social media era. But it reveals far more: What happens to factuality itself as algorithms replace humans, Facebook supplants traditional media, and the president declares war on the press. That perfect storm has made ‘fake news’ as unstuck from fact – and as unstoppable – as any viral hoax. Watching the meaning of ‘fake news” evolve shows just how easily even facts about facts can slip away.

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Who is a sportswoman?
Silvia Comporesi, Aeon, 27 February

The cases of Pistorius and Semenya intrigued me because, beyond their apparent difference, they shared a core similarity. They both involved human beings who wanted to have a chance to fulfil their potential as athletes and to compete with the bodies they were born with. In one case, it was a body without lower limbs that required the use of technological prostheses to walk and run; in the other case, it was a body that produced too much testosterone. The regulators were using similar arguments about ‘unfair advantage’ to ban both athletes from competing. However, while Pistorius was eventually allowed to compete with the prostheses, Semenya was asked to compete only if she could change her body and bring down her testosterone to a level equal to that of the ‘standard’ statistical norm…

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The International Olympic Committee Medical Commission recently commissioned a volume titled Genetic and Molecular Aspects of Sport Performance, celebrating athletes with naturally occurring genetic or biological variations as a source of ‘inborn excellence’. In fact, talent development programmes for children actively seek genetic variations that confer an advantage in competition. Adidas has launched a gene testing scouting programme to find new soccer players. China has summer camps where children are tested for genetic characteristics that will lead them to become the next generation of Chinese Olympians.

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Why seek out – or at least wilfully ignore – biological variations that confer advantage across a wide range of skills while penalising women for more testosterone? Why single out hyperandrogenism as the only variation that confers an unfair advantage in sport?

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Welcome to the ‘Great Divergence’
Richard Florida, City Lab, 14 February 2017

One of the biggest takeaways from the election of Donald Trump was what it revealed about the polarization of America by class and geography. Knowledge workers and manufacturing workers occupy not just different classes, but different spaces and worlds. The growing divide between the higher-skilled, higher-income, more educated workers who occupy Blue America and the lower-skilled, lower-income, less educated workers of Red America is something economists increasingly refer to as the Great Divergence.

The growing divide between the higher-skilled, higher-income, more educated workers who occupy Blue America and the lower-skilled, lower-income, less educated workers of Red America is something economists increasingly refer to as the Great Divergence.
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The Great Divergence has happened in just the past few decades. For much of the 20th century, we saw the opposite pattern: The incomes of workers actually converged, both across skill groups and across regions of the country. You can think of this as a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of economy. But that once-stable pattern has fallen by the wayside. High-paying blue-collar jobs have faded, and the labor market has bifurcated into high-paid knowledge workers and low-paid service workers. Geographic clustering amplified this as knowledge workers packed themselves into a select group of large cities and tech hubs. America and Americans have split apart by class and geography.

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The right to abortion: War of attrition
Dahlia Lithwick, Prospect, 13 February 2017

Trump has also pledged to make abortion access more difficult at the federal level. His immediate promises, in a letter sent to anti-abortion leaders last autumn, include support for a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks, and cutting off all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest not-for-profit provider of reproductive services, if it continues to offer abortion services. He has also pledged to make permanent the decades-old Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal Medicaid funding for abortion. And in January, a federal ‘heartbeat ban’ was introduced in Congress, which could even give him the option of signing into law a ban on terminations after six weeks. That would soon result in the Supreme Court ruling on the legality of what would effectively be an all-out federal abortion ban.

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Then there are the potentially catastrophic effects of Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act – or ‘Obamacare’ – under which health insurance providers are required to cover the cost of birth control. Religious employers have long been fighting against this part of the Act. But if Trump and Congress do repeal it, birth control will again become unaffordable to many Americans who will lose their health insurance. The extent to which the war on abortion has morphed into a war on affordable birth control cannot be understated. And as women lose access to affordable birth control, abortion rates may spike again.

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The most imminent threats to abortion are not from Washington, but under the radar at lower levels of government and the courts. While all eyes are focused on the Supreme Court, that body only hears about 70 cases each year; a small proportion of the hundreds of thousands of lawsuits that make their way through the federal judiciary each year. The last stop for most are the federal appeals courts around the country. Trump arrives at the White House with over 100 judicial vacancies on the lower federal bench. Many are the result of the same Senate obstruction met by Merrick Garland this past year. If Trump’s promises about the Supreme Court were any indication, he will soon attempt to fill those spots with stalwart conservative judges who will join him in his war on reproductive freedom.

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The strange photographs used to ‘prove’ conspiracy theories
Alastair Sooke, BBC Culture, 16 February 2017

Who do conspiracy theories appeal to? ‘People who feel that the world isn’t providing them with the reality they want’, Grafik says. ‘In a world that seems overwhelming and complex, it’s attractive to find a narrative that somehow ties things down – even if that narrative is, to other people, completely outlandish. There’s a natural human instinct to try to make sense of things, in whatever way you can.’ Moreover, within the murky world of conspiracy theories, photography plays a crucial role. Many conspiracy theorists construct arguments based on ‘evidence’ offered by photographs in the public domain, which they endlessly analyse and debate.

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‘This is because photographs are the most accepted form of eyewitness evidence’, explains Gordon MacDonald, curator of Divisive Moments. ‘The intervention of a machine [ie a camera] gives photography the illusion of unbiased observation. And, of course, photography is very easy to distribute and consume: it’s easy to skim over the information in a photograph, whereas reading text requires effort.’

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The seductive lie of ‘Patient Zero’ and the outbreak narrative
Leyla Mei, Aeon, 24 February 2017

The allure of Patient Zero rests on the ways in which the figure allows us to assign responsibility and blame when an outbreak occurs. It makes visible the vectors of disease transmission and draws attention to the dangers of human contact, creating distance between the afflicted and the rest of us. When Patient Zero is defined as someone with distinguishing traits of behaviour, sexuality or race, then those of us with differing characteristics can reassure ourselves that we are not at risk. A Patient Zero lacks both the capacity for self-control and the moral conviction to avoid placing others in danger. The more he or she strays from established norms, the greater the opportunity for reprobation. As the scholar Priscilla Wald writes in Contagious (2008), this stigmatisation ‘is a form of isolating and containing a problem’ as well as ‘a means of restoring agency – which, as in the [rumours] of willful infectors, melts into intentionality’. Dugas reportedly had 250 sexual partners per year – and his ‘deviant’ sexual practices and awareness of his HIV-positive status augmented both his liability and immorality.

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The resonance of the figure of Patient Zero, whether in a bygone outbreak or an emerging epidemic, underscores our collective desire to fit new information into old frameworks. Outbreak narratives are comforting in their familiarity; they tap into our need to bring order to that which appears disordered. The outbreak narrative classifies the practices of an individual or group as unnatural, aberrant, and likely to foster disease. Recall, for example, the rhetoric in 2004 around H5N1, a deadly strain of avian influenza that arose in parts of Asia where people had close contact with diseased birds, both live and dead. Or consider the 2014 Ebola outbreak, with its origins in a West African village where deforestation brought infected wild animals into close proximity to humans. These outbreaks, as well as the ones depicted in the films Outbreak (1995) and Contagion, locate disease origins in ‘primitive’, ‘pre-modern’ parts of the world – usually African or Asian, always non-Western. The collision of traditional ways of life with the trappings of modernity, particularly the international movement of capital and the air travel that undergirds it, threatens global health by highlighting the uneasy juxtaposition of old and new.

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‘Segregation had to be invented’
Alana Semuels, Atlantic, 17 February 2017

In 1894, black Republicans and white Populists joined together to create a “fusion” ticket of candidates to oppose Democrats. They shocked the political establishment and won two-thirds of the legislature…

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The Fusion Party proved to be more powerful than anyone had anticipated. In 1896, it gained even more seats and elected a Republican as governor of North Carolina after decades of Democratic rule. (Fusion tickets also gained power in other Southern states, but none to the extent of the ticket in North Carolina, according to James Leloudis, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.)

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Fusion was a ticket of the working class, and the alliance soon began implementing policies that helped its supporters. They capped interest rates, increased public-school funding, and allowed symbols to be put on ballots to enfranchise people who could not read or write. Their policies were designed, in the words of one supporter, to protect ‘the liberty of the laboring people, both white and black’, according to Leloudis.

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The white elite were threatened by these new policies, especially because Fusion had shifted the burden of taxation from individuals to corporations and railroads. Yet they had little connection with poor voters, and so had few ideas about how to address their economic concerns. Instead, they tried to convince poor whites that they should not associate with blacks in any way. Democrats began to talk of blacks as an ‘other’, warning of the dangers of miscegenation, portraying blacks as rapists who would come after white women.

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How brain scientists forgot that brains have owners
Ed Yong, Atlantic, 27 February 2017

John Krakaeur, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been asked to BRAIN Initiative meetings before, and describes it like “Maleficent being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday.” That’s because he and four like-minded friends have become increasingly disenchanted by their colleagues’ obsession with their toys. And in a new paper that’s part philosophical treatise and part shot across the bow, they argue that this technological fetish is leading the field astray. ‘People think technology + big data + machine learning = science’,says Krakauer. ‘And it’s not.’

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He and his fellow curmudgeons argue that brains are special because of the behavior they create – everything from a predator’s pounce to a baby’s cry. But the study of such behavior is being de-prioritized, or studied ‘almost as an afterthought’. Instead, neuroscientists have been focusing on using their new tools to study individual neurons, or networks of neurons. According to Krakauer, the unspoken assumption is that if we collect enough data about the parts, the workings of the whole will become clear. If we fully understand the molecules that dance across a synapse, or the electrical pulses that zoom along a neuron, or the web of connections formed by many neurons, we will eventually solve the mysteries of learning, memory, emotion, and more. ‘The fallacy is that more of the same kind of work in the infinitely postponed future will transform into knowing why that mother’s crying or why I’m feeling this way’, says Krakauer. And, as he and his colleagues argue, it will not.

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Democracy without the people
Thea Riofrancos, n+1, 6 February 2017

In a certain sense, democracy and populism are opposed: since the rise of ‘formal’ democracy, populism as a more robust form of it dogged it like a shadow. As political scientist Laura Grattan argues in her recent book, Populism’s Power, however, populism persistently reemerges because it dramatizes a general paradox of democratic politics. In a democracy, ‘the people’ ostensibly govern themselves. But who are the people? As Rousseau put it, for a ‘people’ to self-govern, ‘the effect would have to become the cause.” The people both constitute democratic institutions and are constituted by them. Democracy is in many ways an ongoing political contest to define the people and their powers. By making claims about the identity of the people and how they enact their political power, populist movements and leaders – whether reactionary right or radical left – confront this fundamental problem of democracy. Their visions of the “people” and their prescriptions for democratic practice, however, could not be more opposed…

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The net result of the defense of democracy against populism is, inevitably, a defense of political centrism. Democracy is reduced to the separation of powers and the search for bipartisan consensus. Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt, political scientists at the New America Foundation, writing for Vox (in a piece appropriately titled ‘Polyarchy’), argue that defending ‘basic democratic norms and maintaining a strong focus on corruption’ – contrasted with fighting to preserve social spending – ‘is the right strategy’. Despite the failure of this ‘strategy’ in the Clinton campaign, they assert that ‘the voters Democrats seem more likely to gain are the more affluent suburbanites who are less susceptible to the politics of resentment and more concerned about basic democratic norms’. This call to defend the status quo reverberated in more critical outlets as well. Michael Walzer, in his recent column in Dissent, summoned leftists to the defense of ‘the vital center’: ‘We have to stand in the center and on the left at the same time. That may be complicated, but it is our historical task.’ The imperative to rescue the status quo against populism has reached its apotheosis in the Clintonite think tank Third Way’s recently unveiled $20 million campaign to devise a new strategy for the Democratic Party. As reported in Politico, ‘Part of the economic message the group is driving – which is in line with its centrist ideology – is to steer the Democratic Party away from being led into a populist lurch to the left by leaders like Sen Bernie Sanders or Sen Elizabeth Warren.’

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We need to talk about sense and sensitivity
Lionel Shriver, Guardian, 19 February 2017

It’s not clear that authors are equally free to ignore the censoriousness of ‘sensitivity readers’, to whom some American editors are currently sending unpublished work for review. These readers check for any misrepresentations, stereotypes, inauthentic dialogue or anything else that might conceivably offend ‘marginalised groups’, which include a host of racial, gender, and disability variants. Some books are checked for a potential to cause affront before they are even acquired. Though this practice is now largely confined to children’s and young adult fiction, lately mainstream media have consistently drifted toward pandering to the thin-skinned. Grownup fiction may not stay safe from the sensitivity police for long.

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I’m guessing I shouldn’t apply for a job on the force. A recent Hadley Freeman column characterised me as not ‘known for’ my sensitivity. Though uncertain what ghastly brutality has been ascribed to me, I’ve decided to take the thumbnail as a compliment. In this era, it translates: not ‘known for’ equivocation, bet-hedging, and on-the-one-hand mealy‑mouthery. Writers who take on polarising issues are apt to step on a few toes.

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Never fear, we’re not rehashing ‘cultural appropriation’, about which a speech I gave in Brisbane kicked off a debate that grew no little tiresome last year. Yet the advent of the sensitivity reader has a similar gagging effect.

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At the keyboard, unrelenting anguish about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and constipates creativity. The ghost of a stern reader gooning over one’s shoulder on the lookout for slights fosters authorial cowardice. Some writers terrified of giving offence will opt to concoct sanitised characters from ‘marginalised groups’ who are universally above reproach. Others will retreat altogether from including characters with backgrounds different from their own, just to avoid the humiliation of having their hands slapped if they get anything ‘wrong’.

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Tearing the historic fabric:
The destruction of Yemen’s cultural heritage

Frederick Deknatel, LA Review of Books, 21 February 2017

The great dam of Marib was one of the first archaeological sites in Yemen that Saudi Arabia destroyed. In May 2015, barely two months after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began, the dam — considered the oldest in the world and an engineering wonder of antiquity built in the eighth century BCE by the ancient Sabaeans — was badly damaged in nighttime airstrikes. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in the entire Arabian Peninsula.

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While the Islamic State’s cultural vandalism in Syria and Iraq has made headlines, damage to the rich cultural patrimony in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, receives far less attention. Saudi jets have bombed the Old City of Sanaa several times, most recently last fall, destroying several mud-brick tower houses, which date back a thousand years. The city has been inhabited for even longer, going back some 2,500 years; UNESCO designated it a World Heritage site in 1986.

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What news-writing bots mean for the future of journalism
Joe Keohane, Wired, 16 February 2017

When Jeff Bezos bought the Post back in 2013, AI-powered journalism was in its infancy. A handful of companies with automated content-generating systems, like Narrative Science and Automated Insights, were capable of producing the bare-bones, data-heavy news items familiar to sports fans and stock analysts. But strategists at the Post saw the potential for an AI system that could generate explanatory, insightful articles. What’s more, they wanted a system that could foster ‘a seamless interaction’ between human and machine, says Jeremy Gilbert, who joined the Post as director of strategic initiatives in 2014. ‘What we were interested in doing is looking at whether we can evolve stories over time’, he says.

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After a few months of development, Heliograf debuted last year. An early version auto­published stories on the Rio Olympics; a more advanced version, with a stronger editorial voice, was soon introduced to cover the election. It works like this: Editors create narrative templates for the stories, including key phrases that account for a variety of potential outcomes (from ‘Republicans retained control of the House’ to ‘Democrats regained control of the House’), and then they hook Heliograf up to any source of structured data—in the case of the election, the data clearinghouse VoteSmart.org. The Heliograf software identifies the relevant data, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions across different platforms. The system can also alert reporters via Slack of any anomalies it finds in the data – for instance, wider margins than predicted – so they can investigate. ‘It’s just one more way to get a tip’ on a potential scoop, Gilbert says.

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Why philosophy of quantum mechanics
is more important than that of poached eggs

Peter Lewis & Richard Marshall, 3AM Magazine, 11 February 2017

PL: I think the scientists who are unhappy with metaphysics generally have a rather narrow view of what metaphysics is – that it’s speculation, unconstrained by empirical findings, angels on the head of a pin stuff. I’m not saying that doesn’t go on. But there is such a thing as empirically informed metaphysics. If you want to find out about the nature of the physical world, then sure, look to physics. But don’t expect a physics textbook to provide all the answers. In particular, quantum mechanics is highly metaphysically opaque. So there’s philosophical work to be done in unpacking the metaphysics of physical theories.

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It’s ironic that in The Grand Design, after declaring philosophy dead, Stephen Hawking goes on to tell us what the world is like according to recent scientific theories – to engage in empirically-informed metaphysics. That’s fine – philosophers don’t have a monopoly over metaphysics. But neither do physicists have a monopoly over the interpretation of physical theories.

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3:AM: Why are the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics more important than the metaphysical implications of poached eggs? Is it because it’s a revisionist theory of physics, so its importance lies in the way it supplants classical mechanics?

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PL: That’s right. It’s easy to presuppose classical mechanics in our metaphysics – to picture fundamental physical reality in terms of arrangements of particles. Quantum mechanics suggests that that kind of picture might be radically mistaken – there might be no particles, or even a straightforward sense in which stuff is arranged in space. Poached eggs are nice, but rarely surprising.

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The transcendental face of art
Joshua Sperling, Guernica, 15 February 2017

In some sense Berger did go off to tend the world’s garden. By the mid-‘80s he had more or less excused himself from metropolitan and academic discourse. He all but abandoned the polemical mode. His ambitions now expressed themselves not so much through any single creative work but in a life project out of which, like scattered by-products, arose plays, stories, poems, essays, chapbooks and missives. The tone in almost all of these is caring. The central theme is not the individual-and-society, as in the many works of his middle period, but rather the endangered community and the loving couple. The scale switches rapidly from the tiniest observation to the transcendental and geopolitical.

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And yet until his death he possessed a political voice of global stature. ‘Someone inquires: are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit… been more extensive than it is today… Yes, I’m still among other things a Marxist.’ His articles were rarely meant to change policy, but rather to instill a sense of conviction, and sometimes even poetry and hope, in a world turned upside down by rampant greed and optimized exploitation. It is not that he stopped writing about politics but rather that he wrote about politics in a whispered prayer or a kind of song. He hit upon a vernacular idiom that can travel. His late dispatches were translated and reprinted all over the world.

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The birth of the cool
Jonathan Jones, Guardian, 21 February 2017

This is by far the biggest and best array of Vermeer’s precious paintings that I have seen in any exhibition, and it makes the show a must for anyone who has ever been entranced by his poetic moments of inner drama.

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But what about all the other artists in this exhibition – those ‘Masters of Genre Painting’? Are they left looking stupid next to the genius from Delft? For every Vermeer in this blockbuster there are several paintings by his 17th-century Dutch contemporaries such as Gerard ter Borch, Nicolaes Maes and Gerrit Dou. So it goes with Vermeer exhibitions. His output was small and his paintings are treasures; even when the selection of his paintings is as fine as it is here, it needs fleshing out, just to make up the numbers. All too often, this results in frustrating shows where you move on past minor paintings to get to the next pearl by Vermeer.

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So where Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting truly leaps into a league of its own is by making you look at, and appreciate, the ‘lesser’ lights of 17th-century Dutch art. They only look lesser when you set them next to Vermeer – and this brilliantly chosen exhibition casts even that into doubt.

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Migration to America took long enough
for evolution to happen on the way

Cathleen O’Grady, Ars Technica, 17 February 2017

The Bering land bridge plays a central role in our picture of how humans reached the Americas. When much more of the world’s water was locked up in ice, and the land between Asia and North America was exposed, people followed the bridge to migrate out of Asia, into Alaska, and from there into the rest of the Americas.

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This picture tends to portray the bridge as purely a route to the new continents. In fact, the word ‘bridge’ definitely conjures up the wrong image. It was a geographic region, often called Beringia, and people lived there for so long that it probably would have been ludicrous to them that we could think of their home as transient. Current estimates suggest that people lived there for between 5,000 and 8,000 years, starting about 23,000 years ago.

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That is a long enough time for natural selection to have had an effect on the genome of people who lived there, according to a paper in PNAS this week. The Beringians would have faced distinct diseases, food constraints, and climate conditions, and natural selection would have helped those with the right genetic adaptations to thrive in that environment. According to the new paper, we can see evidence of that natural selection in modern Native American populations.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea
Kanishk Tharoor, Paris Review, 10 February 2017

A turbaned king sits in what looks like a large jar as it is dropped into the sea. His attendants crowd about him in boats, straining at the tethers, peering down at the churning water, while an astrologer holds an astrolabe up to the sky. Some of these figures are styled as Europeans with their black hats, ruffed collars, and clean-shaven faces. Others resemble Muslim sages. A world of cities and cowherds recedes in the background. The king wears a stiff expression, at once stoic and wary as he sinks below the waters.

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This single image contains enormous geographic and cultural scope. Here is a miniature painting composed in the late sixteenth century by a Hindu artist in India for a Turkic Muslim ruler with strong ties to Central Asia. The impassive king going for a deep dive is Alexander the Great, a Macedonian warlord recast through the prism of Persian poetry. He is surrounded by many courtiers dressed in the clothes of Renaissance Europe, set against the writhing, rocky landscape of Chinese art. In our era of globalization, it’s easy to forget that the pluralism we cosmopolitans take for granted isn’t just a modern confection, but has been with us for a long time.

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