Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 2021

Reading John Gray in war

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Andy Owen, author of All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War: The Story of a British Deserter (2017) and a former soldier who writes on the ethics and philosophy of war, has an interesting essay in Aeon:

‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Blaise Pascal (1623-62)

Ifirst read the English philosopher John Gray while sitting in the silence of the still, mid-afternoon heat of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), Gray showed how the United States’ president George W Bush and the United Kingdom’s prime minister Tony Blair framed the ‘war on terror’ (which I was part of) as an apocalyptic struggle that would forge the new American century of liberal democracy, where personal freedom and free markets were the end goals of human progress. Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008, Gray highlighted an important caveat to the phrase ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs,’ which is sometimes used, callously, to justify extreme means to high-value ends. Gray’s caveat was: ‘You can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette.’ In my two previous tours of Iraq, I had seen first-hand – as sectarian hatred, insurgency, war fighting, targeted killings and the euphemistically named collateral damage tore apart buildings, bodies, communities and the shallow fabric of the state – just how many eggs had been broken and yet still how far away from the omelette we were.

There was no doubt that Iraq’s underexploited oil reserves were part of the US strategic decision-making, and that the initial mission in Afghanistan was in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US, but both invasions had ideological motivations too. I had started the process to join the British military before 9/11. The military I thought I was joining was the one that had successfully completed humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and Sierra Leone. I believed we could use force for good, and indeed had a duty to do so. After the failure to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ was developing, which included the idea that when a state was ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect its people, responsibility shifted to the international community and, as a last resort, military intervention would be permissible. It would be endorsed by all member states of the United Nations (UN) in 2005 but, under the framework, the authority to employ the last resort rested with the UN Security Council, who hadn’t endorsed the invasion of Iraq.

Despite the lack of a UN resolution, many of us who deployed to Iraq naively thought we were doing the right thing. When Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins delivered his eve-of-battle speech to the Royal Irish Battle Group in March 2003, he opened by stating: ‘We go to liberate, not to conquer.’ We had convinced ourselves that, as well as making the region safer by seizing the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we were there to save the people of Iraq from their own government and replace it with the single best way of organising all societies: liberal democracy. This feeling was so persuasive that it led to many troops feeling that the Iraqis were somehow ungrateful when they started to shoot at us for invading their country.

By my second tour of Iraq in 2005, it was clear that no WMD would be found and the society that was evolving was far from the one envisaged. Morale was at a low ebb as the gap between the mission and what we were achieving widened. We were stuck in a Catch-22. We would hand over to local security forces when the security situation improved enough for us to do so. However, the security situation couldn’t improve while we were still there. It would improve only if we left. The conditions that would allow us to leave were us already having left. Most troops were stuck inside the wire, their only purpose seemingly to be mortared or rocketed for being there. I was asked why we were there, especially when soldiers witnessed their friends being injured or killed, or saw the destruction of the city we’d come to liberate. They needed meaning, it couldn’t all be pointless. Meaning was found in protecting each other. My team of 30 or so men and women found purpose in trying to collect intelligence on those planting deadly improvised explosive devices along the main routes in and out of the city. Members of both the team before and the team after us were blown up trying to do so.

Much of the criticism levelled at the post-invasion failure focused on the mistake of disbanding the Iraqi state, the lack of post-conflict planning and the lack of resources. There was less focus on the utopian aims of the whole project. But it was only through Gray that I saw the similarities between the doctrines of Stalinism, Nazi fascism, Al-Qaeda’s paradoxical medieval, technophile fundamentalism, and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. Gray showed that they are all various forms (however incompatible) of utopian thinking that have at their heart the teleological notion of progress from unenlightened times to a future utopia, and a belief that violence is justified to achieve it (indeed, from the Jacobins onwards, violence has had a pedagogical function in this process). At first, I baulked at the suggested equivalence with the foot soldiers of the other ideologies. There were clearly profound differences! But through Gray’s examples, I went on to reflect on how much violence had been inflicted throughout history by those thinking that they were doing the right thing and doing it for the greater good.

A message repeated throughout Gray’s work is that, despite the irrefutable material gains, this notion is misguided: scientific knowledge and the technologies at our disposal increase over time, but there’s no reason to think that morality or culture will also progress, nor – if it does progress for a period – that this progress is irreversible. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the flawed nature of our equally creative and destructive species and the cyclical nature of history. Those I spoke to in Basra needed no convincing that the advance of rational enlightened thought was reversible, as the Shia militias roamed the streets enforcing their interpretation of medieval law, harassing women, attacking students and assassinating political opponents. By the time bodies of journalists who spoke out against the death squads started turning up at the side of the road, Basra’s secular society was consigned to history. Gray points to the re-introduction of torture by the world’s premier liberal democracy during the war on terror as an example of the reversibility of progress. The irreversibility idea emerged directly from a utopian style of thinking that’s based on the notion that the end justifies the means. Such thinking is often accompanied by one of the defining characteristics of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns: hubris.

The myth of progress was a key theme of Gray’s . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2021 at 8:46 pm

She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.

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Karen Hao reports in Technology Review:

The world first learned of Sophie Zhang in September 2020, when BuzzFeed News obtained and published highlights from an abridged version of her nearly 8,000-word exit memo from Facebook.

Before she was fired, Zhang was officially employed as a low-level data scientist at the company. But she had become consumed by a task she deemed more important: finding and taking down fake accounts and likes that were being used to sway elections globally.

Her memo revealed that she’d identified dozens of countries, including India, Mexico, Afghanistan, and South Korea, where this type of abuse was enabling politicians to mislead the public and gain power. It also revealed how little the company had done to mitigate the problem, despite Zhang’s repeated efforts to bring it to the attention of leadership.

“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” she wrote.

On the eve of her departure, Zhang was still debating whether to write the memo at all. It was perhaps her last chance to create enough internal pressure on leadership to start taking the problems seriously. In anticipation of writing it, she had turned down a nearly $64,000 severance package that would have involved signing a nondisparagement agreement. She wanted to retain the freedom to speak critically about the company.

But it was just two months before the 2020 US election, and she was disturbed by the idea that the memo could erode the public’s trust in the electoral process if prematurely released to the press. “I was terrified of somehow becoming the James Comey of 2020,” she says, referring to the former FBI director who, days before the 2016 election, told Congress the agency had reopened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Clinton went on to blame Comey for her loss.

To Zhang’s great relief, that didn’t happen. And after the election passed, she proceeded with her original plan. In April, she came forward in two Guardian articles with her face, her name, and even more detailed documentation of the political manipulation she’d uncovered and Facebook’s negligence in dealing with it.

Her account supplied concrete evidence to support what critics had long been saying on the outside: that Facebook makes election interference easy, and that unless such activity hurts the company’s business interests, it can’t be bothered to fix the problem.

In a statement, Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, vehemently denied these claims. “For the countless press interviews she’s done since leaving Facebook, we have fundamentally disagreed with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform,” he said. “We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior … Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority.”

By going public and eschewing anonymity, Zhang risked legal action from the company, harm to her future career prospects, and perhaps even reprisals from the politicians she exposed in the process. “What she did is very brave,” says Julia Carrie Wong, the Guardian reporter who published her revelations.

After nearly a year of avoiding personal questions, Zhang is now ready to tell her story. She wants the world to understand how she became so involved in trying to protect democracy worldwide and why she cared so deeply. She’s also tired of being in the closet as a transgender woman, a core aspect of her identity that informed her actions at Facebook and after she left.

Her story reveals that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2021 at 2:43 pm

What Ken Starr’s Alleged Affair Means for Republicans

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Bill Scher writes in the Washington Monthly:

I had been on the bike trip through Tuscany in 2009. Early one evening while our spouses were at dinner elsewhere, [Kenneth] Starr had stepped out from the shadows of the grounds of the inn where we were staying and called me over. After expressing his feelings for me, he pulled me into an embrace. This was the beginning of a fond, consensual affair…. Starr had taken my hand and placed it on his crotch….

Our affair ran its course after a year or so of occasional encounters and a steady exchange of affectionate texts and emails.

— Judi Hershman, former public relations adviser to Starr during the Clinton impeachment, on Medium, July 12.

After four years of unapologetic immorality from Donald Trump, the allegation by Judi Hershman that she had an affair with Ken Starr—he who moved heaven and earth 23 years ago to document in pornographic detail Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky—may seem quaint. If hypocrisy, as La Rochefoucauld said, is the tribute vice pays to virtue, it wasn’t a tribute Trump often paid. Our 45th president didn’t put a lot of energy into feigning piety.

But assuming Hershman’s allegation is true (Starr hasn’t yet come forth to deny it), this revelation of Starr’s apparent hypocrisy arrives at an inconvenient moment. Many Republicans are trying right now to escalate the culture war, and you can’t easily wage culture war with compromised warriors.

The GOP forged a tight relationship with social conservatives in the summer of 1980, when then-candidate Ronald Reagan—looking to peel off devout Christians from President Jimmy Carter’s base of support—talked of being “born again” and became the first presidential nominee to end his acceptance speech with “God bless America.” (For those keeping score, Reagan was America’s first divorced president. Trump was the second.)

The strategy worked. In 1976, Carter had won evangelicals by 25 points. In 1980, he lost them by 26 points. At the 1984 convention, Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Christian group Moral Majority, decreed that Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush were “God’s instruments in rebuilding America.”

In 1993 Bill Clinton became president, ending 12 years of Republican White House rule.  It was clear to anyone paying attention that Clinton had been less than scrupulously faithful to his wife, to whom he was otherwise tightly bonded. Apoplectic conservatives wasted no time pounding him as antithetical to “family values.” That didn’t work. Most voters put their pocketbook first and, with the economy growing in 1996, they re-elected Clinton handily.

Starr had by then taken over the independent “Whitewater” investigation. Ethical questions about an Arkansas real estate investment during Clinton’s time as governor had in 1994 prompted the appointment of a special counsel by Clinton’s attorney general. The initial lead investigator, Robert Fiske, was on the verge of indicting several Clinton associates, but his initial report in June 1994 found no wrongdoing by Clinton. Weeks later, a pair of Republican-appointed judges fired Fiske and brought in Starr, despite Starr’s lack of prosecutorial experience.

Starr expanded the scope of the investigation and dragged it out for years. When he heard of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky in January 1998, he shifted the inquiry’s focus and used his findings to accuse Clinton of perjury. The resultant Starr Report included the most embarrassingly clinical details of a president’s sex life that the world had ever seen, so much so that newspapers and cable news shows struggled to find ways to report its contents. Gleeful Republicans, sensing political opportunity, declared Clinton morally unfit for the presidency and moved to impeach him

It didn’t work. Not only was the public more interested in the booming economy than in Clinton’s sexual practices, but high-profile Clinton critics kept getting caught cheating on their spouses. Three House Republicans—including leading abortion opponent Congressman Henry Hyde—admitted infidelity shortly before the 1998 midterm elections. Defying history, Democrats gained House seats. Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose adultery during his first marriage had been reported a decade earlier in Mother Jones, lost party support and resigned. (Gingrich was cheating on his second wife during the Starr investigation, but that would not be publicly known until 1999.) Then the person tapped to replace Gingrich, Congressman Bob Livingston, was exposed as an adulterer and resigned. Republicans next turned to Denny Hastert to be Speaker. Hastert would years later be exposed as a former child molester and sent to prison in connection with hush-money payments. At the time, though, the mild-mannered Hastert seemed a decent enough sort. Republicans proceeded with impeachment, but they failed to convict Clinton.

In 2000,  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2021 at 1:27 pm

Warm Woods and the Fatip Testina Gentile

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Warm Woods has a pleasant fragrance and a fine lather, thanks in part to the Yaqi 22mm synthetic brush shown. Three passes with my Fatip Testina Gentile finished the job, though I think it’s probably time to change the blade since I had to work a bit to get a smooth result. A splash of Saint Charles Shave’s Woods (presumably also warm, if not aflame, it being summer), and the weekend begins.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2021 at 8:32 am

Posted in Shaving

First week of resumed walking

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Today wraps up my first week back at walking. I am using my Nordic walking poles — more exercise with no perceptible increase in effort, but more important more enjoyable than walking without them, plus using them greatly improves my walking posture. In addition, using them results in greater stride length and faster pace, so I finish quicker.

My morning walk today was 3617 steps in 33 min 33 seconds, so about 108 steps/minute. According to my odometer app it was 1.86 miles. I picked up additional steps today running some errands — all to the good, but without benefit of the Nordic walking poles.

As I get in better shape, walk will get a little longer. Target is about a one-hour walk, which in the past has been about 3.8 miles.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 6:52 pm

How a Liberal Michigan Town Is Putting Mental Illness at the Center of Police Reform

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Lynette Clemetson, director of Wallace House, the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists and the Livingston Awards at the University of Michigan, writes in Politico:

The first arrest was over trash. It was September 2009, and Anthony Hamilton, then 17, was arguing on the phone with a girlfriend. He was on medication, working with a psychiatrist to control his emotions, but as the argument dragged on he could feel his anger overwhelming him. Past midnight he slipped out of his house. Walking down the sidewalk he began kicking over trash cans and yelling, disturbing the stillness of the upscale subdivision where his family lived.

At 1:25 a.m., a neighbor called 911. The Ann Arbor police officer who responded identified “a light skinned black male with a light colored hoodie walking in and around the garbage.” The officer ordered him to remove his hands from his pockets and lower himself to the ground, hands extended away from his body. The officer found no weapon. He noted that the subject was “verbally abusive,” yelling profanities as he was escorted to the cruiser. The report notes that the subject had no identification and didn’t respond to questions. There is no indication the officer ever considered the teenager might be in his own neighborhood, or that his parents might have been nearby. The high school senior was arrested, photographed, fingerprinted and charged with misdemeanor disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.

Anthony lowers his head in frustration when he thinks back to that night almost 12 years ago when everything started spinning out of control. Now 29, he’s sitting in the Washtenaw County Jail, a neat, red brick complex tucked inconspicuously into a tree-lined lot just outside Ann Arbor. Anthony glances around the drab meeting room where we are sitting and twirls nervously with the corner of his mustache. “I remember sitting in a room like this,” he says, “not saying anything and just feeling really stupid.”

Anthony is currently on his 23rd stay in the county jail. Diagnosed as a child with a host of mental illnesses—anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other learning issues—Anthony’s adult run-ins with police have followed the highs and lows of his ongoing struggles with mental illness. His record is a series of escalating charges, disturbing the peace, petty theft, traffic violations, misdemeanor assault. His most recent charge is for manufacturing and delivering heroin and cocaine, a felony that could send him to prison for the first time, for as many as 20 years.

It is an outcome that many see as a preventable failure of the criminal legal system. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the people who believes this is in charge of the jail where Anthony now sits.

When I ask Washtenaw Sheriff Jerry Clayton what he thinks about Anthony’s cycle of incarceration, he shakes his head slowly in frustration and says, almost inaudibly, “Shouldn’t be here.” When I ask him to elaborate, he returns to his full and commanding voice: “It’s not only a criminal justice failure, it’s a societal failure. The criminal legal system is the tool that society uses to carry out its policies. Society’s lack of understanding and sensitivity to mental illness have led to these terrible situations like Anthony’s and many others like him.”

In the volatile aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, much of the attention and political heat has focused on so-called “defund the police” initiatives—drastic proposed cuts to department payrolls to prevent violent and potentially deadly encounters between police and people of color. But within that debate there is another reform movement that aims to disentangle people with mental illness from the criminal legal system by replacing or supplementing police response with community clinicians trained to recognize and respond to mental health crises.

In Washtenaw County, one of the most liberal counties in Michigan and home to the state’s flagship university, officials have struggled to balance the urge for dramatic reform and achievable, long-term solutions. In the spring, after heated public meetings and thousands of letters and emails demanding dramatic cuts to police spending, the city council in Ann Arbor, the county seat, voted to back a program for unarmed response to certain 911 calls in coordination with non-police professionals. Supporters contend that non-dangerous disturbances involving behavioral health crises—like the one that prompted Anthony’s spiral—should be diverted from police whenever possible. But the proposed program is still in the exploratory phase; specific recommendations about structure, training and funding are expected by the end of the year.

“Right now, we’re asking police to do a whole bunch of things that they’re not well equipped to do,” says Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin, a Democrat whose district includes Washtenaw County. He introduced a bill this spring requiring the state to develop requirements for training police in de-escalation, implicit bias and behavioral health. “When they try to solve those problems that they shouldn’t be solving, a lot of times they make the problem worse,” Irwin says.

Sheriff Clayton, now in his fourth term, has seen the immediate results of that counterproductive response. On any given day up to two-thirds of the Washtenaw jail occupants have some kind of mental health issue. That’s why he has worked for decades to eliminate bias in policing and to improve awareness of mental health issues among law enforcement. He has implemented coordinated response protocols with mental health partners that he says will limit violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians, divert mentally ill people toward treatment rather than incarceration and ultimately save taxpayers money by reducing the number of people cycling through the jail. Overlaying those challenges, he says, are racial disparities and tensions that make reform necessary: Black people account for roughly 12 percent of the county’s population, but more than 50 percent of the jail population.

“I’ve been in the profession for 33 years, but I’ve been Black for 56 years. And when I leave the profession I am still going to be Black, so I understand these feelings and experiences,” Clayton tells me as we discuss the widespread fear and distrust of law enforcement that is driving much of the national reform debate. He is wary, he says, of headline-grabbing budget-slashing proposals that he believes could ultimately undermine public safety. “I think we can have a deliberate, intentional, strategic, long-term conversation about what it means to reduce the footprint of the police in our communities.”

Clayton is engaging in that conversation with various residents across the county. Among the people he increasingly finds himself in the same meeting rooms and public spaces with is Anthony’s mother, Cynthia Harrison. The two met for the first time this spring over Zoom after Cynthia raised concerns with community mental health providers that services they were proudly touting were not reaching her son in the jail. Clayton has since recommended Cynthia for committees charged with reform. “People might think we should be adversaries,” says Cynthia, 50, a program manager for a small business incubator focused on women of color. “But I want and need to work with him.”

“For years I didn’t speak out much, because of shame and stigma over the mental illness and all the arrests,” Cynthia says. “There is so much strain and stress on the whole family. But if they send Anthony to prison it is all over, he’s gone. I can’t let that happen.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 6:38 pm

She Changed Astronomy Forever. He Won the Nobel Prize For It.

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I found this video via an interesting post in Jason Kottke’s Noticing blog, a post that begins:

As I’ve written before, in the history of astronomy and astrophysics, women have made major discoveries and played a significant role in advancing our understanding of the universe but have often not gotten the recognition their male peers enjoy. In 1967, while she was working on her doctoral research with her advisor Antony Hewish, Jocelyn Bell Burnell (then Jocelyn Bell) discovered a new and unusual kind of object, the pulsar. In this short documentary, Bell Burnell shares her story — how she got interested in radio astronomy, the prejudice with which she was treated as the only woman in her university program, how she discovered the first pulsar and persisted (more than once) through Hewish’s assertions that the object was “interference”, and how she was passed over for the Nobel Prize for her discovery.

In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community”, joining past honorees like the LIGO team, Stephen Hawking, and the team that discovered the Higgs boson. She donated the entire $3 million prize to the Institute of Physics to help support “PhD physics students from under-represented groups” with their educations.

It’s not justice, but I will note that Bell Burnell’s Wikipedia page is longer and more substantial than Hewish’s, despite his Nobel.

See also “Pop Culture Pulsar: The Science Behind Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures Album Cover.”

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Springtime Shanghai Bok Choy

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After taking out a serving, so this is left for future meals.

I bought 5 medium heads of Shaghai bok choy and cooked them in the 4-qt All-Clad d3 Stainless sauté pan:

• about 1.5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 spring shallot, chopped with the leaves (the last one on hand)
• 1 1/2 bunches scallions, chopped (with leaves)
• pinch of salt
• about 1 rounded teaspoon black pepper
• 1 head of red Russian garlic (head was on the small size), cloves peeled and chopped small
• 5 heads Shanghai bok choy, chopped
• 1 can Ro•Tel Original with green chiles
• dash of Red Boat fish sauce
• splash of Bragg’s apple-cider vinegar

First I chopped the bok choy and put that in a bowl to rest for 45 minutes. I also peeled and chopped the garlic and set it aside so that it could rest.

After allowing time for the sulforaphane to form in the bok choy, I chopped the spring shallot and the scallions and proceeded to cooking, my prep complete.

Oil into pan along with shallot and scallions. Turned the burner to medium (3) and cooked the shallots and scallions, stirring from time to time, and adding salt and pepper along the way.

When they seemed cooked, I added the garlic and cooked it for about 1-2 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spatula. Then I added the bok choy, cooked that for another few minutes, stirring often, and added the remaining ingredients. I turned the burner temperature setting to 225ºF and set the burner’s timer for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, I still had a fair amount of liquid — I was checking to see that it did not boil off all the liquid — so I replaced the cover and gave it 10 minutes more.

i just had a bowl with some lentils I cooked earlier this morning and some kodo millet and, topped with a teaspoon of Bragg’s nutritional yeast, a little chopped red onion, and a dash of Louisiana Hot Sauce. Very tasty indeed, with a glass of iced hibiscus tea to accompany it.


Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 3:19 pm

Entering Steppelandia: pop. 7.7 billion

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The Great Steppe (shown in blue): First a barrier, then a highway

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, a title perhaps familiar from my list of repeatedly recommended books, David Anthony describes how, until the invention of the wheel (and thus of wagons and carts), the Great Steppe that crosses Eurasia (see map above, with Italy visible at the left and Korea at the right) was impassible: trackless grassland, the grass an average of 5 feet tall, with water hard to find, impossible to traverse on foot.

Horses are native to the Great Steppe and adapted to life there — for example, cattle and sheep will die when snow covers the steppe, but horses will dig through the snow to the hay-like grass that lies beneath — and, as Anthony explains, horses were at first meat animals for steppe-dwellers as meat animals. At some point a stallion traded liberty for the luxury of getting laid, and herds of horses could be kept for food. (Almost all domesticated horses are, as we know from their Y-chromosomes, descended from that stallion.) Horses when hobbled do not roam, so no fences were required — and hobbles are easier to make and maintain than fences. Finally some brave souls tried riding the horses, and suddenly people could go faster and farther than when afoot.

But even when people were able to enter the steppe on horseback, the distances and sparseness of running water kept the step impassable. But when the wheel was invented, by the Assyrians, wagons were possible, and horse-drawn wagons could carry a lot of supplies. The flat plains of the steppe were transformed from barrier to highway, allowing the fierce speakers of Proto-Indo-European to prey on villagers across Eurasia, and later serving as a route for trade and commerce.

I highly recommend Anthony’s book. Razib Khan has an interesting article on the Great Steppe today:

Whenever I write deep-dive Substack posts on genetics and human history (IndiaItaly, even China), I end up cutting reams of in-depth background on the steppe before I hit “publish.” Why? The Eurasian steppe is my compulsive digression. Everything canonical, everything human… makes more sense if I make sure you understand the steppe first. But too many don’t. And I fear they don’t even know what they’re missing. I want to bring my readership along on my steppe obsession, not least so that the rest of my posts will be more meaningful reads.

In that spirit, the following piece kicks off a foray deep into the Eurasian steppe and its centrality to human history, civilization and genetics. This free post is the personal why of the steppe for me. In the subsequent series of long-form, subscriber-only pieces, I’ll be expanding on the what, who and when of 5000 years of the steppe.

Steppe super-fan or steppe-skeptic, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning for more in this vein.

On a lighter note, try your hand at my two-minute “Your Steppe IQ” quiz. Legit bragging rights if you earn Khan status or make it to Steppelandia. And my best steppe reading recommendations for all who finish!

I am haunted by the steppe. Yes, my surname comes from a Turkic language of the eastern steppe, in modern-day Mongolia. The only language I read has its ultimate origins on the steppe, among the kurgan burial-mound builders who flourished east of the Dnieper five thousand years ago. And sure, over four thousand years ago, my direct paternal ancestors were steppe pastoralists occupying lands west of the Volga. But the motives for my obsession aren’t that self-involved.

I probably don’t need to explain this to anyone who’s read me for long, but I churn through exhaustive obsessions in my readings. For example, in 1986 I read the last word I craved (or could find) on climatology, in 1987 dinosaurs, in 1988 military history, robotics and board games, in 1990 physical geography and overpopulation models, in 1993 cosmology and physics, in 1994 the Welsh, in 1995 Thomas Sowell and the history of science fiction, in 1996 Naomi Wolfe, in 1998 Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and the Jewish people, in 1999 the Stoics, South Africa and Intelligent Design, goldfish in pre-9/11 2001, Salafists in post-9/11 2001, in 2003 David Hume, in 2004 Wittgenstein, in 2005 Catholicism, in 2006 R.A. Fisher, the Mormons and cognitive science of religion, in 2007 the Abbasids, in 2015 the Russians and in 2018 Critical Theory. To be sure, new contributions to a field draw me back into past passions on the regular. And certain domains I closed the book on tend to age better than others; my children regularly dismiss me among themselves: “Daddy only knows the old dinosaurs.”

But there are a few through-lines I’m never done with. Even 30 years into reading, I always feel I’m barely past the preface. In the broadest strokes, “peoples” have obsessed me since my earliest childhood. I clearly remember peppering my parents’ graduate-school acquaintances with “Which humans have the best vision?” and “Which humans are strongest?”-type questions before I could really read. And I couldn’t be born to a luckier age, because this consuming passion with human population history can now be yoked to the powerful engine of historical population genomics. I expect the riches of this field to remain inexhaustible generations after I am but dust.

Populations, population genomics and the histories of ancient nations we can infer from them, are what I live for. Which populations? No surprise that I’m never done with China or ancient Rome. But also the people of the steppe. Always the steppe. What even is the steppe? A void so under-examined, its illustrious peoples don’t even merit a single umbrella term. An expanse so vast it spans eight time zones. A word I’m disappointed to find few know and a world fewer still explore. Does any region whose influence touched empires and cultures across Europe, the Middle East and China, languish less examined?

The culture and genes of people all across the world today come from the steppe. The ancient Romans, Chinese and Arabs all have their advocates and chroniclers. They tell their story in their own voice. The Mongols may cut an impressive swath through history, but too often they see print only for the horrific deeds chronicled by their enemies. What if what we knew of the Romans only came via the Gauls after Caesar’s genocide against them? What if all that remained of Seinfeld were Wikipedia plot summaries by his vengeful antagonist Newman? What if Trump were our only observer of Obama?

Whether we are astute enough to recognize it or not, the shape of the modern world has been molded by conflict between the nomads of the Eurasian steppe and the loose arc of civilized societies that happened to lay curled around their domains. The politics, history, and geography of the steppe are critical lacunae in most grand historical narratives. The fall of the first Han Dynasty, the fall of the Roman Empire and the conquest of India by Muslims all owe to a sequence of events unleashed by Eurasian steppe nomads.

Grass from sea to shining sea

Beginning with the Great Hungarian Plain in the west, a broad ribbon of rich grassland stretches nearly unbroken across all of Eurasia to the Pacific, unfurling in infinite sameness between boreal forests to the north and arid deserts to the south. For an American kid weaned on 1980’s nature specials, my idea of vast open lands was the idyllic American prairie or the African savanna teeming with wildebeest. But the Eurasian steppe dwarfs both. The largest uninterrupted grassland ecosystem in the world, it spans 10,000 kilometers. It is more oceanic than continental in size. Even the scale of smaller subsections of this ecosystem is hard to fathom. The Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea begins on the edge of Romania and runs all the way east to the Volga river, where Europe gives way to Asia. A tarp cut from just the far eastern Mongolian reach of the steppe could casually smother all of Germany and France.

Thinking back, to arrive at my full appreciation of the importance of the steppe, I had to first get over a matter of elementary-school pedantry. The extensive color-coded maps in my beloved “biomes of the world” reference books had driven home Eurasia’s vastness. Our planet’s mega continent, Eurasia of course has the biggest biomes, chief among them the taiga, “forest” in Siberian Turkic languages. An uninterrupted expanse extending from Scandinavia to the Pacific ocean, the immense taiga is unmistakably more extensive than the steppe it parallels. Which is all very well if you are a wolf, moose, or bear and this is your prime habitat. Less so for a human. 

For our Ice-Age ancestors, the open steppe may not have been much more appealing than the semi-arctic forests, but . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 1:35 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, History

Motivational Poster for Shaving

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Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 11:55 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

Tip regarding daily chores: Puracy

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I read a recommendation for the spot-and-stain-remover Puracy, so I thought I’d give it a go. It truly is amazing: tumeric stains and berry stains on napkin: totally gone. Yellow sweat-stain that accumulated around around neck of pyjamas: totally gone, the white fabric with blue stripes totally restored. I’m astonished — and very pleased.

Follow instructions for best results: spray stain or spot and let it sit for 15 minutes before laundering. More at link and on bottle.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 11:25 am

Posted in Daily life

Walkies are coming along

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This morning I had an early walk because the forecast is for a hot day. I did 1.86 miles in 33 min 33 seconds, 3617 steps (so about 108 steps/minute, a good cadence, producing a speed of 3.32 mph — though 5.3 kph sounds better.

What, I wonder, is the internal mechanism that makes some decisions snap into place and lock, while other decisions are loosely held with a lot of play and break free easily? The walking, this time, seems to be one of the locking decisions, at least for now.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 9:26 am

Pink Grapefruit and Hâttric

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G.B. Kent’s Infinity synthetic is a good little guy. It’s a 22mm knot with good resilience along with a 52mm loft. A resilient knot with a good loft provides a very nice feel — that’s the combination found in the Omega Pro 48, for example, though the two brushes don’t feel all that similar — for one thing, the bristles differ substantially: Infinity has fine synthetic bristles, Pro 48 has boar bristles.

Gettig a good lather from a Meißner-Tremonia shaving paste is child’s play, and the fragrance is extremely nice, the eucalyptus offsetting the sweetness of the pink grapefruit much as Cate’s Bubbles in Waterlyptus uses eucalyptuss to offset the watermelon fragrance. I think this probably works in general: eucalyptus plus peach, for example.

The Baili BR171 is a very fine razor despite its low price: $6. A good razor for beginner or practiced shaver, being both very comfortable (which includes being disinclined to nick) and very efficient. Three passes left my face perfectly smooth.

A splash of Hâttric with a squirt of Hydrating Gel, and I’m ready for the day — predicted to be hot, so the walk will be early.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 8:27 am

Posted in Shaving

Some members of Congress are going to pay the piper — or at least their lawyers

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Heather Cox Richardson:

The ripples of the explosive testimony of the four police officers Tuesday before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol continue to spread. Committee members are meeting this week to decide how they will proceed. Congress goes on recess during August, but committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) suggested the committee would, in fact, continue to meet during that break.

Committee members are considering subpoenas to compel the testimony of certain lawmakers, especially since the Department of Justice on Tuesday announced that it would not assert executive privilege to stop members of the Trump administration from testifying to Congress about Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection. This is a change from the Trump years, when the Department of Justice refused to acknowledge Congress’s authority to investigate the executive branch. This new directive reasserts the traditional boundaries between the two branches, saying that Congress can require testimony and administration officials can give it.

Further, the Department of Justice yesterday rejected the idea that it should defend Congress members involved in the January 6 insurrection. Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) sued Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, as well as the former president and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, for lying about the election, inciting a mob, and inflicting pain and distress.

Famously, Brooks participated in the rally before the insurrection, telling the audience: “[W]e are not going to let the Socialists rip the heart out of our country. We are not going to let them continue to corrupt our elections, and steal from us our God-given right to control our nation’s destiny.” “Today,” he said, “Republican Senators and Congressmen will either vote to turn America into a godless, amoral, dictatorial, oppressed, and socialist nation on the decline or they will join us and they will fight and vote against voter fraud and election theft, and vote for keeping America great.”

“[T]oday is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!” he said. He asked them if they were willing to give their lives to preserve “an America that is the greatest nation in world history.” “Will you fight for America?” he asked.

To evade the lawsuit, Brooks gave an affidavit in which he and his lawyers insisted that this language was solely a campaign speech, urging voters to support Republican lawmakers in 2022 and 2024. But he also argued that the Department of Justice had to represent him in the lawsuit because he was acting in his role as a congress member that day, representing his constituents.

Yesterday, the Department of Justice declined to take over the case, pointing out that campaign and electioneering activities fall outside the scope of official employment. It goes on to undercut the idea of protecting any lawmaker who participated in the insurrection, saying that “alleged action to attack Congress and disrupt its official functions is not conduct a Member of Congress is employed to perform.” This means Brooks is on his own to defend himself from the Swalwell lawsuit. It also means that lawmakers intending to fight subpoenas are going to be paying for their own legal representation.

If the committee does, in fact, start demanding that lawmakers talk, Brooks is likely on the list of those from whom they will want to hear. Trying to bolster the new Republican talking point that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) should have been better prepared for the insurrection (this is a diversion: she has no say over the Capitol Police, and she did, in fact, call for law enforcement on January 6), Brooks told Slate political reporter Jim Newell that he, Brooks, knew something was up. He had been warned “on Monday that there might be risks associated with the next few days,” he said. “And as a consequence of those warnings, I did not go to my condo. Instead, I slept on the floor of my office. And when I gave my speech at the Ellipse, I was wearing body armor.” “That’s why I was wearing that nice little windbreaker,” he told Newell. “To cover up the body armor.”

Brooks is not the only one in danger of receiving a subpoena. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) admitted on the Fox News Channel that he spoke to the former president on January 6, although he claimed not to remember whether it was before, during, or after the insurrection. He tried to suggest that chatting with Trump on January 6 was no different than chatting with him at any other time, but that is unlikely to fly. Jordan also repeatedly referred to Trump as “the president,” rather than the former president, a dog whistle to those who continue to insist that Trump did not, in fact, lose the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, it looks more and more like Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), are  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 9:52 pm

Age of Invention: An Absent Atlantic

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Anton Howes has an interesting newsletter, and I found this issue worth reading:

I’ve become engrossed this week by a book written in 1638 by the merchant Lewes Roberts — The Marchant’s Mappe of Commerce. It is, in effect, a guide to how to be a merchant, and an extremely comprehensive one too. For every trading centre he could gather information about, Roberts noted the coins that were current, their exchange rates, and the precise weights and measures in use. He set down the various customs duties, down even to the precise bribes you’d be expected to pay to various officials. In Smyrna, for example, Roberts recommended you offer the local qadi some cloth and coney-skins for a vest, the qadi’s servant some English-made cloth, and their janissary guard a few gold coin.

Unusually for so many books of the period, Roberts was also careful to be accurate. He often noted whether his information came from personal experience, giving the dates of his time in a place, or whether it came second-hand. When he was unsure of details, he recommended consulting with better experts. And myths — like the rumour he heard that the Prophet Muhammad’s remains at Mecca were in an iron casket suspended from the ceiling by a gigantic diamond-like magnet called an adamant — were thoroughly busted. Given his accuracy and care, it’s no wonder that the book, in various revised editions, was in print for almost sixty years after his death. (He died just three years after publication.)

What’s most interesting about it to me, however, is Roberts’s single-minded view of English commerce. The entire world is viewed through the lens of opportunities for trade, taking note of the commodities and manufactures of every region, as well as their principal ports and emporia. A place’s antiquarian or religious tourist sites, which generally make up the bulk of so many other geographical works, are given (mercifully) short shrift. Indeed, because the book was not written with an international audience in mind, it also passes over many trades with which the English were not involved, or from which they were even excluded. It thus provides a remarkably detailed snapshot of what exactly English merchants were interested in and up to on the eve of civil war; and right at the tail end of a century of unprecedented growth in London’s population, itself seemingly led by its expansion of English commerce.

So, what did English merchants consider important? It’s especially illuminating about England’s trade in the Atlantic — or rather, the lack thereof.

Roberts spends remarkably little time on the Americas, which he refers to as the continents of Mexicana (North America) and Peruana (South America). Most of his mentions of English involvement are about which privateers had once raided which Spanish-owned colonies, and he gives especial attention to the seasonal fishing for cod off the coast of Newfoundland — a major export trade to the Mediterranean, and a source of employment to many English West Country farmers, who he refers to as being like otters for spending half their lives on land and the other half on sea.

But as for the recently-established English colonies on the mainland, which Roberts refers to collectively as Virginia, he writes barely a few sentences. Although he reproduces some of the propaganda about what is to be found there — no mention yet of tobacco by the way, with the list consisting largely of foodstuffs, forest products, tar, pitch, and a few ores — the entirety of New England is summarised only as a place “said to be” resorted to by religious dissenters. The island colonies on Barbados and Bermuda were also either too small or too recently established to merit much attention. To the worldly London merchant then, the New World was still peripheral — barely an afterthought, with the two continents meriting a mere 11 pages, versus Africa’s 45, Asia’s 108, and Europe’s 262.

The reason for this was that the English were excluded from trading directly with the New World by the Spanish. It was, as Roberts jealously put it, “shut up from the eyes of all strangers”. The Spanish were not only profiting from the continent’s mines of gold and silver, but he also complained of their monopoly over the export of European manufactures to its colonies there. It’s a striking foreshadowing of what was, in the eighteenth century, to become one of the most important features of the Atlantic economy — the market that the growing colonies would one day provide for British goods. Indeed, Roberts’s most common condemnation of the Spanish was for having killed so many natives, thereby extinguishing the major market that had already been there: “had not the sword of these bloodsuckers ended so many millions of lives in so short a time, trade might have seen a larger harvest”. The genocide had, in Roberts’s view, not only been horrific, but impoverished Europe too (he was similarly upset that the Spanish had slaughtered so many of the natives of the Bahamas, known for the “matchless beauty of their women”).

Moving to the other side of the Atlantic, to the western coast of Africa, it’s clear from Roberts’s descriptions that English trade with Morocco was not what it used to be. As I’ve written before, the Saadi empire based at Fez had once had a sort of mutually reinforcing, symbiotic relationship with England, both having had a common enemy in Spain. The English had in the late sixteenth century secretly sent the Saadis weapons, buying from them sugar, copper, and saltpetre — essential for gunpowder. The sultan had once even suggested to Elizabeth I that they invade Spain’s colonies in the New World together. But by Roberts’s time the region’s commerce had been wrecked by decades of civil war. One Moroccan coastal city, Salé, had even become a semi-independent pirate republic. English merchants, having once been a major presence in Fez, now avoided storing any goods or residing there, instead making “their ships their shops” and only unloading precisely whatever merchandise was actually sold. “Where peace and unity is wanting,” as Roberts sagely put it, “trade must decay”.

Further south, in the Gulf of Guinea (then called the “Genin and Benin” or “Ginney and Binney” coast), Roberts describes how the English trade there — buying gold, and selling cloth, weapons, and especially salt — was limited by competition with other Europeans. The Portuguese had long ago built . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 3:58 pm

Biden dithers and stalls in addressing a news report, leaving thousands in limbo

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Sam Stein, Tina Sfondeles, and Alex Thompson report for Politico:

For weeks, the Biden administration has kept thousands of people in a state of panic by letting a single news report linger without formal denial or confirmation.

The report, published on July 19 by the New York Times, said the administration’s “legal team” had concluded, based on prior legal guidance, that inmates released to home confinement for fear of Covid-19 spread in their prisons will legally have to return when the pandemic state of emergency ends.

The Department of Justice has declined to say whether or not it will uphold or rescind the Trump-era Office of Legal Counsel memo that says those inmates must go back. And the White House has not commented on whether President JOE BIDEN will use his clemency powers to intervene. Instead, it has simply restated the president’s commitment to “reducing incarceration and helping people to re-enter society.”

Absent any action from Biden, criminal justice reform advocates say, that’s an impossible line to swallow.

To understand why, just look at the stats. The Bureau of Prisons Director MICHAEL CARVAJAL testified that 7,000 inmates are in home confinement under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Of those, the Brennan Center estimates that roughly 20 individuals have been returned to prison as result of violations. Twenty.

“We know that these are people who are not a threat to public safety,” said LAUREN-BROOKE EISEN, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “There is absolutely no public interest being served in having this group of individuals reincarcerated.”

But those are just numbers, devoid of any sense of the human toll that comes if neither the DoJ nor the president take action. A fuller illustration comes from a man named RUFUS ROCHELL.

Rufus’s story is a microcosm of the inequities in the criminal justice system. At the age of 36, he was given a 40-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute and possession of crack cocaine. To this day, he claims his innocence and there are compelling reasons to believe him. But he never received clemency, even after one of his best friends in prison — the financier CONRAD BLACK — got a pardon from DONALD TRUMP and subsequently petitioned Trump’s son-in-law JARED KUSHNER to grant one to Rufus.

Instead, what got Rufus out was Covid. He was released in April of 2020 because of fears of rampant spread in his facility. He stopped at a Boston Market for his first post-prison meal — barbeque chicken — and then made his way to his sister’s home in Micanopy, Florida.

Over the past 16 months Rufus has worked with at-risk youth, helped at food drives, volunteered with church groups and spoken before members of Congress, including House Speaker NANCY PELOSI, about the Covid risks in prison facilities. He wears an ankle monitor and can’t venture past the front yard without clearance from his halfway house.

A few weeks back, he got a call from AMY POVAH — a former prisoner-turned-clemency advocate who’s helped with his case — informing him about the Times story.

“I didn’t want it to be a shock to him,” Povah told me.

As she spoke about Rufus and others facing the prospect of reincarceration, Povah was near tears. She thought about what it would mean for her to go back to prison after having served nine years for a trafficking case (her sentence was commuted by President BILL CLINTON).

“I’m not sure I wouldn’t commit suicide,” she said. “It’s just too much to ask of a human being.”

Rufus, by contrast, was almost disturbingly circumspect about it all.

“I’m not upset or nothing,” he told me when we talked. “Because the fact is, I did a good job out here in terms of changing lives. And doing the best I could to change lives. And maybe it is time for me to step back in for a little while to help change lives inside of there.”

Rufus is 69 years old. He has ten months left on his sentence due to time well served. Perversely, the longer Covid lingers, the better off he’ll be: there will be no official end to the pandemic and he will remain out from behind bars.

But of the 7,000 inmates in home confinement, an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 or so have sentences unlikely to end before the pandemic. They’re now waiting for any word from Biden. And even those in the advocacy community who work on these issues — and have pushed for clemency for this community — say they’ve gotten no sense of what the White House is going to do.

“I would love to stay out, I would love to have my freedom,” Rufus told me before we hung up the phone. “But sometimes things are out of your control and what this shows me is that those in authority, if this happens, are not for rehabilitation and second chances and changing individual lives for positive good.”

The White House did not comment for this piece. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 3:33 pm

The infrastructure bill

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

It appears that it is finally infrastructure week.

Today, negotiators hammered out a deal on a bipartisan bill, which includes $550 billion in new spending. This evening, the Senate voted to move the bill forward by a vote of 67 to 32, with 17 Republicans joining all the Democrats to begin debate on the measure.

The bill is not fully hammered out yet, and the Congressional Budget Office, which examines bills to see how much they will cost, has not yet produced a final number, but it appears that the bill will cost about $1.2 trillion over 8 years. It puts together unspent monies from other programs and from new “user fees” to pay for it, but Republicans demanded that funds to increase funding for the IRS to enable it to crack down on tax cheats, who cost the United States about $1 trillion a year, be stripped from the bill.

The White House said the bill would create about 2 million “good-paying” jobs a year for the next decade. It provides $110 billion for roads and bridges, $39 billion for public transit, $66 billion for passenger rail, $73 billion to upgrade the electrical grid; $7.5 billion for electrical vehicle chargers on highway corridors, $17 billion for rebuilding our ports, $50 billion for addressing climate change and cybersecurity, and $55 billion for clean drinking water.

The bill also calls for $65 billion to expand broadband internet, tying all Americans into the same grid and lowering prices. In the White House statement, Biden explicitly tied the expansion of broadband to the nation’s 1936 expansion of access to electricity through the Rural Electrification Act. Through that act, the government tried to level the playing field between urban Americans who had electricity through private companies and rural Americans who did not because the profit margins weren’t high enough to make it worthwhile for private companies to bring electricity to them.

Electrification not only enabled rural Americans to enjoy the new products created in the early twentieth century, but also created a new industry of consumer products that helped the post–World War II economy boom. Then, as now, federal funding for a vital infrastructure need opened up the door to government oversight and regulation of that utility, a principle that today’s Republicans oppose, especially when it comes to broadband. (It’s an interesting thought, though: could regulation of publicly supported broadband help address the problem of disinformation on social media?)

That is only one of the ways in which this bipartisan bill remains precarious. There are others. It is always possible that the Republicans cannot muster the 10 votes they need to pass the bill, and continuing to tinker with it is simply a way to run out the clock on the congressional session so that the Democrats cannot get the infrastructure deal they want so badly.

From the other direction, progressive Democrats have made it clear they will not accept this bill, which focuses on “hard” infrastructure like roads and bridges, unless it goes along with a larger “soft” infrastructure bill that focuses on human infrastructure. There are not enough Republican votes to pass that second measure over a Senate filibuster, so it will have to pass the Senate through budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. But that means it will need all 50 Democratic votes, and today Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema said she does not support the bill in its current form. She apparently wants adjustments, but what they are and whether progressives will accept them remains unclear.

Still, the idea of this new, sweeping infrastructure package becoming reality is . . .

Continue reading.

For a different take, look at Kevin Drum’s post:

I see that cats and dogs are living together and have produced a bipartisan infrastructure bill. I figure they did this just to annoy me, but I hold no grudges. I just want to know how they’re going to pay for it:

The new agreement also included significant changes to how the infrastructure spending will be paid for, after Republicans resisted supporting a pillar of the original framework: increased revenues from an I.R.S. crackdown on tax cheats, which was to have supplied nearly one-fifth of the funding for the plan.

In place of those lost revenues, negotiators agreed to repurpose more than $250 billion from previous pandemic aid legislation, including $50 billion from expanded unemployment benefits that have been canceled prematurely this summer by two dozen Republican governors, according to a fact sheet reviewed by The New York Times. That is more than double the repurposed money in the original deal.

As I recall, the previous version of this “$1 trillion” bill actually represented $600 billion in new spending. With this new funding in place, it looks like the $1 trillion bill is now a $350 billion bill. In other words, starting with the very first proposal from the Biden administration, the amount of new spending has gone from $2 trillion to $1 trillion to $600 billion to $350 billion. I think. This gets kind of tricky. In any case, it sure seems like Republicans got a helluva good deal here.

And there’s this:

“We still have a long way to go before we get to the finish line, but this was a vitally important first step,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the lawmakers who helped broker the deal, at a press conference after a vote.

That sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it? For one thing, it turns out there’s still no actual legislative text. I’m sure that’s not a problem, though. Stay tuned. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 3:24 pm

What’s Behind the U.S. War on Science?

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Vincent Ialenti, formerly a MacArthur postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and now MacArthur Assistant Research Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and author of Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now has an interesting article in Sapiens. It begins:

In U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech last November, he vowed his administration would “marshal the forces of science” to take bold action against climate change and the pandemic. Describing his election as a “great day” for American educators, he drafted a national coronavirus strategy with a clear mandate: “Listen to science.”

Biden, now halfway through his first year as president, has mostly followed through. He appointed a leading geneticist as his top science adviser and elevated his role to the Cabinet rank. He established a new position—deputy director for science and society at the Office of Science and Technology Policy—and filled it with a renowned sociologist. He reengaged the World Health Organization and issued a detailed pandemic plan focused on health equity and higher vaccination rates. He rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and set an ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 50 percent by 2030.

This all broke with his predecessor. Under former President Donald Trump, more than two-thirds of scientists across 16 federal agencies reported that hiring freezes and departures interfered with their work. Federal funding was cut for expertise on matters ranging from invasive insect risk to the effects of chemicals on pregnant women. The White House attempted to undermine the National Climate Assessment and even sent a “cease and desist” order to a top National Park Service scientist for testifying to Congress about climate change. The Trump administration moved coronavirus data collection away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic.

Biden has a historic opportunity to reverse Trump’s regressive science policies. Yet to achieve a more fundamental change in how American political culture approaches science, Biden has to go further to confront an unsettling reality: Current suspicions of science did not begin with the election of one man in 2016. They have often been symptomatic of frustrations and critiques that gained relevance decades prior to Trump’s inauguration, leading many critics to write off scientists as just another untrustworthy, out-of-touch group of elites.

In my new book, Deep Time Reckoning, I refer to this as a “deflation of expertise.” To understand its origins, I first had to leave my home country and experience everyday life in a society that approaches scientific and other forms of expertise differently: Finland. Reflecting on these contrasts can reveal some of the societal disillusionments that fueled Trump’s war on science—and help the U.S. move beyond them.

From 2012 to 2014, I lived in Helsinki. I was conducting anthropological fieldwork among experts developing what will likely become the world’s first deep geological repository for high-level nuclear energy waste. I often asked these experts how Finland was able to keep so closely to the disposal schedules it set back in the early 1980s. The United States’ now-defunct nuclear repository project at Yucca Mountain had, in contrast, been stymied by decades of fierce litigation, political stagnation, and scientific uncertainty.

The Finnish experts attributed their project’s comparatively smooth rollout to Finland’s broad public trust in the competence of their domestic engineers, technocrats, and scientists.

Finns from many walks of life told me of their country’s fondness of large, centralized, hierarchical organizations like public transport systems, government ministries, and the welfare state. They pointed me toward polls casting Finland as unique in its high levels of trust in its domestic civil servantspolice officerseducatorsjournalists, and scientists. For sure, I met Finns who did not fit neatly with these generalizations. But on the whole, my findings lined up with the conclusions of Finnish social scientists: Finns generally “count on expertise, technology, and authorities.”

When I returned to home in August 2014, my mild reverse culture shock revealed Finland’s approach to expertise to be a world apart from the United States’.

Without realizing it at first, I found myself continuing my field research—but now it was the U.S. that looked unfamiliar. I asked my compatriots about trust in science while living in Upstate New York, then in Washington D.C., and when visiting my hometown in Central Massachusetts. I encountered a deep suspicion of experts that, in Finland, would have seemed almost paranoid.

American distrust of science is not new. Yet in recent decades, moral and religious critiques of science have fueled the growth of an anti-elite fervor against scientists and other experts, especially among conservatives. Why?

Some Americans I met told me how their trust in high-ranking military leaders had been shaken when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 based on false pretenses about weapons of mass destruction. Others told me that their trust in economists had been damaged after the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. Still others expressed that their trust in Silicon Valley had given way to concerns about digital privacy losses, big data cybersecurity hacks, and U.S. National Security Agency surveillance.

After multiple breaches of public trust by powerful state institutions and trained experts, some people felt that suspicion of any kind of person in an elite position seemed reasonable. A trust gap was widening between the general public and elites.

Come the 2016 election, all sorts of claims to expert authority were written off as mere pompous elitism. Right-wing populists clamored loudly against technocrats, globalists, and the deep state. The Trump administration openly questioned established science on topics ranging from climate change to human evolution.

Meanwhile, deluges of online misinformation left millions of Americans—on both the political left and right—siloed in algorithmically generated, increasingly extreme social media echo chambers.

But the reasons behind this intensification of anti-science political fervor, especially among conservatives, the majority of whom are White people, are complex and multifaceted.

I will focus on a few that I see as particularly relevant to the intensification of anti-elitism in the U.S. For one thing, some White Americans have had to reckon with a crumbling American DreamOver the past two decades, working-class White people have seen decreased life expectancies and increased rates of suicide and opioid overdoses. Meanwhile, middle-class White males’ wages have stagnated or, in some cases, declined.

These economic changes, alongside other factors, have led some conservatives to feel that “establishment” institutions—not just in media and government, but also in science and technology—have abandoned them. Some also say they’ve lost faith in the country’s higher education system. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, Republican or Republican-leaning voters tend to be concerned that these institutions are “too liberal/political” and don’t allow students to “think for themselves.” Some critics fear conservative students are marginalized by far-left faculty and administrators, a critique that hasn’t been borne out by the research.

Today only 37 percent of conservative Republicans believe in global warming—down from 49 percent in 2008. Many reject peer-reviewed findings on COVID-19 or view public health guidance as a threat to their sense of self-determination. Only 27 percent of Republicans—compared to 43 percent of respondents who are or lean Democrat—report “a great deal” of confidence in the scientific community as a whole.

Science advocates can find hope in Biden’s political appointments and policy initiatives. However, Biden faces a grander challenge: regaining trust in science among those who have lost faith in expertise itself.

Sociologist Bruno Latour has observed that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it offers insights into the breakdown of the US social compact.

Lying eyes: Using disproven methods to make legal judgments

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Gayan Samarasinghe writes in New Humanist:

The pandemic has meant most court hearings are now conducted online. For some of the judiciary, these virtual hearings are a great modernising development. Others are less enthusiastic. That is perhaps not surprising given that our courts are one of the most conservative of our institutions. Its priests appear in wigs and robes, its natural language is Latin, cameras and the press are largely shut out. In this context, trial by Skype is a polarising reform. But some judges complain that there is an insoluble problem when trials are held remotely: reading faces.

In a precedent-setting case at the start of the pandemic – known only as the matter of “P (A Child: Remote Hearing)” – a senior judge overturned a decision to hold a virtual trial. A local authority had accused a mother of child abuse by fabricating and inducing symptoms of illness in her daughter: a case, social services argued, of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

The judge ruled the virtual trial could not proceed because the postage stamp version of the mother on Skype was too small. He wanted to see her properly, not only while she was giving her evidence, but while she was sitting in the well of the court and reacting to the evidence against her. This assessment of outward appearance, the judge said, was crucial to judging.

The judgment in P stands for a long and largely unquestioned tradition that asserts judges can and should try to read people’s facial expressions and body language when reaching decisions. But increasingly, both the ethics and science behind this practice are being called into question.

Biasing the court

In my first year of training as a barrister in the UK, I arrived at court to represent one of two parents involved in a bitter custody dispute over their young son. The judge – sensing the animosity in the room – warned both of them to be respectful when the other was speaking. He then expressed a sentiment that I have heard many judges repeat, something along these lines: “Judges often learn far more watching you while you are listening, than when you are speaking on oath.”

Not long after, in a domestic violence case in a different court, I learned what could happen when the warning wasn’t heeded. While listening to her ex-husband’s answers to questions, my client sighed, made faces and – worst of all – committed the crime of kissing her teeth: an acceptable way of expressing disapproval in her West African culture but a noise that is strangely hated in much of Europe (“le tchip” as it is known in French, is now banned in many schools both in France and in the UK).

When the court’s judgment was given, my client was described by the judge as a woman whose behaviour in court had not been consistent with that of a domestic abuse victim. By the narrowest of margins, however, and due to other evidence, the judge (seemingly grudgingly) found in her favour. I was relieved my client won her case, but I was troubled by the idea that even people who have been ruled to be victims may not have a courtroom demeanour that lives up to the imagined standard of what a victim should look like.

I couldn’t help wondering how juries in criminal trials approached similar questions. One of my former lecturers at law school, Professor Louise Ellison, has investigated how juries make decisions in rape cases. Her research suggests that many jurors may have little understanding of the factors that could influence a rape complainant’s demeanour in court. Although victims of trauma may present as calm for a number of reasons, Ellison’s jurors were struck and perplexed with what they perceived as “stoic” testimony by a complainant. Some speculated whether the witness’s measured pace and somewhat “flat” intonation meant that her answers had been rehearsed.

A complication for Ellison’s research is access to jurors. Her studies have been undertaken with actors in the roles of complainants. While criminal trials are held in public, jurors are forbidden, at risk of imprisonment, from revealing how they reached their verdicts. There is an anxiety as to how many mistrials might take place were jurors to reveal their deliberations. In one study, conducted with Ellison’s colleague Professor Vanessa Munro and published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2009, their mock jurors often said troubling things. One discussion focused on what the witness had chosen to wear to court – with a juror suggesting that a “dowdy” dress was a deliberate attempt to manipulate the jury: “she’s got no make-up on, her hair’s tied back, she looks like a frightened little woman. Who knows, in the office she could have black stockings on, four and a half inch heels, wearing loads of make-up.” Do these mirror the discussions of juries in real trials?

Some think the answers to these types of questions could do immense damage to the system: the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers, ever since it was enshrined in the Magna Carta, has long been seen as a safeguard against tyranny and a fundamental part of British justice.

There may, however, be ways of improving the system. Much like in other social situations, jurors can and do correct each other. And judges can also help. Ellison has argued for . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 1:24 pm

Are We All Getting More Depressed?: A New Study Analyzing 14 Million Books, Written Over 160 Years, Finds the Language of Depression Steadily Rising

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Interesting column at Open Culture today, written by Josh Jones — and note at the bottom of the column the links to related content. He writes:

The relations among thought, language, and mood have become subjects of study for several scientific fields of late. Some of the conclusions seem to echo religious notions from millennia ago. “As a man thinketh, so he is,” for example, proclaims a famous verse in Proverbs (one that helped spawn a self-help movement in 1903). Positive psychology might agree. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” says one translation of the Buddhist Dhammapada, a sentiment that cognitive behavioral therapy might endorse.

But the insights of these traditions — and of social psychology — also show that we’re embedded in webs of connection: we don’t only think alone; we think — and talk and write and read — with others. External circumstances influence mood as well as internal states of mind. Approaching these questions differently, researchers at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University asked, “Can entire societies become more or less depressed over time?,” and is it possible to read collective changes in mood in the written languages of the past century or so?

The team of scientists, led by Johan Bollen, Indiana University professor of informatics and computing, took a novel approach that brings together tools from at least two fields: large-scale data analysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Since diagnostic criteria for measuring depression have only been around for the past 40 years, the question seemed to resist longitudinal study. But CBT provided a means of analyzing language for markers of “cognitive distortions” — thinking that skews in overly negative ways. “Language is closely intertwined with this dynamic” of thought and mood, the researchers write in their study, “Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades,” published just last month in PNAS.

Choosing three languages, English (US), German, and Spanish, the team looked for “short sequences of one to five words (n-grams), labeled cognitive distortion schemata (CDS).” These words and phrases express negative thought processes like “catastrophizing,” “dichotomous reasoning,” “disqualifying the positive,” etc. Then, the researchers identified the prevalence of such language in a collection of over 14 million books published between 1855 and 2019 and uploaded to Google Books. The study controlled for language and syntax changes during that time and accounted for the increase in technical and non-fiction books published (though it did not distinguish between literary genres).

What the scientists found in all three languages was a distinctive “‘hockey stick’ pattern” — a sharp uptick in the language of depression after 1980 and into the present time. The only spikes that come close on the timeline occur in English language books during the Gilded Age and books published in German during and immediately after World War II. (Highly interesting, if unsurprising, findings.) Why the sudden, steep climb in language signifying depressive thinking? Does it actually mark a collective shift in mood, or show how historically oppressed groups have had more access to publishing in the past forty years, and have expressed less satisfaction with the status quo?

While they are careful to emphasize that they “make no causal claims” in the study, the researchers have some ideas about what’s happened, observing for example: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including some likely causes — and note this earlier post by Kevin Drum, which focuses on the US.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 11:35 am

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