’Acts that defy humanity:’ 3 essential reads on police brutality, race and the power of video evidence

In the case of the five Black, former Memphis police officers accused of murder in the beating death of Tyre Nichols, justice has moved quickly.

In fewer than 30 days after Nichols’ Jan. 10, 2023 death, the former officers were charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.

The Memphis Police Department released video footage of the officers’ encounter with Nichols on Jan. 27, 2023. And some who’ve seen the video, which includes footage captured by body-worn cameras, cameras mounted on dashboards of police vehicles and security cameras on utility poles in the vicinity, have described it as “horrific.”

Before the video was released Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis told CNN: “You are going to see acts that defy humanity.”

In recent years, as national outrage over the systemic racism within U.S. law enforcement has grown, The Conversation U.S. has published several articles on police brutality, race and the national outrage over systemic racism within the U.S. criminal justice system.

1. Different interpretations of video evidence

Media Studies Professor Sandra Ristovska examines the use of video as evidence in state and federal courts in the U.S. and writes about the Rodney King and George Floyd cases where jurors interpreted video evidence differently.

In the King case, the four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of charges of assault and excessive use of force as the jury believed the video showed a justified response to King’s allegedly frightening actions.

Lead prosecutor Terry White ended his closing arguments by asking the jury: “Now who do you believe, the defendants or your own eyes?”

In the Floyd case, jurors believed their own eyes and convicted Derek Chauvin for the murder of Floyd.

As Ristovska explains, bystander, bodycam and dashcam videos of policing can be powerful forms of evidence.

“Yet judges, attorneys and jurors may see and treat video in varied ways that can lead to inconsistent renderings of justice,” she writes.

Read more:
From Rodney King to George Floyd, how video evidence can be differently interpreted in courts

2. The racist roots of policing

As historian Clare Corbould explains, police violence that disproportionately targets African Americans long predates portable video cameras.

Where Black Africans were once enslaved to provide cheap labor, Corbould writes, they are now policed, charged, indicted and incarcerated at staggering rates.

“As many have noted since [George] Floyd’s murder, the origins of U.S. policing lie in the control of supposedly disorderly populations,” Corbould writes, “whether of enslaved people or, after the end of slavery, an impoverished class of laborers including Black people and immigrants.”

Read more:
Relief at Derek Chauvin conviction a sign of long history of police brutality

3. College requirements for police may reduce fatal encounters

In their peer-reviewed study of data on 235 U.S. city police departments from 2000 to 2016, Thaddeus L. Johnson and Natasha N. Johnson found that police forces requiring at least a two-year college degree for employment are less likely to employ officers who engage in actions that cause the deaths of Black and unarmed citizens.

As they explain, “Our results demonstrated that college minimums are associated with as much as three times lower rates of police-related fatalities involving Black people than police forces without a college degree requirement.”

Their findings further suggest that the impact of a more educated police force may emerge during only the most dangerous encounters that often precede the use of weapons.

More research needs to be done but they conclude that police agencies trying to reduce fatal confrontations should consider ways to recruit college-degreed applicants while at the same time support college attendance among current officers.

Read more:
College requirements for police forces can save Black lives, but at what cost?

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives. Läs mer…

FDA advisory committee votes unanimously in favor of a one-shot COVID-19 vaccine approach – 5 questions answered

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s key science advisory panel, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, met on Jan. 26, 2023, to chart a path forward for COVID-19 vaccine policy. During the all-day meeting, the 21-member committee discussed an array of weighty issues including the efficacy of existing vaccines, the composition of future vaccine strains and the need to match them to the circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2, the possibility of moving to an annual-shot model, the potential seasonality of the virus and much more.

But the key question at hand, and the only formal question that was voted on, following a proposal from the FDA earlier in the week, had to do with how to simplify the path to getting people vaccinated.

The Conversation asked immunologist Matthew Woodruff, who has been on the front lines of studying immune responses to COVID-19 since the early days of the pandemic, to walk us through the big questions of the day and what they mean for future COVID-19 vaccine strategies.

What exactly did the advisory committee vote on?

The question put before the committee for a vote was whether to move to one COVID-19 vaccine consisting of a single composition for all people – whether currently vaccinated or not – and away from the current model that includes one formulation given as a primary series and a separate formulation administered as a booster. Importantly, approved formulations could come from any number of vaccine manufacturers, not just those that have currently authorized vaccines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently requires that the primary series of shots, or the first two doses of the vaccine that a patient receives, consist of the first generation of vaccine against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, known as the “Wuhan” strain of the virus. These shots are given weeks apart, followed months later by a booster shot that was updated in August 2022 to contain a bivalent formulation of vaccine that targets both the original viral strain and newer subvariants of omicron.

The committee’s endorsement simplifies those recommendations. In a 21-to-0 vote, the advisory board recommended fully replacing, or “harmonizing,” the original formulation of the vaccine with a single shot that would consist of – at least for now – the current bivalent vaccine.

In doing so, it has signaled its belief that these new second-generation vaccines are an upgrade over their predecessors in protecting from infection and severe illness at this point in the pandemic.

If the FDA panel’s recommendation is endorsed by the CDC, only a single composition of vaccine – in this case, the updated bivalent shot – will be used for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Will the single shot remain a mixed-strain, or bivalent, vaccine?

For now, the single shot will be bivalent. But this may not always be the case.

There was a general agreement that the current bivalent shot is preferable to the original vaccine targeted at the Wuhan strain of the virus by itself. But committee members debated whether that original Wuhan vaccine strain should continue to be a part of updated vaccine formulations.

There is no current data comparing a monovalent, or single-strain, vaccine that targets omicron and its subvariants against the current bivalent shot. As a result, it’s unclear how a monovalent shot against recent omicron subvariants would perform in comparison to the bivalent version.

What is immune imprinting, and how does it apply here?

A main reason for the debate over monovalent versus bivalent – or, for that matter, trivalent or tetravalent – vaccines is a lack of understanding around how best to sharpen an immune response to a slightly altered threat. This has long been a debate surrounding annual influenza vaccination strategies, where studies have shown that the immune “memory” that forms in response to a prior vaccine can actively repress a robust immune response to the next.

This phenomenon of immune imprinting, originally coined in 1960 as “original antigenic sin,” has been a topic of debate both within the advisory committee and within the broader immunological community.

Although innovative strategies are being developed to overcome potential problems with routinely updated vaccines, they are not yet ready to be tested in humans. In the meantime, it is unclear how bivalent versus monovalent vaccine choices might alter this phenomenon, and it is very clear that more study is needed.

Is the committee considering only mRNA vaccines?

While a significant portion of the discussion focused on the mRNA vaccine platform used by both Pfizer and Moderna, several committee members emphasized the need for new technologies that could provide broader immunological protection. Dr. Pamela McInnes, a now-retired longtime deputy director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, highlighted this point, saying, “I would make a plea for ongoing research on broader protection, maybe different platforms, maybe a different approach.”

A good deal of attention was also directed toward Novavax, a protein-based formulation that relies on a more traditional approach to vaccination than the mRNA-based vaccines. Although the Novavax vaccine has been authorized by the FDA for use since July 2022, it has received much less national attention – largely because of its latecomer status. Nonetheless, Novavax has boasted efficacy rates on par with its mRNA cousins, with good safety profiles and less demanding long-term storage requirements than the mRNA shots.

By simplifying the vaccine schedule to include only a single vaccine formulation, the committee reasoned, it might be easier for competing vaccination platforms to break into the market. In other words, newer vaccine contenders would not have to rely on patients’ having already received their primary series before using their products. Companies seemed ready to take advantage of that future flexibility, with researchers from Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax all revealing their companies’ exploration of a hybrid COVID-19 and flu shot at various stages of clinical trials and testing.

Would the single shot resemble flu vaccine development?

Not necessarily. Currently, the influenza vaccine is decided by committee through the World Health Organization. Because of its seasonal nature, the strains to be included in each season’s flu vaccine for the Southern and Northern hemispheres, with their opposing winters, are selected independently. The Northern Hemisphere’s selection is made in February for the following winter based on a vast network of flu monitoring stations around the globe.

Although there was broad consensus among panelists that the shots against SARS-CoV-2 should be updated regularly to more closely match the most current circulating viral strain, there was less agreement on how frequent that would be.

For instance, rapidly mutating strains of the virus in both summer and winter surges might necessitate two updated shots a year instead of just one. As Dr. Eric Rubin, an infectious disease expert from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted, “It’s hard to say that it’s going to be annual at this point.” Läs mer…

To revitalize Indigenous communities, the Residential School settlement must prioritize language education

After a decade, the federal government has reached an agreement to settle a class action lawsuit that included 325 First Nations across Canada. The class action was initiated by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and shíshálh Nation in 2012. It was concerned with, among other issues, the loss of language and culture through Residential Schools. The settlement, worth $2.8 billion, includes support for cultural revitalization with focus on heritage, wellness and languages.

Efforts toward cultural revitalization will be funded by the $50 million Day Scholars Revitalization Fund. An important aspect of the fund will be the central role Indigenous Peoples will have in managing and guiding the process of supporting the cultural revitalization.

Read more:
Canada’s $2.8 billion settlement with Indigenous Day Scholars is a long-time coming

This settlement, just as the Indian Day School Settlement and the Indian Residential School Settlement before it, focuses on the justice necessary to address physical and emotional harms, and the long term impacts that they had for Indigenous communities and their national, cultural and traditional identities.

These traumatic impacts were deliberately put upon Indigenous Peoples through focus on the most vulnerable members of a community — their children. Over generations, many Indigenous children and youth who were attending these schools lost their language, culture and thousands lost their lives. The trauma of those experiences may be too horrific to recount. The intergenerational trauma experienced by the communities affected by these schools were also traumatic and constitute genocide.

Former Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Shane Gottfriedson (left) and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller at a news conference in Vancouver on Jan. 21, 2023.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Revitalizing Indigenous languages

A recurrent theme in the narratives of survivors is how Indigenous identities have been adversely affected, and principal among those aspects are Indigenous languages. Frequently regarded as one of the central components of Indigenous cultural identity, language revitalization has become of paramount importance.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Calls to Action contain a number of imperatives related to languages. Call to Action 14 identifies Indigenous languages as “a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society.” The reasons behind this are not difficult to understand: language allows humans to communicate ideas and is one of the pillars that support a people’s culture, traditions and history.

The importance of Indigenous languages is not just reflected in the special cultural and national features that they represent for Indigenous Peoples. They also are the optimum way to represent Indigenous knowledge, heritage and consciousness — such manifestations are undermined by the use of non-Indigenous languages.

Restoring agency

The Day Scholars Revitalization Fund represents an important opportunity for those involved in the class action. First and foremost is the issue of agency. Responsibility for developing and employing a plan of action to utilize the funds rests with Indigenous Peoples.

The issue of agency is essential given the history of unjust government control over matters that affect Indigenous communities. Indigenous people must have an adequate voice, influence and control in regard to issues, initiatives and policy that affect them, their communities and their territories. As is frequently proclaimed by Indigenous Peoples: Nothing about us without us!

Community initiatives

There are a number of ways that Indigenous communities can support the revitalization of their languages. The fundamental starting point is best summed up by the words of then chief commissioner of the TRC, Murray Sinclair: “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.”

shíshálh Nation hiwus (Chief) Warren Paull speaks during the news conference in Vancouver on Jan. 21, 2023. Agency is essential given the history of unjust government control over matters that affect Indigenous communities.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada has a rich and diverse history of Indigenous languages. However, most Indigenous children and youth, whether in public or on-reserve schools, are still educated in English and French.

There are however some encouraging developments in some Indigenous communities. In the far north, efforts have been made to ensure that Inuktut is the principal language of instruction in some Inuit schools. In Manitoba, some school divisions have created opportunities for First Nations languages such as Anishinaabemowin to be featured in classroom programming.

Partnerships between Indigenous communities and their respective schools need to be established to support the sorts of institutional transformations necessary to support curricular development, classroom resources and recruitment of qualified teachers.

These transformations require the voice, influence and control of Indigenous Peoples, and efforts should be marshalled to support such participation. Indigenous communities have worked hard to establish such partnerships. In the community of Kahnawa:ke, schools such as Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa employ an immersion programme to sustain the Kanien’keha language.

Educational programming is crucial to revitalizing Indigenous languages, but it’s not the only piece of this puzzle. Community conditions outside of the school in which children and youth have opportunities to speak the language are also essential.

Communities need to develop strategies that provide improved opportunities for young people to learn and retain their language. Children and youth should be encouraged to use Indigenous languages outside of school as well through community laws, commerce and media. Such initiatives require the commitment of community members and the support of the Day Scholars Revitalization Fund may be well suited for this purpose. Läs mer…

Bitcoin has shot up 50% since the new year, but here’s why new lows are probably still ahead

To the delight of investors across the cryptosphere, the price of bitcoin (BTC) has rallied over 53% since its low of US$15,476 (£12,519) in November. Now trading around US$23,000, there’s much talk that the bottom has finally been reached for the leading cryptocurrency after a year of painful decline – in November 2021, the price peaked at almost US$70,000.

If so, it’s not only good news for bitcoin but the whole market in cryptocurrencies, since the others broadly move in line with the leader. So is crypto back in business?

Dotcom lessons

The past is littered with various periods of market turmoil, from the global financial crisis of 2007-09 to the COVID-19 collapse in 2020. But neither of these is a particularly good comparison for our purposes because they both saw sharp drops and recoveries, as opposed to the slow unwinding of bitcoin. A better comparison would be the dotcom bubble burst in 2000-02, which you can see in the chart below (the Nasdaq is the index that tracks all tech stocks).

Nasdaq 100 index 1995-2005

Trading View

Look at the bitcoin chart since it peaked in November 2021 and the price action looks fairly similar:

Bitcoin bear market price chart 2021-23

Trading View

Both charts show that bear markets go through various periods where prices rise but don’t reach the same level as the previous peak – known as “lower highs”. If bitcoin is following a similar trajectory to the early 2000s Nasdaq, it would make sense that the current price will be another lower high and that it will be followed by another lower low.

This is partly because like the 2000s Nasdaq, bitcoin seems to be following a pattern known as an Elliott Wave. Named after the renowned American stock market analyst Ralph Nelson Elliott, this essentially argues that during a bear phase, investors shift between different emotional states of disappointment and hope, before they finally despair and decide the market will never turn in their favour. This is a final wave of heavy selling known as capitulation.

You can see this idea on the chart below, where bitcoin is the green and red line and Z is the potential capitulation point at around US$13,000 (click on the chart to make it bigger). The black line is the path that the Nasdaq took in the early 2000s. The blue pointing finger above that line is potentially the equivalent place to where the bitcoin price is now.

Bitcoin now vs Nasdaq in the early 2000s

Author provided

The one other thing to note on the chart is the wavy line that’s moving horizontally along the bottom. This is the stochRSI or stochastic relative strength index, which is an indication of when the asset looks overbought (when the line is peaking) or oversold (when it’s bottoming).

A sign of a coming shift is when the stochRSI moves in the opposite direction to where the price is heading: so now the stochRSI is coming down but the price has held up around US$23,000. This too suggests a fall could be imminent.

The game of wealth transfer

Within markets, there is often a game that investors from institutions such as banks and hedge funds play with amateur (retail) investors. The aim is to transfer retail investors’ wealth to these institutions.

This is particularly easy in an unregulated market like bitcoin, because it is easier for institutions to manipulate prices. They can also talk up (or talk down) prices to stir up retail investors’ emotions, and get them to buy at the top and sell at the bottom. This “traps” the irrational investors who buy at higher prices, transferring wealth by giving the institutions an opportunity to convert their holdings into cash.

It therefore makes sense to compare how the retail and institutional investors have been behaving lately. The following charts compare those crypto wallet addresses that hold 1 BTC or more (mostly retail investors) with those holding upwards of 1,000 BTC (institutional investors). In all three charts, the black line is the bitcoin price and the orange line is the number of wallets in that category.

Retail investor behaviour

Glassnode

Institutional investor behaviour pt 1

This chart shows all wallets that hold at least 1,000 BTC.
Glassnode

Institutional investor behaviour pt 2

This chart shows all wallets that hold at least 10,000 BTC.
Glassnode

This shows that since the FTX scandal back in November, which led to the world’s second-largest crypto exchange collapse, retail investors have been buying bitcoin aggressively, resulting in the highest number of addresses holding at least one BTC ever. On the other hand, the biggest institutional investors have been offloading. This suggests that the institutional investors agree with our analysis.

Where we’re heading

There are those who argue that bitcoin is a bubble and that ultimately cryptocurrencies are worthless. That’s a separate debate for another day. If we assume there is a future for blockchains, which are the online ledgers that enable cryptocurrencies, the key question is when bitcoin will reach the accumulation phase that typically ends a bear phase in any market.

Known as Wyckoff accumulation, this is where the price of the asset repeatedly tests two areas: the upper bound where traders previously sold heavily enough for the price to stop rising (known as resistance), and the lower bound where traders bought heavily enough that the price stopped going down (known as support).

At the point where institutional investors decide the lower bound has proved to be sufficiently resilient – in other words, they think the price is cheap at that level – they will start buying the asset again. That moment is only likely to come after there has been a capitulation.

Of course, history does not repeat itself exactly. It may be this is the first time that retail investors have outsmarted the large institutions, and that the only way is now up.

More likely, however, there is more pain on the way. With a recession on the cards, unprecedented job layoffs and weak retail data coming out of the US, it doesn’t point to the kind of optimism that tends to move markets higher. It would therefore make sense to brace yourself for another plunge in the price of bitcoin and the rest of the crypto market. Läs mer…

Exxon scientists accurately forecast climate change back in the 1970s – what if we had listened to them and acted then?

Writers of speculative- and science-fiction often identify a key point in time and explore how a seemingly insignificant event might change the path of humanity.

One of these moments came in the 1970s when oil giant Exxon chose to ignore its own commissioned research on the impact of fossil fuels. A new analysis published in the journal Science has found that Exxon’s forecasts from that era have proven incredibly accurate, yet it did not act to prevent its own predictions from happening.

Instead, the company chose to maintain its role as an oil company and fund people to question the science and delay a coherent response. Staggeringly, in 1996 the company’s chief executive, Lee Raymond, referred to “the unproven theory that [fossil fuels] affect the earth’s climate”. The company, now known as ExxonMobil, denies the allegations, saying “those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions”.

So what if the senior executives of Exxon had seen their own research as a business opportunity? Here’s one way things might have worked out.

Ahead of the emissions curve

Following the publication of terrifying research by Exxon in the late 1970s and the “energy crisis” in 1979, the policy direction of the US changes forever.

Nasa’s earth sciences funding is soon increased. The agency responds enthusiastically by launching several satellites which over the 1980s confirms the Exxon research beyond any reasonable doubt – the world is indeed warming, thanks to human-caused emissions.

Senator (and in this world future president) Al Gore invites Nasa’s James Hansen to present his findings, supported by the work of Exxon, to congress. As a result the US government commits to a net zero carbon economy by 2000. (A similar presentation happened in our world but, faced with greater scientific scepticism, it didn’t have much immediate policy impact.)

A 1977 internally-reported Exxon graph, showing a ‘carbon dioxide-induced ’super-interglacial’‘
Supran et al / Science, CC BY-SA

Solar provides power – and food

Following this, Exxon establishes a massive solar thermal power plant in the Californian desert. Unfortunately, complex engineering and intermittent energy production make it a challenging addition to the US energy grid. However, after ten years of research, the tech is exported to Egypt and Morocco where the output was more than enough to power these countries.

Further research results in enormous economic growth as the technology not only produces power but food through the use of seawater greenhouses. By 2000, North Africa is the main exporter of large solar power plants around the world. This economic success is matched in northern Europe with government-supported firms developing offshore wind turbines and tidal power throughout the 90s.

Huge solar thermal plants could have been built decades earlier.
Fly_and_Dive / shutterstock

Petrol becomes a quaint hobby

Back in the US, Exxon teams up with General Motors to develop in the late 1980s the first production electric vehicle, the EV1. (This existed in our world too, but not until a decade later). The car uses Nasa-patented batteries and space-age materials to produce cars that outperform petroleum vehicles in every area but extreme range.

Exxon’s PR machine devises a “plugging into the Sun” programme promoting micro rooftop solar panels that refuel the EV1s for free. Millions of systems are manufactured and installed by subsidiaries of Exxon making it the wealthiest “energy” company on the planet.

The micro-grids developed for car charging are also suitable for developing countries without large electrical grids. A second wave of development occurs, this time driven internally by countries across the southern hemisphere. Exxon is held up as alleviating extreme poverty across the world and improving the lives of billions.

By the late 1990s, huge “liquid metal” batteries allow inter-seasonal energy storage, creating an energy reserve sufficient to allow the roll out of large wind and solar projects around the world. This makes coal and oil too expensive for energy production and its use is ramped down and eventually put into the history books by 1997.

The use of petroleum and gas does continue in the domestic sector, but construction moves beyond the need for active heating and cooling by the end of the decade and use of petroleum cars is seen as a quaint hobby for those that wish to use this very risky fuel.

RIP petrol cars.
Samoli / shutterstock

Collapse averted

The age of oil is not entirely over. Demand for petrol continues at a level that oil companies are still able to make a small profit (environmentalists claim the oil companies are making “gas cars” cool so they don’t lose their final market).

However, seeing the opportunity for the manufacture of gasoline, many renewable energy firms begin the manufacture of “synth oil”, another space age output. The mineral oil companies push back but are unable to compete with the extremely low energy prices of synth oil as it uses virtually free energy from renewable energy systems off-peak.

By the 2000s, human society produces barely any greenhouse gases for manufacturing, transport or energy. Things are not perfect, and there are concerns about poverty, conflict, resources running out and the ecological impact of 8 billion humans and their dietary choices. The challenge for a stable, sustainable human society continues.

But climatic collapse – as we understand it in our world today – has largely been avoided.

And Exxon? Much like in our own timeline, Exxon is one of the world’s largest companies. But its massive rollout of distributed solar systems has also made it one of the world’s most liked companies.

In our world, former US vice president Al Gore won the Nobel peace prize in 2007 together with the UN’s climate advisory body, the IPCC. In this world, Gore still gets a Nobel for his work in the 1990s, but shares it with Exxon CEO Lee Raymond – there is less need for an IPCC as scientists were listened to three decades previously. Läs mer…

Older women are smashing it this awards season – but ageism is far from over

Older and middle-aged women are having their moment in the sun, it seems. The recent Golden Globes coverage was filled with images of “older” women on the red carpet. There were some notable wins too.

Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Jennifer Coolidge, all in their 60s, won their respective categories and in their speeches addressed the significance of receiving these awards later in their careers. The recently announced Oscar nominations also featured many older women, with four of the five nominations in the best actress category taken by women over 40 – including Yeoh and Cate Blanchett (53). Other categories also featured women over 60, like Jamie Lee Curtis (64) and Bassett for actress in a supporting role.

This has been heartening for many. In the past female actors have felt like there was an expiry date on their careers and it’s nice to now see women over 40 thriving in complex and exciting leading roles.

I remain sceptical about this becoming a long-term trend. Ageism is very deeply embedded in our society and it will not go away with several women in their 60s winning at the Golden Globes or being nominated at the Oscars.

After all, look carefully at the media coverage around this and you’ll notice that much of it is rooted in ageism. There was a slew of articles about older women having a “sartorial moment” at the Golden Globes. The underlying message here was that “they looked great despite their age”.

No one was talking about “older men” even though there were many in their 40s and older on the red carpet, and many articles about best-dressed men at the Golden Globes. Men do not require this classifier. Their ages were not typically mentioned in these articles. Women, on the other hand, are qualified by their ages and judged accordingly. Age is definitely not just a number for them.

Ageism in our social and cultural fabric

Psychiatrist and gerontologist Dr Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” in 1969.

Ageism or age bias affects men and women differently. As I discussed at length in my book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, the research in bias has been slow to address issues of age-related bias and discrimination.

In a 2004 report by Age Concern in the UK, one in three people surveyed thought older people are “incompetent and incapable”. Explicit discrimination and bias are illegal but also increasingly frowned upon. Yet implicit biases against age persist.

Ageism is usually very subtle but there is evidence across a number of domains to show how it works in subversive ways. Much like racism and sexism, it counts on separating someone out for “difference” and lazy stereotyping.

Yes, the representation of women of all ages on our screens and in books will go some way towards countering this narrative. And there are organisations and filmmakers who are now challenging ageism in films and media.

But it wasn’t long ago that Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her late 30s, was told she was too old to play a love interest opposite a 44-year old man, and Jamie Denbo (43) was considered not young enough to play the wife of a 57-year-old actor and mother to an 18-year-old.

Age bias affects women more than men

Gender plays a huge role in how those going through the ageing process are perceived. Women face more barriers as they grow older compared to men, a double whammy of sexism and ageism (also racism for women of colour). This is the “George Clooney effect”, or what economists call the “attractiveness penalty”.

While older women are called “hags”, men are still virile and called “silver foxes” as they grow older. Grey hair gives men like Clooney, Tom Jones and Colin Firth an air of sophistication and distinction. By contrast, a 2021 study found that women with grey hair were considered less competent.

It’s not only hair. The internet erupted when 50-year-old ex-model Helena Christensen stepped out in a lacy bustier. Former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman wrote of the model, “something you wore at 30 will never look the same on you 20 years later. Clothes don’t lie” and called her “tacky”. There are stereotypes as to how older women should act and behave.

[embedded content]

A study from the University of Southern California of the films nominated for best picture between 2014 and 2016 showed that only 11.8% of the actors were 60 or older, but significantly 78% of the films had no older women in leading or supporting roles.

In 2016, an exhaustive study on film dialogue from screenplays of over 2,000 films across genres found that the percentage of dialogue available to women decreased significantly with age compared to men. Men over 40 had more roles and spoken dialogue (55 million words for the 42–65 age group) compared to women in the same age group (11 million words).

Women have more cosmetic treatments targeted at them. We see social media ads for shrink-wrapping our necks and many brands of anti-wrinkle creams lining shop shelves. There’s no way to escape this fear and anxiety of being “past it” and not being considered relevant.

We are often complicit in our own marginalisation too as we grow older through the implicit bias we harbour about old age. In fact, language matters too even when we think we are trying to counter some of these biases. When someone says “you are only as old as you feel” or the phrase “young at heart” or that they “don’t feel old” they are displaying some of these implicit biases and fears associated with ageing.

Ageism is a reality. And it affects women much more than men, due to the intersection of gender and age.

The only way to address this is through a collective commitment and action and acknowledgement of externalised and internalised forms of ageism. And media has to take a huge responsibility for how it perpetuates and reinforces ageism in our society through words and images. Until then age will not just be a number. Especially for women. Läs mer…

What effect will lunar new year have on COVID spread in China? Our modelling shows most people have already been infected

China stuck rigidly to a zero-COVID policy until December 2022. This included travel restrictions, mass testing and mandatory quarantines. The rapid lifting of this strategy led to a surge of COVID infections across the country.

There have been concerns that the Chinese lunar new year travel in January may cause this wave of COVID to spread much further and faster, with significant numbers of hospital admissions and deaths.

Lunar new year involves hundreds of millions of people travelling across the country, and is considered to be the world’s largest annual migration event.

So how have things been tracking in China, and how will lunar new year trips affect COVID transmission? Our modelling may provide some clues.

This year lunar new year fell on January 22, though population movements for the celebrations began on January 7 and will run until February 15. Domestic travel was expected to peak around January 19.

According to estimates from the Chinese Ministry of Transport, the total number of lunar new year travellers is expected to have increased by 99.5% over the same period in 2022 and returned to 70.3% of what it was in 2019.

Through WorldPop, a research group based at the University of Southampton which maps global population distribution for health and development, we have continued to analyse population movements and their relationship to COVID transmission throughout the pandemic. Our earlier research indicated that lunar new year movements contributed significantly to the initial spread of the virus in January 2020.

This new wave has largely been driven by the omicron sub-lineages BA.5.2 and BF.7. We used an epidemiological model to simulate the transmission of these omicron variants across 339 areas in mainland China from November 1, 2022 to February 28, 2023.

Read more:
COVID is running rampant in China – but herd immunity remains elusive

This work has not yet been peer reviewed but our model estimated changes in the number of susceptible, exposed, infectious and recovered or isolated people within each area and their daily movements between areas. We incorporated numerous different sources of data, including intracity and intercity mobility data, vaccine uptake data by province, and COVID-related search index data on the Chinese internet search platform Baidu.

An important element of our model is the R value, which indicates how many people on average one infected person will infect in a susceptible population. We estimated R using reported case information and other data.

We compared the results of our model with online survey data on COVID infections, and we tested different R values and epidemiological parameters to better assess the uncertainties around our estimates.

Past the peak

Baidu searches with the term “fever” showed that most Chinese areas reached a peak in searches around December 20.

Baidu searches for ‘fever’

Changes in the Baidu search index for the term ‘fever’ in 255 Chinese areas relative to the mean level of the search index in August – October 2022.

Based on this and other data, and an R value of 10, further adjusted by intracity mobility data, our model estimated that COVID infections nationwide peaked around December 26 to 28. At that time, roughly 4.2% of the Chinese population were probably infected, as shown in the figure below.

Estimated COVID infections in China

Estimated daily COVID infections in China from November 2022 to February 2023, under different reproduction numbers. The shaded area shows the period of the lunar new year migration.

We also estimated that infections in 76% of areas peaked in December and 21% between January 1 and 10. The remaining 3% would reach the peak after January 10.

By December 31, we believe 73%–79% of all people in China would have been infected in this wave.

Estimated infection peaks by area

Estimated peak date of COVID infections in each area under an R value of 10.

Our estimates under an R value of 10 are consistent with the recent reports released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reported that the positive rate of COVID tests peaked between December 22 and 27 across the country. China passed the peaks of fever-related outpatient visits for both rural and urban areas (peaked on December 23), emergency department visits (January 2) and admission of severe cases (January 5).

Our results are also consistent with the findings of recent online surveys on COVID infections conducted in different provinces. For example, the Sichuan CDC in the western province of China reported that the overall infection rate of its residents had exceeded 80% by January 1, with a peak between December 12 and December 23. And Henan province in central China reported that its infection rate was 89% by January 6, after peaking on December 19.

So what about lunar new year?

Since most cities are estimated to have passed the peak of infections before January 10, and the majority of the population has already been infected, we expect the lunar new year travel will have a limited impact on the trajectory of COVID transmission in this wave across the country.

Of course, there may be subsequent waves of infections, for example in summer, due to waning immunity and the possible emergence of new variants.

Read more:
COVID: what we know about new omicron variant BF.7

We intend to refine our analysis with the latest data and publish a full report setting out our research in the coming weeks. But it’s important to note that at this stage, this work has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Whatever the precise estimates this and other models generate, it’s clear there are significant risks of severe disease and death among vulnerable groups such as the elderly. There’s also high pressure on health services, and relatively inadequate healthcare resources in rural areas. Measures like increased vaccine uptake in older people will be vital to ensuring the impact of COVID in China is reduced in future waves. Läs mer…

Gandhi’s image is under scrutiny 75 years after his assassination – but his protest principles are being revived

Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi remains, even 75 years after his assassination, a useful symbol for many in India. For secularists, the leader of the country’s independence movement represents an imagined India of the past. For the current government, he is a means by which it can soften its international image.

In his 2002 essay, academic Ashis Nandy, mentioned four versions of Gandhi, who led India’s move from British colony to independent nation.

The first is the Gandhi of the Indian state and of official Indian nationalism. The second is a puritanical and sombre figure, apolitical and dependent on state funding, the subject of university seminars debating: “What would Gandhi do?”

The third is the “Gandhi of the ragamuffins”, opposing mechanisation, large-scale development and a high-consumption economy. The fourth is Gandhi the non-violent revolutionary, a worldwide phenomenon, influential in movements but no longer feared by tyrants, nor taken seriously by the left.

Over the past two decades, however, Gandhi and his legacy have taken a thorough beating.

Reappraisals of Gandhi are, admittedly, long overdue. Titles such as “Mahatma” (“high souled” or “venerable” in Sanskrit) and “Father of the Nation” have worn thin since his death, as new events in India and worldwide that brought new scrutiny to his life, work and politics.

Some of these seem far-fetched, for example equating Gandhi with Osama bin Laden and global jihadists on the grounds that they were similarly based on a “sacrificial humanitarianism”. Speculations about his sexuality provoked a debate about his supposed “celibacy”. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, his strange practice of sleeping next to naked young women was openly discussed.

The rise of much-persecuted Dalit people (previously known as untouchables) in political and intellectual spaces over the past two decades has given rise to trenchant criticisms of Gandhi’s complicity in the preservation of caste dominance, and the hypocrisy in his stands repeatedly that favoured the preservation of caste over justice and emancipation. Economist and politician Bhimrao Ramji “Babasaheb” Ambedkar’s evisceration of Gandhi’s politics is now more widely known and accepted than ever before.

Read more:
Why the Uttar Pradesh election result is important for Narendra Modi’s plans

Of those images of Gandhi named in the essay, some are now seen as enemies of the vision of progress of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. Others have been refined to sit comfortably within the cultural nationalism of Hindutva, the project of creating a constitutional Hindu state and institutionalising its version of Hindu culture and social order in contradiction to Gandhi’s vision of a multi-faith nation.

Those using Gandhi’s methods of protest are now likely to be labelled “urban Naxal”, a Hindutva shorthand for intellectuals and activists involved in struggles of the rural poor, and have draconian legal charges slapped on them.

Gandhi’s international influence and reputation is now much diminished. Gandhi’s use of racist words for black Africans has fuelled righteous outrage against him. Malawi’s government stopped construction of a Gandhi statue after these accusations, though pressure from Modi’s government resulted in the completion of the statue later.

In Ghana, Gandhi’s statue was pulled down. Black Lives Matter movements in the US and in the UK also branded him a racist, and called for removal of his statues.

How Modi uses Gandhi

The most far-reaching bid to move India away from the nation that Gandhi imagined has come from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS was briefly banned after Gandhi’s killing for its involvement in the crime. It espouses a violent communal polarisation with an anti-minority politics, and several episodes of mob lynching with impunity, have been the fertile ground for its rise.

While Gandhi emphasised truth, fake news has been has been used to mobilise mass support for Hindutva. The RSS also tries to quote Gandhi in support of their political approach.

However, Hindutva organisations organise tableaux annually to re-enact the assassination on January 30 1948. Those elements of the RSS who supported “Gandhian socialism” are in political hibernation.

Indian prime minister Shri Narendra Modi chairing a meeting of the cabinet, in New Delhi on July 14 2021.
YashSD/Shutterstock

Modi, the Hindutva state and the new official nationalism, though, still need Gandhi. Under Modi’s modernisation fetish, major Gandhian ashrams, like Sabarmati, have been given such a tourist-friendly facelift, seemingly stripped of all historical gravitas.

Modi launched his Swachh Bharat (or Clean India] campaign using Gandhi as the logo. Home minister Amit Shah claims that Modi is Gandhi’s true modern manifestation.

Modi supports the construction of Gandhi statues worldwide. At the UN, Modi said he represented the land of Gandhi, claiming that erecting a bust at the UN headquarters was a matter or pride for all Indians. Modi’s Gandhian paradox is that the only Gandhi he wants to assimilate into his project is a Gandhi shorn of his core beliefs, principles and modes of political action.

Is the influence of Gandhi’s ideals finished then? Not quite. Activists from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement (an attempt by Modi to end Muslims’ constitutional equality with Hindus) claimed to be follow Gandhian principles of popular protest. The farmers’ movement against Modi’s plans to give corporations power over Indian agriculture also tried to mobilise Gandhi’s legacy to their cause.

Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, there is a clearer picture now of the man, stripped of much of the myth and mystique. A resource for many social movements forging alternative ways to meet contemporary challenges. Läs mer…

Biden and Trump are both accused of mishandling classified documents – but there are key differences

When the US Department of Justice revealed on January 21 that its investigators had found classified materials in Joe Biden’s Delaware home, there was outrage – or, to be more accurate in most cases faux outrage – in Republican party circles. They wasted no time in demanding further investigation into what appeared to be a mishandling of classified documents.

Republicans see a double opportunity in the US president’s sloppy handling of what is reported to be a small number of papers from his days as vice-president. It was a God-given opportunity to embarrass a sitting president gearing up to launch his re-election bid. But many in the GOP hoped it would also take the heat off an outwardly similar investigation into former president Donald Trump.

Trump allegedly took thousands of classified documents to his Florida home, Mar a Lago, when he left the White House in January 2021 – a matter that has been under FBI investigation since 2022.

Both the current president and his immediate predecessor have been found in possession of classified materials which should have been passed to the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara). This has been US law since the passage of the Presidential Records Act in 1978, which states that any records created or received by the president as part of his constitutional, statutory or ceremonial duties are the property of the US government, to be managed by Nara at the end of the administration.

As a result, US attorney general Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate each president’s actions. Jack Smith has been appointed to Trump’s case. Smith is a career prosecutor whose CV boasts a range of achievements including convicting gang members of killing New York cops, prosecuting a sitting US senator, and bringing war crimes cases at The Hague.

Robert Hur, the US attorney in Maryland during the Trump administration and now a litigation partner at a top Washington law firm, has been appointed to investigate Biden’s case.

While Garland has no power to indict a sitting president, the US Congress could impeach Biden if his actions are found to be a “high crime and misdemeanour”. But in Trump’s case, if he is found to have broken the Presidential Records Act after leaving office, he could face a fine or even a three-year jail term.

As you’d expect, the US media has been quick to compare Biden’s actions with those of Trump. Yet as of now, the cases appear very different.

In Biden’s case, investigators have reportedly found a very small number of papers – seemingly from his final year as vice-president – at his home and at the Penn Biden Center, a thinktank that the president founded in Washington DC. It has yet to be revealed how many documents there are or their level of classification.

As soon as they were unearthed, the Biden team handed them over to Nara and has cooperated with the authorities ever since, proactively inviting a search of Biden properties. Interestingly, a cache of similar papers has reportedly been found at the Indiana home of Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence.

The contrast with Trump is stark. He left the White House with thousands of pages of classified documents. Among the first batch recovered by Nara a year after they were discovered were documents described by national archivist Debra Steidel Wall as:

Classified national security information, up to the level of Top Secret and including Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program materials.

Rather than acquiesce to Nara’s demands under the law, Trump refused to return them, had to be raided by the FBI for the state to get them back, and then fought in court for months to keep them.

Under investigation: Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pennsylvania.
EPA-EFE/Tracie van Auken

It’s not clear why Trump took these documents. Speculation ranges from covering his back to seeking financial gain by using the materials in post-presidential dealings. It’s also possible he may have been trying to preserve his reputation prior to launching his third bid for the presidency.

So far then, two very different actions by the two most recent incumbents of the White House. However, for all Biden’s insistence in following the process, he made one crucial political misstep that could dog the remainder of his first term in office.

Biden’s misstep

On November 2 2022, Biden’s personal lawyers found the first batch of classified documents from the Obama-Biden era locked in an office that Biden had used since leaving office.

They informed Nara the same day, and its officials took possession of the papers the following day. This was five days before the crucial US midterm elections – yet Biden did not go public about the find until January 9 2023, having been tipped off by CBS News that it was running the story.

This was manna from heaven for Republicans. The party had failed to achieve the massive gains it had expected in the midterms, and was disheartened by Trump’s lacklustre return to the campaign trail. Biden’s approval rating, meanwhile, had ticked up six points from a July 2022 low of 38%. So, with new House speaker Kevin McCarthy in place, it was a chance to raise a stink in Congress at the very least.

Why did Biden wait? Undoubtedly, he recalled the devastation to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid when the then FBI director, James Comey, announced a week before the election that he had reopened the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private server to send classified emails while secretary of state, potentially breaking the Federal Records Act of 1950.

While Comey confirmed to Congress two days before the election that Clinton had no case to answer, the damage was done. Clearly Biden didn’t relish his own Clinton moment as a knife-edge midterm approached.

It is unlikely Biden will face charges over the papers found so far. But the discovery of any more caches of documents would be highly damaging for the president. And that’s the last thing the Democrats need if he plans to run in what is likely to be a close and rancorous 2024 election. Läs mer…

Modern mafia: Italy’s organised crime machine has changed beyond recognition in 30 years

The arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro, one of Sicily’s most infamous mafia bosses, has reminded many Italians of the extreme violence he was associated with when operating as a leading figure of Cosa Nostra.

Denaro appears to belong to another time – when the mafia brutally killed at will. And it is indeed true that the period of extreme violence with which he is associated has been confined to the past. But that does not in any way mean Italy’s organised crime groups have disappeared in the 30 years Denaro has been in hiding – they’ve just had a rethink about how they operate.

The Italian mafia has drastically reduced the number of homicides it carries out. Violence is now used in a much more strategic and less visible way. Rather than bloody and conspicuous murders, the modern mafia intimidates with crimes that are less likely to be reported to the police – such as arson and physical assault or sending threats. Murder is now a last resort.

The violent conflict between the Sicilian mafia and the Italian state reached its climax in the early 1990s. This was a period characterised by massacre after massacre, including the notorious bombing on Via D’Amelio in 1992 that killed magistrate Paolo Borsellino and five members of his entourage. In 1991 alone, there were 1,916 homicides – 718 of which were of a mafia nature.

The media covered every twist and turn. Politicians spoke in parliament about the scourge of organised crime. Mafia activity occupied a significant place in Italy’s public discourse and cultural imagination.

The scene following a mafia bombing in Sicily in 1992.
EPA

The authorities reacted with force. New laws were enacted, such as the “41-bis” prison regime, which included the threat of solitary confinement for members of organised crime gangs. A local municipality could be stripped of its powers for up to two years if local officials were thought to be working with the mafia, and a nationally appointed technocratic administration installed to clean house. A national anti-mafia directorate was also created so that more resources could be dedicated to the fight against organised crime.

In the years that followed, data shows a radical decrease in the number of mafia-related homicides, from 718 in 1991 to just 28 in 2019. In 2020, there were 271 homicides in Italy, compared with almost 2,000 in 1991. With 0.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Italy now has the fewest homicides in Europe after Iceland and Slovenia – fewer homicides per capita than Norway, Switzerland or Luxembourg.

At the same time, an interesting trend can be identified. In ongoing research, I’ve been analysing the archive of RAI (Italian National Television) over the past 40 years and studying the content of national and regional news bulletins. It’s clear that in years with more mafia homicides, media coverage related to the mafia increases, measured by the percentage of news on the mafia topic.

Conversely, when mafia homicides decrease, the topic is talked about less and there are fewer interventions in parliament. For example, between 1992 and 1994, organised crime was cited in 15% of speeches by parliamentarians. Within 20 years it was being mentioned in just 4.3% of speeches.

In other words, the more the mafia openly kills, the more attention it attracts from the media and politicians. It’s important to note that these are not necessarily years in which the mafia has been any less active in other ways. The smuggling, racketeering and corruption continues unabated. Only the most noticeable violence is in retreat.

Unreported and unnoticed

All of this suggests that the decrease in the number of homicides could, at least in part, be a strategic choice. Criminals have worked out what they need to do to fly under the radar and be left to their own devices.

This does not mean that violence is no longer used – it is simply more targeted. As reported every year by the anti-mafia charity Avviso Pubblico, local administrators are now the main targets of the mafia. They are sent threatening letters and are treated with aggression in person at a rate of about one incident per day. This phenomenon goes almost unnoticed by the media, which would surely pay attention were a member of the national parliament face intimidation or violence. At best, local officials might see their experiences reported in the local press; it’s rare for such incidents to be reported on at a national level.

Read more:
Matteo Messina Denaro: arrest of mafia boss after 30 years on the run is the end of an era – but not the end of the Cosa Nostra

The mafia thereby neatly achieves its goal of influencing local politics without attracting media and political attention. Election periods are particularly delicate: mayors are subject to the most threats at these times, particularly in the period immediately after taking office, as local criminals see an opportunity to take control of the newcomer.

This strategy has facilitated the mafia’s economic expansion. While the number of murders has declined, the number of properties and businesses seized from the mafia has ballooned – again suggesting that a drop in violent crime is not necessarily an indicator of a drop in other types of criminal activity. In 1991, the state seized two companies and four properties from the mafia. In 2019, 351 companies and 651 properties were seized.

Matteo Messina Denaro is pictured in the back of a police car following his arrest.
EPA/Carabinieri Handout

These figures could be read as indicating that law enforcement is doing a better job of identifying economic crime, and that could indeed be the case. But other data lends weight to the more pessimistic interpretation of the facts.

In 2019, assets relating to organised criminals were seized in 11 Italian provinces (largely in the northern regions) that had never previously experienced mafia activity. And today, each police operation related to organised crime leads to seizures of about €1 million (£880,000). At the end of the 1990s, the average value was about €50,000.

This suggests that far from being in retreat, the mafia is expanding into new areas of the country, and finding more lucrative opportunities as it goes. Läs mer…

The ’levelling up’ bidding process wastes time and money – here’s how to improve it

The UK government recently announced the results of the second round of successful bids for for its £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. This money is provided to local governments with the ambitious (but pretty unspecific) aim of “creating opportunities for everyone” by addressing economic and social imbalances across the UK.

Winning projects have received as much as £50 million. In this round, the money will be used for ventures including building Eden Project North on Morecambe’s seafront and improving railway infrastructure across the UK. Smaller grants will go to projects involving electric buses, theatre and castle renovations, and new leisure centres and affordable housing.

All of the applicants – whether they won funding or not – have one thing in common: they all participated in a competitive bidding process. And while most bids for funding were not selected (out of 529 applications, only 111 will receive levelling up money in this round), they all represent hundreds of hours of work by in-house specialists in local government, and sometimes paid external consultants as well.

Which is why it’s all the more disappointing for the losing bids. The almost 80% of local councils who were rejected not only lost a project in which they believed, but also the time, money and energy spent preparing the bid.

Now there will be no multifunctional square in Wigan, and Bradford can forget about its advanced robotics centre. Well, for now anyway. Local councils will get another chance to invest their time and money all over again, when they prepare bids for the next round of levelling up funding (at an as-yet unspecified date).

But research shows that there are ways to make the process more efficient and effective the next time around.

The levelling up beauty contest

So-called “beauty contests” – as the process for winning such funding is often described – are ubiquitous in UK local government funding. Around a third of the more than 450 grant schemes identified by the Local Government Association involve competitive bidding.

The cost of preparing a typical application is estimated to be between £20,000 and £30,000. This is a lot of money at any time, but particularly as many local councils are experiencing unprecedented budget cuts.

When projects compete for funding, it’s often referred to as a ‘beauty contest’.
Jade ThaiCatwalk/Shutterstock

According to the 52 pages of official guidance for the Levelling Up Fund, bidders had to explain how they would divide the requested amount into the three investment themes of the fund and their sub-categories. They had to provide explanations of why their project aligns with existing central government strategies and the various missions of the Levelling Up white paper. They also had to answer dozens of specific questions about the project, and complete a cost-benefit analysis over the lifetime of the investment.

But that’s not all. The bids then have to be read and evaluated by civil servants before going through several more rounds of ranking and tweaking by senior politicians, (who may well have their own objectives).

Weighing up the costs and benefits

Asking for detailed business cases helps rationalise decision-making during these kinds of processes. Beyond the basic financial evaluation, a cost-benefit analysis aims to measure the broader economic value of each project.

Winning project Eden North in Morecambe claims, for instance, that it will indirectly lead to more than 1,000 new jobs in a deprived region by attracting 740,000 visitors a year.

Indirect benefits are often non-monetary. Public transport projects typically have to put a value on estimated decreases in transportation times, air pollution, and road injuries, for example.

But comparing different cost-benefit analyses can mean ranking the value of a human life versus that of a rare bird, for example, or even present costs versus future benefits.

So while useful, such assessments are often not very precise when comparing things as different as a railway upgrade in Cornwall with a city centre regeneration project in Yorkshire. Research also shows these tools often select the kinds of projects most likely to see cost overruns. And drawing conclusions about small differences between generally “good” projects in this way can be pretty meaningless.

Unfortunately, creating precise but meaningless rankings often happens when resources are scarce. Prospective students craft their best personal statements to get into their dream schools, and researchers submit lengthy proposals to access increasingly competitive grant money. But research shows these review processes are often no better than random, and unable to consistently rank good projects.

We need new ways to rank projects bidding for funding.
feeling lucky/Shutterstock

A new way to rank

So why do we keep on ranking the unrankable? Streamlining bidding processes could save time and money by eliminating the bad projects, financing the outstanding ideas, and allocating the rest of the money randomly among the good ones.

However, experimental evidence shows this would be difficult in practice: bureaucrats and politicians like to be in control, even if the outcome is as good as random. Humans also like to interpret success as the result of hard work and not some sort of lottery.

In a recent large-scale experiment, I worked with Elias Bouacida, an assistant professor at Paris 8 University, on research which found that when given the choice, most individuals prefer to see their fate decided by a procedure that looks reasonable than by a lottery – even if they are aware that both are equally unpredictable.

A simple alternative – one that would be much more beneficial in terms of money and time saved on the bidding process – would be to replace competitive bidding with an allocation formula that assigns pots of money to local governments, letting them choose their own projects.

We could also offer fewer types of grant and allow applications to be re-used. Reducing application forms to a short cost-benefit analysis would help with this. And then applicants would simply need to trust in the imperfect outcome of a short but independent assessment by civil servants.

This would embrace the randomness of the outcomes, the current governmental preference for centralisation, and the human preference for the appearance of a reasonable process. Läs mer…

Rural Americans aren’t included in inflation figures – and for them, the cost of living may be rising faster

When the Federal Reserve convenes at the end of January 2023 to set interest rates, it will be guided by one key bit of data: the U.S. inflation rate. The problem is, that stat ignores a sizable chunk of the country – rural America.

Currently sitting at 6.5%, the rate of inflation is still high, even though it has fallen back slightly from the end of 2022.

The overall inflation rate, along with core inflation – which strips out highly volatile food and energy costs – is seen as key to knowing whether the economy is heating up too fast, and guided the Fed as it imposed several large 0.75 percentage point interest rate increases in 2022. The hope is that raising the benchmark rate, which in turn increases the costs of taking out a bank loan or mortgage, for example, will help reduce inflation back to the Fed target of around 2%.

But the main indicator of inflation, the consumer price index, is compiled by looking at the changes in price specifically urban Americans pay for a set basket of goods. Those living in rural America are not surveyed.

As economists who study rural America, we believe this poses a problem: People living outside America’s cities represent 14% of the U.S. population, or around 46 million people. They are likely to face different financial pressures and have different consumption habits than urbanites.

The fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys only urban populations for the consumer price index makes assessing rural inflation much more difficult – it may even be masking a rural-urban inflation gap.

To assess if such a gap exists, one needs to turn to other pricing data and qualitative analyses to build a picture of price growth in nonurban areas. We did this by focusing on four critical goods and services in which rural and urban price effects may be significantly different. What we found was rural areas may indeed be suffering more from inflation than urban areas, creating an underappreciated gap.

1. The cost of running a car in the country

Higher costs related to cars and gas can contribute to a urban-rural inflation gap, severely eating into any discretionary income for families outside urban areas, a 2022 report found.

This is likely related to there being considerable differences in vehicle purchases, ownership and lengths of commutes between urban and rural Americans.

Car ownership is integral to rural life, essential for getting from place to place, whereas urban residents can more easily choose cheaper options like public transit, walking or bicycling. This has several implications for expenses in rural areas.

Rural residents spend more on car purchases out of necessity. They are also more likely to own a used car. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge increase in used car prices as a result of a lack of new vehicles due to supply chain constraints. These price increases likely affected remote areas disproportionately.

Rural Americans tend to drive farther as part of their day-to-day activities. Because of greater levels of isolation, rural workers are often required to make longer commutes and drive farther for child care, with the proportion of those traveling 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more for work having increased over the past few years. In upper Midwest states as of 2018, nearly 25% of workers in the most remote rural counties commute 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more, compared with just over 10% or workers in urban counties.

Longer journeys mean cars and trucks will wear out more quickly. As a result, rural residents have to devote more money to repairing and replacing cars and trucks – so any jump in automotive inflation will hit them harder.

Though fuel costs can be volatile, periods of high energy prices – such as the one the U.S. experienced through much of 2022 – are likely to disproportionately affect rural residents given the necessity and greater distances of driving. Anecdotal evidence also suggests gas prices can be higher in rural communities than in urban areas.

2. Rising cost of eating at home – and traveling for groceries

As eating away from home becomes more expensive, many households may choose to eat in more often to cut costs. But rural residents already spend a larger amount on eating at home – likely due in part to the slimmer choices available for eating out.

This means they have less flexibility as food costs rise, particularly when it comes to essential grocery items for home preparation. And with the annual inflation of the price of groceries outpacing the cost eating out – 11.8% versus 8.3% – dining at home becomes comparably more expensive.

Rural Americans also do more driving to get groceries – the median rural household travels 3.11 miles (5 kilometers) to go to the nearest grocery store, compared with 0.69 miles (1.1 kilometers) for city dwellers. This creates higher costs to feed a rural family and again more vehicle depreciation.

Rural grocery stores are also dwindling in number, with dollar stores taking their place. As a result, fresh food in particular can be scarce and expensive, which leads to a more limited and unhealthy diet. And with food-at-home prices rising faster than prices at restaurants, the tendency of rural residents to eat more at home will see their costs rising faster.

3. The cost of growing old and ill outside cities

Demographically, rural counties trend older – part of the effect of younger residents migrating to cities and college towns for either work or educational reasons. And older people spend more on health insurance and medical services. Medical services overall have been rising in cost too, so those older populations will be spending more for vital doctors visits.

Again with health, any increase in gas prices will disproportionately hit rural communities more because of the extra travel needed to get even primary care. On average, rural Americans travel 5 more miles (8 kilometers) to get to the nearest hospital than those living in cities. And specialists may be hundreds of miles away.

4. Cheaper home costs, but heating and cooling can be expensive

Rural Americans aren’t always the losers when it comes to the inflation gap. One item in rural areas that favors them is housing.

Outside cities, housing costs are generally lower, because of more limited demand. More rural Americans own their homes than city dwellers. Since owning a home is generally cheaper than renting during a time of rising housing costs, this helps insulate homeowners from inflation, especially as housing prices soared in 2021.

But even renters in rural America spend proportionately less. With housing making up around a third of the consumer price index, these cost advantages work in favor of rural residents.

However, poorer-quality housing leaves rural homeowners and renters vulnerable to rising heating and cooling costs, as well as additional maintenance costs.

Inflation – a disproportionate burden

While there is no conclusive official quantitative data that shows an urban-rural inflation gap, a review of rural life and consumption habits suggests that rural Americans suffer more as the cost of living goes up.

Indeed, rural inflation may be more pernicious than urban inflation, with price increases likely lingering longer than in cities. Läs mer…

Independent voters can be decisive in elections – but they’re pretty unpredictable, not ’shadow partisans’

In the end there was no red wave. And there was no blue wave.

There was an independent wave.

Pollsters and pundits were counting on independent voters in the 2022 midterm elections to swing to the Republicans as they did in 2014 when Barack Obama was president. That’s when independent turnout in the midterms added up to 29% of all voters, and the GOP won an additional 13 seats in Congress.

Expectations for the 2022 midterm elections also were based on a similar pattern in the 2018 midterms, when Donald Trump was president. Independents then represented 30% of the voters, and they broke for Democrats 54% to 42%.

Almost the mirror image. But mirrors don’t always reflect reality.

Ongoing surveys by the Gallup organization show that self-identified independents have averaged 42% of the U.S. public over the past year. Their influence was felt in the 2022 midterms.

Nationally, these nonaligned voters were 31% of voters in the 2022 midterm. Despite the fact that the sitting president was a Democrat, they broke for Democrats by 2 percentage points, according to Edison Research Survey. They voted for Democrats by far bigger margins in key states with competitive Senate races – by 20 percentage points in Pennsylvania, 11 percentage points in Georgia and 16 percentage points in Arizona, where independents were fully 40% of those who voted.

Independent voters in the 2022 midterms made a decisive difference in close elections.

This came as a surprise to many pollsters and pundits who had predicted that independents would break for the GOP. They chalked up the pro-Democratic leanings of these unaligned voters to independents’ distrust of Republicans’ eclipsing their anxiety and distrust about inflation and the economy.

Maybe so. But as someone who studies independent voters in the U.S., I believe pollsters got it wrong because so little is known about the voting patterns of independent voters.

The continuing flight of millions of voters from the Republican and Democratic parties is reshaping the nation’s political landscape in ways no one can control or even predict. It threatens the very basis on which campaigns and elections have been analyzed.

This is a challenge to how America has for generations thought about politics: that it’s a two-party game and people vote for the party they’re loyal to. With growing numbers of independent voters, that’s changing.

Independent voters made a decisive difference in close elections in the 2022 midterms.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Independent voters or shadow partisans?

As outlined in our recently released book, “The Independent Voter,” my co-authors Jacqueline Salit and Omar Ali and I outline how political scientists and the media have been extremely skeptical and dismissive of independent voters. They often conclude that independents are uninformed, uninvolved “leaners” or “shadow partisans” who are likely voters for Democrats or Republicans but just don’t want to say so out loud.

We believe that conclusion is based on the two-party bias that is baked into the U.S. political system. That bias has misshaped the research and analytical tools used to understand this community of Americans.

A fundamental misunderstanding

Beginning in 1952, when individuals identified themselves to pollsters and researchers as independent voters, they were then asked a follow-up question: Did they prefer one party over the other?

Since most independents indicated a lean toward one of the two major political parties’ candidates, political scientists have labeled them as “leaners,” independents who are likely to vote for one party or another. Political scientists also created a category called the “pure independent,” which was used to describe the fewer than 10% of people who truly refused to say whether they leaned one way or another.

Based on our research, we believe that this conclusion is a fundamental misunderstanding of independent voters and their voting patterns. This misunderstanding has led to mistaken assumptions about this growing population of U.S. citizens who have chosen to distance themselves from the two major parties.

Currently, 42% of Americans identify as independents. This is the highest percentage of independents in more than 75 years of public opinion polling. They rarely numbered more than 20% of voters from 1940 to 1960.

Independents move around

The choice to identify as an independent is a meaningful one, especially so in these politically hyperpolarized times, when many Americans do not feel or no longer feel at home in either party.

This is the reason Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema gave for her December 2022 decision to change her party affiliation from Democrat to independent. Sinema said she believes that “[e]veryday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years. Pressures in both parties pull leaders to the edges, allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities.”

Surprisingly, little research has been done to investigate the meaning and culture of political independence, including very basic research into independent voting patterns over time.

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, right, with GOP Sen. Susan Collins from Maine in the background, announced in December 2022 that she had left the Democratic Party and become an independent.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In our recently published research in the journal Politics & Policy, my colleague Dan Hunting and I analyzed American National Election Studies data on political identification and voting choices from 1972 to 2020.

We observed significant volatility in loyalty to party among independent voters over more than one election. We found that independent voters were not reliably tied in their votes to one party or the other. From one election to another, they voted for Democrats, then Republicans and back again.

We also found evidence that a sizable number of independents move in and out of independent status from one election to another and in many cases actually register as members of one party or another, sometimes differently from one election to the next.

We suspect this a function of the political candidates running at any given time. It also reflects the fact that many states don’t allow independents to vote in primaries, or otherwise restrict their participation in primaries by requiring them to choose a major party ballot in order to vote. Currently, independents are barred or restricted from primary voting in half the states. And a sizable number of independents are similarly locked out of presidential primaries and caucus voting.

They’re unpredictable

Why does this matter?

We believe that classifying independent leaners as Republicans or Democrats mischaracterizes the partisanship of Americans and overestimates the rate of party voting. Most studies that find leaners are partisans simply do not account for a sizable number of independents who move in and out of independent status. Those studies also do not account for the voting patterns of independents over time.

In our research, we found that independents who vote as Democrats or Republicans in one election are often less likely to vote that way in the next election.

Which party’s candidates or initiatives they vote for often depends on specific candidates or issues on the ballot and on the political circumstances of any given election cycle.

Consequently, independents may have voted against the party in power in midterm elections for a decade. But when circumstances and options change, their voting patterns change, too.

This may well turn out to be a defining feature of being an independent: that individual candidates, issues and the broader social environment – not party loyalty – drive their choices.

Unpredictability characterizes independent voters in modern times. This is what gives them their power – and it is why a deeper understanding of this group is urgently needed. Läs mer…

Power struggles in nature can be more subtle, nuanced and strategic than just dog-eat-dog

Scientists used to think power in animals played out in a tidy and simple way. Nature is a dog-eat-dog place. Rams butt heads in a thunderous spectacle, and the winning male gets to mate with a female. Bigger, stronger, meaner animals beat up smaller, weaker, more timid ones, and then walk, fly or swim away with the prize.

All that’s certainly going on in the wild. But the natural world, it turns out, is so much more interesting than simply squaring off in brutish battles. As in tales of palace intrigue, the quest for power among animals is subtle, nuanced, strategic and, dare I say, beautiful.

I’m an animal behaviorist and evolutionary biologist who has been studying complex social behavior in nonhumans for 30 years. As I describe in my book, “Power in the Wild: The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways Animals Strive for Control over Others,” I have come to learn that many power struggles in animals look more like scenes from a Shakespearean drama than rounds in a boxing match.

To study the dynamics of power in nonhumans we need a definition. How do we gauge power in other species? I think of power as the ability to direct, control or influence the behavior of others in order to control access to resources. Using that definition, power pervades every aspect of the social lives of animals: what they eat, where they eat, where they live, who they mate with, how many offspring they produce, who they join forces with, who they work to depose and more.

Spies in the water

For years, my former Ph.D. student Ryan Earley and I were obsessed with power and spying in groups of a tiny fish called the swordtail. So much so that Ryan ended up building his Ph.D. dissertation around these fish whose brains can sit comfortably on the head of a pin.

Swordtails in an aquarium setting seem to keep tabs on who’s up and who’s down in the power rankings.
NASA

When two males in a group of swordtails meet, they often engage in a series of chases, followed by displays in which they twist their bodies into an S shape. If it’s not clear at that point who is top swordtail, the fish ram into each other. And if even that doesn’t settle matters, they circle each other, lock jaws and mouth-wrestle, thrashing about until a clear victor emerges.

Earley watched these pairwise power struggles for hundreds of hours and began to suspect he wasn’t the only one watching – other male swordtails seemed to be as well. To test that hunch, Earley took a page from the script of a spy thriller, where an unsuspecting target is watched from behind a one-way mirror.

He designed an experiment in which a pair of swordtails that were involved in aggressive interactions were on one side of an experimental tank and a spy fish swam freely on the other side. The spy and the combatants were separated by tinted glass that allowed the spy to see in but kept the pair of battling fish in the dark about being watched.

When spies were later paired up with the winner of the fight they’d watched, they stayed as far away as they could, which is just what a good spy should do when confronted with a potentially dangerous foe.

But what was even more interesting was how these 2-inch-long espionage agents processed what they had learned about the loser of the fight they’d watched. If a loser gave up quickly, spies later went after him. Alternatively, if the loser put up a good fight before capitulating, spies were much more cautious, dealing with that individual using the fish equivalent of kid gloves.

So, while there is a fierce physical component to power in swordtails, it’s subtle spying that adds nuance to the power dynamics in the group.

Playing to the audience

In their quest for power, animals don’t just spy on their rivals. They also change how they behave depending on who is watching.

Animal behaviorist Thomas Bugnyar has been studying this “audience effect” in one of the wiliest of birds, the raven. At a field station in the Austrian Alps, Bugnyar and his colleagues have been filming raven power struggles. These can be rather tame affairs, with one bird approaching and the other retreating. But on occasion they escalate into down-and-dirty fights, during which ravens resort to weaponry: their sharp beaks and claws.

From a raven’s perspective, Bugnyar and his team are spectators not worth paying any mind to. But audiences made up of other ravens are a different matter. If avian audience members are paying attention, they can potentially be manipulated to serve one’s interests.

Who’s watching influences how ravens call out during a skirmish.
mauribo/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Ravens on the losing end of a power struggle take advantage of that, modulating their defensive calls depending on exactly who is watching and listening. When the audience is made up of potential allies, including relatives and friends – meaning other birds the victim has strong ties to – ravens increase the rate at which they screech for help. Ravens nearby sometimes come to the aid of a victim who utters these calls.

Victims are not only paying attention to those who might help them, though, but also to audience members who might make their situation even worse by coming to the aid of the brute currently overpowering them. In order to draw as little attention to their unfortunate predicament as possible, victims reduce their call rates when an audience is composed primarily of birds who are likely to help their opponent.

The subtle undertone of this audience effect emphasizes the complex dynamics of power in nonhumans. There’s more to it than might makes right.

It’s a Machiavellian world out there

Ravens, swordtails and countless other species all over the planet demonstrate that human beings are not alone when it comes to employing every trick in the book to attain and maintain power. If you pay close attention and know what to look for, you can see and hear an animal kingdom replete with Machiavellian scenes of spies and actors, threats and bluffs – just as you watch our own species, on the news and in the office, connive, bluster and feint, all for the sake of power. Läs mer…

LA’s long, troubled history with urban oil drilling is nearing an end after years of health concerns

Los Angeles had oil wells pumping in its neighborhoods when Hollywood was in its infancy, and thousands of active wells still dot the city.

These wells can emit toxic chemicals such as benzene and other irritants into the air, often just feet from homes, schools and parks. But now, after nearly a decade of community organizing and studies demonstrating the adverse health impacts on people living nearby, Los Angeles’ long history with urban drilling is nearing an end.

In a unanimous vote on Jan. 24, 2023, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to ban new oil and gas extraction and phase out existing operations. It followed a similar vote by the Los Angeles City Council a month earlier. The city set a 20-year phaseout period, while the county has yet to set a timetable.

As environmental health researchers, we study the impacts of oil drilling on surrounding communities. Our research shows that people living near these urban oil operations suffer higher rates of asthma than average, as well as wheezing, eye irritation and sore throats. In some cases, the impact on residents’ lungs is worse than living beside a highway or being exposed to secondhand smoke every day.

LA was once an oil town with forests of derricks

Over a century ago, the first industry to boom in Los Angeles was oil.

Oil was abundant and flowed close to the surface. In early 20th-century California, sparse laws governed mineral extraction, and rights to oil accrued to those who could pull it out of the ground first. This ushered in a period of rampant drilling, with wells and associated machinery crisscrossing the landscape. By the mid-1920s, Los Angeles was one of the largest oil-exporting regions in the world.

A 1924 photo shows the oil derricks on Signal Hill.
Water and Power Museum Archive

The view across The Pike amusement park and downtown Long Beach, California, in 1940 shows a forest of oil derricks in the background.
Water and Power Museum Archive

Oil rigs were so pervasive across the region that the Los Angeles Times described them in 1930 as “trees in a forest.” Working-class communities were initially supportive of the industry because it promised jobs but later pushed back as their neighborhoods witnessed explosions and oil spills, along with longer-term damage to land, water and human health.

Tensions over land use, extraction rights and subsequent drops in oil prices due to overproduction eventually resulted in curbs on drilling and a long-standing practice of oil companies’ voluntary “self-regulation,” such as noise-reduction technologies. The industry began touting these voluntary approaches to deflect governmental regulation.

Increasingly, oil companies disguised their activities with approaches such as operating inside buildings, building tall walls and designing islands off Long Beach and other sites to blend in with the landscape. Oil drilling was hidden in plain sight.

Beverly Hills High School earned money from an oil well, hidden behind walls covered with drawings, that operated until 2017.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Today there are over 20,000 active, idle or abandoned wells spread across a county of 10 million people. About one-third of residents live less than a mile from an active well site, some right next door.

Since the 2000s, the advance of extractive technologies to access harder-to-reach deposits has led to a resurgence of oil extraction activities. As extraction in some neighborhoods has ramped up, people living in South Los Angeles and other neighborhoods in oil fields have noticed frequent odors, nosebleeds and headaches.

Closer to urban oil drilling, poorer lung function

The city of Los Angeles has no buffers or setbacks between oil extraction and homes, and approximately 75% of active oil or gas wells are located within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of “sensitive land uses,” such as homes, schools, child care facilities, parks or senior residential facilities.

Despite over a century of oil drilling in Los Angeles, until recently there was limited research into the health impacts. Working with community health workers and community-based organizations helped us gauge the impact oil wells are having on residents, particularly on its historically Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Oil drilling in Los Angeles.

The first step was a door-to-door survey of 813 neighbors from 203 households near wells in Las Cienegas oil field, just south and west of downtown. We found that asthma was significantly more common among people living near South Los Angeles oil wells than among residents of Los Angeles County as a whole. Nearly half the people we spoke with, 45%, didn’t know oil wells were operating nearby, and 63% didn’t know how to contact local regulatory authorities to report odors or environmental hazards.

Next, we measured lung function of 747 long-term residents, ages 10 to 85, living near two drilling sites. Poor lung capacity, measured as the amount of air a person can exhale after taking a deep breath, and lung strength, how strongly the person can exhale, and are both predictors of health problems including respiratory disease, death from cardiovascular problems and early death in general.

We found that the closer someone lived to an active or recently idle well site, the poorer that person’s lung function, even after adjusting for such other risk factors as smoking, asthma and living near a freeway. This research demonstrates a significant relationship between living near oil wells and worsened lung health.

People living up to 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) downwind of a well site showed lower lung function on average than those living farther away and upwind. The effect on their lungs’ capacity and strength was similar to impacts of living near a freeway or, for women, being exposed to secondhand smoke.

We found evidence that oil-related contaminants, including toxic metals such as nickel and manganese, are getting into the bodies of the neighbors. This indicates contamination may be getting into the community.

Using a community monitoring network in South Los Angeles, we were able to distinguish oil-related pollution in neighborhoods near wells. We found short-term spikes of air pollutants and methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at monitors less than 500 meters, about one-third of a mile, from oil sites.

When oil production at a site stopped, we observed significant reductions in such toxins as benzene, toluene and n-hexane in the air in adjacent neighborhoods. These chemicals are known irritants, carcinogens and reproductive toxins. They are also associated with dizziness, headaches, fatigue, tremors and respiratory system irritation, including difficulty breathing and, at higher levels, impaired lung function.

Vulnerable communities at risk

Many of the dozens of active oil wells in South Los Angeles are in historically Black and Hispanic communities that have been marginalized for decades. These neighborhoods are already considered among the most highly polluted, with the most vulnerable residents in the state. Residents contend with multiple environmental and social stressors.

A state app called Well Finder locates active oil wells. Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed phasing out oil extraction statewide by 2045.
State of California 2022

The city’s timeline for phasing out existing wells is set for 20 years, leaving concerns about continuing health effects during this period. We believe these neighborhoods need sustained attention to reduce the existing health effects, and the city needs a plan for a just transition and cleanup of the oil fields as the areas transition to new uses.

This updates an article originally published Feb. 3, 2022. Läs mer…

The Last of Us: HBO’s adaptation elevates the video game’s themes of love and family

Warning: this article contains spoilers.

From the widely panned Super Mario Bros. movie (1993) to Netflix’s Resident Evil (2022) releasing to decidedly mixed reviews, game adaptations have historically been cursed on both big and small screens.

HBO’s series based on the hugely successful PlayStation game The Last of Us, is the latest entry into this genre. Early indications from critics and viewers suggest it has broken the dreaded video game curse.

The series occupies a unique position. In 2013, when the game was released, post-apocalypses were incredibly popular science fiction worlds. In 2023, such pandemics, as we’ve discovered, hue closer to science fact.

The scene in which protagonists Joel and Ellie encounter a mass grave has a distinctly different impact when humanity has so recently had to grapple with such tragedies in the real world.

Trailer for HBO’s The Last of Us.

In the series, a child’s blanket links this scene to a flashback of mass evacuation in the wake of the Cordyceps (the fungus that evolves to infect humans) outbreak foreshadowing the series’ continuing exploration of the values of family, connection and community.

Love in the time of Cordyceps

The Last of Us game released in 2013 among what critics have called the “dadification” of games – a period in which many releases focused on paternal protagonists.

This “dadification” was driven partly by maturing technology that allowed more complex stories to be told. Also, developers who had grown up playing games were maturing and starting families, including The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann.

The kinds of stories they wanted to tell matured too, resulting in games addressing parent-child relationships, including The Walking Dead (2012) and God of War (2018).

The theme of parenthood is prevalent in The Last of Us too. While Joel and Ellie’s relationship makes this clear, this theme extends to other characters including Joel’s brother Tommy, an expectant father. HBO’s adaptation takes this a step further by also briefly exploring Ellie’s connection to her mother.

Creators of HBO The Last of Us explain the role of fatherhood in the show.

The value of parenthood in the game unfurls into the show’s focus on family. Dialogue throughout the series reflects its importance: Joel reminding Tommy of their familial bond, a scientist who just wants to be with their family, the dying teenage bandit pleading to be returned to his mother.

The value of family extends to supporting characters who are exclusive to, or expanded upon in, the series. Brothers Henry and Sam share a bond in the series compared with the game’s portrayal of a surrogate parent-child relationship that complements Joel and Ellie’s.

The series further extends the game’s exploration of family by having Henry and Sam’s story intersect with new character Kathleen. The leader of the Kansas Quarantine Zone resistance movement, Kathleen has her own motivations surrounding her brother.

A gamechanging adaptation

While family is a core concern of the show, the theme of connection is also explored. This can be seen in its many “found” families. Joel and smuggling partner Tess’ relationship gets more screen time than in the game, as does the short-lived Joel-Tess-and-Ellie family dynamic.

Sarah and Joel, played by Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal.
Shane Harvey / HBO

This extends to the series’ other couplings, from episode-length explorations of Joel’s friends and existing game characters Bill and Frank, to Ellie’s relationship with school friend Riley, to Firefly leader Marlene’s connection to Anna – a best friend with a pivotal story role.

Even the Cordyceps is not immune to the rhetoric of connection. The spores by which the fungus spreads in the game have been changed to fungal tendrils in the show. These tendrils connect all the Infected – the series’ version of zombies.

Read more:
The Last of Us: fungal infections really can kill – and they’re getting more dangerous

Step on a tendril in one place and you’ll wake a dozen Infected in another. The fungal spores in the game are an impersonal, environmental hazard. The series’ tendrils instead actively seek out new victims and in one unsettling scene, defile a fundamental act of human connection and love to achieve this.

What it means to be human in a world ravaged by a pandemic is also explored. The politics of peaceful communities is examined, from the militaristic Quarantine Zone where Joel first meets Ellie, to Tommy’s settlement – jokingly but truthfully derided as “communism” by Joel.

More important, perhaps, is the exploration of hostile communities that game players would typically shoot their way through. Kathleen’s control of the Kansas resistance group is given a two-episode arc that ends with Joel and Ellie burying Henry and Sam – a humanising end to their story the game did not afford.

The motto of the resistance group, the Fireflies.
Liane Hentscher / HBO

The notion of burial as a human ritual is unearthed again a few episodes later when a girl asks in-game antagonist David, the leader of a group at Silver Lakes Resort, if her father can be buried – a request he denies.

The episode explores David and his group, humanising them more than in the game. This further humanisation then stands in stark contrast to a reveal that poses the ultimate question of where the tipping point is between human and monster.

These values are framed in relation to the show’s ultimate theme: love. Joel loved Sarah. Bill loved Frank. Kathleen loved her brother. David’s community loved him. This love, derived from the personal relationships found and strengthened amid chaos, breeds hope not only for the world portrayed in the show but also for our own.

A repeated motif in the series is the motto of the resistance group, the Fireflies: “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.” In a world all too familiar with pandemics in 2023, this masterful adaptation of The Last of Us is something bright indeed. Läs mer…

Somaliland’s oil find could reset the regional balance: here’s how

The presence of oil in Somaliland has been confirmed by a recent exploration. The discovery has raised the stakes in Somaliland’s claim for independence from Somalia as it holds the potential for a new stream of revenue for the semi-autonomous state. But the oil exploration is deepening the rift with Somalia, which claims sovereignty over the region. Michael Walls answers five key questions.

What is Somaliland’s hydrocarbon potential?

In 2020, Norwegian seismic survey company, TGS, estimated that the Somali basin as a whole likely holds offshore reserves of about 30 billion barrels, with additional onshore reserves, although land estimates are considerably less consistent. Assessments generally include Somaliland and would place Somalia reserves at about the same level as Kazakhstan, which would give the area the 18th or 19th largest reserve globally, as assessed in 2016.

Geological conditions seem to support the view that there are likely to be commercially viable deposits in the region. Whether they prove close to estimates remains unknown at this stage.

There is also evidence of offshore (undersea) reserves in the region, as well as onshore (beneath the land) in the Somali region of the neighbouring Ethiopia. Bordering Somalia, and located next to Oromia Regional State, the Somali Regional State (also Ogaden) is Ethiopia’s second largest federal region.

Why has it taken so long to make an oil find?

This find is being billed as the first discovery in Somaliland but in fact there have been several instances of oil seepage. An oil seep occurs when geological or unrelated human activity results in oil “seeping” into the ocean or onto land. In such cases, the physical appearance of oil occurs unexpectedly rather than as a result of deliberate exploration. It is unsurprisingly taken as evidence of a substantial reserve that is close to the surface, but doesn’t always indicate the presence of commercially viable quantities or accessibility.

Genel Energy, the UK oil exploration firm on whose concession this discovery occurred, has held rights to explore in Somaliland since 2012. So the find isn’t quite the sudden and unexpected bonus that’s been implied by some reports.

Progress has been slow because Somaliland’s lack of international sovereign recognition creates an uncertain context for significant investment. Somalia still claims sovereignty over Somaliland even though the region has operated as a fully if informally independent state since 1991.

This creates a vacuum. The Somali federal authorities cannot enter into meaningful agreements over exploration or extraction in Somaliland. Somaliland is limited by investment risk. And Somalia’s threats and complaints emphasise that risk.

This has not stopped Somaliland from entering into agreements, but it has slowed activities taking place under them.

In addition, there have been disputes within Somaliland over how the proceeds of hydrocarbon exploitation would be shared.

One of the areas with significant potential is the Nugaal Valley, which stretches across the border of eastern Somaliland into Puntland. Genel Energy was already exploring in that zone a decade ago. It withdrew for a time in 2013, citing security concerns. In the same time period, Africa Oil secured rights from the Puntland administration that overlapped with those issued by Somaliland to explore in the Nugaal Valley. A 2014 UN report expressed concern that hydrocarbon exploration in the Nugaal Valley risked fuelling violent conflict. Africa Oil ceased active operation in the area a year later.

The most recent find is in a different area of Somaliland: Salaxley in the Maroodi Jeex region, which is less politically volatile. This makes it more likely that Genel Energy will be able to advance its work.

What challenges lie ahead?

The uncertainty created by a lack of international recognition makes it difficult to mobilise sufficient investment. And there is little doubt that Somalia will continue to remain hostile to both exploration and extraction.

Similarly, local sensitivities around the sharing of financial rewards will need to be managed with care and deep local engagement.

Some commentaries have suggested that the newly discovered oil could be abundant. But the reserves could also prove limited and may present technical challenges in extraction. It is therefore possible that extractive plans will operate at the margin of financial feasibility.

The latest find was the result of an accidental release of oil during drilling for water rather than from deliberate exploration. This may be evidence of a significant and easily accessed reserve, but seepages and strikes like this have happened in the past in Somaliland. A more extensive geo-seismic surveying will be needed before the full extent of the reserve is confirmed.

What would be the political implications of oil wealth in Somaliland?

I had previously studied the place of oil in Somalia and its breakaway states . Somali society is kinship-based. Specific groups identify with particular geographic areas. This means that the political implications vary sharply depending on the location of any oil discovery.

Previous experience of exploration in the Nugaal Valley showed how socially and politically volatile the exercise could be.

The area of the latest find, around Salaxley, is likely to prove less volatile. Unlike the Nugaal Valley, Salaxley has not customarily been subject to the same inter-clan and political disputes. But there will still need to be significant negotiation over sharing of the proceeds of exploration. The government will be keen to ensure that the windfall advantages those in power. Local clan groups will be keen to ensure there is a clear benefit accruing to their communities. Other clans will equally want a say in how increased wealth benefits Somaliland as a whole.

Depending on how negotiations conclude, there is potential for this clan-based process to mitigate the “resource curse” effect. In other words, the system of inter-group negotiation that underpins Somali society might provide some protection from the narrow economic impact of oil wealth that has been felt elsewhere. However, that is by no means certain and the process of negotiation itself has the potential to fuel violence, just as the UN worried in 2014.

Either way, the Somaliland economy remains tiny. Any influx of significant new wealth, even on a fairly modest scale, will create new social, economic and therefore political tensions.

What are the implications for regional dynamics?

The regional impact will depend on the extent of the discovery. Somalia has consistently objected to hydrocarbon exploration in Somaliland as all concessions have been granted under Somaliland legislation. It would object even more strongly to commercial extraction.

Ethiopia’s interest is likely to be more equivocal. Salaxley is close to the Ethiopian border, and not far from active hydrocarbon exploration concessions in Ethiopia’s Somali region. If the Somaliland reserves prove to be extensive after a technical appraisal, it would suggest that those in the adjacent Ogaden Basin are also significant. In this case Somaliland and Ethiopia would hold a mutual interest in ensuring sufficient regional security to enable extraction. Läs mer…

Deep Fake Neighbour Wars: ITV’s comedy shows how AI can transform popular culture

ITVX’s Deep Fake Neighbour Wars is the breakthrough in television’s use of artificial intelligence that experts in the cultural use of deepfakes like myself have been waiting for.

In this six-part series, celebrities have apparently invaded our everyday lives. Presented as a reality TV show, we meet suburban neighbours in Catford, south London. Idris Elba (handyman/delivery driver) takes pride in the garden behind his ground-floor flat, until new upstairs tenant Kim Kardashian (bus driver) starts to exercise her right to use the shared space. They recount the story of a dispute that ultimately turns to violence.

Deepfakes of Idris Elba and Kim Kardashian in Deep Fake Neighbour Wars.
Tiger Aspect Productions

In a second storyline set in Southend, Greta Thunberg (single mum) has adopted the sunny coastal Essex town to escape the cold of northern Sweden, until she confronts neighbours Conor McGregor (florist) and Ariana Grande (scaffolder) – Christmas decoration fanatics with a permanent display of noisy, flashing reindeer in front of their bungalow. Cue high drama when Thunberg takes justice into her own hands.

It’s a brilliant play on the mockumentary, a genre that brought us film comedy classics such as This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Borat (2006, 2020), and TV hits like Parks and Recreation (2006-2015).

The creative potential of deepfakes

Deepfakes sound suspicious just from their name, which tells us immediately that we’re being deceived. Many producers now prefer the term “synthetic media” to avoid this connection.

The major ethical issue with deepfakes is the idea that they’re trying to trick us – but this isn’t a problem when they’re used for obvious comedy.

It may look like Idris Elba is living an alternative reality in Catford, but we laugh because we know clearly that this isn’t the real thing. Deepfakes can twist and rejuvenate pop culture through their playfulness, while also challenging us to consider what we accept as real.

As philosopher Adrienne De Ruiter explains, “deepfake technology and deepfakes are morally suspect, but not inherently morally wrong.”

Deep Fake Neighbour Wars’ deepfakes of Conor McGregor and Ariana Grande.
Tiger Aspect Productions

This year marks a watershed moment for deepfakes. The technology is at a cultural crossroads in which the primary use in its early years – non-consensual pornography – is being overshadowed by the technology’s adoption by mainstream popular culture.

Neighbour Wars follows on from other attempts to use deepfakes in television. In 2020, Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message featured Queen Elizabeth II speaking to the nation during the pandemic.

At that time, broadcast deepfakes were made by colossal visual effects (VFX) companies – Channel 4’s Christmas message was made by the UK’s Framestore, which also created the VFX for big movies including Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts.

Sassy Justice, by the makers of South Park, features a deepfake Donald Trump.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone (makers of South Park) also tried out deepfakes in 2020. They posted a 15-minute spoof consumer rights programme, Sassy Justice, on YouTube. Its fictitious host, consumer advocate Fred Sassy, was played by a deepfake Donald Trump.

Sassy Justice was a true forerunner of Deep Fake Neighbour Wars, as it created multiple deepfake celebrities also including Julie Andrews and Mark Zuckerberg. The video’s hokey visual style spoofed low-budget daytime TV and joked with our gullibility, ensuring its audience was always aware of its AI origins.

‘It’s all the real thing’

Smaller online content creators have been the main innovators of deepfakes in pop culture. Corridor Digital was set up by two geeky guys from Minnesota – Sam Gorski and Nico Pueringer – who moved to Los Angeles to produce viral videos.

Corridor Digital’s viral Keanu Reeves video.

When deepfakes emerged, they jumped on the technology and produced a breakout video, Keanu Reeves Stops A Robbery, in 2019. As deepfakes expert Lisa Bode writes, Corridor Digital’s work demonstrated how the technology was “widely available and now affordable, or even free, in the case of open-access deepfake generation face replacement apps like Faceswap”.

The team’s YouTube channel now features dozens of short deepfake videos, many of them boasting how they can do visual effects better than Hollywood studios.

Chris Ume is a Belgian deepfake creator who stunned the online world in 2022 when he produced short videos of Tom Cruise at such a high level of resolution and believability that only the script reassured us they were fake.

Chris Ume’s viral deepfaked Tom Cruise video.

Ume has taken his deepfake expertise into the world of mainstream TV. In August 2020, he entered America’s Got Talent with collaborator Tom Graham. The pair brought singer Daniel Emmet on to the stage and rolled a TV camera directly in front of him. When Emmet began to sing, his image on the massive screen above was deepfaked live into that of Simon Cowell performing You’re The Inspiration.

The delighted audience and judges progressed the act to the show’s final. As with comedy, this use of deepfakes avoided any sense of deception (the real Simon Cowell was sitting with the jury, aghast).

The future of deepfakes

The music industry is set to become a rich area for deepfakes, and artists have already begun experimenting with the technology.

Last year, Kendrick Lamar released The Heart Part 5, with a video using deepfakes to transform him into OJ Simpson, Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant. Lamar’s groundbreaking work was quickly followed by fellow rapper Kanye West adopting deepfakes in his video for Life of the Party.

Like a magician’s act, deepfakes create wonder (and fear) – and like all new technologies, this AI generates a buzz. Deep Fake Neighbour Wars shows that deepfakes don’t need to remain as short online clips; they can now be used to make longform TV content. Expect ITV’s venture to be the tip of the iceberg. Läs mer…

100 million Nigerians are at risk of neglected tropical diseases: what the country is doing about it

Neglected tropical diseases are a group of communicable diseases found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. They are classified as “neglected” because they have received little or no attention in terms of prevention and control for several decades. The World Health Organization guides the way they are identified and managed.

These 20 conditions mostly affect impoverished communities, women and children. Most people affected by them live in rural areas where houses are overcrowded, and basic infrastructure such as water and toilet facilities are lacking. More than one billion people are estimated to be affected globally.

The neglected tropical diseases include onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, soil-transmitted helminth infections and trachoma. Also among them are dengue fever, leptospirosis, trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, Buruli ulcer, leprosy and snake-bite envenoming.

More than 170,000 people die of these diseases annually – fewer than malaria with 627,000 deaths in 2020. But the diseases can cause disfigurement, stigmatisation, malnutrition and cognition problems, leading to a range of social, economic and psychological burdens for those affected.

Nigeria carries a particularly heavy burden. A quarter of the people affected by neglected tropical diseases in Africa live in Nigeria. An estimated 100 million people in the country are at risk for at least one of the diseases and there are several million cases of people being infected with more than one of them.As an epidemiologist who has studied some of these diseases for 21 years and provided technical support for control activities, I can say that Nigeria has made progress in controlling them. The country has eradicated Guinea-worm disease and two states have eliminated onchocerciasis. But it can still do more.

Other diseases are still endemic in Nigeria. There is a National Neglected Tropical Diseases steering committee overseeing control efforts. There are also control units at the federal, state and local government levels. Local and international donors are helping as partners. Progress has been made in mapping of the diseases, development of master plans and the delivery of intervention.

Global efforts

The WHO puts efforts to control the diseases into two categories: prevention and management.

Preventive control is about administration of efficacious, safe, and inexpensive medicines. The diseases that can be prevented this way include onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, soil-transmitted helminths and trachoma. They are the most common in sub-Saharan Africa.

Diseases that lack appropriate tools for large scale use are managed case by case.

In 2012, pharmaceutical companies, donors, endemic countries and NGOs signed the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases. They committed to control, eliminate or eradicate 10 priority diseases by 2020.

In 2020, World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day was declared, to be marked on 30 January every year.

The various global initiatives have built capacity for African scientists through research grants, and created awareness and funding partnerships to meet the WHO 2030 elimination goals in Africa.

Read more:
How The Gambia beat trachoma, an infection that causes blindness

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Nigeria

Nigeria began concerted efforts to combat human and animal trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness and nagana) in 1947 with the establishment of Nigerian Institute for Trypanosomiasis Research, Kaduna. Large scale human onchocerciasis (river blindness) control efforts started in 1988. When drug efficacy evidence become available, the National Lymphatic Filariasis Elimination Programme was established in 1997.

Support for the procurement, delivery and distribution of medicines increased in the 1990s through donor programmes. Control units were established at the Federal Ministry of Health, and all 36 states were given the responsibility to implement control activities using recommended medicines.

To reach the marginalised populations who bear the greatest burden of these diseases, volunteers visit from door to door to administer medicines to people in their community. Teachers also played similar role where the drug distribution is school-based.

These interventions are supported through the national budget, bilateral aid and direct support from development partners. Medicines are donated by pharmaceutical companies, and deliveries are coordinated by the WHO.

The treatment data for human onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) from 2014 to 2021 showed progress in the number of people treated and achieving WHO treatment coverage of 65%. However, for schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and soil transmitted helminthiasis (intestinal worms), Nigeria has not been able meet the recommended coverage of 75% set by WHO.

This shows that the control and elimination of these diseases are in progress.

The lowest coverage was recorded during the COVID pandemic 2020 and 2021.

Two states (Plateau and Nasarawa) have interrupted the transmission of onchocerciasis. A number of local governments are near elimination stage – 61 in 2021. This shows that the disease is under control.

Lymphatic filariasis is also on a downward trend, but only 37 local government areas are nearing elimination. The disease is found in 520 local governments out of 774 in Nigeria.

For schistosomiasis, treatment coverage has been below the WHO target. This is largely due to inadequate drug supply and the challenges of treating children in and outside the school system. The WHO introduced new guidelines on control and elimination in 2022. The road map targets the elimination of schistosomiasis as a public health problem, globally. The new guidelines also recommended the implementation of other interventions such as provision of water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH), behavioural health education and snail control to break the transmission of schistosomiasis in affected communities.

For soil transmitted helminthiasis, 117 local government areas have achieved more than 75% treatment coverage out of the 147 targeted for treatment.

Nigeria has taken massive strides towards reducing trachoma prevalence.

Read more:
How COVID has affected the control of neglected tropical diseases

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The way forward

Preventive control of neglected tropical diseases relies on mass administration of drugs. This requires substantial financial and human resources. More importantly, effective communal participation is vital. But there is low public awareness about these diseases and the efforts being made to control them.

The shortage of medicines, poor financial support and material logistics for treatment campaigns are not helping control and elimination efforts. Additional challenges are poor political will, lack of NGO partner in some states, and apathy among drug distributors and health workers due to lack of incentives. These challenges got worse during the pandemic.

Government and stakeholders at all levels should commit to control activities through increased funding. There should also be sensitisation of citizens through advocacy to support control activities in their communities. It is important that Nigeria should enact legislation to drive and scale up control activities. Otherwise the country would be left behind when these diseases have been controlled or eliminated in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa by 2030. Läs mer…

Earwax removal no longer available at GP surgeries – leaving many struggling to hear

Each year, more than 2 million people in the UK have troublesome earwax that needs to be removed. However, more people are finding that this service is no longer being provided at their GP surgery. In fact, 66% of people seeking these services have been told that earwax removal is no longer available on the NHS.

Questions have been raised in parliament about why people are being referred to earwax clinics in hospitals. This results in long waiting times and is not the best use of specialist services.

Many people are resorting to using private services on the high street that cost around £50 to £100. But the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), a charity, reports that more than a quarter of people they surveyed cannot afford to pay to have their earwax removed privately. This especially applies to people requiring recurrent earwax removal, such as those who wear hearing aids and earbud earphones – which tend to cause impacted earwax.

Our bodies produce earwax to clean, protect and keep our ears healthy. Movement of the jaw, as well as the skin that lines the ear canal, causes the wax to move to the entrance of the ear where it then flakes off or is carried away when we wash. Sometimes this doesn’t work and the earwax becomes impacted. Impacted earwax that blocks the ear canal is a major reason for GP consultations.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) is clear that NHS earwax removal services should be provided in the community where demand is greatest. Why is this recommendation for community earwax removal services falling on deaf ears?

A recommendation from Nice is not a mandate, and GPs are under no obligation to offer an earwax removal service. There are several reasons this service is often no longer offered in primary care, some of which are based on misunderstandings.

First, manual water-filled syringes for flushing out earwax can cause high pressure of water and might damage the patient’s ears – not something a GP wants to be responsible for doing. (Alternative cheap, low-pressure water irrigation devices are now widely available.)

Second, there is a mistaken belief among some GPs that earwax can be self-managed using wax-softening ear drops on their own. However, there is no good quality evidence that softened earwax dissolves and magically disappears into the ether.

Effects of impacted earwax

The most common symptom caused by impacted earwax is hearing difficulty. This is often accompanied by discomfort and noises in the ears. Healthwatch Oxfordshire, a charity, revealed that adults with earwax required between one and four NHS visits before attending a dewaxing clinic and that the time from first experiencing symptoms to final resolution was three to 30 weeks.

Try simulating the effect of impacted wax by walking around with your fingers firmly plugging both of your ears for a few days. You’ll soon realise that what at first sounds trivial is no laughing matter.

Hearing difficulty means you can’t communicate with ease or listen to the TV. It also reduces your ability to detect and monitor sounds in the environment, such as an approaching car. Hearing difficulty can lead to social isolation and depression. More than nine out of ten people report that impacted earwax was at least moderately bothersome to them, and 60% said it is very or extremely bothersome.

Nice recommends that impacted earwax is removed by irrigating the ear with the newer, safer low-pressure water irrigation devices, or microsuction to hoover it up. When questioned, most people do not have a preference, although some report that water irrigation is messy and others that microsuction causes discomfort and is noisy.

Removal of earwax in health centres using microsuction results in levels of patient satisfaction that are at least as good as those provided in a hospital.

Before removal, pre-treatment drops or sprays are used to soften the earwax. These are applied daily for up to five days before removal. There is a vast array of pre-treatment earwax softening products, but none are better than any other. As a result, most people use olive oil, which can be administered as drops or as a spray.

There are a variety of self-administered, earwax management products on the market but the evidence for these is limited and none are currently recommended by Nice. An example is the use of Hopi ear candles or cones. To use these, you lie with your head on one side and place the lit candle in the upward-facing ear.

These are reported to work by softening the wax and then sucking it out of the ear canal and up the cone like a chimney. There is no evidence to support this claim. These candles and cones cost money and are ineffective.

The author, Kevin Munro, tries Hopi ear candles.
Kevin Munro, Author provided

How it could be done

If individual GP surgeries lack the expertise or funding to provide earwax removal services, an alternative is for groups of practices to collaborate as a network. The portable nature of modern wax removal equipment is ideal in such settings and for use in home visits. This approach could be especially valuable for vulnerable people, such as those in care homes where 44% of residents with dementia also have impacted earwax.

In the meantime, the withdrawal of NHS earwax removal services is having a far-reaching impact, with people experiencing bothersome and distressing symptoms, sometimes leading to poor mental health. Läs mer…

Jim Chalmers lays out agenda for pursuit of ’values-based capitalism’

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has laid out an economic blueprint for pursuing “values-based capitalism”, involving public-private co-investment and collaboration and the renovation of key economic institutions and markets.

In a 6000-word essay in The Monthly titled “Capitalism after the crises”, Chalmers declares the Labor government wants “to change the dynamics of politics, towards a system where Australians and businesses are clear and active participants in shaping a better society”.

Chalmers’ essay looks to the future after the uncertainties of three global crises – the GFC, the pandemic, and the current energy and inflation shock.

The essay comes 14 years after then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s essay in The Monthly on the GFC, and will be seen in terms of Chalmers’ longer term leadership ambitions as well as his directions as treasurer.

While the three crises have been very different, Chalmers writes, their common thread is “vulnerability. In each case our communities, economies, budgets, environment, financial and energy markets, international relationships, and our politics – already fragile enough – became more so.”

Chalmers says Australia’s current economic outlook is being largely shaped by the war in Europe, how China emerges from its COVID-zero policy, potential recessions in large northern hemisphere economies, domestic interest rate rises, and the uncertainty of future natural disasters.

Australia’s growth is expected to slow considerably this year, and unemployment is expected to rise from historic lows.

“But Australia can do more and do better than just batten down the hatches in 2023 or hope for the best,” Chalmers writes.

“We can build something better, more meaningful and more inclusive.”

Doing so relies on three objectives: an orderly energy and climate transition; a more resilient and adaptable economy, and growth that puts equality and equal opportunity at the centre.

“How do we build this more inclusive and resilient economy, increasingly powered by cleaner and cheaper energy?

”By strengthening our institutions and our capacity, with a focus on the intersection of prosperity and wellbeing, on evidence, on place and community, on collaboration and cooperation.

”By reimagining and redesigning markets – seeking value and impact, strengthening safeguards and guardrails in areas of unchecked risk.

”And with coordination and co-investment – recognising that government, business, philanthropic and investor interests and objectives are increasingly aligned and intertwined.”

Stressing the need for open thinking, Chalmers foreshadows that “a depoliticised and more regular” Intergenerational Report will give a clear sense of Australia’s long term future, a Tax Expenditure Statement will provide more transparency about budget pressures, and the Employment White Paper will plan for a highly skilled work force.

Chalmers says the government will “renovate” the Reserve Bank, and “revitalise” the Productivity Commission.

“These institutions need to help deliver change in areas of disadvantage, to prod and inform and empower,” he says.

“It’s not just our economic institutions that need renewing and restructuring, but the way our markets allocate and arrange capital as well.”

In this, governments have a leadership role, not in “picking winners” but in “defining priorities, challenges and missions”.

One powerful tool for this is “co-investment”, Chalmers says, citing the role of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Just as important is “collaboration” with the private sector. “There’s a genuine appetite among so many forward-looking businesspeople and investors for something more aligned with their values, and our national goals.”

Market design and disclosure are also important “to ensure our private markets create public value.”

Chalmers points to the clean energy sector as an example of how private investment increases when the government ensures there is first class information.

“So in 2023, we will create a new sustainable finance architecture, including a new taxonomy to label the climate impact of different investments. This will help investors align their choices with climate targets, help businesses who want to support the transition get finance more easily, and ensure regulators can stamp out greenwashing.”

The government will also try to expand “impact investing”.

“Across the social purpose economy, in areas such as aged care, education and disability, effective organisations with high-quality talent can offer decent returns and demonstrate a social dividend – but they find it hard to grow because they find it hard to get investors.

”Right now, the market framework that would enable that investment in effect doesn’t properly exist.” Läs mer…

Artificial intelligence in South Africa comes with special dilemmas – plus the usual risks

When people think about artificial intelligence (AI), they may have visions of the future. But AI is already here. At its base, it is the recreation of aspects of human intelligence in computerised form. Like human intelligence, it has wide application.

Voice-operated personal assistants like Siri, self-driving cars, and text and image generators all use AI. It also curates our social media feeds. It helps companies to detect fraud and hire employees. It’s used to manage livestock, enhance crop yields and aid medical diagnoses.

Alongside its growing power and its potential, AI raises moral and ethical questions. The technology has already been at the centre of multiple scandals: the infringement of laws and rights, as well as racial and gender discrimination. In short, it comes with a litany of ethical risks and dilemmas.

But what exactly are these risks? And how do they differ among countries? To find out, I undertook a thematic review of literature from wealthier countries to identify six high-level, universal ethical risk themes. I then interviewed experts involved in or associated with the AI industry in South Africa and assessed how their perceptions of AI risk differed from or resonated with those themes.

The findings reflect marked similarities in AI risks between the global north and South Africa as an example of a global south nation. But there were some important differences. These reflect South Africa’s unequal society and the fact that it is on the periphery of AI development, utilisation and regulation.

Other developing countries that share similar features – a vast digital divide, high inequality and unemployment and low quality education – likely have a similar risk profile to South Africa.

Knowing what ethical risks may play out at a country level is important because it can help policymakers and organisations to adjust their risk management policies and practices accordingly.

Universal themes

The six universal ethical risk themes I drew from reviewing global north literature were:

Accountability: It is unclear who is accountable for the outputs of AI models and systems.
Bias: Shortcomings of algorithms, data or both entrench bias.
Transparency: AI systems operate as a “black box”. Developers and end users have a limited ability to understand or verify the output.
Autonomy: Humans lose the power to make their own decisions.
Socio-economic risks: AI may result in job losses and worsen inequality.
Maleficence: It could be used by criminals, terrorists and repressive state machinery.

Read more:
In a world first, South Africa grants patent to an artificial intelligence system

Then I interviewed 16 experts involved in or associated with South Africa’s AI industry. They included academics, researchers, designers of AI-related products, and people who straddled the categories. For the most part, the six themes I’d already identified resonated with them.

South African concerns

But the participants also identified five ethical risks that reflected South Africa’s country-level features. These were:

Foreign data and models: Parachuting data and AI models in from elsewhere.
Data limitations: Scarcity of data sets that represent, reflect local conditions.
Exacerbating inequality: AI could deepen and entrench existing socio-economic inequalities.
Uninformed stakeholders: Most of the public and policymakers have only a crude understanding of AI.
Absence of policy and regulation: There are currently no specific legal requirements or overarching government positions on AI in South Africa.

What it all means

So, what do these findings tell us?

Firstly, the universal risks are mostly technical. They are linked to the features of AI and have technical solutions. For instance, bias can be mitigated by more accurate models and comprehensive data sets.

Most of the South African-specific risks are more socio-technical, manifesting the country’s environment. An absence of policy and regulation, for example, is not an inherent feature of AI. It is a symptom of the country being on the periphery of technology development and related policy formulation.

South African organisations and policymakers should therefore not just focus on technical solutions but also closely consider AI’s socio-economic dimensions.

Secondly, the low levels of awareness among the population suggest there is little pressure on South African organisations to demonstrate a commitment to ethical AI. In contrast, organisations in the global north have to show cognisance of AI ethics, because their stakeholders are more attuned to their rights vis-à-vis digital products and services.

Finally, whereas the EU, UK and US have nascent rules and regulations around AI, South Africa has no regulation and limited laws relevant to AI.

Read more:
Artificial intelligence carries a huge upside. But potential harms need to be managed

The South African government has also failed to give much recognition to AI’s broader impact and ethical implications. This differs even from other emerging markets such as Brazil, Egypt, India and Mauritius, which have national policies and strategies that encourage the responsible use of AI.

Moving forward

AI may, for now, seem far removed from South Africa’s prevailing socio-economic challenges. But it will become pervasive in the coming years. South African organisations and policymakers should proactively govern AI ethics risks.

This starts with acknowledging that AI presents threats that are distinct from those in the global north, and that need to be managed. Governing boards should add AI ethics to their agendas, and policymakers and members of governing boards should become educated on the technology.

Additionally, AI ethics risks should be added to corporate and government risk management strategies – similar to climate change, which received scant attention 15 or 20 years ago but now features prominently.

Perhaps most importantly, the government should build on the recent launch of the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa, and introduce a tailored national strategy and appropriate regulation to ensure the ethical use of AI. Läs mer…

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is now an opera – the case for adaptating the book that the Auschwitz Museum said ’should be avoided’

Irish novelist John Boyne published his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2006. The protagonist, eight-year-old German boy Bruno, has no idea that his father is the kommandant of a concentration camp during the second world war. Bruno and his family are sent to live with their father as he carries out his work.

Bored and lonely, Bruno ventures out to the perimeter of the camp where he meets and befriends a young Jewish camp inmate called Shmuel, the eponymous “boy in the striped pyjamas”.

The two boys – who are of equal age but vastly different backgrounds – develop an unlikely friendship. Completely failing to comprehend the gravity of Shmuel’s situation, Bruno yearns to join and play with his friend on the other side of the wire fence.

One day, his wish is fulfilled. He dons a set of striped pyjamas that Bruno brings him and together they wander about the camp. However, during a roundup, both boys – since they are indistinguishable – are sent to the gas chambers, where they are killed. Bruno’s parents desperately search for him, grief-stricken and are inconsolable when they realise his fate.

The novel was subsequently adapted into a major film in 2008 as well as a ballet in 2016. And in January 2023, Noah Max’s opera, The Child in the Striped Pyjamas opened in London.

Popular but problematic

Despite its popularity – or maybe because of it – the novel and its adaptions have attracted controversy. Because Jew and gentile suffer the same death, it suggests no difference between the two boys and that Bruno is as much a victim as Shmuel. Focusing on the grief of Bruno’s parents generates sympathy for them rather than the faceless Jews who were murdered in their millions.

In 2020, the Auschwitz Museum tweeted that the children’s novel “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust”. Its criticisms of the novel include its portrayal of Jewish victims as one dimensional, passive and “unresisting”. It has also urged readers not to see it as “a fable”.

The trailer for the 2008 film adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Writing in The Jewish Chronicle in 2022, author Keren David explained why such stories are problematic.

The centre of these romantic, sentimental stories is an obsession with Nazis. The non-Jewish reader cannot identify fully with the Jewish victim – too scary, too alien – but they do fear the element within themselves that might have become Nazis. The idea that love conquers all, that even a Nazi camp commander possesses a heart capable of love, is a deeply reassuring fantasy.

Yet, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its subsequent adaptations resist and complicate stereotyping of Jews and gentiles. Shmuel and Bruno are virtually identical and interchangeable, suggesting that both can become victims if in the wrong clothing. In this instance, there is no essential difference between victim and victimiser.

This allows the reader to consider what philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt controversially called “the banality of evil”. This is the idea that evil is not metaphysical (existing as an idea outside of human sense perception) but more ordinary, something that we are all capable of in the wrong circumstances.

A deeply personal re-imagining

Noah Max’s 2023 operatic adaptation is deeply personal. Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle, he explained: “The music explores the destruction of humanity’s innocence by the Holocaust through a father’s inability to face the fact that his own evil actions led directly to the murder of his child.”

Max’s maternal great-grandparents, Chaim and Klara Tennenhaus, left Austria in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power. On Boyne’s novel, Max said:

It’s very hard to convince children to read a book about something as dark and serious as the Holocaust and what I find amazing is that while not all adults get the profound symbolism of the story, kids get it. They pick up on the fact that the children have the same birthday and are the same child.

Noah Max discusses his opera adaptation, A Child In Striped Pyjamas.

Of course, Boyne’s book contains fictionalised elements. Given that it is novel, it has to, and artistic licence should be extended to it for that reason. Works of art cannot be judged on the same terms as history books given the limitations of the former in terms of length and audience.

As an expert in the representation of the Holocaust on film, as well as someone involved in Holocaust education, I know from personal experience that it is a very tricky task to translate the magnitude of the Holocaust to a younger audience. Any device, however flawed, should be applauded for attempting to do so even if it does not fully succeed.

It is the task of the reader to go and learn more to put the novel in context by reading some of the scores of scholarship on the Holocaust, watching excellent documentaries like Shoah or the US and the Holocaust, or visiting Holocaust exhibitions like those at the Imperial War Museum in London.

For all the criticisms, and while it is not without its problems, I think The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be continued to be read, adapted, staged and performed.

Anything that introduces the Holocaust and its significance to audiences, even if it does not fully succeed in its artistic aims, should be welcomed – not least because the debate about the novel helps us to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive so many years later. Läs mer…

Holocaust remembrance: we must beware of well-intentioned mythmaking as events pass out of living memory

In ancient Rome, the saeculum, or “the age”, was the span of living memory, the telling of an event passed down from the oldest to the youngest. Recognising this profound idea, some have worried that the memory of the Holocaust will fade as the generation of those who survived it near the end of their lives.

Survivors are the core witnesses, the human link to the past. Many work tirelessly in Holocaust education and all rightly deserve our praise and support. Members of their families have sometimes followed suit, sharing publicly the stories of their parents or grandparents. This provides a sense of the emotional force of the Holocaust.

But we are not ancient Romans. While stories passed down through generations are significant, they are not our only connection to the past. Instead, today, the Holocaust is made present in many ways.

Stolpersteine, the decentralised Holocaust memorial that takes in thousands of places across Europe.
chrisdorney

In his 1993 work, The Holocaust as Culture, the survivor and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész argued that the Holocaust will “remain through culture, which is really the vessel of memory”. The discipline of history, invented in its modern form in the 19th century, gives witnesses a crucial role. It supplements their testimony with scholarly research, archival investigations, rules of evidence and forms of argument.

Across the world, in museums, schools and public spaces, the work of memorialisation goes on, too. London’s new Holocaust memorial and education centre is to be completed by 2025. Elsewhere, artists, archeologists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and philosophers produce works that reflect on what happened. The memory of the Shoah is not going to fade.

As time passes and the role of culture broadly understood becomes more important, though, we risk something more dangerous: not forgetfulness but mythmaking.

We are familiar with the myths pedalled by antisemites and racists, who use Holocaust denial as a vector for their hate. Of perhaps greater concern, however, is the mythmaking that seems well-intentioned.

The Irish author John Boyne has said that his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, teaches “empathy and kindness”. In his prefatory author’s note, he effectively excuses the extraordinary historical inaccuracies in his book by suggesting that it tells an “emotional truth”.

The emotional truth about the Holocaust, however, is that nine-year-old Jewish boys, like his protagonist Shmuel, were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. The emotional truth is that nine-year-old sons of SS colonels, like his protagonist Bruno, were turned into antisemites and longed to be old enough to claim their Hitler Youth daggers, inscribed with the phrase “blood and honour”.

What the emotional truth of the Holocaust is not is that victims and perpetrators became friends and were somehow equivalent, as Boyne’s novel implies. The problem with implying this is that the idea takes hold. In October 2022, following fierce criticism online, the London-based Icarus Theatre Collective cancelled a planned Romeo and Juliet set in Nazi Germany. In Shakespeare’s Verona, the “two households” were alike in dignity. In the Third Reich, one attempted to strip all human dignity from the other. Boyne was right to subtitle his novel “A fable”. Works like his risk making the Holocaust itself a fable.

The opposite idea – a ban on art which addresses the Holocaust – presents risks of its own. Culture is how we reflect, how we come to understand and pass on our shared past to help us prepare for the future. In his 1983 work, Reflections on Nazism, the great Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer argued that works of art can present the “reality of the past in a way that sometimes reveals previously unsuspected aspects”. They can tell us something new about the Holocaust, and so, about ourselves.

We navigate between making the Holocaust a fable and banning any representation by talking about, arguing over and even calling out fables of the Holocaust. Myths are received in hushed awe. The past, by contrast, demands to be discussed. Sometimes these discussions can be, perhaps should be, uncomfortable, but even in this discomfort, the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive. Läs mer…

Tár: busting the myths the film perpetuates of the all-powerful maestro

Tár follows a fictional all-powerful female orchestra conductor and her fall from the height of her career. Lydia Tár is portrayed as one of the top conductors in the world and the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The film aims to ask if gender matters when it comes to power. How does our judgment change when an abuser is female? What is the place of identity politics in art? Can art be separated from the artist?

To draw the audience into these questions, director Todd Field works hard to convince the audience that Tár and the classical music industry portrayed in the film is real. He does this by blurring the lines between the film and real-life people in the industry while also relying on most audience members’ lack of understanding of the day-to-day work of an orchestra.

The film slides between reality, mythology and fantasy in depicting an orchestra and a conductor’s powers.

Muddling fact and fiction

The film opens with Tár being interviewed by Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer, who plays himself. In this interview, a substantial number of her biographical details share striking parallels with those of the world’s actual leading female conductor, Marin Alsop. This muddle of fact and fiction left audience members believing that Tár was a real person.

Marin Alsop was understandably unhappy with the similarities. She also pointed out that Tár plays into a sort of “maestro mythology” where “real” conductors are untouchable geniuses with unparalleled musical skills.

A study conducted by neurology academic Seymour Levine and his son Robert Levine, a violist in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, observed that underlying the behaviour of conductors and musicians in orchestras is:

the myth of the conductor as omniscient father (“maestro,” “maître”) and the musicians as children (“players”) who know nothing and require uninterrupted teaching and supervision.

They concluded that the “disparity between myth and reality in professional orchestras is extreme and serves as the most powerful source of musician stress and counterproductive institutional dynamics”.

This myth plays out in Tár where musicians respond with affable compliance to all her musical decisions, even those they’re unhappy or uncomfortable with. We’re led to believe that Lydia Tár is fully responsible for the final artistic product. The musicians are simply following her every gesture as a united body.

In reality, while what audiences see appears to be a carefully choreographed performance of shared intentions and performance goals, beneath the surface lies a web of competing influences and interactions in which the conductor may only play a small part.

Musical authority in performance

Analysing more than 1,500 comments from orchestral musicians describing who and what they were responding to in real-life rehearsals and performances, I have studied the process of artistic “authorship” in orchestras.

What I found is that opinions about how things should go differ dramatically throughout orchestras and that there is only one overarching shared goal in performance: to play together and to achieve ensemble cohesion.

To be clear, what constitutes ensemble cohesion at the highest level is complex and nuanced. To play together precisely in time, musicians must have a developed sense of every aspect of the sound, colour, volume and phrasing of their part. They must play with not after their colleagues.

Tár depicts a conductor with total power over her orchestra, the reality is quite different.
Focus Features

To do this, they must make split-second decisions about what’s best for every note, drawing on their extensive musical experience while navigating the decisions of the musicians around them. They’re also often battling acoustic situations as they can only hear part of what the orchestra is doing from their seat. The conductor’s usefulness in this is extremely variable and partial.

One professional brass player explained to me that there was a visual knack that players have by watching each other. For example, the euphonium part in Holst’s Mars from The Planets the strings will play down bows. The brass player noted that some conductors will try to push the piece on there. If they were to follow the conductor there, they would be early. It was more helpful seeing a bank of strings all doing down bows, which let them know exactly where to place a note.

While in rehearsal a conductor can stop play and ask for a change, in a performance they can’t. This changes the power dynamics in ways some conductors might be uncomfortable admitting.

Systemic abuse

Research has shown that musicians in self-governing orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, have generally higher job satisfaction than colleagues in other orchestras and “that players in these orchestras are the real masters of their ensembles”.

However, the international classical music industry is steeped with systemic power imbalances and abuses.

It’s not just high-profile #MeToo cases in the upper echelons of the profession, like those of real conductors James Levine and Charles DuToit (both named in the film), on which Tár’s sadistic power trips are modelled. The body of evidence of abuse within musical institutions, from schools to professional orchestras in the UK, continues to grow.

A recent study found that musicians did not feel empowered to report discriminatory offences.
Focus Features

A recent survey by the Independent Society for Musicians reported that 77% of respondents (rising to 88% of self-employed) did not report offences. The main reasons given were: “it’s just the culture” in the music sector (55%), followed by “no one to report to” (48%) and “fear of losing work” (45%).

While 72% of incidents were committed by people with seniority or influence over their career, 45% were committed by colleagues or co-workers and 27% by a third party (such as an audience member, client or customer). The report noted that 58% of the discriminatory experiences reported by respondents would be classed as sexual harassment.

By so masterfully interweaving reality and fantasy Field both affirms the harmful “maestro myth” and detracts from the actual, complex and deeply embedded webs of power abuse within the music industry today. Läs mer…

Magnesium: what you need to know about this important micronutrient

There’s been a lot of chat on social media over the past few months about the importance of magnesium supplements. Many suggest that symptoms such as trouble sleeping, tense muscles and low energy are all signs you’re deficient and should be taking a magnesium supplement.

As it turns out, many of us probably are somewhat deficient in magnesium. According to research, most aren’t consuming the recommended amount of magnesium to support our body’s needs. It’s also estimated that in developed countries, between 10-30% of the population has a slight magnesium deficiency.

Magnesium is one of the many micronutirents the body requires to remain healthy.
It’s essential for helping more than 300 enzymes carry out numerous chemical processes in the body, including those that produce proteins, support strong bones, control blood sugar and blood pressure and maintain healthy muscles and nerves. Magnesium also acts as an electrical conductor that helps the heart beat and contracts muscles.

Considering how important magnesium is for the body, if you aren’t getting enough it can eventually lead to a range of health problems. But even though most of us are probably somewhat deficient in magnesium, that doesn’t mean you need to reach for supplements to make sure you’re getting enough. In fact, with the right planning, most of us can get all the magnesium we need from the foods we eat.

Signs of a deficiency

Most people with a magnesium deficiency are undiagnosed because magnesium levels in the blood don’t accurately reflect how much magnesium is actually stored in our cells. Not to mention that signs your magnesium levels are low only become obvious by the time you have a deficiency. Symptoms include weakness, loss of appetite, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. But the symptoms you have and their severity will depend on just how low your magnesium levels are. Left unchecked, a magnesium deficiency is associated with an increased risk of certain chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, migraine and Alzheimer’s disease.

While anyone can develop a magnesium deficiency, certain groups are more at risk than others – including children and adolescents, older people and post-menopausal women.

Conditions such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel syndrome, which make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, may make you more prone to magnesium deficiency – even with a healthy diet. People with type 2 diabetes and alcoholics are also more likely to have low magnesium levels.

Certain at-risk groups may need to take a supplement.
Africa Studio/ Shutterstock

Furthermore, the vast majority of people in developed countries are at risk of a magnesium deficiency due to chronic illnesses, certain prescription drugs (such as diuretics and antibiotics, which deplete magnesium levels), declining magnesium contents in crops and diets high in processed foods.

You can get enough in your diet

Given the many problems that can happen due to low magnesium levels, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough in your diet.

The recommended amount of magnesium a person should aim to consume daily will depend on their age and health. But in general, men aged 19-51 should get between 400-420mg daily, while women should aim for 310-320mg.

Although fruit and vegetables now contain less magnesium than they did 50 years ago – and processing removes around 80% of this mineral from foods, it’s still possible to get all the magnesium you need in your diet if you plan carefully. Foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, green leafy vegetables (such as kale or broccoli), milk, yoghurt and fortified foods all contain plenty of magnesium. One ounce of almonds alone contains 20% of the daily magnesium requirements of adults.

While most of us will be able to get all the magnesium we need from the foods we eat, certain groups (such as older adults) and those with certain health conditions may need to take a magnesium supplement. But it’s important to speak with your doctor before starting supplements.

While magnesium supplements are safe in their suggested dosages, it’s important to only take the recommended amount. Taking too much can cause certain side-effects, including diarrhoea, low mood, low blood pressure. It’s also vital that those with kidney disease do not take them unless they have been prescribed.

Magnesium can also alter the effectiveness of several medications, including some common antibiotics, diuretics and heart medications, alongside over-the-counter antacids and laxatives. This is why it’s important to consult a doctor before starting magnesium supplements.

Magnesium supplements aren’t a quick fix. While they may be necessary at times, they won’t address the root causes of your deficiency, such as certain health conditions that may be contributing to low levels. This is why it’s important to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes exercise, good sleep and eating a balanced diet. Not to mention that vitamins and minerals are better absorbed by the body when they come from whole foods. Läs mer…

Why Queensland is still ground zero for Australian deforestation

Five years ago, bulldozers with chains cleared forests and woodlands almost triple the size of the Australian Capital Territory in a single year.

Brazil? Indonesia? No – much closer: Queensland. In 2018-19, truly staggering land clearing, mostly by farmers and cattle graziers, saw around 680,000 hectares of habitat destroyed – more than the preceding 18 years. Even though the state Labor government tightened land clearing rules in 2015, the new rules were riddled with loopholes. If Queensland was a country, it would have been the ninth highest forest destroying nation globally in 2019 – just above China.

Clearing is slowing – but nowhere near fast enough. At the end of 2022, Queensland quietly released its latest figures, showing clearing rates in 2019-20 had fallen to under two Australian Capital Territories that year (around 418,000 hectares). The government celebrated it as a win, as did some farming groups. But it’s nothing to be celebrated.

Yes, it’s better than the worst year in the last two decades. But as our climate and extinction crises worsen and as the Great Barrier Reef teeters on the brink, clearing as usual is no longer good enough.

Queensland’s historical forest and woodland clearing rates by political party in power.

Why is Queensland still clearing so much – and why does it matter?

In a word, beef. Like Brazil, Queensland tears down its forests and woodlands largely to make way for grass to feed livestock – mainly cattle. The latest 2019-20 figures show 85% of all clearing was done to create new pasture.

You might have heard defenders of land clearing claiming the land being cleared is home to low-value vegetation or trees that regrow easily, such as mulga acacia. This is not true. About 52% of all vegetation cleared in 2019-20 was classified as old growth or older than 15 years. The Brigalow Belt and the Mulga Lands accounted for three-quarters of all clearing. Of the clearing in these regions, 80% was full clearing, meaning bulldozing turned forests or woodlands into areas with less than 10% canopy remaining.

Nature is forced to give up habitat so cattle have grass to eat.
Shutterstock

This matters, because Queenslanders are the custodians of more biodiversity than any other Australian state, most of which is found in its woodlands and forests.

Queensland’s thousands of unique plant species provide homes and resources for many of Australia’s famous animals. More than 1,800 species of Australian plants and animals are now threatened with extinction – and Queensland’s land clearing is a key threat for many.

It can be hard to connect bulldozers clearing trees and the reality of what it does to the animals relying on them. So we cross-referenced the cleared land with threatened species distribution maps. Approximately 417 threatened species lost some of their habitat, with the worst hit including grey falcon, the newly endangered koala, and squatter pigeon. The clearing is a double blow, as many of these species were devastated by the Black Summer fires.

Read more:
Repairing gullies: the quickest way to improve Great Barrier Reef water quality

This large scale destruction also hampers Australia’s ability to meet climate targets. The agriculture, forestry and other land use sector on average, accounted for almost a quarter (23%) of the world’s human-caused emissions. Of these, 45% were from deforestation.

If we leave woodlands and forests intact, they look after our interests too. They
improve water quality and availability for our uses and for nature. They control erosion by protecting soils and riverbanks. And they increase the productivity of nearby cropland by hosting pollinators and species which prey on plant pests. Ripping out the forests and woodlands not only reduces the carbon they sequester but also makes the ground immediately warmer, making many parts of Queensland even hotter and more drought prone.

Native vegetation cleared for pasture near Maryborough.
Martin Taylor

Destroying old, biologically important woodland and forests at such scale is a terrible idea. It flies in the face of global pledges to end deforestation and maintain the integrity of all of Earth’s ecosystems. Australia is a signatory to both of these.

Cynics might wonder whether the rush to clear pasture is linked to the fact many of our trading partners are looking to import beef not linked to deforestation. In December, the European Union passed laws requiring beef exporters to show their operations haven’t contributed to deforestation. Cattle must not have been raised on land cleared after December 2020. Though the EU is not the largest beef market for Australian farmers, the National Farmers Federation reacted angrily.

Even in Australia, huge companies such as Woolworths and McDonalds have committed to remove deforestation from their supply chains.

Some companies are doing the right thing, but the sheer scale of felling and clearing shows many are not. Both the Queensland and federal governments must fix the problem with better regulation and adequate enforcement, access to data to demonstrate deforestation-free credentials, and incentives for producers to improve their land use to the emerging global standards. In the age of ubiquitous satellite imagery, it’s impossible to hide what you’re doing. One option could be to make the deforestation images publicly available in real time.

Brigalow forest cleared for pastures Central Queensland. Credit Martine Maron.

Labor has pledged action federally – but the state Labor government must do more

There’s a strange disconnect developing where Labor, federally, has signalled they want to reverse Australia’s biodiversity crisis, while at state level, their actions are nowhere near enough. Federal Labor recently signed national and international commitments aimed at halting species extinctions, reversing biodiversity loss, and stopping further land degradation. For that to actually happen, though, it will need the states to play ball – especially Queensland.

Lopper removing tree by tree in koala habitat for housing in Springfield Qld. Credit Martin Taylor.

Why is Queensland ground-zero for deforestation in Australia? It has water, arable land, and a decentralised population often reliant on farming or mining work outside the major cities. Sugarcane plantations, mango farms, beef cattle, dairy, bananas – it’s hard to shift a long-set path.

But if the state government is unable to close the obvious loopholes such as Queensland’s questionable land clearing Category X and stop rampant land clearing, the environmental, social and economic bill will come due. Extinctions, coral death, climate damages, degraded human health and the reputational risk of becoming a pariah.

It doesn’t have to be that way. By working with farmers and graziers, they can end the policy ping-pong with laws to encourage all food producers to shift to deforestation-free produce. We can get there.

Read more:
EcoCheck: can the Brigalow Belt bounce back? Läs mer…

Are your cats fighting or playing? Scientists analysed cat videos to figure out the difference

Have you ever worried if the play between your cats was getting too rough? A new study published in Scientific Reports has investigated play and fighting in cats.

Their aim was to use simple behaviours anyone could observe to work out what was play and what might lead to fights. This is important because the consequences of fights include injuries to animals and humans. At worst, you may even have to rehome one of your cats if they’re not getting along.

Categorising cat ‘fights’

The study, led by Noema Gajdoš-Kmecová from University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Slovakia and from the University of Lincoln, UK, analysed 105 videos of interactions between 210 cats.

The research team then developed an ethogram – a list of specific behaviours used in the study of animal behaviour. These were put into six groups:

Inactive: head and body motionless and in specific position, for example crouching
Wrestling: cats in physical contact with wrestling movements
Chasing: one cat runs in pursuit or another cat runs away
Other interactive activities: for example grooming, approaching, raised fur on back
Non-interactive: activity directed towards themselves or an inanimate object, for example drinking, self-licking
Vocalisation: for example growl, hiss, meow

The researchers used terms such as “cats play fighting” to find relevant videos on YouTube.

Each video was analysed to identify which of these behaviours were shown by each cat. Each interaction was then analysed statistically to work out which behaviours appeared together in clusters.

From this, the researchers separated the videos into three categories of interactions.

Playful: included 40% of cats from the videos and included wrestling and a lack of vocalising.

Agonistic: agonistic behaviours are any social behaviours that include threatening, aggression and submission. Cats in this group vocalised and had recurring bouts of inactivity; 32% of cats from the sample landed in this group.

Intermediate: this group included 28% of cats and was more closely associated with the playful group than the agonistic group. Cats in this group interacted for prolonged periods with pauses in between.

As a crosscheck, these behavioural categories observed from the videos agreed fairly well with how the four authors, experts in cat behaviour, described each interaction.

Despite being quite territorial, some cats can happily share a home with others of their feline kind.
Smile19/Shutterstock

What does this tell you about your cats’ play?

If your cats are wrestling, they are most likely playing. When there is friction between cats in a multi-cat household, they tend to avoid physical contact. Instead, they’ll use offensive or defensive manoeuvres that don’t involve extended direct contact, such as slapping.

If your cats are vocalising, and chasing between periods of inactivity (such as crouching) they are most likely fighting. Vocalisation is an especially important clue here to an aggressive, rather than playful interaction. Chasing is OK if it’s mutual, but if one cat is chasing or one cat is running away, that’s not so positive.

The intermediate group is the tricky one. It contains elements of both playful and agonistic behaviours, though was more closely related to the playful than the agonistic group. This suggests play could become agonistic, depending on what happens during the interaction.

In particular, the authors observed frequent breaks within the interaction, which may allow cats to reassess their partner’s interest in playing, and avoid escalation from play to aggression.

The big fights are easy to spot

This study is the first to apply a scientific approach to cat behaviours anybody can identify, describing three types of interactions to help identify between play and fighting in cats.

We all know when cats are really fighting, but the main strength is in working out intermediate examples – where it could be OK, but could also escalate.

The study focused on obvious behaviours anybody can observe, but cats can be quite subtle, too. They also use facial expression, ear and tail placement, and pheromones to communicate. These subtle signals may be just as important in differentiating between what is playing and what is fighting.

Not all cat communication is obvious to us humans – they tend to use their ears, faces, and even pheromones to signal to each other.
Gurkan Ergun/Shutterstock

If your cats really are besties (sleep in close contact and share food and toys) the occasional bit of agonistic play is okay.

But if your cats don’t get on as well, you might need to watch for signs of agonistic behaviours. Tension between cats is not always obvious, but can affect their physical and mental health.

If you are unsure if your cats are really getting along, seeking help early from an expert in cat behaviour can prevent a cat-astrophe. Läs mer…

Beneath the Alice Springs ’crime wave’ are complex issues – and a lot of politics

The supposed dimensions of the “crisis” in Alice Springs have been exhaustively portrayed in the media, both nationally and in the Northern Territory. The stories abound: shopfront windows repeatedly broken, groups of young children wandering the streets at night, and defenceless elderly residents struck down during violent robberies of their homes.

This week, the respected chief executive of “Congress”, the peak Aboriginal medical body in Central Australia, was on local ABC radio describing her fear when, while she was alone at home, two drunken men violently attempted to enter in search of alcohol.

The statistics bear out the perception: assaults, domestic violence, property damage and theft rose by more than 50% over the past year, the largest element of that increase in the past three or four months.

The settler community has called for more police and more stringent policing. However, the assistant commissioner of the NT Police, Michael Murphy, countered by saying you “can’t arrest your way out of this”. The police have a clearer understanding of the current situation than do Alice Springs social media denizens, or the “tough on crime” Country Liberal Party opposition.

Read more:
Alcohol bans and law and order responses to crime in Alice Springs haven’t worked in the past, and won’t work now

Aboriginal societies in remote Australia are under significant social, cultural and economic pressures. They are also changing, albeit in disjointed and erratic ways.

However, it is not our purpose here to analyse that change and its implications for crime in Alice Springs, but instead to focus on the politics of alcohol.

Alcohol is commonly identified as intrinsic to much of the current “crime wave” in Alice Springs. Many crimes occur either in the pursuit of alcohol or because excessive alcohol has been consumed.

Alcohol has become emblematic of non-Indigenous people’s concerns about Aboriginal crime and “anti-social” behaviour. These concerns have dramatically increased over the past six months, beyond the usual bigots, to encompass a very large proportion of the settler community.

Even respected Mbantua Aranda (the traditional owners of Alice Springs) elders have called for their non-Aranda countrymen to return to their homelands and communities. If the NT Labor government is to retain control of the political agenda – and prevent contagion to electorally crucial Darwin – it needs to have solutions for alcohol and related crime issues.

Alcohol and policing have become the de facto central policy instruments to manage the political crisis. Since the start of the 15-year “intervention” brought in by the Howard government in 2007, residents of Alice Springs have become used to showing their proof of identity or driver’s licence to a police auxiliary officer at the door of the bottleshop, as well as to the cashier at point of purchase.

This measure has failed to prevent alcohol consumption by “banned drinkers”. Secondary (that is, illegal) consumption of alcohol abounds, as people buy alcohol for banned drinker relatives. Also, notwithstanding policy, it is clear that large amounts of alcohol are entering Alice Springs and not being sold through licensed outlets.

In a stage-managed visit to Alice this week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles came up with a plan to tackle the crime wave in central Australia. The plan predictably provided some more money: to the police, for CCTV surveillance, emergency accommodation (for victims of domestic violence), and for Tangentyere Council to assist in their management of town camps.

But the central feature of the package was the ban on alcohol sales on Mondays and Tuesdays. This was modelled on the temporarily very successful policy developed in Tennant Creek to ban alcohol on “thirsty Thursday”. The package is temporary, pending a report from a new regional controller, Dorrelle Anderson.

The political tactics are clear: create a hiatus, and hope the crime wave issues die down as cooler weather forces countrymen back to their communities. The NT government needs this ploy to succeed if it is to be re-elected in 2024.

Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Response to Alice Springs crisis poses early Indigenous affairs test for Albanese

Ignored in the package were measures for Indigenous children’s welfare. The drift to Alice has significantly affected the accompanying children, leading to “kids-out-of-control” tropes on social media.

Government services are trying to work out who these children are and where they come from. These kids exhibit the feeling of shame that reflects the impact of the systemic intergenerational trauma of past policies. Also missing from the package is the right for Indigenous community residents to access adequate funding, to teach generations of kids their culture and language, thereby giving back their pride and identity. There is a need for funding for youth groups, employment programs, housing, rehabilitation, therapeutic responses, and support for local Indigenous leadership to boost role models for young people.

Another important aspect of this that has been lost in media coverage is whether this situation is part of a broader phenomenon. It is. Similar, if not quite so serious, fault lines are exhibited across a swathe of northern Australia.

For example, Mount Isa social media has many posts similar to those from Alice Springs, lamenting break-ins and “kids out of control”. This situation repeats in Western Australia, from the Kimberley to Carnarvon to Kalgoorlie. It appears that what is needed is not more policing in Alice Springs or anywhere, but more analysis of why these dysfunctional situations are intensifying.

Importantly, the current crisis in Alice has diverted attention from the first policy buds that indicate that the systemic disadvantage suffered by Indigenous communities in the NT is slowly being addressed. The age of juvenile legal responsibility is being increased by two years. And the NT government has flagged a review of a controversial attendance-based school funding system that systemically disadvantages Aboriginal schools. These policy buds have been threatened by the politics of the crime wave. Läs mer…

Let’s dance! How dance classes can lift your mood and help boost your social life

If your new year’s resolutions include getting healthier, exercising more and lifting your mood, dance might be for you.

By dance, we don’t mean watching other people dance on TikTok, as much fun as this can be. We mean taking a dance class, or even better, a few.

A growing body of research shows the benefits of dance, regardless of the type (for example, classes or social dancing) or the style (hip hop, ballroom, ballet). Dance boosts our wellbeing as it improves our emotional and physical health, makes us feel less stressed and more socially connected.

Here’s what to consider if you think dance might be for you.

Read more:
Rhythm on the brain, and why we can’t stop dancing

The benefits of dance

Dance is an engaging and fun way of exercising, learning and meeting people. A review of the evidence shows taking part in dance classes or dancing socially improves your health and wellbeing regardless of your age, gender or fitness.

Another review focuses more specifically on benefits of dance across the lifespan. It shows dance classes and dancing socially at any age improves participants’ sense of self, confidence and creativity.

It’s never too late to start a dance class.
Wellness Gallery Catalyst Foundation/Pexels

Researchers have also looked at specific dance programs.

One UK-based dance program for young people aged 14 shows one class a week for three months increased students’ fitness level and self-esteem. This was due to a combination of factors including physical exercise, a stimulating learning environment, positive engagement with peers, and creativity.

Another community-based program for adults in hospital shows weekly dance sessions led to positive feelings, enriches social engagement and reduced stress related to being in hospital.

If you want to know how much dance is needed to develop some of these positive effects, we have good news for you.

A useful hint comes from a study that looked exactly at how much creative or arts engagement is needed for good mental health – 100 or more hours a year, or two or more hours a week, in most cases.

Read more:
Kick up your heels – ballroom dancing offers benefits to the aging brain and could help stave off dementia

Dance is social

But dance is more than physical activity. It is also a community ritual. Humans have always danced. We still do so to mark and celebrate transitory periods in life. Think of how weddings prompt non-dancers to move rhythmically to music. Some cultures dance to celebrate childbirth. Many dance to celebrate religious and cultural holidays.

This is what inspired French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) to explore how dance affects societies and cultures.

Durkheim described how dancing with others cultivated ‘collective effervescence’ – dynamism, vitality and community. (Aeon Video)

Durkheim saw collective dance as a societal glue – a social practice that cultivates what he called “collective effervescence”, a feeling of dynamism, vitality and community.

He observed how dance held cultures together by creating communal feelings that were difficult to cultivate otherwise, for example a feeling of uplifting togetherness or powerful unity.

It’s that uplifting feeling you might experience when dancing at a concert and even for a brief moment forgetting yourself while moving in synchrony with the rest of the crowd.

That uplifting feeling: when dancing together helps you forget yourself as you move in synchrony with the rest of the crowd.
Shutterstock

Synchronous collective activities, such as dance, provide a pleasurable way to foster social bonding. This is due to feelings Durkheim noticed that we now know as transcendental emotions – such as joy, awe and temporary dissolution of a sense of self (“losing yourself”). These can lead to feeling a part of something bigger than ourselves and help us experience social connectedness.

For those of us still experiencing social anxiety or feelings of loneliness due to the COVID pandemic, dance can be a way of (re)building social connections and belonging.

Whether you join an online dance program and invite a few friends, go to an in-person dance class, or go to a concert or dance club, dance can give temporary respite from the everyday and help lift your mood.

Read more:
Are you part of a social group? Making sure you are will improve your health

Keen to try out dance?

Here’s what to consider:

if you have not exercised for a while, start with a program tailored to beginners or the specific fitness level that suits you
if you have physical injuries, check in with your GP first
if public dance classes are unappealing, consider joining an online dance program, or going to a dance-friendly venue or concert
to make the most of social aspect of dance, invite your friends and family to join you
social dance classes are a better choice for meeting new people
beginner performance dance classes will improve your physical health, dance skills and self-esteem
most importantly, remember, it is not so much about how good your dancing is, dance is more about joy, fun and social connectedness.

In the words of one participant in our (yet-to-be published) research on dance and wellbeing, dance for adults is a rare gateway into fun:

There’s so much joy, there’s so much play in dancing. And play isn’t always that easy to access as an adult; and yet, it’s just such a joyful experience. I feel so happy to be able to dance. Läs mer…

The 1881 Maloga petition: a call for self-determination and a key moment on the path to the Voice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.

Many people do not know about the early activism undertaken at Victorian Aboriginal missions and reserves in response to colonisation. However, there are countless stories of Aboriginal people across Australia fighting the colonisers.

In Victoria, descendants of the residents of Maloga, Cummeragunja, Lake Tyers, Lake Condah, Coranderrk, Ebenezer (and more) were rounded up and placed onto missions for protection due to a lawless frontier. But the price they had to pay unwillingly was their land, their language, their lore and kinship structures.

Many protested the strict daily routine of Christian life and later against the oppressive and below-standard health, housing and education on government missions. We need to honour those Elders who advocated on behalf of their people and family on the missions, who walked the hard road for recognition of Aboriginal rights and risked their safety. It is because of their leadership we have survived despite our culture being desecrated.

Yet today, our languages are returning, our family histories remain strong and the connection to our missions are a testimony to our respect for our Elders.

Later this year, all adult Australians will vote on updating the Constitution to include an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to parliament. The task for the person voting is a simple “yes” or “no”. Each of us must ponder what could be gained or lost from this process; the referendum result and its implications will become a major part of the history of Australia’s relations with Indigenous people.

However, this is not the first time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have called for a greater say in their own lives.

One example involves the First Nations residents from a small Aboriginal mission named Maloga, on the Barmah sandhills near the Murray River in New South Wales, who fought for self determination and self governance.

Read more:
William Cooper: the Indigenous leader who petitioned the king, demanding a Voice to Parliament in the 1930s

The Maloga mission

The Maloga mission, a small and under-resourced pioneering farming settlement, was managed by missionaries Daniel and Janet Matthews.

In July 1881, 42 men from the Maloga mission addressed a petition to the NSW governor.

In their 1881 petition, the Maloga mission men who sought greater freedom from missionary control called for the government to grant them their own parcel of land. They argued their native game had been reduced or exterminated by settlers and their sheep, reducing them to “beggary”. Sheep had eaten out yams and other foods and trampled and fouled waterholes on their land, and the settlers had chased off other game.

These men wanted their land back so they “could cultivate and raise stock” and believed “we could, in a few years support ourselves by our own industry”.

At first, this petition seemed to fall on deaf ears. But later in the 1880s, the NSW government set aside about 730 hectares across the river from Maloga as a government reserve.

Daniel Matthews is sometimes credited as having helped facilitate this result but many Maloga families, tiring of the strict Christian rules of the mission and of the Matthews’ paternalism, soon moved to the new reserve. The new residents promptly named it “Cummeragunja”, a Yorta Yorta word meaning “our home”.

Gaining and losing land

Some First Nations people in this area eventually gained individual blocks of land to farm. But according to historian Fiona Davis, this ended “when the blocks were revoked for communal farming – later to be leased out to white farmers.” Scholar Wayne Atkinson refers to this as another form of “land confiscation” against the Maloga men enforced by government legislation.

This is also reflected in oral histories and testimony for an historic land claim made by the Yorta Yorta in 1994, as well as the documentary Lousy Little Sixpence and Wayne Atkinson’s broader body of work. Many descendants of Cummeragunja residents still tell of family members being given parcels of land to farm; they also know the landmarks where the farming took place and tell of land being taken away to be used by white farmers.

Maloga’s place in a long history of Aboriginal activism

The Maloga mission petition of 1881 is significant in and of itself, but also because it set many people – including Yorta Yorta man William Cooper, who lived as a young boy at Maloga and was part of a later land rights petition in 1887 – on a career of activism.

This involved yet more petitions, letters to government and using the press to voice their views on First Nations issues.

Cooper, who formed the all-Aboriginal Australian Aborigines’ League in Melbourne in 1933, tried to petition the king to support the appointment of an Aboriginal member “to represent us” in federal parliament.

The Australian government never forwarded the petition to the king, but Cooper’s descendent Boydie Turner managed to get it to Buckingham Palace in 2014.

William Cooper also called for January 26 to be marked as a day of mourning and protest.

William Barak is a key figure in the history of political action on Aboriginal land rights.
Wikimedia Commons

The Maloga petitioners of 1881 were likely inspired by earlier events at Coranderrk, an Aboriginal settlement near Healesville established in 1863. Key figures in the history of Aboriginal political action in Victoria, such as Simon Wonga and William Barak, had called for land here to be set aside for First Nations people.

But ownership of the Coranderrk reserve was always contested. The Kulin residents at Coranderrk fought hard against the efforts of the Victorian Aborigines Protection Board to close the reserve.

Barak travelled to Maloga in 1881 and told the community about the Kulin people’s fight, which inspired the Maloga men to say in their petition that year:

we more confidently ask this favour of a grant of land as our fellow natives in other colonies have proved capable of supporting themselves, where suitable land had been reserved for them.

Fighting for equality since early colonisation

The Maloga petition of 1881, and the activism that came before and after it, shows First Nations voices have demanded justice since the early days of colonisation.

But their demands have rarely been heeded by governments. Will this Voice to Parliament be more of the same, or will it help bring real change?

The Australian government now has the power to create a Voice, this time not in, but to, parliament. Would the many First Nations petitioners to governments over the years, William Cooper included, approve of the campaign?

First Nations people have long fought to form a relationship based on communicating truth and mutual understanding to parliament. Hopefully, that’s what this Voice will be.

Read more:
What do we know about the Voice to Parliament design, and what do we still need to know? Läs mer…

Bookseller, black belt, ’neon-bright’ talent: the unfathomable loss of acclaimed Australian YA author Gabrielle Williams

This week, the Australian literary community was devastated to learn of the untimely death of Gabrielle Williams, acclaimed author of books for young adults.

Williams suffered a stroke at Readings bookstore where she worked as manager of the Readings Prizes, grants officer for the Readings Foundation, and as a bookseller. She was admitted to the intensive care unit, but the pressure on her heart proved fatal. She died on Saturday January 21, with her family by her side.

She was a friend and writing compatriot, and I can’t fathom the loss of her.

The suddeness of moving from a world with Gab to one without her has made this week drift strangely. I forget and remember and forget and remember. The feeling is tidal. I want to pay tribute to Gab and her young adult novels, produced over the last decade-and-a-half, which are the reason I was ever lucky enough to meet her and even to know her at all.

Light, shade and equilibrium

Booked Out

It’s hard to convey what a neon-bright, super-smart, kind and hilarious gem of a person Gabrielle Williams was. I was fortunate to know her amid a group of Melbourne women writers of young adult and children’s fiction. We attended the same festivals, conferences and events.

After hearing the news, we met up to share stories. Through it all, it seemed inconceivable that Gab was not going to just burl around the corner to join us, looking like Penny, one of four lead characters in her novel The Guy, The Girl, the Artist and his Ex, “thrown together and gorgeous”, as Gab always was.

In a 2021 interview with Joy Lawn, Williams spoke to the twin moods of “wistful” and “uplifting” that characterised what has become her last novel, It’s Not You, It’s Me.

The wistfulness of a life that hasn’t been lived to its fullest extent […] Regret for things that never were, and for things that are no longer. But also, the power that comes when you recognise that you can still make changes to your life, that you can have agency over your own life, no matter how old you are.

This sentiment is Gab personified. She had, in the words of author Fiona Wood, “an equilibrium and grace” that was guided by her ability to see the bigger picture, and the funny, ironic, sometimes mortifying, mortal side of life.

In the bones of all her books is the philosphy: “So long as you take the opportunities that are presented to you, the universe will take care of you.” As Beatle’s mum counsels her son in Williams’ brilliant young adult debut, Beatle Meets Destiny:

It’s all about light and shade. The sad stuff is just as important as the good stuff, because it gives you a chance to examine your life and what you want to change.

A copywriter’s ‘quicksticks’ creative brain

Before her writing career took off, Gab worked in advertising. She had a copywriter’s quicksticks, smart-fix, creative brain: one that can take an abstract idea and distil it into something workable, relatable. And memorable.

In Beatle Meets Destiny, superstitious 18-year-old Beatle (whose real name is John Lennon) meets Destiny McCartney on Friday the 13th and falls in like. It’s fate! The only trouble is Beatle already has a girlfriend, who is also his twin sister Winsome’s bestie.

Gab’s narrative voice is like a fabulous friend regaling you over a long boozy lunch: now pinning down details, now swooping out; leaving you dangling, then drawing you back. Gab was a great deployer of the interstitial narrative, of splicing in stories within stories, and playing around with normal genre conventions. Beatle meets Destiny has a thread of “cosmic twin” stories throughout. It was kind of a tease to work out how they would fit together, but you went with it.

Beatle was followed by four more young adult novels: The Reluctant Hallelujah, The Guy, The Girl, the Artist & his Ex, My Life as a Hashtag and It’s Not You, It’s Me.

Her books were shortlisted for some of Australia’s most prestigious awards, including the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the CBCA Awards, and the Gold Inkys.

Gab’s books were for and about young adults, although “old” adults could, and did, love them too. She showed a great respect for and understanding of teenagers. She didn’t subscribe to the notion that adults should be written out of the story. The fullness of life for her characters is shown through their relationships with friends and family and community.

Her novels were multi-layered, often conceptually complex, dealing with chance, everyday magic, music, art and all kinds of love. Her young characters were flawed, capable of sublime (and sublimely entertaining) fuck-ups, and always forced to reckon with the fallout, to accept or to adapt.

Love of language

“She always wrote from her heart,” Anna McFarlane, Gab’s publisher at Allen & Unwin, said by email.

She wanted her characters to behave in ways that reflected reality. She was really drawn to telling stories in which characters flounder. She didn’t judge them for smoking, or drinking, or getting pregnant, or lying through their teeth. In My Life as Hashtag, Marie Claude, who has been excluded from a social gathering, posts something mean which goes viral. She is a bully. But we get her. And we love her.

Gab’s love of language is evident in all her books. Her characters frequently have their own idioms and theories, on everything from cannibal killers, (Beatle Meets Destiny), to why a boy might not call you back: “He broke both his hands” (also Beatle Meets Destiny). Sly humour, puns and malapropisms abound.

Beatle’s infidelity is a display of “bad boyfriend-ese”; Marie Claude (MC) throws shade on her ex-friend via a series of faked celebrity quotes: “Fook Anouk. Go have a Sook.” When Guy’s party, in The Guy, the Girl, the Artist & her Ex, spirals out of control, he feels “Cat in the Hat-stressed”. Dodie in The Reluctant Hallelujah introduces herself as “Doe as in doe-a-deer-a-female-deer; Dee as in de-lighted to meet you.”

Power of place

Gab set most of her novels in Melbourne because, she once said, she was lazy and it made for easy research. But there is nothing lazy in her descriptions. They show the power of place on a person’s psyche.

St Kilda’s Esplanade Hotel is “a grand old white building with flaky paint reminiscent of someone’s badly burnt back”. The once-named number 69 tram (now number 16) takes the reader from “far Kew” through “near Kew” and all the way to the “far canal” of Elwood”. (“Say it out loud. You should get it.”) The Yarra is a “big, upside down” river that’s “deep as well as ball-tighteningly cold”.

Melbourne’s Birrung (Yarra River) has a significant role in my favourite of Gab’s books, The Guy, The Girl, The Artist & his Ex. When I read that chapter (readers who know the book will know which one I mean), I think I might have stopped breathing. The book is speculative historical fiction, a re-imagining of the story behind the theft of the Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986.

Mcfarlane says, “Gab loved the aesthetic of the eighties: the music, the fashion, but also, I think, the lack of parental supervision. She loved her characters to get messy.”

The Guy, The Girl, The Artist & his Ex is also a romance and a near-tragedy. In it, Gab mixes the urban legend of the Australian Cultural Terrorists, and the Mexican folk story of La Llorona – the Crying Woman – remixing, re-mything, using the known to ease the reader into new interpretations of the mysteries of life.

In The Reluctant Hallelujah, Dodie and her friends must transport the corpse of Jesus Christ Himself from her family’s basement to his next “checkpoint”. To do this, they must go via the storm drains of Melbourne. Naturally, things go wrong, and they end up far from home, but still in our reality.

A questing writer

Although her novels were firmly set in the real, there was still this “otherworldliness” that Gab frequently tuned into. I think of her as a questing kind of writer: everything went in. And so to read her work is to always be discovering.

For example, did you know that the official term for stealing underwear off a clothesline is “snowdropping”? (Beatle Meets Destiny.) That “glow-in-the-dark green phytoplankton that produce oxygen in marine and freshwater are called ”dinoflagellates”? (The Reluctant Hallelujah.) Or that Picasso’s cruel treatment of Dora Marr ignited a curse to last the rest of his days? (The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex.) Before reading Gab Williams’ work, I did not know these things either.

Gab was a black belt in karate. Just FYI. And she made a mean cocktail. She was a lover of travel and dogs and her family and friends, and big earrings. When she did jigsaw puzzles, she didn’t start at the corners, and I wonder if that was how she wrote her books too. From the middle out.

It makes sense. Her narratives were very much path-less-travelled. If, as a reader, I didn’t know where the story was going, I felt sure that wherever we ended up would be worth it.

If you have not read her books, do so. You won’t be sorry you read them; you will only be sorry there won’t be more. Läs mer…

Liberal hawks versus realist doves: who is winning the ideological war over the future of Ukraine?

The recent decision by Olaf Scholz’s German government to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks – after weeks of clear reluctance to provoke Vladimir Putin – was more than a domestic policy shift.

It also demonstrated how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could prove to be a tipping point in a long-running battle of ideas between two schools of thought in the field of international affairs.

Scholars refer to the two camps as liberals and realists. A defining characteristic of liberalism is its view that global politics is an arena where moral values, legal norms and institutions are crucial for regulating the behaviour of states, and increasing the prospects of cooperation and peace.

The classical realist or “realpolitik” tradition, by contrast, remains sceptical about peace. It believes states are essentially driven by the pursuit of power and national interests through a reliance on military might. It views the international arena as essentially anarchic.

These two approaches have been visible in much of the commentary following Russia’s full scale invasion in February 2022. In particular, the two camps have clashed over how the war in Ukraine should end.

End game: Russian president Vladimir Putin visiting an arms production facility in Saint Petersburg, January 18.
Getty Images

Appeasement or resistance?

On the one hand, many realists believe the only way out of the current conflict is a negotiated peace. That involves recognising, in the words of US political scientist John Mearsheimer, the “taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion”.

Ukraine must be encouraged, in some shape or form, to concede territory to Russia in order to end the invasion. Realists say it’s important for the West to recognise the legitimate security interests of a great power in Ukraine, and to avoid running the risk of Moscow forming a permanent alliance with China.

Read more:
US will give military tanks to Ukraine, signaling Western powers’ long-term commitment to thwarting Russia

Moreover, they claim Ukraine cannot defeat the Russian occupation force because, if necessary, Putin will use nuclear weapons to ensure a “victory” – a prospect that worsens the stability of Europe and the world.

On the other hand, liberal hawks – sometimes called neo-idealists – maintain Russia’s Ukraine invasion is such a fundamental violation of the UN Charter that it has eliminated the moral and practical scope for a diplomatic compromise.

Negotiation in this context would only reward Putin’s aggression and undermine an international rules-based order that sought to uphold the territorial integrity and political independence of all states.

Hawks and doves

Liberals acknowledge there are two ways of ending Putin’s annexation attempt in Ukraine. First, the Putin regime has the option of belatedly recognising its invasion is illegal, and withdrawing its troops to the internationally recognised borders of Russia.

Second, allies and supporters of Ukraine should ensure that Kyiv is sufficiently armed and equipped to fight a just war. Putin’s invading army is either defeated or the costs of the invasion become too high and Moscow is obliged to end its occupation.

Read more:
Ukraine recap: supply of German and US tanks to make Kyiv ’a real punching fist of democracy’

Nearly 12 months on, it’s clear among the states supporting Ukraine that the hawkish liberal view – that Putin’s military venture must fail – has steadily edged out the dovish realist perspective that Putin should be appeased with some sort of land for peace deal.

Germany’s decision to supply tanks to Ukraine exemplifies the shift in thinking. But the ascendency of the liberal hawks is the product of long and short-term trends before and during the Ukraine conflict.

For one thing, a realist worldview has not sat comfortably with an increasingly interconnected world. Having struggled to explain events like the end of the Cold War and 9/11, realist diplomats and scholars have nevertheless insisted that great powers still call the shots in world politics.

The NATO factor

The Russian invasion has also significantly eroded the realist case for ending the conflict.

The argument that NATO enlargement caused the Putin regime to attack looks unconvincing. It was not Washington but the states of Eastern Europe, historically fearful of Russian dominance, that clamoured for NATO membership.

Indeed, many neighbouring states have backed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s view that Putin’s invasion is part of a Russian imperial project that can be traced back to Peter the Great and which seeks to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Zelenskyy has successfully rejected any suggestion of moral equivalency between his democratically elected government and Putin’s authoritarian regime, whose invading troops are suspected of committing war crimes.

The Zelenskyy government has vowed it has the right to fight “until it regains all its territories” from Moscow, and the Biden administration in the US has swung strongly behind this position.

Read more:
Why Russia’s war in Ukraine today is so different from a year ago

Great powers can lose

The Biden stance reflects US respect for the outstanding performance of the Ukrainian military on the battlefield and also the growing resistance to appeasing an outright aggressor.

That would be a recipe for encouraging more territorial demands from the Putin regime, and perhaps embolden China to put even more pressure on Taiwan.

At the same time, the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the last quarter of 2022 was a reminder to its supporters in NATO and elsewhere that great powers can and do lose wars against smaller adversaries.

With the right level of military support in 2023, Ukraine could realistically defeat Putin’s invading army.

Ultimately, the hawkish liberal vision of helping to ensure Putin’s defeat has seemingly prevailed because it offered the best prospect of justice for the victim of aggression. It also bolsters an international rules-based order threatened by the illegal use of force. Läs mer…

Canada’s $2.8 billion settlement with Indigenous Day Scholars is a long-time coming

Eleven years. That’s how long it took the federal government to agree with 325 First Nations over the collective loss of language and culture suffered by Day Scholars in the Residential School system in Canada that existed between the mid 1800s until 1996.

Day Scholars were forced to live in Residential Schools but attended school during the day in nearby white communities.

While Day Scholars settled an individual compensation package for just $10,000 each earlier in 2022, this new agreement is specifically aimed at rectifying the systematic and forced removal of language and culture through these institutions.

Left out of original agreement

In 2012, members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and shíshálh Nation led by Shane Gottfriedson and Garry Feschuk launched a national class-action lawsuit for Day Scholars who were left out of the original Indian Residential School (IRS) Settlement Agreement (2006).

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had already determined that abuse was suffered by students who were forced to attend Residential Schools at night, but nearby public schools during the day.

In “The Survivors Speak” section of the report, Emily Kematch who attended the Residential School in Dauphin, Man., which operated under this Day Scholars model at the time explained:

“It wasn’t a good experience. ‘Cause this was my first time too, going to the white system with the white kids and we weren’t treated very well there. We got called down quite a bit. They use to call us squ-ws and neechies, and dirty Indian, you know. They’d drive by in their cars and say awful things to us. Even the girls
didn’t associate with us, the white girls, they didn’t associate with us.”

This institution was also where, the “one recorded prosecution for the abuse of Residential School students in Manitoba” occurred. The TRC noted: “In 2005, Ernest Constant who had attended the Dauphin school in the early 1960s and worked there in the late 1960 as a supervisor was convicted of indecently assaulting seven Dauphin students.” Day Scholars experienced similar types of abuse as people whose experiences were included under earlier agreements, but it has taken over 16 years to receive some form of justice.

People dance during a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement of the detection of the remains of 215 children at an unmarked burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, B.C., on May 23, 2022.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Decade-long court battles

Each one of the subsequent class-action settlement agreements has taken roughly a decade to unfold through the legal process:

Together these agreements represent the largest reparations paid to Indigenous people as a direct result of colonialism. However, each agreement has been earned through the dedication of survivors to fight these battles through court, not the generosity of the Canadian state.

325 First Nations

Unlike the previous two agreements, this agreement finally allows for all 325 First Nations to decide themselves how the funding will revitalize their language and culture independently of the government.

Direct ownership of the funding will not funnel through law firms, or government bodies, but rather through the First Nations themselves. If officially settled at the end of February, communities will be provided an initial $200,000 followed by sustained payments over the course of the next two decades to support this revitalization through the hiring of staff, creation of learning centres or in any other way they see fit.

Read more:
Canada’s reckoning with colonialism and education must include Indian Day Schools

While this provides an opportunity to protect critically endangered languages, it only provides a small one-time compensation payment of $10,000 for eligible members.

Last January, these one-time-payments were opened, but the Gottfriedson class-action continued to fight for a separate band of funding for language revitalization efforts which was announced last week.

Defining moment

On one hand, this prevents the re-victimization of students who suffered through the Indian Residential School Settlement Independent Assessment Process. But on the other, it does not provide greater compensation to those who suffered the most.

This agreement also signals a defining moment for the Trudeau government to settle all outstanding claims against the Canadian state. The agreement’s wording suggests that the government will be “Fully, finally and forever” released from collective harms suffered in Residential Schools.

It is not immediately clear if that same condition also falls on the churches in Canada who operated the schools and perpetuated the loss of culture and language along with other horrendous abuses. Last summer, The Canadian Press reported details of a 2015 agreement in which Canada agreed to “forever discharge” Catholic entities from their promise to raise $25 million for Residential School survivors. The discharge happened after Catholic entities raised less than $4 million.

In September 2021, in the wake of criticism, Canadian bishops pledged to raise $30 million by January 2027. In Nov. 2022, APTN reported $5.5 million has been raised to date and that the Canadian Catholic Church spent $18.6 million on the papal visit.

Read more:
Reparations to Indigenous Peoples are critical after Pope’s apology for residential schools

Phil Fontaine, then Assembly of First Nations chief (left), and Beverly Jacobs, then president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (right), listen as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizes for Residential Schools in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, June 11, 2008.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson

Apologize for all colonial schooling

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for Residential Schools in 2008 came before two of the three settlements against Canada.

With this settlement’s ending of all outstanding agreements clause, it is crucial for the federal government to also apologize for all these types of schooling that damaged Indigenous languages.

Unfortunately, with this announcement there will also be a wave of Residential School denialism and criticism over the amount of money spent on this settlement.

For some perspective, Canada has committed over $3 billion for the war in Ukraine which has so far lasted 11 months. It will be paying slightly less for the over 150 years of targeted colonization that devastated Indigenous communities and has left 75 per cent of Indigenous languages endangered in this country. Läs mer…

It shouldn’t seem so surprising when the pope says being gay ’isn’t a crime’ – a Catholic theologian explains

Once again, Pope Francis has called on Catholics to welcome and accept LGBTQ people.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” the pope said in an interview with The Associated Press on Jan. 24, 2023, adding, “let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.” He also called for the relaxation of laws around the world that target LGBTQ people.

Francis’ long history of making similar comments in support of LGBTQ people’s dignity, despite the church’s rejection of homosexuality, has provoked plenty of criticism from some Catholics. But I am a public theologian, and part of what interests me about this debate is that Francis’ inclusiveness is not actually radical. His remarks generally correspond to what the church teaches and calls on Catholics to do.

‘Who am I to judge?’

During the first year of Francis’ papacy, when asked about LGBTQ people, he famously replied, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” – setting the tone for what has become a pattern of inclusiveness.

He has given public support more than once to James Martin, a Jesuit priest whose efforts to build bridges between LGBTQ people and the Catholic Church have been a lightning rod for criticism. In remarks captured for a 2020 documentary, Francis expressed support for the legal protections that civil unions can provide for LGBTQ people.

And now come the newest remarks. In his recent interview, the pope said the church should oppose laws that criminalize homosexuality. “We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity,” he said, though he differentiated between “crimes” and actions that go against church teachings.

Compassion, not doctrinal change

The pope’s support for LGBTQ people’s civil rights does not change Catholic doctrine about marriage or sexuality. The church still teaches – and will certainly go on teaching – that any sexual relationship outside a marriage is wrong, and that marriage is between a man and a woman. It would be a mistake to conclude that Francis is suggesting any change in doctrine.

A rosary march in Warsaw in 2019 ended with a prayer apologizing to God for pride parades in Poland.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rather, the pattern of his comments has been a way to express what the Catholic Church says about human dignity in response to rapidly changing attitudes toward the LGBTQ community across the past two decades. Francis is calling on Catholics to take note that they should be concerned about justice for all people.

The Catholic Church has condemned discrimination against LGBTQ people for many years, even while it describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” in its catechism. Nevertheless, some bishops around the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality – which Francis acknowledged, saying they “have to have a process of conversion.”

The “law of love embraces the entire human family and knows no limits,” the Vatican office concerned with social issues said in a 2005 compilation of the church’s social thought.

In 2006, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recognized that LGBTQ people “have been, and often continue to be, objects of scorn, hatred, and even violence.” And expressing care for other human persons – “especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” by the indifference or oppression of others – represents obligations for all Catholics to embrace.

As the Francis papacy now nears the end of its 10th year, it is becoming more and more common to hear Catholic leaders attempting to make LGBTQ people feel included in the church. Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich has called on pastors to “redouble our efforts to be creative and resilient in finding ways to welcome and encourage all LGBTQ people.” New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has welcomed LGBTQ groups in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, against the wishes of many New York Catholics.

In this most recent interview, Francis emphasized that being LGBTQ is “a human condition,” calling Catholics to see other people less through the eyes of doctrine and more through the eyes of mercy.

A new ‘political reality’

The rapid change that has happened in prevailing social attitudes about the LGBTQ community in recent decades has been difficult to process for a church that has never reacted quickly. This is especially because the questions those developments raise touch on a gray area where moral teaching intersects with social realities outside the church.

For decades, church leaders have been working to reconcile the church with the modern world, and Francis is stepping in places where other Catholic bishops have already trodden.

In 2018, for example, German bishops reacting to the legalization of gay marriage acknowledged that acceptance of LGBTQ relationships is a new “political reality.”

An LGBTQ couple embraces after a pastoral worker blesses them at a Catholic church in Germany, in defiance of practices approved by Rome.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

There are signs that parts of the church are moving even more quickly. Catholics in Germany, in particular, have called for changes to church teaching, including permission for priests to bless same-sex couples and the ordination of married men.

The next chapter

But those actions are outliers. Francis has criticized the German calls for reform as “elitist” and ideological. When it comes to the civil rights of LGBTQ people, the pope is not changing church teaching, but describing it.

I believe the challenge the Vatican faces is to imagine the space that the church can occupy in this new reality, as it has had to do in the face of numerous social and political changes across centuries. But the imperative, as Francis suggests, is to serve justice and to seek justice for all people with mercy above all.

Catholics – including bishops, and even the pope – can think, and are thinking, imaginatively about that challenge.

Portions of this article originally appeared in a previous article published on Oct. 22, 2020. Läs mer…

Horror comedy ’The Menu’ delves into foodie snobbery when you’re dying for a cheeseburger

This story contains spoilers about ‘The Menu.’

The Disney+ release of horror/comedy The Menu marks the beginning of what is already shaping up to be a reckoning year for the world of fine dining.

The film, released this past fall, is directed by Mark Mylod, known for producing and directing the acclaimed series Succession, and satirizes the culture of high-end dining.

From the perspective of our combined expertise in food and literary studies and sexuality studies, we’re interested in how the film asks us to consider what’s left when even the most fundamental bodily pleasures are turned into commodities: things that can be marketed, bought and sold.

Gory confrontation

The Menu depicts a gory confrontation between overworked restaurant workers and elite diners at the exclusive and remote restaurant, Hawthorn. The restaurant is presided over by its celebrated executive chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

Reviews of The Menu often focus on Hawthorn’s wealthy customers swooning over food, its highly trained and obedient staff or its meticulously and madly murderous chef.

The Menu official trailer.

While these characters are compelling, they are also parodies. The most extreme example of this is foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so desperate to experience the esteemed chef’s cooking that he goes to Hawthorn knowing that he (and all the others) will die there.

While Tyler is absurdly entertaining, the film follows the perspective of protagonist Margot, who isn’t familiar with the world of haute cuisine.

Margot is not just important because viewers who don’t have much experience with fine dining culture, or who empathize with criticisms of it, can relate to her. Her perspective is also crucial to understanding the film’s interesting and complicated treatment of eating, labour and pleasure.

Pretentious techniques

From the beginning, Margot balks at the restaurant’s pretentiousness and avant-garde techniques, like gelification.

Viewers might identify with her eye rolls and impolite snickers, and may even do the same when, for example, a routine welcome speech delivered by the chef brings Tyler to tears.

These expressive responses from Margot add humour to the film and show the ridiculousness of Chef Julian’s plans for what he calls “the greatest menu ever created.”

Giving and taking

Unlike Hawthorn’s staff and regular diners, Margot doesn’t easily fit into the distinction the chef makes between “those who give” (service workers) and “those who take” (wealthy customers).

As we come to learn, Margot is also working while at Hawthorn: she is a sex worker hired by Tyler, even though he knows that it will mean her death.

Like the restaurant staff, Margot is subjected to the whims and desires of insufferable (and dangerous) clients like Tyler, who have no regard for the lives of the workers whose services they employ. At the same time, Margot is a customer of the restaurant. She is the sole character who is both serving and being served.

Only Margot is both serving and being served in ‘The Menu.’
(Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures)

Eating and class status

Margot is also distinct because she does not treat food as an art object or a subject to master, nor does she eat to signal her class status. Her relationship to eating is a more carnal and tactile kind of intimacy. Margot is hungry, and she demands to be fed.

Read more:
The Menu: Ralph Fiennes’s new film shows why restaurants are a ripe setting for horror

Others have pointed out how The Menu comments on labour conditions in the restaurant industry. This is certainly an important topic the film explores, and is especially relevant as restaurants reckon with long-standing concerns around industry sustainability that were sharply exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, given these labour issues, there are questions about whether the fine dining industry should even exist in the future — questions that have become especially public with the recently announced closure of Noma, Copanhagen, named the “World’s Best Restaurant” in 2021.

Invested workers

However, Hawthorn’s staff is not only reducible to working-class warriors taking revenge on their oppressors. They, too, are invested in the culture of fine dining and insist on a similar kind of perfection as their diners.

Servers at Hawthorn are invested in deadly perfection.
(Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures)

In an absurdly hilarious and grim take on what fine dining has become, Hawthorn’s diners and staff perform their roles — serving and being served, cooking and eating — to their fiery (and gelatinous) deaths.

Margot understands the pleasures that have been stripped from both cooking and eating.

In a scene where Chef Julian asks Margot if she enjoys her work, she says she used to, but no longer does. Even so, unlike some of the others, she clearly still has a strong appetite for life and living.

Hungering for pleasure

By asking Chef Julian to make her a cheeseburger (because she’s “still fucking hungry”), Margot both leverages her position as a customer and reminds him of the pleasure of cooking a meal that someone genuinely wants to eat.

She’s the only character who actually fights for her life. It is because of these desires (to live and enjoy life) that she is the only person to leave Hawthorn alive, a delicious and fulfilling takeaway cheeseburger in tow.

Although the idea of being trapped on an island at the mercy of people skilled with butcher’s knives is a frightening thought, The Menu’s real horror comes from the ways food, eating, and cooking lose their carnal pleasures under capitalism. Läs mer…

What happens to our data when we no longer use a social media network or publishing platform?

The internet plays a central role in our lives. I — and many others my age — grew up alongside the development of social media and content platforms.

My peers and I built personal websites on GeoCities, blogged on LiveJournal, made friends on MySpace and hung out on Nexopia. Many of these earlier platforms and social spaces occupy large parts of youth memories. For that reason, the web has become a complex entanglement of attachment and connection.

My doctoral research looks at how we have become “databound” — attached to the data we have produced throughout our lives in ways we both can and cannot control.

What happens to our data when we abandon a platform? What should become of it? Would you want a say?

Massive amounts of personal data

We produce data every day as part of our work, communication, banking, housing, transportation and social life. We are often unaware — and therefore unable to refuse — how much data we produce, and we seldom have a say in how it’s used, stored or deployed.

This lack of control negatively impacts us, and the effects are disproportionate across the different intersections of race, gender and class. Information about our identities can be used in algorithms and by others to oppress, discriminate, harass, dox and otherwise harm us.

Personal data privacy is often thought of along the lines of corporate breaches, medical record hacks and credit card theft.

My research into youth participation and data production on the popular platforms that characterized the late 1990s to 2000s — like GeoCities, Nexopia, LiveJournal and MySpace — shows that this time period is an era of data privacy that is not often considered in our contemporary context.

The data is often personal and created within specific contexts of social and digital participation. Examples include diary-style blogs, creative writing, selfies and participating in fandom. This user-generated content, unless actions are taken to carefully delete them, can have a long life: the internet is forever.

Read more:
The real problem with posting about your kids online

Decisions about what should happen to our digital traces should be influenced by the people who made them. Their use impacts our privacy, autonomy and anonymity, and is ultimately a question of power.

Typically, when a website or platform “dies,” or “sunsets,” decisions about data are made by employees of the company on an ad-hoc basis.

Controlling data

Proprietary data — that which is produced on a platform and held by the company — is at the discretion of the company, not the people who produced it. More often, options that a platform provides to users to determine their privacy or deletion do not remove all digital traces from the internal database. While some data is deleted on a regular basis (like Yahoo email), other data can remain online for a very long time.

Sometimes, this data is collected by the Internet Archive, an online digital library. Once archived, it becomes part of our collective cultural heritage. But there is no consensus or standards for how this data should be treated.

Users should be invited to consider how they would want their platform data to be collected, stored, preserved, deployed or destroyed, and in which contexts. What should become of our data?

In my research, I interviewed users about their opinions on archiving and deletion. Responses varied drastically: while some were disappointed when they discovered their blogs from the 2000s had vanished, others were horrified at their continued existence.

These varying opinions often fell along differences in context of production such as: the original size of their perceived audience, the sensitivity of the material, and whether the content comprised photographs or text, used vague or explicit language, or contained links to identifiable information like a current Facebook profile.

Privacy protections

It is often debated by researchers whether user-generated content should be used for research, and under what conditions.

In Canada, the Tri-Council Policy Statement guidelines for ethical research assert that publicly accessible information has no reasonable expectations of privacy. However, there are interpretations that include social media specific requirements for ethical use. Still, public and private distinctions are not easily made within digital contexts.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has helped shift the standards with which personal data is treated by corporations and beyond, expanding rights to consider restrictions to access, amend, delete and move personal data.

Articles 17 and 19 of the GDPR on the right to erasure (the right to be forgotten) are a significant move toward individual digital privacy rights. Those in the EU have legal standing to remove their digital traces, should it contribute towards personal injury, harm or provide inaccurate information.

We often produce and upload content without considering its long-term impacts.
(Shutterstock)

The right to online safety

However, many have argued that a focus on individual privacy through informed consent is not well placed in digital contexts where privacy is often collectively experienced. Informed consent models also perpetuate expectations that individuals can maintain boundaries around their data and should be able to anticipate future uses of it.

Suggesting that platform users can “take charge” of their digital lives places the impetus on them to constantly self-surveil and limit their digital traces. Most data production is out of a user’s control, simply because of the metadata generated by moving through online space.

If the web is to be a space of learning, play, exploration and connection, then constantly mitigating future risk by anticipating how and when personal information may be used actively works against those goals. Läs mer…

Disabled people were Holocaust victims, too: they were excluded from German society and murdered by Nazi programs

When Dominic Perrottet admitted to wearing a Nazi uniform to his 21st birthday party, he apologised to Jews and veterans – but not to the other groups who were persecuted by the Nazis, including disabled people.

However, disabled people were the first victims of the Holocaust. They were murdered in a number of Nazi programs specifically targeting them, as well as those that targeted Jews, Sinti, and Roma.

In 2023, International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks 90 years since the Nazis assumed power, and immediately began their persecution of everyone they thought of as “inferior”.

The Nazis frequently described disabled people as “useless eaters”, “empty human shells”, and “life unworthy of life”. They chose these labels to evoke images of people who were incapable of doing anything, and so needed to be kept in institutions for their entire lives, wasting the tax dollars of non-disabled people.

A suite of policies implemented by the Nazis forced disabled people out of German society and into institutions, where they worked until they were murdered.

Disabled people were the first victims of the Holocaust.

Most disabled people lived in the community

In early 20th-century Germany, most disabled people lived in the community. In the mid-1920s, a national government survey of disabled people (the only one conducted during that era) found that few disabled people lived in institutions permanently. In fact, only a minority of disabled people lived in institutions at all – and this was often for education or rehabilitation, when they were young.

For example, though 17.5% of blind people lived in “schools for the blind”, the majority (80.4%) of blind people were adults living in the community. And a third of those disabled people with the highest rates of institutionalisation – the psychologically or intellectually impaired – lived in the community.

A network of organisations managed by and for disabled people prioritised gaining and maintaining employment. Some, such as the German Association of Blind Academics, established in 1916, focused on a particular profession. Others, such as the Self-help League of the Physically Handicapped, established in 1919, created training and jobs for its members. In 1929, it had a membership of 6,000 throughout Germany, and was a role model for a similar organisation in Austria.

This trajectory of increasing self-determination and community involvement of disabled people ended when the Nazis came to power in 1933.

Read more:
Three charts on: disability discrimination in the workplace

Exclusion and government hate campaigns

One of the first legislative changes that affected all disabled people, as it did all Jews, was their exclusion from the new marriage loans program, which lent money to each newly married couple, and forgave a quarter of the loan for each child they had.

Given Germany’s economic instability and high rates of unemployment, this financial assistance was significant – but only marriages “in the interest of the national community” were eligible. Both Jewish and disabled people were also ineligible later that year, when farms were made available to people who would not otherwise have an inheritance.

These laws were accompanied by a relentless government hate campaign. In schools, libraries, and waiting rooms, there was a succession of posters, pamphlets, and magazines, reminding “Aryans” of their superiority, and of the undesirability of everyone else.

Tours through institutions where disabled people were forced into scenes of helplessness became commonplace. These tours were mandatory for anyone who was planning to marry, in order to dissuade the couple from proceeding if there was any chance their child might be “unfit”.

Nazi propaganda slide featuring two images of physically disabled children. The caption reads ‘deformed’.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Marion Davy

In this atmosphere, the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, which made the sterilisation of disabled people compulsory, encountered little opposition when it was enacted on 14 July 1933.

When it officially took effect, on 1 January 1934, movies and travelling exhibitions were added to the hate campaign. These stifled any remaining opposition, and made it impossible for the victims of this law to maintain any privacy about their personal circumstances.

Those who objected to their sterilisation were labelled unpatriotic. Those who did not object to their sterilisation were labelled inferior. And either way, women who were sterilised were then targeted for rape. Foreshadowing the Nazis’ increasing incarceration of disabled people, the only way to avoid sterilisation was to commit oneself to an institution.

Nazi propaganda, showing four disabled men. The original caption reads: ‘Hereditary illnesses are a heavy burden for the people and the state’.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of G Howard Tellier

It became increasingly dangerous for disabled people to be seen in public, let alone to work. To force them into institutions, it was now only necessary for the Nazis to target the few remaining avenues they had for remaining in the community – marriage and education.

In 1935, one month after sexual contact and marriage was prohibited between “Aryans” and Jews, it was also prohibited between “Aryans” and disabled people. In the same year, disabled people were not permitted to attend school past elementary level. And within two years, they were not permitted to attend school at all unless it was part of an institution.

Read more:
People with disabilities in group homes are suffering shocking abuse. New housing models could prevent harm

Aktion T4 and the murder of disabled people

The Aktion T4 program targeted disabled adults in Germany and Austria, murdering them in gas chambers attached to institutions. Though it is the most well-known of the programs that specifically targeted disabled people, it was not the first, and not the only one.

The murder of disabled children began on July 25 1939, and was soon part of the procedure of designated hospitals throughout Germany and Austria. In September, the Nazis began murdering the patients in the asylums of the countries they occupied, beginning with Poland.

The first victims of Aktion T4 were murdered in October – the program had a quota of 70,000 victims. When this quota was reached, most of Aktion T4’s staff were assigned to establish the “final solution”, and the euthanasia of disabled people was transferred to hospitals.

Disabled people were victims of every other Nazi extermination program, too. Whether they had found a way to remain in the community, or became impaired due to Nazi violence or the work they were forced to do, many disabled people were incarcerated in concentration camps and ghettos. 3,200 blind people were deported from Theresienstadt alone.

These events are important to remember – not only as history, but as an example of how short the path from exclusion to murder can be. Läs mer…

Voluntary assisted dying will be available to more Australians this year. Here’s what to expect in 2023

By the end of 2023, eligible people in all Australian states will be able to apply for voluntary assisted dying as the final three states’ laws will become operational this year.

This year began with Queensland’s voluntary assisted dying law commencing operation on January 1. South Australia is to follow shortly, on January 31, with the New South Wales law to commence on November 28.

These states join Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, whose laws have been operating for more than three years, one year and three months respectively.

The territories may be poised to follow with the Commonwealth’s lifting of an over 25-year ban on territories passing voluntary assisted dying laws.

The Australian Capital Territory has already signalled it will introduce such laws by 2024 and circulate a discussion paper in coming months.

Read more:
Territories free to make their own voluntary assisted dying laws, in landmark decision. Here’s what happens next

Hundreds have chosen to die this way

There is now a clear picture emerging of voluntary assisted dying in Australia, with hundreds choosing this in states where it is legal.

In Victoria, 604 people have been assisted to die in the three years between June 2019 and June 2022 (the latest figures publicly available). Some 75% of people being assisted to die since the law commenced were 65 or older; more than 80% of applicants had cancer. In the last reporting period (July 1 2021 to June 30 2022), deaths from voluntary assisted dying represented 0.58% of deaths in that state.

In WA, uptake has been much higher than expected, with 190 people (1.1% of deaths in the state) choosing voluntary assisted dying in the first year. This is more than the number of Victorians who accessed voluntary assisted dying in the first year, even though WA’s population is much smaller.

In WA, almost 88% of eligible applicants were aged 60 or over and 68% of patients requesting voluntary assisted dying had cancer.

In both states, more than 80% of patients requesting voluntary assisted dying were also receiving palliative care. Eligible applicants cited the inability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, and the loss of autonomy, as the two most common reasons for accessing voluntary assisted dying.

Read more:
What is palliative care? A patient’s journey through the system

How is the system working?

In Victoria and WA, bodies that oversee voluntary assisted dying have found the system safe. According to their reports, only people who meet the strict eligibility criteria have been able to access it.

Those providing voluntary assisted dying and state-based services designed to help prospective patients access it have been praised as being supportive and compassionate.

However, there are barriers to access, including:

Many of these issues are heightened in rural and remote areas.

While it is still early days in Tasmania, access issues have already been reported. These result from a lack of trained doctors, and a complicated and lengthy request and assessment process.

Many access issues are heightened in rural and remote areas.
Robert So/Pexels

How can we address these issues?

Voluntary assisted dying legislation in each state requires it to be reviewed after a certain period. For both Victoria and WA, this review will begin this year.

But it is not yet clear how these reviews will be conducted, or what evidence considered.

For some issues, law reform might be needed. For others, a policy response may be possible. For example, potential barriers might be addressed through better remuneration for participating practitioners, strategies to support individuals living in rural and remote areas and a more flexible application of the Australian residency rules.

These mandated reviews present an important opportunity to improve how voluntary assisted dying laws operate in practice. It is pivotal these reviews are evidence-based.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of published evidence that can guide and inform these reviews – from the bodies that oversee voluntary assisted dying and from research on voluntary assisted dying practice.

Now voluntary assisted dying laws are operational in all Australian states, or will be by the end of the year, the next challenge is to ensure current barriers to access are removed while continuing to ensure the system operates safely.

Katherine Waller, Project Coordinator, Australian Centre for Health Law Research, Queensland University of Technology, coauthored this article. Läs mer…

Is ’Toadzilla’ a sign of enormous cane toads to come? It’s possible – toads grow as large as their environment allows

Last week, the world met “Toadzilla”, a cane toad the size of a football and six times larger than average. The rangers who found her – female toads are bigger than male – were stunned. Weighing in at 2.7 kilograms, Toadzilla may be the largest cane toad ever recorded.

Is this a sign Australia’s cane toads are getting bigger? Not necessarily. Like all other “cold-blooded” or ectothermic animals, cane toads don’t have a limit to their body size like mammals and birds do. They can keep growing their entire lives. Researchers have found toads at the front of the invasion wave get bigger quicker due to more prey.

But there’s another possibility too. Last year, we found toads in urban areas have smaller parotid (toxin) glands than those in rural areas. That might be because bush toads experience higher predation, selecting for more toxins. In nature, an easy way to select for larger toxin glands is to make the whole animal bigger.

Given many native animals, reptiles and birds have now figured out how to eat these toads, we may possibly see more Toadzilla contenders in future.

The giant cane toad was discovered by ranger Kylee Gray at Cape Conway National Park in Queensland and promptly euthanised.
Queensland Department of Environment and Science, CC BY

Wait, cane toads have predators in Australia?

When you think of cane toads in Australia, you might think of an unstoppable army hopping across the countryside, killing endangered animals, such as quolls, with their poison. There’s some truth to this – a large cane toad would appear to be a delectable package of protein for everything from freshwater crocodiles to goannas to birds of prey.

To survive, they have evolved large poison glands on their shoulders. When attacked, toads can pump out lethal bufotoxin. Worse, the eggs, tadpoles and toadlets are all poisonous as well.

Read more:
What is a waterless barrier and how could it slow cane toads?

In the South American savannas where they evolved, cane toads have many predators, which can consume them in spite of the poison.

While Australia has no native toads, we have frogs with poisonous skins and glands, for example red-crowned toadlets and corroboree frogs, so the concept of a toxic amphibian is not entirely new to our fauna.

Not only that, but many of our birds’ ancestors may have originated in Asia, where they were exposed to other poisonous amphibians. Our native rats, too, have some tolerance of these toxins from their more recent overseas ancestry. And colubrid snakes such as keelbacks can also eat cane toads.

Australia’s answer to the otter, the rakali, has been clever enough to figure out how to eat cane toads without getting poisoned.
Shutterstock

Some species susceptible to the toxin have figured out ways to defeat it. Our famous “bin chickens” – the white ibis – have figured out how to eat cane toads, by flicking them about to make them produce their toxin and then washing them at a nearby creek. Rakali – the large water rat known as Australia’s otter – learned how to eat cane toads. They flip them over and eat their organs, avoiding the glands.Overall, though, cane toads are bad news for many native species. Even with predator pressure, their populations keep growing and they keep moving into new areas.

How do water-loving toads thrive in dry Australia?

The difference between a toad and a frog isn’t whether they can live out of water. Australia has dozens of native treefrog species which have far better ways of holding onto their water than do cane toads. Desert tree frogs, for instance, can live in semi-arid regions, while burrowing frogs can live in true deserts. (The real difference is more obscure – toads have sternums in two cartilaginous parts instead of one, possibly an adaptation to walking or jumping).

So how did they become one of Australia’s most notorious introduced species? One answer: they were introduced purposely and vigorously, with thousands of toads bred up and introduced in many locations.

The plan was for the toads to eat native cane beetles plaguing Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. Before the 1935 introduction, the fantastically named entomologist Walter Froggatt pleaded with authorities not to release them. “This great toad, immune from enemies, omnivorous in its habits, and breeding all year round, may become as great a pest as the rabbit or cactus,” he wrote.

But farmers won, the toads arrived, the beetles proved too hard to catch and the toads began eating everything else. Soon, they began to spread. Each female can lay 20,000 eggs a year. (Cane beetles were brought under control only a few years later, when an effective pesticide was discovered).

Cane toads are remarkably good at finding water sources in inhospitable regions.
Shutterstock

Another reason these toads now number in the hundreds of millions is their sheer adaptability. They are incredibly good at finding hidden sources of water, even in semi-arid parts of the country. During the dry season, toads tend to stay very close to water. When the wet season comes and soaks the ground, they begin to move.

You might have come across research suggesting toads at the front of the invading wave are evolving longer legs. This isn’t natural selection – it’s spatial selection, where longer-legged toads naturally get to the front and breed with other longer-legged toads.

But we are seeing signs cane toads may be adapting to local conditions by getting better at retaining water. And, remarkably, they’ve become cannibals.

Are cane toads unstoppable?

They’re formidable opponents, but cane toads have limits.

These toads eat everything they can catch – even if it has a sting or bite. They eat giant centipedes up to 16cm long. Beekeepers hate them because they’ll sit in front of hives and eat bee after bee.

Despite their poison glands, fecundity and adaptability, there’s one thing they can’t beat. Most amphibians can’t live in very arid conditions. That means toads will probably never infiltrate central Australia’s deserts.

Modelling has shown they’re unlikely to get past the arid middle coastline of Western Australia, and we think they’ll never make it to Melbourne because it’s too cold. Researchers have suggested protecting southern Western Australia from toads by converting cattle dams to tanks.

But Sydney will have to get used to cane toads before too long. They’ve already arrived several times, carried in on garden waste or in a pair of boots and establishing little populations before being eradicated. They have made it very clear they’re here to stay in Australia. Reducing numbers or protecting vulnerable areas is the best protection we’ve got.

Read more:
Eat your heart out: native water rats have worked out how to safely eat cane toads Läs mer…