Eating disorders among teens have more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic – here’s what to watch for

The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with worsening mental health among teens, including increasing numbers of patients with eating disorders. In fact, research indicates that the number of teens with eating disorders at least doubled during the pandemic.

This is particularly concerning given that eating disorders are among the most deadly of all mental health diagnoses, and teens with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide than the general population.

While experts don’t know exactly why eating disorders develop, studies show that body dissatisfaction and desire for weight loss are key contributors. This can make conversations around weight and healthy behaviors particularly tricky with teens and young adults.

As an adolescent medicine doctor specializing in eating disorders, I have seen firsthand the increases in patients with eating disorders as well as the detrimental effects of eating disorder stereotypes. I regularly work with families to help teens develop positive relationships with body image, eating and exercise.

Understanding the signs of a possible eating disorder is important, as studies suggest that timely diagnosis and treatment leads to better long-term outcomes and to better chances of full recovery.

Excessive dieting and withdrawal from friends are two signs of disordered eating.

Eating disorders defined

Eating disorders, which often start in adolescence, include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorders and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Each eating disorder has specific criteria that must be met in order to receive a diagnosis, which is made by a professional with eating disorder expertise.

Research suggests that up to 10% of people will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime. Medical complications from eating disorders, such as low heart rate and electrolyte abnormalities, can be dangerous and result in hospitalization, and malnutrition can affect growth and development. Many of the patients I see in clinic show signs of paused puberty and stalled growth, which can influence bone health, adult height and other aspects of health if not addressed quickly.

Teens are also at risk for disordered eating behaviors such as intentional vomiting, caloric restriction, binge eating, overexercise, the use of weight loss supplements and misuse of laxatives.

A recent study estimated that 1 in 5 teens may struggle with disordered eating behaviors. While these behaviors alone may not qualify as an eating disorder, they may predict the development of eating disorders later on.

Treatment methods for eating disorders are varied and depend on multiple factors, including a patient’s medical stability, family preference and needs, local resources and insurance coverage.

Treatment can include a team consisting of a medical provider, nutritionist and therapist, or might involve the use of a specialized eating disorder program. Referral to one of these treatment methods may come from a pediatrician or a specialized eating disorder provider.

Unpacking misconceptions and stereotypes

Traditional ideas and stereotypes about eating disorders have left many people with the impression that it is mainly thin, white, affluent females who develop eating disorders. However, research demonstrates that anyone can develop these conditions, regardless of age, race, body size, gender identity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

Unfortunately, stereotypes and assumptions about eating disorders have contributed to health disparities in screening, diagnosis and treatment. Studies have documented negative eating disorder treatment experiences among transgender and gender-diverse individuals, Black and Indigenous people and those with larger body size. Some contributors to these negative experiences include lack of diversity and training among treatment providers, treatment plans without cultural or economic nutritional considerations and differential treatment when a patient is not visibly underweight, among others.

Contrary to popular assumptions, studies show teen boys are at risk for eating disorders as well. These often go undetected and can be disguised as a desire to become more muscular. However, eating disorders are just as dangerous for boys as they are for girls.

Parents and loved ones can play a role in helping to dispel these stereotypes by advocating for their child at the pediatrician’s office if concern arises and by recognizing red flags for eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors.

Warning signs

Given how common disordered eating and eating disorders are among teens, it is important to understand some possible signs of these worrisome behaviors and what to do about them.

Problematic behaviors can include eating alone or in secret and a hyperfocus on “healthy” foods and distress when those foods aren’t readily available. Other warning signs include significantly decreased portion sizes, skipped meals, fights at mealtime, using the bathroom immediately after eating and weight loss.

Because these behaviors often feel secretive and shameful, it may feel difficult to bring them up with teens. Taking a warm but direct approach when the teen is calm can be helpful, while letting them know you have noticed the behavior and are there to support them without judgment or blame. I always make sure to let my patients know that my job is to be on their team, rather than to just tell them what to do.

Teens may not immediately open up about their own concerns, but if behaviors like this are present, don’t hesitate to have them seen at their pediatrician’s office. Following up with patients who have shown signs of having an eating disorder and promptly referring them to a specialist who can further evaluate the patient are crucial for getting teens the help they may need. Resources for families can be helpful to navigate the fear and uncertainty that can come along with the diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Many misconceptions exist about eating disorders, including that they are about vanity or that people should just be able to stop.

Focus on health, not size

Research shows that poor body image and body dissatisfaction can put teens at risk for disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders.

Parents play an important role in the development of teens’ self-esteem, and research demonstrates that negative comments from parents about weight, body size and eating are associated with eating disorder-type thoughts in teens. Therefore, when talking to teens, it can be beneficial to take a weight-neutral approach, which focuses more on overall health rather than weight or size. I unfortunately have had many patients with eating disorders who were scolded or teased about their weight by family members; this can be really harmful in the long run.

One helpful strategy is to incorporate lots of variety into a teen’s diet. If doable, trying new foods as a family can encourage your teen to try something they haven’t before. Try to avoid terms such as “junk” or “guilt” when discussing foods. Teaching teens to appreciate lots of different kinds of foods in their diet allows them to develop a healthy, knowledgeable relationship with food. If you’re feeling stuck, you may want to ask your pediatrician about seeing a dietitian.

It’s important to remember that teens need a lot of nutrition to support growth and development, often more than adults do, and regular eating helps avoid extreme hunger that can lead to overeating. Letting teens listen to their bodies and learn their own hunger and fullness cues will help them eat in a healthy way and create healthy long-term habits.

In my experience, teens are more likely to exercise consistently when they find an activity that they enjoy. Exercise doesn’t need to mean lifting weights at the gym; teens can move their bodies by taking a walk in nature, moving to music in their rooms or playing a pickup game of basketball or soccer with a friend or sibling.

Focusing on the positive things exercise can do for the body such as improvements in mood and energy can help avoid making movement feel compulsive or forced. When teens are able to find movement that they enjoy, it can help them to appreciate their body for all it is able to do. Läs mer…

Unconscious biases continue to hold back women in medicine, but research shows how to fight them and get closer to true equity and inclusion

If you work at a company, university or large organization, you’ve probably sat through a required training session meant to fight gender and racial discrimination in the workplace. Employers increasingly invest in efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion – commonly referred to as DEI policies. Yet research shows these efforts often fail to address the implicit biases that often lead to discrimination.

I am a professor and a physician who has been working in university settings for over 30 years. I also study and speak about discrimination in medicine and science. Like most of my female colleagues, I have personally seen and experienced gender discrimination on many occasions throughout my career.

However, two things seem to have changed in recent years. First, modern training programs are starting to reflect decades of research on effective interventions. Second, I am noticing a gradual shift with people now more interested in actively addressing discrimination and harassment than ever before. Taken together, these changes give me hope that the medical profession is finally making progress on efforts to fight discrimination.

Existing policies haven’t worked

Many institutional policies outline anti-racist and anti-sexist goals, but research shows results have been slow in coming.

In a study I conducted to understand what continues to hold women back in their careers, I interviewed more than 100 men and women in academic medicine, including many in high-powered positions. In my study, dozens of interviewees told me stories of DEI policies that, even with the right intentions, failed to produce good results.

Research shows that despite policies to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, men still fare better in medical careers.
Darren Robb/The Image Bank via Getty Images

For example, frequently search committees are encouraged to broaden and diversify the pool of candidates for a position. In my study, I found that hiring committees often associate attempts to hire or promote a woman or member of an underrepresented group as “meeting a quota” or “affirmative action,” which the hiring committee sees as an imposition on their ability to choose the best candidates.

A male faculty member I interviewed claimed that a new colleague was hired “because she’s a woman,” even though she was as qualified for the position as other male candidates. Such reactions are part of why this approach, though commonly employed, has not fixed the problem of women getting fewer promotions than men.

It is also clear that blatant sexism is still present. For a study I published in 2021, I was told stories of a male department chair putting a dog leash on the desk of a female co-worker, and a female candidate for a leadership position being criticized by the chair of the search committee for not being “warm and fuzzy”.

Trainings fail to address implicit bias

Implicit bias is any unconscious negative attitude a person holds against a specific social group. These unconscious biases can affect judgment, decision making and behavior. Implicit bias is often one of the underlying issues that leads to discriminatory practices or harassment that DEI policies are meant to address.

Employee trainings are a staple of organizations’ efforts to meet diversity, equity and inclusion goals. Trainings can take various forms and cover a variety of topics, including implicit bias. These trainings, frequently done online, often “talk at” employees by simply offering information and directives rather than actively engaging them in discussion and analysis.

Trainings that fail to engage participants aren’t very effective in lessening imlicit bias. In fact, research has shown that some trainings suggest unconscious bias is an unchangeable fact of life and imply it can therefore be ignored.

Effective ways to mitigate unconscious bias

Describing how bias works and how it influences individuals is an important step in addressing discrimination.

Researchers have been studying how unconscious bias works and how to mitigate it since the 1980s. These studies show that unconscious bias is a habit that can be broken over time with a clear, consistent and respectful series of evaluations, feedback and follow-ups. During this process, employees become more aware of bias in others, more likely to judge such bias as problematic and more able to mitigate bias in their own behavior. This type of intervention has been shown to produce measurable increases in the number of female faculty in science and medicine.

Many diversity, equity and inclusion policies rely on trainings that don’t do a good job of engaging employees.
Luis Alvarez/Digital Vision via Getty Images

The question is whether the mandatory trainings and public messaging that are the staples of many DEI policies today can produce similar results to these intensive interventions.

Creating situations or a culture where people can and do share their experiences with harassment and discrimination – without risk of retaliation – can lead to increased awareness of bias in others and clear communication of the negative aspects of this bias.

One interviewee in my study talked about an exercise in which the women wrote down their experiences of discrimination and harassment and then the men read the women’s stories out loud. This woman felt that the men, by reciting the experiences of their female colleagues, finally began to understand how practices that seemed to be inclusive and fair were actively harming others.

A changing social environment

Sharing personal experiences of harassment or discrimination with people who have biases is an understandably scary or intimidating thing to do – especially given the history of retaliation or shaming. But my recent experiences seem to suggest that the culture in medicine is shifting from one of avoidance to one of engagement.

I recently gave a talk on gender discrimination at a major cancer conference that brought together researchers from all across the U.S. I shared the results of my study as well as my personal experiences with the audience. At the end of my presentation, the crowd of men and women stood and applauded – a response I have rarely, if ever, seen in my 30 years of attending medical conferences.

This enthusiastic response may suggest that people are broadly becoming more open to and supportive of women and other underrepresented people sharing their own stories of facing discrimination. With a large body of research showing that sharing personal experiences with people who are actively listening and engaging is one of the most effective ways to combat unconscious bias, this standing ovation seemed to me a hopeful sign of things to come. Läs mer…

Holy Week starts off with lots of palms – but Palm Sunday’s donkey is just as important to the story

For the Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations, the Sunday before Easter marks the beginning of the most important week of the year – “Holy Week,” when Christians reflect on central mysteries of their faith: Christ’s Last Supper, crucifixion and resurrection from the dead.

Palm Sunday commemorates the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before the Jewish holiday of Passover. According to the Christian Gospels, people lined the streets to greet him, waving palm branches and shouting words of praise.

As a specialist in Catholic liturgy and ritual, I think it’s clear that the deeper meaning of this Sunday is rooted in humility, rather than worldly veneration.

Humble service to others is a theme that runs through the New Testament. As the apostle Paul stressed, Christians believe that Jesus, the son of a carpenter, was also the son of God, who “emptied himself” of his divinity to become fully human. Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels praise “the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” and he proclaims that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

Modern Catholic teachings describe humility as grounded in an understanding of one’s true relationship with God, one’s own gifts, and an openness to appreciating the talents of others.

Double symbols

Each of the four Gospels, the biblical books about Jesus’ life, describe him entering Jerusalem to prepare to celebrate Passover days before being betrayed, arrested, tried and sentenced to a criminal’s death by crucifixion. Each one explicitly says that he rode into the city on a donkey or a colt. Throughout the Bible, however, the word meaning “colt” is used almost exclusively for young donkeys, not horses.

People take part in the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem on April 10, 2022.
Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This image brings to mind a line from the Book of Zechariah in the Jewish scriptures: The prophet describes a victorious king who enters Jerusalem “lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

In Judaism, this passage from Zechariah is taken to refer to the Messiah, a spiritual king who would peacefully redeem Israel. The donkey itself is also interpreted as a sign of humility.

In Christianity, this animal becomes almost a symbol of Christ himself, given how it patiently suffers and bears others’ burdens. Horses, on the other hand, tend to be associated with royalty, power and war.

On the other hand, the palm branch had been associated with triumph and victory for hundreds of years before Christ. Winners of athletic contests, victorious generals and triumphant kings would be awarded or welcomed with waving palm branches, a sign of jubilation.

These Gospel narratives left Christians throughout the centuries with two important images for Palm Sunday, the procession with palm branches and the donkey: one associated with triumphant victory, and the other with quiet humility.

Historical development

The earliest evidence for a Palm Sunday procession comes from a late fourth-century religious woman named Egeria, who recorded her experiences on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for her community in Spain.

While in Jerusalem, she describes assembly for prayer on the Mount of Olives in the early afternoon of Palm Sunday. This is a significant location just outside the city, where Christians believe that Jesus taught disciples, prayed in the garden of Gethsemane at its base, and ascended into heaven.

Afterward, the group processed down to the Anastasis, the church in Jerusalem marking the place believed to be Jesus’ tomb, for evening prayer. Among the crowd were children waving palms and olive branches.

Medieval Christian worship books from the 10th and 11th centuries show that a ritual procession outside churches became a standard feature of Palm Sunday celebrations in Western Christianity. In many parts of Europe, other spring flowers or budding branches might be used alongside palm or olive branches, and the Sunday could also be referred to as Flower or Willow Sunday.

A member of a Christian brotherhood pets the donkey Rito, who will carry an image of Jesus during a Palm Sunday procession in Guatemala City.
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Christ could be represented in the procession in numerous ways, such as the presence of the bishop or saints’ relics. In some areas, a carved figure of Christ seated on a donkey, called a Palmesel or “palm donkey,” could be pulled in front of the crowd.

During the mass after the procession, clergy would read a Gospel account of Christ’s crucifixion and death, traditionally from the Book of Matthew; today, Catholics use versions from other gospels as well. The reading would usually be chanted, with different voices taking the parts of the narrator, Christ, and other speakers, especially the crowd of people described as witnessing his trial, with the congregation still holding their palm branches.

Even today, in the contemporary Catholic calendar, the full title of this first Sunday of Holy Week is Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.

Lasting symbols

Centuries of theological and artistic reflection have shaped today’s Catholic approach to Holy Week specifically, and to the concept of holiness in general.

The image of the quiet, patient, and unassuming donkey has communicated humility in art and in practice. No animals are mentioned in the descriptions of the birth of Jesus in the canonical gospels officially included in the Bible. However, other early Christian texts refer to a donkey at the manger or Mary seated on a donkey as she travels with Joseph. Medieval artists also depicted the nativity scene with both an ox and an ass in attendance, and Mary riding on a donkey.

A painting of Saint John the Evangelist holding a palm.
Cristobal Llorens/Museu de Belles Arts de Valencia via Wikimedia Commons

The palm also came to be a wider symbol. Early saints who had died as martyrs – that is, who died rather than renounce their Christian faith – came to be pictured standing by a palm tree. More commonly, they were shown holding a palm branch, signifying their victory over death: Having given up their earthly lives to follow Christ, they were now united with him in Paradise. Martyrs are also frequently depicted with the instruments of their torture, helping worshippers to identify and venerate them.

All of these images are rooted in the narrative of Palm Sunday, with its image of Jesus, the carpenter’s son, riding on an ordinary donkey, yet acclaimed for a moment as though he were a worldly king. A similar paradox is at the heart of Christian teachings: that although Jesus Christ willingly died on a criminal’s cross, doing so was a victory over sin and death. Läs mer…

Why is Passover different from all other nights? 3 essential reads on the Jewish holiday

Boxes of matzah stacked high in grocery stores? It’s almost Passover. Wednesday, April 5, marks the first night of the weeklong Jewish holiday in 2023.

For many people who celebrate it, Passover brings to mind memories of Seder meals with family and reading from the Haggadah, the script for the Seder ritual, which commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites’ flight from slavery in Egypt. It’s a holiday, in other words, with remembrance and tradition at its core.

But that doesn’t mean it’s unchanging. As these scholars explain, Passover has been evolving from the start, reflecting Jewish communities’ experiences around the world – right up to the past few years, with Zoom Seders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s about honoring freedom not only yesterday, but today and tomorrow. Here we spotlight three articles from our archives.

1. Story of liberation

Musician Nisim Nisimov’s wife serves matzah ball soup during a Passover Seder at their home in Azerbaijan in 2013.
Reza via Getty Images News

The central story of Passover, and the holiday’s name itself, come from the biblical book of Exodus, where Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Before their escape, God punishes the Egyptians with a series of plagues, including the death of firstborn sons – but tells the Israelites to put the blood of a sacrificed lamb above their doors so they shall be passed over and spared.

Even before they have actually departed Egypt, God commands Moses that the Israelites should commemorate this event. The narrative of persecution and liberation “fuses the present moment with the past, encouraging each participant to imagine themselves as part of the first generation to leave Egypt,” writes Samuel Boyd, a scholar of the Bible and ancient Judaism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

An illustrated Haggadah from the late 18th century.
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

The Haggadah is a guide to Passover’s central ritual, the Seder meal traditionally celebrated on the first and sometimes second evening. Some of the Haggadah’s rituals may be nearly two millennia old, Boyd notes. Yet “almost like a time machine,” the traditions “encourage the participants to reflect, in different ways, on the significance of liberation and how to communicate it to future generations.”

Read more:
This Passover, as in the past, will be a time to recognize tragedies and offer hope for the future

2. Ancient, yet ever-evolving

Over the past few years, Zoom Seders became the norm for many Jewish families unable to celebrate in person with their loved ones.

That in itself might be a brand-new experience, but Passover and Judaism are no strangers to innovation, Boyd explains. And few things illustrate that history like the temple in Jerusalem.

According to the Bible, the temple was God’s home, and central to ancient Israelite worship. After it was destroyed not once but twice, Jewish leaders were left “with profound questions” about how to connect with God and offer sacrifices.

A woman slides a written prayer into a crack in the Western Wall beside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Joel Carillet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Gradually, Jews came to see prayer as a form of sacrifice, one that could be performed anywhere in the world. It was an idea rooted in biblical passages drawing comparisons between the two: Psalm 141:2, for example, which says “Take my prayer as an offering of incense, my upraised hands as an evening sacrifice.”

“Following the destruction,” Boyd writes, “the way that Jewish communities worshiped God changed forever” – and has kept evolving today.

Read more:
A virtual Passover may be the first for many, but Judaism has a long history of ritual innovation

3. Brewing up a new tradition

One of the most famous Passover examples? The Maxwell House Haggadah – yes, like the coffee company.

Thousands of different Haggadahs exist, each one supplementing the core store from Exodus with different readings. But in the United States, one of the most popular for decades was a simple version “dreamed up in 1932 by the coffee corporation and a Jewish advertising executive” who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, explains Kerri Steinberg, a professor at Otis College of Art and Design who researches advertising’s impact on religion. During the Great Depression, Maxwell House followed his firm’s advice to distribute a Haggadah for free with each can of coffee in an effort to boost sales.

A Jewish family welcomes home a man in the Navy during a Passover Seder at their home in St. Paul, Minn., in 1943.
Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Maxwell House’s Haggadah has become a classic, with even the White House using it. But it’s also changed with the times: nixing words like “thee” and “thine,” for example. There’s even a special edition themed for hit TV show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“In a sea of thousands of Haggadahs, it is Maxwell House’s that has become the de facto representative of American Jewish life,” Steinberg wrote.

Read more:
How a coffee company and a marketing maven brewed up a Passover tradition: A brief history of the Maxwell House Haggadah

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

Donald Trump: polling suggests criminal charges won’t dampen his support

Donald Trump’s impending court case marks an historic moment in US politics. He will be the first former president of the United States to face criminal charges and trial by a jury. He and his supporters are already calling the case a political manoeuvre designed to reduce his chances in the 2024 presidential election.

The court case will affect his campaign but it will not exclude him for running for office next year. Early indications suggest that his political base will continue to rally around him. Within hours of the news, his followers were gathering outside his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida to express their support.

The indictment comes after a grand jury in New York agreed that there was enough evidence to charge the former president. The investigation, led by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, looked into the legality of hush money payments to former adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The exact nature of the charges will not be known until Trump is arraigned next week. According to US reports, he is likely to be accused of more than one count of falsifying business records (classed as a misdemeanour, a lesser crime in the US legal system), after Trump allegedly recorded the payment as a business expense. If found guilty, he could face a fine.

He might also be charged with breaking election campaign laws, which is a more serious felony offence and carries a potential prison sentence. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

Any criminal charges, or even a jail sentence, would not restrict Trump from running for office under the US constitution. He has previously stated that he would do so even if he was charged. Historically, there are instances of individuals running for president while facing charges or even from a prison cell.

Problems for campaign

What may affect his chances is the amount of time that he will need to commit to dealing with the charges laid against him. To date, his campaign has been relatively quiet, but it will need to gain momentum in the lead up to the Republican convention in July 2024.

On March 25 and 26, Trump held his first campaign rally for the 2024 election at Waco, Texas. Despite predicting that he would be arrested, thousands turned up to show their support.

Claiming that the 2024 election would be “the final battle”, Trump criticised the prospects of potential challengers, such as Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and stated that the investigation was like something out of Stalinist Russia. He told his supporters “from the beginning it has been one witch-hunt and phony investigation after another”.

Popularity in the polls

Trump’s immense popularity with Republicans is unlikely to be damaged by any indictment resulting from the New York investigation. One poll showed that most Republicans believe that the investigation is politically motivated, while another indicated that most Americans think that Trump will be acquitted of the charges.

The Harvard/Harris poll shows that popular support for the charges is split along party lines – 80% of Democrats believe he should be indicted, while 80% of Republicans believe he should not. And 57% of Republicans think a trial could help Trump in the election run.

A supporter for Donald Trump’s run for the US presidency in 2024.

Republicans lawmakers have already come out in support of Trump. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that the indictment was an “unprecedented abuse of power”. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise tweeted that the charges were “one of the clearest examples of extremist Democrats weaponizing government to attack their political opponents”.

Even Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 nomination have come out in support of the former president. DeSantis said the charges were “un-American” and a “weaponization of the legal system”, while Pence called the indictment “an outrage”.

For many observers, the question remains: why does Trump still figure so highly in the Republican polls after everything that has happened?

Read more:
Trump v DeSantis: how the two Republican presidential heavy-hitters compare

A Harvard/Harris poll from mid March, shows that Trump has increased his favourability among Republican voters to 50%, giving him a 26-point lead over DeSantis, if the presidential nomination was decided now. Former vice president Mike Pence is a distant third with just 7%. A more recent Fox News poll makes the gap between Trump and DeSantis to be even greater at 30%.

Worryingly for Democrats, those polled of all political persuasions give Trump a four-point lead over Biden. There is a glimmer of hope for the Democrats, though, in that 14% of those polled were undecided on either Trump or Biden. It’s a significant number, and those individuals will be key to deciding who wins the election in November next year.

Trump’s immense popularity with Republicans is unlikely to be damaged by any indictment resulting from the New York investigation. This is because the Republican Party is still the party of Donald Trump. His base support has never fluctuated since 2016. Many of them feel he stands up for them when no-one else does.

His Republican opponents, such as DeSantis, are trying to outdo Trump at being Trump. But they are pale imitations, and Trump knows this.

Earlier this year, Trump told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “I am your warrior, I am your justice.” And they believe that. His supporters believe that he is the only person capable of protecting their values and way of life.

In a supporting speech at Waco, Trump-ally, Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene said: “Trump is the man for the hour. He’s the only man who can take on Washington in the times that we live in.”

While the indictment might make some moderate Republicans rethink their loyalty to the former president, his base will back him to the bitter end. Läs mer…

The UK’s unworkable immigration plans allow the government to blame others for its failure

The illegal migration bill, which purports to end small boat crossings and would effectively bar asylum seeking, has made its way through committee stage. The controversial policy is more likely to be challenged in international courts than to curb small boat crossings. So why is the government pursuing it?

This is arguably not a law intended to end dangerous boat crossings. It’s possibly not even intended to be implemented. It is performative politics, designed to distract from the failures of government and put the Conservatives’ opponents in the firing line ahead of the next election.

On its face, the bill signals to the electorate that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is tough on immigration. It shows him ostensibly fulfilling one of his five pledges to “stop the boats”. It is an attempt to hold together the Conservative voter base in the face of polling that suggests electoral defeat.

It’s been a long road for the Conservatives and Channel crossings. Former and current home secretaries have repeatedly failed to meet their own goals. The plan to send people who enter the UK illegally to Rwanda, on which the current bill hinges, is still in legal limbo.

And again we’ve heard suggestions of housing asylum seekers on vessels – something Sunak floated as chancellor which was “laughed off the table” – and plans to use military barracks. All of these were made with perfectly distracting timing.

But it’s a drum worth beating for the Conservatives because they are failing by the public’s measure on many other issues. Immigration has long been a winning ticket for the party. At a time where the country feels out of control, performative politics in immigration is a way to displace blame.

Public opinion on immigration is complex and nuanced. While the public has become more positive on immigration generally, they care about rules and fairness. So while hardline responses to Channel crossings receive public support, punitive policies may come with a political cost.

Read more:
The government’s plan to remove asylum seekers will be a logistical mess – and may not deter people from coming to the UK

This is a high stakes gamble, and one that isn’t winning the public at the moment. When it comes to voters, 73% say Sunak is doing badly with his pledge to “stop the boats”, 80% say the government is handling immigration badly, and the Conservatives are trailing behind Labour on competency on immigration.

But this bill isn’t for the public at large, it’s for the socially conservative heartlands. It’s an appeal to hold on to the “red wall” voters who are well to the left of Sunak economically but are less favourable toward immigration than the wider British public.

Blame tactics

The bill, or rather its inevitable roadblocks, allow the Conservatives to blame others for its failures on immigration: Labour, Europe and “lefty lawyers” in an ongoing culture war, and migrants themselves.


The bill forces the opposition into a corner. Supporting an unworkable and inhumane bill is not a good look for a supposedly leftwing party, yet opposing hardline policy to tackle irregular migration also does them little favours. Immigration remains an ideological headache for Labour, opening a chasm between its trade union roots and a desire to appeal to the global business world.

The bill allows the Conservatives to paint the opposition as a “soft touch” on immigration – something the party has been dogged with since their time in office.


While support for Brexit has drifted, the Conservatives won political dividends in the 2019 election for casting Europe as a threat to national sovereignty and promising to “Get Brexit Done”. Despite his attempts to mend the wounds with Europe, Sunak has reportedly considered withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), something the home secretary, Suella Braverman, has long backed.

Braverman herself has said there is a more than a 50% chance that the bill violates the ECHR. It is inevitable that the legislation will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Any delays to its implementation can then be blamed on the nebulous beast of Europe, once again derided as a threat to UK sovereignty.

As with the Rwanda plan, legal challenges play well for the Conservatives. Punitive and violent removals (which the public probably won’t stomach on the ground) don’t happen, and the government can maintain they are taking a hardline stance. This also pushes Europe back up the political agenda – an issue they can win on much more easily than Labour.

The government’s plan to stop small boat crossings is almost certain to face legal challenges.
Sean Aidan Calderbank/Shutterstock

“Lefty” lawyers

As the public become more concerned with daily issues like the economy and NHS crisis, the Conservatives have sought to bring social activism and identity into the spotlight. This “war on woke” is a political tactic served to deflect from failures in the economy and public policy.

Sunak has already castigated “lefty lawyers” who he says are thwarting efforts to crack down on illegal migrants, while Braverman has only just got started with claims of “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers”.


Blame games are ubiquitous in immigration politics. In debate on the current bill we even see blame games over the 1990s asylum seeker crisis.

While governments get the blame for policies which fail to curb the number of asylum seekers, immigrants can be blamed for all the nation’s ills: lack of jobs, crime, terrorism, even environmental degradation.

Whether this strategy is successful depends on whether the public deem the specific migrants as “deserving” or vulnerable. Braverman’s emphasis on male Albanian asylum seekers is an attempt to frame this humanitarian movement as illegitimate. Läs mer…

The Pope Francis puffer coat was fake – here’s a history of real papal fashion

Before news of his hospitalisation for a respiratory infection this week, a fake image of Pope Francis wearing a Balenciaga-style white puffer jacket was posted to Reddit and Twitter. The image – created through AI programme Midjourney – had many viewers fooled into believing that the head of the Catholic church had dramatically updated his style.

As an art historian and an ecclesiastical historian, the image has fascinated me, not least in thinking about the rich history of papal fashion.

First of all, it caught my eye because it looks like shot silk (fabric made of silk woven from two or more colours producing an iridescent appearance). Intentionally or not, it’s a nice nod to the fascia, a sash worn by clerics over their cassocks.

This detail hints at the way papal dress and indeed the attire of many people in formal positions works. It not usually just about the shape and colour, but also the quality or materials used.

Being the pope is a bit like dressing for a wedding every day: even as a guest you wouldn’t turn up in your denims. You honour your hosts by wearing the best you possibly can.

The palette of the Pope

In the 21st century, popes have increasingly worn only white, now generally identified as the papal colour. But red is also a pope hue of choice – for example, John Paul II (1920-2005) usually wore white, but he also wore red capes and cloaks.

Benedict XVI (1927-2022) brought back the camauro – nicknamed the “Santa hat” – which is a red silk and velvet cap trimmed with ermine reserved for the pope’s use. The camauro goes back to at least the 12th century when it was related more closely to philosophers and teachers and the hat they wore, known as a pileus.

Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), in a painting by Carlo Saraceni (c. 1610).
National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome

Historically, portraits of senators, lawyers and academics often show them wearing red which is used to communicate a message of “official”.

Cardinals, the most senior clerics in the Roman Catholic Church next to the pope, wear red precisely because it is a papal colour and their power (or more accurately, influence) derives entirely from the pope.

Pope Paul II (1417-1471) tried to ensure quality over quantity when, amid shortages, he officially reserved the very best red dye for himself and his cardinals.

As a result of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, trade from the eastern Mediterranean was disrupted. This meant that the supply of red dye kermes – which derives from the galls produced by parasitic wasps on oak trees indigenous to the Mediterranean basin and eastern Continent – was severely curtailed.

It was not until the middle of the 16th century that cochineal – which comes from parasitic insects on prickly pear cactuses – became available in Europe because of Spanish and Portuguese expansion into South America.

Whatever the dye, papal quality is also communicated by fabrics which hold unparalleled depths of hue: silk, not cotton or linen, alpaca not ordinary wool.

Portrait of John Paul II wearing a red cape, by Guido Greganti (1983).
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

Historians know from 13th century sources that popes have always worn white next to their skin (though from at least the 15th century their socks have been red).

White represents Christlike purity, innocence and charity, while red symbolises compassion and the pope’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his people.

In ancient Rome, red was the colour of imperial power whereas white was associated specifically with the city. So, the papal colours represent the pope’s universal significance as head of the Catholic church as well as his local position as Bishop of Rome.

Popes can also wear blue – Pope Nicholas V (1997-1455) particularly liked this colour. John Paul II, on one of his famous hiking trips, wore his white cassock under a padded blue jacket.

For papal fashion purposes, blue can stand in for red. In penitential seasons (Advent and Lent) or during periods of mourning, bright colours are not appropriate. But dip your bright red silks in a final dye bath of indigo and you get peacock (pavonazzo) which has the iridescence of the bird’s feathers.

Someone with the social conscience of Pope Francis I probably doesn’t give two hoots about what he wears. But as a Jesuit – one of the most highly educated, intellectual and thoughtful of all the groups in the Roman Catholic Church – he would understand the values of continuity and devotion communicated by both what he wears and how he wears it.

I would like to imagine, as he recovers from his respiratory infection, that he would be cheered up by high-tech mashups, such as this image of himself in a puffer coat – so long as they play within the rules of such a dignified man in such a venerable office. Läs mer…

Manchester United: the business tactics that could lead to a record multi-billion-pound sale

It seems that another item can now be added to the long list of things that are getting more expensive: football clubs. The bids coming in to buy Manchester United, reportedly in the region of £4.5bn (the owners are said to want £6bn) would make it the largest amount ever paid for a club.

Given that the current US owners, the Glazer family, bought Manchester United in 2005 for around £800 million, the current valuation makes it unsurprising that a sale may be on the cards.

But can a football club, even one as famous as Manchester United, really be worth £6bn?

For comparison, in 2021 one of its rivals, Newcastle United, sold for a fraction of that sum, at around £300 million. Yet given that Newcastle had been bought for £133 million in 2007 (about £200 million in today’s money), that controversial sale was still seen as providing a decent return.

But it was Chelsea, sold in May 2022, which started the sale bonanza among the biggest British clubs. Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have all been linked to potential sales since then.

Chelsea had been bought for £140 million by Roman Abramovich in 2003, when it was struggling financially. Two decades later, its £2.5 billion price was achieved despite the club being what is known as a “distressed asset” (something that needed to be sold because Abramovich had been sanctioned by the UK government), meaning that bids were probably lower than if the sale had been on the open market.

Crucially though, Chelsea had also become a more impressive club, winning a number of trophies (two Champions League, two Europa League, five Premier League titles and five FA Cups). (The profit from the Chelsea sale is now earmarked for humanitarian causes in Ukraine.)

Another important element behind a club’s value is, of course, how much any potential owner is willing to pay. Research suggests that owning a football club is generally something that loses money, so owners normally fit one of three categories.

First, there are those who view clubs as a trophy asset; second, fans or local benefactors who want to support their side; and third, those that think they can make money from the club by making changes.

The Glazers fall squarely into the last category, and took the opportunity to buy a club through a leveraged buyout – in essence, using comparatively little of their own money – and taking money out annually through dividends.

Financial goals

That leveraged buyout meant that some of the money used to buy the club was secured against the club itself, like a mortgage, so the debt was borne by the club rather than the owners.

And that debt was considerable. Over the ownership of the Glazers, £837 million has been spent on interest payments alone.

Not every fan is a fan.
John B Hewitt/Shutterstock

Another reason for the increase in value of clubs has been the increase in revenue they can generate. The Premier League, for example, has been significantly increasing its income from selling overseas broadcasting rights (the latest US deal is more than double its previous one), and this leads to more money for the clubs. Increasing global interest in the Premier League has also added value to the small number of clubs which feature in it.

Other things that affect the value of clubs have nothing to do with football. For example, the pandemic led to the very rich getting richer and so there is more disposable income at the billionaire potential owner level.

But ownership comes with plenty of risk too and, like winning matches, financial success is never guaranteed. Around 40% of football clubs in the top four leagues of English football have gone into administration since the Premier League began, including eight of the original 22 Premier League members.

The culture of spending above your means in English football may, in the long term, be tempered by the proposed implementation of an independent regulator. In the meantime football club ownership remains, for most, a loss-making business.

For the Glazers though, selling their club for around £5 billion would surely be seen as a big win. They put in relatively little of their own money to buy it, have taken money out in dividends, and are now expected to make a massive profit on the sale price. Divisive tactics they may have been, but very lucrative too. Läs mer…

Remote working: how a surge in digital nomads is pricing out local communities around the world

For eight years I have studied digital nomadism, the millenial trend for working remotely from anywhere around the world. I am often asked if it is driving gentrification.

Before COVID upended the way we work, I would usually tell journalists that the numbers were too small for a definitive answer. Most digital nomads were travelling and working illegally on tourist visas. It was a niche phenomenon.

Three years into the pandemic, however, I am no longer sure. The most recent estimates put the number of digital nomads from the US alone, at 16.9 million, a staggering increase of 131% from the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

The same survey also suggests that up to 72 million “armchair nomads”, again, only in the US, are considering becoming nomadic. This COVID-induced rise in remote working is a global phenomenon, which means figures for digital nomads beyond the US may be similarly high.

The profitability of short-term lets in Lisbon is driving rents up for local people.
Diego Garcia/Unsplash

My research confirms that the cheaper living costs this trend has brought to those able to capitalise on it can come with a downside for others. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, I have found that the rise of professional short-term-let landlords, in particular, is helping to price local people out of their homes.

Before the pandemic, digital nomads were mostly freelancers. My research has identified four further categories: digital nomad business owners; experimental digital nomads; armchair digital nomads; and, the fastest emerging category, salaried digital nomads.

The five categories of digital nomad:

Dave Cook, CC BY

In the US, the number of salaried nomads – full-time employees now working fully remotely – is estimated to have gone from 3.2 million in 2019 to 11.1 million in 2022. This exponential growth has prompted governments to start paying attention. Last September I gave expert testimony to the UK Treasury on what they called “cross-border working”.

The phenomenon is reshaping cities. Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is often dubbed the digital nomad capital of the world. The Nimmanhaemin area, AKA Nimman or sometimes Coffee Street, brims with coffee shops, co-working spaces, Airbnbs and short-term lets affordable to people on western wages but out of reach for many locals.

For local business owners hit by the pandemic, the return of visitors to Chiang Mai is a relief. But as one Thai Airbnb owner told me:

There needs to be a balance. We used to live here when Nimman was a quiet neighbourhood.

Chiang Mai’s coffee shops cater largely to foreign visitors.
Duy Vo/nsplash

The purchasing power remote western workers wield

Lisbon is similarly sought out for the better weather and lower living costs it offers. Buzzwords like the “circular economy” or the “sharing economy” are often used by digital nomads to describe why such locations are so suited to their way of living. They describe new approaches to urban living that emphasise mobility, more flexible approaches to building use and re-use, and innovative business models that encourage collaboration.

But the Portuguese capital, like many other urban centres, is in the grip of a housing crisis. Activists, like Rita Silva, of Portuguese housing-rights organisation Habita!, say this influx is making things worse for local people:

We are a small country and Lisbon is a small city, but the foreign population is growing and is very visible in coffee shops and restaurants.

To Silva’s mind, what she calls “this bullshit of the circular economy” does not accurately describe what is happening on the ground. In certain parts of the city, she says, you don’t hear Portuguese anymore, you hear English. This is driving up living costs, well beyond the popular tourist hotspots like Barrio Alto and Principe Real.

Co-working spaces and creative hubs are now appearing in previously traditional working-class areas. With the average salary in Portugal under US$20,000 (£16,226), these are clearly are not aimed at local people. A one-bedroom apartment in these digital nomad hotspots accounts on average for at least 63% of a local wage – one of the highest ratios in Europe.

In his 2007 bestseller, The Four-Hour Workweek, author and podcast host Tim Ferris coined the term “geo-arbitrage” to describe the phenomenon of people from higher-income countries – the US, Europe, South Korea – wielding their wages in lower-cost countries.

For some nomads, this is an essential life-hack. For others, it represents the polarising reality of globalisation: that the entire world should operate as an open, free market. To many, it is unethical.

Urban sociologist Max Holleran points out the “incredible irony” at play:

Some people are actually becoming digital nomads, because of housing prices in their home countries. And then their presence in less wealthy places, is tightening the housing market leading to displacement in places in the global south [developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America].

On a visit to Chiang Mai in 2019, I booked an Airbnb. I expected to be checked in by the owner. Instead, I was met by someone called Sam (not their real name), who didn’t know the name of the person I have been corresponding with.

In the building’s lobby, a sign for the attention of travellers, tourists and backpackers clearly stated: “This place is NOT A HOTEL. Day/week rentals are NOT ALLOWED.” Yet, in the reception area, people worked on laptops, amid a constant procession of western visitors entering and leaving, with backpacks and wheely suitcases.

I looked back at my booking and realised that the apartment was hosted by a brand I’ll call Home-tel, which, other visitors confirmed, also hosted 17 other apartments.

A local resident said they were considering selling up, or, failing that, renting to a professional short-term-let host. Living there had become unbearable.

I vowed that next time I travelled, I would check I was renting from a bona fide private owner. And I did. Only to find, on arrival, a large sign in the lobby stating, “No short-term lets”. When I confronted the European owner, she said the sign was already there when she purchased the apartment. “What can you do?” she said. “Money talks.”

Holleran explains that the rise in digital nomad numbers is fostering competition between destinations:

If Portugal says, “We’re sick of nomads,” and cracks down on visas, Spain can then say, “Oh, come here.” And that will be even more true in low GDP countries.

Silva says digital nomads need to be aware of the impact they have. She is also urging the Portuguese government to take meaningful regulatory action:

The majority of the Airbnbs are from companies controlling multiple properties. We want houses to be places where people can live. Läs mer…

’Cracking down’ on antisocial behaviour is a classic pre-election strategy – but this government owes young people better

For a government that is committed to “levelling up”, Rishi Sunak’s administration seems to have taken a major shift towards “cracking down”.

A new action plan on antisocial behaviour has certainly ratcheted-up the rhetoric. Perpetrators will face “swift and visible” justice as part of a “zero-tolerance” approach. “Hotspot trailblazer areas” will be piloted and a new “immediate justice” scheme launched. Offenders will be expected to repair the damage they have “inflicted on victims … as soon as 48 hours after their offence”, but they will also be made to wear “high-vis vests or jumpsuits”.

Laughing gas is also not funny.

Nitrous oxide is highlighted as the drug of choice for 16- to 24-year-olds and will be banned to prevent “intimidating gangs” of giggling youths hanging around. Those responsible “will be quickly and visibly punished” – possibly even forced to wash police cars – as the government moves to “stamp out these crimes once and for all”.

The shift to a very hard stance appears almost designed to promote a moral panic, with young people framed as contemporary folk devils existing on the wrong side of a politically defined moral barricade.

It’s a very old trick. But what it lacks is any evidence-based understanding of young people today.

The young people the government are targeting are the very same generation whose opportunities to be young were ravaged by COVID. The impact of lockdown – its scarring effects – are only just beginning to be understood. Add to this the fact that this is a generation who have lived through austerity, and who now face precarious employment as the new normal and a future that will see their living standards fall below those of previous generations.

And yet this is not a lost generation. It is, in fact, a resilient generation.

The 2021 Prince’s Trust Tesco Youth Index discovered that almost three-quarters of the 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed were positive that “theirs is the generation that can change the future for the better”. The Talk Together project also concluded – having engaged with almost 160,000 people across the UK – that an upsurge in community spirit exists and needs to be cultivated.

Even during the pandemic, it was young people that generally massed ranks of initiatives, including the NHS volunteer responders scheme and the RSPCA’s volunteer network.

It’s difficult to understand the central logic of government thinking. One minute there are “ambitious plans to level up activities for young people”, but these are almost immediately followed by a youth-focused action plan “to crack down on antisocial behaviour”. The very next day, the message is all about youth facilities being “transformed with new investment”.

When reading the government’s action plan on antisocial behaviour, I could not stop thinking of Keith Dowding’s book It’s the Government Stupid and its central argument that governments often try to blame citizens for their policies.

Youth services have declined by nearly 70% in the past decade. Against this backdrop of long-term decline, the £378m youth investment fund is undoubtedly a welcome measure but it is not “transformational”.

This is not an excuse for antisocial behaviour. It’s a statement of reality. Young people who lack access to basic support services will find things to do.

If the government wants to “rebuild social capital and self-reliance” across the country, then it might start by listening to what local communities and young people say they need. As the Institute for Community Studies report Why don’t they ask us? highlighted, local communities are keen to engage in co-producing and co-delivering policy to fit with local priorities.

The government will say it has listened. The 2022 Youth Review led to the launch of a National Youth Guarantee. But this review was not youth-led or even co-produced. The “guarantee” is therefore narrow – the rebuilding of youth clubs (mentioned above), increased access to the National Citizen Service, and support for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Scheme and other non-military uniformed youth groups.

Ask them

Engaged, embedded and peer-led research suggests that youth clubs and cub scouts are not top of the list when young people are asked what they need. They want a broader choice of flexible opportunities to engage in social action projects, volunteering and practical politics. They need to be listened to and brought into decisions.

Young volunteers at a vaccination centre.

The National Youth Guarantee may offer the basis for a transformational approach to supporting young people – but realising this potential demands a more agile, aligned and ambitious approach.

Agile in the sense of focusing on key transition points in young people’s lives, and making sure that new forms of safety net and civic scaffolding are put in place to catch those who fall through the cracks.

Aligned in the sense of an integrated set of policies that seeks not to put young people “on the right track” – the approach of the antisocial behaviour plan – but to support young people through a “civic journey” where they get the chance to learn new skills, make mistakes, develop confidence and engage beyond their own communities.

And ambitious in the sense of a whole of government approach, where the starting point is not to prevent young people “spiralling” from antisocial behaviour into a life of crime, but instead forged around a belief in the capacity of future generations to flourish in a changing world.

There are enlightened Conservatives working in this space. MP Danny Kruger’s work on a “new social covenant” offers a far more positive and inclusive approach..

The latest crackdown on antisocial behaviour is, if we are honest, to some extent a theatrical performance. It is the pre-election chest thumping of a government that wants to be seen as tough on crime in order to bolster its position among those older voters who are generally enraged by antisocial behaviour.

As a result, however, a government that “hugged the experts” during COVID now goes directly against the experts when it comes to banning laughing gas.

The problem is that demonising young people for votes really is no laughing matter. Läs mer…

What went wrong in Peter Bol’s doping case? A sport integrity expert explains

Lawyers for Australian 800-metre star Peter Bol say allegations the runner engaged in doping should be dropped after two independent labs found no evidence he used a banned substance.

Bol has always strongly denied the allegations.

So what went wrong?

How we got here

Bol is a national champion, Commonwealth Games silver medallist, and finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

He was provisionally suspended from the sport in January 2023 after testing suggested he was using a banned substance called “synthetic EPO”.

EPO stands for erythropoietin, which occurs naturally in the body. It’s secreted in the kidney, and stimulates red blood cell production in bone marrow.

Synthetic EPO (or rEPO) is made in a lab, and is known to enhance athletic performance. It was most famously abused by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Read more:
Lance Armstrong charged with ’blood doping’ and EPO-use … so how do they work?

On October 11 2022, Bol provided an out-of-competition urine sample which was analysed for a range of prohibited substances, including synthetic EPO.

The timing is important. While athletes seeking to cheat commonly use prohibited substances in the off-season to increase their training load, Bol suggested this date is outside of the time when an athlete could benefit from taking synthetic EPO (roughly a three-month window).

On January 10 2023, Bol was advised his A-sample from October 2022 had returned a positive result for synthetic EPO, and was provisionally suspended.

Bol was also told that another previous sample that had been analysed for EPO, collected at some time in 2021, had returned an uncertain result.

Bol’s team believes this is evidence the athlete may have naturally occurring high levels of EPO, which may have been wrongly interpreted as synthetic EPO.

Bol requested the B-sample from 2022 be analysed.

On February 14 2023, Sport Integrity Australia found the B-sample returned an atypical result (not positive or negative, but an indication further investigation is required).

Bol’s provisional suspension was lifted, but Sport Integrity Australia said the investigation “remains ongoing”.

Natural vs synthetic EPO

An athlete is unable to take whatever is left of their original urine sample to have it retested by another lab.

Athletes can, however, be provided with the data, photographs and detailed documentation of the procedure followed by the lab, known as the “lab pack”. The athlete then needs to find an expert to translate the complex documentation.

Two independent labs analysed Bol’s lab pack.

One was David Chen, Professor of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia, and the other was a group of four experts from Norway.

Both assert there was no evidence of synthetic EPO in Bol’s sample.

The Norwegian group found “a large amount of natural EPO” in Bol’s sample, and hypothesised his atypical result may be due to high naturally occurring levels of EPO.

In an interview with Channel 7 in early March, Bol speculated it could be a Sudanese gift:

It’s in our genetics, of course. We’re fitter, we’re faster, we’re more resilient because of how much we’ve been through and gone through. It’s our genetics, it’s who we are. We can get back in shape pretty fast; [it] doesn’t mean we’re cheating. It’s how we’re born.

While there have been studies on the effect of ethnicity in patients receiving synthetic EPO treatment, it’s not known whether there are ethnic variations in EPO production among elite athletes.

Bol won a silver medal in the men’s 800 metre final at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Dean Lewins/AAP

There are different ways of manufacturing synthetic EPO, and the source materials vary too. So identifying variations in what’s within the “normal” range and what’s synthetic EPO becomes increasingly difficult.

Synthetic EPO is also made by legitimate manufacturers, as it’s used to help some patients with chronic anaemia (who don’t have enough healthy red blood cells).

Research suggests even legitimate products can vary significantly, let alone what’s produced on the black market.

The different methods of manufacturing synthetic EPO appear to be causing issues with identifying synthetic EPO, and in interpreting the results of analyses.

It’s possible, then, that naturally occurring EPO could (incorrectly) appear as though it’s a variation of one of the synthetic EPO products.

A ‘catastrophic blunder’?

Bol’s legal team, in a letter to Sport Integrity Australia, said “inexperience and incompetence at the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory (ASDTL) led to an incorrect determination”, accusing Sport Integrity Australia of making a “catastrophic blunder”.

David Chen, from the University of British Columbia, suggested the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) method for testing for synthetic EPO needs to be amended, including for the amount of urine used in the analysis. Under WADA’s rules, it is possible to challenge the validity of the tests.

Quoted in the letter, Chen said all tests performed for Bol used 15ml of urine, but that “an experienced lab person should have understood that this was the upper limit”.

While this means the lab followed WADA guidelines, Chen’s concern is that “for many athletes, this amount is too high”.

What’s not explained in the letter, in what is publicly available at least, is why 15ml of urine is too much for “many athletes”.

Read more:
Snubbing Chinese swimmer Sun Yang ignores the flaws in the anti-doping system

Technically, the investigation into Bol could be closed on the basis the B-sample didn’t confirm the A-sample, so the evidence may be insufficient to comfortably establish a doping violation.

However, Sport Integrity Australia will undoubtedly be as keen as Bol and his team to get to the bottom of this.

It’s important for all athletes, and for trust in the anti-doping system, that the validity of the EPO test and the interpretation of the analysis can be transparently relied on. Läs mer…

AI will soon become impossible for humans to comprehend – the story of neural networks tells us why

In 1956, during a year-long trip to London and in his early 20s, the mathematician and theoretical biologist Jack D. Cowan visited Wilfred Taylor and his strange new “learning machine”. On his arrival he was baffled by the “huge bank of apparatus” that confronted him. Cowan could only stand by and watch “the machine doing its thing”. The thing it appeared to be doing was performing an “associative memory scheme” – it seemed to be able to learn how to find connections and retrieve data.

It may have looked like clunky blocks of circuitry, soldered together by hand in a mass of wires and boxes, but what Cowan was witnessing was an early analogue form of a neural network – a precursor to the most advanced artificial intelligence of today, including the much discussed ChatGPT with its ability to generate written content in response to almost any command. ChatGPT’s underlying technology is a neural network.

As Cowan and Taylor stood and watched the machine work, they really had no idea exactly how it was managing to perform this task. The answer to Taylor’s mystery machine brain can be found somewhere in its “analog neurons”, in the associations made by its machine memory and, most importantly, in the fact that its automated functioning couldn’t really be fully explained. It would take decades for these systems to find their purpose and for that power to be unlocked.

Jack Cowan, who played a key part in the development of neural networks from the 1950s onwards.
University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center.

The term neural network incorporates a wide range of systems, yet centrally, according to IBM, these “neural networks – also known as artificial neural networks (ANNs) or simulated neural networks (SNNs) – are a subset of machine learning and are at the heart of deep learning algorithms”. Crucially, the term itself and their form and “structure are inspired by the human brain, mimicking the way that biological neurons signal to one another”.

There may have been some residual doubt of their value in its initial stages, but as the years have passed AI fashions have swung firmly towards neural networks. They are now often understood to be the future of AI. They have big implications for us and for what it means to be human. We have heard echoes of these concerns recently with calls to pause new AI developments for a six month period to ensure confidence in their implications.

This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.

It would certainly be a mistake to dismiss the neural network as being solely about glossy, eye-catching new gadgets. They are already well established in our lives. Some are powerful in their practicality. As far back as 1989, a team led by Yann LeCun at AT&T Bell Laboratories used back-propagation techniques to train a system to recognise handwritten postal codes. The recent announcement by Microsoft that Bing searches will be powered by AI, making it your “copilot for the web”, illustrates how the things we discover and how we understand them will increasingly be a product of this type of automation.

Drawing on vast data to find patterns AI can similarly be trained to do things like image recognition at speed – resulting in them being incorporated into facial recognition, for instance. This ability to identify patterns has led to many other applications, such as predicting stock markets.

Neural networks are changing how we interpret and communicate too. Developed by the interestingly titled Google Brain Team, Google Translate is another prominent application of a neural network.

You wouldn’t want to play Chess or Shogi with one either. Their grasp of rules and their recall of strategies and all recorded moves means that they are exceptionally good at games (although ChatGPT seems to struggle with Wordle). The systems that are troubling human Go players (Go is a notoriously tricky strategy board game) and Chess grandmasters, are made from neural networks.

But their reach goes far beyond these instances and continues to expand. A search of patents restricted only to mentions of the exact phrase “neural networks” produces 135,828 results. With this rapid and ongoing expansion, the chances of us being able to fully explain the influence of AI may become ever thinner. These are the questions I have been examining in my research and my new book on algorithmic thinking.

Mysterious layers of ‘unknowability’

Looking back at the history of neural networks tells us something important about the automated decisions that define our present or those that will have a possibly more profound impact in the future. Their presence also tells us that we are likely to understand the decisions and impacts of AI even less over time. These systems are not simply black boxes, they are not just hidden bits of a system that can’t be seen or understood.

It is something different, something rooted in the aims and design of these systems themselves. There is a long-held pursuit of the unexplainable. The more opaque, the more authentic and advanced the system is thought to be. It is not just about the systems becoming more complex or the control of intellectual property limiting access (although these are part of it). It is instead to say that the ethos driving them has a particular and embedded interest in “unknowability”. The mystery is even coded into the very form and discourse of the neural network. They come with deeply piled layers – hence the phrase deep learning – and within those depths are the even more mysterious sounding “hidden layers”. The mysteries of these systems are deep below the surface.

There is a good chance that the greater the impact that artificial intelligence comes to have in our lives the less we will understand how or why. Today there is a strong push for AI that is explainable. We want to know how it works and how it arrives at decisions and outcomes. The EU is so concerned by the potentially “unacceptable risks” and even “dangerous” applications that it is currently advancing a new AI Act intended to set a “global standard” for “the development of secure, trustworthy and ethical artificial intelligence”.

Those new laws will be based on a need for explainability, demanding that “for high-risk AI systems, the requirements of high quality data, documentation and traceability, transparency, human oversight, accuracy and robustness, are strictly necessary to mitigate the risks to fundamental rights and safety posed by AI”. This is not just about things like self-driving cars (although systems that ensure safety fall into the EU’s category of high risk AI), it is also a worry that systems will emerge in the future that will have implications for human rights.

This is part of wider calls for transparency in AI so that its activities can be checked, audited and assessed. Another example would be the Royal Society’s policy briefing on explainable AI in which they point out that “policy debates across the world increasingly see calls for some form of AI explainability, as part of efforts to embed ethical principles into the design and deployment of AI-enabled systems”.

But the story of neural networks tells us that we are likely to get further away from that objective in the future, rather than closer to it.

Inspired by the human brain

These neural networks may be complex systems yet they have some core principles. Inspired by the human brain, they seek to copy or simulate forms of biological and human thinking. In terms of structure and design they are, as IBM also explains, comprised of “node layers, containing an input layer, one or more hidden layers, and an output layer”. Within this, “each node, or artificial neuron, connects to another”. Because they require inputs and information to create outputs they “rely on training data to learn and improve their accuracy over time”. These technical details matter but so too does the wish to model these systems on the complexities of the human brain.

Grasping the ambition behind these systems is vital in understanding what these technical details have come to mean in practice. In a 1993 interview, the neural network scientist Teuvo Kohonen concluded that a “self-organising” system “is my dream”, operating “something like what our nervous system is doing instinctively”. As an example, Kohonen pictured how a “self-organising” system, a system that monitored and managed itself, “could be used as a monitoring panel for any machine … in every airplane, jet plane, or every nuclear power station, or every car”. This, he thought, would mean that in the future “you could see immediately what condition the system is in”.

Early computing often involved a large apparatus of assembled parts.
Aalto University Archives

The overarching objective was to have a system capable of adapting to its surroundings. It would be instant and autonomous, operating in the style of the nervous system. That was the dream, to have systems that could handle themselves without the need for much human intervention. The complexities and unknowns of the brain, the nervous system and the real world would soon come to inform the development and design of neural networks.

‘Something fishy about it’

But jumping back to 1956 and that strange learning machine, it was the hands-on approach that Taylor had taken when building it that immediately caught Cowan’s attention. He had clearly sweated over the assembly of the bits and pieces. Taylor, Cowan observed during an interview on his own part in the story of these systems, “didn’t do it by theory, and he didn’t do it on a computer”. Instead, with tools in hand, he “actually built the hardware”. It was a material thing, a combination of parts, perhaps even a contraption. And it was “all done with analogue circuitry” taking Taylor, Cowan notes, “several years to build it and to play with it”. A case of trial and error.

Understandably Cowan wanted to get to grips with what he was seeing. He tried to get Taylor to explain this learning machine to him. The clarifications didn’t come. Cowan couldn’t get Taylor to describe to him how the thing worked. The analogue neurons remained a mystery. The more surprising problem, Cowan thought, was that Taylor “didn’t really understand himself what was going on”. This wasn’t just a momentary breakdown in communication between the two scientists with different specialisms, it was more than that.

In an interview from the mid-1990s, thinking back to Taylor’s machine, Cowan revealed that “to this day in published papers you can’t quite understand how it works”. This conclusion is suggestive of how the unknown is deeply embedded in neural networks. The unexplainability of these neural systems has been present even from the fundamental and developmental stages dating back nearly seven decades.

This mystery remains today and is to be found within advancing forms of AI. The unfathomability of the functioning of the associations made by Taylor’s machine led Cowan to wonder if there was “something fishy about it”.

Long and tangled roots

Cowan referred back to his brief visit with Taylor when asked about the reception of his own work some years later. Into the 1960s people were, Cowan reflected, “a little slow to see the point of an analogue neural network”. This was despite, Cowan recalls, Taylor’s 1950s work on “associative memory” being based on “analog neurons”. The Nobel Prize-winning neural systems expert, Leon N. Cooper, concluded that developments around the application of the brain model in the 1960s, were regarded “as among the deep mysteries”. Because of this uncertainty there remained a scepticism about what a neural network might achieve. But things slowly began to change.

Some 30 years ago the neuroscientist Walter J. Freeman, who was surprised by the “remarkable” range of applications that had been found for neural networks, was already commenting on the fact that he didn’t see them as “a fundamentally new kind of machine”. They were a slow burn, with the technology coming first and then subsequent applications being found for it. This took time. Indeed, to find the roots of neural network technology we might head back even further than Cowan’s visit to Taylor’s mysterious machine.

Dr. T.J. Mirsepassi checks on the 800 network nodes of Aerojet’s research analog computer in 1960. The board was 12.5ft high and 23ft long and solved problems associated with aerospace.
AP Photo/Aerojet-General/W.E. Miller

The neural net scientist James Anderson and the science journalist Edward Rosenfeld have noted that the background to neural networks goes back into the 1940s and some early attempts to, as they describe, “understand the human nervous systems and to build artificial systems that act the way we do, at least a little bit”. And so, in the 1940s, the mysteries of the human nervous system also became the mysteries of computational thinking and artificial intelligence.

Summarising this long story, the computer science writer Larry Hardesty has pointed out that deep learning in the form of neural networks “have been going in and out of fashion for more than 70 years”. More specifically, he adds, these “neural networks were first proposed in 1944 by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, two University of Chicago researchers who moved to MIT in 1952 as founding members of what’s sometimes called the first cognitive science department”.

The inventors of the neural network Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch pictured here in 1949.
Semantic Scholar

Elsewhere, 1943 is sometimes the given date as the first year for the technology. Either way, for roughly 70 years accounts suggest that neural networks have moved in and out of vogue, often neglected but then sometimes taking hold and moving into more mainstream applications and debates. The uncertainty persisted. Those early developers frequently describe the importance of their research as being overlooked, until it found its purpose often years and sometimes decades later.

Moving from the 1960s into the late 1970s we can find further stories of the unknown properties of these systems. Even then, after three decades, the neural network was still to find a sense of purpose. David Rumelhart, who had a background in psychology and was a co-author of a set of books published in 1986 that would later drive attention back again towards neural networks, found himself collaborating on the development of neural networks with his colleague Jay McClelland.

As well as being colleagues they had also recently encountered each other at a conference in Minnesota where Rumelhart’s talk on “story understanding” had provoked some discussion among the delegates.

Following that conference McClelland returned with a thought about how to develop a neural network that might combine models to be more interactive. What matters here is Rumelhart’s recollection of the “hours and hours and hours of tinkering on the computer”.

We sat down and did all this in the computer and built these computer models, and we just didn’t understand them. We didn’t understand why they worked or why they didn’t work or what was critical about them.

Like Taylor, Rumelhart found himself tinkering with the system. They too created a functioning neural network and, crucially, they also weren’t sure how or why it worked in the way that it did, seemingly learning from data and finding associations.

Mimicking the brain – layer after layer

You may already have noticed that when discussing the origins of neural networks the image of the brain and the complexity this evokes are never far away. The human brain acted as a sort of template for these systems. In the early stages, in particular, the brain – still one of the great unknowns – became a model for how the neural network might function.

The model of the brain became a model for the layering within artificial neural networks.

So these experimental new systems were modelled on something whose functioning was itself largely unknown. The neurocomputing engineer Carver Mead has spoken revealingly of the conception of a “cognitive iceberg” that he had found particularly appealing. It is only the tip of the iceberg of consciousness of which we are aware and which is visible. The scale and form of the rest remains unknown below the surface.

In 1998, James Anderson, who had been working for some time on neural networks, noted that when it came to research on the brain “our major discovery seems to be an awareness that we really don’t know what is going on”.

In a detailed account in the Financial Times in 2018, technology journalist Richard Waters noted how neural networks “are modelled on a theory about how the human brain operates, passing data through layers of artificial neurons until an identifiable pattern emerges”. This creates a knock-on problem, Waters proposed, as “unlike the logic circuits employed in a traditional software program, there is no way of tracking this process to identify exactly why a computer comes up with a particular answer”. Waters’ conclusion is that these outcomes cannot be unpicked. The application of this type of model of the brain, taking the data through many layers, means that the answer cannot readily be retraced. The multiple layering is a good part of the reason for this.

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Hardesty also observed these systems are “modelled loosely on the human brain”. This brings an eagerness to build in ever more processing complexity in order to try to match up with the brain. The result of this aim is a neural net that “consists of thousands or even millions of simple processing nodes that are densely interconnected”. Data moves through these nodes in only one direction. Hardesty observed that an “individual node might be connected to several nodes in the layer beneath it, from which it receives data, and several nodes in the layer above it, to which it sends data”.

Models of the human brain were a part of how these neural networks were conceived and designed from the outset. This is particularly interesting when we consider that the brain was itself a mystery of the time (and in many ways still is).

‘Adaptation is the whole game’

Scientists like Mead and Kohonen wanted to create a system that could genuinely adapt to the world in which it found itself. It would respond to its conditions. Mead was clear that the value in neural networks was that they could facilitate this type of adaptation. At the time, and reflecting on this ambition, Mead added that producing adaptation “is the whole game”. This adaptation is needed, he thought, “because of the nature of the real world”, which he concluded is “too variable to do anything absolute”.

This problem needed to be reckoned with especially as, he thought, this was something “the nervous system figured out a long time ago”. Not only were these innovators working with an image of the brain and its unknowns, they were combining this with a vision of the “real world” and the uncertainties, unknowns and variability that this brings. The systems, Mead thought, needed to be able to respond and adapt to circumstances without instruction.

Around the same time in the 1990s, Stephen Grossberg – an expert in cognitive systems working across maths, psychology and bioemedical engineering – also argued that adaptation was going to be the important step in the longer term. Grossberg, as he worked away on neural network modelling, thought to himself that it is all “about how biological measurement and control systems are designed to adapt quickly and stably in real time to a rapidly fluctuating world”. As we saw earlier with Kohonen’s “dream” of a “self-organising” system, a notion of the “real world” becomes the context in which response and adaptation are being coded into these systems. How that real world is understood and imagined undoubtedly shapes how these systems are designed to adapt.

Hidden layers

As the layers multiplied, deep learning plumbed new depths. The neural network is trained using training data that, Hardesty explained, “is fed to the bottom layer – the input layer – and it passes through the succeeding layers, getting multiplied and added together in complex ways, until it finally arrives, radically transformed, at the output layer”. The more layers, the greater the transformation and the greater the distance from input to output. The development of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), in gaming for instance, Hardesty added, “enabled the one-layer networks of the 1960s and the two to three- layer networks of the 1980s to blossom into the ten, 15, or even 50-layer networks of today”.

Neural networks are getting deeper. Indeed, it’s this adding of layers, according to Hardesty, that is “what the ‘deep’ in ‘deep learning’ refers to”. This matters, he proposes, because “currently, deep learning is responsible for the best-performing systems in almost every area of artificial intelligence research”.

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But the mystery gets deeper still. As the layers of neural networks have piled higher their complexity has grown. It has also led to the growth in what are referred to as “hidden layers” within these depths. The discussion of the optimum number of hidden layers in a neural network is ongoing. The media theorist Beatrice Fazi has written that “because of how a deep neural network operates, relying on hidden neural layers sandwiched between the first layer of neurons (the input layer) and the last layer (the output layer), deep-learning techniques are often opaque or illegible even to the programmers that originally set them up”.

As the layers increase (including those hidden layers) they become even less explainable – even, as it turns out, again, to those creating them. Making a similar point, the prominent and interdisciplinary new media thinker Katherine Hayles also noted that there are limits to “how much we can know about the system, a result relevant to the ‘hidden layer’ in neural net and deep learning algorithms”.

Pursuing the unexplainable

Taken together, these long developments are part of what the sociologist of technology Taina Bucher has called the “problematic of the unknown”. Expanding his influential research on scientific knowledge into the field of AI, Harry Collins has pointed out that the objective with neural nets is that they may be produced by a human, initially at least, but “once written the program lives its own life, as it were; without huge effort, exactly how the program is working can remain mysterious”. This has echoes of those long-held dreams of a self-organising system.

I’d add to this that the unknown and maybe even the unknowable have been pursued as a fundamental part of these systems from their earliest stages. There is a good chance that the greater the impact that artificial intelligence comes to have in our lives the less we will understand how or why.

But that doesn’t sit well with many today. We want to know how AI works and how it arrives at the decisions and outcomes that impact us. As developments in AI continue to shape our knowledge and understanding of the world, what we discover, how we are treated, how we learn, consume and interact, this impulse to understand will grow. When it comes to explainable and transparent AI, the story of neural networks tells us that we are likely to get further away from that objective in the future, rather than closer to it.

For you: more from our Insights series:

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Tyrannosaurus rex: our new research shows it covered its enormous teeth with lips

Picture a Tyrannosaurus rex, that ferocious yet one of the most beloved dinosaurs. Most people will probably imagine a scaly giant with enormous fangs, visible even when its mouth is closed.

This is the image of toothy predatory dinosaurs that popular culture has perpetuated for over 30 years.

But our new study, published in Science, suggests that even the giant teeth of Tyrannosaurus would have been sheathed in scaly lips.

Palaeontologists and artists have held different opinions on how dinosaur faces looked since we began recreating their form in the 1830s. From the 1980s onwards, artists and scientists have mostly shown theropod dinosaurs (the lineage that includes Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor and birds) with lipless mouths and exposed teeth.

This look became deeply rooted in popular culture thanks to the 1993 film Jurassic Park and its iconic depiction of T. rex. Jurassic Park’s creators deliberately exaggerated the size and visibility of their tyrant’s teeth, despite being an otherwise accurate recreation of Tyrannosaurus for the time. No specific study or fossil discovery inspired this look. The widespread adoption of the lipless dinosaur reflected a preference for a new, ferocious-looking aesthetic rather than a scientific re-think.

This is not to say that lipless theropods are scientifically baseless. Living cousins of dinosaurs, the crocodylians (crocodiles and alligators), and the only surviving dinosaur group, birds, both have hard, immobile tissue around their jaws rather than the scaly lips of lizards. So it was reasonable to infer that extinct animals related to crocodylians and birds (including all predatory dinosaurs) had lipless faces.

The varying faces of Tyrannosaurus rex. The bottom picture is the most accurate, according to new research.
Mark P. Witton

Our new study, 11 years in the making, brings new data to this conversation. My team analysed theropod fossils and compared them with living reptiles. We found that predatory dinosaurs probably had lips like those you’d find on a lizard.

One part of our research looked at tooth damage. Exposed teeth show greater wear than those behind lips – for example, crocodylians have significant abrasion on their outer teeth. But when we examined theropod teeth using microscopes and compared them with crocodylian teeth, we found theropod teeth were considerably less damaged.

This is not the only difference between theropods and crocodylians. All reptiles have small holes in their jaw bones that house blood vessels and nerves for their oral skin and gums, usually just millimetres wide.

Don’t be fooled by those lips.
Mark Witton, Author provided

Lipped reptiles, lizards and tuataras (the last survivors of a group of lizard-like reptiles from the age of dinosaurs), have relatively few of these holes and they are mostly positioned close to their teeth. Crocodylian skulls, however, are covered in hundreds of tiny openings that are related to their sensitive, tight facial skin.

We found theropod jaw bones are more like lizards’ and have a low number of openings close to their jaw margins. This is also true of crocodylians’ ancient, extinct relatives. This implies that the unusual facial anatomy of living crocodylians evolved within their own lineage, not as a shared feature with the dinosaur/bird line.

We also looked at tooth size, because some predatory dinosaurs had much bigger teeth than any living reptiles, and this might have prevented them from being enveloped inside lips. We calculated a ratio of tooth height and skull length for theropods. Then we compared this with the same value for monitor lizards, the lipped group that includes the only living animal comparable to large theropods in its feeding habits, the komodo dragon.

Our comparisons revealed that no predatory dinosaurs – even the big-toothed T. rex – had teeth larger than living lizards. Indeed, species like the crocodile monitor have proportionally larger teeth than any theropod, so there’s no reason to think dinosaur teeth were too big to be covered by lips.

Finally, we modelled the mechanics of how lipless theropod jaws would close, and found it impossible for some theropods to seal their mouths without lips. The best we could manage was a gappy smile. Forcing jaws into a full seal either crushed jaw-supporting bones or dislocated the jaw joint. With permanently open mouths, these theropods would have faced issues with their oral health and risked dehydration.

Collectively, these studies point to the same conclusion: that theropod mouth anatomy and functionality seems more like that of lizards than crocodiles. This suggests that lizard-like lips covered their teeth.

If we’re right, and lizards are our best model for theropod mouths, dinosaur lips were probably not muscular, like mammal lips are. So, dinosaurs probably couldn’t snarl like they sometimes do in the movies.

In further contrast with Hollywood’s dinosaurs, we also need to give theropods bigger gums. Unlike crocodiles or even mammals, lizard-line reptiles tend to have large gums that cover some or all of their tooth crowns, even when their teeth are adapted for ripping flesh. This has the effect of making their teeth look smaller or even invisible in their open mouths.

Combined with scaly lips, our findings suggest that predatory dinosaurs may have had softer-looking faces and mouths than we’re used to. But don’t let this fool you. Behind those lips and gums were the same formidable, flesh-rending teeth. Läs mer…

The Loss and Damage Fund: How can Indonesia use it to boost climate adaptation efforts

Climate finance was at the centre of The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt last year. For many, the highlight was the agreement to establish a fund to assist developing countries in responding to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.

The term “loss and damage” is still loosely defined, but in general it refers to the negative consequences or costs incurred from the ongoing effects of climate change.

Historically, developing countries have contributed very little to the climate-problem, but they are often the ones facing the most devastating impacts. For this reason, developing countries have urged wealthier countries to compensate for climate-related loss and damage the former has incurred.

Currently, no specifics have been detailed about the fund. Only that a committee will develop recommendations on how to operate it at the next conference.

If it is able to be operationalised, this fund will provide much needed financing to address some of Indonesia’s most crucial climate problems. We have identified four areas where Indonesia could use the additional financing from the loss and damage fund.

To protect small crop farmers, fish cultivators and fishermen

First, the fund could be used to support Indonesia’s subsidised insurance programs for vulnerable crop farmers and fish cultivators.

A recent estimation by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific shows that Indonesia is losing US$31.2 billion annually from disasters, of which US$23.3 billion is derived from droughts.

Onion farmers in West Java Province Indonesia. Climate change will cause extreme weather that can affect farmers livelihoods.
(Dedhez Anggara/Antara)

Droughts have led to harvest failures for farmers. This threatens their livelihoods as they have a reduction in crop production. If this issue worsens, it may also threaten Indonesia’s food security.

On the other hand, Indonesia’s $256-billion marine resource is under threat from rising sea temperatures.

The heat has caused coral bleaching, which in turn disrupts marine habitat and losses in fish production. Currently, it is estimated that only 30% of corals are in good to excellent condition in Indonesia.

The heat also causes the fish to go into deeper waters, reducing the ability of smaller fishing boats to catch them.

Other climate affects such as changes in rainfall and increases in water salinity have also been associated with lower aquaculture productivity. These in turn results in reduced fish production to the detriment of fish cultivators.

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Indonesia’s strategic plans for 2020-2024 and its 2018 disaster risk finance and insurance strategy have mandated insurance coverage for crop farmers, fish cultivators and fishermen. The government-backed insurance products subsidises 80% (crop insurance) to 100% (aquaculture and fishermen life insurance) of the insurance premiums.

However, the schemes have limited reach due to budget constraints and design flaws. For instance, in 2017, only 1.5 million farmers (less than 12% of potential beneficiaries) were covered by insurance.

Moreover, due to pressures on the state budget from COVID-19, the funding for crop insurance premium subsidies has been cut in half. In addition, the government has also stopped aquaculture and fishermen insurance subsidies.

Insurance products should be expanded to include other products, like fruits, horticulture, and other high export aquaculture commodities. Therefore, additional financing is needed to improve the reach of existing programs and create more climate insurance products. Such financing could come from the loss and damage fund.

To help recovery in coastal areas

Second, as part of the effort to cope with unavoidable climate loss, Indonesia could utilise the fund to aid sinking coastal areas.

Extreme weather triggers floods along Java’s northern coastline.
Harviyan Perdana Putra/Antara

Rising sea levels endanger coastal areas. The Jakarta Greater Area and the northern coast of Java is projected to be submerged. An additional 100 small islands is also projected to be underwater by 2100.

Many of the impacted settlements in coastal areas belong to the poor who will need substantial financial assistance to secure a home in safer areas or improve their current homes.

The government could use the fund to relocate people to safer areas and provide post-disaster programs (such as trauma healing or capacity building) to address both the material and immaterial losses of climate change.

The Indonesian government alongside development partners, and NGOs have previous experiences in assisted community-based housing programs. Additional financing from the loss and damage fund could be utilised to enhance these programs.

To rehabilitate mangroves and peatlands

Indonesia can use the fund to finance peatland and mangrove
rehabilitation efforts in Indonesia.

The residents are maintaining the canal strait in the peatland area to prevent forest and land fires.

Indonesia is home to a third of peatlands and a fifth of mangroves globally. Both peatlands and mangroves store carbon as well as reduce flood and abrasion risks. Thus, they are important for both climate adaptation and mitigation.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has established the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and
Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative to protect forests, including peatlands and mangroves.

In regards to this, Indonesia has established a national strategy, appointed institutions, and implemented REDD+ to some extent.

Additional financing from the loss and damage fund could help reduce emissions even more.

However, it will depend on how the “loss and damage” concept is
defined. Will it only finance losses that have occurred or will it also finance strategic efforts for adaptation and mitigation?

To support Indonesia’s Disaster Pooling Fund

Lastly, Indonesia can allocate the additional financing to strengthen the recently established disaster pooling fund, which was created to provide better flexibility (than the state budget) for disaster management needs.

Currently, the government has allocated Rp 7.3 trillion (U$475 million) to the pooling fund. This principal amount is more less equal to Indonesia’s annual post-disaster expenditure (US$300-500 million). However, only the returns from the principal can be used to finance disaster related efforts.

Therefore, additional financing is needed to grow the pooling fund and increase potential returns that can be used for climate-related disasters.

Although the pooling fund is designed for disasters in general, a requirement to only use the additional financing for climate-related disasters could be formulated. Läs mer…

Why ASEAN countries should not look at Thailand for legalising medical cannabis

Cannabis use was decriminalised in Thailand since June 2022. Yet almost a year on, the country still lacks a comprehensive legal framework to regulate the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis or marijuana products.

Amid the legal ambiguity, a fast growing cannabis industry has emerged with significant implications for both Thailand and the broader Southeast Asia region, home to some of the world’s toughest drug laws.

Thailand’s move has triggered the possibility that other Southeast Asian countries could soon follow suit and change their stance towards the drug.

Prominent Malaysian and Indonesian politicians announced that their respective governments are evaluating on whether to legalise cannabis for medical uses. Malaysia’s then Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin even visited Thailand on a work trip to better understand medical cannabis.

However, Thailand may not be the best role model for Southeast Asian countries looking to legalise cannabis, particularly for medical purposes. Here is why Canada serves as a better reference than Thailand, due to its long experience in legalising medical cannabis – since the early 2000s – and clear regulations.

Legal ambiguity

Until relatively recently, all possession and use of cannabis were illegal in Thailand. But in late 2018, the Thai government passed an amendment legalising cannabis for medical uses. A year later the Thai government introduced new laws permitting the importation, production and distribution of medical cannabis.

However, consumption of recreational cannabis remained a punishable offence until a sudden policy change in 2022, when all parts of cannabis plants and hemp plants were delisted as narcotics. The government also legalised cannabis-infused products, on the condition that its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels do not exceed 0.2%.

The government not only decriminalised the cultivation of cannabis, but also freely distributed one million cannabis plants to households for cultivation.

Health authorities insisted that the revised regulations were aimed at promoting cannabis’s medicinal, health and economic benefits, with Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul emphasising that recreational cannabis remains illegal. But in reality, Thailand has essentially decriminalised recreational cannabis.

At present, there are only a handful of instances where the sale and consumption of cannabis are regulated, such as banning cannabis consumption in public areas or by pregnant women.

The government implemented these piecemeal safeguards only after cannabis was already decriminalised and available for sale.

Consequently the absence of a comprehensive bill to regulate cannabis has resulted in a legal grey zone, with few restrictions on the use, sale and cultivation of cannabis products.

According to Thai Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn, the absence of a “specific law to govern cannabis” has resulted in enforcement agencies being reluctant to arrest individuals who flout the regulations.

Impact on Thai society

Due to the lack of safeguards and limits placed on recreational cannabis, since June 2022 there has been a proliferation of shops selling cannabis-infused products, from food and drinks, to even toiletries.

Weed with up to 35% THC is openly on sale and consumed in cannabis shops, more than a hundred fold above the legal THC threshold.

A recent study by researchers from the Bangkok-based Chulalongkorn University has found that more than 30% of randomly sampled cannabis-infused drinks had exceeded the legal THC limit.

Thai health authorities estimated that the number of people addicted to cannabis has risen fourfold within the last six months, with a similar increase in the number of patients with impaired consciousness and mental issues due to marijuana consumption.

In response to the rising report on the side effects from cannabis consumption, the Thai government is now seeking to tighten cannabis regulation.

In recent months, the Thai government has been working on introducing a cannabis bill in parliament. The bill has sparked public debate, with protests from supporters and opponents of the move to legalise recreational cannabis. Given such polarised social attitudes towards cannabis, it is not surprising that the parliament has failed to pass the controversial cannabis draft bill.

While the government has promised to table a revised bill to clarify the legal status of recreational cannabis while imposing safeguards, its timeline is unclear since the Thai parliament was recently dissolved to made way for General Election scheduled in May. The legal ambiguity of recreational cannabis is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Canada’s controls on medical cannabis

The short time period of just four years since the legalisation of medical cannabis has arguably contributed to a lack of expertise among health officials to formulate robust legal mechanisms and prevent cannabis misuse.

But considering the legal loopholes in Thailand’s approach, Canada could serve as a better case study for Southeast Asian countries looking to liberalise their drug laws.

Although Canada legalised recreational cannabis in 2018, what happened before 2018 holds valuable lessons for countries seeking to legalise medical cannabis.

To prevent recreational cannabis consumption, until 2018 it was mandatory for individuals in Canada to obtain a “medical document” from a qualified medical practitioner before being permitted to purchase cannabis for medical purposes.

The medical document was similar to a prescription.

Those documents typically included the patient’s name, date of birth, physician’s information, daily allotment and duration of use.

If the patient’s medical document expired while they were in possession of medical cannabis, the person could be liable for criminal prosecution.

Furthermore, Canadians could only purchase medical cannabis from producers approved by Health Canada, a department responsible for the country’s health policy.

The regulations in place at that time mandated licensed producers to implement security and inventory control to prevent diversion to non-intended users. Good production practices were also put in place to ensure that cannabis underwent quality-control before being dispensed for medical purposes.

With such a strict cannabis licensing regime, Canada was more successful in regulating medical cannabis. Thus, for countries exploring the legalisation of medical cannabis, Canada serves as a better role model than Thailand. Läs mer…

Accidents on Chinese projects are rampant, but why does Indonesia’s economy still depend on China?

Chinese investment in Indonesia has been under the spotlight again this year, after a deadly riot at a nickel processing and refining plant of PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) in North Morowali, Central Sulawesi. One Chinese and one Indonesian worker died in the incident. The company belongs to China-based Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Co. Ltd.

Another China-backed project, the long-awaited Jakarta Bandung High Speed Train, has been making headlines for its rising costs and for a series of accidents between 2019 and December 2022 that have killed three Chinese workers and injured others.

Of course, Chinese-backed investment projects are not alone in causing deadly workplace accidents in Indonesia. In recent years, state-owned companies have had their construction projects suspended following deadly accidents.

But the recent high-profile worker deaths on Chinese projects come against a backdrop of growing public unease about China’s rapid rise as the second-largest investor in Indonesia, after Singapore.

The Indonesian government needs to take worker safety on Chinese-backed projects seriously – otherwise it risks adding to worsening anti-China sentiment in Indonesia.

Indonesians’ perceptions of Chinese investment

According to a July 2022 survey by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, only 30% of respondents believed Indonesia could “benefit greatly” by having close economic ties with China.

The survey showed a decline in Indonesians’ positive perceptions of China, with around 66% of respondents saying they admire China, down from almost 77% five years earlier.

In addition, more than 41% of respondents thought China’s Belt and Road Initiative mega projects are problematic for other countries, including Indonesia.

A recent survey by the Australian-based Lowy Institute conducted during November-December 2021 also found that people’s view of China had worsened since 2011.

Those survey results showed that while 43% of Indonesians agree with the “China’s growth is good for Indonesia”, 60% strongly agreed with the statement that “Indonesia should join forces with other countries to limit China’s influence”.

Meanwhile, 49% of Indonesians surveyed in the Lowy poll considered China a threat for the next decade.

China’s rise to rival Singapore

In 2022, China’s investment in Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s largest economy – reached US$5.18 billion, with more than 1,500 projects running across the archipelago.

The total of 1,584 China-sponsored projects last year in Indonesia was lower compared to that in 2021, which recorded up to 1,806 projects.

But the value of Chinese investment in Indonesia in 2022 actually increased 63.92% from the previous year – and was the highest in the past ten years.

Singapore has been Indonesia’s largest investor for decades. But in the fourth quarter of 2022 alone, the amount of Chinese investment in Indonesia reached $3 billion, beating Singapore’s $2.7 billion.

The Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Train (KCJB) is one of the most anticipated mega project in Indonesia. It is worth $8 billion.

The 142-kilometre rail line connecting the Indonesian capital Jakarta with Bandung, the capital of West Java province, is currently under construction. It is set to start its commercial operation in July 2023.

The project not only will be the first high-speed railway in Southeast Asia, but is also set to become China’s most important Belt and Road Initiative project in Indonesia, if not Southeast Asia.

The Morowali Industrial Park is another important partnership project that can help Indonesia’s economy.

Read more:
Understanding the benefits of Chinese-Indonesia economic partnerships ahead of Indonesia’s presidential election

When Indonesia was in a need of huge investment to convert more of its natural resources, including nickel – a raw material for stainless steel – into higher-value products, Chinese firms came offering big capital and a good reputation in the industry.

The $980-million project is expected to help Indonesia increase its stainless steel production and pave the way for Indonesia to become a leading producer of lithium batteries to support the manufacturing of electric vehicles.

Closer ties built under Jokowi

During President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s second term in office, China and Indonesia have continued to push for investment cooperation.

For Jokowi, China has been an important investor in Indonesia, which has brought competitive offers to the country.

As an example, for the high-speed train project the Chinese government offered a cheaper financing scheme, at $5.5 billion with an interest of 2% for a period of 50 years – much lower than the Indonesian government’s estimation and Japan’s offer.

Jokowi would not want to miss such opportunities.

Accelerating massive infrastructure development has become Jokowi’s ambition since his first term.

The fact that the government has insisted on using the state budget to finance the the high-speed train project, despite initial agreement that it was a business-to-business scheme, has shown the importance of the Chinese project for Indonesia.

Indonesia also sees China’s growing potential. China will continue to grow to become the strongest economy in the world, which will also benefit Indonesia as a cooperation partner.

Protecting worker safety is in everyone’s interests

Thus, it is understandable why the Indonesian government still prioritises Chinese investment and support to accelerate Indonesia’s economic development.

However, even on major projects, safety and health should come first. If not, this kind of infrastructure partnership could further increase the anti-China sentiment in Indonesia, which has worsened lately due to political and social dynamics.

Further accidents and fatalities on major projects could also tarnish the images of both countries in the global community.

Indonesians want to see their government is properly enforcing its own workplace safety regulations and monitoring major projects to keep them on track, on budget, and safe for all workers – regardless of whether it’s a state-run project or a foreign-backed project.

Yeta Purnama, a researcher at Center for Economic and Law Studies, contributed to this article. Läs mer…

Listen! The simple thing the finance sector can do for Indigenous customers that can change people’s lives

The story of the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund, whose name and marketing misled thousands of customers into believing it was Indigenous owned and run, is a stark example of how Australia’s financial regulations have let down Indigenous people.

It took a financial royal commission to expose how the fund had exploited regulatory loopholes and the significance of “Sorry Business” in some Indigenous cultures to line the pockets of its non-Indigenous owners over three decades.

Those loopholes were finally closed in 2020 (the royal commission reported in 2019). The corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), then went to the Federal Court seeking a A$7.5 million fine for deceptive and misleading conduct.

The fund, rebranded as Youpla, went into liquidation in March 2022, leaving thousands of families unable to pay for Sorry Business.

Read more:
From body snatchers to dodgy marketers: the dirty history of funeral schemes

But it’s not just dodgy schemes sold “by the unscrupulous to the unsophisticated and vulnerable” (in the words of Commissioner Ken Hayne) that Indigenous people have had to contend with. The royal commission also exposed the difficulties many face just with the normal financial rules, particularly when they live in remote areas.

Financial hurdles

Consider something relatively simple: meeting identification requirements. If you’ve got a birth certificate, driver’s licence, or passport, no problem. But what if you don’t?

As Nathan Boyle, a senior analyst with ASIC’s Indigenous Outreach Program explained to the royal commission, the legacy of government policies – notably child removal – means many births, deaths and marriages in remote communities may not have been registered. Even when a person does have identification, names on documents may differ – between their traditional “skin” or “kin” name”, birth name or adoptive name.

The royal commission reported problems rooted in a lack of cultural understanding and culturally appropriate
communication. One example was the “needless difficulty” a Northern Territory customer had switching to a basic account, being made to make multiple three-hour trips to a bank branch in Katherine “to achieve what should have been the simplest objective”.

Listening to customers

But not every story from the royal commission was bad. An exemplar of good service was QSuper, the Queensland superannuation scheme, now part of Australian Retirement Trust. In his evidence Boyle praised QSuper senior executive Lyn Melcer as a “champion of Indigenous superannuation issues”.

What was the key to QSuper’s approach? It’s actually common sense. Melcer started listening to the stories of Indigenous customers, and ensured others in the organisation heard those stories too.

Melcer is an industry veteran of 40 years.

In 2014 Boyle invited her, as QSuper’s head of technical services, which involves ensuring organisational processes meet regulatory requirements, to join him on a visit to the Lockhart River in far north Queensland, to hear the problems people faced accessing their super.

About 2,500 km north of Brisbane, Lockhart River is just 300 km from the tip of Cape York. This is Uutaalnganu country. The town’s 700 residents represent six local clans, known as the Pama Malnkana (people of the beach), their forebears having been drawn together at the site of an Anglican Church mission.

Boyle wanted Melcer to see and hear firsthand the problems people faced in accessing their superannuation funds. For example, to gain early access to super for medical reasons may require certificates from two independent medical experts – which Lockhart River doesn’t have.

Hearing these stories firsthand had a profound impact, as Melcer later told the royal commission: “I thought we treated all our customers equally because we had exactly the same rules for everyone. What Lockhart River showed me is not everyone starts in the same place.”

Lockhart River township is on the site of a former mission.
Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council, CC BY

Upon returning to QSuper’s Brisbane office, Melcer committed to ensuring the rest of the organisation heard those stories too. She realised reports about numbers wouldn’t cut it. “I never talk about statistics only,” she told us. “I talk about stories, the human side.”

Listening, and acting

We interviewed Melcer and 28 other people to understand how actively listening to customers changed QSuper’s culture and processes.

The fund started sending out teams to remote communities – Thursday Island, Horn Island, Bamaga, Yarrabah, Darnley Island, Doomadgee – to help customers with their superannuation issues.

From these experiences came greater awareness within the organisation of all the ways the standard rules and regulations could disadvantage clients in remote areas.

“You need to spend time to understand the challenges faced in our remote communities around accessing basic services, such as a phone, the internet,” one call-centre leader (also Indigenous) told us. “It’s so different.”

Since 2014, QSuper has engaged in more than 100 activities such as cultural training, developing a Reconciliation Action Plan, sharing their experiences at Indigenous finance summits and Australian Taxation Office forums, working with Indigenous finance counsellors, sponsoring a “Big Super Day Out” in Cairns as part of NAIDOC Week, and worked with the Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to expedite cases where documents needed to access superannuation can’t be found.

Melcer and her colleagues also worked to change the rules about identification imposed by Australia’s financial-crime regulator, AUSTRAC. This led to AUSTRAC changing its guidelines in 2016 to allow the use of non-conventional forms of identification, such as a referee’s statement or an Indigenous organisation membership card. This has benefited others as well, such as women fleeing domestic violence or those who have lost everything in a flood or fire.

Listening to people’s stories, not just treating them as numbers on a spreadsheet, may seem like common sense, but it’s not something the finance industry has done. Nor, for that matter, many others.

Read more:
It’s time we moved the goalposts on Indigenous policies, so they reflect Indigenous values

The power of storytelling is something at the heart of all Indigenous cultures. It is how Indigenous Australians have passed on their knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next for 60,000 years. It’s something from which we can all learn. Läs mer…

Internationell upphovsrättsförordning (1994:193)

sfs 1994:1994:193 
t.o.m. SFS 2022:1716  
1 § I denna förordning finns föreskrifter om tillämpningen av lagen
(1960:729) om upphovsrätt till litterära och konstnärliga verk
(upphovsrättslagen) med avseende på andra länder och mellanstatliga

Vid tillämpningen av upphovsrättslagen skall den som är 1994-04-14

Läs mer…

Förordning (1996:1036) om underhållsstöd

sfs 1996:1996:1036 
t.o.m. SFS 2022:1598  
Regeringen föreskriver följande.

1 § I denna förordning ges föreskrifter om underhållsstöd
enligt socialförsäkringsbalken. Förordning (2010:1697).

2 § I de fall som anges i 106 kap. 8 § 1
socialförsäkringsbalken ska den som ansvarar för inrättningen
när ett barn skrivs in 1996-10-31

Läs mer…

Lag (1994:1551) om frihet från skatt vid import, m.m.

sfs 1994:1994:1551 
t.o.m. SFS 2022:1784  
1 kap. Inledande bestämmelser

1 § I denna lag finns bestämmelser om frihet från och
återbetalning av annan skatt än tull vid import av varor från
tredje land i vissa fall. I lagen finns även bestämmelser om
beräkning av tull och skatt i vissa fall. Lag (2008:1413).

2 § Har 1994-12-15

Läs mer…

Has GPT-4 really passed the startling threshold of human-level artificial intelligence? Well, it depends

Recent public interest in tools like ChatGPT has raised an old question in the artificial intelligence community: is artificial general intelligence (in this case, AI that performs at human level) achievable?

An online preprint this week has added to the hype, suggesting the latest advanced large language model, GPT-4, is at the early stages of artificial general intelligence (AGI) as it’s exhibiting “sparks of intelligence”.

OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, has unabashedly declared its pursuit of AGI. Meanwhile, a large number of researchers and public intellectuals have called for an immediate halt to the development of these models, citing “profound risks to society and humanity”. These calls to pause AI research are theatrical and unlikely to succeed – the allure of advanced intelligence is too provocative for humans to ignore, and too rewarding for companies to pause.

But are the worries and hopes about AGI warranted? How close is GPT-4, and AI more broadly, to general human intelligence?

Read more:
Evolution not revolution: why GPT-4 is notable, but not groundbreaking

If human cognitive capacity is a landscape, AI has indeed increasingly taken over large swaths of this territory. It can now perform many separate cognitive tasks better than humans in domains of vision, image recognition, reasoning, reading comprehension and game playing. These AI skills could potentially result in a dramatic reordering of the global labour market in less than ten years.

But there are at least two ways of viewing the AGI issue.

The uniqueness of humanity

First is that over time, AI will develop skills and capabilities for learning that match those of humans, and reach AGI level. The expectation is the uniquely human ability for ongoing development, learning and transferring learning from one domain to another will eventually be duplicated by AI. This is in contrast to current AI, where being trained in one area, such as detecting cancer in medical images, does not transfer to other domains.

So the concern felt by many is at some point AI will exceed human intelligence, and then rapidly overshadow us, leaving us to appear to future AIs as ants appear to us now.

The plausibility of AGI is contested by several philosophers and researchers, citing that current models are largely ignorant of outputs (that is, they don’t understand what they’re producing). They also have no prospect of achieving consciousness since they are primarily predictive – automating what should come next in text or other outputs.

Instead of being intelligent, these models simply recombine and duplicate data on which they have been trained. Consciousness, the essence of life, is missing. Even if AI foundation models continue to advance and complete more sophisticated tasks, there is no guarantee that consciousness or AGI will emerge. And if it did emerge, how would we recognise it?

Read more:
Futurists predict a point where humans and machines become one. But will we see it coming?

Persistently present AI

The usefulness of ChatGPT and GPT-4’s ability to master some tasks as well as or better than a human (such as bar exams and academic olympiads) gives the impression AGI is near. This perspective is confirmed by the rapid performance improvement with each new model.

There is no doubt now AI can outperform humans in many individual cognitive tasks. There is also growing evidence the best model for interacting with AI may well be one of human/machine pairing – where our own intelligence is augmented, not replaced by AI.

GPT-4 is also ‘multimodal’ – it can take visual input and answer questions based on that.

Signs of such pairing are already emerging with announcements of work copilots and AI pair programmers for writing code. It seems almost inevitable that our future of work, life, and learning will have AI pervasively and persistently present.

By that metric, the capacity of AI to be seen as intelligent is plausible, but this remains contested space and many have come out against it. Renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has stated that the day of AGI “may come, but its dawn is not yet breaking”.

Smarter together?

The second angle is to consider the idea of intelligence as it is practised by humans in their daily lives. According to one school of thought, we are intelligent primarily in networks and systems rather than as lone individuals. We hold knowledge in networks.

Until now, those networks have mainly been human. We might take insight from someone (such as the author of a book), but we don’t treat them as an active “agent” in our cognition.

But ChatGPT, Copilot, Bard and other AI-assisted tools can become part of our cognitive network – we engage with them, ask them questions, they restructure documents and resources for us. In this sense, AI doesn’t need to be sentient or possess general intelligence. It simply needs the capacity to be embedded in and part of our knowledge network to replace and augment many of our current jobs and tasks.

The existential focus on AGI overlooks the many opportunities current models and tools provide for us. Sentient, conscious or not – all these attributes are irrelevant to the many people who are already making use of AI to co-create art, structure writings and essays, develop videos, and navigate life.

The most relevant or most pressing concern for humans is not whether AI is intelligent when by itself and disconnected from people. It can be argued that as of today, we are more intelligent, more capable, and more creative with AI as it advances our cognitive capacities. Right now, it appears the future of humanity could be AI-teaming – a journey that is already well underway.

Read more:
Bard, Bing and Baidu: how big tech’s AI race will transform search – and all of computing Läs mer…

Curious Kids: what happens if you don’t get enough sleep?

What would happen to a person if they didn’t get the sleep they needed? Hedya, age 11, Australia

This is a really good question Heyda, because it makes us think about how important sleep is. Actually, sleep is one of the most important things we do.

While you were sleeping …

When we sleep our bodies are really doing quite a lot of work. In the first few hours, we go into a very deep sleep. That’s when our body is resting and repairing. It’s when we fill up our energy stores for the next day.

At different times of the night, we also have a lot of lighter sleep. This includes something called “rapid eye movement” sleep or REM sleep. That’s when someone’s eyes flicker and move, even when shut.

During this type of sleep, we dream. Our brain is very, very active. It’s busy sorting and organising information, storing memories and even working out problems.

So there’s a lot of really important things that go on when we sleep.

Read more:
Why do kids hate going to sleep, while adults usually love it?

So what happens if we don’t sleep?

The first most obvious thing that happens when we don’t sleep is we get sleepy. When we don’t get enough rest, it’s also harder to be active, want to do things, or get excited about things.

No wonder a lack of sleep can make us grumpy and irritable.

If we don’t get enough REM sleep, it makes it harder to concentrate and learn. It makes it harder to remember school work from one day to the next. All these things make it harder to do well in school.

So having the right amount of sleep is really important.

Your brain waves tell us what’s going on while you sleep.

Read more:
Curious Kids: What happens to your brain if you don’t get enough sleep?

How about if I have a few bad nights?

If we don’t get good sleep on one night or two, we can probably catch up. Our bodies and brains will recover and we will be fine.

But if we don’t have enough sleep or not good quality sleep for a long time, that’s different. As sleep controls so many aspects of our health, this can really mess with our bodies and brains.

We are more likely to fail a year at school, put on weight, become depressed and get pretty sick for a long time, just to name a few examples.

So it’s really best to set up good sleep patterns early in life so that doesn’t happen to us.

Read more:
Curious Kids: Do animals sleep like people? Do snails sleep in their shells?

How much is enough sleep?

Not everybody needs exactly the same amount of sleep. But people who study sleep, like me, think someone in your age group, Heyda, usually needs between nine and 11 hours a night.

We also need good quality sleep. This means it needs to be restful, without too much waking up at night. It also means we need to make sure we go to bed and wake up around the same times every day.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to Läs mer…

As the US pushes to make daylight saving permanent, should Australia move in the same direction?

Sunday will mark the end of the Daylight Saving Time (DST) in eastern Australia, but there are many who would like to see it last longer or permanently.

Twice a year, New South Wales, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and South Australia make this shift. Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory do not change times. In those states the issue has been hotly debated for years. But what would be the benefit of making time permanent, and is it feasible?

In the United States, the push to fix time has gathered pace, with a bipartisan bill reintroduced to the House this month. The Sunshine Protection Act is set to bring uniformity in fixing the time, starting from November 2023. If enacted, it means daylight saving would be permanent across the US.

The bill passed the Senate in March 2022. It was received at the House, but Americans are split on whether they prefer permanent daylight saving time or permanent standard time – the bill then expired and so had to be reintroduced.

The proponents argue the biannual ritual of switching time is a health hazard leading to insomnia, decline in mental health, increased risk of hospitalisations and accidents. The solution, they argue, is to restore permanent, year-round standard time.

Would fixing time permanently have benefits in Australia?

Read more:
Why daylight saving time is unhealthy – a neurologist explains

Why the US is considering fixing permanent time

One of the US policy’s goals is to reduce energy consumption. However, according to the latest research, contrary to the policy’s intent,daylight saving caused increased electricity demand in the US. Research has also found it does not conserve electricity in Australia.

Overwhelmingly, recent research opposes the current situation of changing the clocks twice year. In particular, the loss of one hour of sleep in spring has been linked to an increase in heart attacks, strokes, road accidents and negative mood.

Moreover, with mobile phones available in offices and bedrooms, the shift to daylight saving was shown to result in a dramatic increase in “cyberloafing”.

Thanks to mobile phone use, research shows daylight saving has caused an increase in ‘cyberloafing’.

On the Monday following the switch, employees sustain more workplace injuries and injuries of greater severity, according an analysis of data from the US Department of Labor and Mine Safety and Health Administration between 1983-2006, although there is a decrease in injuries when employees are gaining one hour of sleep.

In a study of Australian suicide data from 1971 to 2001, researchers found a rise in male suicide rates in the weeks following the commencement of daylight saving, concluding the shifts could be destabilising for vulnerable people.

The health evidence is, in fact, contrary to idea behind the current legislation and instead suggests a permanent switch to standard time may offer the maximum health and public safety benefits.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is strongly supporting the bill, told the Senate:

There’s some strong science behind it that is now showing and making people aware of the harm that clock-switching has. I know this is not the most important issue confronting America, but it’s one of those issues where there’s a lot of agreement. If we can get this passed, we don’t have to do this stupidity anymore. Pardon the pun, but this is an idea whose time has come.

Australian legislation – move to uniformity

Standard time legislation dates back to 1890s. That is when jurisdictions enacted uniform legislation related to standard Greenwich Mean Time. For example, Tasmania fixed the time of the 150th meridian of longitude east of Greenwich and Western Australia declared the mean time of the 120th meridian as the standard time. At that stage, the legislation was consistent. This continued until the daylight saving debate commenced.

Daylight saving was first considered at the Premiers’ Conference in May 1915. During the first and second world wars, national daylight time operated in Australia. Tasmania and Victoria introduced daylight saving in 1916. In Tasmania, the act was repealed by the Daylight-Saving Repeal Act 1917 (Tas). In 1967, Tasmania again introduced daylight savings.

By 1990, the jurisdictions were changing the dates on which to introduce daylight savings, and their positions were not uniform.

Liberal Senator Paul Calvert described the “maze of different times” as a “shackle on the economy, as well as causing interruptions to work and family balance”.

Then-prime minister John Howard stated: “I think it’s a great pity that we have this month when Tasmania and NSW and Victoria are on different time zones.”

Starting from September 1 2005, all jurisdictions adopted the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) standard. Following long deliberations, in April 2007 they agreed on a uniform start and end date.

Queensland, WA and the NT have fixed permanent time.

South Australia became an international anomaly by having 30 minutes difference, rather than full hour, to achieve a compromise between strong advocacy groups within the jurisdiction.

One of the arguments against fixing is geographical location. Tasmania has more drastic variation in sun activity compared to Northern Territory. The scientific solution would be to fix the time but reassign the regions to the actual sun-clock based time zones.

Where does all this leave us? While daylight saving is not the most pressing problem facing Australia today, it may be that soon enough, the scientific evidence and practical convenience of fixing time might be preferred to biannual shifts. Läs mer…

Manhattan grand jury votes to indict Donald Trump, showing he, like all other presidents, is not an imperial king

A Manhattan grand jury voted to indict former President Donald Trump on March 30, 2023, for his alleged role in paying porn star Stormy Daniels hush money.

Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina confirmed the indictment.

The New York Times reported that it is not yet clear what exact charges Trump will face, but a formal indictment will likely be issued in the next few days. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is the first prosecutor ever to issue an indictment against a former president. Trump is still the center of several ongoing investigations regarding other alleged criminal activity, including actions he took while in office.

American history is rife with presidents who have used their office to extend executive authority.

Presidents are not kings. George Washington once reflected on this distinction, saying, “I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.”

But American politics and presidency scholars – including me – have long worried about the idea of an imperial presidency – meaning, a president who tries to exert a level of control beyond what the Constitution spells out.

Trump was just another example of a president acting as if he was king by just another name.

People protest in Manhattan in April 2022, demanding the indictment of former President Donald Trump.
Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress

Expanding role of the presidency

While some early presidents, notably Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, expanded the executive branch, most were constrained by the dominance of the legislative branch in their day.

The growth of the executive branch in terms of size and power began in earnest during the 20th century.

Franklin Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court to overcome opposition to his New Deal legislation, a series of public works and spending projects in the 1930s.

Roosevelt wanted to add a justice for every existing judge on the court who did not retire by age 70 – but it was a transparent attempt to alter the court’s composition to favor his agenda, and the Senate shot it down.

Richard Nixon decided to impound money authorized for programs simply because he disagreed with them. Nixon had vetoed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 but was overridden by Congress. He still withheld money, which eventually culminated in a 1975 Supreme Court case, in which the court ruled against Nixon.

Other presidents tried to unduly influence more mundane aspects of life.

In August 1906, for example, Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order forcing the Government Printing Office to begin using the new spellings of 300 words – including “although” and “fixed” – in order to simplify them.

Following broad public criticism of this plan, Congress voted to reject these proposed spelling improvements in 1906.

Richard Nixon speaks with journalist David Frost in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned.
John Bryson/Getty Images

Trump’s turn

Trump’s actions and words throughout the presidency also suggest he believed that the office gave him overarching power.

For example, Trump reflected on his power over states to force them to reopen during the COVID-19 crisis, saying in April 2020, “When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total.” But governors actually maintained the control over what remained open or closed in their states during the pandemic.

Trump has also treated the independent judiciary as an inferior branch of government, subject to his control.

“If it’s my judges, you know how they’re gonna decide,” Trump said of his potential judicial appointees in 2016.

Chief Justice John Roberts rejected Trump’s view on this issue in 2018, saying, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. … What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

It’s classified

There is a rigorous procedure if presidents decide to declassify information. This complex process involves all classified material being reviewed by appropriate government agencies and experts at the National Archives.

But Trump claimed at one point any documents he took home were already declassified.

He later asserted, “There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it. … You’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it.”

These comments help substantiate Trump’s belief in his absolute authority. There are specific procedures in place to manage declassification that do not involve psychic powers.

One real superpower

If the American presidents have one superpower, it is the power of the pardon. American presidents can pardon people, and the legislative and judiciary branches cannot prevent it.

Past presidents have used pardons largely in the service of justice, but at times to also reward personal friends or connections. But Trump took it even further, using this power seemingly as a way to reward his loyal supporters – and says he will seriously consider pardoning the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol rioters if he is reelected.

Trump also apparently considered granting himself a pardon as a way to avoid any prosecution for his involvement with the Capitol attack.

A self-pardon would also potentially place any president in constitutional murky water.

A 1919 Supreme Court ruling declared that a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt and acceptance of a confession of it.” So, if Trump had pardoned himself for anything, he would have admitted to having committed a crime – for which he could still potentially be impeached or investigated under any applicable state law, which is not covered by a presidential pardon.

Private communications about presidential pardons are shown during a hearing of the Jan. 6 committee in June 2022.
Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

After office

Since leaving office, Trump has attempted to claim post-presidential executive privilege, independent of the current administration. But President Joe Biden – who must first give Trump this privilege – never extended it to his predecessor.

Trump’s defense that he was allowed to store classified documents at Mar-a-Lago as a result of executive privilege has largely been unsuccessful in the courts.

Trump has also used his time as president to avoid any lawsuits that emerged after he left office.

In January 2023, a federal judge shot down Trump’s attempt to dismiss a 2022 defamation lawsuit filed by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who says Trump raped her in the 1990s. Trump denied the rape in 2019.

In court, Trump argued that anything he said as president should be protected and he should be given immunity during that period.

Though a ruling is still pending, Carroll has argued in court that immunity would apply only if Trump were referring to presidential matters, and not personal ones.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at an event in his Mar-a-Lago home in November 2022.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Everyone is held to the same rules

American presidents serve a limited amount of time governing before they return to the general population’s ranks.

Those privileged enough to hold the top office in the U.S. are still citizens. They are held to the same laws as everyone else and, the founders believed, should never be held above them.

Throughout history, many presidents have pushed the boundaries of power for their own personal preferences or political gain. However, Americans do have the right to push back and hold these leaders accountable to the country’s laws.

Presidents have never been monarchs. If they ever act in that manner, I believe that the people have to remind them of who they are and whom they serve. Läs mer…

Trump indictment won’t keep him from presidential race, but will make his reelection bid much harder

A Manhattan grand jury has voted to indict former President Donald Trump. The specific state felony charges, reports The New York Times, “remain a mystery” but will be related to the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation of Trump for making hush money payments to a porn star just before the 2016 presidential election.

It’s the first time a U.S. president or former president has been indicted.

At the same time, Trump is expected to continue his campaign for the presidency, seeking to regain in 2024 the position he lost in 2020 to Joe Biden.

What are the consequences of an indictment and potential trial for his campaign and, if his effort is successful, his future presidency?

Article II of the U.S. Constitution sets forth very explicit qualifications for the presidency: The president must be 35 years of age, a U.S. resident for 14 years and a natural-born citizen.

In cases involving analogous qualifications for members of Congress, the Supreme Court has held that such qualifications form a “constitutional ceiling” – prohibiting any additional qualifications to be imposed by any means.

Thus, because the Constitution does not require that the president be free from indictment, conviction or prison, it follows that a person under indictment or in prison may run for the office and may even serve as president.

This is the prevailing legal standard that would apply to former President Trump. The fact of his indictment and potential trial is irrelevant to his qualifications for office under the Constitution.

Nevertheless, there seems no question that indictment, conviction or both – let alone a prison sentence – would significantly compromise a president’s ability to function in office. And the Constitution doesn’t provide an easy answer to the problem posed by such a compromised chief executive.

Former President Donald Trump, at a campaign event at his Mar-a-Lago home on Nov. 15, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla., when he announced he was seeking another term in office and officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Governing from jail?

A presidential candidate could be indicted, prosecuted and convicted by either state or federal authorities. Indictment for a state crime may seem less significant than federal charges brought by the Department of Justice.

Ultimately, though, the spectacle of a criminal trial in state or federal court would have a dramatic effect on a presidential campaign and on the credibility of a president, if elected.

All defendants are presumed innocent until proved guilty. But in the case of conviction, incarceration in state or federal prison involves restrictions on liberty that would significantly compromise the president’s ability to lead.

This point – that functioning as president would be difficult while under indictment or after being convicted – was made plain in a 2000 memo written by the Department of Justice. The memo reflected on a 1973 Office of Legal Counsel memo produced during Watergate titled “Amenability of the President, Vice President and other Civil Officers to Federal Criminal Prosecution while in Office.” The background to the 1973 memo was that President Richard Nixon was under investigation for his role in the Watergate break-in and Vice President Spiro Agnew was under grand jury investigation for tax evasion.

These two memos addressed whether a sitting president could, under the Constitution, be indicted while in office. They concluded he could not.
But what about a president indicted, convicted, or both, before taking office, as could be the case for Trump?

In evaluating whether a sitting president could be indicted or imprisoned while in office, both the 1973 and 2000 memos outlined the consequences of a pending indictment for the president’s functioning in office. The earlier memo used strong words: “[t]he spectacle of an indicted President still trying to serve as Chief Executive boggles the imagination.”

Even more pointedly, the memos observe that a criminal prosecution against a sitting president could result in “physical interference with the President’s performance of his official duties that it would amount to an incapacitation.”

The memo here refers to the inconvenience of a criminal trial that would significantly detract from the president’s time commitment to his burdensome duties.

But it’s also lawyer’s language to describe a more direct impediment to the president’s ability to govern: He might be in jail.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani arriving at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Ga., on Aug. 17, 2022, to appear before the special grand jury investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
AP Photo/John Bazemore

Core functions affected

According to the 1973 memo, “the President plays an unparalleled role in the execution of the laws, the conduct of foreign relations, and the defense of the Nation.”

Because these core functions require meetings, communications or consultations with the military, foreign leaders and government officials in the U.S. and abroad in ways that cannot be performed while imprisoned, constitutional law scholar Alexander Bickel remarked in 1973 that “obviously the presidency cannot be conducted from jail.”

Modern presidents are peripatetic: They travel nationally and globally on a constant basis to meet with other national leaders and global organizations. They obviously wouldn’t be able to do these things while in prison. Nor could they inspect the aftermath of natural disasters from coast to coast, celebrate national successes and events or address citizens and groups on issues of the day, at least in person.

Moreover, presidents need access to classified information and briefings. But imprisonment would also obviously compromise a president’s ability to access such information, which must often be stored and viewed in a secure room that has been protected against all manner of spying, including blocking radio waves – not something that’s likely available in a prison.

As a result of the president’s varied duties and obligations, the memos concluded that “[t]he physical confinement of the chief executive following a valid conviction would indisputably preclude the executive branch from performing its constitutionally assigned functions.”

Translation: The president couldn’t do his job.

Running from prison

Yet what to do if citizens actually elect an indicted or incarcerated president?

This is not out of the question. At least one incarcerated presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, garnered almost a million votes out of a total 26.2 million cast in the election of 1920.

One potential response is the 25th Amendment, which enables the president’s Cabinet to declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

The two Department of Justice memos note, however, that the framers of the 25th Amendment never considered or mentioned incarceration as a basis for the inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office. They write that replacing the president under the 25th Amendment would “give insufficient weight to the people’s considered choice as to whom they wish to serve as their chief executive.”

All this brings to mind Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ admonition about the role of the Supreme Court: “If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.”

Holmes’ statement came in a letter reflecting on the Sherman Antitrust Act, which he thought was a foolish law. But Holmes was prepared to accept the popular will expressed through democracy and self-determination.

Perhaps the same reflection is apt here: If the people choose a president hobbled by criminal sanctions, that is a form of self-determination too. And one for which the Constitution has no ready solution. Läs mer…

What does Trump’s indictment mean for his political future – and the strength of US democracy?

Events often seem inevitable in hindsight. The indictment of former US President Donald Trump on criminal charges has been a possibility since the start of his presidency – arguably, since close to the beginning of his career in New York real estate.

But until now, the potential consequences of such a cataclysmic development in American politics have been purely theoretical.

Today, after much build-up in the media, The New York Times reported that a Manhattan grand jury has voted to indict Trump and the Manhattan district attorney will now likely attempt to negotiate Trump’s surrender.

The indictment stems from a criminal investigation by the district attorney’s office into “hush money” payments made to the adult film star Stormy Daniels (through Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen), and whether they contravened electoral laws.

Trump also faces a swathe of other criminal investigations and civil suits, some of which may also result in state or federal charges. As he pursues another run for the presidency, Trump could simultaneously be dealing with multiple criminal cases and all the court appearances and frenzied media attention that will come with that.

These investigations and possible charges won’t prevent Trump from running, or even serving as president again (though, as with everything in the US legal system, it’s complicated).

But what will the political fallout be – will his indictment hurt Trump, or help him? And what does it mean for American democracy?

Demonstrators outside New York Criminal Court in advance of a potential indictment of former President Donald Trump.
Peter Foley/EPA

Can Trump survive multiple investigations at once?

There are almost too many hypotheticals and “what ifs” to count. Even the immediate fallout of Trump’s indictment isn’t clear.

It is certainly plausible Trump will manage to derive political benefit from the media spectacle – he has a long history of successfully weaponising investigations into his dealings as “witch hunts”, effectively tapping into conservatives’ obsession with “government overreach”.

It’s equally possible multiple investigations and charges will eventually hurt Trump, forcing him off the campaign trail and into situations out of his control, where he doesn’t perform so well. This could go as badly for him as the few hostile media interviews he did as president and open the door for a successful challenge by another aspiring candidate.

Democrats and others opposed to Trump and the movement he heads are also divided on the fallout and risks.

Some legal experts and political pundits have expressed concern about the particular case that led to Trump’s indictment.

The Daniels case is murky and focused on technical election laws, raising questions about whether it would have been less risky to prioritise a more straightforward case, such as the Georgia investigation into Trump’s attempt to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Indictments may soon be forthcoming in that case, too.

Whatever happens with these investigations and Trump’s reactions to them, it’s already clear his supporters will whip themselves into a frenzy of misinformation, hysteria and perhaps even violence, further destabilising the political landscape.

Are presidents above the law?

There’s a much bigger question to ask, though: where does all of this fit into the deep, ongoing crisis surrounding American democracy and its institutions?

Since the 2016 election, the questions of whether a candidate should be subject to criminal investigations and whether a sitting president can be charged with an offence have plagued US politics.

When then-FBI director James Comey sent a letter to Congress on the eve of the 2016 election about the private email server presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used as secretary of state, it led to a great deal of soul-searching about the impact of perceptions – valid or otherwise – of politically motivated “interference” in the electoral process.

Some believe James Comey’s letter could have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

The longstanding reluctance of federal agencies to engage in such “interference”, alongside the established consensus that a president should not be charged while in office, survived until almost the very end of the Trump administration.

The so-called “Russia investigation”, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, declined to recommend specific charges against Trump, despite there being ample evidence he had allegedly obstructed justice. The basis for this decision: Mueller said Justice Department policy prevented him from charging a sitting president with a crime.

But between the release of Mueller’s report and Trump’s incitement of an insurrection of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, attitudes to charging a president or former president appear to have changed dramatically. Trump’s indictment this week makes that abundantly clear.

The shared understanding that has, until now, protected Trump (and predecessors like Richard Nixon), has been turned on its head. Now, there’s a belief among many Democrats and a few anti-Trump Republicans that not pursuing these investigations to their logical ends – that is, an arrest, trial and potential imprisonment – presents a much greater threat to the integrity of American democracy and democratic institutions than the risk of appearing to “interfere”.

This logic argues that, particularly when American democracy is in crisis, even presidents and former presidents cannot be seen to be above the law.

If this perception was widespread, how many Americans would completely lose faith in a political system they already don’t trust entirely? Even more importantly, how would the perpetrators of crimes – and their supporters – respond if they believed they could break the law without consequences?

If, as many experts have argued, January 6 was a test run, what are the consequences of no consequences?

A Trump supporter outside New York Criminal Court this week.
Peter Foley/EPA

A dangerous and unstable time

We can be fairly certain of the answer to that question. Trump’s reaction to his pending indictment two weeks ago was eerily reminiscent of his incitement of the riot on the Capitol: “Protest, take our nation back!”

The potential for further violence – which is a feature, not a bug, of American politics – is very real.

While the logic behind the criminal pursuit of the ex-president is entirely sound – and necessary to the ongoing integrity of American democratic institutions – that does not necessarily mean the survival of those institutions is assured as they are forced to respond to ongoing attacks.

Trump’s indictment, and the frenzy it has already created, demonstrate just what a dangerous and unstable time this is for American democracy. The road is probably about to get even rockier.

In a 1977 interview, Nixon said in response to a question about why he had authorised illegal actions against anti-Vietnam war protesters,

Well, when the president does it […] that means that it is not illegal.

Almost half a century later, we’re as close as we’ve ever been to finding out if he was right – and if American democracy can survive the answer.

Read more:
Trump’s unprecedented call for protests is the latest sign of his aim to degrade America’s institutions Läs mer…

Mass Casualty Commission report details the Nova Scotia shooter’s abuse of sex workers

Nova Scotia’s Mass Casualty Commission has released its final report on the largest mass murder in Canadian history — highlighting how the perpetrator, although known to the police, was able to escape arrest for charges of intimate partner violence and illegal gun possession.

On April 18-19, 2020, starting in Portapique, N.S., a single gunman murdered 22 people over a 13 hour period while dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a mocked up RCMP cruiser. He was finally shot by police officers at a gas station as he filled up a car taken from one of his last victims.

Read more:
Nova Scotia’s Mass Casualty Commission calls for stricter gun control laws

The commission’s findings are compiled from submissions, public hearings and police evidence. The final report includes recommendations about how to increase community safety and how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The report also shows how the perpetrator was never held accountable for sexualized violence against women. For example, he was known among sex workers as someone who exchanged dental work for sex and who routinely violated marginalized people, including sex workers.

We have both researched sex work for many years in Canada, the United States and the Philippines.

We were commissioned to do an expert report for the Mass Casualty Commission on sex worker safety in Nova Scotia, focusing on why victims of violence (abuse which was documented by the perpetrator) did not report that violence to the police.

Over a period of three months in 2022, we interviewed 19 executive directors and representatives of social service organizations helping sex workers. We wanted to find out what their experiences were of sex worker safety in Nova Scotia.

From left to right, commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald, chair, and Kim Stanton deliver the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission in Truro, N.S. on March 30, 2023.

Victims of violence fear they won’t be believed

The quick answer to the question of why victims don’t disclose violence is that most victims do not believe they will be helped if they do come forward.

Sex workers, who are already marginalized, often do not trust the police because of their past dealings with them. Their fear of possible arrest, to be further criminalized and possibly have their children taken away by Child Protective Services is not unfounded. As the final Mass Casualty Commission report states:

“Many women fear disbelief by others, including the police, do not trust that police will ensure their safety, and are concerned about being criminalized or subject to other state harms. These barriers are heightened for marginalized women survivors.”

We heard numerous accounts of victims not being believed when they came forward with stories of abuse, being re-criminalized and not seeing the police or authority figures as trustworthy.

One of the executive directors we interviewed said:

“Sex worker safety is nonexistent, there is no safety measures for sex workers. It’s been ”grandfathered down” not to trust the police. [Our agency] also recently did a survey, and it showed that there was more violence from a police officer than of a perpetrator.“

The physical and emotional violence by police was well documented by our interviewees. As one executive director explained:

”The cops abuse, so how are you going to go to this misogynistic institution to report that you’ve been harmed when you are already known or seen as ”less than” and found not really worthy of safety anyway?“

Our report documents how the stigma faced by the most marginalized sex workers is one of the key factors in understanding how the perpetrator managed to get away with his prior criminal behaviour.

As another executive director told us:

”What does stigma do? I mean it keeps people in the shadows, it keeps people from coming forward and asking for help.… We don’t respect sex work as legitimate work… People judge sex a lot, and the more you can dehumanize someone, and the more you can deny them basic services, you can deny their social status and respect and rights and a whole bunch of other stuff.”

The level of violence and dehumanization faced by sex workers means that they do not feel protected in the community, at health-care facilities or by police.

Violence resulting from dehumanization was a theme in several of our interviews. Another interviewee told us:

“There’s such a long history of sex workers being on the margins and being treated like whores and sluts and with no value whatsoever. And that long, long history still pervades people’s perceptions of who sex workers are and what sex work is, and I think that those common perceptions run throughout all our systems.”

The report shows how the perpetrator was never held accountable for his sexualized violence against numerous women.

Decriminalization as a harm reduction strategy

The final Mass Casualty Commission report highlights how “economic marginalization and criminalization heighten the risk of violence against women and girls.”

In our report, we make eight recommendations that centre on developing a harm reduction strategy to alleviate the harms criminalized sex work poses.

Our recommendations to federal and provincial governments include:

The decriminalization of sex work.
Coordinating social services for sex workers across Halifax and rural areas.
Providing more funding for organizations dealing with sex workers.
Education to eradicate stigma and dehumanization of sex workers, and to provide anti-racist education.
Decriminalization of illegal substances for personal use.
Providing safe and affordable housing.

A cultural shift around sexualized violence and sex work.
Poverty reduction and a guaranteed annual income.

Harm reduction means dealing with people where they are, not where we’d like them to be. Harm reduction means deciding what is the greater social harm: sex workers dying on the job or the public recognizing that violence, addiction, homelessness and extreme poverty dehumanize sex workers far more than the actual work does.

Stigma kills, and it denies those who are stigmatized the social supports they need. Harm reduction means that the practice of criminalizing sex work needs to stop in Canada.

By decriminalizing sex work, New Zealand has radically reduced the prevalence of nearly all the social problems we named in this article. It’s time Canada did the same. Läs mer…

Clout-lighting: pranking your partner for likes is a surefire way to get dumped this April Fools’ Day

What would you do to get more likes or shares on your favourite social media platform this April Fool’s Day?

Would you blast an airhorn in your partner’s ear while they’re sleeping, record and upload their reaction online? Would you put hot chilli in their food, then film and share their distress?

Online prank videos are nothing new, and while many are lighthearted, a concerning sub-genre called “clout-lighting” has been emerging across the internet.

But in case you might be planning to clout-light your partner this April Fool’s Day, research shows it’s a surefire way to get dumped.

What is clout-lighting?

Clout-lighting is a combination of the word “clout” (to have social influence) and “gaslighting” (systematic manipulation that leads victims to question their own beliefs and feelings).

The term was first used by British journalist Jessica Lindsay to describe the practice of intimate partners playing extreme practical jokes on one another and posting their reactions on social media.

Clout-lighting is related to, but different from an online prank. Pranks target unsuspecting people, often strangers, whereas clout-lighting involves intimate partners.

Both clout-lighting and online pranks represent “aggressive humour” or “negative humour” and its subcategory “disparagement” – they mock, tease, or ridicule innocent victims to entertain an audience.

Clout-lighting is also different from cyberbullying. “Clout-lighters” appear motivated by their emotional needs – attention seeking and gaining popularity on social media. By contrast, cyberbullies relentlessly target individuals to cause harm or distress, hidden by the cloak of anonymity.

Read more:
Is it OK to prank your kids? Do they get it? And where’s the line?

Why is clout-lighting an emerging trend?

There is nothing new about filming and publishing a practical joke. US reality show Candid Camera first aired in 1948; like the more recent Punk’d and similar shows, they feature footage captured by a hidden camera of everyday people (sometimes celebrities) caught up in pranks or hoaxes.

However, social media has created a platform for people to use pranks as a means of generating more clicks and social media popularity: clout. Today, anyone can be a comedic celebrity, and YouTube is full of them.

YouTube prank channels provide a platform for pranksters to amass followers and popularity.

However, to get more likes, shares or followers, clout-lighters need to publish extreme (sometimes even cruel and painful) pranks inflicted on their closest people.

One example reportedly involved rubbing chilli on a tampon, with the resulting video reaction viewed by millions online. Others have involved secretly adding laxatives or hot chilli sauce to food, or tormenting a girlfriend with a spider.

While many of the skits appear highly produced, the genre of clout-lighting pushes beyond the boundaries of comedic entertainment, towards promoting intimate partner abuse and misogyny.

Passive voyeurism

Concerningly, many of these cruel and embarrassing clips have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, suggesting our appetite for passive voyeurism. Just as reality television illustrates suffering and loss and a preoccupation with personal trauma for the sake of entertainment, clout-lighting videos do the same thing.

Read more:
Why are so many people delighted by disgusting things?

Studies have indicated viewers who are drawn to extreme forms of entertainment have the sensation-seeking personality trait – a tendency to constantly seek varied and intense viewing experiences. Passive voyeurism of human pain increases as our compassion fades, and we become sensitised to the footage. Accordingly, we watch even more extreme footage to attain the same level of sensation.

By that token, clout-lighters need to post even more painful and humiliating content to keep driving traffic to their channel.

Who are clout-lighters?

A 2020 study found that regardless of age, clout-lighters tended to have low self-esteem and were “higher social media users”. Males were over four times more likely to engage in clout-lighting than females.

The study also indicated that couples engaged in clout-lighting were more likely to have “low levels of satisfaction” in their relationship, and more likely to break up.

Canadian researchers found some online pranksters tended to be motivated by sadism – a desire to harm others to boost their own positive feelings.

Relational dialectics theory explains contradictions in relationships – the point between harmony and possible separation. As two people come together as partners, they begin to experience internal tensions – they each want different things, express different values and life goals. Research finds that people perceive negative relational humour as a sign of diminished relationship satisfaction.

Relating this theory to clout-lighting, pranking a partner and posting the results on social media can increase the level of perceived insecurity in a relationship, especially when the prank is demeaning and socially embarrassing. Hence the likelihood the partners will separate.

These studies reject the notion that clout-lighting is nothing more than light-hearted pranks directed at a loved one. At a much deeper level, such pranks could be indicative of relationship dissatisfaction.

The Conversation is commissioning articles by academics across the world who are researching how society is being shaped by our digital interactions with each other. Read more here Läs mer…

5 books for kids and teens that positively portray trans and gender-diverse lives

International Transgender Day of Visibility is an opportunity to celebrate trans and gender-diverse people – and to raise awareness of the ongoing discrimination they experience.

Trans and gender-diverse people experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal behaviours than the general population.

Recent events in Australia, the United Kingdom and the US remind us of the need to promote acceptance of trans and gender-diverse young people, and to support their mental health and wellbeing.

Community, school and family are vital tools for this.

So are books that positively represent trans and gender-diverse experiences, themes and issues. Such books can expand young people’s awareness, understanding and acceptance of gender differences from an early age. They also validate the lived experience of trans and gender-diverse youth.

The five books below all positively portray trans and gender-diverse lives in age-appropriate ways.

Read more:
Trans people aren’t new, and neither is their oppression: a history of gender crossing in 19th-century Australia

1. My Shadow is Purple by Scott Stuart (ages 4-9)

This picture book, My Shadow Is Purple, considers gender diversity through the use of colour. The story focuses on a boy whose shadow is purple: presumably a blend of masculine blue and feminine pink.

Early in the story, the boy celebrates his gender hybridity, enjoying a range of both traditionally masculine and feminine activities. Stuart also explores the way society regulates and limits gender expression, and how this can have negative effects on individuals.

That said, the picture book is positive and offers a promising message to readers. Through both resistance and collective support, we can acknowledge and celebrate the spectrum of colours our shadows might take.

Read more:
Supporting trans people: 3 simple things teachers and researchers can do

2. Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff (ages 10-12)

In his award-winning junior novel, Too Bright to See, Kyle Lukoff uses the ghost story to explore gender dysphoria and grief.

Trans boy Bug, aged 11, lives in a house with relatively benign spirits. However, during the summer before school starts, Bug’s uncle dies and a new ghost takes up residence in the house.

It is not only the grief of his uncle’s death that Bug must learn to live with. His best friend, Moira, is eager to give him a feminine makeover and the new ghostly resident seems intent on sending him a message.

Bug’s investigation of the ghost and his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance is sensitive and nuanced, allowing readers to learn about transgender issues (and grief) alongside Bug.

Read more:
Yes, words can harm young trans people. Here’s what we can do to help

3. Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans (ages 12+)

Euphoria Kids is an urban fantasy young adult novel that centres on three trans and gender-diverse teenagers: Iris, who grew from a seed; Babs, the daughter of a local witch; and the boy, named so because his current name does not fit him.

The world Evans creates is one of strange magic, free from the trauma and gender dysphoria often associated with representations of transgenderism in literature and film. The characters’ quest to break a curse enables them to demonstrate their resilience, develop their confidence and experience euphoria.

Evans explains (in the author note) their decision to create a positive narrative for trans youth:

I want people to know about gender euphoria. I want them to learn about it before gender dysphoria. I want young trans kids that will read this book to be proud of who they are, and imagine wonderful magic lives for themselves.

Read more:
Queer young adult fiction isn’t all gloomy realism. Here are 5 uplifting books to get you started

4. Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee (ages 14+)

Meet Cute Diary, a heartfelt young adult romantic comedy, explores gender identity and sexuality – and recognises self-discovery entails continuous questioning, rather than a linear progression.

Noah Ramirez, a Japanese, white, Afro-Caribbean 16-year-old trans boy, loves the idea of falling in love. He writes fictional trans love stories for his blog, “Meet Cute Diary”. Noah is confronted in real life by Drew, a white cisgender boy who Noah has featured on his blog. After Noah explains his actions, Drew agrees to pretend to date him, in order to validate his stories. Their pretending quickly becomes real.

Things become complicated, though, when Noah finds himself attracted to his nonbinary and asexual coworker, Devin. The narrative explores the changing nature of relationships and love.

Lee creates interesting characters and complex relationships that respect gender fluidity and recognise the blurry boundary between the platonic and romantic.

Read more:
Transgender youth on puberty blockers and gender-affirming hormones have lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, a new study finds

5. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (ages 14+)

felix ever after.

Felix, the 17-year-old protagonist of Felix Ever After, is Black, queer and trans. The marginalisation and transphobia he experiences are exacerbated when pre-transition images of him are prominently displayed at his school. Felix’s search for revenge sees him open up more about himself to others. And he forms new relationships, including with his friend, Ezra Patel.

Similar to Lee’s depiction of self-discovery in Meet Cute Diary, Callender suggests that learning about yourself and your identity is an ongoing process. Felix continues to make new discoveries about himself, including the realisation that he is not a boy but a demiboy.

Callender’s writing is engaging, and the cast of diverse characters that populate the narrative reflects the variation in our communities. This tender trans young adult romance sensitively explores the complexity of friendship, forgiveness and self-discovery. Läs mer…

Indigenous knowledge offers solutions, but its use must be based on meaningful collaboration with Indigenous communities

As global environmental challenges grow, people and societies are increasingly looking to Indigenous knowledge for solutions.

Indigenous knowledge is particularly appealing for addressing climate change because it includes long histories and guidance on how to live with, and as part of, nature. It is also based on a holistic understanding of interactions between living and non-living aspects of the environment.

However, without meaningful collaborations with Indigenous communities, the use of Indigenous knowledge can be tokenistic, extractive and harmful.

Our newly published work explores the concept of kaitiakitanga. This is often translated as guardianship, stewardship or the “principle and practices of inter-generational sustainability”.

We want to encourage Western-trained scientists to work in partnership with Māori and meaningfully acknowledge Māori values and knowledge in their work in conservation and resource management.

Kaitiakitanga is more than guardianship

Indigenous knowledge includes innovations, observations, and oral and written histories that have been developed by Indigenous peoples across the world for millennia.

This knowledge is living, dynamic and evolving. In Aotearoa New Zealand, mātauranga Māori is the distinct knowledge developed by Māori. It includes culture, values and world view.

The concept of kaitiakitanga is often (mis)used in the context of conservation and resource management in Aotearoa. In our work, we highlight how kaitiakitanga is inherently linked to other concepts. It is difficult to translate these concepts directly but they include tikanga (Māori customs), whakapapa (genealogy), rangatiratanga (sovereignty) and much more.

One of the key conceptual differences between kaitiakitanga and conservation is that for kaitiakitanga, we consider being part of te taiao (the environment) and manage our relationships accordingly. Conservation is characterised by humans managing the environment as if they were separate from it.

Read more:
Why we should release New Zealand’s strangled rivers to lessen the impact of future floods

The Honourable Justice Joe Williams describes kaitiakitanga as “the obligation to care for one’s own”, indicating the intrinsic link between people and the environment.

We caution against simplistic definitions of kaitiakitanga. They often divorce it from its cultural context. Simplistic definitions reduce the richness of the concept and also fail to recognise the differences in how kaitiakitanga is conceptualised and practised.

Instead, we encourage Western-trained researchers to gain a deeper understanding of concepts that underpin kaitiakitanga and work with mana whenua to further develop understanding.

Read more:
When rehoming wildlife, Indigenous leadership delivers the best results

Kaitiakitanga and conservation in practice

There is a growing number of examples of successful collaborations between mana whenua and researchers. Exploring these projects will allow researchers to gain insights into how to contribute in an effective and respectful way.

For instance, a study of the traditional harvest and management of sooty shearwater in the Marlborough Sounds shows the importance of including cultural harvest in species conservation management.

Similarly, putting Indigenous knowledge at the centre of the translocation of rare species improves conservation outcomes.

Rāhui to fight kauri dieback: biosecurity workers inspect and record information about a kauri in the Waitakere Ranges.
Getty Images

Rāhui in conservation

Rāhui is a customary process that can be used by mana whenua to restrict access to a certain resource or area of land to allow recovery. It includes an holistic understanding of the environmental problem, and social and political control.

Rāhui has been used to reduce the spread of kauri dieback disease in the Waitakere Ranges. It has also been used to protect kaimoana (including scallops, mussels, crayfish and pāua) on Waiheke Island.

Other examples include rāhui covering forests, lakes, beaches and marine areas for durations from days to decades. Rāhui are widely used but highly specific to local conditions. For iwi to be able to implement rāhui, they need to have rangatiratanga, as kaitiakitanga is both an affirmation and manifestation of rangatiratanga.

Read more:
Let’s choose our words more carefully when discussing mātauranga Māori and science

An effective way forward

Empowering Māori researchers and communities is central to worthwhile collaborations. We encourage non-Māori researchers to approach partnership with an awareness of the limits of their training and knowledge.

Embracing a mindset of intellectual humility will more likely create conditions for meaningful co-created work. While establishing and maintaining collaborations can be time-consuming, our collective experience is that taking time to develop trust and understanding is essential for successful outcomes.

We hope our work will provide some inspiration and guidance for established practitioners and students alike.

There are a number of other examples of how mātauranga and ecology can work together. The New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research has dedicated a special issue to mātauranga Māori and how it is shaping marine conservation. Others have explored how respectful collaborations can support better teaching of science and better research outcomes. Läs mer…

Nova Scotia’s Mass Casualty Commission calls for stricter gun control laws

The final report of the Mass Casualty Commission investigating the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia that left 22 people dead makes several recommendations to meaningfully change Canada’s gun laws.

The commission’s seven-volume report addresses its broad mandate, which includes:

Considering the “causes, context and circumstances giving rise to the tragedy”
The police response to the shootings
The role of gender-based and intimate partner violence
Access to firearms

The commission identifies many “lessons learned” that inform its recommendations about firearms. It concludes that a priority “should be placed on reducing access to the most dangerous, high-capacity firearms and ammunition.”

It also concludes that current firearms laws don’t adequately protect against the unlawful transfer of guns upon the death of owners, and that effective border control requires a collaborative and co-ordinated approach among border agencies to potential weapons smuggling.

Women at risk

The commission also determined that the safety of women survivors of intimate partner violence is “put at risk by the presence of firearms and ammunition in the household.”

It also notes that firearm laws are inconsistently enforced, and that the current approach to gun control is hampered by inadequate community engagement with those involved in addressing gender-based violence and implementing firearms policy.

Read more:
Mass Casualty Commission report details the Nova Scotia shooter’s abuse of sex workers

The Mass Casualty Commission further recognizes that the public often lacks accurate knowledge about gun laws.

It warns that Canadian beliefs are “influenced by the United States discourse centred on a right to bear arms,” which “does not exist in our constitutional and legal structure.” The commission also laments that discourse about firearms “has become increasingly polarized.”

Finally, the commission finds that there is a lack of community knowledge about the impact of firearms-related harms, and that some people do not have safe and accessible ways to report concerns over guns.

Limiting access to some firearms

These lessons learned shape the commission’s many recommendations, including:

Better data collection to limit gun smuggling
Setting limits on the stockpiling of ammunition by individual firearms owners
Undertaking a nationwide public education program to increase public awareness of firearm laws

The lesson that a priority “should be placed on reducing access to the most dangerous, high-capacity firearms and ammunition” leads the commission to recommend that Ottawa:

“Prohibit all semi-automatic handguns and all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that discharge centre-fire ammunition and that are designed to accept detachable magazines with capacities of more than five rounds.”

This recommendation is noteworthy given the recent heated debate over gun control. Since coming to power, the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have reformed Canada’s gun laws. For example, Ottawa banned the sale and transfer of handguns in 2022.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Truro, N.S., prior to the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry’s final report into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in 2020.

Later that year, the Liberals also introduced amendments to their current gun control bill, Bill C-21, to prohibit some semi-automatic rifles and shotguns not captured in earlier prohibitions.

The amendments also included a revised firearms classification system to prevent new models of firearms similar to those prohibited previously from entering the market.

A non-partisan analysis

The Bill C-21 amendments proved controversial partly because critics argued they were politically motivated. The Liberals withdrew them in February, but the Mass Casualty Commission now recommends a similar effort to limit access to the kinds of semi-automatic weapons often employed by mass shooters.

Commissioner Michael MacDonald delivers remarks in September 2022 at the end of the public hearings of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia.

This is significant, because the commission is a non-partisan body. The chair of the commission, Michael MacDonald, is a retired Nova Scotia chief justice. The other commissioners are Leanne J. Fitch, who served for seven years as Chief of Police for the Fredericton Police Force, and Kim Stanton, a lawyer and legal scholar.

The commission developed its recommendations after extensive study and analysis. It is the most ambitious, thorough and open study of a mass casualty in Canadian history. It collected and made publicly available an extensive set of primary source documents and it shared “foundational documents” containing key facts and events.

It also examined and summarized national and international reports prepared in response to similar mass shootings.

It commissioned and published 23 expert reports and technical reports to help the commissioners better understand the issues related to its mandate. And it broadcast, recorded, transcribed and published its proceedings.

Groups for and against gun control received status as participants in the commission. The Coalition for Gun Control was a participant, as were the National Firearms Association and Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights. These groups provided written submissions, examined documents and spoke before the commission.

In the end, the commission found the evidence presented by those who support stronger gun laws more persuasive. Its final report asserts the importance of “affirming that gun ownership is a conditional privilege,” not a right.

The pressing question now is whether — and, if so, how quickly — the federal government will implement the Mass Casualty Commission’s gun policy recommendations. Läs mer…

Telehealth has much to offer First Nations people. But technical glitches and a lack of rapport can get in the way

Telehealth has been a game changer for many First Nations people globally, including in Australia.

It has allowed First Nations people to access health care close to home – whether that’s screening for health issues, diagnosing illness or monitoring existing conditions. It has done this while minimising exposure to COVID.

But a recent review of telehealth for First Nations people – in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – shows we could do better.

Unreliable internet access, services designed without meaningful First Nations’ input, and concerns about establishing rapport with health workers were some of the concerns.

Here’s where we could lift our game to ensure reliable, equitable and culturally safe telehealth for First Nations people in Australia, whether living remotely or in our cities.

Read more:
Video and phone consultations only scratch the surface of what telehealth has to offer

What exactly is telehealth?

Telehealth uses information and communication technology to deliver health care at a distance. In Australia, this is mainly via phone and video consultations.

Telehealth can be delivered by any health-care provider including doctors, nurses, and allied health or ancillary health providers. Telehealth is not a complete replacement for in-person care. But it can be used instead of some face-to-face appointments.

Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations have traditionally provided primary (initial) health care and some specialist care for First Nations people in Australia. Telehealth allows them to provide a greater range of specialist services. So, this allows First Nations people access to care close to home, with optional support from an Indigenous health worker.

Read more:
First Nations people in the NT receive just 16% of the Medicare funding of an average Australian

Where it’s working well

Telehealth services for First Nations people have improved social and emotional wellbeing, clinical outcomes, access to health services, and boosted screening rates.

During COVID, telehealth increased the number of First Nations people able to access health care, while reducing the potential for transmission of the virus. For clients, telehealth reduces time away from usual activities, travel and associated out-of-pocket expenses.

Telehealth can contribute to culturally safe health care. Practically, this means care that does not challenge identity or experience of First Nations people. It’s when both the provider and the person receiving the care communicate with respect, to share knowledge and to improve overall health.

It allows a person to stay on Country while accessing some health-care services. Telehealth can also reduce the trauma associated with travel, reduce the disruptions to family and reduces stress associated with using health care.

Telehealth also allows family and other supports such as an Indigenous health worker to attend specialist consultations, and for the person to receive care in a supportive environment.

But First Nations communities need a bigger say

But for telehealth services to be provided in a culturally safe manner that improves health, it is essential services are co-designed with First Nations people. First Nations communities also need to have ownership of the services.

Co-designing is a highly collaborative approach where researchers, industry stakeholders and Aboriginal communities work together to achieve a goal, and where there is sustained and equitable engagement with the community.

True co-design puts Aboriginal voices and lived experiences first, aiming to empower communities through shared decision making toward goals defined by the community. When done well, co-design leads to services and outcomes authentically aligned with the needs and preferences of the community.

Co-designing culturally safe telehealth solutions would mean Aboriginal people working closely with industry and researchers to determine what currently works, what doesn’t work well and where gaps lie. This is so solutions – simple or highly innovative – can be developed for the community.

Read more:
Aboriginal – Māori: how Indigenous health suffers on both sides of the ditch

… and more reliable internet

Access to reliable internet is a barrier to providing videoconsultations, particularly for remote communities. Investment in infrastructure by government, NGOs and private industry could resolve such connectivity issues.

However, solutions are often expensive. So centralising telehealth services at Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations may provide economies of scale.

Investing in training Indigenous health workers in telehealth may also increase the uptake and scope of telehealth appointments.

First Nations people want that connection

One barrier to telehealth for First Nations people is concerns about establishing trusting therapeutic relationships with their health provider via telehealth.

Evidence suggests rapport can be improved by the provider visiting communities and conducting the initial consultations in-person.

Providers should familiarise themselves with local services available in the communities they are providing care for, as this will improve their ability to integrate care with local services.

Cultural awareness training for all providers is also desirable.

Read more:
Birthing on Country services centre First Nations cultures and empower women in pregnancy and childbirth

It’s not just about rural communities

Gone are the days of telehealth being used exclusively for rural and remote people. So providers should offer telehealth to First Nations people regardless of where they live.

The benefits of telehealth – such as cultural safety, reduced travel, ability to involve family – are just as relevant for First Nations people living in metropolitan areas as they are for those in rural and remote locations.

Read more:
Urban Aboriginal people face unique challenges in the fight against coronavirus Läs mer…

Friday essay: could a reinterpreted Marxism have solutions to our unprecedented environmental crisis?

In 2021, Kohei Saito’s Capital in the Anthropocene became a publishing sensation in Japan, eventually selling more than half a million copies.

That astonishing achievement becomes even more extraordinary when one considers that Saito, an academic at the University of Tokyo, has for some years been rearticulating materialist philosophy based on a close reading of Karl Marx’s unpublished manuscripts – not exactly the kind of enterprise that traditionally results in bestsellers.

Though Capital in the Anthropocene remains (somewhat oddly) untranslated, English-speaking readers can now access Saito’s subsequent work, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism.

In his new book, Saito notes the awful ironies of the current period, in which, instead of the promised “end of history”, we face the (rather different) end of human history, as the conquest of nature transforms dialectically into nature’s apocalyptic return in the form of fires, floods and other disasters.

The social crises associated with the environmental emergency have not, as yet, spurred the Marxist revival one might expect from an era of political and economic tumult. Saito blames this on the longstanding association between socialism and the Promethean notion that nature can and should serve as raw materials for human ends.

Think of the Communist Manifesto and its giddy zeal for the transformative program of the bourgeoisie: “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation …”.

The young Marx’s enthusiasm for solids melting into air sounds rather different with the environment collapsing all around us.


In Marx and the Anthropocene, Saito continues the project developed in his earlier book, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, in which he delved deeply into Marx and Engels’ vast corpus of unpublished work to explain their engagement with environmental issues.

At first glance, a painstaking analysis of Marx’s private notes on, say, soil chemistry might seem arcane or even cultish: a doomed attempt at quote-mining to refashion a 19th century thinker according to contemporary tastes.

Yet Marx never completed the broader project of which Capital was merely one facet. The systemised “Marxism” we take for granted was a later reconstruction based on uncompleted manuscripts. The ongoing efforts of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (or MEGA) to compile every available text thus provides Saito with a new basis on which to analyse fundamental concepts of the late Marx.

Saito focuses, in particular, on an argument presented in Capital but, until recently, ignored by most readers. That is, Marx treats labour as a metabolic relationship between people and nature. Human beings, in any society, must reshape – through labour – the natural world if they are to survive. Yet the way they do that varies tremendously from society to society.

Prior to capitalism, labour was (as you would expect) overwhelmingly directed to the immediate satisfaction of specific needs. Even in the most oppressive ancient societies, slaves created use values. They toiled to make goods and provide services their rulers actually wanted.

Capitalism mandates something very different. In a society governed by the commodity, production takes place primarily for exchange. Today, we sell our labour power to others, who then direct us. Unlike the pharaohs of old, our bosses don’t themselves want what we make or do. The capitalists who employ us seek, first and foremost, value, which can expand without any definite limit because it is quantitative rather than qualitative.

Saito argues that commodification – of labour and everything else – fundamentally changes the human relationship with nature. When value becomes “the organising principle of metabolism between humans and nature, it cannot fully reflect the complexity of the biophysical metabolic processes between them”.

Our direct and immediate interaction with the natural world, in other words, becomes a process driven by an external, expansionary dynamic.

Metabolic rift

Marx describes the disruption of nature by the circuit of capital as a “metabolic rift”.

For Saito, this concept entails “spatial rifts” between the cities and the country, and between developed and developing nations. It also entails “temporal rifts” between the deep time of geological processes and the ever-increasing tempo of capitalist production.

The notion of a “metabolic rift” thus makes manifest an environmental theory that is latent in Capital. Saito’s extraordinary erudition teases out the implication of concepts sometimes present in Marx’s work only in embryonic form.

Of course, everyone knows that corporations ravage the environment. The theory of metabolic rift explains that despoliation not as a result of the greed or ineptitude of individual entrepreneurs, but as a consequence of the commodity itself. It suggests that the fundamental interdependence between humans and nature is disturbed at the most granular level of capitalism.

The consequences cannot be overstated. Mainstream responses to climate change – the strategies advocated by most governments and by international gatherings (the Conference of the Parties, for example) – centre on market mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes. Many progressives criticise such interventions as too little, too late. On Saito’s reading, their critique misses the point. Carbon trading and similar schemes, such as Australia’s new biodiversity market, seek the further commodification of nature. They are not merely insufficient; they are actively worsening the problem they claim to remedy.

Read more:
Karl Marx: his philosophy explained


Even more importantly, rift theory provides the basis for what Saito calls “ecosocialism”.

Historically, attempts to unite proletarians with the planet have tended to rely on moral appeals to workers on behalf of the natural world. This non-materialist strategy has invariably failed.

Saito suggests a very different approach. He emphasises that Marx sees the alienation of land and labour as different facets of the same phenomenon. The systematic ruination of nature arises from an equally thoroughgoing degradation of basic human activity. The fight to save the environment thus becomes, not an optional extra, but a cause fundamentally entwined with class struggle.

Rosa Luxemburg (1905).
Public domain.

In his new book, Saito buttresses his argument by identifying various thinkers within the broader Marxist tradition who, more or less independently, grasped a similar notion of metabolism. These include Rosa Luxemburg (in her book The Accumulation of Capital), Georg Lukacs (particularly in his rediscovered 1925 manuscript A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic), the Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros, and contemporary writers like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett.

Saito also defends the nature-society dualism on which rift theory rests against rival Marxist approaches. He polemicises, in particular, against Neil Smith and Jason Moore.

But by far the most important – and challenging – sections of Marx in the Anthropocene involve textual exegesis. Biographers sometimes describe Marx’s final years as unproductive, marred by illness and lack of focus. Saito argues that, from the late 1860s, Marx threw himself into a renewed study of the natural sciences in order to work through the implications of labour as metabolism and, in the process, revised several key concepts.

Forces and relations of production

Saito revisits, in particular, the traditional opposition between the forces of production – a term that includes the means of production, labour power, machinery, and much else – and the relations of production – that is, the economic ownership of those forces.

This antagonism is conventionally understood as the motor of social history. 20th century Marxists, in particular, presented the productive forces as the basis of a new society, often focusing on the technological advances facilitated by capitalism as central to the transition to socialism.

The first Japanese edition Capital in the Anthropocene.

Saito claims that the later Marx saw the real (rather than formal) subsumption of labour under capital as dependant on a reorganisation of workers’ activities. Capital, writes Saito, “creates qualitatively new productive forces and a uniquely capitalist way of production sui generis”.

According to Saito, Marx rejected the idea – associated with official Soviet “Marxism” – that socialists could simply take over the forces of production. Rather, Marx concluded that the relations of production shaped productive forces in ways that could not and should not be considered progressive.

For example, the factory system generates tremendous productivity by bringing workers together. But the “co-operation” of the assembly line relies on individual workers performing repetitive actions, with management solely responsible for decisions about what they do and how.

This kind of tailored productivity does not provide the basis for collective self-management. On the contrary, democratic and collective control of the means of production – the basis of Marxian socialism – necessitates a proletarian autonomy that is incompatible with the management techniques enforced in, say, an Amazon factory.

That means progressives should not enthuse about productivity in the manner of some so-called “ecomodernists”. We can’t create a “fully-automated luxury communism” simply by freeing advanced technology from the tech-bros who currently control it.

The non-alienated labour required for environmental sustainability and workers’ self-management requires a qualitative break with capitalist forces of production.

Read more:
Anthropocene: human-made materials now weigh as much as all living biomass, say scientists

Degrowth communism

On that basis, Saito challenges the linear narrative associated with mechanical Marxism, which proposes that societies must transition from feudalism to capitalism, and then from capitalism to socialism.

He focuses on Marx’s famous correspondence with the Russian populist Vera Zasulich, who asked whether communes in which which peasants traditionally managed their affairs must inexorably give way to Western-style capitalism. In his (very brief) published response, Marx denied any inevitability about developments in Russia. In an unsent draft, however, he argued explicitly that capitalism

will end through its own elimination, through the return of modern societies to a higher form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production.

Saito chases down an array of notes, jottings and other writings in which Marx muses on precisely how pre- and post-capitalist relations might intersect. He shows that Marx, by the end of his life, had broken from any notion of a new society based on the expansion of productive forces. Marx had instead come to advocate what Saito calls “degrowth communism”.

It’s a remarkable conclusion. Saito writes:

Marx’s call for a “return” to non-capitalist society demands that any serious attempt at overcoming capitalism in Western society needs to learn from non-Western societies and integrate the new principle of a steady-state economy. Marx’s rejection of productivism is not identical with the romantic advocation of a “return to the countryside”. In fact, he repeatedly added that the Russian communes would have to assimilate the positive fruits of capitalist development and the principle of steady-state economy in non-Western societies that would allow Western societies to leap to communism as a higher stage of the archaic communes.

Saito acknowledges that this vision is “utterly different from the productivist approach of traditional Marxism in the 20th century”. And the passages he relies on are fragmentary, even cryptic – much more so than the texts from which metabolic rift theory arises.

In some ways, though, that’s not really the point. The debate among Marxist scholars about the extent to which the MEGA provides textual support for such a conclusion matters much less than whether Saito’s thesis holds conceptually. We might even say that Saito’s insistence on grounding his book in Marx’s writing obscures his own considerable status as a theoretician who is creatively extending Marxism for a new period.

Read more:
How can the law account for the value of natural places?

I have seen the past – and it works!

Today, a thoroughgoing pessimism pervades both mainstream and radical politics. Few people believe in their own power to shape events. Many accept misanthropic or Malthusian environmental currents that regard humanity as an innately destructive force.

Saito provides a much needed alternative – a demonstration of alternative possibilities. His project might be understood as an inversion of Lincoln Steffen’s famous slogan, along the lines of “I have seen the past – and it works!”

Australians, in particular, should be aware of how pre-class societies developed ways to live more or less sustainably in their environment. As I have argued in Overland and elsewhere, the living culture of Indigenous Australia proves that human beings are not hardwired (as we are often told) to destroy the natural world.

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal people laboured on the continent in ways that fostered, rather than diminished, the country that they tended. The introduction of capitalism to the country thus provides a remarkable illustration of the metabolic rift. In the space of a few years, agricultural capitalism wiped out landscapes created by untold generations of Indigenous people. Many settlers recorded their astonishment and dismay as the country, deprived of its traditional custodians, changed under their feet.

Saito’s argument is not, of course, that the society that existed prior to 1788 should or could be revived. “The critique of productive forces of capital,” he says, “is not equivalent to a rejection of all technologies.” The scientific achievements of the capitalist allow, in Marx’s terms, “the associated producers [to] govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way”.

The last known photograph of Karl Marx (1882).
Public domain.

Saito describes the resulting society in terms of “degrowth”. In some ways, it is an infelicitous term. As a political slogan, “degrowth” invokes the much-hated austerity associated with neoliberal economics. It also sounds too much like the bourgeois environmentalism that is expressed through calls for individual sacrifice.

Even more importantly, it obscures Saito’s theoretical distinction between capitalism, on one hand, and ancient societies and communism on the other. “Growth” does not provide a meaningful measure for a use-value society. Communism would, for instance, prioritise healthcare, but the success or failure of its efforts would be assessed according to patient welfare, rather than the expansion or contraction of GDP.

Elsewhere, Saito borrows from Kirstin Ross the phrase “communal luxury”, a term that better captures the meaning of unalienated labour. In the early years of white conquest, Indigenous people flatly refused to work for Europeans. They considered wage labour – an activity that stripped all meaning, control and spirituality from daily life – the most profound impoverishment imaginable.

A society based on use values might harbour the resources that capitalism squanders, but that would not amount to austerity. “Abundance,” says Saito, “is not a technological threshold but a social relationship.”

Read more:
The term ’Anthropocene’ isn’t perfect – but it shows us the scale of the environmental crisis we’ve caused

A radical theory for the 21st century

Saito’s deep knowledge of Marx’s published and unpublished writing makes for a rigorous argument, but it also presents socialism almost exclusively in terms of the development of ideas. That is misleading.

The crude productivism of so much 20th century socialist writing stemmed less from Engels’ misreading of Marx’s notes on science (a topic Saito addresses in detail) than from the Soviet Union’s repurposing of Marxism as a justification for state-directed capitalist development.

The Marx-Zasulich letters prefigured the much more concrete debate about feudalism, capitalism and socialism that ensued after 1917. In some respects, Saito’s argument resonates with Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, which provided an account of how undeveloped countries might build a workers’ state by spreading the revolutionary process to the imperialist heartland.

Trotsky’s argument centres on the role of the proletariat, but Saito does not really address how “degrowth communism” might come about. In that respect, the intellectual rigour of Marx in the Anthropocene fosters a certain weakness. Saito sounds occasionally as if he thinks a correct restatement of fundamentals will, in and of itself, repopularise Marxism. Obviously, that is not the case. We cannot rely on MEGA to make socialism great again.

Marx in the Anthropocene is nevertheless a tremendously important achievement: an imaginative re-purposing of radical theory for the 21st century. Too often environmental debates centre only on the most immediate proposals for curtailing emissions, without addressing how we got into this mess and how we might get out. By contrast, Saito provides both a convincing account of the social forces driving climate change and a description of what an alternative might entail. His book deserves the widest possible readership. Here’s hoping it sells as much as the last one. Läs mer…

Attention plant killers: new research shows your plants could be silently screaming at you

If you’re like me, you’ve managed to kill even the hardiest of indoor plants (yes, despite a doctorate in plant biology). But imagine a world where your plants actually told you exactly when they needed watering. This thought, as it turns out, may not be so silly after all.

You might be familiar with the growing body of work that provides evidence for plants being able to sense sounds around them. Now, new research suggests they can also generate airborne sounds in response to stress (such as from drought, or being cut).

A team led by experts at Tel Aviv University has shown tomato and tobacco plants, among others, not only make sounds, but do so loudly enough for other creatures to hear. Their findings, published today in the journal Cell, are helping us tune into the rich acoustic world of plants – one that plays out all round us, yet never quite within human earshot.

Plants can listen, but now they can talk!

Plants are “sessile” organisms. They can’t run away from stressors such as herbivores or drought.

Instead, they’ve evolved complex biochemical responses and the ability to dynamically alter their growth (and regrow body parts) in response to environmental signals including light, gravity, temperature, touch, and volatile chemicals produced by surrounding organisms.

These signals help them maximise their growth and reproductive success, prepare for and resist stress, and form mutually beneficial relationships with other organisms such as fungi and bacteria.

In 2019, researchers showed the buzzing of bees can cause plants to produce sweeter nectar. Others have shown white noise played to Arabidopsis, a flowering plant in the mustard family, can trigger a drought response.

Now, a team led by Lilach Hadany, who also led the aforementioned bee-nectar study, has recorded airborne sounds produced by tomato and tobacco plants, and five other species (grapevine, henbit deadnettle, pincushion cactus, maize and wheat). These sounds were ultrasonic, in the range of 20-100 kilohertz, and therefore can’t be detected by human ears.

Stressed plants chatter more

To carry out their research, the team placed microphones 10cm from plant stems that were either exposed to drought (less than 5% soil moisture) or had been severed near the soil. They then compared the recorded sounds to those of unstressed plants, as well as empty pots, and found stressed plants emitted significantly more sounds than unstressed plants.

In a cool addition to their paper, they also included a soundbite of a recording, downsampled to an audible range and sped up. The result is a distinguishable “pop” sound.

The number of pops increased as drought stress increased (before starting to decline as the plant dried up). Moreover, the sounds could be detected from a distance of 3-5 metres – suggesting potential for long-range communication.

But what actually causes these sounds?

While this remains unconfirmed, the team’s findings suggest that “cavitation” may be at least partially responsible for the sounds. Cavitation is the process through which air bubbles expand and burst inside a plant’s water-conducting tissue, or “xylem”. This explanation makes sense if we consider that drought stress and cutting will both alter the water dynamics in a plant stem.

Regardless of the mechanism, it seems the sounds produced by stressed plants were informative. Using machine learning algorithms, the researchers could distinguish not only which species produced the sound, but also what type of stress it was suffering from.

We now have the first research evidence that plants can make airborne sounds, heard up to a few metres away.

It remains to be seen whether and how these sound signals might be involved in plant-to-plant communication or plant-to-environment communication.

The research has so far failed to detect any sounds from the woody stems of woody species (which includes many tree species), although they could detect sounds from non-woody parts of a grapevine (a woody species).

What could it mean for ecology, and us?

It’s temping to speculate these airborne sounds could help plants communicate their stress more widely. Could this form of communication help plants, and perhaps wider ecosystems, adapt better to change?

Or perhaps the sounds are used by other organisms to detect a plant’s health status. Moths, for example, hear within the ultrasonic range and lay their eggs on leaves, as the researchers point out.

Then there’s the question of whether such findings could help with future food production. The global demand for food will only rise. Tailoring water use to target individual plants or sections of field making the most “noise” could help us more sustainably intensify production and minimise waste.

For me personally, if someone could give a microphone to my neglected veggie patch and have the notifications sent to my phone, that would be much appreciated!

Read more:
Rosemary in roundabouts, lemons over the fence: how to go urban foraging safely, respectfully and cleverly Läs mer…

A horse died on the set of The Rings of Power: more needs to be done to ensure the welfare of horses used in entertainment

The recent death of a horse on the set of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the latest incident raising questions about how humans use horses for entertainment and sport.

While a statement from producers said the horses’s cardiac arrest occurred before the day’s filming began, animal rights activists PETA used the death to call on all screen producers to replace on-set horses with CGI and mechanical rig alternatives.

The incident feeds into growing public concern about horse welfare on film and TV sets, at the track and in equestrian sports.

But improving horse welfare is about more than just reputation repair – too often it’s about survival for horses and humans.

Horse welfare in film and TV

The riding of a horse over a cliff to its death for the movie Jesse James (1939) led to the establishment of American Humane, which now oversees around 100,000 animals on more than 1,000 productions each year.

While things have improved since the early days of film and television, deaths and mistreatment of horses still occur.

In 1987, on the set of The Man From Snowy River II, a seriously injured horse was killed using the blunt end of an axe.

More recently, the high-profile series Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman, was cancelled following the deaths of three horses.

The good and bad of unprecedented global exposure

In 2021, the Tokyo Olympics beamed to a global audience the excessive whipping and punching of modern pentathlon horse Saint Boy and show jumper Kilkenny’s spectacular nosebleed during the controversial show jumping program.

While the bleed must have been obvious, officials did not intervene to stop the ride.

Confronting images, and the perceived failure of organisers to protect the horses involved, brought into clear and global focus the indisputable welfare issues faced by horses competing at the elite level.

The global outcry led to actress Kaley Cuoco offering to buy Saint Boy and the withdrawal of the equestrian phase from modern pentathlon.

Read more:
’The Rings of Power’: Every adaptation is re-interpretation so ignore the haters

Risk to humans and horses

Horse welfare does not just impact animals.

Since the 1840s, 873 jockeys are known to have died in race falls in Australia.

Internationally, the sport of eventing (where competitors complete three phases: dressage, show jumping and cross-country) reported 38 rider and 65 horse fatalities during or after competition between 2007-15.

Riding horses is considered one of the most dangerous of all sporting pursuits, and the deaths of riders and jockeys, usually from falls, are common.

Public concern about risk to horses and humans through horse racing and equestrian sports, as well as screen production, also threaten these industries’ social licence.

Better horse welfare is related to better rider safety

Our research offers hope for the horse industry and for those passionate about riding horses.

Last year, we published a paper demonstrating the link between horse welfare and rider safety. We asked riders how they cared for their horses and how their horses behaved when ridden – for example, we wanted to know how often horses were bucking or rearing.

From this information, we calculated a relative welfare score for each horse. We also asked riders about their accidents and injuries.

After analysing the data from over 400 riders, we found the higher the horse welfare score, the fewer accidents and injuries a rider reported.

In a subsequent study, we found horses with better welfare scores are more enjoyable to ride, most likely because they perform better and riders feel more in control, creating a win-win for horses and riders.

Read more:
People hate cruelty to animals, so why do we do it?

Good horse welfare means more than good health

Often good welfare is thought of in terms of an animal being healthy.

While this is part of good welfare, good health alone is not enough – especially for a horse competing at the elite level or taking part in a film.

Horses are neophobes – this means they find new things frightening – so most horses are likely to find a movie set or travelling to a new location stressful. The most up-to-date understanding of welfare tells us that stress and poor mental health means poor animal welfare.

When a horse is stressed or in pain they behave in a very predictable way – they run away, panic, kick out or buck and rear.

Yet, anecdotally and in the media, people seeing a horse behaving in this way often claim the horse is crazy, unpredictable or just plain mean.

More likely, an “unpredictable” horse is suffering from poor welfare.

As part of our research program, we have developed a new framework to help horse owners identify aspects of their care and training that diminish horse welfare.

This information can be used to make modifications to improve horse welfare, and, importantly, can be applied to horses in any equine sector, including racing, sport and film and television.

Horses played a pivotal role in the narrative of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Investing in the future of horses in entertainment and sport

Although a veterinarian assessed the recent horse death on the set of The Rings of Power as “unlikely to be associated with the horse’s participation in the film”, more can be done to protect horses and the industry.

In Australia, no specific standard exists for the use of animals in filmed media, and each state and territory has differing risk management guidelines.

An opportunity now exists for the industry to set a new standard for horse care and training.

An easily executable first step for the industry could be to insist a scientifically trained and credentialed equine behaviour expert be involved in the recruitment and supervision of horse actors and their trainers at all stages of production.

This would ensure horse actors are appropriately trained to be on set and that horses are trained using the most up-to-date ethical methods.

Horse behaviour experts could also help in scene design to minimise horses’ exposure to stressful situations and identify tasks that are incompatible with good horse welfare.

If these suggestions were to be adopted, the film and television industry would be setting the benchmark for horse welfare – and pressure other horse industries to follow suit. Läs mer…

The Millionaires’ Factory lays bare the good and bad about Australia’s millionaire manufacturer – Macquarie bank

Allen & Unwin

The Millionaires’ Factory, subtitled “the inside story of how Macquarie Bank became a global giant” by financial journalists Joyce Moullakis and Chris Wright is an impressive, informative book that I enjoyed reading.

As well as providing insights into the Australian financial giant’s evolution, organisation, scope and success, it says a lot about Australia’s financial history.

The large number of Macquarie alumni (the book suggests around 100,000) and current staff (more than 18,000 globally in 2022) will provide a ready market.

But for others, despite the many interesting character sketches and well-written “travelogue” through Macquarie’s exploits, the book may be somewhat heavy going – for one main reason.

Macquarie is a mammoth organisation that has been involved in a huge number of complex financial activities across the international stage.

Macquarie’s 2022 annual report says it operates across 33 markets in

asset management
retail and business banking
wealth management
leasing and asset financing
market access
commodity trading
renewables development
specialist advice
access to capital, and
principal investment.

Outlines of key transactions alone, necessarily, form a large part of the book.

Unfortunately, most need virtually an entire book each to explain and, in any event, require a high level of financial expertise to properly understand.

Those who are not finance experts can skip over the specific deals and will still find much value in (at least) two parts of the book.

One is the information on the management and governance of the organisation, including the adaptability of its divisional structure to opportunities and challenges.

Macquarie has consistently shown a willingness to expand into new (generally “adjacent”) activities suggested by staff (rather than from the top) under a strict risk-control framework.

A second (related) element is its emphasis on the quality of its staff and its dependence on its staff to investigate, generate and develop new activities.

Turning staff into millionaires

The remuneration arrangements bring the promise of rich personal rewards if successful, while failure in a new activity that has received the go-ahead under strict risk controls is not a career-limiting outcome.

Some readers may find strange the continued recitation of names and characteristics of key Macquarie personnel – but it is the people involved who have made Macquarie what it is today. As the saying goes, in financial institutions the main assets walk out the door every night (or early morning in many cases).

One thing the book does not do is provide any tables or graphs showing the enormous growth of Macquarie since its creation out of Hill Samuel in 1985, its integral role in Australia’s financial system and its successful overseas expansion.

Of course, given the scope of Macquarie’s activities, relevant metrics for comparison purposes are not easy to identify. For example, Macquarie Bank (the “commercial banking” part of the group) is small compared to the four major banks, with resident deposits about one-third of the smallest of the big four, ANZ.

The Macquarie Group overall has about half the number of employees of ANZ, but its overall personnel expenses in 2022 were around 15% higher than the ANZ (reflecting the words “millionaires’ factory” used in the book’s title).

Pushing boundaries

The authors hint at, but do not address, several questions posed by Macquarie Group’s critics.

First, to what extent have Macquarie’s profits come from pushing the boundaries of tax arbitrage (such as moving profits from high-tax locations to low-tax locations and moving losses in the other direction), such that its resulting profit isn’t a reward for adding social value but is instead generated at the expense of taxpayers?

There are always loopholes in tax law due to imperfect drafting, or grey areas that fall between what is clearly within or outside of the law. The opportunity to exploit such loopholes is greater when several jurisdictions are involved, and the book refers to several, such as the “cum-ex” dividend arbitrage. There are others.

Read more:
The robbery of the century: the cum-ex trading scandal

The profit motive underpinning Macquarie and its remuneration structure naturally lead towards attempts to exploit such opportunities even if the private gains are purely at the expense of government tax revenue and not involving any (or much) creation of social value.

The authors quote former Treasurer Peter Costello saying “they engineered tax breaks to within an inch of their lives”, which often led to changes to tax laws to prevent such activities. How much this is ethical behaviour is a matter of opinion!

Heavily charging customers

The second question is: in constructing value-adding deals with clients and customers, how much of the net benefit has accrued to Macquarie, and how much to its customers?

As well as the nickname of “Millionaires’ Factory”, Macquarie has also been referred to as the “fee factory”.

For example, in its now-abandoned infrastructure trust structures, various parts of Macquarie would obtain fees: when purchasing assets for the trust (and “clipping the ticket” via a profit on the sale price into the trust), fees from managing the trust, commissions from selling units in the trust to investors, etc.

Macquarie’s position as an innovative creator of financial products and structures has often given it a first-mover advantage, such that with no competing supplier, Macquarie has been able to extract a major part of the value created.

Obviously, some value for the client needs to be provided, and concerns that a perceived unfair distribution of benefits would make it hard to repeat the exercise limit the amount of value extraction possible. But what is “fair” is a matter of opinion!

Exploiting the poorly informed

The third question is: to what extent did Macquarie benefit from exploiting poorly informed (wholesale and retail) consumers and users of its financial products – as the Hayne Royal Commission found to be the case for the four major banks and others?

Macquarie escaped from the Royal Commission with its image barely tarnished compared to the big four. One reason was that its then-chief executive, Nicholas Moore, was able to point to the remediation activities it had put in place prior to the commission once it had recognised the problems.

Macquarie Group chief Nicholas Moore leaving the Hayne Royal Commission in 2018.
Joel Carrett/AAP

But Macquarie was also lucky in that the Royal Commission’s terms of reference only required it to look back as far as the global financial crisis. Had it been required to look back further, its findings might have been different.

Prior to the financial crisis, Macquarie (and other banks) created highly financially engineered, structured products and marketed them to retail (and other) investors. Even financially literate investors could not have possibly understood the risks or value of the products they were sold.

A vast majority of these products would not have met current design and distribution obligation requirements aimed at protecting consumers.

This was typical of the time and Macquarie was not particularly different to other purveyors of such products. But whether, in the absence of effective regulation, Macquarie would revert to pushing these boundaries is a matter of opinion!

An Australian success nevertheless

There is no question that Macquarie is an Australian success story.

Its 2022 annual report indicates that A$100 invested in its shares at the time of its stock exchange listing in 1996 would have grown to $10,000 in 2022.

More importantly, it has provided or enabled funding for many investment projects of its customers, which might not otherwise have gone ahead.

By taking an active role in the management and governance of large projects (such as toll roads and utilities), it has enabled more efficient operation of such projects than might have otherwise occurred.

It currently is near the forefront of financiers focusing on “green finance”, where activities generating social and environmental benefits can be consistent with profiting from a first-mover position.

There will, no doubt, remain many critics of Macquarie’s profit orientation and a resulting possible conflict with broader social goals. They would gain much from reading this book, both to find specific instances of that conflict, but also to see that profit-seeking is not always inconsistent with social goals. Läs mer…

More Pacific rugby league stars are opting to play for their homelands over Australia or NZ – that’s good for the game

With this year’s National Rugby League (NRL) season now up and running, the prevalence of Pacific players in the tournament is again obvious to see. All NRL teams now feature stars with Pacific nations heritage – indeed, it’s hard to imagine the game without them.

That pride in playing in the top leagues is now extending to which nation those Pacific players choose to represent at the international level.

In 2017, the International Rugby League (the sport’s global governing body) changed the eligibility rules, allowing players with ancestral lineage from more than one country the right to choose which nation they represent.

The ripple effect has been significant. Many Pacific players have decided to play for their motherlands. This is despite many of them being eligible to play for Australia or New Zealand, traditionally the more conventional career goal for these elite athletes.

On the field, the impact has been evident too. Last year’s Rugby League World Cup saw Toa Samoa become the first Pacific nation to reach the final. Samoa’s success built on the rise of Mate Ma’a Tonga at the previous world cup in 2017.

It has been a validation of the decision by so many Pacific players to pull on their ancestral home’s jersey – and an inspiration for younger, ambitious footballers now kicking off their own seasons at the grassroots level.

Sione Katoa of Mate Ma’a Tonga scores during the Pacific Test with New Zealand in 2022.

Hearts before bank balances

For many of those top players, changing allegiance during the peak of their careers has meant sacrificing the substantial monetary rewards of contracting to the Australian or New Zealand national sides.

It has also meant choosing their ancestral homeland over their country of birth. As New Zealand–born Tongan Sio Taukeiaho has said, it is a tough decision but one that involves following their hearts:

It shows how much they want to put this jersey on, and how much they want to represent their family and people back in Tonga.

Read more:
How rugby league’s relaxed rules for diaspora players gave the sport a new lease of life

The choice to represent that inter-generational familial legacy also highlights the role of cultural values in the arena of professional sports. As we have written about this phenomenon, “Many [players] are forced to work in an environment which privileges individual capitalism over their cultural values of service.”

One player who knows what this means in practice is Michael Jennings, former NRL star and seven-time Australian international, who chose to play for Tonga in 2017:

It’s been an honour and a privilege to represent Australia in seven tests […] I’ll always cherish those memories. But it’s a very different feeling playing for Tonga. There’s more emotion in the Tonga jersey. You know what your family has been through, and you think about them every time you put it on. We’re not representing ourselves. We’re representing our families and our heritage.

Brian To’o celebrating with fellow Panthers player Izack Tago during the NRL Preliminary Final in 2022.

Growing the game

To put this revolution in context, at the 2022 Rugby League World Cup, 22 of Toa Samoa’s 24-strong squad would have been eligible to play for Australia or New Zealand; all but one of the Mate Ma’a Tonga squad had dual eligibility.

While not all of these players might have made the bigger nations’ national sides, of course, several notable players opted to choose their heritage nation over Australia or New Zealand, including Brian To’o, Martin Taupau, Joseph Sua’ali’i and Addin Fonua-Blake.

Read more:
In both schooling and sport, Australia has slowly come to recognise its Aboriginal talent pool

In turn, high-profile Pacific players who choose to play for their homelands increase awareness of the game’s place in the Pacific, and help grow the code internationally – something commentators have long said needs to be a priority.

All of these trends within the modern game were evident in February this year, when Rotorua hosted the first NRL Indigenous and Māori All Stars tournament, featuring both wāhine (women) and tāne (men).

For wāhine Māori All Star and Parramatta Eels player Kennedy Cherrington, pulling on the Māori jersey was the “pinnacle of my career”. For tāne Māori All Star and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs regular Hayze Perham, returning home to Rotorua to debut for a national Indigenous side in front of his family was a “dream come true”.

Read more:
Why the winners of rugby league are not trying hard enough to expand the international game

For New Zealand-born players now based in Australia, as well as visiting Indigenous players, the tournament’s emphasis on te reo Māori (Māori language) and cultural protocols such as pōwhiri (welcoming ceremonies) can only have deepened the game’s connection to values beyond the purely commercial.

If the trend continues, and more top players make decisions based on factors other than pay and country of birth, the chances of a Pacific nation winning the World Cup will only increase. That will be cause for celebration at home, of course, but it will also be good for the game on the global pitch, now and for future generations. Läs mer…

Ontario’s new child welfare policy is promising, but youth leaving care need more support

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services placed a moratorium on its child welfare policy that requires youth to leave foster care and group homes once they turn 18. At the same time, the province committed to a child welfare redesign to strengthen support for youth leaving care.

The moratorium expires on March 31, with a redesigned policy coming into effect on April 1. While the new policy appears promising for youth leaving care, there are some important gaps that require the Ontario government’s attention.

Aging out

The pandemic illuminated shortcomings in Ontario’s child welfare policy. High numbers of youth aging out of care face poverty and homelessness, do not complete high school and have significant mental and physical health challenges.

Under these circumstances, many experience victimization and criminalization. It is clear this framework does not effectively support youth leaving care to enter adulthood on a steady footing.

The ministry’s commitment to a child welfare redesign is welcome and timely. The new policy will replace two policy directives: Continued Care and Support for Youth (CCSY) and Supporting Consistency of Care for Youth Whose Arrangements are Scheduled to Expire During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

It also outlines new requirements to prepare youth for a successful transition from care to adulthood. Taking a youth-centred, strengths-based and trauma-informed approach, the policy aims to:

“assist youth to achieve physical and emotional well-being, acquire basic life management skills and develop social networks that include connections to caring adults and the community while respecting a child’s identity characteristics and cultural connections.”

Ontario’s new policy appears promising for youth leaving care, but there are important gaps that require attention.

Earlier intervention, extended involvement

Currently, child protection workers initiate transition planning when youth are still in care. When they turn 18 and leave care, most youth are eligible to access CCSY. Through CCSY, youth receive financial support, health benefits, and may connect with a youth-in-transition worker. These supports expire when they turn 21.

Evidence shows that early intervention is critical to prepare youth for their transition to adulthood. Youth will now begin transition planning on their 13th birthday. Between the ages of 13 and 18, planning will focus on health, education, identity, family and social relationships, emotional and behavioural development and self-care skills.

At age 18, most youth will still be required to leave their care placements. However, they will be eligible to receive transition supports, like those available under CCSY, until they turn 23. This amounts to at least 10 years of concentrated transition support which will hopefully reduce the likelihood of them facing poor outcomes.

While prioritizing early intervention for youth, the new policy makes no mention of providing early support for families. Research suggests that investigations of parental neglect — which comprise a significant proportion of reports for investigation — are often more indicative of structural issues, like poverty. And psychologists add that there is an intergenerational continuity of child welfare system involvement.

Targeted preventive supports for families could address structural issues and prevent youth from being in foster care. It would also support the ministry’s goals of family reunification and minimizing child removals. Not including familial supports is a missed opportunity.

Building supportive connections

Both the previous and new policies emphasize the importance of developing youths’ social networks, including connections to caring adults and the community. While no age was specified previously, network building is now supposed to begin as early as age 13.

Research emphasizes interdependence over independence. Independence is a false construct, as everyone depends on others through their lives. Youth in care need continuous support to achieve interdependence.

Ongoing social support is critically important, however, it is unclear how the new policy will improve where its predecessor fell short.

Community organizations that have developed family finding programs that emphasize permanency and natural relationships make clear that this work is highly specialized. Helping youth to find meaningful, long-term and natural supports takes time and constant support to build and maintain these relationships.

Both the previous and new policies emphasize the importance of developing youths’ social networks and community connections.

It is likely this work will fall to child protection workers who are already overladen with high caseloads. It is difficult to see how they can meaningfully or effectively add this to their existing workload.

It is also important to question the appropriateness of tasking child protection workers with this responsibility when they are often involved in breaking familial bonds, which can both create irreparable harm to the family unit and limit workers’ efficacy when it comes to helping young people develop social networks.

Importantly, the policy requiring youth to leave their care placements at 18 remains in place. Many youth experience a loss of their social supports when they age out of care. Around 58 per cent of these youth experience homelessness. It is important to distinguish between being in care (living in foster care or group homes) and simply receiving transition supports without having stable, secure housing and a social network.

Ready, set, go

The new policy also includes the Ready, Set, Go Program which begins targeted transition planning when youth turn 16. The program will help child protection workers to assess with youth their readiness to leave care across nine indicators. Assessment will continue at six month intervals following their 18th birthday.

The program prioritizes youth voices, remains responsive to youths’ needs and connects them with services they will need in the long-run. However, the program does not connect readiness to leave care with being housed. It is difficult to imagine how young people will be able to meet their transition goals without a stable home.

Ultimately, the policy remains silent on what will happen if youth are not ready to leave care. Will youth receive support beyond age 23 if needed? Will anyone monitor their progress after they turn 23?

But really, should anyone be ready to be independent, isolated and alone?

Aspects of the new policy require more refinement and explanation. But as a whole, the spirit of the policy is promising. There is a feeling of hope for the future. The provincial government must now invest in these programs to make good on their promise to deliver for young Ontarians.

This article was co-authored by Heather O’Keefe, Executive Director of StepStones for Youth, which supports youth in and leaving the child welfare system in Ontario. Before founding StepStones, Heather worked as a child protection worker. Läs mer…

Archaeology and genomics together with Indigenous knowledge revise the human-horse story in the American West

Few places in the world are more closely linked with horses in the popular imagination than the Great Plains of North America. Romanticized stories of cowboys and the Wild West figure prominently in popular culture, and domestic horses are embedded in everything from place names, like Wild Horse Mesa, to sporting mascots, like the Denver Broncos.

Horses first evolved in the Americas around 4 million years ago. Then horses largely disappeared from the fossil record by about 10,000 years ago. However, archaeological finds from the Yukon to the Gulf Coast make it clear that horses were an important part of ancient lifeways for the early peoples of North America.

Millennia later, horses were reintroduced by European colonists, and eventually the Great Plains became home to powerful Indigenous horse cultures, many of which leveraged their expertise on horseback to maintain sovereignty even amid the rising tides of colonial exploitation, genocide and disease.

But how did horses become part of life on the Great Plains? And are there pieces of that story that may be missing from today’s popular narratives?

One of us is an archaeozoologist who studies ancient animal remains. The other is a Lakota scientist who specializes in ancient horse genomics and is expert in Indigenous oral traditions about horses. Together we created a large team of scientists and scholars from around the world, including those from Pueblo, Pawnee, Comanche and Lakota nations, and set out to see what archaeology, Indigenous knowledge systems and genomics together could tell us about the horse in the American West.

Horses have long been a part of Indigenous cultures in the American West.
Ettore Mazza

Complicating the colonial version of the story

Over recent decades, the story of people and horses has largely been told through the lens of colonial history. One reason for this is logistical – European settlers often wrote down their observations, creating documentary records that partially chronicle the early relationships between colonists, Indigenous cultures and horses in the colonial West. Another reason, though, is prejudice: Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been excluded from telling their side of the story.

While historical records are a valuable tool for understanding the past, they also carry with them the biases and cultural context of the people who wrote them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many such documents tend to minimize or dismiss the interactions between Native people and horses. More importantly, the written record’s scope is limited to those places European colonists visited – which, until the 18th and 19th centuries, excluded much of the Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

Filtering of Indigenous horse cultures through a European framework left narratives unrecognizable to many Indigenous peoples.

Many models for the origins of Indigenous horse use on the Plains focus on one particular date: the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. During this momentous uprising, Pueblo people living under harsh Spanish subjugation organized a rebellion that expelled Spanish colonists from New Mexico for more than a decade. Many historians link the revolt with the first spread of horses beyond the Southwest, because with the Spanish gone, so was their control over their livestock at colonial settlements.

Ancestral Comanche or Shoshone horse and rider image at Tolar in southern Wyoming.
Pat Doak

However, other scholars who prioritize and understand Indigenous knowledge and scientific frameworks have questioned these assumptions, pointing out historical inconsistencies and highlighting oral traditions that support a deeper antiquity to the human-horse relationship among many Indigenous nations.

Over recent years, archaeology has emerged as a powerful tool for exploring aspects of the human-horse story that may not have been written down in books. In Mongolia, for example, our analysis of ancient horse bones has shown that steppe cultures herded, rode and cared for horses centuries before their first mention in historical records.

Our first studies in the western U.S. suggested there may be a rich archaeological record of horse remains in the West linked to Native cultures, even if this record was often overlooked or misclassified in museum collections.

Remains of horses provide their own clues

For our new study, published in the journal Science, we looked for horse remains in museum collections across the Western U.S., from Idaho to Kansas. These horses ranged from single, isolated bones to nearly complete horses, with incredible preservation.

Among the dozens of ancient horses we identified, precision radiocarbon dating revealed that several lived in the early 17th century or earlier – decades before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and in some areas, at least a century or more before the arrival of the first Europeans.

3D model of a horse cranium and replica rawhide bridle in the Archaeozoology Laboratory at the University of Colorado.
William Taylor

We analyzed the ancient horses’ bones and found clues that across the Great Plains these early horses were not just present but already an important part of Indigenous societies. Some horses have skeletal features showing they were ridden or received veterinary care. Other information, like the method of burial or inclusion alongside other animals such as coyotes, shows horses were part of ceremonial practices.

We used isotope analysis to learn more about the ancient diet and movements of these animals by measuring heavier or lighter variants of molecules in their bones and teeth. We found that some of the earliest horses in southwestern Wyoming and northern Kansas were not escapees of Spanish expeditions but were instead raised locally by Native communities.

One baby horse we analyzed that lived in ancestral Comanche country around 1650 at Blacks Fork, Wyoming, was born and died locally – directly contradicting a 1724 European observation that the Comanche obtained horses only by “barter,” and “had not yet been able to raise any colts.” In another case, a horse that also lived in the mid-17th century along the Missouri River was likely fed during the winter with maize, an Indigenous domestic crop.

DNA sequencing of archaeological horses, although revealing Iberian ancestry, shows important connections between ancient horses and those stewarded by present-day communities like the Lakota, for whom horses continue to be a key part of ceremony, tradition and daily life. While future work will be necessary to establish exactly when and how horses reached northern areas of the Plains, our results point to Indigenous networks of trade and exchange – perhaps bringing horses across the Plains and Rockies from Mexico or the American Southwest.

New evidence supports old stories

Our findings also validate oral traditions for many of the Native communities affected by the study.

Graduate student and Lakota archaeologist Chance Ward analyzes horse remains in the Archaeozoology Laboratory at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Samantha Eads

Our study is the result of an intentionally collaborative approach. Our Lakota partners, led by Chief Joe American Horse and one of us (Collin), published an accompanying introduction to the Lakota relationship with horses that helped serve as a foundation for our collaborative work.

Partnering archaeological science and Native perspectives ended up telling a very different story of horses in the American West. Comanche tribal historian and elder Jimmy Arterberry noted, for example, that the archaeological discoveries from ancestrally connected areas of Wyoming “support and concur with Comanche oral tradition” that Comanche ancestors raised and cared for horses before their movement to the southern Plains.

We hope future work will continue to highlight the ancient connections between people and horses, and prompt a rethink of assumptions built into society’s understanding of the past. Läs mer…