Influencers are being hired by smaller cities to attract new residents and generate revenue — podcast

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demographics of cities shifted. As stay-at-home orders, remote work and bubbling reduced social interaction, and restaurants, venues and arts destinations shut down temporarily, people considered leaving big cities.

And as public health restrictions were lifted, the cost of living increased. Smaller urban centres saw this moment as an opportunity to capitalize on the desire for a higher quality of life and a more “authentic” existence. Smaller and mid-sized cities in North America invested in strategies to attract new residents.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we spoke with two urban theorists about why people were leaving larger cities for smaller ones, how authenticity was marketed using social media influencers, and why smaller and mid-sized cities are underrated.

Avi Friedman is a professor of architecture at McGill University in Montréal, Canada who has looked at demographic trends in small and mid-sized cities in Canada. He explains that smaller cities need to recruit new residents in order to collect taxes.

“It all has to boil down to economics,” Friedman explains. “They need taxpayers — it is a major issue in making the city work. When there is a negative migration and people moving away, it usually puts at risk the funds of these communities, meaning that there is no sources of income.”

David A. Banks is a lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University at Albany, State University of New York, United States, and the author of The City Authentic, which will be published in April. He describes authenticity as essential to small cities’ survival, as they apply it to themselves to attract new residents looking for an escape from larger cities.

The city authentic, Banks describes “encourages people to think of the city as a place to be authentically you and to get away from these pre-packaged, commodified notions of how to live your life.”

It’s meant to appeal to younger residents, who may want to relocate for a better quality of life, and maybe own property and start a family, further rooting in the community.

“People who live in small towns know their neighbours. They meet either in community clubs and in a church. It is a different type of relations that create another aspect of what it means to live in nice places,” says Friedman.

Smaller cities offer a less frenetic lifestyle.
(Shutterstock)

But there’s a downside to this. When smaller cities successfully recruit new residents, it can have a negative impact on the older ones. Banks says that “what it did do is make everything unaffordable, literally like triple or quadruple digit percentage increases” in the cost of living.

But it appears the trend of leaving large cities to move to smaller ones is reversing. For people to stay, smaller cities need to invest more in amenities and infrastructure to support the population growth.

Listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly to find out more.

This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced and written by Mend Mariwany who is also the show’s executive producer. Sound design is by Eloise Stevens, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at @theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free emails here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

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Ukraine war: how US-built F-16 ’Fighting Falcon’ could help Kyiv move on to the offensive

The war in Ukraine approaches its first anniversary – and, much like the conflict on the ground, the air war has become a protracted contest for control.

For Ukraine, fighting on the defensive, it has been wise to play for time and wait for any opportunities that may arise from increased western support that it can turn into a decisive advantage on the battlefield.

In this way, the transfers of western military equipment have been key to Ukraine’s resistance so far. The latest round of pledges by Ukraine’s allies has involved advanced main battle tanks such as the Leopard 2 from Germany and the Abrams from the US. But now there is widespread talk of the possibility that the US and her allies could augment Ukraine’s inferior Soviet-era airforce with modern sophisticated F-16 fighters.

Despite vehement denials from Washington, several other states that have bought F-16s have said they would be happy to supply them to Ukraine, including France and Poland. But what role might the American fighter play in the air war as it enters its second year?

In February 2022 it was reasonable to assume the Russian airforce (the VKS) would quickly establish superiority and gain a level of control and freedom to attack Ukrainian ground forces and strike vital civil and military infrastructure.

The VKS was – and remains – one of the largest airforces in the world. It has hundreds of combat aircraft in service compared with fewer than 100 for Ukraine. The VKS also had recent experience of air operations over Syria, where it was instrumental in securing the regime of Bashar al-Asaad. It had also recently embarked on extensive modernisation that ought to have widened a technical lead over Ukraine.

Why the F-16 is still the most popular fighter aircraft in the world.

But – in contrast to early expectations – Ukraine’s skies remain contested.

In western military doctrine establishing a measure of control in the air is a textbook prerequisite to protect friendly air and ground forces. Control of the skies is gained by eliminating enemy combat aircraft fleets and their command systems and air defences on the ground (something known as “Sead”, or suppression of enemy air defences).

‘Sead’: supression of enemy air defences.

Nato demonstrated this doctrine at work in the first Gulf war where an air offensive lasting 38 days knocked out most of Iraq’s air defences (and a large proportion of its ground forces and equipment) allowing a startlingly rapid and successful ground campaign. The strategy was also followed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But it became apparent that despite recent operations in Syria, the Russian air force was ill-equipped both in materiel and doctrine for the sort of complex, large-scale and effective air campaigns that western forces would regard as a basic first step.

Instead, initially intense activity by the VKS lasted less than a week and quickly degraded into limited, and simple ground-support and bombing operations.

Stout defence

Importantly, Ukraine has combined different classes of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to create a robust, overlapping air-defence network. This includes weapons made available by western supporters – including the long-range S-300 from Slovakia, which forces Russian aircraft to fly at low altitudes or run the high risk of being shot down. At lower altitudes, inexpensive and portable air-defence systems (Manpads) such as the US-made “Stinger” are proving effective against Russian low-flying aircraft and – by nature – are hard to be found and targeted.

Importantly, Russian forces operate comparable air defence systems, which has resulted in a stalemate in the air that has translated into difficult fighting on the ground, as seen in the Bakhmut region in recent weeks.

US-built Patriot surface-to-air missile systems in convoy en route from Germany to Poland.
Annegret Hilse/Reuters/Alamy stock photo

But the arrival of more and better western equipment may allow Ukrainian forces to transition to the offensive to drive out invading forces, which is where they will probably encounter similar obstacles as the VKS has.

Fighting falcons

This brings us to the talk of transfers of F-16 multi-role fighters to Ukraine. The F-16 “Fighting Falcon” entered US service in 1978 and has been regularly upgraded since. Washington has sold F-16s to several Nato and non-Nato allies, some of whom may seek to provide it to Ukraine as they replace their fleets with new F-35s. While the Biden administration appears to have ruled out sending American F-16s, others have not.

As a fighter, the F-16 would be a better match against Russian MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters than Ukraine’s current fleet. This largely consists of the same aircraft, but in Russia’s case, these Soviet-era mainstays have been upgraded and, importantly, augmented by more advanced aircraft such as the Su-35. This gives Russia an overall technical superiority in the air.

But a fleet of F-16s, modernised to use current Nato equipment, and supported by access to maintenance and parts would be an extremely valuable addition to Ukraine’s air force and could boost Ukraine’s capability to attack ground targets – including Russian air defences, reducing that side of the air-defence stalemate.

But by itself, the F-16 cannot provide a decisive edge. Ukraine will need the F-16 in numbers as well as extensive supplies of replacement parts and armaments. Importantly, it will also need time to train the pilots with the aircraft and its modern weapons.

To mount a modern air campaign of the style Nato would undertake, and so gain more freedom in the air, Ukraine will also need to support its F-16s with other assets such as tanker aircraft, to expand the F-16’s flying range. This would allow for strikes against enemy ground positions and forces far behind the front line.

Most importantly, upgrading Ukraine’s fleet of aircraft would mean modernising its air-warfare doctrine, and moving closer to the more sophisticated principles and strategies currently used by Nato countries. This could give Ukraine an edge in the air war – which would undoubtedly improve its position on the ground. Läs mer…

The world’s first environmental clean-up happened 400 million years ago

One of the biggest environmental challenges today is to treat land that is contaminated by toxic elements from industrial activity, elements like arsenic, antimony and tungsten.

But these same elements can be brought to the Earth’s surface by natural processes such as the bubbling up of hot springs. So it is valuable to understand how they were dealt with by the environment before humans came along. A site in Aberdeenshire in Scotland which is famous for early fossil life preserved by hot springs, shows us how it could have happened.

A cross-section of a stem preserved as a silica petrifaction, detailing its cellular structure, found at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire.
Wikiwand, CC BY-SA

Some of the world’s most well preserved fossilised plants are found in Rhynie, just west of Aberdeen, in deposits thought to have come from the world’s oldest land ecosystem.

Exquisitely detailed plants – as well as spiders, insects, fungi and other life – were preserved there by hot springs about 410 million years ago. These are some of the earliest fossilised plants known, so are important in what they can tell us about plant evolution.

But those hot springs also introduced elements that would have been toxic to most forms of life. Our latest research shows how minerals deposited among the plants extracted the toxic metals from the spring water and limited their impact on the environment.

Minerals and toxic metals

The plants at Rhynie were encased in the mineral silica, which deposits around hot springs. At tourist spots like Iceland, New Zealand and Yellowstone National Park in the US, bacteria in the water are involved in producing these silica deposits, and this would have been the same at Rhynie.

As well as silica, the fossils contain certain minerals including pyrite (iron sulphide, so-called fool’s gold), manganese oxides and titanium oxides. It’s these minerals, produced by the bacteria and other lifeforms, that would have soaked up the toxic metals.

Pyrite, formed by the bacteria, soaked up arsenic from the spring water. Manganese oxides, commonly deposited by fungi, also absorbed arsenic. Titanium oxides, formed particularly around decomposing plant remains, absorbed tungsten and antimony.

So between them, the minerals formed by biological activity accounted for the main sources of toxicity. The evidence from Rhynie shows how natural processes have helped clean the environment since life first colonised the land.

The magic of mushrooms

Our solutions to man-made environmental problems, such as contamination from industry and mining, typically include a range of chemical treatments. But an exciting “natural” approach is the technique of mycoremediation, where fungi concentrate and store contaminating elements in their substance.

Fungi can be very resilient, and adapt rapidly to substances we regard as toxic. One strategy is to harvest fungi that live on mining or industrial waste and which are predisposed to cope with it, then use the fungi to clean up waste on other problem sites. In this way, fungi can be used to recover land contaminated by harmful metals.

Biologist Merlin Sheldrake, in his award-winning 2020 book Entangled Life, argues: “Fungi are some of the best-qualified organisms for environmental remediation … fine-tuned over a billion years of evolution.”

Evolution is a key word here. The ecosystem (plants, animals and their habitat, including minerals) does not “intend” to clean up toxic chemicals as humans do. However, life is more likely to thrive and reproduce in ecosystems that strip out harmful substances. Just as particular fungi can be selected to help deal with contaminated land, evolution favoured the species that adapted to environmental changes in the geological past, as implied at Rhynie.

Remaining questions

The deposits at this special geological site were formed by hot springs, whose waters preserved the plant cells. But because the hot springs that formed the Rhynie deposit were rich in arsenic, antimony and other trace elements, there is uncertainty about how representative these fossils may be of early plant communities.

Scientists might argue
that the plants found at Rhynie could be an adaptation to an environment that was chemically unusual. There is no clear answer to whether this was so, but our observations do suggest that the ecosystem was able to respond to the water chemistry, so the existence of these plants was not necessarily abnormal.

Visitors to hot springs in New Zealand and Yellowstone today can see orange and yellow crusts containing the harmful arsenic, antimony and so on, but also precious metals like gold and silver, so the springs attract commercial interest.

Hot springs worldwide also contain an element that was pretty much ignored until recently: lithium. The spring waters provide a renewable supply of this element which is currently fundamental to rechargeable batteries – especially in electric vehicles, which are essential in the quest to achieve carbon emission targets. So hot springs may have more than one role in helping clean up the environment. Läs mer…

COVID heroes left behind: the ’invisible’ women struggling to make ends meet

Kesrewan* holds herself upright and speaks confidently, even though English is her second language. But she admits that her “heart is beating faster”. Talking to us is reminding her of her most recent failed job interview – one of many since she arrived from the Middle East seeking asylum more than 20 years ago.

Kesrewan, now in her 50s, is a pragmatic woman but she grows emotional telling her story. She wishes she knew why her latest interview for a staff job at the information service where she already volunteers has again been unsuccessful. She would like some feedback on what she did wrong, or how to improve.

Aged 30, Kesrewan arrived from the Middle East as a highly qualified woman with experience as a newspaper editor and librarian. Yet despite her best efforts – taking multiple classes, working voluntarily to maintain her skills, helping out in community organisations – she has always struggled to translate this into meaningful work in the UK.

Given her limited language skills and with children to support, once she gained legal status she initially took on any work she could find, such as cleaning and kitchen jobs. She thinks her employers often preferred that she had no English because she could not complain about the conditions. She says she was “too ashamed” to tell family and friends in the UK and back home about her cleaning work.

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.

Kesrewan’s story is indicative of most of the 100 women aged 50 and over that we have interviewed for the Uncertain Futures project. All live in Greater Manchester, often precariously. Not all are permitted to work in the UK, but those who do typically struggle to find secure, full-time employment.

New research by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has found that UK firms and public services are much less open to hiring older workers than their younger peers. Its survey of more than 1,000 managers found that just 42% were “to a large extent” open to hiring people aged between 50 and 64, compared with 74% for those aged 18-34 and 64% for 35 to 49-year-olds.

Our interviewees typically work in kitchens, warehouses, or as cleaners maintaining the environments of offices, schools and high-street stores. Others work in badly paid or voluntary care roles, supporting older people and those with disabilities. Most who do get paid are on zero-hour contracts. Many describe having experienced abuse and discrimination.

Kesrewan now seems resigned to her “life in the shadows” – struggling even to secure the kinds of job that the UK desperately needs to fill but which offer little reward and poor conditions. Women like her are largely unseen and their voices usually go unheard – whether because of their lack of English, their employers’ failure to recognise their experiences and skills, or the blind eye that the authorities and general public often seem to turn to them.

“I haven’t done enough jobs – I didn’t have the chance,” she reflects sadly. “Really that’s confusing for me. It wasn’t like me to sit at home and not want to get a job.”

A ‘watershed moment’

The COVID pandemic was briefly imagined to be a watershed moment for “invisible workers” in the UK and elsewhere. Jobs that had traditionally been undervalued were now understood to be “essential”. The importance of keeping workspaces clean and germ-free was suddenly appreciated. Carers, nurses, bus drivers and many more put themselves at enormous personal risk to keep people safe and society functioning. Volunteers stepped in to help the vulnerable when statutory support all but collapsed. Many people died because of the work, paid or unpaid, that they continued to perform.

Löis, who works full-time while also caring for her mother who has dementia, describes the countless attributes required of carers like her:

You have to be kind, patient. You have to be a good planner. You have to be able to pick up the unexpected, mentally, physically. You have to coordinate the services that may or may not help you.

But Löis struggles with the idea that none of this is recognised as a skill, or as experience which is valued by society. When she asks herself what all of this is worth, she replies quietly: “I’m not sure.”

Hub Design/Shutterstock

For Kesrewan too, it is a source of pain to feel so invisible. While she has helped younger, more inexperienced volunteers to secure paid roles, she feels her age is now an additional factor hindering her own ability to get a job. She has applied five times for a paid role in the information service where she has volunteered for seven years, but has always failed at the interview on the grounds that she does not have “sufficient experience”. She feels sad that discrimination based on age – “coupled with your skin colour, your background, your nationality” – is still so prevalent in recruitment practices.

The cruel irony is that there are now severe labour shortages across the UK’s care, health and social work sectors, and in some administration and office support activities. Non-British migrant workers are over-represented in these sectors but, despite the pressing need to fill these roles, they are often non-permanent jobs offering only zero-hour contracts.

The women we meet are keen to work hard in fulfilling roles that support themselves and their families. Some have little understanding or knowledge about retirement and pensions, and many express deep concern about whether they will ever earn enough money to retire. Gemma, 59, says she can see herself “cleaning toilets till I’m 85”, adding:

You’re always scrabbling to pay rent in the private sector – it’s very expensive and precarious. I think I could live on the living allowance [state pension], but I might be living in a treetop in a park to do it.

Amverlly/Shutterstock

Degrading work

Many of the women we meet are extremely well qualified, but that hasn’t stopped them experiencing degrading working situations. Azade is 60 and her story is fairly typical.

Qualified with a degree in agriculture from a university in the Middle East and with many years’ experience in gardening and managing farms, Azade arrived in the UK 24 years ago with two little girls – one of whom had been born en route. “Very long travel,” she recalls. “I have my baby on my way as it was a really awkward time.”

Needing to support herself and her children, Azade was only able to work after securing her refugee status, which took two years. She initially sought out work as a tailor but describes the conditions as “slave work – for a very, very small amount of money. But still I had to do it because I am a single mum with two children.”

She went on to study accountancy but has not been able to secure any work as a qualified accountant. Instead she works as an agency interpreter, but describes the unfair power dynamics within this work:

If you are late by five minutes, they charge you £25 – [yet] they pay me only £14 for one hour … If you are late by ten minutes, this would be classified as “did not attend” and they charge you £100.

Equally, if a client cancels a video call at the last minute, Azade does not get paid. This is essential work, assisting people to communicate with state and semi-state agencies about their legal situations and health matters. Yet there is little value or respect attributed to the role, as a result of the unstable nature of the agency’s relationship with its employees.

Video made as part of the Uncertain Futures project.

Other women describe outright discrimination and racism as a regular part of their work. Much of it goes unreported, let alone addressed.

Murkurata trained as a nurse after arriving from Africa in 2001, where she had worked for more than 20 years as a civil servant. She had expected to continue in a similar line of work here, but says when she arrived here she was “shocked … I got no response. Nothing. Nothing. I don’t think anybody looked at my papers. So I went to nursing and loved it, because I was touched by the people I cared for.”

At the same time, however, Murkurata speaks candidly about being undermined in her role by other nursing staff, including those of a lower rank:

I was the nurse in charge. But the carers, because they are white, they want to tell me what to do with my patients … If I tell them what to do, [another nurse] might tell me that she has been there for years and she knows better. They really, really undermine your intelligence and understanding, you know.

She also recalls a number of occasions when her patient would ask for a “proper nurse” on seeing that she was black. The managerial support given to her in such circumstances would vary, she says:

Some managers were very good, but others would just let this happen. So sometimes you just end up not saying it because it’s pointless. Even if you tell them that’s what they a patient is saying, somebody will always say: “It’s nothing, just brush it off … it’s nothing to talk about.”

Murkurata – who is now training to be a church minister – wearily complains that this effectively put the blame on her for such behaviour by patients:

I’m giving this person care and I’m the one who is at the receiving end. I don’t deserve that kind of treatment, because I’m trying my best and just a human being, just like anybody else … But whatever goes wrong, they find a black person to blame for it. When we are in the same ward working, if you leave a catheter not emptied because you are white, it’s OK. But if it’s [a black nurse] who leaves it unemptied, everybody in the ward should know it.

All 100 women interviewed for the Uncertain Futures project at Manchester Art Gallery.
Andrew Brooks, Author provided

Feelings of uselessness

A November 2022 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the increasing numbers of UK adults who are struggling both financially and with mental health problems. Many of the women we meet fit this demographic: limited financial security for housing and necessities, reduced standard of living, and poor health and wellbeing (which itself can exacerbate poverty).

Just under two-thirds of the women we have interviewed are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. All are heavily over-represented in shift work and non-permanent jobs in the UK. A quarter of UK adults in “deep poverty” are from minority ethnic populations.

Their lack of financial security may stem from unemployment, poor and precarious working conditions, or a lack of financial provision in retirement. The cost of living crisis – which research shows is being felt harder by people living in the north of England compared with much of the south – is increasing the pressure on them to work for longer (both each day and before retiring), even in very difficult conditions.

Mari, who was in the UK asylum system for five years, describes the feelings of uselessness associated with the inability to secure paid employment – and how this feeling was made worse by the pandemic. Her voice softens and quietens as she echoes: “Long time to stay home, stay home, stay home.”

She fled to the UK from the Middle East without her children because she was facing “great danger” as a newly divorced woman. She had previously worked for more than 20 years in banking, and although she arrived speaking very limited English, was optimistic about the many transferable skills that she could use here.

The reality, she says, has been very different. Throughout her interview she remains stoical as she describes obstacle after obstacle: being refused English lessons after her initial asylum application was declined; spending time in a detention centre and facing potential deportation; “shaking” every time she came into contact with the police; becoming ill and temporarily losing her eyesight to a thyroid disease while waiting so long for her asylum application to be processed.

Display from the Uncertain Futures exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.
Andrew Brooks, Author provided

Mari, who is now in her 60s, has worked hard to overcome all these challenges. She has picked up “street English’” through speaking with friends. Her eyesight recovered and she was granted leave to remain in the UK, but the stress of the limbo she was living in remains with her. Having previously always worked in a respected professional role, she says this period has altered her life completely:

Those five years were very difficult, because they don’t allow any work, just voluntary – no college, no job, no anything. When you can’t go to any job, the first thing is you think you are not useful, you are not able to do anything. This feeling is very bad.

At one point during her interview, however, Mari becomes quite emotional as she speaks about the voluntary organisation which supported her during this difficult time:

Sorry… My life … All my life, it’s thanks to them.

She is talking about one of the 90-odd organisations throughout the UK that provide essential support for asylum seekers and refugees. Mari attributes much of her current, more stable situation to this organisation.

With its help, she has managed to take up voluntary roles which make her “feel good” and give her “hope”. She works as a cook for a local charity as well as helping to care for her grandson and older neighbour, who is 97. But she wants to earn her own money and gain the independence that would come from this. She says she will do anything – for example, “packing at home for retail companies, packing clothes.”

But it is not only community organisations that can have a major impact on the lives of undervalued women such as these. Enlightened employers have an important role to play too – one which could also pay dividends for their companies.

A better future?

FemmeCapable, 54, embodies the tenacity we see in so many of our interviewees. Struggling with her English and experiencing prejudice in her role as a care assistant – “I faced discrimination a lot” – she retrained herself using every community resource she could find, then established a mobile food business selling barbecued African cuisine. At the same time, she set up a charity supporting women from ethnic backgrounds in her community.

Even when COVID shut down her business, FemmeCapable used her entrepreneurial skills to transform it into a mobile food response team, part-funded by her local council, which provided culturally appropriate food and transport to families in her local area. She was effectively a frontline worker during the pandemic, even though her work was not perceived in this way.

Her enthusiasm, intelligence and drive permeate the interview. She oozes energy to create something and “make it real life”, and to “share it with the public or the world” so it can have lasting value. Yet her nursing contributions have been overshadowed by racist attitudes, and her work in the community has largely gone unrecognised.

Uncertain Futures posters outside the Manchester Art Gallery.
Andrew Brooks, Author provided

FemmeCapable credits her local Council for Voluntary Service for providing all-important support in setting up her business and community organisation, including applying for funding. These services work closely with local councils to help people use their skills and have their contributions recognised – a vital first step in ensuring a better future for older women like FemmeCapable.

However, announcements made in the UK government’s 2022 autumn statement now threaten the existence of these voluntary services. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO):

[They] are on the verge of buckling under the compounding pressures of increased demand, skyrocketing operational costs, eroding income, and challenges recruiting staff and volunteers.

Such pressures are exacerbated by increased energy costs and cuts to public services. In a combined response, the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy noted that public services “not protected in the autumn statement now face day-to-day spending cuts of 1.2% per year on average over the next two years”.

A lightbulb moment

Victoria, 63, migrated to the UK from Africa more than 22 years ago. As her story unfolds during the interview, it shares the trajectory of so many of the other older migrant women we have met: a professional woman spending many years in immigration limbo while volunteering in community organisations to maintain her skills.

She originally came to the UK on a six-month tourist visa, then fell ill with cancer and had to stay for treatment. She applied for an extension to her visa on medical grounds, but the process took over six years to resolve.

Victoria has since attempted to get jobs in banking and finance in the UK, as this is her employment background, but has struggled, she suspects, due to her age and skin colour. She has concerns about retirement due to her fragmented working life, much of which has consisted of zero-hours employment:

I have not worked in this country for long enough. Although I have contributed to a pension, I don’t know if that’s going to be enough to retire on.

However, her story takes a positive turn when she describes a “lightbulb moment” – when she was at last offered a staff job after years of temporary agency work by an employer who is, in her eyes, “different”. She says this employer treats her “like a person”.

Victoria now works full-time as a homeless support officer for a Manchester housing charity. She says, with evident pride, that her employer “wants a workplace that is equal for everyone”, offering personal development programmes and wellbeing support for staff.

It was such a relief to be acknowledged and have someone appreciating you – I must add that this is a white employer and the majority of the workers are white. You can count people of my colour on one hand out of about 500 … But they have given me an opportunity and, from what I have experienced right from the interview itself, they don’t treat me like I am different. You are just a person in a workplace – that’s how I feel, that’s how they place me.

Uncertain Futures exhibition room, Manchester Art Gallery.
Andrew Brooks, Author provided

According to the Centre for Ageing Better, there are a multitude of advantages to hiring and retaining older workers – not least, benefiting from their skills, strong work ethic, and experience. They tend to retain business knowledge and networks and, by better matching the profile of customers, can improve services. There are also established benefits to multigenerational teams, both in terms of productivity and in passing on valuable experience to younger colleagues.

Hearing Victoria’s story is a moment for reflection. She shows us there are ways to break the cycle of invisibility; to help these older women’s voices to be heard and their expertise to be valued. But it requires continued financial support for community organisations, and enlightened employers who recognise the skills and experience of older women.

There is encouraging news from Kesrewan, too. After all those rejection letters from the information service, she has just been offered a part-time job as a welfare adviser and outreach worker at a local charity she volunteered with during the pandemic. She can only work ten hours a week, or she may end up financially worse off due to the strict rules of Universal Credit – but still expresses joy that at last her skills are being recognised.

This work for me – it’s life, wellbeing, being fit and active. You see that you have something to offer. You see that they value you. It’s not just because you are working and they pay you. It’s what you can do for the community and others.

For Kesrewan, Victoria and, hopefully, more of the women we have met, the veil of invisibility may finally be lifting.

All names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ anonymity. They were invited to choose their own pseudonyms.

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Beta blockers: how these common heart medications may reduce the risk of violence

Beta blockers are medications commonly used for treating cardiac problems such as high blood pressure, chest pain, irregular heartbeat and heart failure. In the US, for example, one in five adults aged 60–79 is prescribed a beta blocker.

In a new study, we’ve found the use of beta blockers is associated with lower rates of violence. To explore why this might be, let’s start with some background.

Beta blockers work by blocking the stress hormones and neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline. These play an important role in our “fight or flight” response. In a stressful situation, adrenaline and noradrenaline mobilise the brain and body for action by increasing the amount of blood the heart pumps out.

Beta blockers prevent the effect of these hormones. This slows the heart rate down, lowers blood pressure, and also decreases tension. For this reason, beta blockers are sometimes used as treatment for common mental health and behavioural problems, like anxiety, depression and aggression.

In recent years, there has been a rise in beta blocker prescriptions for anxiety. They’re also occasionally used in psychiatric clinics and hospitals to manage aggression and violence in patients.

At the same time, there have been concerns that people who use beta blockers could have a higher risk of depression and suicide. But studies have contradicted each other. Some have found that beta blockers reduce mental health and behavioural problems, others have found that they increase them, and some have found no relationship.

The conflicting evidence leaves doctors with difficult treatment decisions. Are beta blockers effective for treating mental health and behavioural problems? Or could they instead increase the risk of serious mental health problems?

Read more:
5 drugs that changed the world (and what went wrong)

What we did

To answer this, we studied 1.4 million people in Sweden who had been treated with beta blockers. We followed them over eight years, from 2006 to 2013. We wanted to know whether beta blocker use was associated with mental health problems, violence, suicide attempts and suicide deaths.

We identified beta blocker users by analysing data from Swedish pharmacies and followed people through different healthcare, crime and death registers. This was an observational study, meaning we observed patterns of mental health and behavioural problems by examining these outcomes in the registers.

Typically, in an observational study like this, beta blocker users would be compared to non-users. But the two groups may differ on important features, like psychiatric history. This makes the interpretation of results difficult. Are any differences seen due to the beta blockers? Or do the two groups just have different background risks?

So instead, we used a study design where we compared each person to themselves by contrasting periods when they were taking beta blockers with periods when they were not. This way we could account for the influence of factors that are unique for each person, like family and childhood background or psychiatric history.

We found that when people were taking beta blockers, they had a 13% lower risk of being charged with a violent crime by the police. They also had an 8% lower risk of being hospitalised for mental health problems. There was however an 8% higher risk of being treated for suicide attempts or dying from suicide.

Beta blockers are sometimes prescribed to treat anxiety.
Maridav/Shutterstock

We then carried out secondary analyses where we examined subgroups of beta blocker users, for example those with a history of violence or psychiatric problems. The lower risk of being charged with a violent crime when using beta blockers was consistent across the board.

When we broke down hospitalisations for mental health problems into those for depressive or anxiety disorders, we found a lower risk for hospitalisations for major depressive disorders, but not for anxiety disorders.

We also found the higher risk of suicide attempts and suicide deaths was specific to people with serious heart conditions or a history of psychiatric problems.

We know from previous research that there’s a greater risk of suicide following serious heart problems. People may have pessimistic thoughts, be unsure about the future or concerned about their health. So psychological distress associated with heart problems, rather than the beta blocker treatment, could be the main explanation behind the increased suicide attempts and suicide deaths seen in our study.

Could we use beta blockers to manage violence?

Our results on violence align with evidence from small trials on beta blocker treatment. However, we increased the study sample, examined the total general population, and also broadened the outcome to crime.

A possible explanation for our results is that beta blockers help control the body’s fight or flight response to stressful situations, so there is a decrease in the agitation and tension that could lead to violent behaviour.

Read more:
Heart disease risk and depression: a new study explores whether the two may be linked

Since this is an observational study, it cannot show that beta blockers cause reductions in violence, only that there is a link between them. To understand the role of beta blockers in aggression and violence, studies that use other designs (such as randomised controlled trials and experimental laboratory studies) are needed.

If these studies confirm our results, beta blockers could be used more widely to manage violence in certain people, particularly those with background risk factors such as serious psychiatric problems. Since evidence-based treatments for violence are limited, this is potentially an important finding. Läs mer…

New Advanced Placement African American Studies course is a watered down version of itself

On February 1, 2023– the first day of Black History Month – the College Board released the framework for its new Advanced Placement African American Studies course.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has criticized the pilot version of the African American studies course as lacking educational value, and his administration has banned the course from Florida’s public schools.

In the following Q&A, Suneal Kolluri, who specializes in the study of AP courses, provides insight into where the course hits the mark and where it comes up short.

1. What stands out most about the new AP African American Studies course?

The course curriculum puts Black people at the center. This is significant for two reasons.

First, Advanced Placement has long had courses focused on topics like European history and French language and culture, but no class that focuses primarily on the Black experience. This fact is particularly troubling given the struggles AP courses have had in recruiting and serving Black students. Black students make up just 9% of AP participants, despite making up 15% of high school students across the United States.

Given the prestige of Advanced Placement and the benefits afforded to those who participate – like more experienced teachers and better college outcomes – a course with the potential to attract more Black students to take AP is significant.

Second, across the country, few classes – with or without the AP label – are available to students interested in studying the Black experience. This course will likely give many students that opportunity for the first time.

2. Is the new AP African American studies course different from earlier versions?

Unfortunately, the course has been watered down compared to its pilot version. The pilot course, first made available in January 2023, was heavy on African and African American history, but in its fourth and final unit, included a robust examination of issues of race, racism and oppression in the present day. In the new course framework – released on February 1, 2023 – many of these current discussions of race, racism and oppression have disappeared.

The course is billed as an African American Studies course, not an African American history course. Interrogating present-day oppression is central to the discipline of African American studies. I believe eliminating this content produces a course that leaves students insufficiently prepared to participate in a multiracial democracy.

3. How did the political environment shape the new course?

The College Board insists that the political environment did not influence the recent revisions, but evidence suggests otherwise. In late January 2023, the DeSantis administration wrote to the College Board that it would not allow the implementation of AP African American Studies in Florida schools. The AP responded, not in defense of the pilot curriculum, but to assert that the content remained under revision until February 1 – the first day of Black History Month.

In the latest official course framework, many of the exact topics with which DeSantis had taken issue had been stricken from the required curriculum. Discussions in the pilot course about reparations, redlining, and Black Lives Matter are now included as topics that are not required as part of the course. Instead, they are listed to be covered optionally by students in their research projects for the class.

The College Board goes on to emphasize that this list of topics can be refined by states and districts. In my experience examining AP content, optional content is rare in AP curriculum.

4. What does this course leave out?

Specifically, the course has omitted content that would invite students to discuss racial oppression in the modern day. Perhaps in response to bans on critical race theory, authors like Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar who pioneered the field of critical race theory, have been stricken from the curriculum.

Other topics – like Black Lives Matter, incarceration and reparations – have been left out of the required curriculum, and are now included as optional topics for a research project.

5. What kind of grade would you give this course and why?

The grade would depend on whether I am grading on a curve. Comparing the course to other available options in U.S. high schools, the course would earn an A. To the best of my knowledge, no other broadly available course delves so deeply into the Black experience.

However, grading the course for its commitment to the ideals of African American Studies, its attempt to holistically present the Black experience in the United States, and its ability to prepare students for participating in democracy, the course fails. It gets an F.

African American Studies is not just African American history. Racism is not a relic of the past. African American Studies scholars know this, but Advanced Placement African American Studies students may not learn that. Unfortunately, I believe this is an abject failure for efforts to bring African American studies into high schools. Läs mer…

5 facts about John Witherspoon, the only university president to sign the Declaration of Independence

Since 2001, a bronze statue of the Rev. John Witherspoon has loomed over a busy pedestrian plaza at Princeton University, where he served as president from 1768 to 1794. During his tenure at Princeton, Witherspoon made history by signing the Declaration of Independence. He was the only university president to do so.

But even as Witherspoon preached and argued that American Colonists should separate from British monarchy – or else become its slaves – Witherspoon was enslaving people himself.

To his defenders, Witherspoon’s support for slavery represents “human imperfection” and should not overshadow his role as a Founding Father and a leader of what is now one of the nation’s oldest and most esteemed educational institutions.

But to a growing group of Princeton students and faculty, Witherspoon needs to be knocked off his pedestal – literally.

“We believe that paying such honor to someone who participated actively in the enslavement of human beings, and used his scholarly gifts to defend the practice, is today a distraction from the University’s mission,” states a petition to get the statue of Witherspoon removed. The prominent location of the monument, the petitioners argue, is especially insulting to “community members descended from enslaved peoples.”

Scorned in Scotland

The contempt for Witherspoon goes beyond the campus at Princeton. And it is not confined to just the United States.

In June 2020, protesters painted “Slave Owner” in large letters across the base of an identical sculpture of Witherspoon that stands outside the University of the West of Scotland, where Witherspoon served as a Presbyterian minister before immigrating to America.

Scottish officials promised a “historical audit” to determine its fate – although the statue remains in place. In November 2022, administrators at Princeton took a similar step, inviting feedback on the petition to remove the Witherspoon monument. The feedback process is still ongoing as of the writing of this article.

The debate over Witherspoon’s legacy is familiar to me. Together with a team of over 50 scholars and students, I helped construct the Princeton & Slavery Project, which explores the university’s involvement in slavery and its repercussions. Launched in 2017, the project website features hundreds of primary sources and over 100 academic essays. It has been praised as “a model for how universities might reckon with their troubled pasts.”

We conducted extensive research on Witherspoon. We even commissioned a play in which his statue comes to life and debates a Black student protester. We also examined the social context in which Witherspoon lived and the influence he wielded.

In this play, the statue of John Witherspoon comes to life.

Since Princeton serves as a training ground for the nation’s ruling elite, from James Madison and Woodrow Wilson to Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, what happens on its campus can have a significant impact on the rest of the world.

With that in mind, here are five facts about Witherspoon’s life that show how he felt about slavery and enslaved people and shed light on whether he was simply a flawed human or someone who used his education, position and privilege to participate in and profit from slavery.

1. He baptized a young man who was enslaved in Scotland

Before immigrating to America, Witherspoon baptized James Montgomery, who was born in Virginia and sold to a merchant located near Glasgow, Scotland, where Witherspoon was a minister. Jamie – as he was called in his bill of sale – arrived in Scotland in 1750, when he was around 16 years old.

After Witherspoon baptized the young man, he reportedly told him “over and over” that baptism “by no means freed him” from enslavement.

Yet the need to repeat the instruction suggests that Montgomery saw the matter differently. Threatened with return to Virginia, in April 1756, Montgomery, now in his early 20s, escaped to Edinburgh, Scotland. But his freedom was short-lived.

He was discovered less than a month later, jailed, and died awaiting trial. His captors identified him using a certificate Witherspoon had given him that allowed him to travel between Christian congregations.

In 1768, Witherspoon sailed from Scotland to New Jersey to assume leadership of Princeton. There, running away was a common occurrence, and he soon found himself surrounded by resistance to slavery.

2. He personally tutored two African men

Enslaved as children in what is now Ghana, Bristol Yamma and John Quamino endured the horrors of the Middle Passage before settling in Newport, Rhode Island.

Thanks to a lucky lottery ticket and friends in the ministry, both men managed to buy their freedom, and they resolved to become missionaries, which offered perhaps the surest route back home.

In late 1774, they arrived in Princeton for private lessons with Witherspoon, who taught them reading, writing and “the Principles of the Christian faith.” Both men were in their 30s. Quamino left his wife behind in Rhode Island, where she was enslaved by one of Witherspoon’s former students. After several months, interrupted by the chaos of the American Revolution, Yamma and Quamino ended their studies.

Neither returned to Africa. Although others of African descent found ways of working and studying on campus over the years, Princeton refused to admit Black undergraduates until World War II.

3. He condemned the British for offering freedom to enslaved Africans

Witherspoon preached and argued that American Colonists would become slaves to Britain if they did not break free from British rule. The analogy had a special resonance for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, nearly three-quarters of whom were slaveowners. Indeed, fear of slave rebellion was a major factor in the American Revolution.

Witherspoon became outraged at the British for “proclaiming liberty to slaves, and stirring them up to rebel against their masters.” The irony was not lost on contemporary observers. After British troops destroyed the Princeton University library, abolitionist Granville Sharp sent Witherspoon copies of his anti-slavery pamphlets. In addition to Sharp’s plans for emancipation, they warned of “God’s temporal vengeance against tyrants, slave-holders, and oppressors.”

4. Witherspoon’s family profited from slave labor

While the logic of the American Revolution pushed some patriots, such as Princeton graduate Benjamin Rush, to embrace anti-slavery activism, Witherspoon took a different path. Beginning in 1779, he acquired two enslaved laborers for his country estate. About eight years later, both mysteriously disappeared. New research suggests that at least one may have been freed and settled on his own land. Their demise, sale or escape are other, less cheery, possibilities. Another two enslaved individuals were listed among Witherspoon’s possessions in an inventory dated November 1794, alongside six cows, 10 horses, 12 pigs and 24 sheep.

His daughter Anne became a slaveholder when she married Princeton professor Samuel Stanhope Smith. In 1784, Smith casually announced the sale of a “negro servant, about 25 years of age, who is well acquainted with the business of a plantation.” Witherspoon’s son David married into a wealthy family in North Carolina, where he eventually claimed ownership over more than 100 people.

5. He recruited Southern slaveholders to finance Princeton

Witherspoon deliberately recruited the sons of wealthy Southern planters to finance Princeton through donations and tuition. Before his presidency, students from south of the Mason-Dixon line rarely exceeded 20% of their graduating class. Under Witherspoon’s guidance, the number of Virginian students tripled in the decade between 1770 and 1780, and Southerners made up 67% of graduates in the Class of 1790. This far surpassed other Northern universities and established a pattern at Princeton, with Southerners often outnumbering Northerners on campus in the decades preceding the Civil War.

Indeed, more Princetonians fought for the Confederacy than for the Union. Their presence on campus under Witherspoon’s successors created an atmosphere steeped in white supremacy in which abolitionists were ridiculed, undermined and assaulted with impunity. Enduring across generations, this racist institutional culture may be Witherspoon’s most profound and lasting legacy. Läs mer…

How legalized sports betting has transformed the fan experience

A couple of days before Christmas, I went to see the NHL’s Nashville Predators play on their home ice against the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

Amid all the silliness of a modern pro sports experience – the home team skating out of a giant saber-toothed tiger head, the mistletoe kiss cam, a small rock band playing seasonal hits between periods – there was a steady stream of advertising for DraftKings, a company known as a sportsbook that takes bets on athletic events and pays out winnings.

Its name flashed prominently on the Jumbotron above center ice as starting lineups were announced. Its logo appeared again when crews scurried out to clean the ice during timeouts. Not only was “DraftKings Sportsbook” on the yellow jackets worn by the people shoveling up the ice shavings, it was also on the carts they used to collect the ice.

This all came a few days after the Predators announced a multiyear partnership with another sportsbook, BetMGM, that will include not only signage at their home venue, Bridgestone Arena, but also a BetMGM restaurant and bar.

If I had cared to that evening, I could have gone onto the sports betting app on my smartphone and placed a wager on the game. Tennessee is one of 33 states plus the District of Columbia where sports betting is legal. On Jan. 31, 2023, Massachusetts became the latest state to legalize the practice.

The point of depicting the whole scene is simply this: In the nearly five years since the Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports betting, a whole industry has sprouted up that, for tens of millions of fans around the country, is now just part of the show.

Betting’s seamless integration into American sports – impossible to ignore even among fans who aren’t wagering – represents a remarkable shift for an activity that was banned in much of the country only a few years ago.

A new sports world

Let’s look at the numbers for a start.

Since May 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that limited sports betting to four states including Nevada, US$180.2 billion has been legally wagered on sports, according to the American Gaming Association’s research arm. That has generated $13.7 billion in revenue for the sportsbooks, according to figures provided to me by the AGA, the industry’s research and lobby group.

Before the NFL kicked off last September, the AGA reported that 18% of American adults – more than 46 million people – planned to make a bet this season. Most of that was likely to be bet through legal channels, as opposed to so-called corner bookies, or illegal operatives.

So, who’s betting on sports? In an interview, David Forman, the AGA’s vice president for research, told me that compared with traditional gamblers – those who might play slots, for instance – “sports bettors are a different demographic. They’re younger, they’re more male, they’re also higher income.”

They’re people like Christian Santosuosso, a 26-year-old creative marketing professional living in Brooklyn, New York. Santosuosso didn’t bet on games until it became legal. Now he and his buddies will pool their money on an NFL Sunday to spice up both the interest in a game and the conversation in the room.

“It’s entertainment,” he told me in a phone interview. He explained that even a tough gambling loss can be amusing or funny, a way to look back on the mistakes your team made that ended up affecting whether you won the bet. But he added that he has a limit on how much he’ll bet.

Coverage and conversation

Shortly after Supreme Court ruling in 2018, I wrote a piece for The Conversation asking if the media would start to produce content aimed at bettors.

The answer has been an unequivocal “yes” – and it seems to have helped change the way sports betting is talked about.

As I write this, if I look at the front page of ESPN.com, I see that the University of Georgia is a 13.5-point favorite over Texas Christian University in the college football national championship. It’s front and center, right next to the kickoff time and the TV network where it’s airing.

But that’s the least of it.

ESPN has broadcast a gaming show since 2019, “Daily Wager.” In September 2022, the sports conglomerate announced an array of new content centered on betting advice and picks. And SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt is famous for his “Bad Beats” segment, in which Van Pelt typically highlights how a team on the winning side of the point spread falls apart at the last second in a crazy way.

Meanwhile, a cottage industry of betting tip channels has emerged on YouTube – if you type “#sportsbetting” into YouTube’s search bar, you’ll find thousands of them.

Gambling-centered programming is now a regular feature of sports media.

Another example of how things have changed: On Jan. 2, 2023, the University of Utah’s football team had the ball first and goal with 43 seconds left, down 21 points to Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The game was essentially over. However, the commentators noted that a touchdown would mean a lot to some people.

Who? Why? The announcers didn’t elaborate, but the implication was obvious: Those who had bet the over – wagering that together the two teams would score more than 54 points – had a lot riding on that touchdown. So, in a sense, did ESPN. In a blowout, fans of both teams are likely to tune out. But when there’s money riding on something like the over, eyes stay glued to the screen.

Utah ended up scoring on third down with 25 seconds remaining. Final score: Penn State 35, Utah 21.

The danger and the ceiling

I’ve been editing sports articles since the early 1990s and have run the sports journalism program at Penn State since 2013. I have noticed how my students now routinely talk about the point spread – the expected margin of victory – and even the over-under, a wager on the total number of points scored.

That just did not happen so often when I first got to State College, nor in the newsroom before that.

For decades, fears of game fixing – and the ways in which it would taint the image of sports leagues – made gambling a taboo among league executives.
Sports Illustrated

Sports leagues were once vehemently opposed to gambling. And while they’re still concerned about keeping players from betting, many leagues – particularly the NFL – have made a complete U-turn since legalization.

There are multiple reasons for this change of heart. While the concern used to be about losing the integrity of the game to a betting scandal, now sports leagues can argue that legal betting allows for better monitoring of potential cheating. If heavy betting happens on one team, or if there’s sudden shift in betting patterns, it’s all visible to the sportsbooks and might indicate nefarious activity.

There’s also significant fan interest in legal wagering – 56% of Americans adults, and nearly 7 in 10 men, recently told Pew that they’ve read at least a little about how widespread legal sports betting has become.

And, of course, there is big money from a new sponsorship group – the sportsbooks – that helped drive overall NFL sponsorship revenue to a record $1.8 billion in the 2021 season.

The danger, of course, is gambling addiction.

And while the AGA is quick to note that its member companies pledge to give information about problem gambling to their customers, legalization has undoubtedly provided easier and more secure access to sports betting.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said in a telephone interview that research by his group had found that roughly 25% of American adults bet on sports, somewhat more than the AGA’s estimate. That percentage has jumped from roughly 15% before the Supreme Court ruling, per the NCPG.

While that’s a big increase, it also suggests that perhaps there is a ceiling coming up – in other words, when all the states that will do so legalize sports betting, wagering still won’t be done by many more people than now, Whyte speculated.

“I think it’s changing the market in a lot of ways,” Whyte said, “but my guess is it’s mainly to increase the intensity – and associated risk of problem gambling – among fans that were already engaged fans.” Läs mer…

ChatGPT is great – you’re just using it wrong

It doesn’t take much to get ChatGPT to make a factual mistake. My son is doing a report on U.S. presidents, so I figured I’d help him out by looking up a few biographies. I tried asking for a list of books about Abraham Lincoln and it did a pretty good job:

A reasonable list of books about Lincoln.
Screen capture by Jonathan May., CC BY-ND

Number 4 isn’t right. Garry Wills famously wrote “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” and Lincoln himself wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, of course, but it’s not a bad start. Then I tried something harder, asking instead about the much more obscure William Henry Harrison, and it gamely provided a list, nearly all of which was wrong.

Books about Harrison, fewer than half of which are correct.
Screen capture by Jonathan May., CC BY-ND

Numbers 4 and 5 are correct; the rest don’t exist or are not authored by those people. I repeated the exact same exercise and got slightly different results:

More books about Harrison, still mostly nonexistent.
Screen capture by Jonathan May., CC BY-ND

This time numbers 2 and 3 are correct and the other three are not actual books or not written by those authors. Number 4, “William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times” is a real book, but it’s by James A. Green, not by Robert Remini, a well-known historian of the Jacksonian age.

I called out the error and ChatGPT eagerly corrected itself and then confidently told me the book was in fact written by Gail Collins (who wrote a different Harrison biography), and then went on to say more about the book and about her. I finally revealed the truth and the machine was happy to run with my correction. Then I lied absurdly, saying during their first hundred days presidents have to write a biography of some former president, and ChatGPT called me out on it. I then lied subtly, incorrectly attributing authorship of the Harrison biography to historian and writer Paul C. Nagel, and it bought my lie.

When I asked ChatGPT if it was sure I was not lying, it claimed that it’s just an “AI language model” and doesn’t have the ability to verify accuracy. However it modified that claim by saying “I can only provide information based on the training data I have been provided, and it appears that the book ‘William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times’ was written by Paul C. Nagel and published in 1977.”

This is not true.

Words, not facts

It may seem from this interaction that ChatGPT was given a library of facts, including incorrect claims about authors and books. After all, ChatGPT’s maker, OpenAI, claims it trained the chatbot on “vast amounts of data from the internet written by humans.”

However, it was almost certainly not given the names of a bunch of made-up books about one of the most mediocre presidents. In a way, though, this false information is indeed based on its training data.

As a computer scientist, I often field complaints that reveal a common misconception about large language models like ChatGPT and its older brethren GPT3 and GPT2: that they are some kind of “super Googles,” or digital versions of a reference librarian, looking up answers to questions from some infinitely large library of facts, or smooshing together pastiches of stories and characters. They don’t do any of that – at least, they were not explicitly designed to.

Sounds good

A language model like ChatGPT, which is more formally known as a “generative pretrained transformer” (that’s what the G, P and T stand for), takes in the current conversation, forms a probability for all of the words in its vocabulary given that conversation, and then chooses one of them as the likely next word. Then it does that again, and again, and again, until it stops.

So it doesn’t have facts, per se. It just knows what word should come next. Put another way, ChatGPT doesn’t try to write sentences that are true. But it does try to write sentences that are plausible.

When talking privately to colleagues about ChatGPT, they often point out how many factually untrue statements it produces and dismiss it. To me, the idea that ChatGPT is a flawed data retrieval system is beside the point. People have been using Google for the past two and a half decades, after all. There’s a pretty good fact-finding service out there already.

In fact, the only way I was able to verify whether all those presidential book titles were accurate was by Googling and then verifying the results. My life would not be that much better if I got those facts in conversation, instead of the way I have been getting them for almost half of my life, by retrieving documents and then doing a critical analysis to see if I can trust the contents.

Improv partner

On the other hand, if I can talk to a bot that will give me plausible responses to things I say, it would be useful in situations where factual accuracy isn’t all that important. A few years ago a student and I tried to create an “improv bot,” one that would respond to whatever you said with a “yes, and” to keep the conversation going. We showed, in a paper, that our bot was better at “yes, and-ing” than other bots at the time, but in AI, two years is ancient history.

I tried out a dialogue with ChatGPT – a science fiction space explorer scenario – that is not unlike what you’d find in a typical improv class. ChatGPT is way better at “yes, and-ing” than what we did, but it didn’t really heighten the drama at all. I felt as if I was doing all the heavy lifting.

After a few tweaks I got it to be a little more involved, and at the end of the day I felt that it was a pretty good exercise for me, who hasn’t done much improv since I graduated from college over 20 years ago.

A space exploration improv scene the author generated with ChatGPT.
Screen capture by Jonathan May., CC BY-ND

Sure, I wouldn’t want ChatGPT to appear on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and this is not a great “Star Trek” plot (though it’s still less problematic than “Code of Honor”), but how many times have you sat down to write something from scratch and found yourself terrified by the empty page in front of you? Starting with a bad first draft can break through writer’s block and get the creative juices flowing, and ChatGPT and large language models like it seem like the right tools to aid in these exercises.

And for a machine that is designed to produce strings of words that sound as good as possible in response to the words you give it – and not to provide you with information – that seems like the right use for the tool. Läs mer…

How the ancient Jewish ’new year for trees’ became an Israeli celebration of nature

As a professor who researches Israel’s extensive network of hiking trails,, I’ve spent many days and nights in the field, walking long-distance routes and sleeping under the stars. Like many Israelis, the fellow hikers I meet are passionate about venturing out into nature – and at no time is that passion more visible than the Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat.

Thousands of people will take to Israel’s trails during the holiday sometimes described as “the Jewish Arbor Day.” The history of Tu BiShvat goes back to ancient times, but its meaning has been transformed – especially in Israel, where it has become a celebration of the land that is tightly tied to national identity.

In Israel, after all, it’s difficult to talk about land without talking about politics. Control over land has been at the center of Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians and its neighboring countries – meaning the love of nature can be closely connected with politics and religion.

Ancient roots

The name Tu BiShvat refers to the 15th day of the month of Shvat on the Hebrew calendar. In 2023, it starts on the evening of Feb. 5. Over the next 24 hours, Jewish communities around the world will hold special services, and observant families will eat special foods mentioned in the Bible, like dried fruits and nuts. In Israel, schools and civic institutions will celebrate the country’s plants and trees.

Tu BiShvat began as the “new year for trees” in the Mishnah, a text of Jewish religious law that was written down almost 2,000 years ago. The Bible states that a tree’s fruit cannot be harvested until its fourth year, and that people cannot eat it until the fifth. Rather than make everyone keep track of exactly when every tree was planted, the Mishnah established Tu BiShvat as a sort of birthday for all trees: On that date, every tree was regarded as entering its next year.

After the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the first century and the dispersion of the Jewish people around the world, Tu BiShvat evolved to become a remembrance of Israel.

Jewish mystics in the 16th century observed the “new year for trees” by eating fruits and nuts mentioned in the Bible as the country’s native produce: almonds, figs, dates, olives and so on. Their practices spread to Jewish communities around the world.

A boy prepares food for his family’s Tu BiShvat celebration in London.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

From sacred to secular

Starting in the late 19th century, Zionism emerged as a political movement: the effort to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, which was then under Ottoman control, to help Jews escape antisemitism. Though most Zionists were secular, they saw Tu BiShvat as a tradition that could support their ideological goals.

This was particularly true for the radical youth who came to be known as Israel’s “pioneer” generation. Many of their leaders were revolutionary socialists who came from Eastern Europe, where Jews had historically been denied the ability to own and farm land. They saw connection with the soil as a key component of national life and believed that for Jews, this connection needed to be restored.

These young leaders devoted themselves to agricultural work and came to be known as Labor Zionists. They moved to rural areas, built roads, dug wells, plowed fields and built villages. But these “pioneers” were also mystics in their own way, who created what came to be described as a “religion of labor.” They sought to become one with the land of Israel through their work, but also more intimately through acts like walking barefoot in the dirt, immersing themselves in lakes and streams, and watching their sweat drip into the Earth.

Labor Zionists’ veneration of nature shocked their religious contemporaries, who saw their practices as verging on paganism. But these young activists hardly spent all of their time worshipping the country’s soil and flora and fauna. They were engaged in state-building and helped recast Tu BiShvat as a national holiday that highlighted nature

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, watches children plant a tree on Tu BiShvat in 1963.
Moshe Pridan/National Photo Collection, Government Press Office (Israel)

After the State of Israel was established as an independent state in 1948, the holiday was added to the country’s official calendar and marked with huge tree-planting initiatives and hikes for schoolchildren. Amid the early state’s conflicts with its Arab neighbors, one of the holiday’s implicit lessons was that Israelis should love the land enough to be willing to fight for it.

But Tu BiShvat remained centered on love for nature. When Israel’s environmental movement was born in the early 1960s, it organized hikes on Tu BiShvat to raise public awareness of ecologically sensitive areas and to protest state plans for large-scale construction there. Participants viewed hiking not merely as a recreational activity, but as a means of raising environmental awareness.

National or universal?

Many Jewish communities around the world, including in the United States, continue to observe Tu BiShvat in traditional ways. But the holiday’s nationalist lessons handed down by early Zionists still resonate with generations of Israelis, including the hundreds of thousands of hikers who use Israel’s 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) trail system to walk the length and breadth of their country.

Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli scholar who grew up organizing youth hikes and planting trees on Tu BiShvat, wrote that even after he became disillusioned with Zionism, its lessons still defined his relationship with nature. “This land is part of me and I am part of it,” he wrote. “My American friends laugh when I tell them that the flowering trees in Central Park seem fake to me.” His deep connection to land in his home country made him feel that Israel was the only place worth living in, or living for.

This sense that some Israelis have of a unique, almost mystical relationship with the land is important to understand in the context of ongoing struggles between Israelis and Palestinians. The West Bank is part of what many Israelis view as the biblical land of Israel. But it is also the homeland of millions of Palestinians who love their land as well and whose presence there is deeply rooted. When the land is endowed with such significance, the stakes in the conflict can only be high.

Yet the use of Tu BiShvat to promote nature preservation also creates space for discussing more universal concerns. Each year, Jewish communities hold events addressing global issues like climate change.

Many Jews embrace a traditional concept called “tikkun olam,” which calls on people to help God “repair the world.” Tu BiShvat has become a day to do this in the most literal sense. Läs mer…

Russia is violating the last remaining nuclear treaty with the US, according to Washington

After decades of progress on limiting the buildup of nuclear weapons, Russia’s war on Ukraine has prompted renewed nuclear tensions between Russia and the U.S.

The U.S. State Department told Congress on Jan. 31, 2023, that Russia is not complying with the countries’ last remaining nuclear arms agreement, which was renewed for five years in 2021. Russia has denied these accusations and accused the U.S. of violations as well.

This agreement, known as New START, is critical to nuclear cooperation and preventing a new arms race. It is the only remaining agreement between the U.S. and Russia limiting the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. It allows both countries to regularly, and with limited advance notice, inspect each other’s nuclear weapons arsenals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly ignited concern that Russia’s setbacks during its nearly year-old war with Ukraine – as well as Western involvement in the conflict – could result in Russia launching a nuclear attack on Ukraine or another country in the West.

A single nuclear weapon today in a major city could immediately kill anywhere from 52,000 to several million people, depending on the weapon’s size.

I have worked on and researched nuclear nonproliferation for two decades.

Convincing countries to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles or renounce the pursuit of this ultimate weapon has always been extremely difficult.

Students at a school in Brooklyn, N.Y., conduct a nuclear attack drill in 1962.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

A history of nonproliferation

The Soviet Union, U.S., United Kingdom, France, Israel and China had active nuclear weapons programs in the 1960s.

Countries recognized the risk of a nuclear war in the future.

Sixty-two countries initially agreed to what’s been called the “Grand Bargain” in 1967, an essential element of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. One hundred and ninety-one countries eventually signed this treaty.

The agreement prevented the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that didn’t already have them by 1967. Countries with nuclear weapons, like the U.S. and the U.K., agreed to end their nuclear arms race and work toward eventual disarmament, meaning the destruction of all nuclear weapons.

This landmark agreement laid the groundwork for agreements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to further reduce their nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. It also stopped other countries from developing and testing nuclear weapons until the end of the Cold War.

Israel, India and Pakistan never joined the agreement due to regional security concerns. They all now possess nuclear weapons. North Korea withdrew from the agreement and developed nuclear weapons.

Some successes

There have been major achievements in preventing countries from gaining nuclear weapons and dramatically reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles since the Cold War.

The global nuclear stockpile has been reduced by 82% since 1986, from a peak of 70,300, with nearly all of the reductions in the U.S. and Russia, who held the largest stockpiles at the time.

Globally there are now around 12,700 nuclear weapons, with about 90% held by Russia and the U.S. – or between 5,000 to 6,000 weapons each.

Several other countries have nuclear weapons, and most of them have a few hundred weapons each, including the United Kingdom, France and China – though China has been building up its nuclear stockpile. Newer nuclear countries like India, Pakistan and Israel have around 100 each, while North Korea has around 20.

Starting in the late 1960s, countries agreed to more than a dozen legally binding agreements, or treaties, that limited new countries from getting nuclear weapons and prohibited nuclear weapons testing, among other measures.

But they have not reduced the number of nuclear weapons with short-range missiles.

No agreements cover these weapons, which could also cause widespread destruction and deaths.

Peace protesters in Berlin call for more nuclear disarmament in 2021.
John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

U.S.-Russia cooperation declines

U.S.-Russia engagement on nuclear weapons changed when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Russia built up land missiles in Kaliningrad, an enclave of Russia in the middle of Eastern Europe, in 2014.

The U.S. and NATO then accused Russia of violating a 1987 nuclear agreement on short- and intermediate-range land missiles. From Russia, these could travel between 500 to 5,500 kilometers (311 to 3,418 miles), hitting targets as far as London.

The U.S. also terminated this agreement in 2019 due to reported Russian violations. Now, there are no international nuclear agreements in Europe.

The New START agreement, signed by Russia and the U.S., remains the one main strategic nuclear weapons agreement in place. It was to continue until at least 2026. But, the recent State Department report to Congress on Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty raises questions about whether this agreement will survive.

The U.S. says that it cannot make certain that Russia is in compliance with the deal since Putin is “refusing to permit the United States to conduct inspection activities on Russian territory.”

The U.S. and Russia halted all inspections of each other’s nuclear weapon sites and operations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2022, Russia canceled talks to resume inspections. The U.S. considers these violations of the agreement, but not an altogether outright material breach of the treaty.

Impact of Ukraine war

The U.S. and Russia’s arms control regime was successful in the Cold War because it included significant verification mechanisms – direct inspections of each party’s nuclear arsenal with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Russia and the U.S. have conducted 306 inspections since New START took effect in 2011. Without New START, all inspections of nuclear bases and support facilities will end.

During nuclear talks in 1987, President Ronald Reagan translated a Russian maxim, saying, “trust, but verify,” the foundation of the nuclear arms control regime.

If the U.S. and Russia are no longer transparent about their nuclear arsenals and developments, pressure for both countries to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems will increase, along with the risk of miscalculations.

While the U.S. State Department declares that Russia has a “clear path” for returning to compliance, the war in Ukraine complicates this effort.

Anatoly Antonov, the Russia ambassador to the U.S., for example, has said that Western assistance to Ukraine impacts the New START treaty. “There can be no progress on arms control without the United States reconsidering its policy of inflicting strategic defeat on Russia,” he said.

While Putin has not followed through on his threat of a nuclear strike, the potential for a nuclear attack has meant the U.S. and NATO have responded to Russia’s attack on Ukraine with this lingering threat in mind.

The U.S. and NATO members announced in January 2023 plans to escalate their military assistance to Ukraine, sending 120 to 140 Western-made tanks, alongside other war machinery. This might signal a change to the U.S.‘ and NATO countries’ strategy, so far, of limiting their direct support to Ukraine and avoiding further escalation with Russia in the conflict.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 8, 2022. Läs mer…

A journey from work to home is about more than just getting there – the psychological benefits of commuting that remote work doesn’t provide

For most American workers who commute, the trip to and from the office takes nearly one full hour a day – 26 minutes each way on average, with 7.7% of workers spending two hours or more on the road.

Many people think of commuting as a chore and a waste of time. However, during the remote work surge resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, several journalists curiously noted that people were – could it be? – missing their commutes. One woman told The Washington Post that even though she was working from home, she regularly sat in her car in the driveway at the end of the workday in an attempt to carve out some personal time and mark the transition from work to nonwork roles.

As management scholars who study the interface between peoples’ work and personal lives, we sought to understand what it was that people missed when their commutes suddenly disappeared.

In our recently published conceptual study, we argue that commutes are a source of “liminal space” – a time free of both home and work roles that provides an opportunity to recover from work and mentally switch gears to home.

During the shift to remote work, many people lost this built-in support for these important daily processes. Without the ability to mentally shift gears, people experience role blurring, which can lead to stress. Without mentally disengaging from work, people can experience burnout.

We believe the loss of this space helps explain why many people missed their commutes.

One of the more surprising discoveries during the pandemic has been that many people who switched to remote work actually missed their commutes.
Hinterhaus Productions/Stone via Getty Images

Commutes and liminal space

In our study, we wanted to learn whether the commute provides that time and space, and what the effects are when it becomes unavailable.

We reviewed research on commuting, role transitions and work recovery to develop a model of a typical American worker’s commute liminal space. We focused our research on two cognitive processes: psychological detachment from the work role – mentally disengaging from the demands of work – and psychological recovery from work – rebuilding stores of mental energy used up during work.

Based on our review, we developed a model which shows that the liminal space created in the commute created opportunities for detachment and recovery.

However, we also found that day-to-day variations may affect whether this liminal space is accessible for detachment and recovery. For instance, train commuters must devote attention to selecting their route, monitoring arrivals or departures and ensuring they get off at the right stop, whereas car commuters must devote consistent attention to driving.

We found that, on the one hand, more attention to the act of commuting means less attention that could otherwise be put toward relaxing recovery activities like listening to music and podcasts. On the other hand, longer commutes might give people more time to detach and recover.

In an unpublished follow-up study we conducted ourselves, we examined a week of commutes of 80 university employees to test our conceptual model. The employees completed morning and evening surveys asking about the characteristics of their commutes, whether they “shut off” from work and relaxed during the commute and whether they felt emotionally exhausted when they got home.

Most of the workers in this study reported using the commute’s liminal space to both mentally transition from work to home roles and to start psychologically recovering from the demands of the workday. Our study also confirms that day-to-day variations in commutes predict the ability to do so.

We found that on days with longer-than-average commutes, people reported higher levels of psychological detachment from work and were more relaxed during the commute. However, on days when commutes were more stressful than usual, they reported less psychological detachment from work and less relaxation during the commute.

Creating liminal space

Our findings suggest that remote workers may benefit from creating their own form of commute to provide liminal space for recovery and transition – such as a 15-minute walk to mark the beginning and end of the workday.

Our preliminary findings align with related research suggesting that those who have returned to the workplace might benefit from seeking to use their commute to relax as much as possible.

To help enhance work detachment and relaxation during the commute, commuters could try to avoid ruminating about the workday and instead focus on personally fulfilling uses of the commute time, such as listening to music or podcasts, or calling a friend. Other forms of commuting such as public transit or carpooling may also provide opportunities to socialize.

Our data shows that commute stress detracts from detachment and relaxation during the commute more than a shorter or longer commute. So some people may find it worth their time to take the “scenic route” home in order to avoid tense driving situations. Läs mer…

Vitamins and supplements: what you need to know before taking them

If you were to open your medicine cabinet right now, there’s a fair chance that you’d find at least one bottle of vitamins alongside the painkillers, plasters and cough syrup.

After all, people are definitely buying vitamins: in 2020, the global market for complementary and alternative medicines, which includes multivitamin supplements, had an estimated value of US$82.27 billion. The use of natural health products such as minerals and amino acids has increased – and continues to rise, partly driven by consumers’ buying habits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People sought out vitamins C and D, as well as zinc supplements, as potential preventive measures against the virus – even though the evidence for their efficacy was, and remains, inconclusive.

Multivitamins and mineral supplements are easily accessible to consumers. They are often marketed for their health claims and benefits – sometimes unsubstantiated. But their potential adverse effects are not always stated on the packaging.

Collectively, vitamins and minerals are known as micronutrients. They are essential elements needed for our bodies to function properly. Our bodies can only produce micronutrients in small amounts or not at all. We get the bulk of these nutrients from our diets.

People usually buy micronutrients to protect against disease or as dietary “insurance”, in case they are not getting sufficient quantities from their diets.

There’s a common perception that these supplements are harmless. But they can be dangerous at incorrect dosages. They provide a false sense of hope, pose a risk of drug interactions – and can delay more effective treatment.

Benefits

Vitamins are beneficial if taken for the correct reasons and as prescribed by your doctor. For example, folic acid supplementation in pregnant women has been shown to prevent neural tube defects. And individuals who reduce their intake of red meat without increasing legume consumption require a vitamin B6 supplement.

But a worrying trend is increasing among consumers: intravenous vitamin therapy, which is often punted by celebrities and social media marketing. Intravenous vitamins, nutrients and fluids are administered at pharmacies as well as beauty spas, and more recently “IV bars”. Users believe these treatments can quell a cold, slow the effects of ageing, brighten skin, fix a hangover or just make them feel well.

Intravenous vitamin therapy was previously only used in medical settings to help patients who could not swallow, needed fluid replacements or had an electrolyte imbalance.

However, the evidence to support other benefits of intravenous vitamin therapy is limited. No matter how you choose to get additional vitamins, there are risks.

Warning bells

Most consumers use multivitamins. But others take large doses of single nutrients, especially vitamin C, iron and calcium.

As lecturers in pharmacy practice, we think it’s important to highlight the potential adverse effects of commonly used vitamins and minerals:

Vitamin A/retinol is beneficial in maintaining good eye health. But it can cause toxicity if more than 300,000IU (units) is ingested. Chronic toxicity (hypervitaminosis) has been associated with doses higher than 10,000IU a day. Symptoms include liver impairment, loss of vision and intracranial hypertension. It can cause birth defects in pregnant women.
Vitamin B3 is beneficial for nervous and digestive system health. At moderate to high doses it can cause peripheral vasodilation (widening or dilating of the blood vessels at the extremities, such as the legs and arms), resulting in skin flushing, burning sensation, pruritis (itchiness of the skin) and hypotension (low blood pressure).
Vitamin B6 is essential for brain development and in ensuring that the immune system remains healthy. But it can result in damage to the peripheral nerves, such as those in the hands and feet (causing a sensation of numbness and often referred to as pins and needles) at doses over 200mg/daily.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant and assists in the repair of body tissue. Taken in high doses it can cause kidney stones and interactions with drugs, such as the oncology drugs doxorubicin, methotrexate, cisplatin and vincristine.
Vitamin D is essential for bone and teeth development. At high doses it can cause hypercalcaemia (calcium level in the blood is above normal) that results in thirst, excessive urination, seizures, coma and death.
Calcium is essential for bone health, but can cause constipation and gastric reflux. High doses can cause hypercalciuria (increased calcium in the urine), kidney stones and secondary hypoparathyroidism (underactive parathyroid gland). It can have drug interactions with zinc, magnesium and iron.
Magnesium is important for muscle and nerve functioning. At high doses it can cause diarrhoea, nausea and abdominal cramping, and can interact with tetracyclines (antibiotics).
Zinc can impair taste and smell, and doses over 80mg daily have been shown to have adverse prostate effects.
Selenium can cause hair and nail loss or brittleness, lesions of the skin and nervous system, skin rashes, fatigue and mood irritability at high doses.
Iron at 100-200mg/day can cause constipation, black faeces, black discoloration of teeth and abdominal pain.

Recommendations

People need to make informed decisions based on evidence before consuming health products.

Regular exercise and a well-balanced diet are more likely to do us good, as well as being lighter on the pocket.

Seeking advice from a healthcare professional before consuming supplements can reduce the risk of adverse effects.

Be aware of the potential adverse effects of vitamins and seek a healthcare professional’s guidance if you have symptoms. Läs mer…

Kim Kardashian buys Princess Diana’s necklace – how the cult of celebrity creates value for fashion history

During Sotheby’s annual January Royal and Noble collection sale, US reality TV star Kim Kardashian bought the diamond and amethyst Attallah Cross necklace, previously worn by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The pendant, which weighs 5.25 carats, was sold for US$197,453 (£160,000) – almost double the pre-auction estimate.

The Attallah Cross purchased by Kim Kardashian.
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The diamond and sapphire encrusted pendant was originally designed in the 1920s by the court jeweller, Garrard, and later became part of the collection of Naim Attallah, a Palestinian-British businessman and writer. Attallah was the former chief executive of brands at Asprey and Garrard and a friend of Diana.

The necklace’s legacy and association with Diana, have secured its place in fashion’s rich history. That it has become a part of Kardashian’s collection is a reminder of the power of celebrity in driving economic value.

How an association with the more transient celebrity of the social media age will impact the longevity of fashion memorabilia is less certain.

Celebrity sells

The Attallah cross is an addition to Kim Kardashian’s growing collection of celebrity memorabilia – items representative of fashion and popular culture’s diverse history.

Kardashian has previously bought a jacket worn by Michael Jackson for her daughter North and one of only two Alexander McQueen oyster dresses in existence, which she altered in order to wear it to the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscars party. The garment was described by Andrew Bolton, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as “arguably the most important dress of the 21st century”.

Kim Kardashian wearing the Alexander McQueen oyster dress in 2020.
Ringo Chiu

Kardashian also famously wore Marilyn Monroe’s JFK birthday dress to the Met Gala in 2022. The move caused controversy over both the dramatic weight loss she underwent to fit into the dress and the alleged subsequent damage to the garment.

Mass media representation has fuelled society’s fascination with celebrity. When a famous person dies, this can intensify, which may explain Kardashian’s drive to own these iconic items.

The trade in celebrity-owned fashion items isn’t limited to extraordinary pieces like the Attallah cross. In 2013, a false nail worn by Lady Gaga was sold for US$12,000.

More recently, in 2022, a battered pair of Birkenstock sandals which had been worn by Steve Jobs when he first started Apple were sold to an anonymous bidder for US$218,750.

Association with specific celebrities has invested these objects with a value that is both economic and cultural. Kardashian has not just purchased Diana’s physical necklace – she has bought its emotive story.

Why fashion objects matter

Academics working in the discipline of material culture (which comes from the field of anthropology) focus their research on understanding society through people’s relationships with objects.

Kim Kardashian wears a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe to the 2020 MET Gala.
Justin Lane

This includes examining what makes people buy the things they do and how those objects bring meaning to their lives.

Recognising that fashion objects have deeper meanings both individually and culturally explains why celebrity-owned objects take on a combined personal, cultural and economic value.

Why is Kim Kardashian buying celebrity memorabilia?

Kardashian is a celebrity of the social media age. Her adoption of trends and endorsement of fast fashion brands makes her relatable to the masses. And she has also shared her values, represented through the causes that are important to her including criminal justice reform, gun safety and cancer causes on both her social media pages and television show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Diana wearing the Attallah Cross.
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Social media has shifted the cult of celebrity from the more detached celebrity of the pre-digital age towards the consumable persona where the boundaries between the private and the public are in constant tension. Kardashian’s over-exposure suggests her celebrity may have become too accessible, compromising her longer-term cultural value.

Jewellery worn by Diana rarely comes up for sale. For Kardashian to own something so unique and exclusive – with its significant history – may represent an effort to move her positioning away from the superficiality of the Instagram age.

Kardashian has invested in an object that has a cultural history, worn by an iconic woman, and in so doing she has become part of that story. Purchasing rare celebrity memorabilia integrates Kardashian into a different realm of culture, which is exclusive rather than accessible.

Diana’s pendant has become an integral part of fashion history, not just because of its design, but because of the celebrities who have owned it. Läs mer…

Water ATMs were introduced in Ghana – and are changing the way people can access this vital resource

Universal, safe and reliable water access is a pressing need in the global south. One-quarter of the world’s population don’t currently have access to clean drinking water. In Ghana, about 5 million people out of a total population of about 31 million lack access to clean, safe water. One person in ten has to spend more than 30 minutes to get drinking water.

Problems are particularly acute in off-grid communities. These are the low-income, rural and peri-urban locations that aren’t connected to municipal or main centralised water supply.

The private sector and other non-governmental providers are getting increasingly involved in filling the gap, sometimes in partnership with the government. Some private water service providers have turned to innovations like “water ATMs”. These automated standpipes are popping up as a way to expand affordable water services.

Powered by solar energy, most water ATMs are designed to operate 24 hours a day. They are low-cost, self-contained, automated water vending machines that store clean water and are most often connected to a water purifying plant that uses groundwater. Customers buy water from the ATMs using a water card, which is topped up with credit via mobile money.

In my recent study, I set out to explore how water ATMs were working in low-income, peri-urban or off-grid locations in Ghana. I found that water ATMs delivered relatively limited operational-level value. And they were changing the water access landscape – not always for the better, from users’ point of view.

Impact of water ATMs on water access

The research was conducted in Yawkwei, a peri-urban community in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Here, off-grid households have the choice of using water ATMs or not, but can also rely on other sources such as other private standpipes and community boreholes.

The water ATMs were operated by Safe Water Network, a non-profit organisation dedicated to developing and implementing small, financially viable water initiatives. They were installed at six water standpipes, five with a single ATM and a main station with two ATMs, together serving about 2,000 people.

A water ATM point in Yawkwei.
Godfred Amankwaa

Water ATMs were installed incrementally and used the existing physical, institutional and financial infrastructure in the community. This was done to reduce the cost and the chance of resistance or rejection of the innovation. It relied on what was already in place, such as mobile phones, Safe Water Network’s standpipes, and community actors like water station operators and mobile money agents.

Read more:
What it’s really worth to pipe water to homes in rural Zambia

The study found five main ways in which water ATMs were changing the water access landscape.

Improved water reliability and access: Water ATMs provided more reliable, flexible and convenient (time-saving) access than former or competing types of off-grid water provision in the community. For instance, people spent on average 15 minutes for a round trip, from home to water ATM and back, compared to 29 minutes at two non-ATM boreholes in the community. Also, people could collect water outside the station caretaker’s or vendor’s hours of business. Collection could fit in around other livelihood activities instead of disrupting them.

Cost and changes in water practices: Water ATMs brought the relation between costs and water more to the fore for users. Users became more cautious at the point of water collection, since they would be paying for any water spilt. Also, despite the technology not changing water prices or tariffs (20 litres for 10 pesewas), some users claimed they were effectively being charged more because they didn’t get the same volume of water for their money.

A water ATM user said:

(…) see, this pipe (water ATM point) is closer to me but the prices of late make me visit the other standpipe by the store. When I use this same container (a 40-litre bucket), a Ghana cedi (GH₵1) purchase guarantees five times of that container from other vendors. But instead of getting five times, I only sometimes get four times at same amount when I use the water ATMs. I prefer to walk that distance if I can get an extra container of water.

Changes in the everyday social relations at the standpipe: Some of the former informal, social aspects of water access, such as an exchange of gossip, views and concerns during water collection, were reduced.

Roles and power shifts: New actors became an essential part of water collection. Some were community-based (mobile money agents), others at the national level (the mobile operator MTN) and overseas (eWaterPay). They benefited from consumer payments and use of mobile money related services.

Empowerment vs disempowerment: Households without water ATM cards or credits, and women who were vendors at off-grid water standpipes, were disempowered. For instance, four women vendors at different water standpipes had lost their livelihoods as a result of water digitalisation. Those with water cards were empowered.

Bottom-up approach

Based on my findings, I suggest the following ways to make water ATMs more effective.

Government should enable a favourable policy and regulatory space for water infrastructure investment and an enabling ecosystem for locally based digital innovations.
Water service providers, when they introduce innovations, should adopt and build on existing systems and local institutions to create a supportive enabling environment.
Affordable pricing should be set from the outset to encourage buy-in and usage.
Government should collaborate with private water providers to incrementally adopt digital water technologies. First they should put in place risk management mechanisms to help prioritise and reduce risks threatening the sustainability of existing infrastructure and for safe and affordable water delivery. Läs mer…

Grattan on Friday: Chalmers attracts some flak for blue sky ideas but the government has bigger problems

Jim Chalmers likes to say we need national “conversations” about the economic issues facing the country. Now, just as the new parliamentary year is set to begin on Monday, Chalmers has bought himself a doozy of a conversation, with his essay advocating we embrace “values-based capitalism”.

Values-based capitalism might sound more like a topic for a university economics seminar than something to grab the attention of Ms and Mr Suburbia, as they worry about what the Reserve Bank will do to their mortgages on Tuesday.

But Chalmers’ ideas, to the extent the government pursues them over coming years, could have considerable practical impact, even though there’s disagreement about exactly what he’s saying.

Some commentators insist there’s not much to see here, just a new version of the government-private partnership models that have taken various forms under Labor previously.

Others, in the business community and the business-oriented media, see this as interventionism on steroids. It’s a repudiation of Hawke and Keating, they cry. Chalmers rejects this as nonsense.

Looking to where Australia should be going after the international shocks of the GFC, the pandemic and now the energy and inflation crisis, Chalmers advocates more government-business collaboration, including co-investment; the renovation of institutions such as the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission, and improving the operation of markets.

Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Treasurer Jim Chalmers answers critics of his ’values-based capitalism’

Chalmers is attempting to interlock economic and social policy objectives. The success of his prescriptions, however, would depend on how they were implemented, case by case.

For example, co-investments can be productive and nation-building, or result in expensive white elephants if the choices are unwise.

An inquiry is already examining the Reserve Bank. Changes may well improve it, but if they are ill-conceived, that could compromise the bank’s independence and decision-making. Similarly, some markets need rules but it is the appropriateness and quality of the regulation that’s critical.

And on all these fronts, there will be differences of opinion about what, and how much, should be done.

The essay is also notable for what it doesn’t cover, especially the knotty question of the level and distribution of taxation. The International Monetary Fund’s latest report on Australia, released this week, gave the government another prod on tax, observing “there are opportunities to make the tax system more efficient and equitable, rebalancing it from currently high direct to indirect taxes, and raise sufficient revenue to fund the government programs”.

Chalmers, who seeks a good relationship with business, has risked losing some of that sector’s confidence with his blueprint. But more basic to the (short term) judgements of him by business will be his second budget, brought down in May, for which work is underway.

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

The October budget (with germs of the “values-based” approach in its “wellbeing” statement) was fairly easy, implementing election promises and garnering savings from Coalition programs. May will be more substantial and not everyone can be kept happy.

On the upside the economy, while slowing, “is expected to come to a soft landing in 2023”, according to the IMF. For the budget, high commodity prices are yielding a rich river of revenue. Welcome as that is, it makes more difficult selling the need to contain spending. Meanwhile, Chalmers is being hit by pressures for new spending.

If anything requires “renovation” it’s the nation’s health system, with doctor shortages and hospitals under severe strain: starting to fix that will mean more money, as well as extensive structural changes.

Then there are welfare payments. To secure industrial relations legislation last year, Anthony Albanese agreed to Senate crossbencher David Pocock’s demand for a committee to look at “the adequacy, effectiveness and sustainability of income support payments” before each budget. This group, chaired by former minister Jenny Macklin, will no doubt urge increases. The government doesn’t have to accept what it says, but will be under pressure to do so, not least because its findings are published before the budget.

The budget’s run up will also see another round of the debate about the controversial Stage 3 tax cuts, which Chalmers tried unsuccessfully to have the government deal with in October.

Back then, Albanese let Chalmers lay the ground for changing Stage 3 (which favour higher income earners), before deciding to shut down the debate. Chalmers said on Thursday the government had “other priorities in the budget”, but the calls for a rework of those tax cuts will continue.

In general, Albanese doesn’t cramp Chalmers, whose natural bent is to extend into whatever space is available (hence he was front and centre in dealing with the energy pricing crisis). Chalmers is activist in the moment, and ambitious for the future.

Albanese’s preferred style as PM is a relatively hands-off approach, leaving his ministers free to run their own shows as much as possible. At the same time, he keeps himself highly visible, constantly on the move around the country (not to mention around the world – he clearly relishes his international role).

As issues deepen and become more difficult, he is forced into the weeds. We saw that on energy policy late last year, and we’re now seeing it after the intractable Indigenous problems have blown up in Alice Springs.

On the latter, Albanese received on Wednesday the report on whether alcohol bans should be reimposed on Northern Territory communities. The report, by Dorrelle Anderson, who was appointed by the federal and territory governments last week as Central Australian Regional Controller, recommends the NT “urgently” legislates restrictions, something Albanese wants. Chief Minister Natasha Fyles has been reluctant (on the grounds bans are race-based). Both governments will consider the issue next week. It’s an important test for the PM.

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

On the Voice referendum, Albanese will have to become increasingly involved in managing the nitty gritty – there is already a feeling minister Linda Burney is struggling.

Albanese’s reputation from the last Labor government is as an effective political wrangler, rather than a policy innovator.
As prime minister he has, thus far, shown himself very good at the politics; he relates well to the public. Whether he and his government will prove as good at handling the looming policy challenges is the big question for 2023.

On the other side of the fence, Opposition leader Peter Dutton starts the parliamentary year bedevilled by party division over how to deal with the Voice referendum. For Dutton, there is no politically comfortable place on that issue, but the course he takes will say a lot about both the Liberals and him personally. Läs mer…

Strikes over the past 50 years have barely made a dent in the French economy

In France, more than 1.2 million people (2.8 million, according to trade unions) took to the streets against proposed pension reform on Tuesday, exceeding crowds galvanised by the first national day of strike on 19 January.

How might these strikes impact the economy and businesses, already beset by high inflation and low growth?

From a historical perspective, research shows that while industrial action may inflict short-term losses on the economy, it bears little influence on long-term growth. It is worth noting the number of strike days per 1,000 employees has fallen drastically since 1970, with growth tending to follow a pattern of its own, as shown below:

Overall, industrial action takes a toll on the economy only in the period during which it unfolds, and losses are quickly recuperated in the following months. From a macro-economic viewpoint, the impact will in fact depend on the action’s scale and duration.

For example, the November 1995 strikes against the austerity package known as the plan Juppé and its pension reform chipped away 0.2 points of GDP growth at the national level over the fourth quarter, even though the social movement lasted three weeks.

Demonstrations in November 2007 against the reform for specialised retirement regimes, whereby certain workers get bigger pensions and to retire earlier than others, brought out more people in the streets than in 1995 but lasted only 10 days. They similarly cut the country’s GDP by 0.2 points, a loss that would be fully absorbed afterwards.

We therefore see that while household consumption and productivity may slump at the time of the strike, these impacts do not last over time.

Foreign investors still present

Contrary to what one might think, walkouts have little effect on France’s attractiveness to foreign investors. Long-term data on strikes and foreign direct investment (FDI) flows shows incoming capital is not proportionally lower than that observed in countries even 10 or 20 times less prone to strikes such as Germany or Spain.

Take the 2010 strikes against the pension reform led by Éric Woerth, which saw a turnout of over 1 million people. Data by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows they did not precipitate a decline in foreign direct investment. On the contrary. FDI in France was the equivalent of $14 billion in 2010, and just a year after the strikes, inflows more than doubled to almost $32 billion, and then rose again to $34 billion in 2012.

Weakened businesses

Where strikes do hurt are businesses, which more likely to suffer losses, especially when they’re directly affected – for example, in the transport or industrial sectors.

First, walkouts impact firms’ production and therefore economic performance. Transport companies regularly experience strikes that directly affect their economic results. Thus in October 2018, strikes in France’s rail and air sectors reduced the volume of market output in transport by almost 2% and in particular passenger transport (-6.5%).

More specifically, the 15-day strike at Air France cost the airline almost 335 million euros. In addition, strikes can also disrupt facilities such as fuel depots, rail hubs and even ports, blocking supply routes and indirectly affecting all businesses.

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According to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), strikes in refineries last October caused industrial production to fall by 2.1%, and every economic sector contracted in parallel. In addition to the industrial sector, strikes in transportation (SNCF, RATP, Air France, etc.) often weaken all tourism-related activities such as the hotel and restaurant industry, or crafts and trade.

Finally, company output may be impacted by changes in working practices or wages made in response to strikers’ demands. This is the case when a labour action results in agreements financing personnel costs that are not always compensated by productivity gains.

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In a context marked by high inflation, we have seen a rise in wage demands in a number of companies for several months. For example, last October the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) called for a strike at Geodis, a logistics and shipping firm that is part of SNCF, the national railway company. The union’s demands included a 4% wage increase and a year-end bonus. After approximately a month, an agreement was reached and the strike was called off.

Workers have tended to resort to strikes less frequently in recent years, however, and their effects are certainly less marked than before. Several explanations have been put forward, including stagnating union membership rates, the transformation of the world of work in the wake of deindustrialisation and the rise of the “gig economy”, mounting unemployment, as well as employees’ reluctance to suffer the financial cost of striking. Other potential factors include remote working, which does away with the inconvenience of transport and de facto reduces the impact of the strike on public opinion.

The political scientist Tristan Haute has nevertheless nuanced this idea by revealing that remote workers participate as much as the others in collective actions despite their increased social isolation on a day-to-day basis.

Does strike action make you more productive?

Industrial actions can also point to a lack of cooperation. Strikes tend to reflect low worker satisfaction within a company, which can manifest itself through low morale, high absenteeism or refusals to cooperate voluntarily with the employer. From this perspective, strike action can result in a boost to labour productivity by resolving certain conflicts and thereby improving employee morale and cooperation.

By contrast to temporary (absenteeism, self-sabotage, indiscipline, etc.) or permanent (resignations) “exit” options, research shows employees who have a say in their workplace enjoy higher levels of job satisfaction and investment.

The economist Jérémy Tanguy notes that in France, strikes have a non-linear impact on labour productivity: social movements have a positive effect at first and then decrease, or even become negative, after a certain number of strikes in the company (which he estimates at five per year). According to the researcher:

“This positive effect of a moderate frequency of strikes on labour productivity can be interpreted through their role in providing a mechanism for collective expression, which is supposed to be beneficial for the cooperation and effort of employees in the company.”

These initial results in the French context, which are rare in the scientific literature, now need to be studied in greater depth and analysed over a longer period of time.

In the end, strikes have limited effects on economic growth because the lost activity is quickly made up in the months following the work stoppages. The situation is different at the micro level where some companies may suffer serious economic losses. However, contrary to popular belief, the consequences of strikes on company productivity are not systematically negative. Läs mer…

When critical thinking isn’t enough: to beat information overload, we need to learn ’critical ignoring’

The web is an informational paradise and a hellscape at the same time.

A boundless wealth of high-quality information is available at our fingertips right next to a ceaseless torrent of low-quality, distracting, false and manipulative information.

The platforms that control search were conceived in sin. Their business model auctions off our most precious and limited cognitive resource: attention. These platforms work overtime to hijack our attention by purveying information that arouses curiosity, outrage, or anger. The more our eyeballs remain glued to the screen, the more ads they can show us, and the greater profits accrue to their shareholders.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, all this should take a toll on our collective attention. A 2019 analysis of Twitter hashtags, Google queries, or Reddit comments found that across the past decade, the rate at which the popularity of items rises and drops has accelerated. In 2013, for example, a hashtag on Twitter was popular on average for 17.5 hours, while in 2016, its popularity faded away after 11.9 hours. More competition leads to shorter collective attention intervals, which lead to ever fiercer competition for our attention – a vicious circle.

To regain control, we need cognitive strategies that help us reclaim at least some autonomy and shield us from the excesses, traps and information disorders of today’s attention economy.

Critical thinking is not enough

The textbook cognitive strategy is critical thinking, an intellectually disciplined, self-guided and effortful process to help identify valid information. In school, students are taught to closely and carefully read and evaluate information. Thus equipped, they can evaluate the claims and arguments they see, hear, or read. No objection. The ability to think critically is immensely important.

But is it enough in a world of information overabundance and gushing sources of disinformation? The answer is “No” for at least two reasons.

First, the digital world contains more information than the world’s libraries combined. Much of it comes from unvetted sources and lacks reliable indicators of trustworthiness. Critically thinking through all information and sources we come across would utterly paralyse us because we would never have time to actually read the valuable information we painstakingly identify.

Second, investing critical thinking in sources that should have been ignored in the first place means that attention merchants and malicious actors have been gifted what they wanted, our attention.

Critical ignoring to make information management feasible

So, what tools do we have at our disposal beyond critical thinking? In our recent article, we – a philosopher, two cognitive scientists and an education scientist – argue that as much as we need critical thinking we also need critical ignoring.

Critical ignoring is the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities. Critical ignoring is more than just not paying attention – it’s about practising mindful and healthy habits in the face of information overabundance.

We understand it as a core competence for all citizens in the digital word.

Without it, we will drown in a sea of information that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, misleading and harmful.

There are concrete ways in which we can protect ourselves from information overload.
Shutterstock

Tools for critical ignoring

Three main strategies exist for critical ignoring. Each one responds to a different type of noxious information.

In the digital world, self-nudging aims to empower people to be citizen “choice architects” by designing their informational environments in ways that work best for them and that constrain their activities in beneficial ways. We can, for instance, remove distracting and irresistible notifications. We may set specific times in which messages can be received, thereby creating pockets of time for concentrated work or socialising. Self-nudging can also help us take control of our digital default settings, for instance, by restricting the use of our personal data for purposes of targeted advertisement.

Lateral reading is a strategy that enables people to emulate how professional fact checkers establish the credibility of online information. It involves opening up new browser tabs to search for information about the organisation or individual behind a site before diving into its contents. Only after consulting the open web do skilled searchers gauge whether expending attention is worth it. Before critical thinking can begin, the first step is to ignore the lure of the site and check out what others say about its alleged factual reports. Lateral reading thus uses the power of the web to check the web.

Most students fail at that task. Past studies show that, when deciding whether a source should be trusted, students (as well as university professors) do what years of school has taught them to do – they read closely and carefully. Attention merchants as well as merchants of doubt are jubilant.

Online, looks can be deceiving. Unless one has extensive background knowledge it is often very difficult to figure out that a site, filled with the trappings of serious research, peddles falsehoods about climate change or vaccinations or any variety of historical topics, such as the Holocaust. Instead of getting entangled in the site’s reports and professional design, fact checkers exercise critical ignoring. They evaluate the site by leaving it and engage in lateral reading instead.

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The do-not-feed-the-trolls heuristic targets online trolls and other malicious users who harass, cyberbully or use other antisocial tactics. Trolls thrive on attention, and deliberate spreaders of dangerous disinformation often resort to trolling tactics. One of the main strategies that science denialists use is to hijack people’s attention by creating the appearance of a debate where none exists. The heuristic advises against directly responding to trolling. Resist debating or retaliating. Of course, this strategy of critical ignoring is only a first line of defence. It should be complemented by blocking and reporting trolls and by transparent platform content moderation policies including debunking.

These three strategies are not a set of elite skills. Everybody can make use of them, but educational efforts are crucial for bringing these tools to the public.

Critical ignoring as a new paradigm for education

The philosopher Michael Lynch has noted that the Internet “is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer – often at the same time.”

Navigating it successfully requires new competencies that should be taught in school. Without the competence to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attention, we allow others to seize control of our eyes and minds. Appreciation for the importance of critically ignoring is not new but has become even more crucial in the digital world.

As the philosopher and psychologist William James astutely observed at the beginning of the 20th century: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to ignore.” Läs mer…

The body choosing Kenya’s election commission is being overhauled – how this could strengthen democracy

Kenya has new rules for choosing the people who run its elections.

President William Ruto has signed into law the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (Amendment) Bill. It changes the composition of the panel that selects people to serve on the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

The commission is a state institution that has the task of enhancing and supporting constitutional democracy in Kenya. It conducts elections, registers citizens as voters and maintains the voters’ roll. It also fixes the boundaries of electoral constituencies and wards. It settles electoral disputes, registers candidates for election and conducts voter education.

But since it was established in 2011, the commission has been at the centre of Kenya’s history of post-election violence.

In 2013, 2017 and 2022, the losing political parties accused it of failing to administer elections fairly and lawfully.

In 2017, the Kenyan supreme court accused the commission of “bungling” the presidential election. In the 2022 elections, the then vice-chairperson of the commission, Juliana Cherera, disowned the results of the presidential poll before the official announcement.

Raila Odinga, who lost that poll, called for reforms that would make the electoral commission a much fairer referee of the country’s elections.

Read more:
Raila Odinga should be thanked – his election losses helped deepen Kenya’s democracy

The new law seeks to streamline the process of appointing members to the electoral commission, making the selection process more participatory and reflective of the country’s diversity.

And it comes at a critical moment. Seven commissioner positions are currently vacant.

A weak electoral agency poses four major threats to Kenya’s democracy: it will fail to deliver fair, free and credible elections; it will disrupt improvements in the country’s transition to democracy; it will prolong the culture of post-election violence; and it will divide the nation’s diverse ethnocultural groups.

It is, therefore, vital that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission be a strong and fully functioning organisation staffed by Kenyans who are dedicated to democratic governance.

What’s changing under the new law

Selecting electoral commissioners is a complex job.

The new law brings more independent commissioners and associations into the selection process. Previously, only three agencies nominated the seven commissioners: the Parliamentary Service Commission, the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya and the Law Society of Kenya. Now there are five. The newcomers are the Political Parties Liaison Committee and the Public Service Commission. They open the door for political parties and the public service to participate in this critical process.

It’s important that the selection panel includes state and non-state organisations that promote election integrity. Only individuals who are citizens of Kenya and meet the integrity requirements in Chapter 6 of the constitution can serve on the selection panel. These individuals must hold a degree from a university recognised in Kenya.

The vacancies

Three of the current vacancies in the commission were expected: these commissioners’ terms had expired. But four other commissioners quit under a cloud of suspicion.

Cherera, Justus Nyang’aya and Francis Wanderi resigned after being suspended for their conduct during the 2022 election. They had alleged that commission chairperson Wafula Chebukati had altered poll results in favour of Ruto. Another commissioner, Irene Masit, was also suspended. She now has charges pending against her before a tribunal investigating the matter.

Why elections matter

Elections are a cornerstone of any democracy. They help a nation build and sustain democratic and development-enhancing institutions.

They are a check on government. Elections put the power in ordinary people’s hands to change their government and choose more effective leaders for public service. They also give historically marginalised groups a voice.

To perform these functions, elections must meet certain minimum standards. They must be regular, fair, free, competitive, inclusive, transparent and credible. They must be conducted in strict conformity with the constitution.

That’s why a strong, independent and functioning electoral agency is so vital.

Risks of dysfunction

In Kenya, a weak and dysfunctional electoral commission would have dire consequences.

First, the failure to conduct elections that are considered by the majority of Kenyans as free, fair and credible could lead to the type of violence that the country experienced after the 2007 presidential election. More than 1,000 people died.

Second, a weak commission can derail improvements in Kenya’s electoral system. A strong commission sets codes of conduct for candidates and political parties. This helps guard against various forms of political opportunism, including corruption.

Read more:
Fears of election rigging may fuel further abuses in Kenya: democracy could be the loser

Third, a dysfunctional electoral commission can be manipulated by politicians and their supporters to monopolise political spaces. This situation has played out in Cameroon, where the ruling party has marginalised the opposition to remain in power since 1990. Similarly, in Togo, President Faure Gnassingbé has monopolised political spaces since 2005.

Fourth, in Kenya, the electoral commission is responsible for creating electoral boundaries. Any weakness in the commission can be exploited to create boundaries that benefit certain politicians and their supporters. This would undermine democracy and create distrust in the country’s democratic institutions.

The new law doesn’t meet the expectations of all of Kenya’s political constituencies – some individuals and groups believe that their voice in the selection panel has been diluted. However, it’s important for all Kenyans to recognise these reforms as an effort in the right direction – towards a stronger and more inclusive commission. Läs mer…

Plan will put everyone in England within 15 minutes of green space – but what matters is justice not distance

How long does it take you to walk to your nearest park, woodland, lake or river? If it takes more than 15 minutes, according to the UK government’s new environmental improvement plan for England, something needs to be done about it. It says 38% people in England don’t have a green or blue space within a 15-minute walk of their home.

The plan promises a “new and ambitious commitment to work across government and beyond” to provide access to local green and blue spaces. It recognises the importance of connecting with nature, and that time spent outdoors is good for physical and mental health.

That’s a message researchers have been underlining for years, as a recent evidence review shows, and it has been amplified by COVID-19, which showed the importance of local green and blue spaces for wellbeing.

But the plan’s laudable ambitions overlook the ways our experiences of the outdoors are shaped by privileges of wealth and health.

If you live in a disadvantaged area, your local green space may be further away from your home, or you might have to share it with more people. As the campaign group Fields in Trust pointed out in a 2022 report, this is a question of justice.

However, there’s more to justice than the amount of space you have to share with others, or how long it takes you to get there. It’s also about how you feel and what you can do when you get there.

My own research highlights some key questions we need to ask if we’re to protect and improve our green spaces for future generations. Questions such as “Do I feel welcome here?” “Does this space meet my needs?” or “Do I get a say in how it is looked after?” highlight the fact that access is a matter of equality and democracy.

Some green spaces are greener than others

There are three key aspects of green and blue spaces that should be considered, and invested in, if the environmental improvement plan is to be more than wishful thinking.

Some green spaces aren’t for everyone.
1000 Words / shutterstock

First, not all green and blue spaces are the same or provide the same benefits. The qualities of a football pitch are very different from those provided by a woodland walk along a stream.

Lumping them all together as “green and blue spaces” overlooks the need for a variety of spaces within easy reach to meet local people’s needs for physical and mental wellbeing.

Second, not all spaces are equally well looked after. Spaces that are fly-tipped or associated with antisocial activities can feel intimidating, especially after dark.

Green and blue spaces in disadvantaged areas need more care, and that requires time and money. As Public Health England noted, access to good quality green spaces is worse in more disadvantaged areas.

Third, simply being in a space won’t necessarily bring you all the benefits a space can offer. For people suffering from anxiety or depression, for example, more structured activities might be more helpful.

This could include time spent on rivers or allotments as part of the government’s pilot plan to tackle mental ill health by prescribing time in nature.

Be like Birmingham

In Birmingham, the local authority isn’t content with trumpeting the merits of its 600 parks. Instead, the city has developed a city of nature plan (I was part of a team that evaluated it).

At the heart of its approach is the idea of environmental justice, which it defines as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”.

Birmingham’s 600 parks and open spaces are shared between 1.1 million residents of the city proper.
Intrepix / shutterstock

To apply environmental justice to the city’s green spaces, Birmingham Council has assessed each of its 69 electoral ward in terms of access to green space of two hectares (about three football pitches) or more within 1,000 metres, as well as flood risk, urban heat island effects, health inequalities and deprivation.

Through this work, it has identified 13 of its 69 wards which are most in need of investment to reach a new “fair parks standard”. These mainly central areas have less accessible green space, are more at risk of flooding and urban heating, and are more deprived.

Starting with a pilot programme in Bordesley & Highgate Ward (setting for the BBC series Peaky Blinders), the plan is then to invest in a further five priority areas in central and east Birmingham: Balsall Heath West, Nechells, Gravelly Hill, Pype Hayes and Castle Vale.

This is the kind of approach that could guide investment in many other cities. It links funding with equalities and brings together climate change, public health and community issues. It shows that quality and equity can’t just be boiled down to the distance between your home and the nearest park.

The challenge now is to learn from Birmingham’s pioneering approach and apply similar principles elsewhere. At its best, this work can be used to highlight the challenges not only of applying resources equitably, but of ensuring the resources are there in the first place, an issue the environmental impact plan rather predictably glosses over. Läs mer…

China is extending its dealings with the Taliban as it increases its superpower status

China is one of the few countries that is committed to expanding its dealings with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, where it hopes to expand its use of the vast natural resources while also improving its own geopolitical security.

In mid-2021 China welcomed a Taliban delegation, showing its willingness to recognise the Taliban government as the US signalled its planned withdrawal. In early January 2023, a Chinese firm agreed to sign a 25-year contract for oil extraction in Afghanistan. There is also the possibility that a Chinese state-owned company will be contracted to operate a copper mine in the country.

It is unsurprising that as western countries withdraw almost all their links with Afghanistan, China is willing to increase its commercial presence in the country. Although traditionally its Afghan policy has not been a diplomatic priority, it now sees opportunities.

Despite being one of Afghanistan’s largest foreign investors in the past and its strategic partner, China’s involvement in the country has previously been relatively limited when compared with others such as Russia and the US.

Arguably, its policy in regard to Afghanistan has been driven by domestic economic interests and security issues. However, in the last decade or so, China has adopted a more assertive foreign policy. At the same time, commercial interests have also led to increased Chinese involvement in Afghanistan.

Useful natural resources

Greater active engagement with Afghanistan will enable China to benefit in several ways. Afghanistan is one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, but its security conditions have constrained the development of the sector.

Some estimates set the value of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits, such as copper, iron and lithium, at £811.5 billion. In terms of crude oil, it has 1.6 billion barrels. As for natural gas, Afghanistan possesses 16 trillion cubic feet, and has access to 500 million barrels of natural gas liquids.

However, in the past, Chinese activities in Afghanistan’s mineral sector have stalled. In the late 2010s, for example, security concerns hindered the activities of Chinese enterprises tapping into the country’s mineral resources.

China is becoming an ally of the Taliban.

Useful Afghan resources

There is another related gain in working with the Afghan natural resources sector. China’s domestic energy supply is limited both by geology and energy density, and its dependence on other countries leads to “energy security anxieties”.

Access to Afghanistan’s natural resources, then, not only provides economic incentives for China to increase its commercial presence in the country. It also has the potential to help ease its growing demand for energy.

Increasing involvement in Afghanistan falls within China’s prioritisation of short-term energy security. But it can become a fundamental strategic element for its long-term energy requirements.

Read more:
China’s population decline is a result of decades of botched family planning measures and will have global implications

Afghanistan’s fragile internal security has affected China in two ways. First, it worried that years of instability in Afghanistan would spill over into China’s Xinjiang autonomous territory, where there is a long history of religious and ethnic tension with Beijing. This has included crackdowns by Beijing on the Muslim Uyghur people, and widespread accusations of extensive human rights abuses.

Second, the instability that stems from Afghanistan negatively affects the development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is building trade routes with the rest of the world, because two of its fundamental corridors run adjacent to Afghanistan. As a global infrastructure and development investment plan encompassing over 60 countries (although there is no official count), including some from east Asia and Europe, the initiative is a vehicle to expand China’s global economic and political influence. Such an expansion is paramount for China’ superpower aspirations.

Trade frictions with the US and other countries have increased the pressure to open other markets for China’s goods. The BRI is an effective channel to develop new export markets which can alleviate trade pressures. And although the Afghan consumer market is small, it is an untapped market for Chinese goods – particularly those produced in China’s western regions.

Building superpower status

An additional gain is geopolitical. After decades of hegemonic presence “next door” but a degree of reluctance to get involved in Afghan affairs, China seems to be somewhat ready to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of western countries.

Greater presence in Afghanistan provides China with an opportunity to strengthen its regional power and influence. In doing so, it can contribute to the stability of Afghanistan. In turn, such a role will improve China’s image as a responsible rising power.

So far, China has been reluctant to take on a security role in Afghanistan, because this could have led to friction with other countries and increased its exposure to threats by international terrorists networks. However, a change in strategy to increase the economic stability of Afghanistan can contribute to the reduction of China’s own security vulnerabilities. Läs mer…

Curious Kids: are some languages more difficult than others?

Some languages seem harder than others. Does that mean that the brains of people who speak those languages are more stimulated? – Maria Júlia, aged 14, São Lourenço, Brazil

Are some languages harder than others? For example, is Japanese more difficult than English?

To answer the question, the first thing we have to do is distinguish between babies learning their first language and children or adults learning a second language. For babies who learn their first language, no language is harder than another. Babies all learn their first language in about the same period of time. This is because learning a language is natural for all babies, like learning to walk.

A baby’s brain comes into the world prepared to learn any human language they hear spoken around them. The brain gets the same stimulation from exposure to any language, although it adapts to certain features of the language such as specific sounds. There is no evidence that some languages make you smarter.

In fact, babies can even acquire two (or more) languages together, if they hear them regularly. The languages can be similar, like Portuguese and Spanish, or very different, like English and Chinese – but the baby’s brain can learn them at the same time.

But that changes if you already speak a language and are learning a second one. A language that is very different to the one you already know is going to seem harder than one that’s quite similar to your first language.

Learning a second language

For example, if your first language is English, Spanish words like león for “lion” or sal for “salt” are going to be easier to learn than, say, Chinese shīzi and yán, or Turkish aslan and tuz.

To make English words plural, you usually add -s or -es, and the same is true in Spanish, so “lions” is leones. But in Turkish “lions” is aslanlar, and in Chinese there’s no difference between “lion” and “lions” at all. It’s mainly the difference from your first language that can make another language “easier” or “harder”, not the language itself.

The more languages you know, the easier it is to learn other languages. Babies who learn two languages at the same time often have an easier time learning a third or fourth language when they are older. Their bilingual brains already understand something about the ways that languages can be different.

Learning about fruits in Portuguese and English.
Eiko Tsuchiya/Shutterstock

Scientists used to think that there was a cutoff point, at around the age of 12 or 13, after which it was impossible to learn a new language completely. We now know that young people can learn another language throughout their teen years. After that, it does become harder – but not impossible – to reach high levels of fluency in a new language.

The reason that babies are so good at learning languages, though, is partly because they have more time to do it. A teenager’s brain or a grown-up’s brain may still be flexible enough to learn another language, but as people get older, they’re busy with school, work and friends. When babies are learning their first language or languages, they’re spending hours every day practising.

Reading is different

While understanding and speaking a language comes naturally, though, learning to read and write is a different story.

Reading is not something that brains develop automatically. It actually has to be learned. And because different languages are written in different ways, it really does make sense to say that some languages are easier to learn to read than others.

Children who speak English or French spend more years in school learning to read than children who speak Italian or Finnish. This is because in Italian or Finnish there’s a close match between written letters and spoken sounds, while in English or French there are lots of complications. If you’re reading this, you’ll already know about some of the complications in English.

In some languages where writing was invented a long time ago, especially in Asia, there are other complications. In Chinese and Japanese, especially, writing is based on separate symbols for words or parts of words instead of letters that stand for individual sounds. Learning to read these languages can take even longer. In certain particular ways, then, some languages can be harder to learn than others. Läs mer…

Women are more likely to identify as bisexual – can research into sexual arousal tell us why?

Women’s sexuality is vastly understudied in science and is still considered a “taboo” subject. Often, the experiences of men have been taken as the norm in scientific research, yet there are important differences in the sexuality of men and women.

In 2020, approximately 3.2% of the population in the UK over the age of 16 identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. But when it came to bisexuality, there was a stark difference between men and women: women were much more likely to identify as bisexual compared to men (1.6% of women compared to 0.9% of men).

Similarly, a study conducted at the University of Notre Dame found that women were three times more likely to identify as bisexual. “Women have a greater probability than men of being attracted to both men and women,” said researcher Elizabeth McClintock, when discussing the results of the research. “This indicates that women’s sexuality may be more flexible and adaptive than men’s.”

The evidence overwhelmingly shows that women are far more likely to identify as bisexual than men. But it’s hard to say why this might be. Could it be that women are more innately bisexual? Or could it be the fact that it’s more culturally accepted for women to be sexually fluid, or to identify as a lesbian or bisexual than it is for men to identify as something other than straight.

Of course, it’s difficult to separate the cultural and biological but research into sex differences in genital arousal may be able to tell us more.

Women’s bisexual arousal

Genital sexual arousal or physiological arousal is the bodily response to sexual content. In men, it’s measured by changes in the circumference of the penis. In women, it’s measured using changes in blood flow in the vagina.

Research into genital sexual arousal has found that women are more likely to display a bisexual pattern in their sexual arousal compared with men, regardless of their sexual orientation. The 2016 study found that men are much more likely to experience sexual arousal towards one sex, whereas women are more likely to display genital sexual arousal in response to sexual videos of both men and women.

Research indicates that women’s sexual identities are more ‘flexible’ than men’s.
Pexels/Rodnae productions

A more bisexual arousal pattern in women has been seen across many other areas of arousal research including pupil dilation, and brain responses.

Our lab at the University of Essex has continuously found women are more likely to have bisexual physical responses than men. Research led by Gerulf Rieger, found that straight women showed a similar sexual arousal response towards both sexual videos of men and sexual videos of women. This is the case even though all women in the study said that they were only attracted to men.

Why is this the case?

The most prominent theory as to why women display a bisexual arousal pattern is what’s known as the preparation hypothesis. This hypothesis proposed in 2011 by researchers Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumière suggests that because rape and sexual violence has occurred so much throughout human history, women have evolved to become physiologically aroused by sexual situations – even if they dislike or are disgusted by them.

This is believed to be because physiological arousal allows the vagina to become lubricated, thus reducing the likelihood of genital injury that could occur through sexual violence.

One study that seems to support this theory found that women displayed genital arousal while watching animal sex (bonobo chimpanzees). However, a 2018 study
of 20 women found that watching sexually explicit films didn’t automatically lead to vaginal lubrication.

This study still needs to be replicated, as it’s complex to measure vaginal lubrication, but the results indicate that there may be flaws in the scientific thinking that women are turned on by anything sexual. Indeed, it’s likely many women reading this feel they don’t need a study to tell them they’re not aroused by any sexual situation.

Women are more likely to identify as bisexual than lesbian.
Pexels/Rodnae productions

Another theory we are currently investigating is whether empathy could be an explanation for women’s bisexual arousal. Studies show women are naturally more empathetic than men, especially towards other women.

Women are also more able to synchronise their own emotions with the emotions of somebody else. This means women may be more able to understand and feel what somebody else is feeling. And in terms of sexual feelings this could mean that if a woman were to watch a sexual video of a woman who is aroused, she may also become aroused due to her empathy.

While this new theory is still being studied, it’s clear that due to the complexity of cultural and biological factors involved, and because of limits to the current hypotheses we have to explain arousal patterns, conclusions can only go so far.

And while the research does suggest that women are much more likely to identify as bisexual and experience more bisexual arousal than men, more research is needed before we can truly understand why this is the case. Läs mer…

Scammed: why the rich, famous and expert get duped more often than you think

The typical reaction to learning about how people have lost money to a con artist is “how could anyone be so gullible?” But it’s the wrong question. Fraudsters fool even the most clever and admired experts by playing on their psychological vulnerabilities.

News of multi-million and even multi-billion dollar deceptions keep rolling in. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX (a Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange), attracted an A-list of investors and celebrities. Among his investors were some of the most respected names in finance. The list of celebrities who endorsed him — Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Naomi Osaka, Larry David, Kevin O’Leary — was just as impressive.

A billionaire many times over, Bankman-Fried’s empire collapsed in November 2022. Now FTX is a bankrupt company and Bankman-Fried is awaiting trial on multiple charges related to fraud.

The Bankman-Fried story may not be so different from Elizabeth Holmes’s. At the height of her success, Holmes was declared the youngest self-made female billionaire. According to Forbes, her net value was a staggering $4.5 billion, based on her 50% stake in the now-defunct company Theranos. The line of investors in Theranos represented some of the world’s best-known names, including Rupert Murdoch and the Walton family. Recently, a court filing claimed Holmes bought a one-way ticket to Mexico in an attempt to flee the US after her conviction on fraud charges in 2022.

How did Holmes dupe so many experts and well-known people, as Bankman-Fried is also accused of? Like most skilled fraudsters, it is claimed they used their victims’ emotional needs against them.

Sam Bankman-Fried is facing fraud charges over the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX.
UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

No one is immune

The stereotypical image of fraud victims is that they are naïve and older. Data on fraud victims presents a very different picture, however, one that is far more nuanced. Depending on the type of fraud that researchers examine, it’s clear that sophisticated, well-educated and young people are all vulnerable to scams. Fraudsters often target a particular demographic – the well-off and well-known are targeted with scams bespoke to them.

Bernie Madoff masterminded the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.
US Department of Justice, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Research has also found that overconfidence is an important factor in fraud vulnerability. People who are high achievers in one domain (for example, military expertise) may overestimate their ability to perform due diligence in a separate field (medical lab equipment). This could, for example, help explain how Bernie Madoff was able to scam wealthy, well-educated professional people who are not necessarily financial experts.

In our research, we have found that people often feel confident in their ability to detect a scam. In a series of experiments that investigated why people engage with materials that are obviously scams – such as letters apparently notifying the person of lottery winnings – we found a subgroup of people who said such letters were probably a scam but would contact the scammers to see for sure, then still back out without any losses.

A typical scam starts by exposing a victim to the fraudster’s pitch, which is designed to evoke strong emotions such as fear. Then fraudsters use persuasion tactics such as commitment (making people feel obligated to follow through on a pledge), authority (police), scarcity (time pressure), and “social proof” to engage their targets.

Social proof is a term coined by psychologist Robert Cialdini to explain the way consumers will adapt their behaviour in response to what other people are doing. Celebrity social proof can be especially powerful. Famous people may not fully understand the technology yet still convey confidence in a product or service’s effectiveness.

Kim Kardashian has agreed to pay a settlement.
Asatur Yesayants/Shutterstock

In October 2022, Kim Kardashian agreed to pay a $1.26 million (£1 million) settlement to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in relation to claims she failed to disclose that she had been paid $250,000 for publishing an Instagram post touting the cryptocurrency company EthereumMax. And a recent class action lawsuit named several A-list celebrities (Madonna, Justin Bieber, DJ Khaled, Paris Hilton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Snoop Dogg, Serena Williams and Jimmy Fallon) as part of a fraud case for endorsing luxury brand Bored Ape Yacht Club’s non-fungible token scheme.

New-age fraud

Social media has made it easier for famous people to communicate with their followers, something companies have been quick to monetise. Unfortunately. con artists have too. Celebrities’ credibility is being hijacked, dragging their legions of fans down with them.

Experts and wealthy people may feel that the authority their knowledge or riches gives them acts as a shield. But research shows people who are already comfortable with investing and taking risks are more likely to be approached with illegitimate investment opportunities. They are also more open to these opportunities.

From a scammer’s logistical perspective, it is much easier to defraud a few rich people or organisations than many poor ones. A report by wealth management service Saltus found that people whose net worth is over £3 million are twice as likely to report being a fraud victim, compared with those with a net worth of £250,000-£500,000.

When someone’s reputation is on the line, they might have less incentive to admit being a victim. This could help explain why the US attorney office in San Francisco needed to put a public call out asking for information from Holmes’s victims, and the US Justice Department had to create a similar mechanism for FTX victims.

In our work, we interviewed psychologists who had fallen for scams. Because part of their “brand” is expertise on human behaviour, they feared exposure and humiliation and were disinclined to report the crime or seek help. But their shame only allows the scam to continue and defraud more victims.

We are concerned that social media will only drive more investment scams in the future. So remember, investments that defy financial fundamentals should be approached with extreme caution. Involvement of a third party such as an accountant may help you avoid decisions based on superficial appeal.

Social media may have moved the goalposts, but the classic advice to never assume anything is true without checking for yourself is still worth heeding. Läs mer…

Scammed: why the rich, famous and experts get duped more often than you think

The typical reaction to learning about how people have lost money to a con artist is “how could anyone be so gullible?” But it’s the wrong question. Fraudsters fool even the most clever and admired experts by playing on their psychological vulnerabilities.

News of multi-million and even multi-billion dollar deceptions keep rolling in. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX (a Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange), attracted an A-list of investors and celebrities. Among his investors were some of the most respected names in finance. The list of celebrities who endorsed him — Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Naomi Osaka, Larry David, Kevin O’Leary — was just as impressive.

A billionaire many times over, Bankman-Fried’s empire collapsed in November 2022. Now FTX is a bankrupt company and Bankman-Fried is awaiting trial on multiple charges related to fraud.

The Bankman-Fried story may not be so different from Elizabeth Holmes’s. At the height of her success, Holmes was declared the youngest self-made female billionaire. According to Forbes, her net value was a staggering $4.5 billion, based on her 50% stake in the now-defunct company Theranos. The line of investors in Theranos represented some of the world’s best-known names, including Rupert Murdoch and the Walton family. Recently, a court filing claimed Holmes bought a one-way ticket to Mexico in an attempt to flee the US after her conviction on fraud charges in 2022.

How did Holmes dupe so many experts and well-known people, as Bankman-Fried is also accused of? Like most skilled fraudsters, it is claimed they used their victims’ emotional needs against them.

Sam Bankman-Fried is facing fraud charges over the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX.
UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

No one is immune

The stereotypical image of fraud victims is that they are naïve and older. Data on fraud victims presents a very different picture, however, one that is far more nuanced. Depending on the type of fraud that researchers examine, it’s clear that sophisticated, well-educated and young people are all vulnerable to scams. Fraudsters often target a particular demographic – the well-off and well-known are targeted with scams bespoke to them.

Bernie Madoff masterminded the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.
US Department of Justice, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Research has also found that overconfidence is an important factor in fraud vulnerability. People who are high achievers in one domain (for example, military expertise) may overestimate their ability to perform due diligence in a separate field (medical lab equipment). This could, for example, help explain how Bernie Madoff was able to scam wealthy, well-educated professional people who are not necessarily financial experts.

In our research, we have found that people often feel confident in their ability to detect a scam. In a series of experiments that investigated why people engage with materials that are obviously scams – such as letters apparently notifying the person of lottery winnings – we found a subgroup of people who said such letters were probably a scam but would contact the scammers to see for sure, then still back out without any losses.

A typical scam starts by exposing a victim to the fraudster’s pitch, which is designed to evoke strong emotions such as fear. Then fraudsters use persuasion tactics such as commitment (making people feel obligated to follow through on a pledge), authority (police), scarcity (time pressure), and “social proof” to engage their targets.

Social proof is a term coined by psychologist Robert Cialdini to explain the way consumers will adapt their behaviour in response to what other people are doing. Celebrity social proof can be especially powerful. Famous people may not fully understand the technology yet still convey confidence in a product or service’s effectiveness.

Kim Kardashian has agreed to pay a settlement.
Asatur Yesayants/Shutterstock

In October 2022, Kim Kardashian agreed to pay a $1.26 million (£1 million) settlement to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in relation to claims she failed to disclose that she had been paid $250,000 for publishing an Instagram post touting the cryptocurrency company EthereumMax. And a recent class action lawsuit named several A-list celebrities (Madonna, Justin Bieber, DJ Khaled, Paris Hilton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Snoop Dogg, Serena Williams and Jimmy Fallon) as part of a fraud case for endorsing luxury brand Bored Ape Yacht Club’s non-fungible token scheme.

New-age fraud

Social media has made it easier for famous people to communicate with their followers, something companies have been quick to monetise. Unfortunately. con artists have too. Celebrities’ credibility is being hijacked, dragging their legions of fans down with them.

Experts and wealthy people may feel that the authority their knowledge or riches gives them acts as a shield. But research shows people who are already comfortable with investing and taking risks are more likely to be approached with illegitimate investment opportunities. They are also more open to these opportunities.

From a scammer’s logistical perspective, it is much easier to defraud a few rich people or organisations than many poor ones. A report by wealth management service Saltus found that people whose net worth is over £3 million are twice as likely to report being a fraud victim, compared with those with a net worth of £250,000-£500,000.

When someone’s reputation is on the line, they might have less incentive to admit being a victim. This could help explain why the US attorney office in San Francisco needed to put a public call out asking for information from Holmes’s victims, and the US Justice Department had to create a similar mechanism for FTX victims.

In our work, we interviewed psychologists who had fallen for scams. Because part of their “brand” is expertise on human behaviour, they feared exposure and humiliation and were disinclined to report the crime or seek help. But their shame only allows the scam to continue and defraud more victims.

We are concerned that social media will only drive more investment scams in the future. So remember, investments that defy financial fundamentals should be approached with extreme caution. Involvement of a third party such as an accountant may help you avoid decisions based on superficial appeal.

Social media may have moved the goalposts, but the classic advice to never assume anything is true without checking for yourself is still worth heeding. Läs mer…

Is terrorism returning to Pakistan?

Earlier this week, a suicide blast ruptured the relative calm that had returned to Pakistan in recent years. The attack at a mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed more than 100 people and stunned many Pakistanis who thought the days of such horrific suicide bombings were long behind them.

While Monday’s attack was among the worst in the country in a decade, the blast doesn’t necessarily signal a return of terrorism so much as an escalation of a problem that never really went away.

The Pakistan Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), denied responsibility for Monday’s blast. Instead, a TTP faction, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed to be behind it.

But in many ways, Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation is directly linked to a resurgent TTP and the increasing fragility in neighbouring Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021.

Read more:
How Pakistan stands to gain — or lose — from the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan

The Pakistani government had supported the Afghan Taliban for years, but the relationship began to break down after the Afghan Taliban offered shelter to TTP fighters and released thousands of terrorists from prison after taking power.

The TTP not only appeared to be strengthened and energised by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, it also drew closer to the group.

Last year, the Afghan Taliban facilitated dialogue between the Pakistani government and the TTP that led to a ceasefire deal. But by November, the TTP ended the five-month truce, claiming the government had not complied with all its requests, most notably the freeing of important TTP members.

The result has been a slow but steady uptick in terrorist attacks.

Documented acts of terrorism hit a high of 3,923 in Pakistan in 2013, with more than 2,000 deaths. The number of fatalities plunged to 267 in 2021, but last year, started to climb again to 365.

Pakistan also only registered four suicide attacks in 2021, but there were 13 last year and four already this year. The TTP has claimed responsibility for most attacks.

Rescue workers search for victims a day after a suicide bomb blast at a mosque in Peshawar.
Arshad Arbab/EPA

Decade-long war on extremism

Pakistan had achieved enormous strides against terrorism over the past 15 years, in large part because of its significant “Rah-e-Rast” military operation in 2009 and the “Zarb-e-Azb” operation in 2014.

The TTP retaliated to the latter with an attack on an army public school in Peshawar in 2014, killing more than 130 children. This prompted the army to intensify its activities, and by 2017, it had largely routed the TTP.

A protest following the Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar in 2014.
Fareed Khan/AP

These security operations, however, only addressed the symptoms of the problem by pushing most TTP fighters across the border into Afghanistan. Terrorist attacks in Pakistan declined, but the problem didn’t go away.

Despite the development of a counter-terrorism blueprint called the National Action Plan in 2014, the government’s security operations have been too limited in scope. They do not focus on all terrorist groups, but selectively target a few, such as the TTP.

The National Counter Terrorism Authority has registered 78 terrorist organisations in Pakistan, but little is known what the government is doing to counter them. The National Action Plan also does not focus much attention on preventative measures like education.

Read more:
’It is a big relief for me’: how the welfare provided by madrassas holds a key to fighting the Taliban

Addressing the root causes of extremism

Nonetheless, there is growing interest in Pakistan to invest more in promoting a stronger national counter-narrative against extremist ideologies, such as the Paigham-e-Pakistan, which the government developed with the help of hundreds of Islamic scholars.

Moreover, there is a growing desire in policymaking circles to address the root causes of extremism, including the grievances of locals in the region previously known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border and Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan.

The growing insecurity in Balochistan, for instance, is in part driven by Chinese investment, which is opposed by the militant Baloch Liberation Army. The group believes the government has exploited the region’s resources and ignored its development needs. It has targeted Chinese citizens in numerous attacks.

The stakes here are very high for Pakistan, which is desperate for foreign investment. As such, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal has urged the government to focus on addressing the socio-economic concerns of locals, in particular young people, so they don’t turn toward extremism.

A bombing at a hotel in Balochistan in 2021 where China’s ambassador to Pakistan had been staying. He was not at the hotel at the time.
Fayyaz Ahmed/EPA

The same grievances exist in the former tribal areas, where millions have suffered due to the government’s neglect.

Until 2018, this region was governed under the notorious, colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation. This meant Pakistani laws did not apply and there were no local courts or political parties, allowing armed groups to thrive. The first time residents participated in any election was in 2019, more than 70 years after independence.

When the government merged the tribal areas with a neighbouring province in 2018, residents believed their lives would improve. But this coincided with the resurgence of the TTP in the region, bringing new concerns about security and stability.

What the state should do now

For now, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts are largely focused on TTP, but the country needs a broader approach.

First, Pakistan needs to have its own house in order by addressing the ongoing governance challenges in the former tribal areas and Balochistan.

Second, the government can no longer limit counter-terrorism operations to only a few areas. This will only increase the grievances of locals, who continue to suffer due to displacement and disempowerment. As terrorist groups are spread across the country, it is time the state tries a more holistic approach.

With the TTP, it is already clear that attempting dialogue has not worked. It only provided the group more legitimacy and time for recruitment and fundraising.

Instead of playing into the hands of terrorist groups, the government needs to address the structural causes of extremism, such as the marginalisation of millions living in peripheral areas, in particular highly vulnerable young people. Läs mer…

Win-win: how solar farms can double as havens for our wildlife

Australia’s renewable energy transition has prompted the construction of dozens of large-scale solar farms. The boom helps reduce Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels, but requires large areas of land to be converted to host solar infrastructure.

Solar farms are mostly built in rural areas. This has raised concerns about a potential decline in both agricultural production – as arable land is used for solar energy production – and wildlife habitat.

But there are ways to expand solar infrastructure so both nature and people win. We’ve already seen this in so called “agrivoltaics”, where land under and around solar panels is used to grow crops and graze livestock. But what about “conservoltaics”, combing conservation and solar energy?

My new research examines whether solar farms could also be used to help conserve native species. I found solar panels can provide valuable habitat for wildlife – and potentially benefit both the land and farmers.

‘Agrivoltaics’ involves combining solar generation with agriculture – but what about ‘conservoltaics’?
Shutterstock

A new place to call home

Our wild landscapes are diminishing and protected areas, such as national parks, cover only about 9% of Australia.

Many agricultural landscapes have been cleared of trees to provide pasture for livestock. It means wildlife that rely on trees have lost vast tracts of habitat.

So we must find new places for wildlife to forage, rest, shelter and breed.

My work examines how solar parks on agricultural land can double as wildlife habitat. It involves surveys and trapping to identify what plants and animals occupy solar farms, how long they take to recolonise, and how we can promote even more biodiversity.

My new paper coins a new term for this dual land-use: conservoltaics. I highlight research from overseas into how solar parks can bring conservation benefits, and describe the research still needed.

Solar panels add three-dimensional structure and complexity to an environment. They can provide animals shelter from predators and the elements, much like artificial reefs in lakes and oceans. They can also act as perch or nesting structures.

Solar infrastructure also creates a mosaic of sun and shade patches – and so provide many “micro-habitats” for plants and animals.

Research from Europe has shown large solar farms can enhance the diversity and abundance of plants, grasses, butterflies, bees and birds.

What’s more, vegetation between solar panel rows can also provide travel corridors, nesting sites and shelter for wildlife.

Read more:
Why Queensland is still ground zero for Australian deforestation

Research shows solar arrays can increase the presence of pollinators such as butterflies.
Shutterstock

Management is key

Research suggests several management strategies that can maximise the benefits of solar farms for wildlife.

Land managers should provide a diverse mix of flowering plant species to encourage pollinators. And grass between solar panels should not be mowed too short or too often. Pollinators prefer tall vegetation where they can forage – though vegetation should not be so tall that it shades the solar panels.

The use of herbicides and other chemicals should be avoided where possible. And solar farms should be connected to other vegetated areas, using features such as hedgerows and wildflower strips, so wildlife can move between the solar farm and other habitats.

Landholders who combine solar farms with wildlife habitat may reap several benefits.

They could receive financial returns by earning environmental credits through schemes that reward carbon sequestration and biodiversity improvements.

They may also improve the health of their land by, for example, increasing pollination or providing habitat for predators such as raptor perches or nest boxes – which in turn could help control pests.

Much work remains, however, to understand these opportunities.

Farm management strategies can maximise the benefits of solar farms for wildlife.
Eric Nordberg

Looking ahead

The benefit of renewable energy in reducing carbon emissions is well known. But more work is needed to understand how solar farms can benefit wildlife.

Research is also lacking on how to locate, configure and manage solar farms to best enhance biodiversity. Collaboration between industry, land managers and researchers is needed so clean energy production and conservation can go hand-in-hand.

Read more:
Australia needs much more solar and wind power, but where are the best sites? We mapped them all Läs mer…

Major palm oil companies broke their promise on No Deforestation – recovery is needed

Despite a 2013 pledge by major palm oil firms to maintain environmentally friendly operations, a recent report by environmental group Earthqualizer revealed that more than 440,000 hectares of forest and peat land (roughly three times the size of London) have been cleared for oil plantation in Indonesia between 2016 and 2021; and 210,000 hectares in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

The pledge – known as “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” (NDPE) policy – banned the companies from cutting down trees in forests and damaging wetland areas. The failure to comply supposed to result in sanctions from buyers.

Despite that pledge, the Earthqualizer report found 116 big companies (mostly Indonesian companies) still destroyed more than 1,000 hectares of forest and peatland, 25 of the corporate groups even did it between 7,000-35,000 hectares. This shows that pledge is being ignored and the sanctions are not effectively enforced.

This has became a challenge to transform palm oil industry to be more sustainable. To overcome it, we need to find a mechanism that also benefits millions of small farmers who rely on palm oil for their livelihood.

Soil fertilisation at palm oil plantations in West Kalimantan Province, Indonesia.
Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR, CC BY-ND

Fixing a broken promise

In 2019, Indonesia put in place strict rules for palm oil companies by issuing a permanent ban on turning natural forests into land for palm oil production. The government also put a three year freeze on building new palm oil plantations.

Because of these rules, deforestation and peatland clearing for palm oil plantation slowed down from 2019 to 2021, according to the October 2022 Earthqualizer report.

Read more:
Indonesia’s palm oil policy at a crossroads: why government interventions are ineffective

But government policies aren’t the golden ticket to make sure palm oil suppliers follow the rules. Companies in the supply chain also need to ensure that the regulations are being followed.

When purchasing palm oil, any buyer must ensure that the product is sourced from sustainable practices. To do this, buyers must set up an accountable and transparent monitoring system. This system will provide an immediate response, such as freezing trade with non-compliant suppliers, if the companies are proven to have damaged forests and peatlands in their supply chain.

However, non-compliant palm oil suppliers can appeal as long as they show commitment to sustainable practices.

A Lubuk Beringin villager, Zulita, taps a rubber tree on her farm at Lubuk Beringin village, Bungo district, Jambi province, Indonesia.
Tri Saputro/CIFOR, CC BY-ND

Under the system, buyers can ask palm oil suppliers to restore any land that they’ve damaged. The suppliers are then required to prove that they’re trying to fix things by making a clear plan for how and when they’ll conduct recovery and restore the land.

Restoring land is not only about planting trees, but also protecting and managing the recovered forests. Recovery is not only about land restoration, but also recovering local economies.

One way to do it is by involving local communities. The palm oil companies can create recovery plans, in which they will restore the forest and help improve the livelihoods of nearby communities by selling byproducts like rubber or candlenut for the community. This also aligns with the Indonesian government’s plan to give 12.7 million hectares of forest land to communities through social forestry projects.

Involvement from all

To reassure the public that the palm oil industry is making improvements, all parties in the palm oil supply chain must commit to restoring forests and peatlands.

Money is not really an issue here.

A non-profit conservation group called The Forest Conversation Fund estimates it would cost US$35 million per year to recover the 877,314 hectares of forest. The number is quite miniscule compared to the value of palm oil industry, which is estimated to be worth US$63.7 billion.. A one-time payment for a full 25-year recovery plan will cost only 1.3% of the net worth of the industry.

Consumers can also play a role in it by only buying products from companies who are putting consistent efforts to comply with the No Deforestation policy.

All we need is a solid commitment from the palm oil industry to continuously support the global sustainability agenda. Läs mer…

This strange donkey orchid uses UV light to trick bees into thinking it has food

If you’ve ever compared a frozen pizza to the photo on the box, you know the feeling of being duped by appetising looks.

In our latest study we show that animals – in this case, bees – are also prone to being tricked into making poor decisions, which explains a lot about how gaps in perception are exploited in nature.

When Charles Darwin was testing the theory of evolution 150 years ago, he looked at the interaction between flowering plants and the animals that forage to collect nectar.

This helped establish that flowers have adaptations to promote easier pollinator access, making it beneficial for the animal who gets a food “reward” from them. At the same time, it means the plants get pollinated and can reproduce.

One perplexing problem is some flowering plants that reproduce by pollination are non-rewarding – the animal doesn’t get nectar from visiting the flower. This is true of certain orchids, yet these flowers are still visited by pollinators and survive well in nature.

A mistaken identity

With the benefit of modern scientific tools like a spectrophotometer that measures the amount of colour, digital ultraviolet (UV) photography and computer modelling of how bees see the world, our international team set out to understand how some orchids have evolved dazzling floral displays.

Our chosen species was the winter donkey orchid (Diuris brumalis), endemic to Western Australia. This non-rewarding, food deceptive plant blooms at the same time as rewarding native pea plants (Daviesia).

A winter donkey orchid (left) and a prickly bitter-pea.
Cal Wood/iNaturalist;
caitlind164/iNaturalist, CC BY

As a result, native Trichocolletes bees appear to mistake the orchid for legume plants frequently enough that the orchid gets pollinated.

We quantified the flower colour signals from both plants, revealing the main component of the visual information perceived by a bee was in the short wavelength UV region of the spectrum.

This made sense – while our vision sees blue, green and red wavelengths of light as primary colours, bees can see UV reflected light but lack a channel for perceiving primary red.

By using computer models of bee pollinator perception, we observed the orchid mimic species and the native pea plant species did actually look similar in colour to bees.

Flower shape and colour properties of an orchid (upper row) and a native pea flower (lower row) shown in the field, as individual flowers, and with spectral measurements.
Scaccabarozzi et al., 2023, Author provided

Putting a UV block on flowers

What was surprising, however, was the non-rewarding orchid flowers – pollinated by deception – actually have more conspicuous advertising for bee vision.

For example, the main display outer flower petals were significantly larger on the orchid plants, and also produced a stronger UV colour signal.

To understand if such signalling was biologically relevant, we next conducted field experiments with the plants. We used a special UV sun-blocking solution to remove the strong UV signals in half of the orchid species, whilst the other half retained their natural appearance.

UV photographs of orchid flowers (upper left panel) in natural state and also with applied UV blocking screen. Middle panels show false-colour photographs of flower appearance for a bee, and right hand panel a computer model of how bee vision perceives flower colours.
Scaccabarozzi et al., 2023, Author provided

At the completion of the field season, several months latter, we could measure which plants were more successfully pollinated by bees, revealing the strong UV signals had a significant role in promoting pollination in the orchids.

A second interesting finding of the field experiments was the distance between the pea flowers and their copycat orchids was a major factor in the success of the orchids’ deception strategy.

If the orchids with strong UV signals were within close proximity – a meter or two – to the rewarding native pea flowers, the deception was less successful and few orchid flowers were pollinated. However, if the deceptive orchids were about eight meters away from the rewarding model species, this produced the highest success rate in pollination.

Why deception works

It turns out a distance of about eight meters is important because of the way bee brains process colour. When bees see a pair of colours in close proximity, they can evaluate them at the same time. This leads to very precise colour matching. A similar process happens in human brains – we also have to see colours at the same time.

However, seeing colour stimuli with a time interval in between means the brain has to remember the first colour, inspect the second colour, and make a mental calculation about whether the two samples are indeed the same.

Neither bee brains, nor our own, are good at successive colour comparisons. This is why when we purchase paint for a repair job we take a sample to get a precise match, rather than try and remember what we thought the colour should look like.

Deceptive flowers are successful by exploiting this perceptual gap in how brains have to code information when bees need to fly several meters in search of more food.

By using a “look at me” strategy (essentially, better advertising than other plants) it is possible to survive in nature without actually offering a food reward to the pollinators. To do this, the plants need to be at an optimal distance from the plants they are mimicking. Not too close and not too far, and success is assured.

Read more:
’Like finding life on Mars’: why the underground orchid is Australia’s strangest, most mysterious flower Läs mer…

We’re missing opportunities to identify domestic violence perpetrators. This is what needs to change

Identifying perpetrators of domestic and family violence is critical to ending violence against women.

Practitioners across different sectors, including mental health, alcohol and drug services, have a vital opportunity to “screen” clients to identify if they’ve experienced or perpetrated domestic violence.

However, our new research reveals practitioners across a range of services are missing opportunities to identify people who choose to perpetrate violence.

The research, funded by the Australian Institute of Criminology and led by Griffith University’s Silke Meyer, reveals there’s significant work to be done to embed screening practices across a range of different services.

States and territory governments across Australia have repeatedly committed to increasing perpetrator accountability. This research shows we need to improve the training of practitioners across various sectors to ensure perpetrators are consistently identified at the earliest opportunity.

Identifying and assessing risk

People who perpetrate domestic violence routinely come into contact with a range of services for other, often co-occurring issues, such as mental health concerns. Each contact with a service presents an opportunity to screen for perpetrators of such violence, and to support the safety of victim-survivors.

Screening for potential perpetrators involves practitioners reviewing available information and asking questions. It can require them to identify warning signs that may signal the perpetration of violence.

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Practitioners use risk assessment tools, such as Victoria’s Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management Framework, as well as their professional judgement. This is highly skilled and challenging work.

Without effective screening and risk assessment practices, people who perpetrate violence may go undetected, may not be referred to intervention services, and their ongoing risk of violence remains unaddressed.

Our research found missed opportunities are evident in child protection, health settings, mental health settings, drug and alcohol interventions, and in corrections.

We need to invest more in training

Our findings demonstrate that enhancing specialist training increases practitioners’ likelihood of screening. Yet practitioners in our study reflected on the often limited training available. One corrections staff member commented:

People coming into our agency generally don’t have a good understanding of domestic and family violence, and it’s something that they’re learning either on the job or through a DV person […] There’s nothing really consistent, as a whole agency.

Practitioners consistently said they want more domestic violence training. This will require substantive investment in specialist workforce training across all relevant service sectors.

In our study, mental health practitioners were least likely to report regular screening of clients for potential domestic violence perpetration. Practitioners described mental health services, in particular emergency settings and crisis responses, as fast-paced and under-resourced.

A mental health practitioner told us:

Everybody’s under the pump, and you just see people […] meeting just the bare minimum to cover your back and meeting the minimum standards.

This environment increases the likelihood that perpetrators will be missed.

Increased resources, specialist training, and improved information sharing across the mental health system as well as other services is needed to ensure perpetrators are more consistently identified, their risks assessed and monitored.

Also, the need for improved practices doesn’t stop at the point of identifying risk. Practitioners in our study said there are limited services available for referrals. There’s a need for more early intervention referral options for domestic violence perpetrators.

The study also highlights the importance of organisational leadership and the need to prioritise risk assessment of domestic violence as “core business”. Practitioners in these service settings are well placed to screen potential perpetrators for use of violence. Embedding this in everyday practice will ensure screening occurs at every opportunity.

Achieving perpetrator accountability

This study focused on Queensland and to a lesser extent Victoria. However, the research findings have national importance.

Launched in 2022, Australia’s National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032 includes a key principle to hold perpetrators to account. To achieve this goal we must ensure they’re identified at every opportunity.

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To end gender-based violence in one generation, we must fix how the system responds to children and young people

Australian governments are currently preparing the first five-year Action Plan. This strategy will identify the actions needed to progress the National Plan’s goal to eliminate gender-based violence in one generation. Our research highlights why consistent and improved screening and risk assessment processes must be included. Läs mer…

Crumb bachelors and millennial HENRYs enliven Ronnie Scott’s zeitgeisty new novel

Ronnie Scott is an RMIT academic and co-founder of the literary journal The Lifted Brow. His debut novel, The Adversary (2020), set mainly in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, was a wry exploration of the nuances of house sharing and online dating.

His second novel, Shirley, is also set in Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs. Unlike the house in Abbotsford that gives the novel its title, the female narrator is nameless. As a child, she was abandoned by her food-celebrity mother after a controversial incident, left in the eponymous family house in the care of a series of business managers named “Gerald”. She has grown into a lonely adult, who still yearns to be seen by her mother.

Review: Shirley – Ronnie Scott (Hamish Hamilton).

Having acquired a Masters of Global Communications, she now works as a copywriter for a health insurance company. She is past the years in her twenties when she would go out clubbing and fuck members of rock bands in share houses, and past her Gen-Z boyfriend, David. She attends Invasion Day rallies and expresses her concern for Gippsland’s bushfire victims. Childless, she enacts a wounded agency: “my smile stayed fixed”.

Psychological realism

Scott’s psychological realist novel spears the disorienting effects of 262 days of Melbourne lockdowns – although his protagonist is more financially secure than most of her cohort. She has a mortgage on a rundown apartment in Collingwood and a boring full-time job that allows her to work mainly from home. She half-heartedly becomes a boss. “I did a good job of living shallowly,” she states.

The novel’s narrative hooks entice:

the night at Shirley twenty years ago that had changed both our lives. What happened that night? It is a tempting question, and I will never answer it.

Frequent flashbacks then provide the circumstantial and psychological details, the protagonist sharing her confidences in the pensive tones of a diarist.

Shirley is not a book about racial or environmental politics. Nor is sexual fluidity in the foreground, though David is bi-curious and the last of the Geralds happily gay.

So what is at stake? What does Scott’s narrator need? Will a baby or a pet fix things? Or perhaps a mother’s love of a less meagre kind?

When “condiment maven” Frankie, barefoot and pregnant – surely an intended irony – moves next door with her employee and boy lover, there is a discussion about how a child is the answer to feelings of emptiness.

Yet our protagonist craves solitude. She wants to retreat, drink in hand, to her home space and smoke a cigarette. Her thought patterns seem cauterised by the trauma of abandonment. She robotically paraphrases her therapist as she ploughs through “empathy deserts” and soothes rather than engages with others: “It’s good that you know what you want.”

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Gender equity

The novel entertains on many levels. The prose in Shirley is assured, blackly funny and playful, though the register of some of the inner monologues may not appeal to all readers:

As it turns out, this is a febrile environment for extant tensions to aggravate; a time of peace doesn’t leave much time for prevarication.

Ronnie Scott.
Image: Leah Jing McIntosh/Penguin Books

Gender equity arises as a core subject, but the tone is tongue-in-cheek. The narrator’s female friends are millennial HENRYs (High Earning, Not Rich Yet), who – pre-COVID – liked décor and drugs, but not sex-tapes or music festivals like their boyfriends. They despair of finding equal partners and retaining their power over their younger lovers. The young men present as crumb bachelors, who need older women to give them a leg up. They are endearing in their gaucheness, if eventually tiresome.

The novel’s zeitgeisty narrative also satirises feminism, grief, mothering, relationships, and everything else, in a manner that is at times reminiscent of Nick Earls. Class, mainly aspirational, is touched upon. Celebrity food shows take a hit, the narrator’s distant mother serving as a synecdoche. And teachers of creative writing may greet Scott’s definition with glee: “a room full of people who had learned the word ‘petrichor’ at a vulnerable time and never got over it”.

Scott trusts his readers to follow the rapid reversals and dark satire. Consider, for example, this passage of dialogue between Frankie and her employee, Alex:

“We’re not really a couple,” said Frankie. Alex frowned. “Alex is a – well what would you call yourself?”

“I’m a gigolo,” Alex said.

“More like a sperm donor,” she corrected, “as well as a general dogsbody. With an option towards future parent duties.”

“We’re not in love,” said Alex.

“I make a lot of money,” agreed Frankie, “and I liked his genes.”

“You liked my chin and my behaviour,” said Alex. “You can’t see my genes.”

The protagonist’s loneliness can only be inferred from the long absence of her heartless mother and the alienation experienced by many singles during Covid lockdowns. She seems to be in an almost dissociated state. She seeks only clarification, or enough information in her relationships with others to calculate her personal boundaries. She mentions complex feelings before repressing memories that trigger them.

Novels can succeed in different ways. Shirley constantly invites its readers to switch gears from psychological identification to political and social satire. The psychological realism does not quite satisfy, but the satire enlivens. Each time it erupts, it lightens the tension.

Humane by inclination, or perhaps simply ambivalent, the narrator comes to care for Meanie, an ancient, abandoned, arthritic, diabetic cat. She is ultimately horny, sad, and stuck. In the novel’s final scenes, the word “need” appears six times.

Scott’s struggling, self-perceptive characters see themselves as vulnerable, yet smarter than their therapists. Could existential dread and irony come any funnier or more poignant? Whether readers find the ending redemptive might depend on how they weathered COVID, and how they feel about cats. Läs mer…

COVID remains a global emergency, the World Health Organization says, but we’re at a transition point. What does this mean?

As we enter the fourth year of living with COVID, we are all asking the predictable question: when will the pandemic be over?

To answer this question, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a pandemic involves the worldwide spread of a disease that requires an emergency response at a global level.

This week, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared COVID continues to be a public health emergency of international concern.

As Ghebreyesus notes, we still face significant challenges, with high rates of transmission in many countries, the risk of a game-changing new variant ever-present, and an unknown impact of long COVID.

Despite limited testing, we’re still seeing large numbers of confirmed cases.
Our World in Data/Johns Hopkins University CSSE COVID-19 Data, CC BY

Yet COVID pandemic “fatigue” means it’s harder to reach people with public health messaging, while misinformation continues to circulate. In addition, many countries have deprioritised COVID testing and surveillance, so we don’t have accurate data about the extent of transmission.

But while we’re still in the emergency phase of our COVID response, three years after the original declaration, the WHO also acknowledged we’re at a transition point. This means we’re moving towards the “disease control” phase of our response to COVID and learning to live with the virus.

What are we transitioning to?

Moving out of the emergency response phase for COVID doesn’t mean ignoring COVID or returning to exactly what our lives looked like before March 2020. Rather, we need to learn to coexist with COVID.

Living with COVID means applying appropriate prevention and control measures for COVID as we go about our lives. This is what we do for other infectious diseases, including other respiratory diseases.

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The most effective thing we can do to reduce the risk of COVID is to be up-to-date with our vaccinations and boosters. COVID vaccines don’t completely stop transmission, but they greatly reduce your likelihood of becoming seriously ill.

We can also reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID by masking up in high-risk settings, socialising in well-ventilated spaces, and staying away from others when unwell.

Living with COVID also involves government continuing with public health actions to monitor disease transmission and to prevent, control and respond to infections.

What has prompted the transition?

We’ve entered the transition phase because the risk associated with COVID has shifted. Thanks to safe and effective vaccines, along with high levels of prior infection, we have increased immunity at the population level and COVID infection is less likely to lead to severe disease.

This, combined with the emergence of less virulent variants (for now) and the addition to our armoury of a number of effective treatment options, has reduced the overall threat COVID poses to health. The position we are in now is very different to where we were at the beginning of the pandemic.

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One of the main characteristics of this transition phase of the pandemic is a shift towards a risk-based approach to COVID. The focus of public health interventions will be to target the most vulnerable to COVID in the community. This means ensuring older age groups, those with underlying health conditions and others at increased risk of severe outcomes from COVID are adequately protected.

Our COVID response will prioritise those at higher risk of severe disease.
Shutterstock

What might get in the way?

A smooth path through this transition phase and into the next phase is reliant on continuing to maintain a high level of population immunity overall. One of the biggest challenges is how to promote the uptake of vaccines as the perceived threat of COVID fades.

The difficulty in ensuring a high uptake of boosters is a worldwide problem. Waning immunity, which could be topped up with additional vaccine doses, remains a significant concern and we need to find better ways to address this issue.

The main challenge for health authorities right now is to, on the one hand, acknowledge the reduction in the risk COVID poses while, on the other hand, ensuring people don’t become complacent and completely ignore COVID.

Health authorities are also propping up very fatigued and stretched health systems.

So when will it end?

The WHO’s recognition we are entering a transition phase of the pandemic means we’re one step closer to the end of the pandemic. But while pandemics begin with a bang, they don’t end that way.

Pandemics fade as individuals and populations gradually return to living their lives in a more “normal” way as their risk changes. This can be incredibly messy, with countries transitioning out of the emergency response phase of the pandemic at different times.

So the pandemic isn’t over but an end is in sight.

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Slippery slopes: why the Auckland storm caused so many landslides – and what can be done about it

The January 27 storm that hit Auckland broke all previous rainfall records and has caused widespread damage, mostly from flooding and landslides. But while climate change helps explain the intensity of the rainfall, the way land has been used and built on in the city is a major factor in what happened.

Such rainfall events generate significant landslides, probably in the thousands. What geologists refer to as “multiple-occurrence regional landslide events” (MORLEs) are sometimes also triggered by earthquakes (such as happened in Kaikoura in 2016).

But predicting where and when land might slide is not easy. Influencing factors include local geology, the properties of the slope material (soil and/or rock), slope geometry and angle, surface vegetation cover, drainage, and any buildings which can add weight and “load” to a slope.

Combinations of these factors were involved in Auckland, and understanding what happened and why will be important for ensuring the city is protected from similar events in future.

Weak saturated soil

Auckland has weak, clay-rich soils formed by the weathering of underlying (often) weak rocks. It also has a lot of steep slopes. Even in their natural state, these slopes can be prone to sliding if the soils become saturated enough.

A further issue is the seasonal drying and wetting of soils. Auckland’s clay-rich soils show high “shrink and swell” properties, meaning there is a natural annual cycle of wetting (swelling) and drying (shrinking).

This can cause a progressive weakening of the soils over years and decades, called “strain-softening” (a bit like taking a steel fork and bending it back and forth). The soil is then more prone to failure when a large rainfall event occurs.

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In theory, then, more extreme climate effects could lead to an increased rate of soil deterioration, causing the properties of the soil to change more rapidly.

Rainfall “thresholds” are also important to consider. These are the rainfall totals – measured across either 24, 48 or 72 hour intervals – that can initiate landslides on a given slope. But using rainfall forecasts to predict landslides oversimplifies the issue because the prevailing (“antecedent”) soil moisture conditions are also important.

Soils are made of solids (the grains), water, and air which creates “pore” spaces. If it’s been a very wet few weeks preceding a storm event, water increases within the pores (“porewater”), creating an increase in pressure. This lowers the strength of the soil, meaning less rainfall may be required to trigger landslides.

Too close to cliffs

While climate change and the warming of oceans that pump-prime extreme weather events are certainly pressing issues, changing land use is also of growing importance. Indeed, some studies now suggest it is as important as, or possibly exceeds, the effects of climate change on landslides.

These changes include the removal of vegetation, which allows more water to directly enter the soil; the creation of impermeable surfaces; and the cutting and filling of undulating slopes to enable roads and buildings to be constructed. All of these affect the near-surface drainage and hydrology.

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A further problem in Auckland is often the lack of adequate building “set-back” distances. This is the distance between a dwelling and a slope or cliff edge. In some countries and jurisdictions this is specified within regional plans and taken very seriously.

One way used to calculate these distances is to project an imaginary 45 degree plane from the bottom of a slope. One third of the cliff height is then added to this. For example, a 30-metre high slope would have a set-back distance of 40 metres.

But local geology and climate is also important. With weak soils in a humid climate, a conservative rule of thumb could be a set-back distance of three times the height of the slope or cliff. So, a house on a 30-metre high North Shore cliff, with superb views across to Rangitoto Island, should be set-back around 100 metres from the cliff edge.

Yet there are many houses within just a few meters of cliff edges in parts of the North Shore and eastern Auckland. Swimming pools constructed on slopes can add to the loading and stress, making the slope more prone to failure during a significant rainfall event.

Set-back from the bottom of slopes is also important, because inundation (“runout”) from landslides on slopes above houses can occur, as witnessed in various parts of Auckland.

Three ways forward

Looking ahead, there are three broad approaches to mitigating rainfall-induced landslides in Auckland. First, it will be interesting to see how set-back distances are applied and whether changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan are made in light of recent events.

The Earthquake Commission (EQC) covers land within eight metres of homes and outbuildings. But many houses will now be much closer to the edge of properties. For houses still more than eight metres away from a failing slope, gradual slope creep may suggest future failure is only a matter of time.

Second, landowners should limit vegetation removal and make sure stormwater drains properly into reticulated systems, rather than informal soak-aways.

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Any surface cracking or bulging, cracked masonry, or difficult-to-open doors or windows should be checked by a chartered engineer. This can be useful in determining what is generally benign (but annoying) seasonal cracking due to soil shrinkage, and what is more serious.

Third, for scientists, engineers and local authorities, a more sophisticated region-wide approach to identifying unstable land is needed. The Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) uses space-borne radar to measure ground surface movement at a scale of millimetres-per-year.

I led an EQC-funded team that successfully applied this technique to Gisborne from 2016 to 2021 using the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellite constellation. This provides measurements every 12 days, with the raw data being free. It has proved very useful to Gisborne District Council in their planning and decision making.

In Europe, the EU-sponsored European Ground Motion Service displays almost real-time measurements of slope movements across the continent that anyone can access. Such a service would be useful across New Zealand – and the events in Auckland suggest this should be a priority. Läs mer…

Dying to be seen: Why women’s risk for heart disease and stroke is still higher than men’s in Canada

Heart disease affects 2.6 million Canadians, and is the second-leading cause of death in Canada. Women continue to be at higher risk than men.

Heart and Stroke Canada has released a new report for Heart Health Month in February. It highlights several disparities women continue to experience in the prevention and treatment of heart attack and stroke, in comparison to other Canadians. According to this report, women are generally unaware of their individual risk and risk factors, and are often under-diagnosed and under-treated.

This is despite heart disease and stroke being a key cause of premature death for women in Canada. Approximately 50 per cent of women who experience a heart attack had symptoms that went unrecognized.

This report also reminds us that these health outcomes are not always under the control of the individual, highlighting the role clinical and social determinants of health (which include health care, food insecurity, housing precarity, race/racism, gender and sexism) play in this disease process.

Two-thirds of clinical research has historically excluded women as research participants, or ignored the various factors that intersect with sex and gender in terms of disease risk or intervention evaluation. The absence of women in heart-related research continues to have life-altering effects on the lives of women throughout Canada and their communities.

Sex, gender and the heart

The absence of women in heart-related research continues to have life-altering effects on the lives of women and their communities.
(Unsplash/Olivier Collet)

When it comes to heart health, it is important to note that there is significant evidence that biological and social differences between women, men, girls, boys and gender-diverse people contribute to differences in their overall health and experiences of disease.

Sex (biological attributes) and gender (sociocultural factors) influence our risk of developing diseases, how well we access and respond to medical treatments and how often we attempt to seek health care. Currently, several funding agencies, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR, a Tri-Council Funding Program), expect researchers to integrate sex and gender into their research design, including methodologies and data analysis where appropriate.

Despite this, sub-populations of women who are more likely to experience the effects of poor heart health are still not being seen in research studies, public health campaigns and clinical settings. This invisibility is killing them.

For instance, on the Heart and Stroke Canada website’s page on women’s unique risk factors for heart disease and stroke, specific attention is given to the role of estrogen, oral contraceptives, pregnancy, menopause and “modifiable risks” like diet (not always as modifiable as we like to think).

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These communications, and data used to develop them, clearly rely on empirical medical research. However, they may miss the mark in terms of representing the unique risks, needs and experiences of sub-populations of diverse women like lesbians, bisexual women and transgender individuals. If these sub-populations are not purposefully included in research protocols, the resultant data may not reflect their unique experiences and related risks for poor heart health.

Intersecting risks

There are established and intersecting axes of oppression that impact heart health, assessment and treatment of cardio-metabolic conditions, including the success of treatment and prevention measures.
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

There are established and intersecting axes of oppression that impact heart health, assessment and treatment of cardio-metabolic conditions, including the success of treatment and prevention measures. For instance, risk prevention for stroke is affected by a variety of intersecting factors including race, income and stress caused by lifelong and systematic discrimination and harassment.

Current evidence supports collectively committing to critical reflection on the development, implementation and evaluation of interventions, programs, campaigns, communication and education, as well as the need to better represent the narratives of the outliers.

As advocated by the CIHR, and in particular the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health, advances are being made in terms of changes to research study protocols including sex- and gender-based analysis of data and in reporting of key findings.

The government of Canada in partnership with a number of health research organizations such as Heart and Stroke Canada is pushing for more attention to how both sex and gender uniquely and intersectionally affect heart health. These efforts are instrumental in how, for example, heart and stroke data repositories reflect the diverse needs and realities facing Canadian women. They also advance our collective understanding and approaches to addressing heart and stroke inequities.

Everyone has a role to play in advocating for women’s heart health. For example, by pushing for changes in clinical and research practices, in heart health promotion campaigns that reflect the diversity of women in Canada, and by ensuring that women are rendered visible in the process. Läs mer…

Business owners see cutting carbon emissions as ’the right thing to do’, despite the challenges of making change

An increasing number of businesses in Aotearoa New Zealand are changing how they operate to reduce their overall climate impact. These measures, which include reducing carbon emissions, are largely voluntary outside of specific sectors, such as the fuel, energy and waste industries.

So, what motivates businesses to take climate action when they do not have to?

As part of my research, I interviewed 13 businesses in Aotearoa New Zealand to better understand their climate mitigation efforts and experiences.

All of the businesses had made a voluntary commitment to reduce their emissions. Many of these businesses had reduced their carbon footprints by changing how they approached freight, business travel, energy use and waste.

Understanding the drivers and challenges businesses face when implementing climate-friendly measures is important as we consider how to accelerate the fight against climate change.

Driven by values

Underlying values were one of the key reasons for the introduction of voluntary climate mitigation measures. Climate action was often framed as simply the “right thing to do”.

My work found that more traditional economic considerations did not appear to explain the initial decision to reduce the carbon footprint of the business.

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That said, many interviewees reported benefiting financially thanks to cost savings – for example, from improved energy efficiency or lower business travel and freight-related costs. These types of activities could be framed as “win-win” situations, where environmental and financial goals aligned.

Many of the interviewees also believed that climate action contributed to their brand image and reported positive feedback from customers or employees.

Barriers to climate-friendly action

On the flip-side, most businesses also reported challenges that limited further sustainability efforts.

Many of those interviewed did not think there was sufficient customer willingness to pay the price premium for climate-friendly products or services in New Zealand.

Furthermore, interviewees felt customer expectations meant lower-carbon practices were not always possible. Most customers expected to receive their products as soon as possible, for example, making it difficult to choose slower transport modes that would have a lower carbon footprint.

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The businesses also identified specific issues around infrastructure in New Zealand as a barrier to increasing their sustainability efforts.

These issues included the limited availability of e-vehicle charging stations and limited rail infrastructure. Also the lack of available or affordable low carbon technology was mentioned as a barrier.

In addition to issues with infrastructure, small and medium-sized businesses reported struggling to have any real influence on their supply chains.

Finally, many of those interviewed believed that both public and private sector procurement processes failed to sufficiently take into account climate-friendly practices.

A way forward?

Besides reducing the carbon footprint of their own operations, many of the businesses interviewed attempted to influence their peers. They actively talked about the importance of climate action to others. This included suppliers and distributors, other businesses, industry networks and local communities.

Considering the looming climate crisis, the voluntary sustainability measures of these companies are laudable. These businesses have shown leadership by mitigating their own emissions and influencing others.

But if we want more businesses to introduce and embrace sustainability measures, we need to promote the “win-win” elements of making the change – such as efficiency and savings.

Small and medium sized businesses often have limited resources and knowledge of how to get started with accounting and reducing their emissions. Low-cost and easily accessible resources, emission calculators and other support is important in the beginning of the climate journey.

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At national and regional level further investment in low-carbon infrastructure – such as rail and e-vehicle charging stations – would make climate friendly choices easier.

Large businesses and national and local governments should encourage further low-carbon transformations by requiring and using emission data in their procurement processes.

The interviews provided some evidence of emerging climate-friendly business ecosystems, in which firms prefer to purchase from – and work with – other businesses that are also taking climate action. The impact of these ecosystems will increase as they grow in size.

Call for action

Considering the emerging impact of climate change, all businesses should start considering their emissions and finding ways to reduce their footprint.

The challenges faced and solutions offered will differ somewhat between industries. To accelerate this transition, customers and employees can make their low-carbon preferences clear.

It is unlikely that all businesses are interested in taking climate action on a voluntary basis and in the current business-as-usual mindset financial gains are prioritised over climate considerations. Therefore, it is likely that further government regulation will be required if New Zealand and other countries are to meet their zero carbon pledges.

Current policies and actions are not compatible with the science-based climate targets. The IPCC report published last year highlighted the urgency of rapid and decisive action.

That means that a more radical transformation of our economies is needed if we are to reduce emissions to achieve the set climate targets. It is important that businesses involved in climate mitigation are actively part of that discussion and share their own practices and insights. Läs mer…

Why the Fed raised interest rates by the smallest amount since it began its epic inflation fight

The Federal Reserve’s policy-setting committee lifted interest rates on Feb. 1, 2023, by a quarter of a percentage point to a range of 4.5% to 4.75%. The increase, the smallest since the Fed began an aggressive campaign of rate hikes in March 2022, came amid signs the fastest pace of inflation in decades is cooling. But the Fed also indicated more rate hikes are coming.

So why is the Fed slowing the size of rate increases now, and what does it mean for consumers? We asked finance scholar William Chittenden from Texas State University to explain what’s going on and what comes next.

Why did the Fed raise rates by only a quarter point?

The Fed is trying to figure out whether last year’s rate hikes have slowed the economy enough to get inflation near its target of about 2%.

By raising what’s known as the Fed funds rate, the U.S. central bank makes borrowing more expensive, which means buying large-ticket items, like cars and homes, is more costly. This should lead to fewer people buying cars, which will likely result in lower car prices.

In 2022, the Fed lifted rates eight times by a total of 4.25 percentage points, which helped prompt inflation to drop to an annual pace of 6.5% in December from 9.1% at its peak in June.

To understand why it’s so hard for the Fed to figure out if its rate hikes worked, think of the economy as a fully loaded oil tanker out in the ocean. Naturally, it’s chugging along as fast it can to reach a specific destination, but it takes a long time from the captain “stepping on the brakes” to when the ship actually stops moving forward.

Similarly, the Fed is raising rates to slow the economy – sort of like stepping on the brakes – and bring inflation down to 2%, but there’s often a long delay between the hikes and their impact on the economy.

But if the Fed eases off the brakes too early, inflation could remain high. If it presses on them too hard, unemployment will likely shoot up and the economy will slide into a recession. By increasing interest rates only a quarter-point, the Fed is signaling that it believes the economy has begun to slow down and is on a path to 2% inflation.

Does this mean borrowing costs will start coming down?

The Fed funds rate acts as a base rate for shorter-term interest rates, such as for car loans and credit cards. As it goes up, short-term borrowing rates increase by about the same amount.

The financial markets are predicting about an 80% chance the Fed’s benchmark lending rate will top out around 5% this summer – which means they’re expecting rates to go just a little bit higher.

Rates on shorter-term borrowing are unlikely to come down, but if markets are right, they probably won’t increase much more.

However, for long-term borrowing costs, as on a 30-year mortgage, rates are already coming down and are likely to fall some more – good news for homebuyers.

How about inflation – can consumers expect prices to start falling?

Overall, yes, inflation is already starting to come down – and prices on some items are even falling.

For example, used-car prices, which soared earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, have dropped in recent months, while prices of dozens of other items, such as flour, clothes and gasoline, have eased.

However, some costs continue to increase. Egg prices soared after the supply was disrupted because of avian flu, which killed off nearly 53 million egg-laying hens. Unfortunately, increasing interest rates will not bring back those birds or help decrease the cost of eggs.

In addition, nothing the Fed does will affect the war in Ukraine, which has led to higher world wheat and energy prices.

The point being, the Fed can’t really address certain types of inflation.

Does all this mean the U.S. will avoid recession?

That’s the trillion-dollar question.

Fed officials have at times sounded hopeful that they can bring down inflation without crashing the economy – a so-called soft landing. During his press conference after the latest announcement Feb. 1, 2023, Fed Chair Jerome Powell was more cautious, saying it’s too soon to declare victory. But he noted: “We can now say for the first time that the disinflationary process has started.”

Economic forecasters have been less confident that the U.S. will avoid a recession. On average, economists surveyed this past month by The Wall Street Journal forecast a 61% probability of a recession in 2023. In addition, key economic indicators point to a recession, while the yield curve – a bond market metric that has been successful at predicting recessions – currently puts the odds at about 47%.

In my view, this all adds up to: Nobody really knows. My best advice to consumers out there is to prepare financially for a recession, but let’s not give up hope that the Fed can slow the economy without crashing it. Läs mer…

5 expert tips to protect yourself from online misinformation

The spread of misinformation is a major problem impacting many areas of society from public health, to science and even democracy itself.

But online misinformation is a problem that is very difficult to address. Policing social media is like playing an infinite game of whack-a-mole. Even if we could address one type of misinformation, others quickly spring up in its place. Furthermore, there are valid concerns about how governments and corporations might address this problem and the dangers of censorship.

Talking to experts

We wanted to determine how people could best protect themselves from misinformation online, so in a recent project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, we created a podcast where we interviewed a group of experts from North America and the UK about misinformation.

We found their answers could be grouped into 5 broad themes.

Social media giants have faced significant criticism over the prevalence of misinformation on their platforms.
(Shutterstock)

1) Alter your sharing behaviour and take more time to consider the source of the information, as Philip Mai from Toronto Metropolitan University’s Social Media Lab suggests:

“Don’t be so trigger happy with that retweet button or that share, but know your source. So if something is emotionally triggering you before you share it stop and see who’s sharing…how did they get that information so it’s not just who is sharing it but how did they get that information before you share it.”

Lateral reading can also help people identify the quality of information. Lateral reading involves seeking out additional sources that speak to the trustworthiness of what you’re about to share. For example, cognitive psychology professor Stephan Lewandowsky says:

“Look for other sites that can tell you something about your target. So you know Wikipedia may pop up and say that website is a front for the fossil fuel industry or…it’s funded by unknown sources or whatever. And the moment you know that, then you have the means to dismiss sources as being likely untrustworthy.”

2) Seek out a variety of different news sources and consider paying for access to reputable news sources, if you are in a position to do so, to ensure that accurate news is available when you need it. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta suggests:

“Read news and commentary from across the ideological spectrum and subscribe to newspapers across the ideological spectrum…so we know you’re kind of contributing to the marketplace of ideas and you’re also doing the best to get outside your echo chamber.”

It can be difficult to identify quality news sources when there are so many inaccurate ones out there, but there are tools to help. Philosophy scholar Cailin O’Connor, co-author of the book The Misinformation Age, told us:

“The website Prop Watch is all about teaching people what different propaganda techniques look like, as used by politicians and members of the media online, there are things like this that people can use to train themselves.”

Prop Watch is an educational non-profit. It provides a catalogue of searchable propaganda that people can access to learn what propaganda looks like so they can better identify it online.

Take more time to consider the sources of information and seek additional sources that speak to the trustworthiness of posts before you share them.
(Shutterstock)

3) Educate yourself and be skeptical of information you encounter. Arming yourself with a critical filter may help protect you against misinformation that you would otherwise accept at face value. Yochai Benkler, faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, advises:

“You can prevent yourself from falling into a trap by having an appropriately skeptical view of most everything you hear. Whatever the outlet…The stance is one of skepticism without cynicism. You don’t have to think everyone is lying to understand that everything is prone to error.”

One way to practice healthy skepticism is to look for power in every story you come across. Journalist and author of the book Spin Doctors, Nora Loreto, suggests asking questions like: “Who has power? Who does not have power? Who’s challenging power? How is power being employed? And how is power being protected?.”

4) Reconnect with yourself and your communities so you can have better relationships with information and the world around you. We are constantly inundated with information and stimulation in our current attention economy.

As education and technology scholar Shandell Houlden describes, “the attention economy really is a disconnection economy and it disconnects us from ourselves.” She suggests that we should pay greater attention to our senses and to how things are trying to make us feel.

Social media platforms and online spaces can leave us disconnected. Reconnecting with our communities can help us combat misinformation by encouraging dialogue with people we disagree with. Communications scholar and artist Geo Takach recommends: “Engage with people, listen even if you disagree with them and try to find common ground based on values.”

5) Advocate for systemic change by, for example, electing politicians that care about misinformation, helping people feel less disenfranchised and supporting reliable sources of information. Misinformation is a symptom of much larger systemic issues, ranging from social inequalities to inadequate legal infrastructures. As O’Connor says:

“Honestly I would say the most important thing you can do is work to elect politicians who care about it… because again sweeping changes are going to be more important than anything an individual can do.”

By mobilizing to address the systematic structures that support a healthier information environment, individuals can do more to mitigate misinformation. Overall, it will take action at individual, organizational and systemic levels, but there are meaningful steps we can all take to fight back against misinformation if we have the will to do so. Läs mer…

New regulations on migrant farm workers should tackle employer/employee power imbalances

The government of Canada recently amended the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations to include new employer obligations. These amendments are intended to enhance protections for migrant workers and ensure the integrity of the government’s temporary foreign worker program.

While a step in the right direction, the changes side-step the root issues that make temporary foreign workers vulnerable to abuse in the first place.

More than 61,000 migrant workers were employed in Canada’s agriculture sector in 2021, an increase of almost 12 per cent from 2020, marking the greatest proliferation since 2016.

In fact, migrant workers comprised nearly one-quarter of all agricultural workers in 2021.

Migrant agricultural workers are exposed to various physical and psychosocial health risks that are compounded by the precarious circumstances they face in Canada.

Our research shows that the conditions of employment under Canada’s temporary foreign worker program generate significant challenges to workers’ health, the protection of their rights and even their survival.

Repatriated if injured, sick

Workers are hired on temporary contracts that bind them to a single employer, and these contracts include a repatriation clause that allows employers to terminate and deport workers without a grievance process. Injured and sick workers are often repatriated before they can access health care and/or workers’ compensation.

Consequently, migrant workers are often unable to refuse unsafe work and are reluctant to raise health concerns or report situations of abuse.

While acknowledging some of the issues facing migrant workers in Canada, the amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations fail to address the power imbalances at the heart of the temporary foreign worker program. In fact, they risk further cementing some of these systemic problems.

Employers as health mediators

First, the federal government continues to entrench the role of the employer as an informal mediator of basic health care for workers.

Migrant workers in Ontario are eligible for provincial health care, but they experience many barriers to accessing such services, in part because of a reliance on employers.

Under the new amendments, the government of Canada once again normalizes this role. Employers are obligated to cover the waiting period before provincial health care eligibility by providing private health insurance to migrant workers upon arrival.

By imbuing the responsibility of “reasonable access to health care services” to employers when a worker is injured or becomes ill at the workplace, the government is wilfully denying the power imbalance and obvious conflict of interest posed by such an arrangement.

Consider, for example, the history of medical repatriations faced by this workforce, in which injured and sick workers are prematurely deported. At minimum, workers need independent access to health care that is unmediated by employers.

A farm worker tends to asparagus plants near Vittoria, Ont., in Norfolk County in June 2020.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Labour abuses

Second, the risk of labour abuses and exploitation are addressed only through paperwork, and again, delegated to employers.

To illustrate, the new amendments require all employers to provide migrant workers with an employment agreement on or before the first day of work, and they are to be drafted in English or French.

The agreements must match the initial offer of employment and include information about the job offer, wages, including overtime pay, and working conditions. Many migrant workers do not read English or French. Our research has also shown that workers’ rights on paper are almost never recognized in practice.

Therefore, there is no substitute for meaningful oversight and regulation.

More promisingly, the definition of “abuse” under the new amendments has been updated to include “reprisal.”

We support this definition, as we have previously advocated for this and other actions to address workers’ risk of reprisal.

A seasonal migrant worker picks cherries at an industrial cherry orchard in British Columbia.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Vulnerable worker permit

As has been the case since 2019, if a worker can prove they’re being abused, they may have access to an Open Work Permit for Vulnerable Workers.

However, that permit is an ineffective mechanism to report workplace abuse because it places the burden of proof on the worker. What’s more, it doesn’t guarantee future re-employment via the temporary foreign worker program, nor does it provide workers with the housing or support they require to find new employment.

To seriously respect the rights of migrant workers, Canada needs to transform the structure of the temporary foreign worker program to curtail the power and impunity of employers and embed rights and protections for workers.

This can only be done by providing truly structural changes, such as open work permits and permanent status — measures long called for by migrant workers and their allies.

To do any less is merely making cosmetic changes to a fundamentally flawed system. Läs mer…

What international law says about Israel’s planned destruction of Palestinian assailants’ homes

After a deadly attack that killed seven people outside an East Jerusalem synagogue, the Israeli government responded by sealing off the home of the Palestinian suspect in preparation for its destruction. The family home of a 13-year-old accused in a separate East Jerusalem shooting has likewise been earmarked for destruction.

This is not unusual. Israel has demolished the homes of thousands of Palestinians in recent years. Bulldozing properties of those deemed responsible for violent acts against Israeli citizens or to deter such acts has long been government policy.

But it is also illegal under international law. As an expert on international humanitarian law, I know that holding the family of assailants responsible for their acts – no matter how heinous the crime – falls under what is know as collective punishment. And for the past 70-plus years, international law has been unequivocal: Collective punishment is strictly prohibited in nearly all circumstances. Yet, when it comes to the demolition of Palestinian homes, international bodies have been unable to enforce the ban.

Not necessary, not legal

Rules governing how occupying powers can treat civilians are covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention – one of four treaties adopted after the end of World War II, largely as a response to the horrific excesses of Japanese and German occupying armies.

Article 33 of the 1949 convention states: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” It adds: “Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

Since Israel is an occupying power in the eyes of the the United Nations, as well as under the terms of both the Fourth Geneva Convention and the earlier 1907 Hague Convention, then Palestinian civilians under Israeli occupation would fall under the “protected persons” designation of the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva Conventions reiterate their position on protected persons further in Article 53: “Any destruction by the occupying power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons […] is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”

That slight caveat would apply to instances in which, for example, an armed resistance group used a home belonging to a protected person to fire at an occupying power’s army. But clearly that is not the case in the deliberate destruction of a home belonging to an assailant who launched an attack elsewhere.

Collective punishment is banned not only by the instruments of international humanitarian law, but also by human rights conventions that apply during peacetime and armed conflicts, including occupation.

And such prohibitions are not a quirk of international law – they are common to almost all major legal systems in the world.

A narrow reading

Given how clear the international laws are, the question arises: How does Israel square the practice of punitive home destruction with international law?

The answer is not very well, in the opinion of most international humanitarian law experts and human rights observers.

Israel ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1951. But successive Israeli governments have claimed that its protections do not apply to those living in Palestinian territories, the status of which it disputes.

Other arguments put forward by the Israeli government in defense of the demolitions include that they affect only the properties of individuals engaged in terrorism, and that the aim is deterrence, not punishment.

But as early as 1968, Theodor Meron, a legal adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned that in his opinion the destruction of homes of terror suspects in the occupied territories contravened the Geneva Conventions. In a top-secret document, Meron rejected a “narrow, literal” interpretation of international law in regards the destruction of homes.

UN hamstrung by US veto power

The United Nations has long condemned the destruction of Palestinian homes, with the body’s special rapporteur Michael Lynk repeatedly pointing out that collective punishment violates international law.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed such condemnation by the United Nations, claiming that the body shows “anti-Israeli” bias.

Either way, the United Nations is not in a strong position to take action. The U.N.‘s Security Council is the one international body that can take effective measures to censure and take coercive action against member states. But the U.S. has long vetoed resolutions critical of its ally, Israel. Washington is also unlikely to assert unilateral pressure on Israel to end its practice of home demolitions under its current policy. The International Criminal Court ruled in 2021 that it had jurisdiction over territories occupied by Israel, but any investigation would be likely hampered by the noncooperation of the Israeli government, which refuses to acknowledge the court’s authority.

As a result, despite the destruction of the homes being against the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions, there is little that can stop the Israeli government from doing so. Läs mer…

Tyre Nichols’ death underscores the troubled history of specialized police units

The officers charged in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols were not your everyday uniformed patrol officers.

Rather, they were part of an elite squad: Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION team. A rather tortured acronym for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods,” SCORPION is a crime suppression unit – that is, officers detailed specifically to prevent, detect and interrupt violent crime by proactively using stops, frisks, searches and arrests. Such specialized units are common in forces across the U.S. and tend to rely on aggressive policing tactics.

As academics who study policing, and as former officers ourselves, we have long been aware of potential problems with such specialized units. Treating aggressive crime fighting as the highest priority in policing can cultivate a corrosive culture in which bad behavior is often tolerated, even encouraged – to the detriment of community relations. Changing that pattern requires wrestling with complexities of policing in modern society.

From Prohibition to the war on drugs

Crime suppression units, sometimes called “violence reduction units” or “street crimes units,” have a long and often sordid history in the United States.

Such specialized units are usually set up to address specific issues, such as drug trafficking or gang crime. An early precedent to modern crime suppression units can be seen in the squads set up by the federal Bureau of Prohibition and their local counterparts during the 1920s. These squads were charged with enforcing newly passed alcohol laws but often lacked the training or numbers to support their mission. The predictable result was the unlawful killing of civilians and corruption. Indeed, the Wickersham Commission report, released in the early 1930s, shows how the power that goes with being part of a specialized unit can be corrosive. It noted that the “unfortunate public expressions [by police] approving killings and promiscuous shootings and lawless raids and seizures” can lead to the alienation of “thoughtful citizens, believers in law and order.”

Prohibition police units often overstepped the mark.
Hugh E. O’Donnell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In more recent times, police agencies have used specialized units to respond to violent crime, often because of a surge in public demand for the police to “do something.” Investing in a more robust public safety infrastructure is expensive, politically fraught and, even if successful, could take decades to reap rewards. So instead of addressing social problems, such as poverty and lack of economic opportunity, elected officials turn to police leaders, who often reach for a familiar tool: aggressive enforcement tactics. Such an approach is intended to prevent, detect and interrupt crime, and to identify, apprehend and punish criminal offenders.

When cops ‘own the city’

That was exactly the pattern in Memphis, where violent crime in 2020 and 2021 experienced a significant increase, with a per capita murder rate that put it among the most dangerous cities in the nation. These historic rises in homicides were in contrast to dramatically lower rates just a few years before.

In 2021, the city hired Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who bluntly described her vision: “being tough on tough people.”

As homicides soared, Memphis established the SCORPION team, assigning 40 officers to clean up the most crime-ridden parts of the city. Both Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Chief Davis celebrated the number of arrests that the SCORPION team’s officers made, along with the guns, cash and vehicles they seized.

Positions in specialized units come with prestige, flexibility and the lure of future promotions. In better times, membership is restricted to officers with more experience and training. But as the Memphis Police Department lost around 23% of its sworn personnel between 2013 and 2018, the department lowered overall minimum standards for officers, and inexperienced officers were appointed to SCORPION – including those now charged with murdering Tyre Nichols.

Memphis is far from alone. In 2007, the Baltimore Police Department set up the Gun Trace Task Force to address illegal guns and violent crime. And before that, in the 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department established the Rampart CRASH, or Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, unit, which focused on gangs and violent crime. In New Orleans, the city’s police department viewed its task force officers, known as “jump out boys,” as “enforcers and agents of crime control.”

Scandal connects these units. In each case – and in many more – officers stepped over the line from aggressive enforcement to misconduct, abuse or even outright criminality. Members of the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force were eventually convicted on charges including robbery, racketeering and extortion. Rampart CRASH unit officers robbed banks, stole narcotics and engaged in extrajudicial beatings of suspects. The New Orleans Police Department was eventually placed under the oversight of a federal consent decree after the jump out boys developed a reputation as “dirty cops, the ones who are going to be brutal,” in the words of one sergeant.

Do the ends justify the means?

These result were, for many, entirely foreseeable.

As eminent criminologist Herman Goldstein wrote in 1977, problems arise when “the police […] place a higher priority on maintaining order than on operating legally.” Recent scholars refer to “noble cause corruption,” but readers are probably more familiar with a synonymous phrase: “the ends justify the means.”

Even when well-intentioned, prioritizing aggressive police enforcement can be deeply destructive. Research has found that aggressive police units have significantly more use-of-force incidents and public complaints, while also having fewer complaints against them upheld. This suggests a culture in which some violations are tacitly approved so long as the unit is productive – that is, it makes arrests.

To a significant extent, this comes down to agency culture. A permissive culture, as researchers have long recognized, can both protect and corrupt the nature of policing. Every police department has a culture, but those best able to balance the missions of addressing violent crime and maintaining community support set about shaping and reinforcing their culture instead of leaving it to grow wild.

When aggressive police culture overwhelms the professional norms of constitutional policing, the public safety mission of policing breaks down. Chiefs are put into a difficult position – they must ensure that officers who use coercive authority in response to public demands for crime control also respect the legal limits of their authority.

The legitimacy of policing, we believe, depends on recognizing that while hyperaggressive tactics by young, often inexperienced officers in crime suppression units may contribute to short-term deterrence of some violent crime, those same tactics are very likely to leave a wake of public disgust and distrust behind. That can seriously undermine public safety efforts, including the investigation of violent crimes that rely heavily on community cooperation.

If the history of crime suppression units teaches us anything, it is that they must prioritize legal and rightful policing above aggressive crime fighting. To do otherwise is to risk becoming just another source of violence in already victimized communities. Läs mer…