How Tumblr raised a generation of feminists

Like so many millennials, my teenage years on the multimedia microblogging platform, Tumblr, introduced me to feminist politics, which inspired my burgeoning interest in gender and feminism at university. My experiences as a Tumblr teen at the height of its popularity inspired my book, Feminist Fandom: Media Fandom, Digital Feminisms, and Tumblr, which examines the platform in the early- to mid-2010s.

By the end of the 2010s, reports indicated that the majority of young women identified as feminists – a far cry from the preceding decade marked by ambivalence and unease, if not outright hostility, toward feminism.

From high-profile celebrities such as Beyoncé and Emma Watson declaring themselves feminists, to feminist books dominating the bestseller charts, to feminist commentary in Elle and Teen Vogue, popular culture in the 2010s was marked by the sudden and spectacular resurgence of feminist politics.

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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Feminism, it seemed, had lost its former reputation as an outdated and dirty word. By 2017, feminism was so central to the zeitgeist that it was declared the Merriam-Webster word of the year.

Many commentators have argued that feminism’s visibility on social media was instrumental to this revival, ushering in its fourth wave. And few social media platforms received quite so much attention for their progressive, queer and feminist ethos as Tumblr.

Beyoncé’s 2013 song Flawless declared her identity as a feminist.

Since its conception in 2007, Tumblr has developed a reputation for its appeal to marginalised users, especially LGBTQ+ youth, girls and young women, and people of colour. Widely used for sharing knowledge, community building and personal and creative expression, both Tumblr and its users readily embraced its reputation as a space committed to social justice and the open, self-governing exchange of ideas.

Why and how, I wondered when writing my book, did this platform in particular play such a central role in the feminist experiences and identities of so many of my millennial peers? Here’s what I found.

1. Design

The design and functionality of Tumblr differentiated it from other popular platforms at the time. Unlike Facebook, where explicit identity cues – including your real name, age and location – are required for use, the only identity information Tumblr required of users was their age, email address and a pseudonymous username.

Tumblr allowed users to have a high level of control over their visibility and the way they presented themselves. By virtue of its simplicity, customisability and (initially) lax approach to content moderation, Tumblr enabled a greater sense of privacy and freedom of expression than its more popular competitors. This made the site appealing to those hoping to explore identities, issues and interests that could be unwelcome elsewhere.

Tumblr’s anonymity made it feel safer for its marginalised users, inviting curiosity, experimentation and openness in those important first encounters with feminism.

2. Broad definition of feminism

Feminists have long emphasised that no single or universal “feminism” exists. Few versions of feminism on Tumblr achieved the height of attention enjoyed by liberal, white, western, middle-class feminism. But others nevertheless found a footing there, providing insight into the relationship between feminism and anti-racism, queer liberation, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and more.

Emma Watson’s 2014 UN speech on feminism was popular on Tumblr.

The wide variety of marginalised perspectives and voices on Tumblr combined to play an educational and consciousness-raising role in the lives of its users, offering more complex and critical insights into intersecting inequalities.

3. Culture

For many users, Tumblr’s ultimate appeal lay in its mixture of political and educational content and content that was more playful, leisure-oriented and interest-based.

Many of the Tumblr users I interviewed for my book described their Tumblr blogs as a highly personal repository of all of their passions and interests, from personal life to pop culture and politics. As Emily, who is now in her late 20s, recalled: “I got my Tumblr account when I was 14. I remember an acquaintance suggested it, so I checked it out, and it really offered me a place to collate all my interests. I fell down the rabbit hole pretty quickly.”

When we last spoke in 2018, she said that she was hesitant to leave Tumblr, describing it as a “living document of everything I’ve ever been interested in”.

The mixture of personal and political material on Tumblr served an important purpose for young feminists on the platform. No longer was feminism an abstract, academic and detached endeavour. Instead, it was immediate, engaging and playful, embedded into a bespoke timeline compiling users’ every interest, passion and political affinity.

M4OS Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Decline and nostalgia

Tumblr’s controversial adult content ban in 2018 was widely seen as a death knell heralding its demise and signalling the end of an era for a Tumblr feminism marked by the embrace of different sexual and gender identities.

Yet the ban’s partial reversal in November 2022 has ushered in hopes of a Tumblr revival. These hopes are built on Tumblr nostalgia: a yearning for an imagined past of the platform centring its progressive sensibility.

This yearning is partially driven by doubts about whether today’s popular platforms will harbour the same feminist potential for the next generation. For example, while TikTok has shown some signs of promise, it’s also home to prominent anti-feminist communities and has come under fire from marginalised content creators.

Moreover, its focus on visibility and exposure, compared to Tumblr’s focus on pseudonymity, makes users vulnerable to networked harassment, which, as many feminists have noted, disproportionately impacts women and gender minorities.

Despite its imperfections, Tumblr’s unique design, culture and sensibility combined to shape a generation of feminists in the 2010s. I don’t see any modern websites or apps that would be able to follow suit in the 2020s.

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Investigating insomnia: our research shows how chronic sleep problems can lead to a spiralling decline in mental health

I’ll often lie awake until three or four in the morning, before drifting off for just a few hours. Then comes the dreaded alarm clock. My mind and body are exhausted all the time – there’s always this knot of anxiety in my chest, doing away with any hope of a good night’s sleep.

Simon* is a NHS mental health nurse who, like millions of people in the UK, suffers from insomnia: a sustained difficulty in initiating and maintaining sleep. His job is to support the recovery of people with severe mental illness, but his own sleep problems have had a profoundly negative impact on his mental health.

Most of us experience a bad night’s sleep from time to time, but can usually get back on track within a night or two. People suffering from insomnia, by contrast, have sleep problems that last for months or years at a time, taking a major toll on their health and wellbeing.

Around a third of people will experience insomnia at some point in their life, with women and older people more often affected. Nearly 40% of sufferers fail to recover within five years. People with insomnia have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Insomnia is also a major risk factor for mental illness, and often co-occurs with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Across the world, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of mental illness at all ages, from children to the very old – with huge costs to families, communities and economies. In this series, we investigate what’s causing this crisis, and report on the latest research to improve people’s mental health at all stages of life.

Many different life events can increase your chances of sustained sleep deprivation. Both the financial burden and confinement arising from the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with greater risk of insomnia, which is in turn likely to have led to a rise in mental health problems.

And yet, very little is known about why and how a prolonged absence of sleep gives rise to mental illness. Our team at the University of York has pioneered research into whether sleep deprivation disrupts the brain’s ability to suppress intrusive memories and distressing thoughts – classic symptoms of psychiatric disturbance.

It has also led us to ask whether it might one day be possible to treat mental illness while patients are sleeping – for example, by using sounds to normalise irregular patterns of brain activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Why are some people so badly affected?

They put their hand over my face so I couldn’t breathe. Now I can’t wear anything that covers my mouth or nose for fear of reliving [that experience]. Mask wearing was a big problem for me during the pandemic – and it was always worse when I slept badly. Just the sight of other people wearing masks could bring it all back.

Helen* is a domestic abuse survivor who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating condition characterised by flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety. She told us her symptoms would always get worse after a bad night’s sleep – a pattern reported by other PTSD sufferers we spoke to.

Randoms/Shutterstock

We can all sometimes encounter intrusive and unwanted thoughts, usually in response to reminders – for example, seeing a former partner and being reminded of an unpleasant breakup. While unsettling, these thoughts are infrequent, short-lived and, usually, quickly forgotten. This is in stark contrast to the highly lucid, distressing thoughts experienced by people with PTSD. Sufferers often engage in avoidant behaviour, such as not leaving home to reduce the likelihood of having to confront reminders of their trauma.

However, the symptoms of PTSD can also partly be explained by a breakdown of the brain mechanisms we rely on to push such intrusive thoughts out of conscious awareness. Because intrusive thoughts arise from unpleasant memories, another way people ward them off is by suppressing the offending content from their memory. But PTSD sufferers often exhibit a deficit in their ability to engage in this process of memory suppression, resulting in persistent unwanted patterns of thinking.

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.

And what if lack of sleep reduces our ability to suppress unwanted thoughts and memories? This could lead to a downward spiral of more persistent and frightening intrusive thoughts, severe anxiety, and chronic sleeplessness – culminating in psychiatric disturbance.

Although a wealth of research has shown that sleep deprivation leads to psychological instability, our study was the first study to examine how an inability to control intrusive thoughts might underpin this relationship. For this reason, we worked with young adults without a diagnosed mental health disorder, allowing us to determine how even healthy brain processes go awry when people do not get enough sleep.

How sleep deprivation affects our brain

Our group of young adults (aged 18–25) were asked to memorise face-image pairs, comprising a male or female face with a neutral expression next to a unique scene. They would memorise each pair over and over again, so that any face presented in isolation would serve as a powerful reminder of the scene it was paired with – in the same way a reminder of an unpleasant event in the real world can trigger a distressing thought.

The face-scene learning took place late in the evening – after which half the participants went to sleep in our laboratory, and the other half stayed awake for the entire night – watching movies, playing games and going for short walks outside. They could eat and drink, but psychological stimulants such as caffeine were strictly prohibited. We would wake anyone in this group who nodded off.

Next morning, all participants were shown the faces only, in random order, with the following instructions. If the face was inside a green frame, the participant should allow the associated scene to come into their mind. A red frame meant they should engage in memory suppression to block out the scene – in the same way we sometimes purge unwanted thoughts from our conscious experience.

Sleep and memory suppression experiment.
Scott Cairney/University of York, CC BY-NC-SA

Our sleep-deprived participants reported having more “intrusions” (failed memory suppression attempts) than those who had slept normally. And only well-rested participants got better at suppressing the unwanted memories over time. This suggests that sleeplessness does long-term harm to our ability to suppress intrusive memories and, hence, unwanted thoughts.

What’s going wrong inside a sleep-deprived person’s brain? To address this question, we repeated our study, but this time with participants undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – a powerful neuroimaging technique that allows us to determine which brain regions are engaged during particular cognitive operations (in this case, keeping intrusive memories at bay).

Memory suppression relies on a brain region known as the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC). When a reminder triggers retrieval of an unwanted memory, the rDLPFC inhibits activity in the brain’s memory processing centre, the hippocampus, to push that memory out of the person’s mind.

Our fMRI study showed that, when participants were attempting to suppress unwanted memories, activity in rDLPFC was reduced after a night of sleep deprivation relative to a night of restful sleep. Moreover, activity in the hippocampus was stronger after sleep deprivation than restful sleep, suggesting that a breakdown of control by rDLPFC had allowed unsolicited memory operations to emerge with impunity, opening the door to intrusive patterns of thinking.

Can better sleep improve our mental health?

REM sleep, discovered by Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman in 1953, is a unique stage of sleep characterised by rapid movement of the eyes and a high propensity for vivid dreaming.

As the brain enters REM sleep, it undergoes dramatic changes that are thought to play an important role in regulating our mental health. For example, levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which modulates the processing of disturbing memories, are markedly increased in REM sleep relative to other sleep stages, mirroring levels seen in wakefulness. Abnormalities of REM sleep are linked to various psychiatric mood disorders including PTSD, and associated with the intense nightmares experienced following trauma.

Read more:
A short history of insomnia and how we became obsessed with sleep

So, could the brain mechanisms that allow us to control intrusive memories be especially influenced by the amount of REM sleep we obtain over the course of a night? To investigate this, our fMRI study included polysomnography – a sleep monitoring technique that enabled us to identify when participants were in REM sleep, based on both their eye movement and discrete brainwave patterns.

Among our participants who slept, those who had more REM sleep showed stronger engagement of their rDLPFC when suppressing unwanted memories the next morning. This suggests REM sleep may indeed support mental health by restoring the brain systems that help to shield us from unwelcome thoughts.

The emotional intensity of our memories

When we think back to a traumatic or painful life event, we get a sense of the unpleasant feelings, such as sadness or anger, that accompanied the original experience. However, the intensity of these feelings is usually much reduced, allowing us to draw on past events without being consumed by negative emotions.

Suppressing unwanted thoughts has been shown to weaken the memories that lead to them, meaning they are less likely to intrude into our consciousness in the future. This relates not only to the content of the memories (the “what, when and who”) but also their emotional charge – the intensity of the emotions we felt at the time. In other words, memory suppression helps us move on from prior adversity by gradually cleansing our memories of unpleasant experiences, and the negative emotions associated with them.

Conversely, failing to suppress an unwanted memory is likely to cause its emotional charge to linger, meaning that emotional responses to future reminders will remain more intense.

APIMerah/Shutterstock

We tested this by showing our participants scenes that were either emotionally negative (such as a car crash) or neutral (such as a forest). In the morning, after completing the memory retrieval and suppression task (with green and red-framed faces), participants were then asked to give intensity ratings for the negative and neutral scenes again.

Our findings were clear – and corroborated by further tests using an objective index of emotional arousal, skin conductance responses. Among participants who had slept, emotional responses to the suppressed negative scenes became less intense over time. But among the sleep-deprived, emotional ratings for negative scenes remained elevated, regardless of whether the scenes were suppressed or not. This suggests that a breakdown of memory suppression mechanisms after sleep loss prevented participants from being able to “deal with” these negative emotions.

Read more:
Insomnia and mental disorders are linked. But exactly how is still a mystery

In the context of psychiatric mood disorders that co-occur with chronic sleep disturbance, failure to suppress memories of emotionally disturbing events, together with an inability to reduce the unpleasant feelings embedded within those memories, could contribute to a strong tendency of mood-disordered individuals to focus on negative interpretations of the past.

Furthermore, anxiety arising from intrusive memories may also obstruct the sleep that is needed for recovery, leading to a vicious cycle of emotional dysregulation and sleeplessness.

The importance of forgetting

In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), the main characters have their memories of their turbulent relationship erased. Far from improving their quality of life, this leads to further complications, serving as a cautionary tale.

However, there are situations where aiding the forgetting process may help. For example, people who have experienced traumatic experiences can struggle to cope with unwanted memory intrusions. In these extreme cases, where the usual brain processes that allow for forgetting aren’t functioning properly, it could be beneficial to induce forgetting.

Generally, forgetting is thought of as “bad”, with people worrying about forgetting where they put the car keys, or when their wedding anniversary is. But far from being a problem, this is how memory is supposed to work. Sometimes, we want to just forget information that isn’t relevant to our daily lives, to prevent it from interfering with our goals. And sometimes, we want to forget embarrassing or emotionally scarring events.

Ultimately, the purpose of a functioning memory system is to make sensible and accurate decisions in the present, based on our past experience. The “adaptive” nature of forgetting allows us to get rid of irrelevant memories, making sure the memories that remain are as relevant to future decisions as possible. From this perspective, forgetting is as important as remembering. Simply put, forgetting is a feature of memory, not a bug.

While forgetting is a catch-all term we use for the loss of a memory, it isn’t a single process in the brain. Memories can be forgotten via active processes, such as memory suppression. But this can also happen via passive processes including “decay”, where the physical trace of a memory in the brain breaks down over time, or “interference”, where new memories that are similar to previous ones lead to confusion-impaired retrieval. For example, if you park your car in a new location in the supermarket you often visit, you might forget this new location because the usual place you park comes more readily to mind.

Forgetting is a complex phenomenon that unfolds over different timescales and via different processes, both while awake and asleep. While some memories can fragment, others are forgotten as a whole, so that all aspects of the memory are no longer accessible.

That forgetting is likely to occur during sleep has been underappreciated by psychologists, because research on sleep has largely focused on the role it plays in strengthening memories. But we and other researchers have recently reasoned that if forgetting is a fundamental part of a functioning memory system, then sleep should play as much of a role in forgetting as it does in retention.

APIMerah/Shutterstock

Previous research, including our own, has shown that the presentation of specific sounds during sleep can boost memory. If you were to learn the location of a cat on a computer screen, and during learning we played a “meow” sound, the presentation of the same sound during sleep would lead to better location memory following sleep. This selective boosting of a specific memory during sleep is called “targeted memory reactivation”.

We have recently shown that this technique can also be used to induce “selective forgetting”. We asked our participants to learn pairs of words or names before going to sleep. We used famous names, location and object words to allow participants to create vivid images in their minds for each pair, so they would be more likely to remember them after a night’s sleep.

But we also made sure the pairs overlapped by sharing one common word. When people learn these overlapping pairs, they compete against each other, and this competition can lead to forgetting some of the words. We thought a similar forgetting effect might be seen by using targeted memory reactivation when participants were sleeping.

Read more:
Why forgetting is a normal function of memory – and when to worry

We found the presentation of the word during sleep caused reactivation and strengthening for one pair, but this had a disruptive effect for the other pair. This suggests we could use targeted memory reactivation to selectively strengthen and weaken memories during sleep, presuming we can create interference between two memories. This could be beneficial in the case of people whose brain processes aren’t functioning properly, not allowing them to “healthily forget” disturbing and intrusive memories.

Although such a treatment is still a long way off, our work raises the possibility of using sound cues during sleep – in combination with psychological techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy – to decrease the crippling emotional grip a particular memory has on a patient.

Modifying REM sleep to improve mental health

Given the strong link between REM sleep and mental health disorders, REM sleep may represent a powerful therapeutic target for treating and preventing various psychiatric conditions. By delivering sounds in synchrony with naturally occurring brain rhythms, it is possible to modify patterns of brain activity that are associated with memory processing in REM sleep.

In one study, we used a computerised algorithm to track rapidly emerging patterns of brain activity in real time while people were asleep (based on polysomnography data). When the algorithm detects the emergence of a particular brain rhythm, it delivers short bursts of sound to increase the intensity of that brain rhythm (akin to pushing a swing as it reaches the highest point of its cycle).

We have showed this technique can be used to modify distinct brain rhythms in REM sleep. In future, such auditory stimulation could potentially provide a means of renormalising aberrant patterns of brain activity in REM sleep to treat psychiatric disturbance. For example, by integrating this technology with devices that are already available for people to monitor their sleep at home, the playing of particular sounds while someone is sleeping could provide a simple and cost-effective therapy for reducing mood disturbance.

However, this is a long way from being a reality, and many studies would be required to evaluate the feasibility of such an approach before it could be used as a therapeutic tool.

Targeting sleep in psychiatric hospitals

High-risk patients undergo routine observations, sometimes as regularly as every ten minutes, all night and every night. Torches are shone into their rooms – to check they’re breathing – and there’s a lot of noise as doors are open and closed. It has a terrible impact on their sleep.

Heather* is a consultant forensic psychiatrist who works on a secure mental health ward in the North of England. She describes how the ward regime (in this case, routine welfare checks on high-risk individuals performed throughout the night) impact on patients’ sleep.

A number of people with severe mental illness receive treatment in secure inpatient units. Although the goal of these psychiatric hospitals is to provide a therapeutic setting to support the improvement of mental health, many features of the inpatient environment, such as noise at night or the ward regime, can worsen patients’ sleep disturbances – intensifying the symptoms of their illness, including low mood, impulsivity and aggression.

At the same time, chronic sleeplessness often reduces patients’ engagement with psychological therapies (due to them sleeping in the day or lacking motivation), lengthening their admission and recovery time.

APIMerah/Shutterstock

In a recent international scoping review, we found that only a small number of non-pharmacological sleep interventions had been tested in psychiatric inpatient settings, despite clear evidence that these improve both sleep and mental health outcomes.

New digital technologies can give a clear indication of patient welfare without the need for the noise and disruption Heather describes, providing an environment that is more conducive to healthy sleep. Future studies could test the potential for integrating these digital technologies with sleep-based therapies to speed up recovery times.

Achieving this goal is not only contingent on more research, but also on the capacity for carrying out scientific studies at scale. For example, all of the studies we have described were performed in tightly controlled laboratory environments, usually involving large and expensive pieces of equipment (for example, polysomnography systems). Though recent efforts have shown promise in the feasibility of moving these techniques into people’s homes, much more work needs to be done outside of the lab before digitised, sleep-focused interventions for mental illness become a reality.

We envisage a future in which sleep is a routine target for reducing or preventing symptoms of mental illness, both in psychiatric inpatient settings and in people’s homes. Although there is much work still to do, sleep research is at an exciting juncture between bench and bedside, and offers a viable solution to the growing global burden of mental illness.

*Some names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of the interviewees.

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In Putin’s Russia, the death of Navalny has left the opposition demoralised but not defeated

The still mysterious death of Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny was greeted by some Kremlin critics as proof that the era of democratic politics was over in Russia. That any change or reset back to democratic governance will henceforth not be due to the ballot box, but will depend on a wave of popular protest galvanising enough support to topple Vladimir Putin.

Navlany’s death comes a few short weeks before Russia holds presidential elections. If Putin wins, the result will confirm him in office for another six-year term.

There are no serious opposition candidates, and the only registered opposition candidate to voice criticism of the war in Ukraine, Boris Nadezhdin, was recently disqualified from running. Thanks to a 2020 constitutional amendment which removed term limits, Putin can stay in office until 2036.

So what becomes of Russia’s opposition, and the country’s fast-disappearing (if not defunct) democracy in the meantime. Who dares pick up Navalny’s standard in the campaign against Russia’s autocratic leader?

The death of democracy in Russia has been proclaimed several times. Within five years of Putin coming to power, analysts were already pointing to the lack of authentic opposition parties. Meanwhile surveys by the Levada Center – Russia’s best-known opinion pollsters – found that by mid-2004 only 42% of Russians believed that political opposition still existed in the country.

By that stage, they had already seen the death of veteran opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, leader of the anti-Kremlin party Liberal Russia, who was shot in front of his Moscow home in April 2003. Deaths of other prominent opposition figures, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and lawyer and activist Sergei Magnitsky, followed in fairly rapid succession. Critics who had left the country, such as Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky, were targeted in exile.

In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a former Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister who had once been tipped to take over, was shot dead on a Moscow street the day before he was due to lead a march against Russia’s incursions in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.

By the time Navalny was poisoned on a domestic flight over Siberia in August 2020, he had become the main focus of Russia’s opposition. His poisoning and then subsequent return to Russia in January 2021 and his rearrest and imprisonment on what were clearly questionable charges, sparked a degree of optimism that Putin had over-reached.

Putin tightens the screws

But the invasion of Ukraine in February was accompanied by the introduction of harsh new laws aimed at stifling dissent. The arrest of other opposition figures in 2022 under these new laws was effectively a decapitation of the opposition in Russia.

Read more:
’Stalin-style’ show trials and unexplained deaths of opposition figures show the depth of repression in Putin’s Russia

Under the new laws, children were arrested for the first time. The legislation imposed sentences of up to 15 years for spreading “false information” – that is, voicing opposition to the war.

Sentences meted out to high-profile protesters – such as artist and writer Sasha Skochilenko, who was given a seven year jail term for replacing supermarket labels with anti-war messages soon after the invasion in April 2022 – appear to have discouraged many from taking to the streets in protest at the war.

Now most well-known Russian opposition figures are either in exile or prison. Anglo-Russian journalist and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced in 2022 for 25 years for “treason”, having condemned the invasion of Ukraine, as was opposition politician Ilya Yashin.

Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced in April 2023 to 25 years in prison for ‘treason’ among other charges.
The Moscow City Court via AP

Others, including former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin’s first prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov fled abroad. While each is a vocal Putin critic, exile makes it difficult to shape change.

Green shoots?

Despite this, there are some green shoots that could rise to defy Russia’s political winter.

The day the news of Navalny’s death broke internationally, his widow – Yulia Navalnaya appeared in front of an audience of world leaders at the Munich Security conference.

‘Keep on fighting’: Yulia Navalnaya vows to carry on her husband’s work after his death in a Russian prison camp, February 2024.

Navalnaya vowed to carry on her husband’s work, saying:

The main thing we can do for Alexei and for ourselves is to keep on fighting. To unite into one powerful fist and hit this insane regime. Putin, his friends, the bandits in uniform, the thieves and murderers that have crippled our country.

Her tenacity could make her an effective force to revive opposition at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, another group of Russian women is making its voice heard across Russia, with a message that carries a significant amount of moral force due to their status in a country at war. The Council of Mothers and Wives campaigned fiercely against Putin’s decision to call up reservists in the autumn of 2022, and the Russian president’s approval ratings (and that of his government in general) took a significant hit.

The Kremlin tried to reach out to the group, but its leaders refused to meet with the president, so a stage-managed meeting was held with a group of women hand-picked from pro-government organisations. The council, meanwhile, was declared a “foreign agent” and officially closed in July 2023.

Its focus was to bring troops home from Ukraine, rather than opposing the war itself. But the longer the war continues, the more wives and mothers will lose loved ones – and there will be plenty of women who fear this may happen to their own family.

Perhaps the voice of Yulia Navalnaya – a woman who lost her own husband to Vladimir Putin’s megalomania – will resonate among those women who fear the same may happen to their men. Läs mer…

A Nasa mission that collided with an asteroid didn’t just leave a dent – it reshaped the space rock

A frequent idea in sci-fi and apocalyptic films is that of an asteroid
striking Earth and causing global devastation. While the probabilities of this kind of mass extinction occurring on our planet are incredibly small, they are not zero.

The results of Nasa’s Dart mission to the asteroid Dimorphos have now been published. They contain fascinating details about the composition of this asteroid and whether we can defend Earth against incoming space rocks.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart) was a spacecraft mission that launched in November 2021. It was sent to an asteroid called Dimorphos and commanded to collide with it, head on, in September 2022.

Dimorphos posed and poses no threat to Earth in the near future. But the mission was designed to see if deflecting an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth was possible through “kinetic” means – in other words, a direct impact of a human-made object on its surface.

Still from a simulation of the Dart impact into Dimorphos.
S.D. Raducan, UNIBE, Author provided (no reuse)

Asteroid missions are never easy. The relatively small size of these objects (compared to planets and moons) means there is no appreciable gravity to enable spacecraft to land and collect a sample.

Space agencies have launched a number of spacecraft to asteroids in recent times. For example, the Japanese space agency’s (Jaxa) Hayabusa-2 mission reached the asteroid Ryugu in 2018, the same year Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission rendezvoused with the asteroid Bennu.

The Japanese Hayabusa missions (1 and 2) fired a small projectile at the surface as they approached it. They would then collect the debris as it flew by.

High-speed collision

However, the Dart mission was special in that it was not sent to deliver samples of asteroid material to labs on Earth. Instead, it was to fly at high speed into the space rock and be destroyed in the process.

A high-speed collision with an asteroid needs incredible precision. Dart’s target of Dimorphos was actually part of a double asteroid system, known as a binary because the smaller object orbits the larger one. This binary contained both Didymus – the larger of the two objects – and Dimorphos, which behaves effectively as a moon.

The simulations of what has happened to Dimorphos show that while we might expect to see a very large crater on the asteroid from Dart’s impact, it is more likely that it has, in fact, changed the shape of the asteroid instead.

Dimorphos, as pictured by the Dart spacecraft.
NASA

Ant hitting two buses

The collision was of a mass of 580kg hitting an asteroid of roughly 5 billion kg. For comparison, this is equivalent to an ant hitting two buses. But the spacecraft is also travelling around 6 kilometres per second.

The simulation results based on observations of the asteroid Dimorphos have shown that the asteroid now orbits around its larger companion, Didymus, 33 minutes slower than before. Its orbit has gone from 11 hours, 55 minutes to 11 hours, 22 minutes.

The momentum change to the core of Dimorphos is also higher than one would predict from the direct impact, which may seem impossible at first. However, the asteroid is quite weakly constructed, consisting of loose rubble held together by gravity. The impact caused a lot of material to be blown off of Dimorphos.

This material is now travelling in the opposite direction to the impact. This acts like a recoil, slowing down the asteroid.

Observations of all the highly reflective material that has been shed from Dimorphos allows scientists to estimate how much of it has been lost from the asteroid. Their result is roughly 20 million kilograms – equivalent to about six of the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets fully loaded with fuel.

Combining all the parameters together (mass, speed, angle and amount of material lost) and simulating the impact has allowed the researchers to be fairly confident about the answer. Confident not only regarding the grain size of the material coming from Dimorphos, but also that the asteroid has limited cohesion and the surface must be constantly altered, or reshaped, by minor impacts.

The dinosaurs were wiped out by a 10km-wide asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago.
Buradaki / Shutterstock

But what does this tell us about protecting ourselves from an asteroid impact? Significant recent impacts on Earth have included the meteor which broke up in the sky over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, and the infamous Tunguska
impact over a remote part of Siberia in 1908.

While these were not the kinds of events that are able to cause mass extinctions – like the 10km object that wiped out the dinosaurs when it struck our planet 66 million years ago – the potential for damage and loss of life with smaller objects such as those at Chelyabinsk and Tunguska is very high.

The Dart mission cost US$324 million (£255 million), which is low for a space mission, and with its development phase completed, a similar mission to go and deflect an asteroid heading our way could be launched more cheaply.

The big variable here is how much warning we will have, because a change in orbit of 30 minutes – as was observed when Dart struck Dimorphos – will make little difference if the asteroid is already very close to Earth. However, if we can predict the object path from further out – preferably outside the Solar System – and make small changes, this could be enough to divert the path of an asteroid away from our planet.

We can expect to see more of these missions in the future, not only because of interest in the science surrounding asteroids, but because the ease of removing material from them means that private companies might want to step up their ideas of mining these space rocks for precious metals. Läs mer…

Britain’s rising rural homelessness is a hidden crisis made worse by looming council bankruptcy

A number of local councils in England, including Birmingham, Nottingham and Croydon, have effectively declared themselves “bankrupt” in recent years, and many more are at risk. A decade of cuts to local authority budgets and increasing demands on services such as social care are forcing councils to make difficult financial decisions. But it’s not just inner-city councils in low-income areas whose threadbare services are overwhelmed.

Last year we published a report on the rising, yet often hidden, problem of rural homelessness. Our findings show how cuts to local funding and services are affecting people and driving a rise in homelessness in the countryside.

We surveyed 157 housing professionals in local authorities across the UK, and interviewed people experiencing homelessness in Herefordshire, Kent, South Cambridgeshire and North Yorkshire. We spoke to people working in foodbanks, support services, housing providers and health care to map a picture of the current situation.

The vast majority – 91% – of our survey respondents told us that homelessness in rural areas had increased over the last five years. And 83% of those said that homelessness has become harder to address in the same period.

National discussions and media depictions of homelessness tend to focus on urban areas. People sleeping rough in cars, horseboxes and church porches, and those sofa surfing or living in insecure accommodation in rural areas, are frequently overlooked.

The number of people sleeping rough in rural areas has increased by 24% in the last year. There is not much other data available on rural homelessness, because it’s harder to count. The Rural Homelessness Counts Coalition of charities, which commissioned our research, is working to improve this.

Cuts to services

The funding cuts that have affected local councils for the last ten years have disproportionately impacted rural authorities in relation to homelessness. They receive 65% less funding per head than urban areas for homelessness prevention. The financial strain means rural councils are unable to respond to the growing homelessness problem.

The resources that people experiencing homelessness, and those on the cusp, need to survive are disappearing – and more cuts are on the cards.

Hampshire county council is reducing many services to bare minimum levels. In addition to ending homelessness support, this will involve significant cuts to local bus services – further isolating residents.

Kent county council – which, like Hampshire, is facing bankruptcy – has had no choice but to withdraw its £5 million a year Kent Homeless Connect service, which helped rough sleepers find housing, jobs and health care. Kent charity Porchlight told us they are preparing for a significant loss of homelessness funding from April 2024, and they have had to turn to public donations to keep their hostels open until the end of the year.

The government has pledged an extra £600 million to local councils across England to help deliver key services, but it’s unclear if any of this will translate into homelessness funding. And in truth, it is not enough to address the scale of the problem we are facing. It’s now up to central government to address the challenges that rural councils are facing.

Read more:
One in five councils at risk of ’bankruptcy’ – what happens after local authorities run out of money

Isolation in the countryside

The pandemic highlighted the issues facing rural economies. Tourism, hospitality and the leisure industry were been hard hit, and the cost of living crisis has intensified the already high rural premium on food, transport, heating and housing costs.

Those experiencing or at risk of homelessness told us how expensive they found it to eat and travel. They were concerned about widely dispersed or unavailable support services, such as mental health support, food banks and job centres. Many were forced to choose between paying rent, buying food and heating their homes.

Rural homelessness means sleeping in barns and tents, far from services and other support.
Shen Stone/Shutterstock

A former civil servant who retired early due to a work-related injury told us that he had been supported by his local authority to find privately rented accommodation in a rural area. His pension, while too high to allow him to qualify for financial assistance, didn’t cover the rent. He has resorted to living in his car, driving from one rural car park to another.

A young man told us that while he had found support from a charity to address his substance misuse problems, he was unable to find a suitable place to rent. The much reduced local housing allowance, the state subsidy for housing costs payable to those under 35, meant that he could only rent a room in a shared house, which was not available in his area. Instead, he is living in a tent in the woods.

Private rents in rural areas have increased so much that local housing allowances are insufficient for those on low incomes. According to Bob Barnett, Strategic Housing Officer at Herefordshire council, there is at least 20% shortfall in LHA in the area, meaning people can’t afford rent. And options like social housing simply are not available in many rural areas.

The rural housing crisis

This is part of a bigger picture of reduced housing availability, that is especially acute in the countryside, where the market is driven by retirees and second-home owners.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England reported in January 2022 that there had been a 1,000% increase in homes listed for short-term lets nationally between 2015 and 2021. And 148,000 homes that could otherwise house local families were available as Airbnb-style lets in September 2021.

A 2022 report by
the Country Land and Business Association found that in many rural areas, housing
provision has become divorced from the needs of local people and their incomes.

Without a serious commitment from central government to solving the rural housing crisis, homelessness will continue to increase. And without financial support for local authorities, the suffering of those experiencing homelessness will continue to be ignored. Läs mer…

How do opposition MPs prepare for government? The six key skills that should be on every Labour politician’s mind

Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet has now started “access talks” with the civil service as they prepare for the possibility of government. Being in government is different from being in opposition and Labour has been in opposition in Westminster for a very long time.

New ministers will have to perform their new role from the moment of their appointment, and few in Starmer’s team have any ministerial experience. There’s no manual for the job, though these days some training is available.

Since 2015, former ministers have been telling the Institute for Government (IfG) what makes for an effective minister. I’ve tried below, based on research for my new book, Ministerial Leadership, to distil some of that advice to highlight five skills Labour MPs hopeful of a role in a future government will need to hone.

1. How to ask stupid questions

First, ministers have to remember they are politicians and that their value lies in their political judgement. What seems obvious to a politician may be a revelation to a civil servant, who may not have direct experience of how policies play out on the ground.

But ministers aren’t the technical experts, so that also means new ministers mustn’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions. Unless they understand something fully, they won’t be able to explain it to their colleagues, let alone the public.

2. How to move from solo operator to team player

Incoming government ministers must remember they’re part of a team, both of ministers in their department and a member of a governmental team overall. Everything they do in government depends on teamwork, Labour MP Margaret Beckett told the IfG. Cabinet structures – committees, the sign-off of policies, the Cabinet Manual – reinforce that, as does the doctrine of collective responsibility spelt out in the ministerial code.

This is about more than formalities. It’s also a question of how ministers project themselves as part of a governmental team, advancing the government’s overall narrative.

That means that MPs who become ministers need to ask themselves regularly how what they are doing in their department contributes to the government’s programme, performance and perception. Teamwork isn’t always the most obvious attribute in an ambitious political world, but it’s key in government.

3. How to make use of (and respect) civil servants

The civil service is not the enemy of government ministers. Most civil servants want to help ministers get things done in an appropriate way. They have skills, systems and networks.

These can be made to work for a minister’s benefit if the minister can be clear about what they want. Old hands still praise the quality of the civil service – some still call it a Rolls-Royce. But as Conservative peer Michael Heseltine says, the minister needs to drive it.

The civil service isn’t perfect. There’s now a consensus on the challenges it faces, including the loss of institutional memory, accentuated by frequent churn as officials move jobs, and a failure to think deeply about future challenges.

4. How to schedule thinking time

Protecting space in your diary has been part of ministerial folklore since Gerald Kaufman wrote How to be a Minister in 1980. Ministers have hectic schedules but everyone needs thinking time to focus on their priorities, sometimes away from the routine of briefings and meetings.

Former Labour minister Hilary Benn now says: “iIf I had my time again, setting aside time to think [is what I’d do]. Because if you’re in the moment, going from engagement to engagement, box to box, you don’t always get the time to think and you need to do that.”

So ministers need to know whether they are on track. What isn’t working out? What should they or the department stop doing to allow other things to flourish? These are the types of questions a minister must ask themselves to ensure their diary is packed in the right way.

5. How to find the way back to parliament

When they become ministers, politicians don’t stop being MPs. They have to continue representing their constituents. The department is not their only job.

David Lammy is one of the few members of the shadow cabinet with ministerial experience.
Matt Crossick /Alamy

In fact, the institutional embrace can be suffocating so, as former Labour minister Jack Straw puts it, time spent in the House of Commons is never time wasted. Parliament gives a minister intelligence on how policies are being received and potential problems that need tackling.

6. How to deliver

Having a policy isn’t enough for a minister. They need to know how it is going to be delivered and what the critical stages of that delivery are – as well as how to keep track of them. If legislation is needed, policies can take years to implement.

Ministers need to have a view of the critical path to delivering the policy: its legitimation through a bill in parliament, the drafting of administrative rules for implementation, the actual rollout of the policy in practice. There are many steps along the way which need to be tracked.

My research suggests that ministers have become a lot more conscious of the need to follow a policy through to its delivery and implementation on the ground on the last 25 years. They know that the practicalities of a failed policy on the ground can haunt them and the government for years after.

Meanwhile, successive prime ministers have become more obsessive about delivery since Tony Blair established his prime minister’s delivery unit in 2001, so ministers know that the centre is watching. They have developed their own practical steps to check policy implementation. Former Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickles, for example, implemented a tracker system in his department to “ruthlessly” monitor progress on the 40 most important items on his to-do list.

So you’re a government minister now?

Being a minister demands performance every minute of the day in an environment that is more scrutinised – through social media – than ever. Many feel like an imposter on first arriving. Sometimes the pressures can overwhelm. But it’s all temporary.

The ministerial life is relatively short so it’s not unreasonable for a minister to think about what they will do after they’ve left government. They will be aware that political parties can be particularly brutal to those who no longer have the status they once did.

Those who survive best afterwards are often the ones who maintain external friendships. Knowing how to keep a hinterland is perhaps the most important skill of all. There is a life after politics. Läs mer…

Red Sea crisis: with fears of a UK tea shortage, worries are brewing over other crucial commodities

British people are known around the world for their love of tea. This is borne out by the statistics: a staggering 50 billion cups of tea are consumed on average in the UK every year.

Most of this tea is made using black tea leaves, most of which are not produced in the UK. Thus, shipping disruption caused by attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea, through which an estimated 12% of global trade passes each year, has sparked fears of a national tea shortage.

The attacks, which are being carried out by the Yemeni Houthi rebel militant group in support of Hamas, have forced shipping companies to redirect around the southern tip of Africa – a journey that can take up to three weeks longer.

Two of the UK’s biggest suppliers of tea, Tetley and Yorkshire Tea, have announced that they are monitoring their supply chains closely for any potential disruptions. And customers have reported reduced stocks of tea in supermarkets across the UK.

Britons may suffer tea shortages in the near future due to trade disruption in the Middle East.
Andy Rain / EPA

It is no surprise that tea is vulnerable to supply chain disruption. The tea supply chain is a complex global network, involving producers, processors, auctions and wholesalers, packers, distributors and retailers.

The UK imports primarily unprocessed tea from countries in south Asia and east Africa. This tea is then packaged and blended within the UK for both domestic and export markets. Only around 10% of the packaged tea sold in the UK is supplied by companies from overseas.

But tea is one of many items to be caught up in the supply chain crisis. The disruption is affecting supplies across various other sectors too, including electric cars and liquified natural gas – and it could prove costly.

The UK is particularly reliant on natural gas for the production of carbon dioxide, a gas that is essential for everything from NHS operations to keeping food fresh while it is transported.

Not so unpredictable

The disruption caused by the Red Sea attacks is considered by some to have been an entirely unpredictable occurrence of what is known as a “black swan” event. But this crisis is the latest in a long line of shocks to global supply networks that have occurred over the past decade.

Whether it was the 2011 tsunami off the coast of Japan, Brexit, COVID, US trade sanctions on China, or the war in Ukraine, the fact of the matter is that supply chains are now experiencing disruption more often than they used to.

There are two reasons for this. First, organisations have become increasingly reliant on distant countries for the manufacturing and supply of routine and critical components.

Sometimes this decision is made because of the natural advantage these countries hold. For example, China currently accounts for 93% of the global production of so-called rare earth elements, which are used in the components of many of the devices we use every day. But most of the time these decisions are driven by an organisation’s pursuit of lowering its cost of operation.

Second, a focus on just-in-time production, where businesses focus on producing precisely the amount they need and delivering it as close as possible to the time their customers need it, has reduced the buffer against supply chain shocks.

Graffiti on a wall in Sana’a, Yemen, depicting a Houthi fighter stopping an Israeli ship in the Red Sea.
Yahya Arhab / EPA

Building resilient supply networks

Organisations need to diversify their supply chains by developing alternate sources of supply. Many businesses already spread their source of materials over multiple suppliers across different regions to ensure quality, the continuity of supply, and to minimise costs.

For less complex components, such as packaging (cardboard, plastic bags and bubble wrap) or raw materials (metals and plastic), multiple sourcing is often practised through competitive tendering and reverse auctions; where the sellers bid for the prices at which they are willing to sell their goods and services.

However, for more complex products, the development of alternate sources of supply needs to be done strategically. One of the most important steps to improve supply chain resilience is to reduce reliance on global suppliers through processes called “onshoring”, “nearshoring” and “friendshoring”.

Onshoring is where components are sourced from suppliers located within domestic national borders. Nearshoring is a similar strategy where a company moves its supply to neighbouring countries. And friendshoring is where organisations transfer their production away from geopolitical rivals to friendlier countries.

The US, for example, has traditionally relied on Taiwan and South Korea for its supply of semiconductors (computer chips). But geopolitical tensions with China, coupled with a global shortage of semiconductors, have forced the US to look for suppliers in countries closer to home, while also exploring the potential of moving chip manufacturing to the US.

Geographical and climate factors restrict the onshoring of tea cultivation to the UK. But these supply strategies could help businesses manage the risk of supply chain disruption to other, potentially more critical, commodities.

Taiwanese microchip manufacturer TSMC are building a plant in Phoenix, Arizona.
Around the World Photos/Shutterstock

Making supply chains more agile

The frequency with which global supply chains are now becoming disrupted means that organisations must rethink their supply chain strategies, evolving from being efficient and lean to flexible and agile.

An agile supply chain strategy will require businesses to maintain adequate inventory levels to guard against a situation where stock runs out. These inventory levels must be informed by real-time – or as close to real-time as possible – data on customer demand.

The disruption to the UK’s tea supply highlights the vulnerability of supplies of everyday essentials to unexpected events. But businesses can make sure they are better prepared for the occurrence of an unexpected event by enhancing the resilience of their supply chain through diversification and agility. Läs mer…

Why economists are warning of another US banking crisis

March 2024 is making investors nervous. A major scheme to prop up the US banking system is ending, while a second may be winding down. Some economic commentators fear another banking crisis. So how worried should we be?

The red letter day is March 11, when US central bank the Federal Reserve will end the bank term funding program (BTFP), a year after it began in response to the failures of regional banks Signature, Silvergate and Silicon Valley. These banks were brought down by customers withdrawing deposits en masse, both because many were tech or crypto businesses that needed money to cover losses, and because there were better savings rates available elsewhere.

This damaged the banks’ profitability at a time when raised interest rates had already weakened their balance sheets by reducing the value of their holdings in government bonds. Silvergate failed first but Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse on March 10 was particularly memorable. It triggered a bank run by announcing it needed to raise capital after being forced to sell bonds at a loss.

Silicon Valley Bank’s demise put investors on high alert.
Domenico Fornas

There soon followed the failures of Signature and also Swiss bank Credit Suisse, which had to be taken over by neighbouring giant UBS. There had been longstanding problems at Credit Suisse, but heightened anxieties on the back of the US upheaval delivered the final blow.

How the BTFP works

Investors then feared that other banks would fail. Most US banks were similarly exposed to customer withdrawals and underwater bond portfolios, while the Credit Suisse collapse demonstrated the potential for contagion. The Fed’s BTFP stopped the panic by allowing US banks to borrow from the central bank using their bonds as collateral.

Not only did this let them quietly access more funding, the scheme also priced the bonds at their original face value and not market value. This effectively negated the interest rate rises and reinflated banks’ balance sheets. Only one more bank, San Francisco’s First Republic Bank, has since gone under.

So what will happen as the BTFP closes? I suspect it won’t lead to more bank collapses. Banks have had another year to adjust to higher interest rates, plus they can still borrow from the Fed through another facility called the discount window.

Nonetheless, the BTFP’s closure is likely to increase banks’ borrowing costs, meaning their profit margins will fall. They might react with higher lending rates or by making less credit available to customers, potentially weakening the economy. This could combine with a second foreseeable change to create new dangers for the sector.

Quantitative tightening

That second change relates to the quantitative easing (QE) programme by the Fed and other central banks, which broadly dates from the global financial crisis of 2007-09. It saw central banks essentially creating new money and using it to buy government bonds and other financial assets. They added more reserves to high-street banks as part of this process, enabling these institutions to lend more money as a result.

The most recent leg of QE began in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, then ended in 2022, when central banks began a reverse programme called quantitative tightening (QT). This involves selling bonds and other assets and removing the proceeds from the financial system.

It should be a drag on the economy, yet the effects have been tempered by a facility known as the overnight reverse repurchase agreement or “overnight reverse repo”. This essentially enables financial institutions to deposit their excess cash overnight with their central bank in exchange for government bonds. They earn extra money at very low risk, injecting more liquidity into the system.

The facility was extremely popular during the period of QE and ultra-low interest rates because these injected so much cash into the system. Its use has been falling since late 2022, since central banks have fewer bonds to lend while institutions have less money to park overnight.

The effects of the unwinding of quantitative easing have been damped down.
MDart10

Daily balances at the Fed’s overnight reverse repo have fallen from over US$2.2 trillion (£1.7 trillion) in mid-2023 to below US$600 billion in January. However, while the positive balance continues, it offsets the need for the Fed to remove bank reserves as part of QT, since the bonds flowing out under that scheme are being partially replaced by bonds flowing in through the overnight reverse repo.

Only when the reverse repo balance reaches very low levels will the system feel the full effect of QT. At this stage, the Fed has indicated it will slow and then end that programme.

Nonetheless, the transition could be bumpy, with banks potentially raising lending rates and becoming less willing to lend. Many analysts expect the buffer to disappear in 2024, with a range of predictions from late in the year to as soon as March.

Risky times

Heightened interest rates have already led to the most stringent credit standards and weakest loan demand from consumers and businesses in a long time in the US. Meanwhile, banks are dealing with other major challenges such as the plunge in demand for office space as a result of home working. This has brought the medium-sized New York Community Bank to the brink in recent weeks, for instance.

The closure of the BTFP and the end of the reverse repo buffer, particularly if they coincide, could clearly make banks even more risk averse and profit-hungry. The danger is that this all damages the economy to the point that bad debts pile up and we hit another 2008-style liquidity crisis where banks become wary of lending to one another and the weaker ones become unviable.

The recent geopolitical tensions could aggravate this. If cross-border credit and investments dried up, it might further increase the risks of bad debts and could again hit bond prices, further reducing the value of banks’ assets and making their borrowing more expensive.

The Fed and other central banks need to be alert to these rising risks and get ready to end QT in the near future. The end of the BTFP is unlikely to put banks out of business, but it could be one of a series of blows that kicks off a new crisis in the months ahead. Läs mer…

Writing is a technology that restructures thought — and in an AI age, universities need to teach it more

In an age of AI-assisted writing, is it important for university students to learn how to write?

We believe it is now more than ever.

In the writing classroom, students get the time and help they need to understand writing as not only a skill, but what the language scholar Walter J. Ong called a “technology that restructures thought.”

“Technology” is not simply iPhones or spreadsheets — it is about mediating our relationship with the world through the creation of tools, and writing itself is arguably the most important tool for thinking that university students need to master.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone agrees.

Role of university writing courses

“Eliminate the Required First-Year Writing Course” was the headline of a provocative article published in Inside Higher Ed in November.

In this article, a professor of writing studies, Melissa Nicolas of Washington State University, writes that while she has seen reason to question how efficient first-year composition courses are before now, “the advent of generative artificial intelligence is the final nail in the coffin.”

In her estimation, “learning to write and writing to learn are two distinct things.” First-year writing courses are “largely about learning to write, but AI can now do this for us. Writing to learn is much more complicated and is something that can only be done by the human mind.”

‘Good writing’ reflects intellectual engagement.
(Shutterstock)

We take issue with this distinction. From the perspective of human learning and development, the grammatically correct prose produced by generative AI like ChatGPT is not “good writing” — even if it is or seems factually correct — if it does not reflect intellectual engagement with its subject matter. This is not to mention serious questions about the meaning of gaining insight from digital data, issues surrounding data biases, and so on.

First-year composition and other writing courses are a crucial part of the way university students are socialized into ways of communicating that will benefit them far beyond their undergraduate years.

Canadian versus American universities

We propose another solution to the problem Nicolas raises of first-year composition courses being formulaic and outdated. Universities need to devote resources to expanding and improving writing programs, including first-year composition.

We especially need this in Canada, where, as doctoral research carried out by one of the authors of this piece (Taylor Morphett) has shown, first-year composition has traditionally been under-emphasized, and writing has only been taught in a piecemeal way.

When first-year composition courses began to develop at the end of the 19th century in the United States, in Canada the focus was on the fine-tuning of literary taste and the reading of canonical British literature.

Writing education is often seen by universities as a remedial skill, something students should already know how to do.
(Shutterstock)

The philosophies of education and approaches to teaching that developed from this early time are still present today in Canada. Writing education is often seen by universities as a remedial skill, something students should already know how to do.

In reality, much more writing instruction is needed. Today’s undergraduates are plunged into a sea of texts, information and technology they have immense difficulty navigating, and ChatGPT has made it harder, not easier, for students to discern the credibility of sources.

Writing programs in Canada

In writing courses, students can begin to see the critical variety and power of one of our best technologies: the human act of writing, a system of finite resources but infinite combinations. They learn to think, synthesize, judge the credibility of sources and information and interact with an audience — none of which can be done by AI.

Thankfully, some universities have taken the lead in making writing a cornerstone of undergraduate education. For example, the University of Victoria has a robust academic writing requirement for all students, regardless of their field of study. At the University of Toronto Mississauga, first-year students take an innovative for-credit writing course that takes a “writing-about-writing” approach. In this program, undergraduates study writing as an academic subject itself, not just a skill. They learn about the importance, complexity and socially situated nature of academic writing.

In writing courses, students can begin to see the critical variety and power of one of our best technologies: the human act of writing.
(Yaroslav Shuraev)

Needed at all universities

All Canadian universities should make a beginning academic writing or communication course required for all undergraduates, along with discipline-specific upper-division writing courses focused on scholarly and professional genres in their fields.

Academic and professional writing is a second language for everyone: no one is born knowing how to properly cite sources or craft airtight business proposals.

We need dedicated writing programs to help students understand and communicate complex concepts to a specific audience for a specific purpose in rhetorically flexible ways, with an awareness of their responsibilities to a human community of readers.

Skills and knowledge to make a difference

Generative AI like ChatGPT cannot do this, because it cannot know or “understand” anything. Its raison d’être is to produce plausible strings of symbols in response to human prompts, based on data it has been trained upon.

We have knowledgeable and talented PhDs graduating in communication, applied linguistics, English, rhetoric and related fields whose expertise in these areas is sorely needed at institutions across the country.

If Canada wants to graduate domestic and international students with the skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world, we need to be training them in writing. Läs mer…

Could tardigrades have colonized the Moon?

Just over five years ago, on 22 February 2019, an unmanned space probe was placed in orbit around the Moon. Named Beresheet and built by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, it was intended to be the first private spacecraft to perform a soft landing. Among the probe’s payload were tardigrades, renowed for their ability to survive in even the harshest climates.

The mission ran into trouble from the start, with the failure of “star tracker” cameras intended to determine the spacecraft’s orientation and thus properly control its motors. Budgetary limitations had imposed a pared-down design, and while the command center was able to work around some problems, things got even trickier on 11 April, the day of the landing.

On the way to the Moon the spacecraft had been travelling at high speed, and it needed to be slowed way down to make a soft landing. Unfortunately during the braking manoeuvre a gyroscope failed, blocking the primary engine. At an altitude of 150 m, Beresheet was still moving at 500 km/h, far too fast to be stopped in time. The impact was violent – the probe shattered and its remains were scattered over a distance of around a hundred metres. We know this because the site was photographed by NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) satellite on 22 April.

Animals that can withstand (almost) anything

So what happened to the tardigrades that were travelling on the probe? Given their remarkable abilities to survive situations that would kill pretty much any other animal, could they have contaminated the Moon? Worse, might they be able to reproduce and colonize it?

Tardigrades are microscopic animals that measure less than a millimetre in length. All have neurons, a mouth opening at the end of a retractable proboscis, an intestine containing a microbiota and four pairs of non-articulated legs ending in claws, and most have two eyes. As small as they are, they share a common ancestor with arthropods such as insects and arachnids.

Most tardigrades live in aquatic environments, but they can be found in any environment, even urban ones. Emmanuelle Delagoutte, a researcher at the CNRS, collects them in the mosses and lichens of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. To be active, feed on microalgae such as chlorella, and move, grow and reproduce, tardigrades need to be surrounded by a film of water. They reproduce sexually or asexually via parthenogenesis (from an unfertilised egg) or even hermaphroditism, when an individual (which possesses both male and female gametes) self-fertilises. Once the egg has hatched, the active life of a tardigrade lasts from 3 to 30 months. A total of 1,265 species have been described, including two fossils.

Tardigrades are famous for their resistance to conditions that exist neither on Earth nor on the Moon. They can shut down their metabolism by losing up to 95% of their body water. Some species synthesise a sugar, trehalose, that acts as an antifreeze, while others synthesise proteins that are thought to incorporate cellular constituents into an amorphous “glassy” network that offers resistance and protection to each cell.

During dehydration, the tardigrade’s body can shrink to half its normal size. The legs disappear, with only the claws still visible. This state, known as cryptobiosis, persists until conditions for active life become favourable again.

Depending on the species of tardigrade, individuals need more or less time to dehydrate and not all specimens of the same species manage to return to active life. Dehydrated adults survive for a few minutes at temperatures as low as -272°C or as high as 150°C, and over the long term at high doses of gamma rays of 1,000 or 4,400 Gray (Gy). By way of comparison, a dose of 10 Gy is fatal for humans, and 40-50,000 Gy sterilises all types of material. However, whatever the dose, radiation kills tardigrade eggs. What’s more, the protection afforded by cryptobiosis is not always clear-cut, as in the case of Milnesium tardigradum, where radiation affects both active and dehydrated animals in the same way.

Image of the species Milnesium tardigradum in its active state.
Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012), CC BY

Lunar life?

So what happened to the tardigrades after they crashed on the Moon? Are any of them still viable, buried under the moon’s regolith, the dust that varies in depth from a few metres to several dozen metres?

First of all, they have to have survived the impact. Laboratory tests have shown that frozen specimens of the Hypsibius dujardini species travelling at 3,000 km/h in a vacuum were fatally damaged when they smashed into sand. However, they survived impacts of 2,600 km/h or less – and their “hard landing” on Moon, though unwanted, was far slower.

The Moon’s surface is not protected from solar particles and cosmic rays, particularly gamma rays, but here too, the tardigrades would be able to resist. In fact, Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber, professor at the University of Kiel in Germany, and his team have shown that the doses of gamma rays hitting the lunar surface were permanent but low compared with the doses mentioned above – 10 years’ exposure to gamma rays would correspond to a total dose of around 1 Gy.

Finally, the tardigrades would have to withstand a lack of water as well as temperatures ranging from -170 to -190°C during the lunar night and 100 to 120°C during the day. A lunar day or night lasts a long time, just under 15 Earth days. The probe itself wasn’t designed to withstand such extremes and even if it hadn’t crashed, it would have ceased all activity after just a few Earth days.

Unfortunately for the tardigrades, they can’t overcome the lack of liquid water, oxygen and microalgae – they would never be able to reactivate, much less reproduce. Their colonising the Moon is thus impossible. Still, inactive specimens are on lunar soil and their presence raises ethical questions, as Matthew Silk, an ecologist at the University of Edinburgh, points out. Moreover, at a time when space exploration is taking off in all directions, contaminating other planets could mean that we would lose the opportunity to detect extraterrestrial life.

The author thanks Emmanuelle Delagoutte and Cédric Hubas of the Muséum de Paris, and Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber of the University of Kiel, for their critical reading of the text and their advice. Läs mer…