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21 Feb 14:32

Now there's a game you can play to 'vaccinate' yourself against fake news

by Jon Roozenbeek, PhD Candidate in Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge
Shutterstock.

The term “fake news” is everywhere these days. After gaining steam during the 2016 US election, it’s become a catch-all phrase used by people from across the political spectrum. Yet “fake” stories – or stories that have been entirely made up – have been around since the dawn of man. And on top of that, stories don’t have to be completely fake to be misleading. Terms such as “propaganda”, “disinformation”, “misinformation” and “post-truth” are used by many people, as though they mean the same thing.

In practice, most people are concerned about “disinformation”: that is, misinformation coupled with the intent to deceive. Today, it’s easier than ever to mislead people. In the online world, posing as a credible news producer requires a bit of money and dedication – but it’s not hard.

Meanwhile, people’s trust in the media is declining, and a majority of Americans say that fake news has left them confused about basic facts. Add to that the growing problem of computational propaganda – where Twitter bots or other social media tools amplify certain hashtags or messages to influence what’s trending – and the current landscape becomes very difficult for people to navigate.

Fighting back

There are many ways companies and governments are trying to combat this growing threat. Google and Facebook are tweaking their algorithms to stop promoting “fake news”. France is in the process of passing a controversial “fake news law”, which limits media activity during election time. And the UK government has announced it’s setting up an “anti-fake news” unit. Yet each of these efforts comes with its own problems.

From our perspective, as researchers studying the fake news phenomenon, we think the best way to fight the bad effects is at the individual level. So, we’re experimenting by combining psychology with technology in a new area of research, which some scholars are calling “technocognition”.

So far, one of us found that it’s possible to “inoculate” people against misinformation by warning and exposing them to a weakened version of the “real” misleading argument, and then revealing to them why it’s misleading. In other words, a small dose of fake news can inoculate you against it – just like a real vaccination would protect you against a disease.

Tricks of the trade

There are many reasons why people produce disinformation: they can be financial, political, personal and even “just for fun”. But the techniques that are being used to mislead people are remarkably similar across the board.

One of the simplest is impersonation: imitating a public figure or organisation with the intent of misleading the public. They might also create “emotional content”, which deliberately plays on people’s basic emotions – such as fear or anger – to get a response. Next, there’s “polarisation” – when fake news merchants stir up existing political tensions, to drive people further apart.

US astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. on the moon – or is he? NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Then there are conspiracies: misleading theories, which often hold a large organisation responsible for some kind of covert agenda – like saying NASA faked the moon landing to win the space race. Then, people whose credibility is under attack will often try to discredit their opponents by engaging in “whataboutism” or personal attacks. And lastly we have trolling, which involves disrupting discussions and provoking reactions from people, combining all of the techniques mentioned above.

Good news, bad news

When people use these techniques themselves, it really improves their ability to recognise them in other contexts. So, together with DROG (a Dutch organisation working against the spread of disinformation), we developed an online game called Bad News (click here to play it), where players use misleading tactics to build their own fake news empire.

The game is free to play in any browser and on any device and takes about 15 minutes to complete. You start as an anonymous Twitter user who goes professional by starting their own news site, and gradually becomes a fake news tycoon. On the way, you earn badges and learn how the techniques mentioned earlier can be used to suit your purposes.

We figured that once you know how the magic trick works, you won’t be fooled by it again. So we put our ideas to the test by doing a pilot study in a high school in the Netherlands. Some classes were assigned to the treatment group and played our game. Others were assigned to the control group, and didn’t play the game.

Although our study was only a starting point, the results so far have been positive: students who played the game thought the fake news articles they read afterwards were less reliable. We hope that our game will play a role in stopping the spread of misleading information: just as misinformation replicates, vaccines can spread, too. The more people that play the game, the further the vaccine spreads – until one day, we may achieve societal resistance against fake news.

The Conversation

Jon Roozenbeek has worked together with DROG on this game and is listed on this organisation's website as a researcher.

Sander van der Linden does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

20 Feb 20:49

Gâteau Gato, a zoetrope of cat confections

by Rusty Blazenhoff

French food artist/animator Alexandre Dubosc has done it again. He's created another incredibly impressive zoetrope, this time with a cat theme (previously). It's called "Gâteau Gato" ("cat cake") and it is really quite a delight to watch. I'm not sure which I like better, the curling cookie tongues or the little white mice scurrying away. Fortunately, I don't have to decide.

Dubosc doesn't say how long the cake took to bake, assemble, and film on its "making of" page, but given how detailed the piece is, I'd say many, many hours.

20 Feb 20:45

This book explains how to tell when your country's going to hell and how to stop it

by Seamus Bellamy

You may have noticed of late that things in America are becoming less, well, American.

A cruel misogynist with dangerously racist beliefs is running the show. Nazis and bigots of all stripes no long fear giving voice to their hatred in public. The nation's journalists and the free flow of information are under attack. The government is working hard to defund the healthcare apparatus designed to protect the country's most vulnerable citizens. Piece by piece, the country's institutions, its heart and soul are being torn asunder, paving the way for something new. After reading Timothy Snyder's most recent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, I gotta tell you, if you're scared of the outcome of all of this, chances are you're likely not scared enough.

Snyder is a scholar who specializes in the history of the the 20th century and, more pointedly, the holocaust. His knowledge of how a country's slow slide into fascism at the whim of a tyrant can occur is beyond reproach, given his academic street cred: he's the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale, a Committee on Conscience member at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. What I'm getting at is that he knows from bad shit, how it starts and historically, how it's gone down. With the current political and popular climate in a number of nations around the world, he's concerned that the ugliest parts of humanity are ready to rear their heads once again.

On Tyranny's only 126 pages long. Over the course of the book's 20 easy-to-read chapters, Snyder explains the signs that can be seen in the lead up to a fascist regime, sites brutal examples of where these signs have pointed to in the past, and what we as individuals can do to stand against the tide of such authoritarianism and hatred. From the book:

"The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wider than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or Communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience."

No matter which side of the political fence you walk on, the lessons that the book offers make for essential reading. If you're interested and can't find the book at your local library, getting your hands on a copy of your own won't cost you much. Amazon's got it in paperback for $6.39, as an audiobook for $5.95 and Kindle owners can read it for just $3.99. That's a small price to pay for a tool that'll help you know fascism when you see it and how to stand against it when it comes.

Image via Seamus Bellamy

 

 

 

20 Feb 20:41

Expect Northern Lights and power grid fluctuations this week

by Seamus Bellamy

Good news! This week, folks living in as far north as Michigan may get treated to a stunning light show as Auroras will be shining brighter and further away from the planet’s axis than usual. What a rare treat! The bad news: the same phenomenon that causes the Northern Lights to do their thing could also screw with a few important technologies that we rely on, every day.

According to Seeker.com, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated that charged solar particles, the result of a ‘moderate’ solar flare barfed out of the Sun on February 12 could cause minor fluctuations in power grids and have an impact on communications with satellites that are currently orbiting the earth. In her story on the issue, Seeker’s Elizabeth Howell took the time to explain how the particles are created:

Solar flares and particle ejections are associated with sunspots — dark areas on the sun's surface — that host intense magnetic activity. As the magnetic fields in a sunspot cross, NASA stated, this can cause a sudden energy explosion, also known as a solar flare. This sends radiation out into space.

Sometimes these explosions can also send off charged particles, which are called coronal mass ejections or CMEs. "CMEs are huge bubbles of radiation and particles from the sun," NASA stated. "They explode into space at very high speed when the sun's magnetic field lines suddenly organize."

These bubbles of radiation generally bop off into space, away from the earth. But not this week.

Fortunately, the solar storm forecasters at NASA and NOAA believe that we won't take a huge hit from this latest solar storm. But, if you see the lights in your home flickering, you'll now know why. And hey, if the power does go out, you might be able to eat dinner by the Northern Lights.

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

20 Feb 20:39

Google images removes "view image" button from search results

by Rob Beschizza

Google removed the "view image" button from image search results last night.

The change is essentially meant to frustrate users. Google has long been under fire from photographers and publishers who felt that image search allowed people to steal their pictures, and the removal of the view image button is one of many changes being made in response.

There's something old-school stupid about it, like javascript snippets that "block" people from right-clicking on images. It doesn't accomplish what it hopes for, because the image is already downloaded, and there are a half-dozen other ways to get at it conveniently--not least simply dragging and dropping it.

The measure is about satisfying people who have no idea at all how web browsers work and who are mad at an offensive button. Google suggests in a tweet that this was done to make Getty Images' lawyers happy. Their clients will presumably be pleased by its disappearance, then alarmed to find that nothing has changed, because the people who rip off photo agencies aren't sat there clicking the "view image" button.

Meanwhile, Google Images still allows sites to change the images that the cached thumbnails link to. Odd!

Illustration by SpaceFoxy; via Google Images.

20 Feb 20:37

New York Federal judge rules that embedding tweets can violate copyright law

by Cory Doctorow

Katherine Forrest, an Obama-appointed federal judge in New York, has overturned a bedrock principle of internet law, ruling that embedding a copyrighted work can constitute a copyright infringement on the part of the entity doing the embedding. (more…)

20 Feb 20:35

A crypto primer in the form of Ikea instructions

by Cory Doctorow

"Idea-instructions" bills itself as "An ongoing series of nonverbal algorithm assembly instructions", with a half-dozen illustrations of popular computer science concepts covered to date; the latest covers Public-Key Crypto, one of the most important and elusive concepts from modern crypto. (more…)

20 Feb 20:17

Students substitute gun control protest for active shooter drill

by Cory Doctorow

After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students at MDI High School in Bar Harbor, Maine were scheduled to have a routine lock-down drill, in which students practice how to behave if their school is the site of a similar mass shooting; these drills teach children to sacrifice themselves by distracting the shooter before they are murdered in order to give other students a few more seconds during which the police might arrive and kill the shooter. (more…)

08 Feb 20:19

Greetings from Mars

Exploring today's weather on Mars and in your area with the Curiosity Rover.
08 Feb 19:52

How a kid cartoonist avoided Scholastic's digital sharecropping trap

by Sasha Matthews
08 Feb 19:46

Find out where you fit on the global income spectrum

by Reanna Alder

Anna Rosling Rönnlund, co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, asked Swedish students where they thought they fell on the global income spectrum. They guessed somewhere in the middle; they were wrong. After having 264 homes photographed in 50 countries and collecting 30,000 photos, she made this tool to help everyone understand the world – and how they fit in – a little better.

Want to see how people at your income level live in other countries? Of course you do.

It's the perfect antidote to Instagram-induced envy. Actually, I'd like to see someone curate a Selby or Apartmento-style lookbook from these images. Anyone?

08 Feb 18:27

What did Jesus wear?

by Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism, King's College London
Livioandronico2013 / Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA

Over the past few decades, the question of what Jesus looked like has cropped up again and again. Much has been made of a digital reconstruction of a Judaean man created for a BBC documentary, Son of God, in 2001. This was based on an ancient skull and, using the latest technology (as it was), shows the head of a stocky fellow with a somewhat worried expression.

Rightly, the skin tone is olive, and the hair and beard black and shortish, but the nose, lips, neck, eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, fat cover and expression are all totally conjectural. Putting flesh on ancient skulls is not an exact science, because the soft tissue and cartilage are unknown.

Nevertheless, for me as a historian, trying to visualise Jesus accurately is a way to understand Jesus more accurately, too.

The Jesus we’ve inherited from centuries of Christian art is not accurate, but it is a powerful brand. A man with long hair parted in the middle and a long beard – often with fair skin, light brown hair and blue eyes – has become the widely accepted likeness. We imagine Jesus in long robes with baggy sleeves, as he is most often depicted in artworks over the centuries. In contemporary films, from Zefirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) onwards, this styling prevails, even when Jesus’ clothing is considered poorly made.

There were many reasons why Jesus was portrayed in what has become the worldwide standard, and none of them were to do with preserving historical accuracy. I explore these in my new book What did Jesus look like?, but ultimately I look to clues in early texts and archaeology for the real Jesus.

Some depictions of Jesus over the ages. Wikimedia Commons

For me, Jesus’ appearance is not all about flesh and bones. After all, our bodies are not just bodies. As the sociologist Chris Shilling argues, they are “both personal resources and social symbols that ‘give off’ messages about identity”. We can be old, young, tall, short, weighty, thin, dark-skinned, light-skinned, frizzy-haired, straight-haired, and so on, but our appearance does not begin and end with our physical bodies. In a crowd, we may look for a friend’s scarf rather than their hair or nose. What we do with our bodies creates an appearance.

And so Jesus’ appearance would have had much to do with what he was wearing. Once we’ve got the palette for his colouring right, given he was a Jewish man of the Middle East, how do we dress him? How did he seem to people of the time?

Dressed in basics

There is no neat physical description of Jesus in the Gospels or in ancient Christian literature. But there are incidental details. From the Bible (for example, Mark 6:56) you can discover that he wore a mantle – a large shawl (“himation” in Greek) – which had tassels, described as “edges”; a distinctively Jewish tallith in a form it was in antiquity. Usually made of wool, a mantle could be large or small, thick or fine, coloured or natural, but for men there was a preference for undyed types.

He walked in sandals, as implied in multiple Biblical passages (see Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7, 6:9; John 1:27), and we now know what ancient Judaean sandals were like as they have been preserved in dry caves by the Dead Sea.

Jesus’ garb would have been a far cry from the depiction in da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Wikimedia Commons

He wore a tunic (chitōn), which for men normally finished slightly below the knees, not at the ankles. Among men, only the very rich wore long tunics. Indeed, Jesus specifically identifies men who dress in long tunics (“stolai”, Mark 12:38) as wrongly receiving honour from people who are impressed by their fine attire, when in fact they unjustly devour widows’ houses.

Jesus’s tunic was also made of one piece of cloth only (John 19:23-24). That’s strange, because mostly tunics were made of two pieces sewn at the shoulders and sides. One-piece tunics in first-century Judaea were normally thin undergarments or children’s wear. We shouldn’t think of contemporary underwear, but wearing a one-piece on its own was probably not good form. It was extremely basic.

‘Shamefully’ shabby?

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Jesus was remembered as looking shabby by a scholar named Celsus, writing in the mid second century, in a treatise against the Christians. Celsus did his homework. He interviewed people, and he – like us – was quite interested in what Jesus looked like. From Jews and others he questioned, he heard that Jesus “wandered about most shamefully in the sight of all”. He “obtained his means of livelihood in a disgraceful and importunate way” – by begging or receiving donations.

How Jesus may have dressed. © Joan Taylor, Author provided

From the perspective of respectable people, we can surmise then that Jesus looked relatively rough. When the Christian writer Origen argued against Celsus, he rejected many of his assertions, but he did not dispute this.

And so while Jesus wore similar clothes to other Jewish men in many respects, his “look” was scruffy. I doubt his hair was particularly long as depicted in most artwork, given male norms of the time, but it was surely not well-tended. Wearing a basic tunic that other people wore as an undergarment would fit with Jesus’ detachment regarding material things (Matthew 6:19-21, 28–29; Luke 6:34-35, 12:22-28) and concern for the poor (Luke 6:20-23).

This, to me, is the beginning of a different way of seeing Jesus, and one very relevant for our times of massive inequality between rich and poor, as in the Roman Empire. Jesus aligned himself with the poor and this would have been obvious from how he looked.

The appearance of Jesus matters because it cuts to the heart of his message. However he is depicted in film and art today, he needs to be shown as one of the have-nots; his teaching can only be truly understood from this perspective.

The Conversation

Joan Taylor receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust but not for this research.

08 Feb 18:17

How Iran uses a compulsory hijab law to control its citizens – and why they are protesting

by Moujan Mirdamadi, PhD Candidate, Lancaster University
The 'girl from Enghelab Street', recorded holding her hijab aloft in protest in December 2017. The National via YouTube

Protests against Iran’s mandatory hijab law – which requires all women to wear it in public – have sprung up across Iran in the first few weeks of 2018. Women, acting individually, stood on utility boxes in public places, taking off their headscarves and holding them up as flags. Some men also took part in the protests.

The government’s reaction so far has been to arrest 29 people connected to the campaign against the hijab.

But a newly released report by the Iranian government shows that 49% of the population are against the country’s compulsory hijab law, although the real number is likely to be higher.

The hijab has an important place in the power dynamic between society and the ruling Iranian regime. During the revolution in 1978-79, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the hijab became a symbol of resistance and protest against the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah. The Pahlavi regime of the Shah and his predecessor had attempted to modernise the country, but its policies clashed with the religious values of a large part of the population.

Publicly wearing a hijab became a symbol of protest and solidarity against the monarchy, regardless of how religious a woman was. But wearing a veil was not compulsory for protesters, neither was making it so a demand driving the revolution.

Within a few years of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war was used as an excuse to clamp down on domestic opposition forces and to introduce strict domestic laws. In 1985, it became mandatory for women to wear the hijab with a law that forced all women in Iran, regardless of their religious beliefs, to dress in accordance with Islamic teachings. The hijab became a tool for implementing the government’s strict religious ideology.

A symbol of oppression

The new law marked an ideological way of governing that continues today. The compulsory hijab law has been used to exclude women from various areas of public life, either by explicitly banning women from certain public spaces such as some sports stadiums, or by adding restrictions on their education and workplace etiquette. More generally, it is also used to exclude anyone who disagrees with the ideology of the regime, who are branded as having “bad-hijab”. Not adhering to hijab continues to be seen as a hallmark of opposition to the government.

The law is also used to justify the regime’s increasing involvement in citizens’ private lives. From an early age, girls are forced to wear headscarves in school and public places. Teenagers and young people in Iran are routinely stopped by the “morality police” responsible primarily for policing people’s appearances and adherence to wearing the hijab.

For women it is the way they wear their headscarves and the length of their overcoats. Men are prohibited from wearing shorts, having certain haircuts that could be seen as Western, and wearing tops with “Western” patterns or writings. In recent years, it has become common practice for the police to raid private parties, arresting both girls and boys on the basis of not adhering to the hijab law. Punishments range from fines to two months in jail.

Going public

Such violations of citizens’ private lives add to a lack of happiness, satisfaction, and hope in Iranian society. This is something the government has acknowledged as one of the many social crises facing the nation.

The protests against the hijab followed widespread demonstrations in late 2017 that shook over 80 cities in Iran. Many of the social analyses of these recent protests, which were in large part fuelled by economic hardships, point to a strong mood of hopelessness.

The compulsory hijab law contributes to this mood, which is pushing opposition to the regime into the private sphere of people’s lives. It is this hidden opposition that fuels the scattered, yet strong public displays of unrest in Iran against the oppressive forces of the regime.

As the anniversary of the 1979 revolution approaches on February 11, some women are boldly bringing these protests back into the public arena. By protesting against the mandatory hijab law, Iranians are protesting against the very ideology of the regime.

The hijab has once again become a symbol, this time of the ideology and power of a regime over its people. By protesting this notion, Iranians are drawing a boundary for the government: individuals have the right to their body and their appearance and this is not a matter for the governing regime to enforce.

What Iranian society is most in need of is hope – not only as a driving force for active participation of citizens, but also as a unifying force bringing together different factions of the society. The protest against the hijab is symbolic. But it is also a protest with a clear demand, and with the potential to bring together Iranians, regardless of gender or religious beliefs. It could be just what Iranian society needs to restore hope for the future, and more importantly, for change.

The Conversation

Moujan Mirdamadi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

08 Feb 15:45

United States Postal Service issuing Mister Rogers stamp

by David Pescovitz

On March 23, the United States Postal Service will issue a Mister Rogers stamp celebrating the host of the iconic children's TV show. The dedication will take place in the Fred Rogers Studio at Pittsburgh's WQED, the place where "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” began.

07 Feb 20:09

Everyone Creates: a website celebrating the creativity that the internet has unlocked for millions of people

by Cory Doctorow

https://youtu.be/ekD9-GMz5EY

When we debate copyright policy on the internet, the story is pitched as "creators vs technology," but that leaves out the millions of people who create, but who are not part of the traditional entertainment industry -- people whose self-expression, artistic fulfillment, and audiences matter every bit as much as the audiences for creators who sign on to the big labels, studios, publishers and news bureaux. (more…)

07 Feb 20:07

A huge trove of vintage movie posters from the University of Texas's Ransom Center archive

by Cory Doctorow

The University of Texas's Ransom Center (previously) has posted a gorgeous selection of digitized movie posters from its Movie Poster Collection, from the 1920s to the 1970s. (more…)

07 Feb 19:59

The myth of the "genius creator" requires that we ignore the people they build on, or insist they don't matter

by Cory Doctorow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH5Vl99k2JQ

The wonderful Copy Me project (previously) has revealed the first installment in its new three-part series on The Creativity Delusion, which takes aim at the "myth of genius," which picks a small subsection of creators, scientists and entrepreneurs and declares them to be "original" by ignoring all the work they plundered to create their own and erasing all the creators whose shoulders they stand upon. (more…)

07 Feb 18:51

Smartphone data tracking is more than creepy – here's why you should be worried

by Vivian Ng, Senior Research Officer, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, University of Essex
Shutterstock

Smartphones rule our lives. Having information at our fingertips is the height of convenience. They tell us all sorts of things, but the information we see and receive on our smartphones is just a fraction of the data they generate. By tracking and monitoring our behaviour and activities, smartphones build a digital profile of shockingly intimate information about our personal lives.

These records aren’t just a log of our activities. The digital profiles they create are traded between companies and used to make inferences and decisions that affect the opportunities open to us and our lives. What’s more, this typically happens without our knowledge, consent or control.

New and sophisticated methods built into smartphones make it easy to track and monitor our behaviour. A vast amount of information can be collected from our smartphones, both when being actively used and while running in the background. This information can include our location, internet search history, communications, social media activity, finances and biometric data such as fingerprints or facial features. It can also include metadata – information about the data – such as the time and recipient of a text message.

Your emails can reveal your social network. David Glance

Each type of data can reveal something about our interests and preferences, views, hobbies and social interactions. For example, a study conducted by MIT demonstrated how email metadata can be used to map our lives, showing the changing dynamics of our professional and personal networks. This data can be used to infer personal information including a person’s background, religion or beliefs, political views, sexual orientation and gender identity, social connections, or health. For example, it is possible to deduce our specific health conditions simply by connecting the dots between a series of phone calls.

Different types of data can be consolidated and linked to build a comprehensive profile of us. Companies that buy and sell data – data brokers – already do this. They collect and combine billions of data elements about people to make inferences about them. These inferences may seem innocuous but can reveal sensitive information such as ethnicity, income levels, educational attainment, marital status, and family composition.

A recent study found that seven in ten smartphone apps share data with third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics. Data from numerous apps can be linked within a smartphone to build this more detailed picture of us, even if permissions for individual apps are granted separately. Effectively, smartphones can be converted into surveillance devices.

The result is the creation and amalgamation of digital footprints that provide in-depth knowledge about your life. The most obvious reason for companies collecting information about individuals is for profit, to deliver targeted advertising and personalised services. Some targeted ads, while perhaps creepy, aren’t necessarily a problem, such as an ad for the new trainers you have been eyeing up.

Payday load ads. Upturn, CC BY

But targeted advertising based on our smartphone data can have real impacts on livelihoods and well-being, beyond influencing purchasing habits. For example, people in financial difficulty might be targeted for ads for payday loans. They might use these loans to pay for unexpected expenses, such as medical bills, car maintenance or court fees, but could also rely on them for recurring living costs such as rent and utility bills. People in financially vulnerable situations can then become trapped in spiralling debt as they struggle to repay loans due to the high cost of credit.

Targeted advertising can also enable companies to discriminate against people and deny them an equal chance of accessing basic human rights, such as housing and employment. Race is not explicitly included in Facebook’s basic profile information, but a user’s “ethnic affinity” can be worked out based on pages they have liked or engaged with. Investigative journalists from ProPublica found that it is possible to exclude those who match certain ethnic affinities from housing ads, and certain age groups from job ads.

This is different to traditional advertising in print and broadcast media, which although targeted is not exclusive. Anyone can still buy a copy of a newspaper, even if they are not the typical reader. Targeted online advertising can completely exclude some people from information without them ever knowing. This is a particular problem because the internet, and social media especially, is now such a common source of information.

Social media data can also be used to calculate creditworthiness, despite its dubious relevance. Indicators such as the level of sophistication in a user’s language on social media, and their friends’ loan repayment histories can now be used for credit checks. This can have a direct impact on the fees and interest rates charged on loans, the ability to buy a house, and even employment prospects.

There’s a similar risk with payment and shopping apps. In China, the government has announced plans to combine data about personal expenditure with official records, such as tax returns and driving offences. This initiative, which is being led by both the government and companies, is currently in the pilot stage. When fully operational, it will produce a social credit score that rates an individual citizen’s trustworthiness. These ratings can then be used to issue rewards or penalties, such as privileges in loan applications or limits on career progression.

These possibilities are not distant or hypothetical – they exist now. Smartphones are effectively surveillance devices, and everyone who uses them is exposed to these risks. What’s more, it is impossible to anticipate and detect the full range of ways smartphone data is collected and used, and to demonstrate the full scale of its impact. What we know could be just the beginning.

The Conversation

Vivian Ng works for the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the University of Essex.

Catherine Kent works for the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the University of Essex.

06 Feb 20:30

Millennials abandon hope for religion but revere human rights

by Galen Watts, PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program, Queen's University, Ontario
The movement away from religion towards "spirituality" reflects a desire to leave behind hierarchical understandings of religion towards a more socially liberal one. Ben White/unsplash

A sea change in the religious landscape of Canada is underway. Led by millennials, Canada is increasingly moving towards a secular culture. “Spiritual but not religious” has become our new normal.

A 2015 Angus Reid poll found 39 per cent of Canadians identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Another 27 per cent identify as “neither religious nor spiritual;” 24 per cent as “religious and spiritual;” and 10 per cent as “religious but not spiritual.”

What sparked this dramatic change in beliefs and self-identification? And what does it mean for the future of Canadian society?

The rise of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is bound up with the civil rights revolutions of the 20th century. The movement away from religion towards “spirituality” reflects a desire to leave behind hierarchical understandings of religion towards a more socially liberal one. This idea has attracted critics: Conservative commentators have generally denounced SBNRs, seeing them as narcissistic, lazy and without a clear sense of morality.

Yet, this characterization is distorted and leaves out many attributes of SBNRs who display a robust sense of ethics: Mutual respect and acceptance of difference. In fact, I believe the ethical core of SBNR spirituality holds human rights as sacred.

In 2015 I began conducting qualitative research with Canadian millennials (born between 1980-2000) who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” I have interviewed more than 40 millennials about their spiritual lives in order to better understand their beliefs, practices and values.

Follow your heart

SBNRs look to the self for guidance, above all. When my interviewees make decisions about what to do, they do not appeal to a sacred text, but rather look within for guidance. What their gut tells them, or what their intuition reveals, is what orients them. For this reason, a number of scholars have deemed it “self-spirituality.”

In his book Varieties of Religion Today, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “…the Western march toward secularity…has been interwoven from the start with this drive toward personal religion.” According to Taylor we in the North Atlantic countries are living in a “culture of authenticity.”

SBNRs generally believe individuals have a self that is authentic to them (their “true self”), and, consequently, believe we ought to allow individuals to express themselves; that it would be wrong to force them to repress or hide their true self.

It has become commonplace in Canadian society to be told to follow your heart, be true to yourself or stand out from the crowd; and conversely, both rare and undesirable to be told to stick to your role, abide by tradition or work hard to fit in.

For example, one interviewee said: “That isn’t what I would want, but if that’s who they are, I’m not going to judge.” This attitude towards difference highlights how important freedom of choice is among SBNRs.

Self-spirituality prizes individual rights. Moreover, acceptance is considered an ultimate virtue among Canadian millennial SBNRs; given their vulnerability, marginalized identities — be they ethnic, sexual, or otherwise — are considered especially in need of protection.

Marginalized identities are seen as needing protection by this new generation of SBNR millennials. Shutterstock

Burger King spirituality?

My interviewees’ rejection of religion often derived from their assumption that religious people are not respectful of others’ rights to exist as they are.

Few of my interviewees had any interest in joining a religious institution — they are often deeply suspicious of them and see them as ultimately hotbeds of corruption, greed and fear-mongering — entirely at odds with and corrupting of an authentic spirituality.

It is perhaps for this reason conservative commentators have generally denounced self-spirituality, arguing that its rejection of religious institutions is antithetical to a moral life. Self-spirituality, they argue, leads to either narcissism or hedonism, or both.

For example, author and Reverend Lillian Daniel argues that self-spirituality sits “comfortably in the norm for self-centred American culture,” while Jesuit priest James Martin calls it proof of “plain old laziness.” Others have disparaged SBNRs for their “promiscuity of belief,” condescendingly representing the way in which they approach religion as a “Burger King Spirituality.”

Their criticisms are less directly targeted at a specific religious form — self-spirituality — and more generally at social liberalism itself. It has been a longstanding conservative critique of social liberalism that it weakens the binds of tradition and community, placing too much authority on the individual.

Yet these criticisms crucially miss a distinct ethical imaginary at work; one finds affirmed by SBNRs not only an ethic of authenticity, but also an ethic of freedom, and an ethic of mutual respect.

The rise of mutual respect

The rise of self-spirituality is bound up with the 1960s counterculture and the rights revolution: the civil rights, second-wave feminist and gay liberation movements have significantly shaped contemporary Canadian culture. Many social and economic factors led us there — the post Second World War affluence boom, the rise of consumer culture, increased urbanization and the spread of expressive individualism.

Allowing individuals to be their authentic selves has become a moral imperative. As Charles Taylor has written: “Indeed, precisely the soft relativism that seems to accompany the ethic of authenticity: let each person do his or her own thing, and we shouldn’t criticize each other’s ‘values’; this is predicated on a firm ethical base, indeed, demanded by it. One shouldn’t criticize others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do.”

Self-spirituality sacralizes human rights. Caleb Frith/Unsplash

Human rights as sacred

Self-spirituality sacralizes human rights. Sociologist Emile Durkheim argues religion is a fundamental and permanent aspect of humanity, to be found in every society. Religion represents the collective conscience of the community, and arises out of the fundamentally social nature of human life. What goes by “religion” in any given society, according to Durkheim, ultimately reflects that which is held to be sacred to a moral community.

For Durkheim, liberalism was a religion insofar as it sacralized individual rights. Writing in France in the 19th century, he viewed the Declaration of the Rights of Man as a religious document, as it sacralized the individual. Philosopher Luc Ferry puts it this way: What we find is a humanization of the divine, and a divinization of the human.

Self-spirituality is the religion of social liberalism, sacralizing those values and ideals — authenticity, mutual respect, acceptance of difference, individual freedom — which are most sacred to our society.

While conservatives denounce what they view as a lacklustre and ultimately individualistic stance towards religion, many liberals celebrate the triumph of individual autonomy in the face of outdated traditions.

Although there is some credibility to conservative fears that self-spirituality may inhibit the kinds of commitment and community that are necessary to sustain both individual and societal well-being, we ought not fall into their trap of thinking it is entirely without moral merit.

Self-spirituality is a form of religiosity very much at home in the socially liberal (not simply self-centred) culture of Canada, and bound up with the rights revolution, which has arguably done more than anything else to define our national identity in the 21st century.

The Conversation

Galen Watts receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

06 Feb 20:21

5 things to know about North and South Korea

by Ji-Young Lee, Assistant Professor, American University School of International Service

Editor’s note: Professor Ji-Young Lee of American University answers five questions to help put issues related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities into context.


Why is there a North and a South Korea?

Before there was a North and South Korea, the peninsula was ruled as a dynasty known as Chosŏn, which existed for more than five centuries, until 1910. This period, during which an independent Korea had diplomatic relations with China and Japan, ended with imperial Japan’s annexation of the peninsula. Japan’s colonial rule lasted 35 years.

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the Korean peninsula was split into two zones of occupation – the U.S.-controlled South Korea and the Soviet-controlled North Korea. Amid the growing Cold War tensions between Moscow and Washington, in 1948, two separate governments were established in Pyongyang and Seoul. Kim Il-Sung, leader of North Korea, was a former guerrilla who fought under Chinese and Russian command. Syngman Rhee, a Princeton University-educated staunch anti-communist, became the first leader of South Korea.

In an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under his communist regime, Kim Il-Sung invaded the South in June 1950 with Soviet aid. This brought South Korea and the United States, backed by United Nations, to fight against the newly founded People’s Republic of China and North Korea. An armistice agreement ended hostilities in the Korean War in 1953. Technically speaking, however, the two Koreas are still at war.

Beyond the political divide, are Koreans in the North and South all that culturally different? If so, how?

Koreans in the South and North have led separate lives for almost 70 years. Korean history and a collective memory of having been a unified, independent state for over a millennium, however, are a powerful reminder to Koreans that they have shared identity, culture and language.

For example, in both Koreas the history of having resisted Japanese colonialism is an important source of nationalism. Both North and South Korean students learn about the 1919 March 1 Independence Movement in school.

Consider, too, the Korean language. About 54 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea say that they have no major difficulty understanding Korean used in South Korea. Only 1 percent responded that they cannot understand it at all.

However, the divergent politics of North and South Korea have shaped differences in Koreans’ outlook on life and the world since the split. South Korea’s vibrant democracy is a result of the mass movement of students, intellectuals and middle-class citizens. In North Korea, the state propaganda and ideology of Juche, or “self-reliance,” were used to consolidate the Kim family’s one-man rule, while reproducing a certain mode of thinking designed to help the regime survive.

What have we learned from North Korean defectors who settled in South Korea?

As of September 2016, an estimated 29,830 North Korean defectors are living in South Korea. From them, we’ve learned the details of people’s everyday life in one of the world’s most closed societies. For example, they’ve reported that despite crackdowns, more North Koreans are now watching South Korean TV dramas.

In North Korea, repression, surveillance and punishment are pervasive features of social life. The state relies heavily on coercion and terror as a means of sustaining the regime.

Still, not all North Koreans are interested in defecting. According to anthropologist Sandra Fahy, interviewees said they left the North reluctantly driven primarily by famine and economic reasons, rather than political reasons. A majority of them missed home in the North.

However, Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, believes that Kim Jong-un’s North Korea could face a popular uprising or elite defection as North Koreans have increasingly become disillusioned with the regime.

What is the history of U.S. relations with South Korea, and where do they stand now?

The purpose of the U.S.-South Korea alliance has changed little since its formation in 1953. This has much to do with continuing threats from North Korea.

However, despite differences in their approach to North Korea, President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun took a major step toward transforming the Cold War alliance into a “comprehensive strategic alliance.” Under President Barack Obama and South Korean presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, many believed the U.S.-South Korea alliance was at its best. Under their leadership, Washington and Seoul agreed to expand the alliance’s scope to cover nontraditional threats, like terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other global challenges like piracy and epidemic disease, while coordinating and standing firm against North Korea’s provocations.

Now, with Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump as new presidents of South Korea and the United States, there is a greater degree of uncertainty. Among other things, Trump criticized the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, while insisting Seoul pay for THAAD, a U.S. missile defense system deployed in South Korea. Moon, whose parents fled the North during the Korean War, is likely to put inter-Korean reconciliation as one of his top priorities. This may collide with the current U.S. approach of imposing sanctions against North Korea.

Is reunification of the two Koreas feasible?

More than half of South Koreans believe that reunification is necessary. But they don’t think it can happen anytime soon. According to a 2017 Unification Perception Survey conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, only 2.3 percent of South Koreans believe that unification is possible “within 5 years,” while 13.6 percent responded “within 10 years.”

Still, 24.7 percent of South Koreans don’t think that unification is possible.

Three noteworthy developments toward reunification include the July 4 South-North Joint Communique in 1972, the Basic Agreement in 1991 and the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. However, these past attempts show that the momentum of inter-Korean reconciliation has not been sustainable in the face of North Korea’s defiant nuclear provocations.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 5, 2017.

The Conversation

Ji-Young Lee received funding from the Academy of Korean Studies (Competitive Research Grant, 2013), for a book project on historical international order in Asia.

06 Feb 19:34

Folktexts: How to fill your head with free folklore

by Seamus Bellamy

In third grade I stole a book from the school library: The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.

I could barely read it, but the images on its cover and what little inside of it that I could understand called to me. As my reading skills progressed, so too did my love of myths and legends and the study of religion – I was a weird kid.

Also, this might be a good time to suggest that stealing books from libraries is a shitty thing to do.

If the Internet were a thing back then, maybe I wouldn't have swiped that book. There's no shortage of excellent resources on folk and myth scholarship out there. In my opinion, Folktexts is one of the best. Compiled by Professor D. L. Ashliman, Folktexts is deeply underwhelming in the looks department, but the way that it's organized is pure genius. Instead of simply presenting the stories as so many other online resources do, Professor Ashliman has gone through the bother of categorizing hundreds, if not thousands of stories by their central themes and related tales.

Let's say that you've read "The Emperor's New Clothes" and want to find out if other cultures have their own version of the story. No problem: just look under 'E.' There, you'll find information on the different names that the story is known by and what culture the story comes from. If that's not enough for you, the page even links to the text of all of the versions of the story that the professor is aware of. It's as much a labor of love as it is a work of scholarship.

Image: Viktor Vasnetsov - http://www.picture.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=3298, Public Domain, Link

06 Feb 19:33

Unpaywall: a search-engine for authorized, freely accessible versions of scholarly journal articles

by Cory Doctorow

Unpaywall is a service that indexes open access repositories, university, government and scholarly society archives, and other sources that make articles available with authorization from the rightsholders and journals -- about 47% of the articles that its users seek. (more…)

06 Feb 19:22

Rubio calls for end of Confucius Institute agreement

by oracleeditor@gmail.com (Miki Shine, Editor in Chief)

USF was the first university in Florida to create a Confucius Institute . SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

USF started a partnership with the Confucius Institute in 2008, but a letter sent from Sen. Marco Rubio (R) is calling for the university to consider terminating the agreement.

The USF Confucius Institute offers Chinese focused culture and language classes along with Chinese events on campus. However, over the years accusations against the different Confucius Institutes across the country have raised concerns.

“There are presently more than 100 Confucius Institutes, in addition to Confucius Classrooms at the K-12 level in the United States, including several in the state of Florida,” Rubio wrote. “These institutes are overseen by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education, and are instructed to only teach versions of Chinese history, culture or current events that are explicitly approved by the Chinese Government and Communist Party.”

Rubio also sent the letter to the University of North Florida, the University of West Florida, Miami Dade College and Cypress Bay High School. 

“I can confirm that USF received the letter and we will respond to Senator Rubio in the near future,” university spokesman Adam Freeman said in an email to The Oracle.

USF was the first university in Florida to found a Confucius Institute when creating a partnership with Qingdao University. According to the USF World website, the institute is supported by Qingdao and the Chinese Ministry of Education.

It is this connection that led to the National Association of Scholars to write a report titled “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education,” which outlines concerns about the Chinese government influencing American education and by extension Americans’ opinions on China.

“There is mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use “Confucius Institutes” and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies,” Rubio wrote. “Additionally, the (People’s Republic of China) continues its efforts to interfere in multilateral institutions, threaten and intimidate rights defenders and their families, and impose censorship mechanisms on foreign publishers and social media companies.”

The institute provides “academic support” to not only the USF Chinese program, but also language programs at local K-12 schools. Additionally, it puts on cultural performances and lectures, non-credit classes for people over the age of 50 and basic Chinese language courses for employees. 

According to the site, the institute usually lends two teachers to the USF Chinese language program who “strictly follow USF’s curriculum” while teaching about 46 students per semester. These classes have included “Ethnic Minority Cultures in China” and “Business Chinese.” Other universities in the past have allowed Confucius Institute agreements to expire. The University of Chicago discontinued the agreement in 2014 after faculty outcry and Penn State followed suit shortly after. 

Rubio heads the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. 

“I remain deeply concerned by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in the United States,” Rubio wrote. “Given China’s aggressive campaign to “infiltrate” American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement. Should you have any questions or concerns please do hesitate to contact my office for further discussion.”

 

02 Feb 19:53

Black America's 'bleaching syndrome'

by Ronald Hall, Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University

For black Americans, skin color is a complex topic.

Whenever a black celebrity lightens his or her skin – whether it’s pop star Michael Jackson, retired baseball player Sammy Sosa or rapper Nicki Minaj – they’re usually greeted with widespread ridicule. Some accuse them of self-loathing, while many in the African-American community view it as a rejection of black identity.

Increasing numbers of mixed-race births have further complicated matters, with light-skinned blacks occasionally being accused of not being “black enough.”

At the same time, The New York Times recently detailed the growing popularity of glutathione treatments. The antioxidant, which is administered intravenously, can deactivate the enzyme that produces darker skin pigments.

The article noted that while these treatments have become hugely popular in Asia, “it is also cropping up among certain communities in Britain and the United States,” with demand “slowly growing.”

As someone who has studied and written about the issue of skin color and black identity for over 20 years, I believe the rise of glutathione treatments – in addition to the growing use of various bleaching creams – reveal a taboo that African-Americans are certainly aware of, but loathe to admit.

Though they might criticize lighter-skinned black people, many people of color – deep down – abhor dark skin.

The power of fair skin

There are few places in the world where dark skin isn’t stigmatized.

Many Latin American countries have laws and policies in place to prevent discrimination relative to skin color. In many Native American communities, “Red-Black Cherokees” were denied acceptance into the tribe, while those with lighter skin were welcomed.

But it is in Asia where dark skin has seen the longest and most intense level of stigma. In India, dark-skinned Dalits, for thousands of years, were viewed as “untouchables.” Today, they’re still stigmatized. In Japan, long before the first Europeans arrived, dark skin was stigmatized. According to Japanese tradition, a woman with fair skin compensates for “seven blemishes.”

The United States has its own complicated history with skin color, primarily because “mulatto” skin – not quite black, but not quite white – often arose out of mixed-race children conceived between slaves and slave masters.

In America, these variations in complexions produced an unspoken hierarchy: Black people with lighter complexions ended up being granted some of the rights of the master class. By early 19th century, the “mulatto hypothesis” emerged, arguing that the “white blood” of light-skinned slaves made them smarter, more civilized and better looking.

It’s probably no coincidence that light-skinned blacks emerged as leaders in the black community: To white power brokers, they were less threatening. Harvard’s first black graduate was the fair-skinned W.E.B. Du Bois. Some of the most prominent black politicians – from former New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial, to former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, to former President Barack Obama – have lighter skin.

Fair skin and beauty

In 1967, Dutch sociologist Harry Hoetink coined the term “somatic norm image” to describe why some shades of skin are favored over others.

In America, some trace the emergence of light skin as the “somatic norm image” for all modern-day races to the 1930s advertising campaign of Breck Shampoo.

A print advertisement features the fair-skinned Breck Girl. Jamie/Flickr.com, CC BY

To market its product, the company created the “Breck Girl.” In advertisements, her fair, alabaster skin was touted as the perfect ideal of feminine beauty. Few considered the devastating affects a glamorized image of light skin might have on the self-esteem of dark-skinned Americans – in particular, women.

In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Georgia called skin color distinction “a well-kept secret” in black communities. “The hue of one’s skin,” they wrote, “tends to have a psychological effect on the self-esteem of African-Americans.”

Yet they also noted that existing research on the relationship between skin color and self-esteem didn’t even exist. Fear of being perceived as a race traitor continues to make the topic taboo in the United States – in a way which exceeds that in places like India or Japan.

To obtain a fairer complexion, many apply bleaching creams. Some of the most popular are Olay, Natural White, Ambi Fade Cream and Clean & Clear Fairness Cream.

While these creams can work, they can be dangerous: Some contain cancer-causing ingredients. Despite the potential danger, skin bleaching cream sales have grown. By 2024, it’s projected that global profits will reach $31.2 billion.

In the U.S., sales are difficult to assess; African-Americans are reluctant to admit that they bleach. For this reason, American companies will often market their creams by using abstract language, claiming that the creams will “fade,” “even the tone” or “smooth out the texture” of dark skin. In this way, black people who buy the creams can avoid confronting the real reasons they feel compelled to purchase the product, while skirting accusations of self-hate.

The harmful effects of the ‘bleaching syndrome’

After studying skin color for years, I coined the term “bleaching syndrome” to describe this phenomenon.

I published my first paper on the topic in 1994. Put simply, it argues that African-Americans, Latinos and every other oppressed population will internalize the somatic norm image at the expense of their native characteristics. So even though dark skin is a feature of African-Americans, light skin continues to be the ideal because it’s the one preferred by the dominant group: whites.

The bleaching syndrome has three components. The first is psychological: This involves self-rejection of dark skin and other native characteristics.

Second, it’s sociological, in that it influences group behavior (hence the phenomenon of black celebrities bleaching their skin).

The final aspect is physiological. The physiological is not limited to just bleaching the skin. It can also mean altering hair texture and eye color to mimic the dominant group. The rapper Lil’ Kim, in addition to lightening her skin, has also changed her eye color and altered her facial features. The fact that so few in mainstream culture can even acknowledge the existence of the bleaching syndrome is a testament to how taboo the topic is.

The solution to the bleaching syndrome is political. The disdain for dark skin today is similar to disdain for kinky hair in the 1960s. African-Americans’ dislike of their natural hair was so ingrained that the first black millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, was able to accumulate her fortune by selling hair-straightening products to black folks.

“Black is Beautiful” – a slogan popularized at the tail end of the 1960s – was a political statement that sought to upend the negative associations many Americans, including many African-Americans, felt toward all things black. In response, the Afro became a popular hairstyle, and black entertainers, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Lou Rawls, proudly grew out their hair, refusing to apply hair straightening products.

“Back to Black” – a nod to the “Black is Beautiful” campaign – is a political statement that could address the impulse many feel to bleach their dark skin. It has the potential to reverse the disdain for such skin and hence those so characterized. Even black celebrities who possess fair skin could help glamorize dark skin by repeating the slogan and paying tribute to the numerous dark-skinned beauties whose attractiveness goes seldom acknowledged: Lupita Nyong’o, Gabrielle Union and Janelle Monae.

These dark-skinned black women would qualify as beautiful by any standards – regardless of skin color.

The Conversation

Ronald Hall does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

02 Feb 19:25

A 1920s UK woman frames her neighbor by writing filthy, abusive letters

by Clive Thompson

In 1921, Edith Swan -- a 30-year-old laundress in the UK -- began sending abusive, curse-studded letters to several of her neighbors. She got away with it for a while by framing another of her neighbors, Rose Gooding.

Swan, you see, was a respectable, middle-class woman, while Gooding was a working-class woman with an "illegitimate child". So the police and judge simply couldn't believe the respectable Swan could possibly use such gutter language! It was thus quite easy for Swan to frame her working-class neighbor, who spent a few months in prison before Swan was eventually caught.

This is a completely demented story of social class, crime, and some filthy, filthy language. It's told in a new book The Littlehampton Libels, which I am ordering right now, and which is discussed in this essay in The London Review of Books:

Here is an extract from a letter dated 14 September 1921: ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt. Its your drain that stinks not our fish box. Yo fucking dirty sods. You are as bad as your whore neybor.’ The Mays were sent many such letters in the course of 1921. Swan claimed that she had received similar letters herself, such as this one from 23 September: ‘To the foxy ass whore 47, Western Rd Local. You foxy ass piss country whore you are a character.’

There was compelling proof that Edith Swan was the author of these letters, even the ones she received. The police searched the house where she lived with her parents and two of her brothers and found a piece of blotting paper which contained clear traces of some of the letters. Swan protested that the blotting paper had been found by her father in the washing house. A still more devastating piece of evidence was that Swan had been seen by a policewoman throwing one of the letters into the garden her family shared with their neighbours. Gladys Moss, the policewoman, was keeping watch on Swan through a slit in a garden shed when she saw her throw a folded piece of buff-coloured paper in the direction of the Mays’ house. The paper was addressed to ‘fucking old whore May, 49, Western Rd, Local’.

As in the 1923 trial, the judge simply refused to accept the evidence of Swan’s guilt. Sir Clement Bailhache was not convinced by Moss’s testimony because it conflicted with what his eyes told him: that Edith Swan was the kind of Englishwoman who was incapable of swearing. ‘If I were on the jury, I would not convict,’ Bailhache announced. The jury followed his guidance.

31 Jan 13:18

Naked mole rats do not die of old age according to research

by Carla Sinclair

With its pink hairless body and huge incisors hanging out of its mouth, the naked mole rat isn't a particularly handsome creature. A rodent that is neither rat nor mole but the only species currently classified in the genus Heterocephalus, the nearly blind, nearly hairless naked mole rat lives in almost complete darkness its entire life. It has also recently been discovered that these rodents live to around 35 years, as opposed to a "regular" rat's six years, and the naked mole rat doesn't seem to actually age before it dies.

According to Phys Org:

A team of researchers at Google-owned Calico Life Sciences LLC has found that the naked mole rat defies Gompertz's mortality law. In their paper published in eLife, the group describes their study of the unusual-looking rodent and describe some of its unusual traits.

Naked mole rats are very nearly hairless. They evolved that way by living in a harsh underground environment. They are also almost ectothermic (cold blooded). And now, it seems they do not age—at least in the traditional sense. Reports of long-lived mole rats prompted the team at Calico to take a closer look—they have a specimen in their lab that has lived to be 35 years old. Most "normal" rats, in comparison, live to be just six years old, and they age as they do so.

The team collected what they describe as 3,000 points of data regarding the lifespan of the naked mole rat, and found that many had lived for 30 years. But perhaps more surprisingly, they found that the chance of dying for the mole rats did not increase as they aged. All other mammals that have been studied have been found to conform to what is known as Gompertz's mortality law, which states that the risk of death for a typical mammal grows exponentially after they reach sexual maturity—for humans, that means the odds of dying double every eight years after reaching age 30. This, the researchers claim, suggests that mole rats do not age—at least in the conventional sense. They do eventually die, after all.

To see these delightful creatures in action, here's a short National Geographic clip from 2012: https://youtu.be/A5DcOEzW1wA

Image by Jedimentat44

29 Jan 20:53

'Freedom to say goodbye' — Judge says Trump immigrant deportations resemble 'regimes we revile'

by Xeni Jardin

"There is, and ought to be in this great country, the freedom to say goodbye." (more…)

29 Jan 19:21

"We Shall Overcome" has overcome copyfraud and is now unambiguously public domain

by Cory Doctorow

A group of activist lawyers/documentarians have made a vocation of fighting copyfraudsters in the courts, first forcing Warner Chapell to relinquish its bogus claim over "Happy Birthday" and then targeting Ludlow Music Inc. and The Richmond Organization who had spent decades fraudulently collecting licensing fees for the public domain civil rights hymn "We Shall Overcome." (more…)

29 Jan 16:22

Baptist News: Evangelicals have killed Christianity in America

by Cory Doctorow

Writing in the Baptist News, Miguel De La Torre -- a progressive professor at Denver's Iliff School of Theology -- denounces evangelicals who "forgive" Trump for his myriad sins and support child-molesters like Roy Moore, saying that they embrace a faith that "fuses and confuses white supremacy with salvation." (more…)

29 Jan 16:17

Property developer caught using critic's photo in promotional materials, demands an end to criticism as a condition of paying for the use

by Cory Doctorow

"The Gentle Author" is the maintainer of Spitalfields Life, a blog that has featured a brilliant and moving series of essays about the history of East London; Author is also sharply critical of the plans by giant property developer Crest Nicholson to redevelop the site of a Victorian chest hospital and dig up an ancient tree called the Bethnal Green Mulberry. (more…)