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11 Dec 14:38

Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949 and thereafter enjoyed the best per-capita GDP growth in the region

by Cory Doctorow

In 1948, Costa Rica weathered a civil war, and in 1949, they abolished their military. Since then, Costa Rica has emerged as the Central American success story, more politically stable and richer than its neighbors.

In a research paper, researchers from the Universidad de Costa Rica Observatorio de Desarrollo deploy "synthetic control estimates" to try to see how much of Costa Rica's growth can be attributed to eliminating military spending: they find that between 1950-2010, annual growth increased from 1.42% to 2.28%, leading to a doubling in per-capita GDP every 30 years instead of every 39, and that this freed up capital for national spending on development goals that have provided long-run advantages to the country and its people.

Some confounding factors to note: Costa Rica received a lot of US aid during the "dirty wars" where the CIA was bent on overthrowing democratically elected socialist governments in the region. Much like West Berlin, Costa Rica was meant to serve as a beacon of the benefits of "free market" systems, and to attain this showroom status, the US government spent lavishly to show how great things were under small government.

Also: while Costa Rica doesn't have an army, it has had rural police forces that wore paramilitary uniforms, carried automatic weapons, slept in barracks, etc -- think "National Guard on high alert." This isn't an army per se, but it's also not what we think of when we think of "police."

This article estimates the causal long-term developmental effects of Costa Rica’s constitutional abolishment of its army in 1949 after the 1948 civil war.

This is done by performing synthetic control estimates and analyzing the political history of Costa Rica in the 1940s and 1950s. We find that upon the abolishment of the army, Costa Rica’s annual average per capita GDP growth increased from 1.42% to 2.28% in the 1950-2010 period relative to a counterfactual Costa Rica that did not abolish its army. This implies that Costa Rica doubled its per capita GDP every 30 years rather than every 49. These estimates are robust to different model specifications and we show that this shock is exclusive to Costa Rica in Latin America. Furthermore, we provide evidence that the positive effects associated with this increase in the per capita GDP growth rates have endured over time; namely because the abolition of the army granted a political and institutional context that allowed the country to devote more resources to public spending, which in turn contributed to its long run development. Our case study findings are evidence that committing to peace and democracy pays off in the long run.

A farewell to arms: The Long run developmental effects of Costa Rica’s army abolishment [Alejandro Abarca and Suráyabi Ramírez/Universidad de Costa Rica]

(Image: Kansas Photo, CC-BY)

11 Dec 14:37

Rhode Island lawsuit argues that the Constitution guarantees a right to sufficient education to be an informed citizen

by Cory Doctorow

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not guarantee Americans "equal" education (which would require similar per-student funding in both rich and poor neighborhoods), merely "adequate" education.

Even that adequacy standard has weakened over the years, as right-wing governments have systematically gutted education budgets, and in 20 states, the state supreme court will not hear challenges to education cuts that argue that these cuts undermine an "adequate" education.

Now, a suit in Rhode Island is asking the state court to rule that underfunded education is unconstitutional because it denies pupils the opportunity to be sufficiently well-educated to be citizens in a democracy, something the framers of the Constitution were very explicit about.

The case just filed in Rhode Island seeks to avoid that trap by doing something completely new. It focuses on the civics knowledge and skills that our democratic form of government demands of citizens – a topic with deep historical roots. My recent research demonstrated that our founders intended public education to be a core aspect of the “republican form of government” that our federal Constitution demands.

Our republican form of government began as an experiment in the idea that everyday citizens could govern themselves. But our founders – people like George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – emphasized that public education was necessary for those governments to work. In legislation that would dictate how the western territory would be divided up and later become states, Congress in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 mandated that each township reserve a central lot for public schools and that the states use their public resources to “forever encourage” those schools.

Fight for federal right to education takes a new turn [Derek W. Black/The Conversation]

(via Naked Capitalism)

07 Dec 19:48

Dear Tumblr: Banning "Adult Content" Won't Make Your Site Better But It Will Harm Sex-Positive Communities

by Katharine Trendacosta

Social media platform Tumblr has announced a ban on so-called “adult content,” a move made, it seems, in reaction to Tumblr’s app being removed from the Apple app store. But while making the app more available is in theory good for Tumblr users, in practice what’s about to happen is mass censorship of communities that have made Tumblr a positive experience for so many people in the first place.

On December 3, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio posted a lengthy missive about a new policy, titled, apparently unironically, “A better, more positive Tumblr.” Instead of laying out a vision that is better and positive, D’Onofrio’s post lays bare the problems with the ban on so-called “adult content.” First of all, the policy is confusing and broad, leaving users in the lurch about what they can and can’t do on Tumblr. Second, according to D’Onofrio, enforcement of the policy will be reliant on automated tools, the use of which is—and always has been—rife with problems. Third, the people who will end up punished aren’t pornbots or sex traffickers but already-marginalized groups who have built sex- and body-positive communities on Tumblr. And finally, all of these things come together to show just how many ways platforms and tech companies can get in between users and their freedom of expression.

In D’Onofrio’s post, he explains that “in order to continue to fulfill [Tumblr’s] promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change,” going on to say that as part of that evolution, “adult content” will no longer be allowed on the platform. He further explains:

“We recognize Tumblr is also a place to speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey. We want to make sure that we continue to foster this type of diversity of expression in the community, so our new policy strives to strike a balance.”

On the face of it, this is literally contradictory. Saying adult content is banned, but that “diversity of expression” related to all those listed topics isn't is impossible to parse for the average user. Tumblr’s FAQ “clarifying” the definition of adult content (that is, that which includes “photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts”) likewise compounds this problem.

The new policies rule out almost all forms of nudity. “Female-presenting nipples” in particular is a phrase that has come under ridicule, because, among other things, it polices bodies for what they look like, based on a specific conception of gender, and a body part that only some cultures—but certainly not all!—prohibit showing in public.

On the other hand, the very next question has Tumblr claiming that “female-presenting nipples” can be shown in some contexts, that written erotica, “political” nudity, and “art” are permitted. These are all subjective categories that leave a lot of people on uncertain ground. Just look at Facebook, which has similar rules regarding nudity. In the past few years, we’ve seen Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, a famous illustration of a woman licking an ice cream cone, a classic French painting, and a 16th-century statue of the Roman god Neptune taken down by Facebook’s content moderators under the restrictive policy.

Tumblr has also decided that the way to make these subjective calls about what is “art” and what is “adult content” is by using automated tools. D’Onofrio basically admits that these tools don’t work properly, saying in his post that “We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes”.

That is an understatement. Filters don’t work. We’ve seen this in the copyright context many times. For example, YouTube’s Content ID system works by checking newly uploaded material against a database of copyrighted material and notifying copyright holders if there’s a match. And it resulted in five copyright claims being filed against a video of white noise. Five people claimed they literally owned exclusive rights to static.

And that’s just when it comes to checking for copyrighted material. It’s rather brazen of Tumblr to suggest it has the ability to develop and train a program to determine if something is porn; after all, there is literally a famous Supreme Court quote about the difficulty of defining obscenity! And so far, as any informed observer would have predicted, Tumblr’s system is failing miserably. Among the items flagged are a picture of Pomeranian puppies, selfies of fully-clothed individuals, images of raw chicken, and much much more. And, despite D’Onofrio’s statement that art, discussion of sexuality, and politics wouldn’t violate the terms, all of those categories have been hit.

When we look to groups outside the dominant culture, the problem is especially pernicious. Already, an image of a video game character on a pride flag, a selfie with the word “lesbian,” and someone talking about a family death due to AIDS have all been flagged. Tumblr may think it’s creating a “better” community, but it’s destroying what made it great in the first place.

In his post, D’Onofrio defends the policy by saying that the bottom line is that “there are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content.” Indeed, the Internet is full of porn, the overwhelming majority of which caters to heterosexual men. But on Tumblr, people created sex-positive spaces on Tumblr that don’t exist elsewhere. People created portfolios of their work, all of it, on the platform. Those spaces are going to vanish.

A business decision?

Three paragraphs into his better, more positive manifesto, D’Onofrio states “posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community. We’ve always had and always will have a zero tolerance policy for this type of content” and asks that no one confuse that with this new policy. Child exploitation imagery is both vile and illegal, and the fact that Tumblr apparently wasn’t eliminating it shows that it needed to hire people to enforce its existing policy, not outsource the job to algorithms. So why create this new, wholesale ban?

It’s impossible to divorce the new policy from the fact that, just a month prior to the announcement, Tumblr disappeared from the Apple App Store. And that, when asked about it, a Tumblr spokesperson responded with nearly the same words that D’Onofrio also used in his post.

Apple’s App Store has long acted as censor and gatekeeper to the Internet. In 2010, Steve Jobs once said that the iPad offered “freedom from porn” and that there was a “moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” Apple has consistently enforced draconian rules for app developers, exerting control over how its users get to experience the Internet. The company’s rules have even had the effect of silencing the press, as in 2010 when a large-scale removal of apps containing nudity impacted several mainstream German news publications.

We don’t know if Apple is the sole reason for these new rules. Tumblr also got banned this year in Indonesia because of pornography, for example, and may just want to make itself as non-controversial as possible. And it’s notable that Tumblr’s new policy is largely in line with that of peers Facebook, Microsoft, and YouTube, all of which heavily restrict so-called “adult content.”

The end result, though, is that companies and governments are changing how users get to express themselves on the Internet. The multi-billion dollar corporate porn industry won’t go away; rather, what will are places for people to talk frankly, openly, and safely about sex and sexuality. Groups that are pushed out of mainstream discussions or find themselves attacked in mainstream spaces are once again losing their voices.

07 Dec 12:26

Poetry Plagiarism in the Age of Twitter

by Jonathan Bailey

Just a few weeks ago, Ailey O’Toole seemed like a poet ready to become a breakout star. Her publisher had nominated her poem Gun Metal for a Pushcart Prize and her first collection had been successfully Kickstarted with 73 backers kicking in $1,628 to get Grief and What Comes After into print. 

She had even taken her excitement about her work to an unusual level. Having tattooed two lines from Gun Metal into her arm.

Image originally from O’Toole’s Twitter

However, unlike the tattoo, O’Toole’s success wasn’t meant to last. 

On November 30 another poet, Rachel McKibbens, took to Twitter to vent her frustration at O’Toole.

According to McKibbens, O’Toole contacted her to say that she had “paraphrased” some of McKibbens work (specifically a work from McKibbens’ collection entitled Blud) “too closely for comfort” and wanted to apologize to McKibbens for it. It was an apology that McKibbens flatly refused to accept.

Rachel McKibbens Ashley O’Toole
Hell-spangled girl
spitting teeth into the sink,
I’d trace the broken
landscape of my body
& find God
within myself.
girl spitting teeth
in the sink. I trace the
foreign topography of
my body, find God
in my skin

The similarities, despite not being word-for-word, were too close for many other people’s comfort as well. It was clear that, even in just six lines, O’Toole had copied images and metaphors and idea. These were (and still are) elements very personal to McKibbens, who described it as “How I language my fucking survival.”

As such, McKibbens took an especially strong issue with O’Toole’s representation of the poem in an interview with The Rumpus.

I think “Gun Metal” is probably the best representation of my collection as a whole; it is the second-to-last poem of Introspection and it’s a really great bridge between Annihilation and Reclamation because it kind of exists in both of those realities. It starts with the image of “Ramshackle / girl spitting teeth / in the sink”

Ailey O’Toole in an interview with The Rumpus

In the interview, nor anywhere else public, does O’Toole make an attempt to attribute or acknowledge McKibbens as the source or even the inspiration for those lines.

While having the opening lines of your best-known and most-loved poem called out for plagiarism is bad enough, it wouldn’t stop there for O’Toole. Other poets began to come forward as well with Wanda Deglane accusing her of “borrowing” work fork from a manuscript she let her read.

Brenna Twohy had a similar story, but one involving verbatim plagiarism of her work. 

McKibbens has been keeping a running total of people that O’Toole (identified as AO) has stolen from. At last count, she was up to 11

As for O’Toole, she has largely disappeared. Her upcoming collection cancelled, she has shut down both her web and social media presences. She has not issued a public apology. Though McKibbens has stated she doesn’t want this to be career-ending for O’Toole, it likely is. 

Even if she does reemerge to write poetry again, it’s unlikely a publisher will take a chance on her. Though publishers say they take a hard line on plagiarism, they’ve given passes to many famous and lucrative authors. However, as someone who was awaiting their first publication, O’Toole likely doesn’t have the cache to get a second chance.

One Tale, Many Stories

O’Toole’s plagiarism touches on a wide variety of subjects and issues including personal nature of poetry, race and the impact of technology on such issues.

On the most basic level, the story highlights how personal poetry is as a medium and how that impacts allegations of plagiarism.

The allegations against O’Toole weren’t just about her use of words or images from other artists, but about coopting their experiences. Poetry is an inherently personal medium where the author is trying to lay bare their most intimate thoughts, feelings and experiences while the audience connects with it on an equally personal level.

This makes what O’Toole did especially egregious. It wasn’t just about stealing words or work, but about stealing experiences and identity. This is both true from the authors she plagiarized from but also her readers, who were connecting with a falsehood.

This theft of identity gets all the more problematic when poets are using the medium to express issues of race, mental illness and personal trauma, as McKibbens, who is Chicana, is doing with her work. This led to allegations that O’Tool, who is white, wasn’t just ethically wrong, but racist and symptomatic of a racist publishing industry

But, for all of the fire and rage, it was a story that played in out in near-real-time over Twitter. Poets and readers alike collaborated to find other examples of plagiarism, alert victims that might be unaware and, in general, understand the full extent of O’Toole’s literary crimes.

While such online collaborations aren’t uncommon, which some even creating wikis for handling such investigations, it’s still rare to see such a large, complicated investigation unfold in an open, public forum.

However, that forum is largely why the situation was resolved as quickly as it was. With only a few days of searching, the people on the Twitter thread were able to accumulate enough evidence definitely doom O’Toole. With a lone investigator or even a small team, it likely would have taken weeks or months, as it did in the case of Pierre DesRuisseaux

The combination of anger and social media was potent and effective, bringing a swift conclusion to a matter that many felt left a stain on the poetry community.

Bottom Line

O’Toole’s story is a cautionary tale. Though plagiarism is always wrong, plagiarizing poetry (or any other similarly personal art form) is going to get an even more strong reaction as you aren’t just copying someone’s work, but their core identity.

As someone who got started in plagiarism because he was a (mediocre) poet facing widespread plagiarism, I remember well the feeling of having my identity stolen and feeling crushingly alone and hopeless in the face of the problem.

The story struck a lot of familiar chords from my past but had a radically different ending. Rather than a takedown notice or a cease and desist letter, O’Toole was brought down by the weight of the evidence, evidence gathered by her peers.

While it’s horrifying to me that people like O’Toole still exist 18 years after my first run in with poetry plagiarism, the resolution gives me hope that, at least in some cases, it’s gotten better about handling them.

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06 Dec 20:49

I dig through archives to unearth hidden stories from African-American history

by Jane Landers, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University
Team member Felix Knight looks through archives at the Church of Espiritu Santo in Havana, Cuba. David LaFevor, CC BY-SA

Many years ago, as a graduate student searching in the archives of Spanish Florida, I discovered the first “underground railroad” of enslaved Africans escaping from Protestant Carolina to find religious sanctuary in Catholic Florida. In 1738, these runaways formed Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first free black settlement in what became the U.S.

The excitement of that discovery encouraged me to keep digging. After doing additional research in Spain, I followed the trail of the Mose villagers to Cuba, where they had emigrated when Great Britain acquired Florida. I found many of them in 18th-century church records in Havana, Matanzas, Regla, Guanabacoa and San Miguel del Padrón.

Today, those records and others live on in the Slave Societies Digital Archive. This archive, which I launched in 2003, now holds approximately 600,000 images dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since its creation, the archive has led to new insights into African populations in the Americas.

An archivist works with a document from Paraiba, Brazil. David Lafevor, CC BY-SA

What we’ve found

The Slave Societies Digital Archive documents the lives of approximately 6 million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European and Asian people with whom they interacted.

When searching for and preserving archives, our researchers must race against time. These fast-vanishing records are threatened daily by tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability and neglect.

The work is usually challenging and sometimes risky. Our equipment has been stolen in several locations. Soon after we left the remote community of Quibdó, Colombia, a gun battle erupted in the surrounding jungles between the government military forces and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as FARC. It’s no wonder that one of our team members called what we do “guerrilla preservation.”

This hard work has allowed us to discover more about the lives of slaves in the Americas. For example, the Catholic Church mandated the baptism of enslaved Africans in the 15th century. The baptismal records now preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for African-American history.

The cover sheet of Baptisms for St. Augustine, dating from 1716. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

These unique documents also offer detailed information regarding the diverse ethnic origins of Africans in the Atlantic world. Once baptized, Africans and their descendants were eligible for the sacraments of Christian marriage and burial, adding to their historical record. Through membership in the Catholic Church, families also generated a host of other religious documentation, such as confirmations, petitions to wed, wills and even annulments.

In addition, Africans and their descendants joined church brotherhoods organized along ethnic lines. These groups recorded not only ceremonial and religious aspects of their members’ lives, but also their social, political and economic networks.

A page of burials of unbaptized ‘Asiaticos’ from the Cathedral of San Carlos de Borromeo in Matanzas, Cuba. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

Previously unknown church records for Havana’s black Brotherhood of St. Joseph the Carpenter document the membership of Jose Antonio Aponte, executed by Spanish officials in 1812 for leading an alleged slave conspiracy. Our records similarly document the marriage and death of another famed “conspirator” – the mulatto poet Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, better known as Placido.

Africans and their descendants also left a documentary trail in municipal and provincial archives, including petitions, property registries and disputes, bills of sale, dowries and letters from owners granting slaves their freedom.

Sharing our discoveries

My work in the rich records in Florida, Spain and Cuba taught me how to track early African history elsewhere. Additional grants have allowed our archival teams to expand to new sites in Brazil, Cuba and Colombia and, finally, to digitize the church records for Spanish Florida.

Thanks to those records, and the excavations of archaeologist Kathleen Deagan, Mose, the settlement that I first studied as a graduate student, is today a National Historical Landmark. It boasts a new museum where the Fort Mose Historical Society organizes historical reenactments and community events.

Documents are sometimes found in damaged condition – like these record shards from Matanzas, Cuba. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

Each of the modern nations whose African history we are tracking still struggles with the legacy of slavery. Both scholars and the public who are interested in African heritage can look at these materials to help define national identities in multicultural societies. For example, the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 granted land rights to self-identified quilombolas, or runaway slaves. One group was able to find their ancestors in church records we preserved for the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Since the archive’s inception, we have worked to ensure that these precious materials are freely available to the interested public. Our teams also provide copies of all digitized records to our host churches and archives, as well as donate cameras and other necessary equipment to allow local teams to continue preserving their own endangered history.

Next, we hope to begin a new project in the Dominican Republic, Spain’s first colony in the New World and my childhood home. It boasts many of Europe’s “firsts” in the Western Hemisphere. The capital of Santo Domingo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Spaniards established the first monastery, the first hospital, the first court of appeals, the first university, the first cathedral in the Americas – and a free black town that predates Mose, the site where all this work first started.

Credit: Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

The Conversation

Jane Landers has received funding from The Black Caucus of the Florida Legislature, Latin American Materials Project, National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant, British Library Endangered Archives Programme, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Diocese of St. Augustine, the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Vanderbilt University's Jane and Alexander Heard Library.

06 Dec 20:47

White nationalist groups are really street gangs, and law enforcement needs to treat them that way

by Matthew Valasik, Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University

Law enforcement has a classification problem, and it’s making America more dangerous.

For the last two decades, local police and the FBI have categorized the criminal activities of white power groups as isolated incidents or hate-related.

We believe that’s wrong and leads to a lack of understanding of the power of these groups and the direction they are taking. It also leads to the under-policing of these groups.

As criminologists, our research is based on the rationale that “alt-right” groups are no different from conventional street gangs.

A uniform definition for a “gang” does not exist among scholars or law enforcement. However, criminal codes usually define a street gang as an ongoing group, club or association composed of five or more individuals that participate in either a felony, simple assault or destruction of property.

Categorizing alt-right groups as gangs would increase the attention they get from law enforcement and likely stem their violence. When police use traditional crowd control techniques to corral alt-right gangs at public demonstrations, it only reduces the chances of violence and does not address the root cause of white supremacy.

Unless law enforcement changes their approach accordingly, these groups will likely continue to grow and contribute to increases in extremist violence, particularly anti-Semitic attacks.

From tweets to the streets

In spite of public perception, scholars point out that the alt-right is not composed of “lone wolves” or a bunch of “Internet trolls.”

Nor is it a monolith with a unified ideology.

Instead, the alt-right is composed of a variety of factions that oppose multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics and immigration, and support President Donald Trump. The group’s core, however, is a racist movement revolving around beliefs of white nationalism including anti-Semitism and fear of “white racial genocide.”

Over the last two decades, the white power movement has adapted to thrive with the growth of the internet and social media. Digital communication platforms such as message boards, blogs and social media have provided an cheap way to promote white supremacy ideology, recruit members and maintain social ties between members.

Richard Spencer, a leader in the ‘alt-right’ that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Even though the alt-right evolved in the digital world, it has manifested in the real world. Alt-right gangs are regularly seen demonstrating and rallying in public, as in Charlottesville, Berkeley and Portland, Oregon. All of those events ended in violence. Recently, in New York alt-right gangs have abandoned the pretense of peaceful gatherings and are now openly participating in street brawls.

Since 2017, the nonprofit Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, has documented 54 far-right extremist protests and demonstrations, particularly in more progressive urban centers across the United States.

In the past year, the ADL has also documented more than 900 incidents of white power propaganda on or near college campuses.

Over the last two years, alt-right groups have also engaged in murder, stockpiled firearms and explosives, and plotted terrorist attacks.

The alt-right’s other activities include assault and harassment and hate-related crimes.

Proud Boys: An alt-right gang

Proud Boys is a self-described “Western chauvinist” men’s club that was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes. Like conventional street gangs, many of the characteristics used by scholars and law enforcement to identify a member of Proud Boys are used to identify members of a street gang.

Members are initiated with violent rituals. They routinely gather to socialize in spaces guarded from outsiders. Members are encouraged to engage in criminal acts of violence. Finally, McInnes has publicly called the group a gang – a documented predictor of gang membership.

McInnes claims that Proud Boys have chapters sprouting up all over the globe. There are, however, only about 30 chapters documented in the United States. A half dozen exist in Canada. Even fewer exist across Europe, and McInnes has promised that chapters are “coming soon” to the rest of the globe.

Proud Boys are just one example of three known right-wing groups that are emerging as alt-right gangs.

Rise Above Movement and Atomwaffen Division are two other groups whose members, like Proud Boys, celebrates anti-Semitic violence, stockpiles weapons and regularly participates in violence against counterprotesters.


Policymakers, law enforcement and analysts have the opportunity to change course and start addressing the lapse in policing of these domestic far-right extremists.

Education and exposure are effective remedies at limiting the racist message of the alt-right. But law enforcement could be more proactive.

A good starting point would be to begin systematically monitoring members of alt-right gangs, particularly individuals that are regularly engaging in street violence. The consistent and responsible collection of information for a gang database can be a tool to effectively target violent crime while also protecting individual civil liberties.

It is equally important for police agencies to be able to easily share such intelligence amongst themselves. This would greatly help police agencies identify those alt-right gang members that are participating in street violence across various jurisdictions.

Next, police agencies could utilize a “focused deterrence” approach that targets problematic groups engaging in violence. Such a strategy concentrates on chronic offenders and sends the message that violence will be met swiftly with enhanced sanctions. It also involves offering opportunities and resources to these individuals, such as vocational training, housing and substance abuse treatment to help end their criminal behavior.

Such approaches have consistently produced significant reductions in gang violence and can be part of the process to limit street violence of alt-right gangs.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

06 Dec 20:12

No president should assume office without a 'fitness for duty' exam

by Bandy X. Lee, Assistant Clinical Professor, Yale School of Medicine, Yale University
The current and former presidents at the funeral for George H.W. Bush in Washington AP/Carolyn Kaster

Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, mental health professionals have come forth in historically unprecedented ways to warn against entrusting the U.S. presidency to someone who exhibits what we have called his “dangerous” signs.

The observed signs have included “grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

As a psychiatrist and expert on violence, I worked with my colleagues to put our observations into a book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” responding to the hunger for understanding on the part of the public.

I was never interested in domestic partisan politics until it coincided with my concerns for public safety as a violence scholar. As a scientist and physician, my training leads naturally to making conclusions that are based not on ideology or personal preference, but on research evidence and medical needs.

Now, since the Democratic Party will have the majority in one-half of the legislative branch of government and can provide some oversight of the presidency, it seems a propitious time to begin an important, civilizing conversation about mental health in the presidency.

All American military personnel must pass a fitness for duty exam before they serve. Further, those who handle nuclear weapons undergo an especially rigorous screening process that is updated every year.

That United States commanders-in-chief are not put to the same test before they are allowed to lead the troops or to order the use of nuclear weapons is, I believe, a serious omission.

Trump shakes hands with White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson after his first medical checkup as president in January 2018. AP/Carolyn Kaster

Assessing fitness for the job

Evaluations of fitness, or capacity, or competence, are specific to the requirements of a task or job. The exam can be suited to any job.

The U.S. Army’s field manual, for example, includes elements that are critical for fit leadership: trust, discipline and self-control, judgment and critical thinking, self-awareness and empathy.

One can deduce, for example, that the minimal requirement for a U.S. president is to have the ability to take in proper information and advice, to process that information and to think about consequences before making sound, reality-based decisions.

Fitness for duty tests also assess an employee’s capacity to work without putting their own or others’ health and safety at risk.

In the case of Trump, there have been numerous, concerning signs that suggest he may lack that capacity.

The potential for violence is best assessed through a past history of violence, including verbal aggression and incitement to violence, and a structured checklist of personal characteristics.

Courts and employers may legally request capacity evaluations, which forensic mental health professionals – who practice at the interface of mental health and the law – usually perform. They are independent of the interested parties and are not engaged in treatment with the person being evaluated.

Ideally, these exams would be given before a person takes the job. They can also be ordered after a worker has shown signs of incompetence.

Incapacity is not the same as mental illness. Mental illness per se does not make a person unfit for duty, just as one can be unfit and yet not have a diagnosis of mental disorder. Abraham Lincoln famously suffered from debilitating depression, which may even have helped him to be a better, more empathic leader.

The House of Representatives, under new Democratic leadership, could begin a discussion of presidential fitness for duty. AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Mental capacity should inform political discussion

Since President Trump took office, news reports have revealed that discussions had been held among GOP members and even high-level government officials about the 25th Amendment. That amendment allows the removal of a president who is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

I have been asked to comment on the applicability of the 25th Amendment to Trump in multiple forums, including to members of Congress.

As a forensic psychiatrist, it is of utmost importance that I make the boundaries of my expertise clear. I should not comment outside my area, but within my expertise, I can speak authoritatively.

The removal of a president because of inability is ultimately a political decision, but politicians and the public would to well to proceed in an informed manner.

Disability, incompetence and unfitness are legal and not mental health concepts. Yet no court of law would consider making these determinations without input from medical experts.

To invoke the 25th Amendment without relevant evidence could also expose the process to endless use and misuse for partisan purposes. Medical expertise can serve as a neutralizing ground. It is based on verifiable clinical observations and uniform standards of practice. A panel of experts could bring forth consensus where there are sufficient, high-quality data.

In the current situation, if the patterns of impulsivity, attraction to violence and detachment from reality we are observing in the president are psychological pathology and not political strategy, it is incumbent on mental health professionals to inform the appropriate authorities, regardless of the context in which they are occurring. Non-experts can then be alerted to the need for more detailed examination.

The 25th Amendment

The proper role of the medical professional regarding the 25th Amendment is to wait for a consultation to be requested and not to interfere in the political process.

However, taking steps to protect the public’s health when there are dangers is very much the health professional’s domain and may entail alerting the public about the need for an urgent evaluation.

Scholars have pointed out at least four instances where the 25th Amendment would have been useful but was not invoked or not available. The most conspicuous example is the case of Ronald Reagan, who may have been suffering from early manifestations of dementia.

Furthermore, White House physicians have covered up presidential impairments in the past.

To avoid this predicament in the future, we can require fitness for duty testing for all presidential and vice-presidential candidates, preferably before they take office and annually thereafter.

In a healthy democracy, it is reasonable for the people to require that their leader meet the minimal mental and physical capacity to serve in the office, and for them to be informed if he or she fails to do so.

Members of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts are already in the process of forming a nongovernmental expert panel, based purely on medical criteria, to serve in a rigorous consulting role if called upon or to advise on the need for urgent assessments.

We believe that President Trump’s numerous signs of impairment have long called for an urgent evaluation.

In addition to a capacity evaluation, a thorough neuropsychiatric examination would help us to understand better if the president’s behavior will continue or rapidly grow worse.

Mental pathology can be powerful when severe. Decisions about impeachment or other measures to contain the dangers that Trump – or any other president – could present should not be made without this information.

The Conversation

Bandy X. Lee 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.

06 Dec 19:49

Why a 14th-century mystic appeals to today's 'spiritual but not religious' Americans

by Joel Harrington, Centennial Professor of History, Vanderbilt University
A sculpture of Meister Eckhart in Germany. Lothar Spurzem , CC BY-SA

The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition continues to rise annually. Not all of them, however, are atheists or agnostics. Many of these people believe in a higher power, if not organized religion, and their numbers too are steadily increasing.

The history of organized religion is full of schisms, heresies and other breakaways. What is different at this time is a seemingly indiscriminate mixing of diverse religious traditions to form a personalized spirituality, often referred to as “cafeteria spirituality.” This involves picking and choosing the religious ideas one likes best.

At the heart of this trend is the general conviction that all world religions share a fundamental, common basis, a belief known as “perennialism.” And this is where the unlikely figure of Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century Dominican friar famous for his popular sermons on the direct experience of God, is finding popular appeal.

Who was Meister Eckhart?

I have studied Meister Eckhart and his ideas of mysticism. The creative power that people address as “God,” he explained, is already present within each individual and is best understood as the very force that infuses all living things.

He believed this divinity to be genderless and completely “other” from humans, accessible not through images or words but through a direct encounter within each person.

A sculpture of Meister Eckhart in Germany. Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA

The method of direct access to the divine, according to Eckhart, depended on an individual letting go of all desires and images of God and becoming aware of the “divine spark” present within.

Seven centuries ago, Eckhart embraced meditation and what is now called mindfulness. Although he never questioned any of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, Eckhart’s preaching eventually resulted in an official investigation and papal condemnation.

Significantly, it was not Eckhart’s overall approach to experiencing God that his superiors criticized, but rather his decision to teach his wisdom. His inquisitors believed the “unlearned and simple people” were likely to misunderstand him. Eckhart, on the other hand, insisted that the proper role of a preacher was to preach.

He died before his trial was complete, but his writings were subsequently censured by a papal decree.

The modern rediscovery of Eckhart

Meister Eckhart thereafter remained relatively little known until his rediscovery by German romantics in the 19th century.

Since then, he has attracted many religious and non-religious admirers. Among the latter were the 20th-century philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were inspired by Eckhart’s beliefs about the self as the sole basis for action. More recently, Pope John Paul II and the current Dalai Lama have expressed admiration for Eckhart’s portrayal of the intimate relationship between God and the individual soul.

During the second half of the 20th century, the overlap of his teachings to many Asian practices played an important role in making him popular with Western spiritual seekers. Thomas Merton, a monk from the Trappist monastic order, for example, who began an exploration of Zen Buddhism later in his life, discovered much of the same wisdom in his own Catholic tradition embodied in Eckhart. He called Eckhart “my life raft,” for opening up the wisdom about developing one’s inner life.

Richard Rohr, a friar from the Franciscan order and a contemporary spirituality writer, views Eckhart’s teachings as part of a long and ancient Christian contemplative tradition. Many in the past, not just monks and nuns have sought the internal experience of the divine through contemplation.

Among them, as Rohr notes were the apostle Paul, the fifth-century theologian Augustine, and the 12th-century Benedictine abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen.

In the tradition of Eckhart, Rohr has popularized the teaching that Jesus’ death and resurrection represents an individual’s movement from a “false self” to a “true self.” In other words, after stripping away all of the constructed ego, Eckhart guides individuals in finding the divine spark, which is their true identity.

Eckhart and contemporary perennials

Novelist Aldous Huxley frequently cited Eckhart, in his book, ‘The Perennialist Philosophy.’ RV1864/, CC BY-NC-ND

This subjective approach to experiencing the divine was also embraced by Aldous Huxley, best known for his 1932 dystopia, “Brave New World,” and for his later embrace of LSD as a path to self-awareness. Meister Eckhart is frequently cited in Huxley’s best-selling 1945 spiritual compendium, “The Perennialist Philosophy.”

More recently, the mega-best-selling New Age celebrity Eckhart Tolle, born Ulrich Tolle in 1948 in Germany and now based in Vancouver, has taken the perennial movement to a much larger audience. Tolle’s books, drawing from an eclectic mix of Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, have sold millions. His teachings encapsulate the insights of his adopted namesake Meister Eckhart.

While many Christian evangelicals are wary of Eckhart Tolle’s non-religious and unchurched approach, the teachings of the medieval mystic Eckhart have nonetheless found support among many contemporary Catholics and Protestants, both in North America and Europe.

Fully understanding a new spiritual icon

The cautionary note, however, is in too simplistic an understanding of Eckhart’s message.

Eckhart, for instance, did not preach an individualistic, isolated kind of personal enlightenment, nor did he reject as much of his own faith tradition as many modern spiritual but not religious are wont to do.

The truly enlightened person, Eckhart argued, naturally lives an active life of neighborly love, not isolation – an important social dimension sometimes lost today.

Meister Eckhart has some important lessons for those of us trapped amid today’s materialism and selfishness, but understanding any spiritual guide – especially one as obscure as Eckhart – requires a deeper understanding of the context.

The Conversation

Joel Harrington 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.

06 Dec 19:26

On January 1, America gets its public domain back: join us at the Internet Archive on Jan 25 to celebrate

by Cory Doctorow

Timothy from Creative Commons writes, "In the US beginning Jan 1, 2019–after a devastating 20 year drought brought on by the infamous 1998 'Mickey Mouse Protection Act.' Creators, commons advocates, librarians, legal activists and others are celebrating in San Francisco at the Internet Archive on January 25, 2019 to mark the 'Grand Re-Opening of the Public Domain.' There will be keynotes (including from Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig), panels with legal experts like Pam Samuelson and EFF, and lightning talks to showcase the important, weird, and wonderful public domain."

06 Dec 19:13

A Krampus Carol to remind you of why rotten kids should be wary this season

by Seamus Bellamy

Anthony Bourdain left us earlier this year, but the joy he found in the world's many cultures and traditions will always be around for us to savor.

In this quick holiday story, written by Bourdain, North America is given a brief, dark, humorous peek into the mythos surrounding Krampus, a goat-demon who comes during the Christmas holidays to punish children who misbehaved over the last year. A good pal of Santa Claus, Krampus, and the dread he has instilled in rotten kids for generations, most likely pre-dates Christianity.

From Wikipedia:

There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch – apart from its phallic significance – may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to 'bind the Devil' but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites.

Merry Krampusnacht!

05 Dec 20:26

Why snacking could be damaging your health

by Jenna Macciochi, Lecturer in Immunology, University of Sussex

Only until relatively recently in human evolution have we eaten three meals plus snacks every day.

Breakfast simply didn’t exist for large parts of history. The Romans, for example, didn’t eat it – usually consuming only one meal around midday – breakfast was actively frowned upon. Regular working hours following the industrial revolution brought structure to mealtimes to sustain labourers. And by the late 18th century the pattern of eating three meals a day in towns and cities emerged.

But these days, people are eating more frequently than they ever have before – and often outside of meal times. New smartphone app data shows that we now have erratic eating patterns. Many of us are continually snacking rather than eating at defined times – which means we spend up to 16 hours a day in a “fed” state.

The issue with inflammation

Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response.

Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.

Read more: Should you eat breakfast?

For around four hours after each meal, gut microbes and their components leak into our bloodstream – silently triggering inflammation by the immune system. This process is driven largely by the activation of a critical immune sensor of nutrients called the “inflammasome”, which releases an inflammatory molecule known as “interleukin-1β”.

Inflammation is only ever meant to be a short-term protective assault by our immune system. But inflammation after eating – known as “postprandial inflammation” can be exacerbated by our modern lifestyles. This includes calorie dense meals, frequent eating, excessive fructose and fatty foods – particularly saturated fat.

Modern diets and eating styles mean that our bodies spend up to 16 hours a day in a ‘fed’ state. Shutterstock

Persistent postprandial inflammation is a problem because it inflicts recurrent collateral damage on our body that is extremely detrimental to our health over time. Chronic low-grade inflammation has emerged as an important link to many noninfectious lifestyle-related diseases including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Stop the snacking

We still don’t know the cumulative impact on disease risk of healthy adults who spend longer periods of time in a post-fed inflammatory state. But what is clear, is that low-grade inflammation is the most important driver of unhealthy ageing.

Reduced frequency of eating through intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating also highlights the broadly beneficial effects that eating less has on human health. This includes aiding weight loss and lowering the risk of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes. On the basis of available data, the fact that such a fundamental aspect of our dietary habits – the number of meals we eat every day – has not yet been subject to rigorous scientific investigation is remarkable.

Read more: Intermittent fasting is no better than conventional dieting for weight loss, new study finds

But what we do know is that not only does snacking increase your likelihood of elevated inflammatory markers, but eating excessive calories also leads to weight gain. Eating late has also been linked to elevated cholesterol and glucose and can make you more insulin resistant. This leave you feeling more hungry the following day.

So it might be worth consolidating your food into fewer, more satisfying meals. You might also want to reduce your eating window to ten hours day or less, and aim to eat your last meal earlier in the day – your body will thank you for it.

The Conversation

Jenna Macciochi 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.

05 Dec 19:12

Headless Lenin statue remade into writhing rose-headed hydra

by Rob Beschizza

Romanian Artist Costin Ionita transformed a Lenin statue in Bucharest into this enormous writhing rose-headed hydra.

The photo is sadly uncredited by the source, which has many more.

05 Dec 19:10

Obamacare study: 25% decline in home delinquencies among newly insured poor people

by Cory Doctorow

Poor people were not the primary target of Obamacare; as a group, their care is more likely to be "non-compensated" (trips to the emergency room while classed as "indigent" and unable to pay), so insurance shouldn't make a big difference to them, right?


A recently updated study, The Effect of Health Insurance on Home Payment Delinquency: Evidence from ACA Marketplace Subsidies, from finance and business researchers affiliated with both academic business schools and several federal reserve banks, compares the rate of home payment delinquencies (mostly rent payments) among the poorest Americans who received Obamacare through Medicaid expansion with their counterparts in Red States that rejected the expansion and denied coverage to their poor citizens.

The headline finding is that poor people with health-care are 25% less likely to miss rent payments than their uninsured counterparts. That finding is stable year-over-year, too.

The authors argue that the cost of the Medicaid expansion can be offset with savings from evictions, which impose costs in excess of the costs of providing health care.

But of course, those savings are a pittance compared to the national savings we'd realize by eliminating for-profit, private healthcare altogether and replacing it with a national universal healthcare system.

Instead, low-income households may be the most sensitive to healthcare shocks. Her results counter the conventional wisdom that poor people put off healthcare spending; often, they can’t. The study points to an example from Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which recounts the circumstances of poor renters across Milwaukee. “They had fallen behind [on rent] two months ago, when a neck X-ray and brain scan set Teddy back $507. Teddy’s health problems began a year earlier, when he woke up in the hospital after tumbling down some steps,” his account reads. Shocks were more pronounced for households that reported a history of health problems on the survey.

“Instead of having roughly a one-in-three chance of being delinquent if you are uninsured and have an income near the poverty line, your chances look more like one in five,” Gallagher says, on the difference that subsidized health insurance makes.

For the Poor, Obamacare Can Reduce Late Rent Payments [Kriston Capps/Citylab]

(via Kottke)

05 Dec 19:06

RIP, George HW Bush: a mass-murderer and war-criminal

by Cory Doctorow

They're burying George HW Bush today and even before they planted him, the whitewashing began: we've heard an awful lot about how kind he was to his service dog and his love of colorful socks and a lot less about his role in running an onshore terrorist training camp for Latin America's death squads, his role in toppling democratic governments on two continents, his role in arming and supporting Saddam Hussein, then turning on him and kicking off a genocidal war in Iraq whose goal was to bomb an advanced, heavily populated nation "to the pre-industrial era."

As Jeremy Scahill (previously) puts it in this week's Intercepted podcast (an 84-minute documentary on the humanitarian legacy of Bush I): the US state religion is American Exceptionalism, and today they will saint George Herbert Walker Bush.

The Bush family are not your friends, not even when they're cuddling with Michelle Obama. They are the scions of war profiteers whose fortune grew through helping the Nazis tool up during Hitler's rise to power. They are war-mongers themselves. They have deliberately and coldly planned the murder of civilians: babies, children, women, the elderly.

They killed, and the policies they created were carried on and the antes murderously upped by Clinton, by Obama.

Rest in Peace, St Bush, and may your millions of victims find you in the afterlife.

The United States is now in the midst of a grotesque canonization of one of its imperial saints, George Herbert Walker Bush. This week on Intercepted: an honest memorial service for an unrepentant warmonger who dedicated his life to militarism, war, coups, regime change, and the lies of “American exceptionalism.” Jeremy Scahill details the crimes of Bush, the sick propaganda of the corporate media memorials, and the trail of blood, death, and tears Bush leaves behind. Independent journalist Arun Gupta covers decades of Bush, from his time at the helm of the CIA to the presidency. Gupta discusses Bush’s support for Manuel Noriega and his eventual invasion of Panama, the pardoning of Iran-Contra criminals, the dirty wars in Central America, the support for Saddam Hussein, and the launch of the Gulf War. Acclaimed Iraqi poet and scholar Sinan Antoon describes his life under the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Saddam, the horrors of the Gulf War, and how Bush’s destruction of Iraqi civilian society led to the rise of ISIS.

George H.W. Bush (1924-2018), American War Criminal [Intercepted/The Intercept]

05 Dec 14:43

Understanding Common Knowledge

by Jonathan Bailey
Editing image

When students ask me about plagiarism and citation issues, two questions inevitably come up:

  1. “How do I have to change to not be accused of plagiarism?” (A question I addressed here
  2. “Do I have to cite X?”

Since failure to cite information is not seen as serious as failure to cite text, the first question gets the lion’s share of attention. However, it’s actually the second question that’s often more difficult answer.

That’s because determining what facts and information need citation is not a straightforward one and, very often, the information given to students on the issue isn’t helpful.

The reason is because of one very vague term “Common knowledge.” Though most students and authors know they don’t have to cite common knowledge, there’s little guidance on what exactly what information can be considered “common”

The reason for that is simple: There is no easy answer. Determining what is and is not common knowledge requires looking not just at the information itself, but also the audience it’s intended for. 

The Basics of Common Knowledge

Most students and authors understand that you don’t need to cite work that you created, including ideas and text, and that you don’t need to cite facts and information that are common knowledge.

According to the academic integrity department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), common knowledge can be defined as “information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up.”

This means that, for a piece of information to be considered common knowledge, it must be two things at the same time:

  1. Understood and known by your average reader
  2. Not controversial, meaning that it is simply accepted as fact

As such, a statement such as “1 Miles = 1.6 Kilometers” isn’t likely to be fine without citation. It is broadly understood and there’s no controversy around it. 

However, once you leave behind the most basic information, it gets more and more difficult to determine what is and is not common knowledge. The date of an obscure battle would likely require citation, unless the work is directed at experts in that time period. Likewise a statement such as “Humans have five senses” would require citation because there is significant controversy as to what does and does not constitute a sense.

This creates a real problem, the author, when determining what is and is not “common knowledge” has to anticipate both their audience’s understanding of the topic and their acceptance of the information being conveyed.

This, unfortunately, changes drastically from classroom to classroom. What is common knowledge in a graduate level history class will not always be as such in an eighth grade history class. Likewise, what’s common knowledge in an English class may not be in a physics class later that day.

There are also cultural, national and regional differences in what is and is not common knowledge. For example. parts of US history that are common knowledge in the states wouldn’t be in the UK and vice versa. 

However, since authors aren’t psychic, they aren’t going to be able to perfectly predict what is and is not common knowledge to the reader. As such, mistakes are going to happen, including information that’s not cited when it should have been and information that is needless attributed.

Of those two, the latter is far less hazardous to one’s work but both can be avoided if possible.

Deciding What is Common Knowledge

When determining what is and is not common knowledge, MIT proposes a three questions to ask yourself:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What can I assume they already know?
  • Will I be asked where I obtained my information?

The first question is the easiest. It’s simply asking ” Who is this paper for?” The answer could be as simple as a teacher, the general public or an audience of relative experts in a field. One doesn’t have to anticipate every possible reader of a work, just the general audience it is for.

The second and third questions, however, are the more difficult. Anticipating what your audience knows and accepts is inherently difficult. However, it’s generally best to assume that your audience is, as MIT put it, educated has a reasonable amount of understanding, if not expertise, on the subject.

As a general rule, you should always cite facts, figures and information that you obtained solely through your research in the paper. Even if it is common knowledge to the person reading it, it wasn’t common knowledge to you when you started work.

Similarly, you generally do not need to cite information that was taught in the classroom you’re presenting the paper. If the instructor taught it, it’s safe to assume that they know it and accept it as fact, as with the other students.

In the end, if you’re unsure about what is or is not common knowledge, the best thing to do is either ask your instructor or, if that isn’t possible, cite the content.

Though excessive and needless citation can hurt a paper, it harms it far less than leaving out citations that should have been included.

Bottom Line

When it comes to missing plagiarism, missing a citation on a piece of information or an idea is generally considered less egregious than plagiarized text. Where one is viewed as a mistake, the other is viewed as cheating. One hurts a grade, one hurts academic careers.

Still, it is best to take make sure you understand the rules that surround citing facts and information. It not only prevents accusations of plagiarism but, if done well, it bolsters your arguments and makes your work much stronger.

To that end, following the rules above can help greatly in determining what is and is not common knowledge though. However, if you still find yourself stuck, your best bet is to either speak with your instructor/editor or, if that’s not possible, cite the source.

When it comes to a choice between over-citing and under-citing, it’s clear which one is preferred.

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The post Understanding Common Knowledge appeared first on Plagiarism Today.

04 Dec 12:59

CC Certificate Changes and Improvements for 2019

by Jennryn Wetzler


12/6/18 UPDATE: January 2019 courses have only seven tickets left! 

Background: The CC Certificate provides an-in depth study of Creative Commons licenses and open practices, developing participants’ open licensing proficiency and understanding of the broader context for open advocacy. The course content targets copyright law, CC legal tools, values and recommended practices of working in a global commons. The CC Certificate is a 10-week online course for educators and academic librarians.

CC Certificates2018 was a big year for the Creative Commons Certificate program! We beta-tested the first two CC Certificate courses for educators and academic librarians, updated our course content, licensed it CC BY, and shared it with the world; we launched nine official courses for 225 participants, and have since iterated on almost every aspect of the Certificate based on feedback from the global community. As we approach 2019, we are taking stock of 2018’s learnings and now proudly announce updates for the new year.

Our approach to the CC Certificate is one of iteration based on community needs. Each year, we will evaluate what works and what can be improved, based on participant, instructor, and broader community feedback. Thanks to your input and our own lessons learned in 2018, we are making the following changes and improvements:

1) We’re updating our pricing. Why? First, because this program has to be sustainable – our new price will ensure we cover 100% of CC’s cost of delivery, including paying all community instructors who teach, technology and content maintenance, and program expansion and updates, including reaching new audiences and new languages. CC is a non-profit, and we want this program to thrive.

Second, from our initial launch, we knew that there would be some who couldn’t afford to pay full price for the program. As promised, we are creating a scholarship program so the Certificate can be more inclusive of colleagues with less ability to pay, especially CC’s vibrant communities in the Global South. Our new price allows us to build and replenish an annual scholarship fund, offering subsidized CC Certificates to as many participants as possible. Those who pay full price for the course subsidize those who are less able to do so. We will offer at least 15 scholarships in 2019, and hope to provide more as the program grows.

In 2019 and in years to come we will continue to make the CC Certificate both self-sufficient and financially accessible for our global audience.

2) There is more community demand for the Certificate training than CC can currently accommodate. To address this, we have built and will beta-test a CC Certificate Facilitator Training starting in January 2019. Ensuring there are more well-trained and knowledgeable facilitators will allow us offer more CC Certificate courses in the future.

3) While the Certificate program has hosted participants from every global region, we have drawn more participation from the U.S. and Canada. Because the Certificate program is global, we will continue to engage a more global, diverse community by:

  • Developing a scholarship program to support community members’ enrollment, particularly community members from the Global South (as mentioned above).
  • Supporting translations of Certificate content. Community members have already volunteered to translate the Certificate in multiple languages, from Bahasa to Italian to Arabic. We will support translations in a responsible way, ensuring languages are aligned with course developments and annual updates.
  • Developing more local case studies about copyright law and open licensing in different countries. Thanks to participants’ help, we have several case studies drafted.
  • Launching in-person Certificate trainings, or “bootcamps” specialized for select groups that need CC Certification in a short time-frame.
  • Assisting participants with new ways to learn and share with each other, since there is not one platform that works for everyone. For example, we learned a participant in China could only access our epub OER content (available here) rather than content on our main learning platform, Canvas. While we explore new avenues for learning and collaboration, we celebrate the ways participants are already doing this: hosting workshops and conference sessions, developing OER courses, and creating informational flyers for their institutions.
  • Revising the CC Certificate must balance a global, inclusive, and iterative approach with focused, specialized expertise. While we continue to gather participant recommendations and feedback from the global community, we will also launch a CC Certificate Advisory Board of legal and instructional design experts. The Advisory Board will provide input for annual content updates and engage with participants in online course webinars throughout the year.

We are proud of the Certificate we’ve built together so far. We accept anyone interested in taking the Certificate course; our costs are as low as possible, while still offering a scholarship program and maintaining quality content and services; and the course is supporting learners beyond the certification program — several other programs are freely remixing portions of our CC BY licensed Certificate OER for their own audiences. We couldn’t have done it without the contributions of dozens of experts, CC community leaders, and over 100 beta testers from all over the world. Thank you.

We will continue offering the CC Certificate with the greatest flexibility, openness and affordability we can. As such, it is important to us to keep improving the CC Certificate course with community input.

Opportunities for your engagement

In addition to the developments mentioned above, we will explore other improvements to the program in 2019 — making the CC Certificate more inclusive and globally accessible, while ensuring self-sustainability. Have ideas for us?

  • Share your ideas with #cccert on Twitter.
  • Continue to make notes and recommendations via
  • Use our CC BY licensed, downloadable and editable CC Certificate content, then let us know what is most useful to you.
  • Sign up to take a Certificate course and engage with the growing Certificate community of participants, alumni, mentors, facilitators, and content experts. Registration for courses in 2019 is open here.
  • Join us for an online Certificate overview and brainstorm session on January 8, exploring how to better deliver the Certificate and support open communities: 18:00 EST/ 23:00 UTC on If you cannot join, please share questions in advance and we will share a recording. We look forward to working with you!

The post CC Certificate Changes and Improvements for 2019 appeared first on Creative Commons.

04 Dec 12:57

Tell the Senate Not to Put the Register of Copyrights in the Hands of the President

by Katharine Trendacosta

Update 12/03/2018: The December 4 hearing has been postponed, but it could be rescheduled. Keep telling the Senate to vote "no."

With just a week left for this Congress, one of the weirdest bad copyright bills is back on the calendar. The “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act” would make the Register of Copyrights a presidential appointee, politicizing a role that should not be made a presidential pawn.

On Tuesday, December 4, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration is scheduled to vote on S. 1010, the Senate version of the “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act” already passed by the House of Representatives as H.R. 1695. If it passes out of the committee, the whole Senate will be able to vote on it with only days left in the 2018 session.

Currently, the Register of Copyrights is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, as the Copyright Office is part of the Library. This bill would take the appointment out of the hands of the Librarian and put it in the hands of the President.

The Register of Copyrights does a number of important, nonpartisan, non-political jobs. As the name implies, they register copyrightable material. But they are also charged with providing advice to Congress and “information and assistance” to others in the federal government on copyright. It’s important to note that, except in rare, narrow circumstances, the Register of Copyrights does not make copyright policy. Congress does.

The Register of Copyrights does not do the same things the heads of executive departments and judges do. Picking someone for that job the same way those are picked—appointed by the President and a confirmation process in the Senate—does not make sense for it.

Because the Register is charged with providing advice and information and not with making policy, making the job as apolitical as possible is a good thing. A Presidential appointee, chosen for adherence to the beliefs of the President, is more politicized, not less. A Presidential appointment also means more avenues of influence by special interests, including the major media and entertainment companies that continually seek to expand the scope of copyright for their own benefit, not for individual creators or users. The unusual (and possibly unconstitutional) procedure set out in the bill compounds this problem: the Register would be chosen by the President from a list of people compiled by the leaders of the House and Senate, who themselves may be beholden to the entertainment industry and other special interests.

Copyright affects how we interact with so many things, from the obvious—movies, books, and music—to the less obvious—tractors, cars, and phones. And the Copyright Office has a hand in deciding, for example, what kind of research security experts can do. Why? Because Section 1201 of the DMCA makes it illegal to break access controls on copyrighted material without an exemption from the Copyright Office, and security researchers often need to do just that to determine how safe the devices in our homes really are.

When the Copyright Office wades into policy, we get things like its support of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its allowance of MPAA lobbying to undermine the FCC’s plan to bring competition to the cable box market. An appointee charged with an agenda from the President and nominated by politicians who depend on big-money corporate donors for their re-election can only be worse. The Copyright Office has gotten more political over time, but the solution is not to help it along.

We don’t need a Register that is a Presidential pawn. We don’t need this bill. Tell your Senators to vote against it.

Take Action

Tell the Senate not to make the register of copyrights a presidential pawn

03 Dec 18:12

Trump OKs seismic tests in Atlantic that can harm thousands of dolphins & whales

by Xeni Jardin

Trump's about to make a bunch of whales, turtles, and dolphins go deaf.

The Trump administration is about to take a preliminary step toward oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, by approving requests from energy companies to conduct “deafening seismic tests that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

The information was revealed in a NOAA call with reporters.

“The Trump administration is ignoring threats to whales, dolphins and other marine life to further its ongoing quest for energy dominance,” says the National Parks Conservation Association:

The Trump Administration today advanced plans related to offshore drilling exploration in the Atlantic Ocean, threatening whales, turtles, fish and marine life near 33 coastal national parks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Fisheries Service issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations, allowing companies to disturb federally protected marine mammals through seismic airgun testing. Such testing would take place along the coast from Delaware to central Florida, with far-reaching threats to marine life up and down the eastern seaboard.

Five companies applied last year to search for oil and gas deposits beneath the Atlantic seafloor using seismic airgun technology. The technology involves shooting loud blasts of compressed air down into the seafloor to locate underground deposits of fossil fuels. Today’s approval serves as a final procedural step before approving permits for five companies.

Scientists have warned that this practice threatens whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life, and may force these animals from their feeding, breeding or calving habitats. Seismic airgun use has been linked to the stranding deaths of whales, dolphins and porpoises, and can cause deafness and other impairment in animals.


November 30, 2018-Today, the Trump Administration announced it will authorize five permit requests to conduct seismic testing along the US East coast, a year-round habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Seismic surveys are used to search for deposits of fossil fuels by emitting loud pulsing sounds every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day. These pulses are known to harass, harm, and even kill whales and dolphins.

Once abundant in the eastern and western North Atlantic, only an estimated 411 North Atlantic right whales survive in a reduced habitat range along the East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada. Since April of 2017, an unprecedented loss of 20 right whales from human impacts has drastically reduced the population, putting them at risk of extinction. Both visual and acoustical data confirm that right whales use the mid-Atlantic region of the US year round to feed, socialize, and nurse calves. Furthermore, research shows that man-made noise increases stress hormones in right whales which can impact their ability to reproduce and lower their immune systems.

“North Atlantic right whales, a species already imperiled by humans, are now being pushed closer to extinction, not only from loud and stressful seismic testing, but from the long term risk of future oil spills” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The risk of oil spills has been an ongoing concern for east coast communities, more than 200 of which have openly opposed offshore drilling.

Emerging research underscores the critical role North Atlantic right whales play in the ecosystem by supplying nutrients to phytoplankton, which produces most of the world’s oxygen, is the base on which fish stocks depend, and is a major pathway for carbon sequestration. Furthermore, the long term impacts from potential oil spills are significant. Research after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill estimated that the true death toll to whales and dolphins could be 50 times greater than the number of animals found.

WDC is fighting to save North Atlantic Right Whales. You can DONATE AND HELP.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The planned Friday announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Department, to issue "incidental take" permits allowing companies to harm wildlife is likely to further antagonize a dozen governors in states on the Eastern Seaboard who strongly oppose the administration's proposal to expand federal oil and gas leases to the Atlantic. Federal leases could lead to exploratory drilling for the first time in more than half a century.

In addition to harming sea life, acoustic tests — in which boats tugging rods pressurized for sound emit jet-engine-like booms 10 to 12 seconds apart for days and sometimes months — can disrupt thriving commercial fisheries. Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general along the Atlantic coast say drilling threatens beach tourism that has flourished on the coast in the absence of oil production.

Seismic testing maps the ocean floor and estimates the whereabouts of oil and gas, but only exploratory drilling can confirm their presence. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that soiled the Gulf of Mexico resulted from an exploratory drill. Another gulf disaster that looms almost as large has spewed oil for more than 14 years. The Taylor Energy Co. spill of up to an estimated 700 barrels a day started when a hurricane ripped up production wells, and could continue for the rest of the century, according to the Interior Department

The fisheries service announcement comes just a week after the Trump administration released a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that excavating and burning fossil fuels from federal land comprised nearly a fourth of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States over a decade ending in 2014.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the administration published a much larger report by 13 federal agencies projecting the severe economic costs of climate change as coastal flooding and wildfires worsen, and hurricanes become more severe. After the administration's critics accused it of trying to bury the report with a release on Black Friday, President Trump dismissed it out of hand.

This is important and awful. Read the whole story, reported by Darryl Fears: “Trump administration OKs seismic tests that could harm thousands of dolphins and whales.”

29 Nov 21:00

Florida police chief gets 3 years in prison for framing 3 innocent Black men

by Xeni Jardin

For framing innocent black men, a police chief in Florida will go to prison for three years. Impunity is the norm in America for cases like this, so the conviction is a big deal.

Raimundo Atesiano, the former police chief of Biscayne Park, Florida, stands convicted of directing his officers to frame innocent men in a series of unsolved burglaries. He now admits he was trying to please white community leaders, and manipulate property crimes statistics in the town of 3,000 residents.

From the Miami Herald:

“When I took the job, I was not prepared,” Atesiano told a federal judge on Tuesday. “I made some very, very bad decisions.”

His apologies did not sway U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, who on Tuesday sentenced the 53-year-old former cop to three years in prison. He allowed Atesiano to remain free for two weeks before surrendering so he can care for his mother, who is dying of leukemia.

In September, Atesiano pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge of depriving the three suspects of their civil rights because he and the officers charged them without a legal basis. Atesiano’s conspiracy conviction carried up to 10 years in prison.

What about the three men who were falsely arrested in the criminal cops' conspiracy? Not much detail there, but hopefully they'll receive some form of restitution.

29 Nov 20:51

Bohemian Chanukah: 'Is this the eighth night, we light with family?'

by Rusty Blazenhoff

Jewish a cappella group Six13 spun their own adaptation of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in their delightful "Bohemian Chanukah.":

Is this the eighth night
We light with family?
Recall with great pride
Our escape from Greek tyranny?

Kindle the lights
Remember the Maccabees
How did those five boys
Lead us to victory?

Thanks, Jake!

29 Nov 20:39

Watch: Scientist discovers type of spider that nurses its babies with high-protein milk

by Carla Sinclair

Last year, scientist Chen Zhanqi from China noticed a baby jumping spider behaving in a way that baby mammals do: it attached itself to its mother the way baby animals do when suckling milk.

Zhangi decided to closely study jumping spiders along with a colleague, and discovered that their babies actually do suckle milk from their mother's epigastric furrow, which is found on her abdomen. The milk was found to have four times the amount of protein as that of a cow, and the baby spiders suckled until they were considered "sub-adults" at 40 days old. But when the scientists painted over the epigastric furrow to block the flow of milk, the babies died after 10 days.

"Providing milk and long-term care together is virtually unheard of in insects and other invertebrates. And with the exception of mammals, it’s not even that common among vertebrates," according to, which makes this discovery all the more fascinating.

27 Nov 17:41

Video: What fascism is...and isn't

by Seamus Bellamy

Fascism is a word we've been hearing a lot of over these past few years, but are the mouths it's falling out of using it correctly? Some times, yeah. Many times, not so much.

This brief video delves into the history of the word "fascism" and explains that, while we're collectively barreling towards a particular flavor of this unsavory state of being, there's plenty of ways, with left and right-wing leanings, to be a fascist.

27 Nov 17:28

Using information security to explain why disinformation makes autocracies stronger and democracies weaker

by Cory Doctorow

The same disinformation campaigns that epitomize the divisions in US society -- beliefs in voter fraud, vaccine conspiracies, and racist conspiracies about migrants, George Soros and Black Lives Matter, to name a few -- are a source of strength for autocracies like Russia, where the lack of a consensus on which groups and views are real and which are manufactured by the state strengthens the hand of Putin and his clutch of oligarchs.

In a new Harvard Berkman Center paper, Common -Knowledge Attacks on Democracy, political scientist Henry Farrell (previously and security expert Bruce Schneier (previously) team up to explore this subject by using information security techniques, and come to a very plausible-seeming explanation and a set of policy recommendations to address the issue.

Farrell and Schneier start by exploring the failures of both national security and information security paradigms to come to grips with the issue: Cold War-style national security is oriented around Cold War ideas like "offense–defense balance, conventional deterrence theory, and deterrence by denial," none of which are very useful for thinking about disinformation attacks; meanwhile, information security limits itself to thinking about "servers and individual networks" and not "the consequences of attacks for the broader fabric of democratic societies."

Despite these limits, the authors say that there is a way to use the tools of information security to unpick these kinds of "information attacks" on democracies: treat "the entire polity as an information system with associated attack surfaces and threat models" -- that is, to think about the democracy itself as the thing to be defended, rather than networks or computers.

From there, they revisit the different disinformation styles of various autocracies and autocratic movements, particularly the Russian style of sowing doubt about what truth is and where it can be found (infamously, Russia's leading political strategist admits that he secretly funds some opposition groups, but won't say which ones, leaving everyone to wonder whether a given group is genuine or manufactured -- there's some excellent scholarship contrasting this with the style used by the Chinese state and also with techniques used by authoritarian insurgents inside of democracies, like Milo Yiannopoulos).

In the paper's framework, the stability of autocrats' power requires that the public not know how other people feel -- for there to be constant confusion about which institutions, groups and views are genuine and which ones are conspiracies, frauds, or power-grabs. Once members of the public discover how many of their neighbors agree that the ruling autocracy is garbage, they are emboldened to rise up against it. Tunisia's dictatorship was stable so long as the law banning dissent could be enforced, but the lack of enforcement on Facebook allowed Tunisians to gain insight into their neighbors' discontent, leading to the collapse of the regime.

By contrast, democracies rely on good knowledge about the views of other people, most notably embodied by things like free and fair elections, where citizens get a sense of their neighbors' views, and are thus motivated to find solutions that they know will be widely viewed as legitimate and will therefore be sustainable.

So when information attacks against democracies sow doubt about the genuineness of movements and views -- when Soros is accused of funding left-wing movements, when Koch Industries' name is all over the funding sources of right-wing think-tanks, when politicians depend on big money, and when Facebook ads and its engagement algorithm pushes people to hoaxes and conspiracies -- it weakens democracy in exactly the same way that it strengthens autocracy. Without a sense of which political views are genuine and which are disinformation, all debate degenerates into people calling each other shills or bots, and never arriving at compromises with the stamp of broad legitimacy.

It's not a coincidence that the right's political playbook is so intertwined with this kind of disinformation and weakening of democracy. A widely held belief on the political right is that the most important "freedom" is private property rights, and since rich people are always outnumbered by poor people, subscribers to this ideology hold that "freedom is incompatible with democracy," because in a fair vote, the majority 99% will vote to redistribute the fortunes of the minority 1%. In this conception, the rich are the only "oppressed minority" who can't be defended by democracy.

This gives rise to the right's belief in natural hierarchies, which are sorted out by markets, with the best people rising to the top (Boris Johnson: "As many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.").

The right's position, fundamentally, is that the "best" people should boss everyone else around for their own good: kings should boss around commoners (monarchists); slavers should boss around enslaved people (white nationalists); husbands should boss around wives and kids (Dominionists); America should boss around the world (imperialists); and rich people should boss around workers (capitalists).

So when Reagan started cracking wise about "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help,'" he was kicking off a long project to discredit the US and its institutions in favor of autocrats, the mythological heroes of Ayn Rand novels whose singular vision was so true and right that it didn't need peer review, checks and balances, or anyone who might speak truth to power. He was initiating the process that led the Trump administration's army of think-tankies to dismantle the US government's multibillion-dollar institutions charged with defending us from food poisoning, plutonium spills, unsafe workplaces, tornadoes and starvation: in the autocrat's view of the world, these institutions' word cannot be taken at face value, because every institution is just a pawn for its bosses' and workers' personal ambitions, featherbedding and pocket-lining.

Unsurprisingly then, Farrell and Schneier's recommended countermeasures for disinformation campaigns cut directly against the right's most cherished policies: get rid of Citizens United and the idea that secret money can fund US political campaigns; limit financial secrecy and make it harder for anyone to claim that US political movements are the inauthentic expression of manipulative foreign disinformation campaigns.

Alongside financial transparency, the authors suggest that vigorous antitrust enforcement, possibly with reclassification of online services as public utilities, would help curb the deployment of ranking algorithms that elevate "engagement" over all else, leading to spirals that drive users to ever-more-extreme and unfounded views and communities (weirdly, this is the one highly selective instance in which the right is calling for a return to pre-Reagan antitrust fundamentals).

For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsevdescribe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other. We have already seen that open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge. And much more recently, we have seen other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supported common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge.

In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy [Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier/ Berkman Klein Center Research Publication No. 2018-7]

Democracy as an information system [Henry Farrell/Crooked Timber]

26 Nov 20:13

Kathleen Petyarre: a brilliant artist whose life was rudely interrupted by colonisers

by Christine Judith Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies, Flinders University
Kathleen Petyarre looking across Atnangker country, Northern Territory, December 2000. Photograph Ian North; courtesy Wakefield Press

The artist Kwementyaye (Kathleen) Petyarre (c. 1938 – 24 November 2018) has died in Alice Springs, surrounded by family and loved ones, at about the age of 80. Alhwarrpe.

“About” that age, because Petyarre was born out bush, delivered by Anmatyerr midwives at Atnangker on Anmatyerr country in Australia’s northeast Central Desert. Petyarre’s birth was not recorded in any official birth register, although it is believed to have taken place between the late 1930s or early ’40s.

Earliest days

Known in childhood as Kweyetemp Petyarre, she and her extended family group moved around their vast desert estate in Anmatyerr country. Their base was Atnangker, a site over which they exerted proprietary rights through the male line. According to principles of systematic rotational navigation they hunted and gathered food and water on the basis of seasonal availability. Their daily cuisine could include emu, kangaroo, perentie, goanna, blue tongue lizard, witchetty grubs, yams, bush plums, bush tomatoes and bush honey.

Kathleen Petyarre and Myrtle Petyarre, Kathleen’s eldest sister, nursing Josie Anne Petyarre, walk up the sandhill or ‘mountain’ as Kathleen describes it, towards the ceremonial site on Atnangker, December 2000. Photograph Ian North; courtesy Wakefield Press.

Anmatyerr women would grind seeds and cook delicious cakes on open fires. Later, the “bush seeds” that flourished on her country would become a signature theme in Petyarre’s oeuvre. Delicately represented by abundant tiny dots that she originally applied with a tyepal, fashioned from a twig and also used by women in body painting, later Petyarre turned to miniature saté sticks, sourced from Indonesia.

Arnkerrth, the Mountain or Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus). Photograph Hans Boessem, Todd Camera Store, Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

During her early years, under the instruction of her paternal grandmother, little Kweyetemp embarked on a highly disciplined classical Eastern Anmatyerr education. This was how she acquired foundational knowledge relating to her principal Dreaming Ancestor, Arnkerrth, the Mountain or Thorny Devil.

A small lizard that looks like a bonsai dinosaur, arnkerrth avoids predators by changing colour to camouflage itself to merge with the surrounding environment, also needing only minimal water to survive. Underpinned by Anmatyerr Law, this small creature would become Petyarre’s greatest and most significant artistic subject.

Kathleen Petyarre, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (Sandstorm), 2000, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 122 x 122 cm. Private Collection Adelaide.

Meeting a white man for the first time

In the late 1940s, after the second world war, Kweyetemp first encountered a white man. The man was crossing Anmatyerr country with a camel. From behind small shrubs, the children peeked nervously at the strangely hued man and his equally bizarre animal companion. Eventually their father revealed himself and addressed the stranger, offering him food and water, which the interloper desperately needed.

With no rancour, Petyarre informed me that the man, who remained there for some time, insisted that the family cover their nakedness. In turn, he supplied “garments”.

Chuckling, Petyarre reflected on this to me in the following words:

We girls had to wear sacks, flour bags with cut-out hole (sic), for neck and arms. Really itchy one!

The older boys were made to wear army supply shorts. This was in the desert summer heat in excess of 50℃ in the shade. The uninvited interloper simply would not abide with the family’s nakedness.

Becoming ‘Kathleen’

Kathleen Petyarre and relatives at Ilyentye (Mosquito Bore) Utopia, Northern Territory, 6 December 2000. From left: Gracie Ngale, Maggie Pwerle (Kathleen’s mother), Josie-Anne Petyarre, Roseanne Petyarre (Gracie’s daughter), Josiah Kemarre (nicknamed ‘Jo-Jay’), Gracie’s granddaughter Pwerle, Kathleen Petyarre, Sabrina Pwerle. Photograph Ian North courtesy Wakefield Press.

Not far from Atnangker, a pastoral property on Anmatyerr country had been established by whitefellas some years earlier. The latter group named that large stretch of country – bitterly tongue in cheek – “Utopia”.

This led to Petyarre’s family working for the new “owners” of the pastoral lease. In return the family received rations of flour, sugar and tea, but no pay. Unrelenting assimilatory pressure ensued. English names were imposed on all Eastern Anmatyerr people, and Kweyetemp became “Kathleen”.

A school was set up in a silver bullet caravan and Kathleen began working there as the teacher’s aide, insisting that she instruct the children in their natal language, Eastern Anmatyerr. Her close sister Violet worked in the school as a laundress. Older Anmatyerr ladies were charged to sew uniforms with the words “Utopia School” stitched on.

Kathleen Petyarre, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming, 1997, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 122 x 122 cm. Thomas Vroom Collection, The Netherlands.

But apropos of the uniforms, there was a catch. Anmatyerr children were permitted to wear the uniforms during school hours only, and were obliged to remove them before returning home in the afternoon. So they left in the same way they’d arrived at school on the same morning – naked.

Violet would wash their uniforms daily, hanging them out to dry overnight so that in the morning, at school, the children would don clean uniforms. Ironic, given that the small settlements that comprised Utopia had very little running water.

“Utopia” is an umbrella term encompassing a cluster of widely dispersed small homelands, once known as “outstations”. In 1977 Jenny Green arrived in Utopia to work as an adult educator, organising workshops in batik method. For kinship-related reasons, 99% of those who attended those workshops were women. These included Emily Kngwarrey (Kathleen’s aunt), Kathleen, Violet and Gloria and the other four Petyarre sisters.

Rodney Gooch at Utopia

In 1987, Rodney Gooch (1949-2002), a flamboyantly “out” gay man, who had been working for the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs, was asked to take over the management of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Kathleen wasn’t alone in recollecting that the Eastern Anmatyerr women adored “Ronnie” as they called him.

During his tenure, Gooch introduced acrylic painting on canvas and other media. This was a movement that had started in Papunya in the early ‘70s and took off like wildfire across the arid desert regions.

Kathleen Petyarre, My Country - Bush Seeds (Sandstorm),1999. Private Collection, Adelaide.

Kathleen, whose chronic asthmatic condition arose from an allergic reaction to the fumes generated in batik production, took to the new media like a duck to water.

By the mid-1990s Petyarre had become involved with Adelaide’s Gallerie Australis in Adelaide, which represented her exclusively. Exhibitions of her astonishing artworks were mounted – with art lovers attending in droves.

The Telstra prize

This culminated in 1996 when Petyarre won the coveted major prize: the Telstra Art Award.

But this success was relatively short-lived when Petyarre’s non-Indigenous partner Ray Beamish, a former Darwin “long-grasser”, came forward with a claim that he had painted parts of Petyarre’s artworks, including the prizewinning work. A visual art writer working for The Australian newspaper took up this allegation with gusto, which served to amplify the issue. It became national and even international news.

The protracted period of time that it took to resolve this took an enormous toll on Kathleen’s health: she began shaking with fear, for months barely speaking and not painting at all. The source of Petyarre’s malaise was what she understood to be the theft of the Mountain Devil Dreaming, passed down to her by generations of Ancestors who held sacred copyright over that Dreaming.

Kathleen Petyarre, Thorny Devil Lizard Dreaming (watercourses and rock holes) 1997, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 122 x 183 cm. Thomas Vroom Collection, The Netherlands.

In 1997-1998, the Board of the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT conducted an enquiry into these allegations. After strenuous investigations and interviews with relevant parties, Board Chair Colin McDonald announced that:

The Board found the allegations of Mr Beamish regarding the authorship of the painting were not proved. Accordingly, there is not basis for interfering with the decision of the judges awarding the 1996 Telstra Prize to Kathleen Petyarre. (24 April 1998).

Fortunately Petyarre eventually returned to painting, and since then her work has been exhibited worldwide – including France, Scotland, Indonesia and the United States. In many instances she travelled to those destinations. Like her Ancestor Arnkerrth, the Old Woman Mountain Devil, Petyarre became a seasoned journeywoman.

Wicked humour

In relation to her personal qualities Kathleen could be imperious, but the attribute I best remember is her marvellous, often wicked, sense of humour. When in 1998 I travelled to the US with Kathleen and her sister Violet, this came to the fore. There was an international conference for Indigenous people worldwide that we attended. The three of us stayed in the same hotel room.

Violet Petyarre (left) and Kathleen Petyarre in Disneyland, California, 1998. Photograph Agnes Love, courtesy Wakefield Press.

One example will suffice. The background to this is that while Kathleen’s understanding of English was very good, her spoken English was so inflected with Anmatyerr language that 99% of English speakers found it unintelligible. It also practically stopped Kathleen and Violet from trying to communicate verbally, although neither is shy.

As a result, all the other conference attendees addressed me as the conduit to the two Anmatyerr women. A very earnest, middle-aged American lady in hippy attire approached me in the presence of the sisters, asking me, “Is it true that they only communicate by telepathy”?

Kathleen remained silent, but using only her hands she gestured towards her mouth in mock-sign language. Hence I responded to the lady by saying, “No, that isn’t true. Of course they talk.” When we returned to our hotel room that evening, all three of us acted out this scenario over and over again, shrieking and screaming with laughter. It must be admitted that our outbreak of unstoppable hilarity was underpropped by a teeny modicum of schadenfreude.

The Old Mountain Devil Woman

The thorny devil is unable to cover country in a straight line – she always takes a semi-circular route across her vast, arid country. This seems an apt metaphor for Kweyetemp Petyarre’s life, which hasn’t followed the trajectory that her younger self had foreseen, perforce veering off and rounding corners that she had never dreamed of in her childhood. That life, so rudely interrupted by the colonisers, was largely held together by her love of her family, and their love for her.

Petyarre also enjoyed being feted as a successful artist, and the travel that involved – arnkerrth is a great traveller.

On the occasion that I interviewed Petyarre on the subject of death, she had this to say:

If I could make wish I like to move straight back into them old days out in spinifex country—good. Life good then — all the time.

Moloch horridus, the Mountain or Thorny Devil, tracks in the sand. Photograph Eric R. Pianka, School of Biological Sciences, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, U.S.A.

The author has received permission from the family to use Kathleen Petyarre’s full name and images of her in this article.

The Conversation

Christine Judith Nicholls does not currently receive any relevant funding, but received a small amount of funding from the then ARTSA as the principal author of the following South Australian Living Artists publication 2000-2001: Nicholls, Christine and Ian North, 2001, Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, Australia, which will soon be republished for the third time. In addition she received modest funding as co-curator of Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place, an exhibition that took place at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, opening in 2001.

26 Nov 19:45

Archive of 15,000+ Golden Age Comics

by Mark Frauenfelder

The Digital Comics Museum has over 15,000 Golden Age comic books (all in the public domain). It's a treasure trove of clip art and inspiration for designers and artists.

[via Open Culture]

26 Nov 19:36

'P Is for Pterodactyl' alphabet book teaches kids some anomalies of the English language

by Rusty Blazenhoff

P Is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever is a fun new alphabet book written by rapper Lushlife that shows kids just how nutty the English language really is (rules schmules!):

Turning the traditional idea of an alphabet book on its head, P is for Pterodactyl is perfect for anyone who has ever been stumped by silent letters or confused by absurd homophones. This whimsical, unique book takes silent letter entries like “K is for Knight” a step further with “The noble knight’s knife nicked the knave’s knee.” Lively illustrations provide context clues, and alliterative words help readers navigate text like “a bright white gnat is gnawing on my gnocchi” with ease. Everyone from early learners to grown-up grammarians will love this wacky book where “A is for Aisle” but “Y is definitely not for Why.”

(Blame it on the Voices)

26 Nov 19:35

Without social organizations, social technologies will eat us alive

by Marina Gorbis

The bane of the futurist's existence is that almost daily you see, hear, or read something and want to scream, "I told you so." Sometimes, it's a cause for exhilaration—we got it right—and other times, it makes you angry—why didn't we do something about it earlier, why did we not heed the warning signs?

Right now, I am in the latter state. As stories of Facebook's deflection and manipulation of public opinion dominate the news cycle, I am harking back to things I and others wrote almost ten years ago, in the early days of social media. In 2010, while seeing the great promise of social production (work that involves micro-contributions from large networks of people who often receive "payment" in the form of fun, peer recognition, and a sense of belonging, i.e. social rather than monetary currencies), I started worrying about its shadow side. It seemed that many social media platforms had the potential to re-create the manor economies of the past in the digital world.

Reflecting on the lawsuit brought by bloggers who contributed free content to Huffington Post but didn't get any financial returns when the site was sold for $315 million to AOL, I saw similarities between the medieval and emerging digital manor economies:

Just like digital manor economies today, the manorialism of feudal society in medieval Europe integrated many elements of commons production. In most manors, peasants and tenants were assigned rights to use the commons—pastures, forests, fisheries, soil—within each manor's boundaries…The dark side of manor economics, however, lay in the fact that it perpetuated huge inherited disparities in incomes. So while most of the population in these Middle Age pastoral settings survived at subsistence levels, the lords of the manor were able to live lavishly off the rent, taxes, and free labor the tenants were obligated to supply them with, as well as various fees tenants had to pay for the use of resources such as mills, bakeries, or wine-presses.

Here's looking at you, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Uber, and myriads of other platforms increasingly fueling our media and work environments as well as rapidly rising rates of wealth inequality. Seeing something worrisome ahead, however, is not enough. A responsible futurist has to come up with workable solutions, actions for us to take to shape a more desirable future. This is why I suggested principles for governing and running platforms based on social production in this 2010 essay:

If we are to truly fulfill the promise of technology tools we have created, we urgently need to design new governance models and new ways of creating value. In the least, organizations whose value derives from communities they create should incorporate the governance principles of successful commons organizations and use the same technology platforms that are at the core of their operations for governance purposes. Here are some principles I believe they need to put into practice:

  1. Clearly articulate the promise of the platform to the participants, with all the ensuing rights and responsibilities for members
  2. Create or elect a community governance board (without direct financial incentives to the project) to guide and review major policy and strategy decisions.
  3. Crowdsource major decisions guiding development and evolution of such platforms.
  4. Ensure radical transparency around key decisions and financial metrics.
  5. Create reward structures for management and employees more akin to those of non-profits or coops rather than for-profit entities."

I applaud Facebook's attempts to create an independent body, a kind of a Supreme Court for Facebook, to oversee some of its decisions. However, it's not enough. I think the other principles still stand, and we will probably need to include new ones about ownership and governance of data.

The big question is whether it's too late for Facebook, and other platforms whose business models have been built against commons-based governance and ownership principles, to really change. Here's the dilemma (from the same 2010 essay):

Our technology tools and platforms are highly participatory and social. They take advantage of intrinsic human motivations to contribute in order to be noticed, to share opinions, to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Otherwise how would one explain remarkable success of Wikipedia and many other crowdsourced sites that rely on contributions of volunteers? Our business models, by contrast, are based primarily on monetary rewards. They are mostly hierarchical and non-participatory…And they operate without the kind of transparency of information when applied to their own operations that is at the core of communities they enable.

As many social scientists understand, it is nearly impossible to mix social and monetary rewards and interactions. Once we introduce money, it totally changes the context and the nature of how we interact with each other and with our communities. Unfortunately, our existing social media platforms have used social, commons-based technologies and fit them into money-driven organizational structures. My hope is that either today's social media platforms will evolve organizational structures to fit the promise of these technologies, or that they will be simply washed away to be followed by the next generation of platforms structured and governed to realize the promise of social technologies they are built on.

Marina Gorbis is Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 50-year old non-profit research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley.

21 Nov 20:43

A most incredible NASA promotional video

by David Pescovitz

"We Are NASA" thrills me more than any science fiction movie trailer, and it's real.

21 Nov 20:31

Copyright and the "male gaze": a feminist critique of copyright law

by Cory Doctorow

Film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term "male gaze" to describe the "masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer": in a paper for the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Southwestern Law School professor John Tehranian applies Mulvey's idea to the complex and often nonsensical way that copyright determines who is an "author" of a work and thus entitled to control it, and shows how the notion of authorship reflects and amplifies the power imbalances already present in the world.

Copyright law presumes the existence of an "author" in whom copyright can be vested, but the concept of an author is complicated, especially as media have become more bound up in the cooperation of multiple parties (photographers and subjects, actors and directors, etc).

The actual rules of copyright tend to follow industry practices: that is, the industry arrives at a certain way of doing things, and then there's a dispute, and the courts usually look at how the industry is doing things, and declares that to be the law (or sometimes Congress enshrines into law the existing practices of industry). In industry, there are always power imbalances that reflect underlying social conditions: the person who owns a movie studio has more power than the actors they hire, the record label usually has more power than the musicians it records.

So as courts were asked to develop a theory of authorship, they arrived at the idea that the "author" is the person who commits the work to some tangible medium: the photographer, not the model; and where there are complex processes involved in that tangible fixation, the "master mind" orchestrating the production becomes the author (the director, not the camera operator).

It's no coincidence that the legal concept of authorship disproportionately elevates the parties with the most power to the position of author. The Black musicians who created delta blues didn't write the music down, so they can't be authors -- but the white entertainment industry figures who recorded their music do get to be authors (similarly, when we were deciding which part of the underlying compositions are copyrightable, we decided that the complex polyrhythms of African and Afro-Caribbean music didn't rise to the level of copyrightability, while the melodic elements that European composers concerned themselves with did -- which meant The Beatles could appropriate R&B, but that Black hip-hop artists couldn't sample The Beatles).

This isn't just manifested on the racial lines: it's also very gendered, and increasingly so. Tehranian points to revenge-porn victims who discovered that the compromising hidden camera footage their tormentors had recorded was copyrighted by the peeping tom (who "fixed" the video in tangible form), leaving them with no claim to the work.

This is an incisive and wide-ranging critique and it's saying some important things, but I think that Tehranian comes to a difficult conclusion I can't support: to give the author's interest to more parties, models as well as photographers, camera-people as well as directors, actors as well as studios, etc.

While this sounds like a fair notion, it ignores the existing problem of "rights thickets," where getting permission from all parties to make normal creative uses/re-uses requires tracking down many different entities, any of whom can exercise a veto. Some of Tehranian's examples involve men who use copyright to stifle the artistic expression of women, and increasing the number of parties who get a copyright veto over creative endeavor will not make this problem better.

I'm not sure how to fix all the problems Tehranian raises, but here are a few possible fixes:

* Tighten up the rules about which activities copyright covers. Copyright was designed to be the ruleset for regulating industrial activity within the entertainment sector. There is no set of rules that can serve that purpose well if it also supposed to regulate every time we copy anything -- rather than rejigging copyright so that the victims of voyeurs can control the footage, let's take peeping tom videos out of copyright (because they are not entertainment product, they are evidence of crime), and then let's create rules suitable for letting those peeping tom survivors control the use of the footage on the basis that it is nonconsensual and immoral, not on the basis that it infringes copyright.

* Help actors and musicians get a better say in their works by giving them inalienable rights (the right to a share of the compensation from the use of their works, the right to demand reversion after a relatively short period) and by encouraging and strengthening their performers' unions.

* Stop allowing mergers among media companies (and other companies in highly concentrated sectors). Break up the existing conglomerates. Reduce the bargaining power of the entertainment industry's monopolists.

Most of this is outside of the scope of copyright. The problems Tehranian identifies are problems of fundamental societal imbalances, reflected in copyright (just as they are reflected in other domains). Just because we know where to find a lever labeled "copyright" it doesn't follow that we can fix all our problems by yanking on it.

When Erin Andrews found out that intimate footage of her had leaked online, the authorship-as-fixation doctrine told her that the felon who illicitly captured the recording owned the copyright to the work, not her. She remained powerless for over two years as the law reduced her to a passive subject, deprived of control over representations of her own body. Copyright’s male gaze, empowered by its authorial vesting regime, stripped An- drews of agency, allowing her to exist purely for the visual pleasure of those who watched the video online.

When Lynn Thomson’s creative partner, Jonathan Larson, died tragically just hours after the final dress rehearsal for the musical Rent, joint authorship’s mutual-intent requirement told her that she had no copyright interest at all in the Broadway hit. Regardless of the extent of Thomson’s contributions to the final version of the musical, the so-called “dominant” author—Larson—did not share in her desire to be co-authors, and, therefore, Rent could not be a work of joint authorship. Based on the collaborative and non-hierarchical approach she took towards artistic endeavor, the mutual-intent requirement deprived Thomson of agency over her creative output. She suffered a loss of both economic participation in and control over her work, even though she never signed away any rights by contract. In short, copyright law’s mutual-intent requirement achieved what private contracting, with its already broad deference to bargaining power, could not. Rent became the exclusive product of the Larson Estate’s gaze, not hers.

When Fearless Girl took on Charging Bull and challenged its unabashedly masculine celebration of American capitalism by calling attention to the underrepresentation of women on Wall Street, copyright law told her that she might constitute an unauthorized derivative work, lacking in copyright protection (i.e., lacking cognizable authorship) and facing potential destruction. The viability of her narrative of resistance and her subversion of a dominant, patriarchal epistemology rested in the hands of the derivative-works doctrine, which patrols the lines designating where authorship by one person ends and authorship by another begins. The heuristics of authorship therefore determined the authority of the Bull to control just what can and cannot lie in its male gaze.

Copyright's Male Gaze: Authorship and Inequality in a Panoptic World [John Tehranian/Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 41, 2018]

(Image: Daniel Norton, CC-BY-ND)

21 Nov 20:26

CDC: don't eat romaine lettuce

by Seamus Bellamy

If you're planning on taking a salad to your Thanksgiving potluck this year, be wicked careful of what you throw into it: The Centers for Disease Control is currently warning everyone, frigging everywhere to avoid romaine lettuce as if eating it could dose you with E Coli... because there's a pretty decent chance that it will. According to the CDC's Twitter feed for the time being we none of us should be eating "...any romaine lettuce, including whole heads and hearts, chopped, organic and salad mixes with romaine" until they figure out what the source of E Coli is and how much of the romaine supply chain has been contaminated by it. For the complete lowdown on what the CDC knows so far, you'll want to check out their E coli alert page.

For those unfamiliar with it, E coli (Escherichia coli,) bacteria can be found in the guts of healthy folks and many animals. It's fine, for the most part! Some strains of the bug, however, are not so fine. Should one of these strains of E coli get into our systems, typically via the ingestion of contaminated water or food, those stricken by the bug can suffer symptoms ranging fa quick bout of the trots to serious issues with symptoms including severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

So, maybe serve up a kale, iceberg or coleslaw salad this year, instead. It'll give everyone gathered around your table one more reason to be thankful.

Image via Wikipedia Commons