According to a study published in Nature last month, oceanic shark numbers have declined by 70 per cent since 1970. Three-quarters of ocean-going shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Yet we are still more likely to feel that sharks are a threat to us than the other way round. Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws – both symptom and cause of that feeling – was published 46 years ago, in February 1974. Production of the movie version began that summer, filmed in the village of Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. A few years ago I went for a swim at the beach there. I had never considered myself afraid of sharks. But with every stroke I glanced backwards over my shoulder towards the open water.

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23 February 2021

San Gino

John Foot

Gino Bartali in the 1940s

Around fifteen years ago, a story emerged about Bartali’s activities during the Nazi occupation of Italy. It was said that the great cyclist had saved dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jewish lives, by cycling the eighty-odd miles between Florence, where he lived, and Assisi, a node in an underground network that helped to protect Jews, with forged documents hidden in his bicycle frame.

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22 February 2021

Neither British nor Independent, and No Deterrent

Norman Dombey

Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ has been described by ministers as the basis of our defence strategy for nearly seventy years. Tony Blair proclaimed that ‘our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate assurance of our national security.’ We have used US missiles to carry our nuclear warheads but ministers of both main political parties have insisted that the nuclear weapon itself was British and designed at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. After all, we first exploded an A-bomb in 1952 and H-bombs in 1957-58 without help from the US or other state. Yet last year a defence minister hinted at the truth for the first time: Britain’s nuclear warheads are of American design.

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19 February 2021

Cranks and Shills

Arianne Shahvisi

‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines. The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.

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16 February 2021

If it were a narco lab, it would be working

John Perry

Honduras is a failed state and, unless US policy towards it changes radically, many thousands more will head north. Since the military coup in 2009 there have been three corrupt elections. The last, in 2017, which saw Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) re-elected when he had clearly lost, led to even more repression. Persecution of human rights defenders is unceasing, even after international condemnation of the murder of Berta Cáceres five years ago. Seven were killed in 2020, and four young leaders from Garifuna communities, abducted in a single night seven months ago, are still missing. Curfews during the Covid-19 pandemic appear to have worsened the day-to-day violence: eleven corpses were found in the street in one week in January; bodies are being chopped up and left them wrapped in plastic. Perhaps the most emotive case occurred earlier this month: a doctor and student nurse, who had been working with Covid patients, were arrested for breaching the 9 p.m. curfew. The doctor was freed, but the nurse died in police custody. Protests erupted. Five people were arrested, tortured by the police and forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

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15 February 2021

The Big Lie

Eli Zaretsky

Like most bullies, Trump favours hitting people when they are down. Understanding his deployment of sadism is fundamental to understanding his appeal. He brought together large numbers of people who would have liked to lash out, but didn’t have the courage. He made them feel that their anger and contempt – whatever its source – was legitimate. And, very importantly, he convinced people viscerally that the norms of civilised society were part of a rigged system.

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12 February 2021

Stochastic Parrots

Paul Taylor

As chest X-rays of Covid-19 patients began to be published in radiology journals, AI researchers put together an online database of the images and started experimenting with algorithms that could distinguish between them and other X-rays. Early results were astonishingly successful, but disappointment soon followed. The algorithms were responding not to signs of the disease, but to minor technical differences between the two sets of images, which were sourced from different hospitals: such things as the way the images were labelled, or how the patient was positioned in the scanner. It’s a common problem in AI. We often refer to ‘deep’ machine learning because we think of the calculations as being organised in layers and we now use many more layers than we used to, but what is learned is nevertheless superficial.

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