Regime Change?

Mona Ali in Phenomenal World:

The centerpiece of shock and awe of the West’s economic response to Russia’s invasion and bombardment of Ukraine was the freezing of Russia’s central bank assets. In the March 7 edition of his Global Money Dispatch newsletter, the Credit Suisse investment strategist Zoltan Pozsar writes that the G7 seizure of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves marks a regime change in the global monetary system. Pozsar pronounces this new regime Bretton Woods III. He anticipates that Asian sovereigns, fearing that their dollar- and euro-denominated foreign reserves are at risk of expropriation in the event of future foreign policy disputes, will park their surplus funds outside of the reach of Western financial authorities. For Pozsar, this heralds the rise of “commodity-backed currencies in the East” and spells the denouement of dollar hegemony.

In a follow-up piece published on March 31, Pozsar speculates that recent developments will drive China to replace the West as the buyer of last resort of Russian oil. As a result, oil tankers will have to be rerouted from the quicker East-West route via the Suez to a longer passage (one requiring ship transfers) from Russia to China. Geopolitics will shape the reorganization of real infrastructure networks, slowing down supply chains and increasing the cost of credit. Pozsar predicts that this rearrangement of global commodity and money flows presage a new world economic order, one in which China will replace the US as the monetary hegemon. The petrodollar, he envisages, will be replaced by the petro-yuan.

Pozsar’s analysis—as well as Adam Tooze’s response to it—appreciates the asymmetry in the world economy: between advanced economies that dominate global finance, and developing countries that produce the majority (about sixty percent) of world GDP. Asia may be the center of gravity of world manufacturing, but European and North American firms still command the bulk of the profits embedded in global supply chains.

More here.

The split-body problem

Gunnar O Babcock in Aeon:

If you split yourself down the middle to become two people, would you survive the process? And, if you did, would your other half be your child, your clone or your sibling? Would this create two instances of the same you, existing simultaneously in two places at the same time; or would it create two entirely new people, causing you to suddenly cease to exist? While such thought experiments raise baffling questions about personal identity, there is a more fundamental problem I want to consider: would splitting in two be an instance of reproduction or an entirely different kind of process?

When we think about how organisms reproduce, we don’t tend to think of splitting bodies. We think of sex. We tend to think of animals such as panda bears, leopards, ravens or any other large multicellular organisms having sex, becoming pregnant (or laying fertilised eggs), and giving birth. It isn’t surprising that this is how we think new organisms come into existence. Sexual reproduction is, after all, the form of reproduction that nature has selected for creatures like us. But sex is not the way most reproduction takes places.

Most forms of life on this planet create other living beings through asexual processes – and there are many ways this can happen (as we’ll see). Some of the most common forms are similar to the thought experiment above: a body splits in two. Nearly all prokaryotic microbes, such as bacteria, reproduce through various forms of this process, such as binary fission (when a body separates into two new bodies). However, it’s not always clear what kinds of relation result from fission, as in the thought experiment above.

More here.

Black Like Me? Bridgerton and the Fantasy of a Non-Racist Past

Gary Younge in The Nation:

When I first moved to the US from London, I asked an American journalist what kind of reception I might expect as a Black Briton. “Well, when they hear an English accent, Americans usually add about 20 points to your IQ,” he said. “But when they see a Black face, they usually don’t.” Recalling that the authors of the book The Bell Curve had claimed that Black people have an IQ 15 points lower than whites, I figured that, at the very least, I would still come out at least five points ahead.

There were moments during my 12 years as the US correspondent for The Guardian when I needed all the help I could get. It could be a particular challenge when reporting from Republican events. Englishness, the American journalist had made clear, carried cultural cachet; Blackness did not. The two arriving in the same body could mess with some people’s heads. When I introduced myself as a British journalist, I was occasionally subjected to an interrogation of my credentials. “Were you born there?” they’d ask. “I don’t hear an accent.” (I sound like Ricky Gervais, with nary a hint of a transatlantic twang.)

But my point here is not partisan. Republicans could be, as it happens, ruder than most. But despite Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, acclaimed author Zadie Smith, and actors Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, and Thandie Newton—to name but a few—the general American image of Britain (particularly outside the big cities) remains ossified in a time before the large-scale migration of Black people to Britain following the Second World War. (My parents came from Barbados in the early 1960s.) When I wrote an article for The Washington Post about being Black and British in the US, it ran alongside a picture of a Black man in a bowler hat carrying an umbrella in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.

More here.

The end of crypto’s “Wild West”?

Adam Tooze over at his substack Chartbook:

Bitcoin has no reason to exist. It delivers no meaningful benefit for society. It is a form of gambling, propelled by naked greed and generating vast quantities of CO2 emissions.

This was the uncompromising and hostile position towards crypto taken on behalf of the ECB by Executive Board member Fabio Panetta in December 2021, a campaign which Panetta continues today…

Panetta’s stance is the hard edge of what amounts to a global push to regulate the crypto currency business, a push which has gathered significant pace in recent months.

China has taken the lead by going a long way towards banning both the use of crypto as a means of payment and bitcoin mining. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Nepal have followed China’s lead.

Countries that have restricted the ability of banks to deal with crypto-assets or prohibited their use for payment transactions include Nigeria, Namibia, Colombia, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam and Russia.

In the financial centers of the West, in EU, UK and US, regulators, politicians and lobbyists are jostling to decide what will be the rules of the game.

It seems that we have reached a turning point in the development of the industry. For many this is the end of the “Wild West” phase of crypto’s development.

More here.

Orlam by PJ Harvey

Liz Berry at The Guardian:

A novel-in-verse written in dense Dorset vernacular, Orlam is a curious and enchanting thing. Like a dark poetic almanac, it charts, month by month, a year in which its heroine, nine-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles, leaves behind the innocence of her childhood.

Orlam takes the reader by the hand, with each poem laid out opposite its “standard” translation and an abundance of footnotes to illuminate a hoard of folklore. This doubling slows down the reader who cares to be slowed, allowing them to puzzle out the dialect words and the way they change the poems.

Ira’s world is a magical realist outpost of the West Country where PJ Harvey grew up. Conjured through tightly rhyming poems, often taking the form of songs or incantations, the village of Underwhelem appears: “Voul village in a hag-ridden hollow. / All ways to it winding, all roads to it narrow.”

more here.


The Witchery of Mallacoota

Evelyn Juers at The Sydney Review of Books:

Natural history is deeply rooted in, and benefits from, connections between the personal and the scientific. There is a blog called ‘Cassin’s Sparrow – Why Blog About Cassin’s Sparrow?’ which explains that there is plenty of information on birds but less on ‘the story of how we know’ about them, ‘the historic, cultural, political, and scientific processes behind their discovery…[and] this blog tries to fill that gap’, as well as ascertaining ‘what Cassin’s Sparrow can teach us about life on Earth’ and ‘why it matters to know these things’. The author is John Schnase, an American biologist and computer scientist who calls Cassin’s Sparrow his ‘sherpa bird’. ‘Its plaintive song and spectacular skylarks have been a constant source of solace and joy in my life’. Similarly, Alec Chisholm’s observations, vivid descriptions, and emotional attachments to birds and locations are part of a larger ornithological and cultural history.

Chisholm’s favourites included the extremely elusive, also called ‘cryptic’, ground-dwelling Rufous Scrub-birds, that he first saw in Queensland’s Lamington National Park and described as ‘quiet in plumage’ with ‘resonant voices’.

more here.

‘The Premonitions Bureau’ Recounts Crowdsourcing the Supernatural

Dwight Garner in The New York Times:

Gabriel García Márquez would not sleep in a house if someone had died in it. Colette was passionate about dowsing. James Merrill had his Ouija board. Ted Hughes taught Sylvia Plath to read horoscopes. Robert Graves believed in ghosts. If Edmund Wilson had a dream about you, he’d call you to mull it over.

Most of us sense, at times, that there are parts of the electromagnetic spectrum not accessible with the tools at hand. Moments manifest as auguries, as kismet, as a sense that God has glanced at us or, conversely, that we have been silently brushed by demons.

Coincidence can provide shivers of this sort. G.K. Chesterton called coincidences “spiritual puns.” Don DeLillo, in “Libra,” wrote, “A shrewd person would one day start a religion based on coincidence, if he hasn’t already, and make a million.”

Intuitions collect intensely around disasters. Inevitably there is the man who slept late and missed the crashed jet, the woman who saw the tsunami coming in a dream or the teen who had an urge to hit the floor before the first rounds left the semiautomatic rifle. Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, spooked a generation by writing, shortly before Sept. 11, a song that included the lyrics “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad, sad songs.”

More here.

The Collateral Damage of Queen Elizabeth’s Glorious Reign

Sam Knight in The New Yorker:

The Queen is the only royal who actually matters or does anything. That’s not fair, of course, but the monarchy is unfairness personified and glorified, long to reign over us. Naturally, the rest of the Royal Family—the heirs; the spares; Princess Michael of Kent, whose father was in the S.S. and whom Diana nicknamed the Führer; Princess Anne, Charles’s younger sister, who’s known to feed the chickens in a ballgown and Wellington boots after a night at the palace—are all busy. They have numberless engagements and causes, which fill their identical, repeating years, but they exist only as heralds for the magical authority of the Crown, which resides in the Queen and nobody else. “They are high-born scaffolding,” as Tina Brown, a former editor of The New Yorker, writes in “The Palace Papers,” her latest chronicle of the unhappy House of Windsor. The Queen decides. She elevates. She exiles. The rest of them sweat: about their annual allowance; their ridiculously discounted rents on apartments in Kensington Palace; the granting of a weekend cottage on the grounds of Sandringham; their access to the balcony of Buckingham Palace for big photo ops; their entry to the Knights of the Garter, a reward for not fucking things up too badly; their Instagram followers; today’s ghastliness in the MailOnline.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Kookaburras

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

by Mary Oliver
from New and Selected Poems
Beacon Press, 1992


Why is everyone suddenly talking about tanning their testicles?

Stuart Ritchie in his Substack newsletter, Science Fictions:

Let’s start with something everyone agrees on: the world’s fertility rate has declined. Whether you’re in a low-, middle-, or high-income country, with few exceptions the “total fertility rate”—the number of children per woman—dropped pretty precipitously across the latter part of the 20th Century.

The vast majority of this decline has absolutely nothing to do with testosterone. The main reason for it is economic development: people tend to have fewer children as they and their countries become richer – and that’s incredibly good news. Other things that lower the fertility rate are also related to progress and prosperity: education (particularly of women), urbanisation, the availability of contraception, and so on.

But there also might be negative trends in fecundity – meaning a person’s biological ability to have kids, as opposed to simply whether they have kids or not (the latter being what people call “fertility”). It would be more worrying if fecundity was dropping, because that would take the choice of whether to have kids out of many people’s hands.

More here.

COVID is spreading in deer. What does that mean for the pandemic?

Smriti Mallapaty in Nature:

Researchers have worked with hunters for decades as part of regular wildlife surveillance to manage deer populations and track the spread of infectious diseases, such as chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis. But these days, the scientists are also looking for the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

In between estimating a deer’s age by checking teeth and taking antler measurements, researchers wearing masks and gloves wipe mud and grass from around the animal’s nostrils before inserting a swab to test for viral RNA. They then collect blood to check for antibodies against the virus. Their work has uncovered widespread infection in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in North America, with hundreds of infected animals in 24 US states and several Canadian provinces.

Scientists want to understand how the virus gets into deer, what happens as it spreads among them, and what risk these infections might pose for other wildlife and for humans. Close to 30 million deer live in the United States — one for every 10 people — and a few million live in Canada.

More here.

Against the College Admissions Essay: The SAT might have flaws, but the college essay is much worse

Jeff Maurer in Persuasion:

I have no special love for the SAT. Aside from the fact that my test came back with a big, red, “NO HARVARD FOR YOU, DUMMY” stamped on it, it always seemed a bit arbitrary. After all: Why should my eligibility for college depend on knowing words like “nefarious” and “egregious”? That seems…there must be a better word for this…crappy. We know that SAT scores correlate with household income, and evidence suggests that studying helps a bit, and though I’m not ready to join those who view the SAT as history’s most biased test that doesn’t involve phrenology, I agree that the test has flaws.

But you don’t have to love the SAT to feel that the absolute last thing we should do if we care about fairness is to increase the relative importance of the college application essay. College essays make Tinder profiles look like sworn court testimony from Lincoln himself. Every alleged problem with the SAT—that it’s arbitrary, that it privileges kids with resources, that it can be gamed—is magnified by a factor of ten in the essay. And, as colleges move away from requiring the SAT, we should consider whether it’s wise to give more weight to an application component that makes about as much sense as having a swimsuit round for federal judgeships.

More here.

No Stone Unturned

Farah Abdessamad at berfrois:

Like German author Judith Schalansky, I like paying attention to maps. They are time-stamps, relics and quantifiable measure, and, generally, works of art. Unlike Schalansky though, who wrote an entire Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands (2010) about fifty islands she has “not visited and never will”, I gravitate towards rock more than sand – a cinematic universe of desaturated hues, greyscale, dimmed light and eroded matter to match the incongruity of life itself.

Things that are collapsing attract me more than a fantasised mythology of immortal coral, sea and tacky sunscreen. They reflect a necessity for nature and humans to peacefully coexist, testifying that even extravagant dreams of megastructures are bound to dissolve with time. Stones are humbling. When I stand in front of ruins, I mourn shattered hubris – with a tinge of schadenfreude sometimes. “Paradise may be beautiful, but it’s not interesting”, Schalansky wrote. It’s an elusive statement that lacks originality, but it’s one with which I agree to some extent, ruminating about what paradise truly means and entails.

more here.

The Right to Leave

Stephanie DeGooyer at Lapham’s Quarterly:

In 1816 an American lawyer named J.F. Dumoulin wrote Thomas Jefferson a letter to thank him for his hospitality during a recent visit to the former president’s Monticello plantation. As a token of gratitude, Dumoulin enclosed a treatise he had written about naturalization and expatriation. The essay denounced Britain for holding fast to the feudal doctrine of perpetual allegiance, which denied individuals the right to change their nationality. In his reply Jefferson praised Dumoulin, whose opinions on emigration closely matched his own. Why would any man, he wrote, “feel any obligation to die by disease or famine in one country, rather than go to another where he can live?” Every person has just as much “right to live on the outside of an artificial geographical line as he has to live within it.”

With hindsight, historical ideas often appear commonsensical or even passé. Twenty-first-century students look back on the suffrage movement as merely the imperfect beginning of progressive agitation for women’s rights.

more here.

Sounds Wild and Broken – a moving paean to Earth’s fraying soundtrack

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Lockdown was, among other things, a sudden collective experiment in volume control. Sound waves from the regular rush-hour thrum of cities usually penetrate more than a kilometre below the Earth’s surface. When Covid-19 forced humans inside, seismologists noticed the muzak of their subterranean instruments was quieted. The ancient rock of our planet came closer to the silence that it had known for nearly all of the first 4bn years of its existence. And the relative stillness was felt on the surface, too. People noticed voices from beyond the human world a little more readily, and those voices felt less need to shout to be heard. Scientists in San Francisco discovered that the city’s sparrows reverted to softer and lower pitched songs of a kind not heard since the invention of the freeway.

Biology professor David George Haskell’s often wonderful book is all about listening to those kinds of lost frequencies. It is a sort of rigorous scientific update on that 1960s imperative to “tune in and turn on”: a reminder that the narrow aural spectrum on which most of us operate, and the ways in which human life is led, blocks out the planet’s great, orchestral richness. Haskell’s previous acclaimed book, The Forest Unseen, was a thrillingly curious investigation of the life of one square metre of ancient Tennessee woodland. This new volume gives you the experience of closing your eyes in such a space and having your senses flooded with the background cacophony.

More here.

New generation of cancer-preventing vaccines could wipe out tumors before they form

Jocelyn Kaiser in Science:

Vaccines to prevent certain types of cancer already exist. They target viruses: hepatitis B virus, which can trigger liver cancer, and human papillomavirus, which causes cervical and some other cancers. But most cancers are not caused by viruses. The Lynch vaccine trial will be one of the first clinical tests of a vaccine to prevent nonviral cancers.

The idea is to deliver into the body bits of proteins, or antigens, from cancer cells to stimulate the immune system to attack any incipient tumors. The concept isn’t new, and it has faced skepticism. A decade ago, a Nature editorial dismissed a prominent breast cancer advocacy group’s goal of developing a preventive vaccine by 2020 as “misguided,” in part because of the genetic complexity of tumors. The editorial called the goal an “objective that science cannot yet deliver.” But now, a few teams—including one funded by the same advocacy group, the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC)—are poised to test preventive vaccines, in some cases in healthy people at high genetic risk for breast and other cancers. Their efforts have been propelled by new insights into the genetic changes in early cancers, along with the recognition that because even nascent tumors can suppress the immune system, the vaccines should work best in healthy people who have never had cancer.

More here.

Friday Poem

Playing the Chances

Let me, in fancy, enter the womb again
take that precipitant plunge into life
one particular sperm, one particular egg
one chance, one blind collision—

Let me be that minute explosion
of life creating itself,
let me know womb and water and warmth
and dark and swimming and growing
and infant born.

Let me become—cell by cell, division by
division, moving moving becoming more
inexorable growing destined for the
mountain shaking birthing day.

From one spasmodic incident
from minute speck of egg and sperm
with urgency to grow
and here am I

still becoming me—growing
still becoming me dying
passing life on through me

O let me in fancy enter the womb again
and for an instant taste life emergent
coming through playing the chances.

by Betty Lockwood
The Matriarch’s Song
publisher Peter E. Randall
Portsmouth, NH, 2001