Society

Were you one of those reluctant mathematics students who complained, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ If so, rest assured: Michael Brooks has made a compelling case for the role mathematics has played in making ‘civilisation’ possible. If you still need convincing, he also discusses research suggesting that doing maths is good for your brain.

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The proliferation of trauma writing in the past few years is a double-edged sword. While giving public voice to subjects once relegated to the dark lessens stigma and creates agency, there is almost an expectation for women writers to reveal or perform their trauma, as well as a risk of exploitation and retraumatisation.

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Barry Jones is a proud member of the Awkward Squad, one who follows his own convictions rather than the exigencies of day-to-day government. He confesses that in Parliament, ‘I was always aiming for objectives that were seen as beyond the reach of conventional politics’. The memo about ‘the art of the possible’ clearly never reached Jones’s desk. His time as a minister between 1983 and 1990 was a strain for both him and the then prime minister, Bob Hawke. Jones recounts with some glee that Hawke once referred to him as ‘Barry Fucking Jones’.

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In her novel Frankissstein (2019) – a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) that embraces robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and transhumanism – Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘The monster once made cannot be unmade. What will happen to the world has begun.’  This observation might have served as an epigraph for her new book, 12 Bytes. Comprising twelve essays that ruminate on the future of AI and ‘Big Tech’, 12 Bytes contends that looming technological advances will demand not only resistance to the prejudices and inequalities endemic in our current social order, but also a reconsideration of what it means to be human: ‘In the next decade … the internet of things will start the forced evolution and gradual dissolution of Homo sapiens as we know it.’

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In 2016, feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed resigned from her post as professor at the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against the failure to address sexual harassment at her institution. Given that she was at the peak of her career and working in a centre she had helped to create, hers was a bold and surprising move, but also entirely consistent with her feminist politics. In one way or another, Ahmed has been writing about this decision, its causes and effects, ever since: first on her blog feministkilljoys; as an example of a ‘feminist snap’ in Living a Feminist Life (2017); in relation to diversity work in universities in What’s the Use: On the uses of use (2019); and now most directly in Complaint!, her tenth book.

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In a recent interview, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was asked whether his country was heading in what his interlocutor, the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, called ‘an illiberal direction’. Bristling, Jaishankar denied the charge. India is undergoing something quite different, he argued. It is experiencing a ‘very deep democratization’. This process might be hard for outsiders to understand, but it was positive, not problematic. After decades of rule by an English-speaking, Western-educated élite, the country was at last being governed by politicians who spoke and thought and behaved like ordinary Indians.

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Sealand calls itself a micronation. No one else does. It’s easy to see why: the ‘kingdom’ is little more than a glorified helipad. It rises from the North Sea off the coast of Suffolk like a Greek version of the letter π rendered out of concrete and steel – the sole survivor of a series of Maunsell forts built to shoot down Nazi Kriegsmarine aircraft during World War II. Abandoned by Britain in the 1950s, the fort was hijacked by pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates in the 1960s and renamed the Principality of Sealand. Bates crowned himself ‘prince regent’ and – besides firing warning shots at the Royal Navy and fighting off a coup attempt by German mercenaries – entered into a series of sketchy schemes to stay afloat. One enterprise, launched in 2000 with the help of cypherpunk Ryan Lackey, was for the Bates family to turn Sealand into the world’s first data haven: an unbreakable digital lockbox beyond the clutches of law enforcement agencies and copyright lawyers.

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Where We Swim takes the broad view on each component of its title: the ‘where’, the ‘we’, the ‘swim’. Wellington-based author Ingrid Horrocks explains that her original idea – to record a series of solo swims – was transformed when she realised such deliberate solitary excursions were ‘bracketed moments held deep within lives’ and that their contrivance ‘felt too close to the act of an explorer, or an old-school nature writer’.

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Amid the daily dramas and momentous impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to forget that, just four years ago, Australia was enduring a very different – and much less serious – kind of political crisis. In July 2017, the Australian Greens’ Scott Ludlam resigned from the Senate, having been advised that his failure to renounce his long-dormant New Zealand citizenship meant that he was a dual citizen, and in breach of section 44 of the Constitution. This kicked off a farcical procession of resignations, High Court referrals, by-elections, and countbacks. This ultimately resulted in fifteen MHRs and senators from across the political spectrum being ruled ineligible to sit in the federal parliament.

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Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

by
August 2021, no. 434

One of the disconcerting aspects of this pandemic is that there was no shortage of warnings. For decades, virologists foresaw the coincidence of urbanisation, human proximity with animals, climate change, and globalisation as ideal conditions for spreading deadly pathogens. Science journalists wrote books with titles such as The Coming Plague (Laurie Garrett) and Spillover (David Quammen), whose conclusions were amplified by TED-talking billionaires. SARS, MERS, Ebola, and swine flu were further clues. Yet come January 2020, authorities worldwide were slow, indecisive, and ill-prepared.

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