Tag: Society

Air pollution: black, Hispanic and poor students most at risk from toxins study

Children are facing risks that will affect their ability to learn, says expert following study covering 90,000 schools across the US

Air pollution: black, Hispanic and poor students most at risk from toxins study

  • Children are facing risks that will affect their ability to learn
  • Study covered 90,000 schools across the US

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/feb/01/schools-across-the-us-exposed-to-air-pollution-hildren-are-facing-risks

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Mohsin Hamid on the rise of nationalism: In the land of the pure, no one is pure enough

From Myanmar to Pakistan, the US and Britain, an obsession with purity is driving political, religious and moral agendas. But a retreat from complexity is no guarantee of future harmony

Perhaps it is living half your life in Pakistan, for Pakistan is the land of the pure. Literally so: the land, stan, of the pure, pak. Perhaps that is why you have come to question the commonly held perception that purity is good and impurity is bad. For a tribe of humans newly arrived in a location never before inhabited by humans, such an outlook is perhaps sensible. Purity in a stream of water renders it fit to drink. Impurity in a piece of meat sickens those who eat it. Purity is hence to be valued and impurity to be avoided, resisted, expelled. And yet you believe the time has come to seek to reverse, at least partially, the emotional polarity of these two words, to extol impuritys benefits and denounce puritys harms.

The issue is, of course, personal. We are each of us composed of atoms, but equally we are composed by time. Since your time has been spent half inside Pakistan and half outside, and your outlook and attitudes shaped by this, you are in a sense half-Pakistani, which is to say, as Pakistan is the land of the pure, you are half-pure: an impossible state. You cannot exist as you are. Or rather, you must be impure. And if impurity is bad then you are bad. And to be bad is hazardous, in any society. So yes, the issue is personal, and pressing.

But in Pakistan, the issue is political as well, for it affects everyone. Once purity becomes what determines the rights a human being is afforded, indeed whether they are entitled to live or not, then there is a ferocious contest to establish hierarchies of purity, and in that contest no one can win. No one can ever be sufficiently pure to be lastingly safe. In the land of the pure, no one is pure enough. No Muslim is Muslim enough. And so all are suspect. All are at risk. And many are killed by others who find their purity lacking, and many of their killers are in turn killed for the same reason. And on and on, in a chain reaction. The politics of purity is the politics of fission.

This should not be surprising. Pakistan was founded by fission, the splitting of British imperial India into two separate independent states, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. And Pakistan has experienced further fission, the splitting of its western and eastern wings into Pakistan and Bangladesh. In each case, a more complex entity was broken into what was believed would be two more internally harmonious ones. But a retreat from complexity is no guarantee of future harmony. Too often, it is accompanied by the rise of a fetish for purity, the desire to exterminate lingering traces of complexity within.

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

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Neo Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Photograph: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

And what of Europe? Europe, too, is rekindling its love affair with purity, with signs of this deadly ardour everywhere, from the rise of the far right in Germany and Austria to the endless emergency in France to the ethno-national cracking of Ukraine and Spain.

And then there is Brexit, particularly saddening for you, since you are not just part-Pakistani, you are part-British (and part-European) as well. Brexit illustrates only too well the politics of fission and the unleashing of the forces of purity. First, or so it was said, the British took back control. But the Scottish and Northern Irish seemed not to want to take back control. So the English took back control from them. And also from Londoners, for London had long ceased to be properly English. And also from the young, addled in their thinking by the ever increasing numbers of the non-English in their midst. In some English newspapers today dissenters are called traitors. In Englands north-west frontier, which is to say Northern Ireland, a return to violence is feared. The ruling party is paralysed, riven by factionalism. No one is deemed pure enough, brazenly English enough, to govern. Judges, journalists, parliamentarians, citizens: everyone is suspect.

How Pakistani it all strikes you.

In these pure times, you believe more impurity is desperately needed. Only impurity can save us now. But, fortunately, there are reasons for hope. Our species was built on impurity, and impurity will probably come to our rescue once again, if we let it.

Biology is instructive here. The physical commingling of two human parents is required to produce a child. Every child is a combination of genetic material from two different sources. Every child is impure, a mix. There is a clear reason for this: it works better than the alternative. If we simply split in half to produce two humans from one, or detached a lump from our leg or from our buttock, which grew into an identical copy of us, we would all be the same. We would all be pure. But we would be much less capable of coping with the challenges of an environment that always has been, and always will be, in a state of change.

Over time, our inescapable, systemic, fundamentally human impurity gives us the capacity to do what has not been done before, to make creative leaps: in our biology, in the diseases we can resist and the foods we can digest. And in our thinking and culture and politics too. The coming together of people from different backgrounds, with different ideas, allows breakthroughs to occur. Constitutional democracy as currently practised around the world owes a great deal to America and Britain and France, but it also owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks, and to the Arabs who built on and transmitted Greek thought to a Europe where the ancient Greeks had been all but forgotten. The first aircraft was invented in America, but the physics and mathematics and engineering that made it possible came from Europe, from North Africa, from India, from China, from the collision and collection of knowledge by all of humanity.

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The coming together of people from different backgrounds, with different ideas, allows breakthroughs to occur … think of jazz. Photograph: Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

Think of jazz. Of Asia and Africas influence on European cuisine and vice versa. Of the Moors on Don Quixote. Of the foreign-born on Silicon Valley. Of the green revolution. Of cutting-edge research in medicine. These are not victories of purity, designed by cutoff, like-minded people of similar appearance and narrowly shared ancestry. These are what can be achieved when humanity mixes.

Climate change. Mass migration. Rampant inequality. None of the most pressing and daunting problems today facing humanity have simple answers. As a species, we require creative new approaches, yet-to-be-imagined leaps forward. But while we might not yet know what the solutions to these challenges are, we should already suspect from where the breakthroughs are most likely to come. They are likely to come from mongrelisation. From profound impurity. From people and ideas at risk of being suppressed and marginalised in our purity-obsessed age.

We are all impure. But because many of us deny our impurity, those who are most obviously impure among us require allies. And one of their most important allies is literature. Writing. Reading. When, sitting alone, we read a book, something profoundly strange occurs. We are by ourselves. We are only ourselves. And yet we contain within us the thoughts of another person, the writer. We become something bizarre. Something manifestly impure. A being with the thoughts of two beings inside it.

A reader, in the moment of reading, experiences a pooling of consciousness that blurs the painstakingly constructed boundaries of the unitary self. The very possibility of reading, the fact that it can occur, that a human being can experience this, the thoughts of another in the same physical place, that place so deep within, where the readers own thoughts reside and furthermore that the reader is drawn to this experience, seeks for it, desires it reminds us that the impure is fundamental to what we are, and calls out to us, powerfully, like the sea calls out to an organism that has evolved to live on the land, and yet recreates the sea inside itself, forms a watery womb, every time it conceives a child.

Writing and reading are, as sex is, a commingling. Literature is the practice of the impure. Written words might articulate demands and justifications for purity, but the fact that such words are written and read means they are, by their very nature, impure prudes perhaps, but inescapably engaged in an orgy. Writing cannot help but remind us of the power of impurity, even when some written words claim the opposite.

So yes, writing is among the most important allies of the impure, which is to say it is on the side of the mixing upon which our future ability to thrive as a species depends, and on the side of the mongrelisation that has produced each of us individuals; a mongrelisation that, if acknowledged, allows us to accept ourselves as the messy, fertile, multifaceted composites we actually are, rather than the frozen, sterile, monochromatic entities we are told to pretend to be.

(For you, of course, possibly more obviously a mongrel than many others, writing has become a way of life, the way of your life, because it was not clear to you that a life such as yours had a way without it.)

But writers are easily identified as agents of impurity. And so it does not surprise you, and should surprise none of us, that the forces of purity have identified writing and writers as in need of suppression.

These suppressions do not occur in a vacuum. For each, there is a context. Individual impurities are cited as harmful. As offensive to a set of beliefs, or to a desired cohesion, or to an economic future, or to the wellbeing of a younger generation. And then a mode of suppression is selected: a legal one, such as libel laws in Britain or lse-majest laws in Thailand or national security and official secrecy laws in America; or an extra-legal one, such as kidnapping by a drug cartel in Mexico, or a religious proclamation by a cleric in Pakistan, or the bullet fired by an assassin, anywhere, everywhere.

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Houses of Rohingyas burning in Myanmar, in September 2017. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Such suppression almost never presents itself as an attempt to end free speech in general. Rather, it focuses on the specific. Not the herd, but the lamb. Not the school, but the sardine. On this one particular case of impurity, which has gone too far, and can now, should now, be picked off, swallowed up, in a mighty gulp, never to be heard from or seen again.

Because of this merciless specificity, a scattering occurs, even among those who seek to defend the impure who are writers. You have often observed this tendency. It manifests itself in a focus on the threats to those impurities that we like, to the forms of speech we ourselves tend to value. For many in Europe, for example, this is the threat of violent Muslims against speech perceived as anti-Islam. But while this threat is real and dangerous (albeit encountered much more by writers in Asia and Africa than in Europe), it is not the only threat. Indeed it is not the largest nor the most significant one, in terms of the numbers of writers it affects and the aggregate amount of harm that befalls them. Around the world the dangers writers face come from criminals, from the powerful in their societies, and from their own governments, far more often than from Muslim terrorists.

To focus only on one form of suppression, then, while ignoring the others, runs the risk of seeking to harness indignation as a weapon, rather than as a shield. Of failing to value the impurity of writing, and instead opening a new front in the battle of one purity against another.

When we celebrate writers for their bravery, it is also worth asking if there are writers whose bravery consists, in part, of standing up not to others but to us. Standing up not to the monsters without, about whom we speak so often, but to the monsters within, which we prefer not to notice. Writers who undermine our cherished nations, militaries, borders, races, clans, beliefs.

For there are many kinds of heroes, or rather many uses for them. There are those heroes who inspire. But there are heroes, too, who remind us of our own potential for villainy, impure mirrors who reflect back at us the false purities we hide. Such writers may go unsung, understandably. But when they go unprotected, we risk losing with them the possibility for the best within us, that redemptive impurity we shall badly need in the times to come.

  • Adapted from a speech given for PEN International Free the Word! at Winternachten 2018. Mohsin Hamids novel Exit West is published by Penguin in paperback on 8 February. Illustration by Christophe Gowans.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/27/mohsin-hamid–exit-west-pen-pakistan

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The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/05/hidden-figures-black-female-scientists-african-americans-margot-lee-shetterly-space-race

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Paintings reveal early signs of cognitive decline, claims study

Psychologists believe they can identify progressive changes in the work of artists who went on to develop Alzheimers

The first subtle hints of cognitive decline may reveal themselves in an artists brush strokes many years before dementia is diagnosed, researchers believe.

The controversial claim is made by psychologists who studied renowned artists, from the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet, to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

While Monet aged without obvious mental decline, de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease more than a decade before his death in 1997.

Alex Forsythe at the University of Liverpool analysed more than 2,000 paintings from seven famous artists and found what she believes are progressive changes in the works of those who went on to develop Alzheimers. The changes became noticeable when the artists were in their 40s.

Though intriguing, the small number of artists involved in the study means the findings are highly tentative. While Forsythe said the work does not point to an early test for dementia, she hopes it may open up fresh avenues for investigating the disease.

I dont believe this will be a tool for diagnosis, but I do think it will trigger people to consider new directions for research into dementia, she said.

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William de Koonings Woman 1, 1950 and Untitled XXVIII, 1983. Composite: Alamy

The research provoked mixed reactions from other scientists. Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, described the work as a magnificent demonstration of art and science coming together. But Kate Brown, a physicist at Hamilton College in New York, was less enthusiastic and dismissed the research as complete and utter nonsense.

Forsythe and her colleagues used digital imaging software to calculate how a mathematical feature called fractal density varied in artists paintings over their careers. The seven artists included Monet, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, who all aged without obvious brain disease; Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who developed Parkinsons; and de Kooning and James Brooks, another abstract expressionist who was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 1985, seven years before his death.

Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat themselves at different size scales. They are seen in nature in the branching of trees and rivers, and in the craggy contours of coastlines. In paintings, fractals appear when patterns made by the tiniest brush strokes repeat on larger scales. The fractal dimension is a measure of fractal complexity, where an artwork with a large fractal dimension has a high ratio of fine to coarse fractal patterns.

Forsythe found that paintings varied in their fractal dimensions over an artists career, but in the case of de Kooning and Brooks, the measure changed dramatically and fell sharply as the artists aged. The information seems to be like a footprint that artists leave in their art, Forsythe said. They paint within a normal range, but when something is happening the brain, it starts to change quite radically.

Writing in the journal Neuropsychology, the scientists claim that the fractal dimensions of paintings by Monet, Picasso and Chagall tended to rise as they aged. For Dali and Morrisseaus work, the fractal dimension followed an upside-down U-shape over time, at first rising and then falling. The most stark result was seen in the works of de Kooning and Brooks, where the fractal dimension started high and dropped rapidly from the age of 40.

The work has echoes of previous studies that revealed early signs of dementia in the language used by the former US president Ronald Reagan, and the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Telltale hints of future dementia have also been spotted in autobiographical essays written by nuns in their 20s.

Taylor pioneered the use of fractals to study and even authenticate drip paintings by the late US artist Jackson Pollock. He believes Forsythes research could do the same for other artists and save museums from being conned into buying fake artworks. But he also saw more important applications. This work could hopefully be used to learn more about conditions such as dementia, he said.

To me, the most inspiring message to come out of this work is that beautiful artworks can result from pathological conditions, he said. When de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers, some critics argued that he should stop painting, but as he slipped into dementia, his artwork changed and became more simple, Taylor said.

To me, these more simple works conveyed a peacefulness that wasnt present in his nurture-dominated earlier work. It all goes to show that sometimes you can think too much about art. Sometimes you just need to tune into your inner self, the nature part, he said.

But Brown disagreed. In 2006, she co-authored a paper in Nature that disputed Taylors research. She said that sketches dashed out on her computer had the same fractal dimensions as a Pollock drip painting and might be authenticated as the real thing.

The whole premise of fractal expressionism is completely false, Brown said. Since our work came out, claims of fractals in Pollocks work have largely disappeared from peer-reviewed physics journals. But it seems that the fractal zealots have managed to exert some influence in psychology.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/29/paintings-reveal-early-signs-of-cognitive-decline-claims-study

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