Wednesday Round Up #14

This photo in the Guardian illustrates so well the social forces, and their material approaches to society and change. The caption reads, “Protesters demanding justice for Breonna Taylor are confronted by far-right activists and self-described militia members during their march to Churchill Downs earlier Saturday.” Normally I put a photo or video to open the round up, but this time, go check out the original.

Greg already posted about the death of Graeber. But I want to also include some pieces here. David Graeber, activist scholar and public anthropologist, passed away this past week. Graeber was one of the organizing forces behind Occupy Wall Street and is credited with coining “We are the 99 percent.” He also wrote the best-selling book Debt: The First 5000 Years, and popularized the idea of “bullshit jobs.” Here are testimonials to his impact by colleagues in the New York Review of Books, David Graeber, 1961–2020.

This 2015 piece of his remains as relevant today as when he wrote it, Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life.

The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation.

More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.

Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we—or most of us, anyway—relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous.

Neural networks differentiate between Middle and Later Stone Age lithic assemblages in eastern Africa

The analyses above support many of the classical typological indicators of the transition: backed pieces, bipolar reduction, and blades all explicitly indicate the LSA; core tools, Levallois flakes, point technology, and scrapers all either indicate phases of the MSA or contra-indicate the LSA. Levallois blades and points did not reach statistical significance as indicators, and this may suggest the need to subsume these into a single ‘Levallois’ category in future analyses. There are also potential issues of non-independence: for example, experimental evidence suggests that bipolar reduction may be directly linked to the production of functionally microlithic tools [73,74]. The typology employed here does not distinguish between side- and end-scrapers, which some [e.g. 38] have argued to be another signature of the transition. Backed pieces, bipolar and blade technologies (especially the presence of bladelets) commonly, though not exclusively, focus on smaller tools sizes, which may indicate some interaction with a key change in size of lithic technology associated with the LSA, in contrast the role core tools can play in MSA assemblages. The typology employed does, however, demonstrate considerable power in discriminating between LSA and MSA assemblages, and in delineating changes within the MSA. By using a presence / absence classification, sample size is maximised, and maximum discriminatory power is achieved as a result.

Regardless of one’s confidence in the terms ‘LSA’ and ‘MSA’, the above analyses demonstrate that their current usage reflects a very real division in the data. The finding that LSA assemblages are indicated by the presence of backed pieces, bipolar technology, and blades, for example, could be re-written as: ‘the term ‘LSA’, as used by archaeologists working in eastern Africa, refers to an industrial complex marked by assemblages that contain backed pieces, bipolar technology, and blades’. The analyses reported above demonstrate that it is possible to distinguish between these polythetic industrial complexes as they have thus far been employed by archaeologists to describe variability in the lithic record. Had these analyses failed to find technological differences between assemblages labelled ‘LSA’ and ‘MSA’, the natural conclusion would have been that these terms are arbitrary and essentially meaningless. That the 2-way analyses achieve correct classification rates of almost 99% and pick out constellations of technologies that differ significantly in terms of probability of presence between the two industrial complexes suggests that the terms ‘LSA’ and ‘MSA’ remain highly valuable.

In summary, the analyses reported above employ neural networks to establish a total of 7 technologies that either distinguish between MSA and LSA assemblages or highlight changes within the MSA of MIS3-5 in eastern Africa; in doing so, they successfully classify over 94% of assemblages to the correct industry or period.

Oliver Burkeman’s last column: the eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life
I quite liked this one. Here’s an excerpt:

The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower. It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already know it won’t kill you to endure the mild agitation of getting back to work on an important creative project; initiating a difficult conversation with a colleague; asking someone out; or checking your bank balance – but you can waste years in avoidance nonetheless. (This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.)

High blood pressure and diabetes impair brain function – study

Doctors examined brain scans and medical data from 22,000 volunteers enrolled in the UK Biobank project and found significant structural changes in the grey and white matter among those with diabetes and high blood pressure.

The same individuals tended to fare worse on cognitive tests that measured their thinking speed and short-term memory, raising the possibility that the medical conditions were driving mental decline.

Why do you feel lonely? Neuroscience is starting to find answers.

“The recognition of the impact of social isolation on the rest of mental health is going to hit everyone really soon,” Tye says. “I think the impact on mental health will be pretty intense and pretty immediate.”

Yet quantifying, or even defining, loneliness is a difficult challenge. So difficult, in fact, that neuroscientists have long avoided the topic.

Loneliness, Tye says, is inherently subjective. It’s possible to spend the day completely isolated, in quiet contemplation, and feel invigorated. Or to stew in alienated misery surrounded by a crowd, in the heart of a big city, or accompanied by close friends and family. Or, to take a more contemporary example, to participate in a Zoom call with loved ones in another city and feel deeply connected—or even more lonely than when the call began.

This fuzziness might explain the curious results that came back when Tye, before publishing her first scientific paper on the neuroscience of loneliness in 2016, ran a search for other papers on the topic. Though she found studies on loneliness in the psychological literature, the number of papers that also contained the words “cells,” “neurons,” or “brain” was precisely zero.

David Graeber pushed us to imagine greater human possibilities
Another appreciation of Graeber.

There’s a section heading in a piece David published in 2018 that embodies his cheerful, insurrectionary verve: it says, simply, “Time for a re-think”. Actually it’s a collaborative work, an essay he co-wrote with his fellow anthropologist David Wengrow that is, apparently, the seed for their forthcoming book. That essay had a humorously ambitious title, “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened)”. It did so by questioning the conventional idea that human beings originated in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands and then somehow fell from grace into inequality; that small is egalitarian, and big is hierarchical; and that, since we’re 8-billion big, we’re doomed. Like so much of his work, it looked at the wild variety of human societies as an invitation to … Well, as he said in The Utopia of Rules: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” His body of work is a series of invitations to make differently.

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