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The task of politics today is to scare the capitalists as much as communism did

Let us try to change that today, for I come not to bury communism but to praise it – or rather, one aspect of it that gets next to no recognition. On its own terms, “really existing socialism” was a miserable failure: brutally repressive to its own peoples and ultimately unable to compete with capitalist economies. Yet it achieved something else that its own politburos and planners never intended – an achievement that represents one of our era’s greatest paradoxes. Communism didn’t topple capitalism, but kept it honest – and so saved it from itself.

The very presence of a powerful rival ideology frightened capitalists into sharing their returns with workers and the rest of the society, in higher wages, more welfare spending and greater public investment. By sending tanks into Prague in 1968, Leonid Brezhnev may have crushed the dream of “socialism with a human face”; but he and other Soviet general secretaries forced capitalism to become less inhumane. Conversely, the collapse of communism between 1989 and 1991 has left capitalism unchallenged and untempered – and increasingly unviable. The challenge of our time, whether in the UK’s general election or next year’s US presidential contest, is to build a political movement that can restrain a system spinning madly out of control. Link

White noise

Late last year Spotify presented me with my Top 100 most listened to tracks of 2018 and, as ever when I’m presented with some unknown version of myself, I couldn’t wait to analyse it. Like a dog returning to its vomit, nothing fascinates me more than my own alien excretions. I could spend the rest of my life contorting my brain to view tagged pictures of myself, attempting to understand how others see me. But there it was, above the other great heroes of my year, Leonard Cohen and Ariana Grande. In the number one spot was White Noise. Not just White Noise – “White Noise For Babies”. I had listened to nothing all year as much as I had listened to flat soundscapes designed to soothe infants.

I first came to white noise shortly after I moved to London from Dublin. I left Ireland in a hurry, with no good plans in place, no real reason to have come, and so lived for two years in a constant stressful flux. I worked temp jobs, I sub-let my bedroom, I relied on the generosity of my best friend to top up my Oyster card when I had nothing left. I felt flayed. London left nothing to the imagination. Link

Dutch influence still echoes across contemporary American life

When his children were at preschool in Hackensack, New Jersey, building restorer and historian Tim Adriance taught them a simple nursery rhyme. Although it has a Dutch name – Trip a Trop a Tronjes (“The Father’s Knee is a Throne”) – the song can be sung in English too, making it easy for them to learn. Soon, Adriance remembers, their whole class, mostly Filipino and African American boys and girls, were enthusiastically chanting along.

None of this seems unusual unless you know the song’s history. Remarkably, Trip a Trop a Tronjes was first sung on American shores in the 1600s, before the United States even existed, when Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam – now New York – and built farms in the surrounding countryside. Centuries later, the song has survived through Tim Adriance and Dutch-Americans like him, passed on to immigrant children who reached New Jersey in a different age.

This is part of a far larger, mostly unexplored story. New Amsterdam was renamed centuries ago, and the hills and copses once known as New Netherland – the short-lived, 17th-Century Dutch colony in North America – now lope gently through a stretch of the US states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut. But like Trip a Trop a Tronjesin Hackensack, the old Dutch influence still echoes across contemporary American life. This is doubly true in the region the Dutch once called home: the architecture, language and culture of New Netherland influences New York today, even if most modern-day inhabitants have little idea of the history beneath their feet. Link

An ordinary bicycle’s epic journey

Bicycle-making has become one of the most complex and integrated international industries there is.

Made On Earth – a new series by BBC Future and BBC World News – looks into the everyday items that have shaped global trade routes and left a lasting imprint in cultures around the world. Link

The smart move

We all know people who have suffered by trusting too much: scammed customers, jilted lovers, shunned friends. Indeed, most of us have been burned by misplaced trust. These personal and vicarious experiences lead us to believe that people are too trusting, often verging on gullibility.

In fact, we don’t trust enough.

Take data about trust in the United States (the same would be true in most wealthy democratic countries at least). Interpersonal trust, a measure of whether people think others are in general trustworthy, is at its lowest in nearly 50 years. Yet it is unlikely that people are any less trustworthy than before: the massive drop in crime over the past decades suggests the opposite. Trust in the media is also at bottom levels, even though mainstream media outlets have an impressive (if not unblemished) record of accuracy. Link

Jeff Bezos

His Master Plan … What exactly does Jeff Bezos want? Or, to put it slightly differently, what does he believe? Given his power over the world, these are not small questions. Yet he largely keeps his intentions to himself; many longtime colleagues can’t recall him ever expressing a political opinion. To replay a loop of his interviews from Amazon’s quarter century of existence is to listen to him retell the same unrevealing anecdotes over and over.

To better understand him, I spent five months speaking with current and former Amazon executives, as well as people at the company’s rivals and scholarly observers. Bezos himself declined to participate in this story, and current employees would speak to me only off the record. Even former staffers largely preferred to remain anonymous, assuming that they might eventually wish to work for a business somehow entwined with Bezos’s sprawling concerns. Link

The woman who reshaped maths

When 46-year-old Hilda Geiringer arrived in New York with her daughter Magda, she must have felt relieved. The year was 1939. And Geiringer, as well as a talented mathematician, was a Jewish woman from Vienna.

For six years, she’d been seeking an escape from the Nazi threat in Europe. In that time, she’d fled to Turkey, been stranded in Lisbon and narrowly escaped internment at a Nazi camp. Her arrival in the US should have opened a new, and far better, chapter.

But it brought other challenges.

The first woman to teach applied mathematics at a German university, Geiringer was known as an innovative thinker who applied her mathematical insight to other sciences. But in the US, she struggled for decades to regain her status in the field. Link

The surprising benefits of being bored

Many of us lead incredibly busy lives, constantly hopping from one task to the next, and when we’re blessed with a little bit of downtime, we pick up our phones, and scroll the boredom away.

But is that the best way use of our time?

Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK says boredom is an essential part of the creative process and should be applied to our day-to-day lives. Link

Early men and women were equal, say scientists

Our prehistoric forebears are often portrayed as spear-wielding savages, but the earliest human societies are likely to have been founded on enlightened egalitarian principles, according to scientists.

A study has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, men and women tend to have equal influence on where their group lives and who they live with. The findings challenge the idea that sexual equality is a recent invention, suggesting that it has been the norm for humans for most of our evolutionary history.

Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

Dyble says the latest findings suggest that equality between the sexes may have been a survival advantage and played an important role in shaping human society and evolution. “Sexual equality is one of a important suite of changes to social organisation, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans,” he said. “It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.” Link

How slavery became America’s first big business

Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.

The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.

But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.

To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton. Link

The future of religion

Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – have supernatural aspects (animism) and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces (animatism). These must be understood and respected; human morality generally doesn’t figure significantly. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately. (An exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion, is still widely practised in hyper-modern Japan.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes enforces, moral instructions: Yahweh, Christ and Allah. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan argues it was belief in these “Big Gods” that allowed the formation of societies made up of large numbers of strangers. Whether that belief constitutes cause or effect has recently been disputed, but the upshot is that sharing a faith allows people to co-exist (relatively) peacefully. The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves. Link

The benefits of spending time alone

Loneliness has been called an epidemic of the modern era, and social isolation has been linked to all sorts of health problems, including heart disease, stroke and premature death. But there’s a difference between being socially isolated and enjoying your own company.

From stronger friendships to helping improve your focus – there’s a lot to be said for being a so-called “loner”. Ever wonder why all your best ideas come to you in the bath or on a walk? Creativity has been linked to being more reclusive, and spending time by yourself can be relaxing. Link

The Arab world in seven charts

Arabs are increasingly saying they are no longer religious, according to the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa.

The finding is one of a number on how Arabs feel about a wide range of issues, from women’s rights and migration to security and sexuality.

More than 25,000 people were interviewed for the survey – for BBC News Arabic by the Arab Barometer research network – across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories between late 2018 and spring 2019.

Here are some of the results. Link

Science has fallen apart about ‘the Mediterranean diet’

The million-dollar question in nutrition science is this: What should we eat to live a long and healthy life?

Researchers’ answers to this question have often been contradictory and confusing. But in recent decades, one diet has attracted the lion’s share of research dollars and public attention: the Mediterranean way of eating. And in 2013, its scientific cred was secured with PREDIMED, one of the most important recent diet studies published.

The study’s delicious conclusion was that eating as the Spanish, Italian, and Greeks do — dousing food in olive oil and loading up on fish, nuts, and fresh produce — cuts cardiovascular disease risk by a third. As Stanford University health researcher – and nutrition science critic – John Ioannidis put it: “It was the best. The best of the best.”

Not anymore. Last June, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine pulled the original paper from the record, issuing a rare retraction. It also republished a new version of PREDIMED, based on a reanalysis of the data that accounted for the missteps.

PREDIMED was supposed to be an example of scientific excellence in a field filled with conflicted and flawed studies. Yet it now appears to be horribly flawed. Link

Humans didn’t start out being able to digest animal milk

Dairy milk has competition. Alternative “milks” made from plants like soya or almonds are increasingly popular. These alternatives are often vegan-friendly and can be suitable for people who are allergic to milk, or intolerant of it. The runner-up in the 2018 series of The Apprentice (UK) ran a flavoured nut milk business.

But the rise of alternative milks is just the latest twist in the saga of humanity’s relationship with animal milk. This relationship dates back thousands of years, and it has had a lot of ups and downs.

When you think about it, milk is a weird thing to drink. It’s a liquid made by a cow or other animal to feed its young; we have to squirt it out of the cow’s udders to obtain it. Link

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