The Power of Bad Ideas


Michael McCarthy review Fred Block and Margaret Somers's The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique by in Boston Review:

Karl Polanyi is far less well known than the big three of economics: Marx, Keynes, and Hayek. But Polanyi’s ideas are distinct. Like Marx, he viewed capitalist markets as harmful and a source of social catastrophe. But unlike Marx, he thought they were necessary. Like Keynes, he rejected a zero-sum approach to politics, arguing instead that working-class gains could be achieved alongside business gains. Unlike Keynes, he rejected technocratic politics in which well-trained bureaucrats manage an economy. Instead, Polanyi favored a politics of direct democracy that emphasizes the active political contention and mobilization of all the different segments of society. Finally, he stands in starkest contrast to Hayek. Polanyi challenges the choice between free markets and regulated markets as a false one. Not only are efforts to impose free markets destructive, the assumption that markets can, in principle, be free has never been true, nor could it be.

Yet the free market axiom is now widespread, notwithstanding glaring and recurrent market failures. Once the ideological stomping grounds of the Republican and Tory right, it now forms the rhetorical bedrock of policy paradigms across the Western world. And the neoliberal project to realize this political utopia seems to have advanced since the 2008 crash. In The Power of Market Fundamentalism (hereafter TPMF) Fred Block and Margaret Somers revive Polanyi to analyze the free market’s origins and staying power.

Polanyi’s key work, The Great Transformation(1944), demonstrates that markets and states are not separate entities, each with its unique and endogenous dynamics. Instead they are inescapably intertwined and mutually constitutive. Markets, in neoclassical economics, are theoretical abstractions that barely reflect reality. From a Polanyian view, what the price mechanism captures so elegantly is not how the market actually works, but rather the belief that markets can be autonomous and, if left alone, will obey natural laws of supply and demand that generate positive equilibria, a belief that Block and Somers call social naturalism. This approach to economic activity is not unlike the way the biological sciences explain how living organisms know when to heal a wound or the way the laws of physics account for orbiting planets.

Block and Somers’s unique contribution is to argue that these public narratives about the economy are key drivers of regulatory policy. Why, for instance, did free market ideals, revived under Reagan and Clinton, weather the storm of the Great Recession, while policies adopted after World War II—policies rooted in people’s connectedness and the public good—are long lost? Free market narratives have immense cultural power; the popular rhetoric about the economy plays into centuries-old ways of thinking about the economy and indeed into people’s very sense of identity. And this power explains why the free-market policy paradigm is so persistent.

More here.

The Foreign Spell


Pico Iyer in Lapham's Quarterly (Image: Spring Time, from The Lost Paintings Series, by Taner Ceylan, 2013. Oil on canvas, 55 ½ x 82 ¾ inches.):

The foreign has long been my stomping ground, my sanctuary, as one who grew up a foreigner wherever I happened to be. Born to Indian parents in Oxford, England, I was seven when my parents moved to California; by the third grade, I was a foreigner on all three of the continents that might have claimed me—a little Indian boy with an English accent and an American green card. Foreignness became not just my second home, but my theme, my fascination, a way of looking at every place as many locals could not. As some are born with the blessing of beauty or a musical gift, as some can run very fast without seeming to try, so I was given from birth, I felt, the benefit of being on intimate terms with outsiderdom.

It’s fashionable in some circles to talk of Otherness as a burden to be borne, and there will always be some who feel threatened by—and correspondingly hostile to—anyone who looks and sounds different from themselves. But in my experience, foreignness can as often be an asset. The outsider enjoys a kind of diplomatic immunity in many places, and if he seems witless or alien to some, he will seem glamorous and exotic to as many others. In open societies like California, someone with Indian features such as mine is a target of positive discrimination, as strangers ascribe to me yogic powers or Vedic wisdom that couldn’t be further from my background (or my interest).

Besides, the very notion of the foreign has been shifting in our age of constant movement, with more than fifty million refugees; every other Torontonian you meet today is what used to be called a foreigner, and the number of people living in lands they were not born to will surpass 300 million in the next generation. Soon there’ll be more foreigners on earth than there are Americans. Foreignness is a planetary condition, and even when you walk through your hometown—whether that’s New York or London or Sydney—half the people around you are speaking in languages and dealing in traditions different from your own.

Yet for all the global culture and busy crossroads we might share, it’s treacherous to assume these imply common values or assumptions.

More here.

The Digital Einstein Papers

Over at Princeton University Press:

The Digital Einstein Papers is an exciting new free, open-access website that puts The Collected Papers of

Albert Einstein online for the very first time, bringing the writings of the twentieth century’s most influential scientist to a wider audience than ever before. This unique, authoritative resource provides full public access to the complete transcribed, annotated, and translated contents of each print volume of The Collected Papers. The volumes are published by Princeton University Press, sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and supported by the California Institute of Technology. The Digital Einstein—launched in December 2014 with the contents of Volumes 1–13 of The Collected Papers, covering the first forty-four years of Einstein’s life, up to and including the award of the Nobel prize in physics and his long voyage to the Far East. The contents of each new volume will be added to the website approximately eighteen months after print publication. Eventually, the website will provide access to all of Einstein’s writings and correspondence accompanied by scholarly annotation and apparatus, which are expected to fill thirty volumes.

The Digital Einstein Papers features advanced search technology and allows users to easily navigate between the original languages in which the texts were written and their English translation, as well as extensive explanatory footnotes and introductory essays. The website also contains links to the Einstein Archives Online, where there are thousands of high-quality digital images of Einstein’s writings.

More here.

No Control


Ari Paul in Souciant (via Doug Henwood):

Brown wasn’t killed by fancy military weaponry but with a simple pistol. Eric Garner, the Staten Island man whose killing by an NYPD officer this year has furthered the anti-police outrage, was choked to death with a man’s bare hands. Protests against police may bring out the heavy artillery, but the incidents that spark the unrest involve police in their civilian ideal.

The real problem is unseen. It’s in the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file. And more troublingly, it’s a reflection of anxieties in American culture.

Kristian Williams, an activist with the Committee Against Political Repression and author of Our Enemies In Blue: Police and Power in America, explained in a phone interview that Americans have tended to focus on aspects of militarization easily seen, but the mentality of the police force began to change dramatically in response to the upheaval of the 1960s. “There was a move toward community policing, a reorganization of police departments away from the model of individual cops, ones and twos on patrol more or less at random around the city, and more toward things like strategic deployment, and organizing police into platoons,” he said. “One of the results of that was that police self-identified as a military apparatus, as sort of a domestic soldier.”

That hasn’t just changed the nature of law enforcement where citizens are regarded as potential enemy combatants, where social inequities are viewed simply as breeding conditions for a new front line, rather than something to be addressed with public services. Unionization, Williams told me, also led to police acknowledging themselves as an independent political organization, a kind of extension of the existing law enforcement system, accountable only to cops and not pesky taxpayers or legislative oversight.

And quite unlike others unions, which had an inherently conflictual relationship with their employers, Williams said “in policing there’s vertical solidarity.” Cops are able to perpetuate the notion that they should get the benefit of the doubt because they have dangerous jobs, because that mythology also allows department heads to insist on more funding and staff. By contrast, job titles with higher at-work fatality rates don’t carry the same kind of mythology, because while new safety regulations would benefit construction workers, they would stifle surplus value extraction for company owners.

Bolstering the cops’ hand is prevalent public fear of crime, despite the various metrics showing that the United States has gotten safer since the 1980s.

More here. Also see Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic here.

The idea of “police reform” obscures the task. Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will. Likely they are much more. It is often said that it is difficult to indict and convict police officers who abuse their power. It is comforting to think of these acquittals and non-indictments as contrary to American values. But it is just as likely that they reflect American values. The three most trusted institutions in America are the military, small business, and the police.

The Curious Legacies of the Brothers Grimm


Richard Marshall in 3:AM Magazine:

Nabakov on Kafka (approximately):’Kafka’s private nightmare was that the central human character belongs to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around him. Kafka’s tragedy was his struggle to climb out of that world and into the world of humans. This is what killed him.’

The tales given to the world by the Grimms read as correlatives of that Kafkaesque struggle. Their ugly beauty is hasped to pity facing charmless, evil days. They are tales with uncanny insect voices living at their boundaries, each an impression of terror, misery, hatred, logic, cancellation, prohibition, fertility, growth, illness, potential, animals, children, cellars, schools, swarms, sex, death, revenge, possession and known via a sort of telepathy nuanced into reading but expanding from the inside-outside of an open mouth to dust. Why pity? Because beauty dies. These tales are of a stranger life than the one that needs respectable sanities.

If there is an erstwhile hope that all would be physics and art it’s a hope that is a force from out some other place, one where faith healers, witches, magic and engineers of body-hair, frogs’ eyes and blood droplets conjugate verbs and kill victims to materialize it. What the open mouth tells is in a supercharged vernacular of spatial patterns of wholeness and simultaneity. This works like a language of divorce, one that includes everything in the very process of division and severance. Everything is hyphenated and so simultaneously conjoined and separated, or like Manley Hopkins’ word ‘buckled’ from his ‘The Windhover’, just a single world both ‘joined up’ and ‘broken apart’ braced at a poem’s spine. These doubled selves rip up and shape-shift to fathom themselves, like sigils of a daemon. The unforgettable equation that Ted Hughes calculates to reveal the device of Shake-speare’s own name – ‘On the catastrophe and heel of pastime’ becoming ‘The point and impact of the tempered word’ to ‘The shock and spear of will’ enables Shakespeare, having ‘converted the parts of his name to active images, as in the ‘Sonnets’ and ‘As You Like It’,’ to develop this heraldic device ‘… as a structural means of expressing his antithetical selves as a dialectical ‘system’ in iconic form…’ which , as we hear in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ gifts us;
‘union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.’

The Grimms have been appropriated by U.S. America because defying the inhuman is as urgent there as anywhere else and its unhinged power leaves behind the innocent and the beaten. What Zipes has done in these two books is remind us that there’s a need for the naked struggle of Kafka, where speech goes to extremes without strategy, without masks, without calculation. The tales of this first edition are as much a part of an old weird Americana as bluesman Howling Wolf singing ‘Going Down Slow’ where, as Greil Marcus notes; ‘… decent people they will have to conceal as much envy as delight…’:

‘Go dig a hole in the meadow, good people
Go dig a hole in the ground
Come around all you good people
And see this poor rounder go down.’

More here.

Indifference is a Power


Lary Wallace in Aeon (Photo by Raymond Depardon/Magnum):

[I]ndifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.

If we can’t always go to our philosophers for an understanding of Stoicism, then where can we go? One place to start is theUrban Dictionary. Check out what this crowdsourced online reference to slang gives as the definition of a ‘stoic’:
Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.
Group of kids are sitting on a porch. Stoic walks by.
Kid – ‘Hey man, yur a fuckin faggot an you suck cock!’
Stoic – ‘Good for you.’
Keeps going.

You’ve gotta love the way the author manages to make mention of a porch in there, because Stoicism has its root in the word stoa, which is the Greek name for what today we would call a porch. Actually, we’re more likely to call it a portico, but the ancient Stoics used it as a kind of porch, where they would hang out and talk about enlightenment and stuff. The Greek scholar Zeno is the founder, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius the most famous practitioner, while the Roman statesman Seneca is probably the most eloquent and entertaining. But the real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus', consisting of two short works, theEnchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; hisMeditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).

More here.

A Brand New World In Which Men Ruled

Jodi Kantor in the NYTimes (via Longreads):

Top_1920In the history of American higher education, it is hard to top the luck and timing of the Stanford class of 1994, whose members arrived on campus barely aware of what an email was, and yet grew up to help teach the rest of the planet to shop, send money, find love and navigate an ever-expanding online universe.

They finished college precisely when and where the web was stirring to life, and it swept many of them up, transforming computer science and philosophy majors alike into dot-com founders, graduates with uncertain plans into early employees of Netscape, and their 20-year reunion weekend here in October into a miniature biography of the Internet…

The reunion told a more particular strand of Internet history as well. The university, already the most powerful incubator in Silicon Valley, embarked back then on a bold diversity experiment, trying to dismantle old gender and racial barriers. While women had traditionally lagged in business and finance, these students were present for the creation of an entirely new field of human endeavor, one intended to topple old conventions, embrace novel ways of doing things and promote entrepreneurship…

Yet instead of narrowing gender gaps, the technology industry created vast new ones, according to interviews with dozens of members of the class and a broad array of Silicon Valley and Stanford figures. “We were sitting on an oil boom, and the fact is that the women played a support role instead of walking away with billion-dollar businesses,” said Kamy Wicoff, who founded a website for female writers.

Read the rest here.

Top Science Longreads of 2014

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Ed_Yong_Not_Exactly_Rocket_Every year, I pick my favourite science features—or ‘longreads’, as they have been rebranded as—from the previous 12 months. It’s always hard. Despite much hand-wringing about how the internet is killing journalism/reading/attention/civilisation, I see a constant stream of great long pieces, written by writers who are at the top of their game, and published by organisations willing to pay well. So, without further ado, here are my favourite dozen from the year, and a dozen more runners-up. In no particular order:

1) One of a Kind, by Seth Mnookin, for The New Yorker. A magnificently told, and often heartbreaking, story about a family trying to solve their son’s unique genetic mystery.

“That fall, Bertrand was rushed to the emergency room after suffering a series of life-threatening seizures. When the technicians tried to start an I.V., they found Bertrand’s veins so scarred from months of blood draws that they were unable to insert a needle. Later that evening, when Cristina was alone with Matt, she broke down in tears. “What have we done to our child?” she said. “How many things can we put him through?” As one obscure genetic condition after another was ruled out, the Mights began to wonder whether they would ever learn the cause of their son’s agony. What if Bertrand was suffering from a disorder that was not just extremely rare but entirely unknown to science?”

2) How “Titanic” is helping a South Pacific tribe understand why their island is disappearing, by Brooke Jarvis, for Matter. In this beautiful, moving piece, Jarvis meets the people most affected by climate change.

“A large, brown bone washed against my calf. At first I thought it belonged to some sort of marine mammal, maybe a dugong, and picked it up. But then I saw what was clearly a human jaw, five teeth still embedded in the bone, in the water next to me. I stared at the bone in my hand, shocked to realize that I was gripping a person’s femur. Once I started to see them, it seemed there were bones everywhere. Vertebrae swirled around my feet.”

More here.

What is the value of toleration?

Piers Benn in Prospect:

ToleanceMany people living in liberal societies take it for granted that toleration and freedom of expression are positives. They support the view that no one has the right to impose their political, religious or moral views on others; that almost all views have the right to be heard, and especially, that no one should be hounded by the law, censored or ostracised simply for holding certain beliefs. Yet today as much as ever, free expression is under threat when it comes to matters deemed “sensitive.” Index on Censorship reports numerous recent cases. In September over 30 student organisations at Yale University protested against the inclusion of the campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali in its visiting speaker programme, on the grounds that, as a vocal apostate from Islam, her words might be offensive to Muslim ears. The Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley recently sent a memo to students, saying that free speech should be qualified by “civility”, meaning that it should be permitted only in so far as it allowed others to feel “safe and respected” [my italics]—two words which are, of course, not synonymous. And in Turkey, where the curious crime of “insulting the Turkish Nation” is already on the statute book, people who “insult” the President can also find themselves in trouble. The list goes on.

Of course, many liberal minded people are appalled by these restrictions. But others worry that their support for toleration comes from a general “non-judgmental attitude”, a lack of personal conviction, or even a relativistic denial that there is such a thing as the truth about, say, religious or ethical matters. For this reason, in the eyes of some critics, toleration is merely another name for indifference.

More here.

It might be possible to restore lost memories

From KurzweilAI:

Synapse1New UCLA research indicates that lost memories can be restored, offering hope for patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. For decades, most neuroscientists have believed that memories are stored at the synapses — the connections between brain cells, or neurons — which are destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease. The new study provides evidence contradicting the idea that long-term memory is stored at synapses. “Long-term memory is not stored at the synapse,” said David Glanzman, a senior author of the study, and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. “The nervous system appears to be able to regenerate lost synaptic connections. If you can restore the synaptic connections, the memory will come back. It won’t be easy, but I believe it’s possible.” The findings were published recently in eLife, a highly regarded open-access online science journal.

Glanzman’s research team studies a type of marine snail called Aplysia to understand the animal’s learning and memory. The Aplysia displays a defensive response to protect its gill from potential harm, and the researchers are especially interested in its withdrawal reflex and the sensory and motor neurons that produce it.They enhanced the snail’s withdrawal reflex by giving it several mild electrical shocks on its tail. The enhancement lasts for days after a series of electrical shocks, which indicates the snail’s long-term memory. Glanzman explained that the shock causes the hormone serotonin to be released in the snail’s central nervous system. Long-term memory is a function of the growth of new synaptic connections caused by the serotonin, said Glanzman, a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. As long-term memories are formed, the brain creates new proteins that are involved in making new synapses. If that process is disrupted — for example by a concussion or other injury — the proteins may not be synthesized and long-term memories cannot form. (This is why people cannot remember what happened moments before a concussion.)

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Another Day Without an Uprising

everything that's wrong
looms before us, everything
we want seems just
out of reach, a dream
of a garden and you
lower yourself into life
ripe, moist, joyful but
beyond the gate, poison
lurks sneering, strutting
around the bend and
taking up far too much space.
I'm holding this object
wondering about you and
the uprising, the fertile ground
the seeds, the waiting furrow and
the water flowing, the tears
irrigating this heart felt plot
this ground where vibrancy
overwhelms the darkness just
outside the boundary of
the swamp, on that hill
attended by so many empty
hands and the tight closed fists
of your worst nightmares.
under all the ugly asphalt
beneath the dull concrete sleeps
more gardens then we can count.
all it takes to start these seeds
is the water we carry with us.

by Don Ogden
from Bad Atmosphere
Levellers Press, Amherst, MA

The World Is Not Falling Apart

Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack in Slate:’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall,Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. … The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”

As troubling as the recent headlines have been, these lamentations need a second look. It’s hard to believe we are in greater danger today than we were during the two world wars, or during other perils such as the periodic nuclear confrontations during the Cold War, the numerous conflicts in Africa and Asia that each claimed millions of lives, or the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that threatened to choke the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and cripple the world’s economy.

How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

More here.

Song without music: Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

Cynthia Haven in The Book Haven:

Auden-christmasW.H. Auden learned of the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, by telephone in August 1941, while he was staying in Rhode Island. The international call was taken by his lover Chester Kallman, who came to Auden’s bedroom and told him they would not be attending a party that evening. Then he told him why.

“Auden was stunned and grieved, not only because he had been very close to his mother all his life. He was already in a state of emotional fragility, having learned just the month before that Kallman, whom he loved and to whom he considered himself married, had been having sex with other men and meant to continue the practice,” writes Alan Jacobs,editor of Princeton University Press’ splendid critical edition of Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Thursday is only the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas – if you haven’t seen the book already (it was published last year), you still have plenty of time to find it before Twelfth Night.

Auden would later write, “When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard” – Jacobs adds, “that experience of isolation was surely made far more intense through its arriving in the midst of hopes already ruined.”

A few weeks after the death, Auden moved to my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, to begin a year of teaching (his daunting course syllabus is here). And shortly after that he was applying to the Guggenheim to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” That long poem was his attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the Roman Empire and in Jewish history, and as an eternal and ever-new event.

More here.

Mathematicians Make a Major Discovery About Prime Numbers

Erica Klarreich in Wired:

ScreenHunter_925 Dec. 23 21.30In May 2013, the mathematician Yitang Zhang launched what has proven to be a banner year and a half for the study of prime numbers, those numbers that aren’t divisible by any smaller number except 1. Zhang, of the University of New Hampshire, showed for the first time that even though primes get increasingly rare as you go further out along the number line, you will never stop finding pairs of primes that are a bounded distance apart — within 70 million, he proved. Dozens of mathematicians then put their heads together to improve on Zhang’s 70 million bound, bringing it down to 246 — within striking range of the celebrated twin primes conjecture, which posits that there are infinitely many pairs of primes that differ by only 2.

Now, mathematicians have made the first substantial progress in 76 years on the reverse question: How far apart can consecutive primes be? The average spacing between primes approaches infinity as you travel up the number line, but in any finite list of numbers, the biggest prime gap could be much larger than the average. No one has been able to establish how large these gaps can be.

“It’s a very obvious question, one of the first you might ever ask about primes,” said Andrew Granville, a number theorist at the University of Montreal. “But the answer has been more or less stuck for almost 80 years.”

This past August, two different groups of mathematicians released papers proving a long-standing conjecture by the mathematician Paul Erdős about how large prime gaps can get. The two teams have joined forces to strengthen their result on the spacing of primes still further, and expect to release a new paper later this month.

More here.

The resumption of US – Cuban relations is a real victory but Cuban workers face renewed economic liberalization with little political opening

Samuel Farber in Jacobin:

One-Month-in-Cuba-Road-CheOn December 17, 2014, Washington and Havana agreed to a pathbreaking change in a relationship that, for more than fifty years, was characterized by the United States’ efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, including the sponsorship of invasions, naval blockades, economic sabotage, assassination attempts, and terrorist attacks.

The new accord set free the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five” group held in US prisons since 1998 and, in exchange, Cuba freed the American Alan Gross and Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a previously unknown US intelligence agent imprisoned on the island for almost twenty years, in addition to over fifty Cuban political prisoners. Far more consequential are the resumption of official diplomatic relations and the significant relaxation of travel restrictions and remittances to Cuba.

The agreement covers the political normalization but not the full economic normalization of relations: that would require Congress repealing the Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996.

More here. [Thanks to Corey Robin.]

A brand new electrical phenomenon has been discovered – a huge electric field in a thin film of laughing gas

From Science Alert:

ScreenHunter_924 Dec. 23 18.23Scientists in Denmark have made a curious and awesome discovery – cooled down, solid laughing gas can contain an enormous electric field.

The discovery occurred when physicists at Aarhus University were observing how electrons travel through nitrous oxide, or 'laughing gas', frozen to minus 233 degrees Celsius. When brought down to this temperature, the gas formed a thin, solid film, about one tenth of a micron thick, hovering over a strip of gold.

It was supposed to be a routine experiment, but the team soon realised something was amiss. A potential of around 14.5 volts appeared spontaneously on the film, which in turn produced an enormous electrical field of more than 100 million volts per metre. Based on widely accepted notions in physics, there should have been no electric current whatsoever.

“They came upstairs and knocked on my door, saying ‘David, there's something not right’. At first we thought the experiment had gone wrong, because it wasn't supposed to be possible for a current to pass through the film and be detected. No external voltage was applied,” physicist David Field told Lise Brix at ScienceNordic.

Further testing confirmed that what they’d found is a brand new electrical phenomenon, which Field is calling ‘spontelectric’. The team has published their findings in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.

More here. [Thanks to Steve Chasen.]