Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan.

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A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan.

The second annual Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the assault on nature — opened with the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014), which flew to space on the Orionspacecraft. I chose this poem to set the tone for the show in part because it is absolutely stunning and acutely relevant to our cultural moment, and in part because the first time I read it, it sparked in me a sudden insight into the often invisible ways in which science and poetry influence and inspire one another — into how the golden threads of thought and feeling stretch and cross-hatch across disciplines to weave what we call culture.

Angelou composed the poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. In 1994, Carl Sagan delivered a beautiful speech at Cornell University, inspired by the Voyager’s landmark photograph of Earth seen for the very first time from the outer reaches of the Solar System — a now-iconic image the spacecraft took on Sagan’s spontaneous insistence before shutting off the cameras upon completion of the planned mission to photograph the outer planets.

In describing what the Voyager captured in that grainy photograph of mostly empty space, Sagan limned Earth as a “pale blue dot.” That became the moniker of the photograph itself and the title of his bestselling book published later that year, in which he wrote that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This poetic phrase imprinted itself on the popular imagination and permeated culture in the months following the book’s publication — the months during which Angelou was composing her poem. Like all great poets, she was extremely precise and deliberate about her word choice. Mote is a rather peculiar word, particularly in this cosmic context, and I can’t help but think that by using the phrase “mote of matter” in the final stanzas, Angelou was paying tribute to Sagan and to the message of the Voyager — a message about our place in the cosmic order not as something separate from and superior to nature, but as a tiny pixel-part of it, imbued with equal parts humility and responsibility.

Reading the poem at The Universe in Verse is astrophysicist Janna Levin — a recent performer of some beautiful poetry and a member, alongside Sagan, of the tiny peer group of working scientists who write about science with uncommon poetic might. Please enjoy:


We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

“A Brave and Startling Truth” was published in a commemorative booklet in 1995 and was later included in Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry (public library).

More highlights from the second annual Universe in Verse will be released at here over the coming weeks and months. For some high points of the inaugural event, see Levin’s exquisite reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, then savor the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.


What Is The “true” Human Diet?

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What Is The “true” Human Diet?

People have been debating the natural human diet for thousands of years, often framed as a question of the morality of eating other animals. The lion has no choice, but we do. Take the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, for example: “Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh!” The argument hasn’t changed much for ethical vegetarians in 2,500 years, but today we also have Sarah Palin, who wrote in Going Rogue: An American Life, “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?” Have a look at Genesis 9:3—“Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”

While humans don’t have the teeth or claws of a mammal evolved to kill and eat other animals, that doesn’t mean we aren’t “supposed” to eat meat, though. Our early Homo ancestors invented weapons and cutting tools in lieu of sharp carnivorelike teeth. There is no explanation other than meat eating for the fossil animal bones riddled with stone tool cut marks at fossil sites. It also explains our simple guts, which look little like those evolved to process large quantities of fibrous plant foods.

But gluten isn’t unnatural either. Despite the pervasive call to cut carbs, there is plenty of evidence that cereal grains were staples, at least for some, long before domestication. People at Ohalo II on the shore of the Sea of Galilee ate wheat and barley during the peak of the last ice age, more than 10,000 years before these grains were domesticated. Paleobotanists have even found starch granules trapped in the tartar on 40,000-year-old Neandertal teeth with the distinctive shapes of barley and other grains and the telltale damage that comes from cooking. There is nothing new about cereal consumption.

This leads us to the so-called Paleolithic Diet. As a paleoanthropologist I’m often asked for my thoughts about it. I’m not really a fan—I like pizza and French fries and ice cream too much. Nevertheless, diet gurus have built a strong case for discordance between what we eat today and what our ancestors evolved to eat. The idea is that our diets have changed too quickly for our genes to keep up, and the result is said to be “metabolic syndrome,” a cluster of conditions that include elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar level, obesity and abnormal cholesterol levels. It’s a compelling argument. Think about what might happen if you put diesel in an automobile built for regular gasoline. The wrong fuel can wreak havoc on the system, whether you’re filling a car or stuffing your face.

It makes sense, and it’s no surprise that Paleolithic diets remain hugely popular. There are many variants on the general theme, but foods rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids show up again and again. Grass-fed cow meat and fish are good, and carbohydrates should come from nonstarchy fresh fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, cereal grains, legumes, dairy, potatoes, and highly refined and processed foods are out. The idea is to eat like our Stone Age ancestors—you know, spinach salads with avocado, walnuts, diced turkey, and the like.

I am not a dietician and cannot speak with authority about the nutritional costs and benefits of Paleolithic diets, but I can comment on their evolutionary underpinnings. From the standpoint of paleoecology, the Paleolithic diet is a myth. Food choice is as much about what is available to be eaten as it is about what a species evolved to eat. And just as fruits ripen, leaves flush and flowers bloom predictably at different times of the year, foods available to our ancestors varied over deep time as the world changed around them from warm and wet to cool and dry and back again. Those changes are what drove our evolution.

Even if we could reconstruct the precise nutrient composition of foods eaten by a particular hominin species in the past (and we can’t), the information would be meaningless for planning a menu based on our ancestral diet. Because our world was ever changing, so, too, was the diet of our ancestors. Focusing on a single point in our evolution would be futile. We’re a work in progress. Hominins were spread over space, too, and those living in the forest by the river surely had a different diet from their cousins on the lakeshore or the open savanna.

What was the ancestral human diet? The question itself makes no sense. Consider some of the recent hunter-gatherers who have inspired Paleolithic diet enthusiasts. The Tikiġaġmiut of the north Alaskan coast lived almost entirely on the protein and fat of marine mammals and fish, whereas the Gwi San in Botswana’s Central Kalahari took something like 70 percent of their calories from carbohydrate-rich, sugary melons and starchy roots. Traditional human foragers managed to earn a living from the larger community of life that surrounded them in a remarkable variety of habitats, from near-polar latitudes to the tropics. Few other mammalian species can make that claim, and there is little doubt that dietary versatility has been key to the success we’ve had.

Many paleoanthropologists today believe that increasing climate fluctuation through the Pleistocene sculpted our ancestors—whether their bodies or their wit, or both—for the dietary flexibility that has become a hallmark of humanity. The basic idea is that our ever changing world winnowed out the pickier eaters among us. Nature has made us a versatile species, which is why we can find something to satiate us on nearly all its myriad biospheric buffet tables. It’s also why we have been able to change the game, transition from forager to farmer, and really begin to consume our planet.


The Saudi Government’s Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics.

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The Saudi Government’s Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics.

On the morning of August 18, 2017, Rana deboarded her Saudia Airlines flight in Munich, Germany, bleary-eyed and clutching a small leather bag. Her husband, a near-stranger whom she had married two days earlier, in Riyadh, with the stroke of her father’s pen, marched ahead of her. As the couple approached passport control, he reluctantly handed Rana her passport, which he had taken before landing. Rana stole a glance inside to insure that the note she had scribbled in the airplane’s bathroom was still tucked between the newly minted pages. The line crawled forward. Rana’s heart pounded. A German officer processed her husband’s paperwork, then waved Rana over. Rana slid her documents to the official on the other side of the glass window. Inside, a short plea, written in English, read, “i want to apply for asylum.” And then, in shaky German, “mein Mann weiß nicht”—“my husband doesn’t know.”

The moment had been a lifetime in the making. Rana’s earliest memories were dominated by the violent fits of her father, whose abuse once drove her mother to run away, with Rana, then just a toddler, in tow. The experience served as an early lesson on Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal norms. Rana’s mother, under pressure from her family, abandoned her hopes for a divorce and returned to her husband. Later, she explained her reasoning to Rana: it is better to suffer abuse inside a respectable marriage, she said, than to live as a woman in disgrace.

At school, Rana chafed under long hours of religious instruction, which taught her to fear hellfire and respect men as fundamentally superior. At Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, a brief phase of online activism landed her at the disciplinary office, where the administration threatened police action. Later, while trying to help a friend suffering from domestic violence, Rana was rebuffed by authorities for attempting to file a police report. After college, Rana’s hopes for a career as an English translator were repeatedly blocked by her father, who considered the prospect shameful. She was eventually able to start a small phone-repair business with several female friends, but she was soon confronted by her worst nightmare: her parents arranged for her marriage. On their first meeting, her young suitor informed her that he’d expect to start having children immediately, and that she would devote herself to child-rearing. “I saw him, and I saw the end of my life,” she told me.

Rana, who was twenty-four at the time, was still unwilling to surrender. “I realized there would be no future for me in Saudi Arabia,” she recalled. “I had no choice but to find a way out.” In this, she made her new husband an unwitting accomplice: he agreed to take her on a honeymoon, giving her an alibi to obtain a passport and travel documents—something no Saudi woman can do without the permission of her wali, or male guardian. He’d even been accommodating when she suggested that they travel to Germany, which she’d identified, after extensive research, as the best asylum destination in Europe.

Moments after handing over her passport in Munich—on her first day outside of her native country—Rana was escorted away from her husband, who quickly grew hysterical. For the next fourteen hours, she was shuttled between various holding facilities, each packed with migrants from around the world, before being assigned a room in a nearby halfway house. Collapsing into bed that night, numb with exhaustion and relief, her mind circled a single thought. “I had left behind a life that others chose for me, and, finally, I was choosing for myself,” she told me. “I thought, This choice is freedom.”

But, even as Rana slipped beyond the stifling grip of her husband and father, she unwittingly placed herself in the crosshairs of a new, more formidable foe. Back home, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince popularly known as M.B.S., had come to dominate the Saudi royal court and was working tirelessly to project an image of himself as a liberal reformer. The young monarch had spent billions on an international P.R. campaign, touting a message of a Saudi renaissance, in which his subjects would enjoy unprecedented freedom and prosperity. This new Saudi Arabia would, in turn, become an “investment powerhouse” for global capital and a respected peer among the world’s most powerful economies. The crown prince frequently played up themes of women’s empowerment as evidence of his country’s liberal awakening, promising to increase the female workforce to thirty per cent by 2030 and to allow women to drive for the first time in the country’s history.

The crown prince’s ambitious agenda won him acclaim from many in the West, who hailed him as the harbinger of a more moderate, even democratic, Arabian Gulf. However, at home, M.B.S. was seizing power through blatantly autocratic means. By the end of 2017, about a year before the murder of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, M.B.S. had locked up hundreds of people, including civilians and members of the royal family, in an effort to clamp down on opposition, both real and imagined. At the same time, the crown prince was overseeing a quiet campaign of suppression of Saudis abroad, working through Embassies and back channels to silence them through blackmail, intimidation, and forced repatriation. These efforts were not reserved for vocal dissidents like Khashoggi, who fled Saudi Arabia around the same time that Rana did. Increasingly, the Saudi government was widening its net of censorship and harassment to include private Saudi citizens who possessed little or no political profile.

The reason appeared to be a matter of image control: though Rana had refrained from publicizing her critical opinions of the government, she still represented a troubling demographic for M.B.S. The number of Saudi asylum seekers had increased dramatically since the beginning of the crown prince’s rise—from five hundred and seventy-five cases, in 2015, the year he emerged on the political scene, to more than twelve hundred, in 2017. (This was in addition to a swelling number of Saudis who, like Khashoggi, opted for self-exile under separate visa processes.) The implicit critique of this exodus was enough to stoke the ire of the crown prince. Rana would soon learn what the case of Khashoggi later taught the world: the young monarch’s obsessive need to control his reputation heeded no national boundaries.

It began with a WhatsApp message that appeared on Rana’s phone a few weeks after her arrival in Germany. She had been moved to a small town in the northeast of the country, where she was staying in a complex reserved for refugee families. The message came from one of Rana’s friends and former business partners in Riyadh, informing her that the small phone-repair shop she’d helped launch was in trouble with the government. On a recent trip to the bank, the partner had been informed that Rana’s name had been flagged; as a result, authorities had frozen the company’s assets. The news puzzled Rana, who had painstakingly set her affairs in order before fleeing Saudi Arabia, registering at two separate government offices, including the Ministry of Commerce and Investment, to grant power of attorney to her co-founders. Rana’s associates hired a lawyer, who informed them that, while their paperwork was in order, the authorities would not reverse their decision. “Everything they tried failed,” Rana said. “The authorities just insisted I had to go to the Embassy to fix the problem.” (Rana’s name, as well as the names of other women in this story, have been changed to protect their safety.)

The Saudi state frequently uses finances and other “national services” as leverage to lure its citizens into face-to-face meetings with government officials. One Saudi asylum seeker, who fled to Frankfurt, in the summer of 2018, received a text alert, as her plane touched down, that the government had frozen her bank account. She was later notified that her National Identification Card and all the privileges afforded to Saudi citizens, including passport renewals, e-banking, and residency permits, had been revoked. She was instructed to return to Saudi Arabia to fix the issue.

Saudi authorities have also used bank activity as a way of locating citizens, Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, who focusses on Saudi Arabia, says. He cited a case of three Saudi women who fled to Lebanon, along with seven of their children, in 2016. “Twenty minutes after they swiped their credit card to register at a hotel, Lebanese authorities showed up to turn them over to the Saudis.” Khashoggi’s own case was predicated on paperwork—after seeking government documents for his upcoming marriage at the consulate in Istanbul, on September 28th, he was told to return a week later, during which time the trap was laid for his murder.

Rana, who is quiet and deliberate by nature, had serious misgivings about entering her country’s Embassy in Berlin. While Khashoggi’s murder was still months away, Rana had heard plenty of stories—some documented and others rumored—of Saudis disappearing abroad. “Inside the Embassy, I’m not in Germany. I’m in their territory,” Rana said. “I could disappear and no one would know, or they wouldn’t be able to help me.” None of Rana’s business partners had known in advance of her plan to flee the country, but all of them understood her hesitation about meeting with officials. “Now, especially under M.B.S., everyone is suspicious of the government,” she said.

In the meantime, Rana tried to focus on her new, often confounding life in Germany. In the camp, she befriended a few Saudi women who, like her, had fled oppressive homes in hopes of a new life. She was particularly drawn to Farah, a twenty-five-year-old former BodyPump coach, from Riyadh, with a buoyant mane of dark hair and an athletic swagger. “She is very outgoing and bold,” Rana said with a smile. “The opposite of me.” One thing the two did have in common was their troubling run-ins with the Saudi state. Within days of arriving in Germany, Farah began receiving messages on Twitter and Snapchat from pro-government accounts, warning her that she’d pay for disgracing the reputation of Saudi Arabia. Farah also began hearing from friends back in Saudi Arabia that authorities had been interrogating people associated with her. During questioning, her friends said, the investigators revealed personal information about Farah’s life in Germany, including details about her whereabouts and activities. “That was different,” Farah told me. “How did they know so much about my life? Did someone I knew feed them information?”

As Farah and I shared a hookah and milk chocolates in the drafty, bare-walled apartment that Rana now calls home, the subject turned to family. Rana emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray of spaghetti and cream-cheese sauce—one of the few recipes that she’d mastered since acquiring a place of her own—and joined us on the couch, which doubles as her bed. Both women were aware that the government routinely penalizes the relatives of those it deems disloyal or dangerous to the state. Farah cited the case of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist currently living in Canada. After Abdulaziz flouted the Saudi government’s efforts to silence him, the state arrested his two brothers back in Jeddah. Similarly, after Khashoggi fled the state, the government harassed his family members and placed his son, Salah, under a travel ban. Members of Farah’s family were interrogated shortly after her escape and have since cut off their already strained communication. “I didn’t want anything to happen to my family,” Farah said, “even if we weren’t close.” Rana says that most of her relatives and friends are reluctant to speak with her for fear of reprisal. “Sometimes I get a little video or note from one of my younger siblings on Snapchat, but, mostly, that’s it,” she told me. “I don’t miss Saudi Arabia at all, but I do miss my mother.”

Still, the women strived to create a sense of normalcy, occupying themselves with German classes, Netflix, and part-time work. Their delicate calm was shattered, though, in April, 2018, when Farah encountered two strange Arab men outside of her apartment building. Their message, spoken in the Saudi dialect of Arabic, was ominous. “They told me they knew information about me, they knew who I was, a Saudi woman who had left the country,” Farah explained. “They told me, ‘You will be sorry.’ ” The men had not presented any government identification and made no specific threats. But Farah felt sure that they were loyalists of the regime. Around the same time, she received a cryptic photograph over WhatsApp from a man claiming to be an employee of the Interior Ministry. In the picture, a file containing Farah’s name and photograph lay open on a desk. The document included an order for her arrest.

A few weeks later, two men driving a large white S.U.V. appeared on a deserted street where Farah was walking alone at night. As the vehicle was easing slowly toward her, Farah ducked behind a tree. The men got out, apparently searching for her. It was too dark to determine their identities, but Farah suspected that they were the same pair she’d encountered at her apartment. “I was so sure I was going to be kidnapped,” she recalled, grabbing her face with her hands. “I thought, I will disappear tonight; this is the end.” To her relief, two female pedestrians appeared on the street, and the men quickly returned to the S.U.V. and sped off.

Saudi Arabia has long used coercion against its citizens abroad, but evidence indicates that this practice has intensified under M.B.S. In October, a Saudi official told Reuters that the crown prince has issued “standing orders to negotiate the return of dissidents,” adding that this gives officials “the authority to act without going back to the leadership.” These efforts, which were often directed by Saud al-Qahtani, a former senior adviser to the crown prince who has been implicated in Khashoggi’s death, have been expanded to target defectors and non-activists alike. “Before M.B.S., most Saudis had a general sense of where the red lines were—if you stayed away from them, you would probably be safe,“ Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi academic and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said. “But there is no way to know where the red line is anymore. The message from the government now is: you don’t even have to be political to be targeted. Just being slightly outspoken, even just on social or religious issues, could make you a target, and you could be harmed.”

Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi academic and scholar in residence at New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, says that this strategy of preëmptive censorship is a trademark of Saudi Arabia under M.B.S. “What M.B.S. wants is total control of the discourse,” Dosari said. “He has no tolerance for anyone who might challenge or even complicate his image.”

This chilling effect is also felt by many of the roughly ninety thousand Saudi students studying abroad on government scholarships. In recent years, many of them have had their tuition threatened or suspended in retaliation for perceived criticism of the government. In some cases, students report being contacted and asked to return to the kingdom, or to report to a local embassy or consulate, to negotiate the resumption of their scholarships. “I got a call from a woman who said she was working for the Saudi government,” Hani Albandi, a Saudi graduate of Indiana State, said. “They said my political tweets made me an enemy of the country, and if I didn’t stop they would cut all the school funding for me and my wife.” Fearful of jeopardizing his future, Albandi complied. A number of students also reported encounters with peers whom they feared were government informants. “Saudi students are getting both implicit and explicit messages to stay away from anything vaguely political,” Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, says. “We’re seeing increasing signs, especially under M.B.S., that their speech and campus activities are being monitored.”

In October, a day before Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Canadian research group Citizen Lab exposed an apparent plot by the Saudi government to use spyware to hack into the personal accounts of Abdulaziz, the Saudi student and activist studying in Quebec. (Abdulaziz had already had his scholarship revoked, in 2013, over his criticism of the Saudi government.) In a parallel drama, nearly nine thousand Saudi students studying in Canada had their government scholarships abruptly cancelled this August, as Ottawa and Riyadh clashed over the fate of jailed Saudi activists. Like Rana, many Saudis now fear that, in M.B.S.’s age of hyper-sensitivity and extra-territorial control, even their best attempts at self-censorship may not protect them.

Rana arrived outside the barricaded gates of the Saudi Embassy in Berlin a little before 9 a.m. Back home in Riyadh, her partners had been running into serious financial trouble. “The business was really suffering, because they couldn’t find any way to access their money,” she said. The authorities only repeated their insistence that Rana present herself to the Saudi Embassy. “I asked other Saudi refugees, and they all warned me not to go.” Farah, too, was vehemently opposed to the idea, but Rana’s concern for her friends eventually trumped her fears for herself. “I felt so guilty for putting them in this position,” she said. “I decided to go, even if it was risky.”

Above the chrome-plated walls of the Embassy, the Saudi flag, emblazoned with Arabic calligraphy and a drawn sabre, fluttered in the warm breeze. Farah, who had insisted on accompanying Rana, would keep vigil on the sidewalk directly outside. Rana entered without an appointment; she’d wanted to avoid giving the Saudi authorities any advance warning of her visit. At the entrance, where the female staff were uniformed in abayas and hijabs, she copied down her identification details and surrendered her cell phone. Walking down the marble hallway to a waiting room, she felt bitterly alone.

It would be hours until she was called. She passed the time pacing the holding room, gazing intermittently out the window at a nearby playground. At last, a young woman in a headscarf arrived to escort her. The woman spoke to her with a mechanical cheerfulness, remarking on the many benefits of life in Saudi Arabia and boasting of the country’s numerous opportunities for women. Rana opted not to respond. A moment later, they arrived at a small room where two men were waiting—one overweight and pallid, another thin and dark-complexioned. A female officer sat beside them. “Peace to you,” they murmured, directing Rana to a chair. She sat with arms bolted to her sides, balling her hands into fists to hide their tremor.

Rana had hoped for a brief discussion about her Saudi bank account. Instead, she endured an hour-long interrogation. The three agents accused Rana of deliberately dishonoring the image of the Saudi state by falsely representing her case as a human-rights issue. “This is nothing more than a rebellion against your family,” Rana recalls them saying. “Wouldn’t you like to spend Ramadan with your family? We can arrange this. They miss you.” She politely explained that she had no interest in living in a country where she felt deprived of her rights. This answer elicited a fresh round of anger, even as the officials vowed that she would “not be arrested” in Riyadh. Their insistence struck Rana as an implicit threat. (The Saudi Embassy in Berlin did not respond to a request for comment.)

At one point, the thin man began insinuating that Rana had come to Germany to pursue sexual promiscuity, saying that he knew she didn’t live alone. (At the time, Rana shared an apartment with a boyfriend.) The officials also demanded that Rana give them her German identification card to photocopy for their records. She refused. Later, when her interrogators promised her, “Don’t worry, you will be able to take your passport and walk out of here today,” Rana felt that their intention was to remind her of their power to prevent such a peaceful exit.

Rana tried, in vain, to steer the conversation back to the issue of her partners. “I began to realize that they had no intention to help me with my business trouble,” she said. “After that, I focussed on just two things: don’t say anything more about human rights, and get out of there as soon as possible.” She told the group she’d “think about” going back to Saudi Arabia. As the disgruntled officials released her, they implied that her business partners would only continue to suffer as long as she remained in Germany.

Rana emerged from the Embassy in the late afternoon, exhausted and shaken. Outside, Farah’s face was burnished with hours of anxious waiting. She had been preparing to call the police, she said, and now demanded to know what had happened inside. Rana offered only fragmented, defeated replies. Guilt and dread mingled with relief as the two made their way toward the train station. Had she just made the situation worse? Having shown her face but refused their wishes, would the government now intensify their harassment of her, or of her friends and family back home? Reflexively, Rana glanced over her shoulder, scanning for any sign of a pursuer.

Farah and Rana are still bewildered by the intensity with which they were targeted. “In the Embassy, they treated me as a criminal,” Rana said, over beers and nachos, on a snowy evening in late 2018. “I didn’t expect this. I’m not here trying to cause trouble. I’m not an activist. I just want a quiet life, to come back to my apartment each night in peace.” Beside her, Farah’s sharp brown eyes were ringed with shadows. “I’m afraid to even tweet now.”

Shortly before New Year’s, Rana and Farah shared hookah and tea with Leena, a recently arrived asylum seeker from Riyadh. To escape Saudi Arabia, she’d hacked into her father’s phone and logged on to Absher, the popular mobile app linked to Saudi’s Ministry of Interior. From there, Leena was able to use her wali’s privileges to issue herself permission to travel and slipped away shortly after. Arriving in Germany, Leena learned that her family had reported her to the authorities. Her Saudi bank account and national I.D. number were promptly revoked, but Leena considered it a small price to pay for freedom. “After twenty-six years of abuse, anything is heaven compared to Saudi Arabia,” she says.

But her future was thrown into doubt when the German government rejected her application for asylum. During her hearing, Leena said, the judge pushed back on Leena’s plea by citing the “new freedoms and reforms” inaugurated by M.B.S. “They told me, ‘Saudi Arabia is changed—go back. There are women’s rights there now.’ ” At this, the three women chorused rough, cold laughter. Farah, too, was denied asylum this past summer. “They told me it was my fault for being an activist, and that the government was changing in Saudi Arabia anyway, so why was I causing trouble?” Both women are currently in the appeals process. (A spokesperson for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, in Berlin, told me, “In the personal hearing, the asylum seeker gets the chance to explain his or her personal reasons for flight. On the basis of this statement, the decision-maker examines if and what kind of protection must be given.”)

Rana’s case was approved, in the spring of 2018, but the majority of the Saudis she knows, including one gay asylum seeker in a nearby German city, have been rejected. “There’s a sense that since we’re not running away from a war, like the Syrians are, for example, our cases aren’t really serious,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘It’s getting better for women under M.B.S.’ ”

While it’s true that Saudi women can, as of June, 2018, drive cars, and that the Saudi government has scaled back some legal restrictions on women, Rana and her companions all fear prison or worse if they return. “My family would kill me,” Leena said. “I am sure.” Farah points out that women in prison in Saudi Arabia can only be bailed out by their wali. “My father would put me there and leave me there,” she said. “It happens to disobedient women all the time.” The same plea was made by Rahaf al-Qunun, in January, when she was intercepted, in Bangkok, by a Saudi diplomat and Thai authorities as she attempted to escape to Australia. Barricading herself in the airport hotel, the eighteen-year-old tweeted cries for help and sent statements to Reuters via her phone. “My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” she told Reuters. “My life is in danger.” (After a two-day standoff, Qunun was released into the care of the United Nations Refugee Agency, or U.N.H.C.R.)

Khashoggi’s death and Qunun’s near-capture have left Rana and her friends feeling more vulnerable than ever. “M.B.S. has showed us he can do anything he wants,” Leena said. “The world let him get away with murder. So things are worse for us. He feels stronger, not weaker, now, like no one can touch him.” The women frequently trade off apartments, spending the night in groups rather than sleeping alone. They also continue to avoid all semblance of activism or political speech—a partial win, perhaps, for M.B.S. But none of their precautions can shake the constant fear of their government’s reach. “We’re not like the people escaping war in their country,” Rana says. “When they come here, the bombs are behind them, they are safe. But not us. The danger follows us.”

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Society needs to change its views about women pursuing sex.

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Society needs to change its views about women pursuing sex.

I’ve never been one of those people who sees the humanity in all animals. I don’t share whimsical sloth pictures on Tumblr or insist that a dog is “really connecting” with me or try to psychoanalyze my friend’s cat’s behavior. But when I read Daniel Bergner’s description of rat clitorises — one of the more fascinating sections of his totally engrossing new book, What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, out this week — for once I felt a serious connection with the animal kingdom.

Here are some facts about female lab rats: During sex, a female rat will evade her partner, darting away in the midst of his pumping, so it doesn’t end too quickly — she wants it to last, because it’s more pleasurable for her that way. It’s not clear whether they orgasm, but “female rats do what feels good,” a researcher explains. When graduate students stroke female rats’ clitorises (which apparently look like little eraser heads) and then stop, the rats will tug on the students’ sleeves and beg for more. “This,” writes Bergner, “went on and on.” No research yet on how the situation is exacerbated if the female rat has had a really tough week at work.

Camels Photo: Ed Darack/Corbis

Female animals don’t just enjoy sex, they are not shy about pursuing it. Bergner’s new book is a reexamination of everything we think we know about sex and female biology. An excerpt in The New York Times Magazine two weeks ago explained how, contrary to long-standing cultural beliefs that women are turned on by stability and emotional intimacy, long-term monogamy actually saps women’s sex drives. A German researcher “shows women and men in new relationships reporting, on average, more or less equal lust for each other. But for women who’ve been with their partners between one and four years, a dive begins — and continues, leaving male desire far higher.” We fundamentally misunderstand women’s lust, says Bergner. And not just when it comes to married women.

Bergner explains that, in the past, “scientists fixated on what the rat female did in the act of sex, not what she did to get there.” And if you’re friends with any single women or are one yourself, you know that “what she did to get there” is often the most taxing part of the sexual act. It’s also where cultural factors really start to work against women’s newly documented desire. Bergner makes a pretty strong case that women are socially, not biologically, discouraged from initiating and enjoying sex. (You think those female rats are compelling? I had to take a walk around the block after reading about female rhesus monkeys. Game recognize game.) Men and women have been barraged with the message that women are not naughty by nature. They are thought of as hardwired to hunt for a partner and a mate, while men pursue sex as a pleasurable act in and of itself. It follows from there that women — at least good women — must be pursued and coaxed into sex, and men enjoy the thrill of the chase.

In one small study of college students, 93 percent of women said they preferred to be asked out, while 83 percent of men preferred to do the asking. An oft-cited 1989 study of university students found that men were far more receptive than women to direct offers of casual sex. During the early aughts panic about the prevalence of campus hookups, many socially conservative experts alleged that women didn’t really want all that casual sex they were having. But a University of Michigan researcher found in 2011 that “gender differences are minimized when women feel that they can avoid being stigmatized for their behavior.” Women like having sex. They don’t like being socially punished for it.

Garden beetles Photo: Erhard Nerger/Corbis

There are other factors propping up the idea that women prefer to be sexually passive. Bergner reports that preliminary research indicates women are most turned on by their partners’ desire for them. It’s easy to see how this could be misconstrued as passivity — especially because more than a century of conventional wisdom says women don’t like sex as much as men do. But if we accept Bergner’s radical thesis that women do, in fact, like to get off, and get off on being desired, the question of who pursues whom poses a real conundrum for single women.

Think about it: Women want sex, and in particular, they want sex with people who really want them. But socially, many straight men still find it a turnoff when women are sexual aggressors. Which means that, for women, aggressively pursuing the thing they want actually leads to them not getting it. I suspect this is the source of much sexual dissatisfaction of the modern single lady, who’s so horny she’s running across the street to Walgreens to buy more batteries twice a week, but is unable to pick up men despite social conventions that men are “easy” to bed and women have to be coaxed into casual sex. The thing women are told they can access any time is, maddeningly, often just out of reach.

Even in research about appropriate dating behavior among adults today, “men and women both agree that men should actively pursue female partners and that women should be passive recipients to their advances,” says Jessica Carbino, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA who studies online dating and relationships. “For example, women and men overwhelmingly state that men are supposed to plan dates, ask out the woman, and pick her up. Moreover, when women do not adhere to these scripts they are viewed negatively. For example, women who initiate dates are viewed by men as more promiscuous and not interested in forming a serious relationship.” If the rats are any indication, maybe they aren’t! We’ve already established that females of all species are interested in sex for pleasure. But in the human realm, that simple, fundamental motivation is all too easily labeled as “sluttiness,” or some sort of deep desperation wrought by singledom.

Ostriches Photo: Michel Denis-Huot/Corbis

This catch-22 presents women with a few options, none of which are appealing. You can directly pursue a man, but only if you want to convey that you’re only in it for sex. You can choose not to pursue him, but then you’re relegated to this historic, passive role that doesn’t jibe with your active, considered approach to any other area of life, be it work or real estate or even friendship. Carbino sees this tension in her own research. “According to these women, their professional background is already intimidating to many men and they feel as though asking them out would make them less attractive and even more intimidating,” she says. “The men I interview also state that they prefer to be the individual who initiates the date and at times find women who ask them out to be more aggressive.”

Women aren’t the only ones experiencing some cognitive dissonance between their animalistic urges and the social conventions of dating. “More and more men are finding it difficult to be as direct, when it comes to dating and sex, as previous generations of men maybe once were,” says Chiara Atik, author of Modern Dating: A Field Guide. We all get that the rules of traditional courtship — in which men make every single advance and women demur or acquiesce — are dead, but we haven’t replaced them with a new standard operating procedure. “Everyone’s being kind of wishy-washy,” Atik says. “Women want sex, but they don’t want to be seen as forward (or worse, desperate). Men want sex but are intimidated, unconfident, or don’t want to be seen as domineering. We’re not sure who should be the sexual instigators, and then no one really steps up to the plate.”

Here, again, perhaps the animal kingdom can be a source of inspiration. Sex for pleasure: Lady birds do it, lady bees do it, and, I’m sure by dint of their socioeconomic status and feminism 101 classes, even educated lady fleas do it. The sooner we can agree that pleasure is one major motivation to pursue sex — for both men and women — the sooner we can all start instigating it.


Facebook wants to kill smartphones.

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Facebook wants to kill smartphones.

It’s no secret Mark Zuckerberg is pinning Facebook’s prospects on augmented reality — technology that overlays digital imagery onto the real world, like Snapchat’s signature camera filters.

At this year’s F8 conference, taking place this week, Zuckerberg doubled down on the company’s ambitious 10-year master plan, which was first revealed in 2016. According to this timeline, Facebook expects to turn artificial intelligence, ubiquitous internet connectivity, and virtual and augmented reality into viable parts of its business over the next decade.

To accelerate the rise of augmented reality, a big part of the plan, Zuckerberg unveiled the Camera Effects platform — basically a set of tools for outside developers to build augmented-reality apps that you can access from the existing Facebook app’s camera. That would theoretically open the door for Facebook to host the next phenomenon like “Pokémon Go.”

The Facebook 10-year road map, first revealed in April 2016. (Facebook)


Mark Zuckerberg shows off the Facebook Camera Effects platform, which lets developers make augmented-reality apps like this Nike one that lets you share your run times with friends.Getty

While this announcement seems pretty innocuous, make no mistake — Facebook is once again putting itself into direct competition with Google and Apple, trying to create yet another parallel universe of apps and tools that don’t rely on the smartphones’ marketplaces. As The New York Times notes, Zuckerberg has long been disappointed that Facebook never built a credible smartphone operating system of its own.

This time, though, Facebook is also declaring war on pretty much everyone else in the tech industry, too. While it’ll take at least a decade to fully play out, the stuff Facebook is talking about today is just one more milestone on the slow march toward the death of the smartphone and the rise of even weirder and wilder futures.

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

Why buy a TV?

Zuckerberg tipped his hand, just a bit, during Tuesday’s Facebook F8 keynote. During a demo of the company’s vision for augmented reality — in the form of a pair of easy-to-wear, standard-looking glasses — he showed how you could have a virtual “screen” in your living room, bigger than your biggest TV.

“We don’t need a physical TV. We can buy a $1 app ‘TV’ and put it on the wall and watch it,” Zuckerberg told USA Today ahead of his keynote. “It’s actually pretty amazing when you think about how much of the physical stuff we have doesn’t need to be physical.”

That makes sense, assuming you’re into the idea of wearing a computer on your face (and you’re OK with Facebook intermediating everything you see and hear, glitches and all).

But it’s not just TVs. This philosophy could extend to smartphones, smartwatches, tablets, fitness trackers, or anything else that has a screen or relies on one to work. Zuckerberg even showed off a street art installation that’s just a blank wall until you wave the Facebook camera app over it to reveal a mural.

For Microsoft, which has already dipped its toe in this area with its HoloLens holographic goggles, this is a foregone conclusion. HoloLens boss Alex Kipman recently called the demise of the smartphone the “natural conclusion” of augmented reality and its associated technologies.

War of the worlds

The problem, naturally, is that a huge chunk of the world’s economy hinges on the production of phones, TVs, tablets, and all those other things that Facebook thinks could be replaced with this technology.

Even Zuckerberg acknowledges it’s a long road ahead. That said, this Camera Effects platform, should it succeed in attracting a bunch of users, could go down as a savvy move. The apps that are built for the Facebook Camera today could wind up as the first versions of the apps you’d use with those glasses.

Microsoft’s futuristic HoloLens goggles provide an early look at Facebook’s goal. (Microsoft)

In the short term, Facebook’s play for augmented reality is going to look a lot like competing with Snapchat — and in a meaningful way, it is. Facebook needs developer and user love, so it needs to keep offering fun and funny tools to keep people from moving away from using its apps.

In the long term, though, this is Facebook versus everybody else to usher in an age of a new kind of computing — and pretty much every tech company out there will get caught in the crossfire, as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and more rush out their responses to this extremely existential, but still meaningful, threat.


Is there a dark side to meditation?

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Is there a dark side to meditation?

We’ve all heard about the benefits of meditation ad nauseam. Those disciplined enough to practice regularly are rewarded with increased control over the brainwaves known as alpha rhythms, which leads to better focus and may help ease pain. In addition to calming the mind and body, meditation can also reduce the markers of stress in people with anxiety disorders. Rigorous studies have backed health claims such as these to convince therapists, physicians, and corporate gurus to embrace meditation’s potential.

What contemporary and ancient meditators have always known, however, is that while the hype may be warranted, the practice is not all peace, love, and blissful glimpses of unreality. Sitting zazen, gazing at their third eye, a person can encounter extremely unpleasant emotions and physical or mental disturbances.

Zen Buddhism has a word for the warped perceptions that can arise during meditation: makyo, which combines the Japanese words for “devil” and “objective world.” Philip Kapleau, the late American Zen master, once described confronting makyo as “a dredging and cleansing process that releases stressful experiences in deep layers of the mind.”

However, this demanding and sometimes intensely distressing side of meditation is rarely mentioned in scientific literature, says Jared Lindahl, a visiting professor of religious studies at Brown University, who has an interest in neuroscience and Buddhism. Along with Willoughby Britton, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown, the two meditators have co-authored a study that documents and creates a taxonomy for the variant phenomenology of meditation. The paper, published in Plos One, is the beginning of an ongoing series of studies. “Just because something is positive and beneficial doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of the broader range of possible effects it might have,” Lindahl says.

To conduct their research, the pair interviewed 60 Western Buddhist meditation practitioners who had all experienced challenging issues during their practice. They included both rookies and meditation teachers, many of whom had accumulated more than 10,000 hours of meditation experience in their lifetime. All belonged to either Theravāda, Zen, or Tibetan traditions.

The researchers identified 59 kinds of unexpected or unwanted experiences, which they classified into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (related to moods), somatic, conative (related to motivation), sense of self, and social. Among the experiences described to them were feelings of anxiety and fear, involuntary twitching, insomnia, a sense of complete detachment from one’s emotions, hypersensitivity to light or sound, distortion in time and space, nausea, hallucinations, irritability, and the re-experiencing of past traumas. The associated levels of distress and impairment ranged from “mild and transient to severe and lasting,” according to the study. Most would not imagine that these side-effects could be hiding behind the lotus-print curtains of your local meditation center.

However, the survey respondents didn’t necessarily perceive every non-euphoric event as negative. In fact, says Britton, she and Lindahl deliberately avoided the word “adverse” in their study for this reason. Instead, they chose “challenging,” which better captured the meditators’ varied interpretations of their experiences. For instance, a person who came away from a retreat feeling “very expanded and very unified with other people in the world” might have found their oneness with the universe distracting once they returned home. (That’s challenging, not tragic.)

The goal of the study was to look for patterns in the common accounts of unwanted reactions. Who runs into the unexpected hurdles? What are the unique set of factors involved? In which ways do teachers assist students who are struggling? (And do they blame inner demons for the upsets, or maybe something you ate at lunch?) The answers, which still require future research, may one day be relevant to the ways meditation is used as therapy.


Facebook is broken.

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Facebook is broken.

The problem is this: Facebook has become a feedback loop which can and does, despite its best intentions, become a vicious spiral. At Facebook’s scale, behavioral targeting doesn’t just reflect our behavior, it actually influences it. Over time, a service which was supposed to connect humanity is actually partitioning us into fractal disconnected bubbles.

The way Facebook’s News Feed works is that the more you “engage” with posts from a particular user, the more often their posts are shown to you. The more you engage with a particular kind of post, the more you will see its ilk. So far so good! It’s just showing you what you’ve demonstrated you’re interested in. What’s wrong with that?

The answer is twofold. First, this eventually constructs a small “in-group” cluster of Facebook friends and topics that dominate your feed; and as you grow accustomed to interacting with them, this causes your behavior to change, and you interact with them even more, reinforcing their in-group status … and (relatively) isolating you from the rest of your friends, the out-group.

Second, and substantially worse, because “engagement” is the metric, Facebook inevitably selects for the shocking and the outrageous. Ev Williams summed up the results brilliantly:

Of course this doesn’t just apply to Facebook. The first problem applies to all social networks with “smart” algorithmic feeds that optimize for engagement. Facebook is just the largest and most influential by far.

The second has been a problem with television for decades. Why have majorities or crazily large minorities of people believed, for many years, that violent crime just keeps getting worse, that their hometown mall might be bombed by terrorists at any moment, that Sharia law will come to their province/state any day now, that the rest of the world is a war-torn shambles only barely propped up by vast quantities of aid we can’t afford — despite the easily available, incredibly copious, clear evidence to the contrary? In large part because “if it bleeds, it leads.”

‘Fake news’ is far from new; it’s just become explicit rather than implicit. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Facebook singlehandedly caused the terrible trend of demonizing any and all people with whom one disagrees. Studies show that political polarization is more extreme in older people, who use social media less, than in the young. Whatever’s happening is far more complicated than just “Facebook is driving us apart.”

Still — we hoped the 21st century of Facebook would be better, more compassionate, more understanding, than the 20th century TV. But it’s not, and the ways in which it’s worse are far more personal. We hoped that making the world more open and connected would be good for us. Maybe it would be, if the metric that the connecting entity optimized for was something other than “engagement.” But it now seems fairly clear that engagement is negativelycorrelated with happiness for users, and moderately clear that this is, in fact, a causal relationship:

The analogy I like to use is global warming causing extreme weather: the more energy pumped into our atmosphere, the more it behaves in bizarre and erratic ways. Facebook is like a powerful greenhouse gas for our collective social atmosphere. TV was too, of course, but it was CO2 to Facebook’s methane.

I don’t want to get into Facebook’s privacy issues, hate–speech issues, ongoing rejection of all the principles of the open web, etc. I’m not suggesting that this is anyone’s fault, or even that anyone has done anything wrong. Nothing like Facebook has ever existed before. It is a company that is also a massive global experiment, one with some excellent outcomes.

But it would be good for us all if Facebook were to at least acknowledge the possibility that at least some of their experiment’s outcomes seem at best worrying — and maybe even alarming — and something should be done to try to mitigate them. As hard as that admission might be.

I’m happy to report that this may well be happening. See Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments to the effect that “Facebook is … working on a way to connect you with people that you should know like mentors.” I hope this is the harbinger of a new understanding that Facebook’s focus on optimizing for engagement is, in and of itself, harmful to its users … and an understanding that it’s always best to head off a backlash before it begins, rather than after it gathers steam.


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