New and noteworthy – 7 December 2017

Code-switching software, resetting university missions, and saving species from the poachers and traders

December 7, 2017
Machine translation
Source: iStock

Machine Translation
Thierry Poibeau
The MIT Press

Machine translation, writes Thierry Poibeau, can be considered “one of the most fundamental [research programmes] in the field of artificial intelligence”. Yet even when the task is restricted to “the most accurate translation of everyday texts”, ignoring literature and poetry, it has proved “immensely difficult, and current systems are far from satisfactory”. Poibeau surveys the progress to date, notably through “the statistical analysis of very large corpora of texts”. In doing so, he throws new light on underlying questions about the nature of translation, the kinds of knowledge involved in translation – and what it means to “transpose a text from one language to another”.

Implausible Dream: The World-Class University and Repurposing
James H. Mittelman
Princeton University Press

“Legions of educators”, according to James Mittelman, “view Harvard and its [Ivy League ilk] as the gold standard.” Yet since Harvard had an endowment in 2016 of more than $35 billion [£26.3 billion], few can genuinely hope to emulate it. To help universities “deflate the implausible dream” and find more realistic ways of repurposing themselves, Mittelman explores in depth the US “neoliberal model”, the Finnish “social democratic path” and the “postcolonial experience” of Uganda. Dismissing utopian thinking, he goes on to propose “a more sustainable vision of pluralism in the service of nurturing local-global critical thinking”.

The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How To Counter It
Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, calls herself “an expert on non-traditional security threats”. After books on counter-insurgency and the war on drugs, she turns to species extinction, now proceeding at a rate “as much as 1,000 times the historical average”. Drawing out parallels between the wildlife and drugs trades, she explores a range of policy options, from reducing demand and going after smugglers’ money to mobilising local community buy-ins for conservation. Although all these “have failed far more often than they have succeeded”, they can prove valuable if tailored to circumstances, she argues.

The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy
Andrea Flynn, Susan R. Holmberg, Dorian T. Warren and Felicia J. Wong
Cambridge University Press

While the “rules” governing policies around race in the US are far less “explicitly discriminatory” than in the past, even those “that purport to be colorblind”, argue this book’s authors, “frequently have both racialized origins and racialized consequences”. Alongside rules that have an overt negative impact and others that “advance racial inclusion and equality”, there are many areas in which “the absence of rules …allows discrimination and racially unequal consequences to persist”. If we genuinely want to “promote greater overall economic health and greater racial inclusion”, therefore, we urgently need to adopt “an agenda of positive rules and targeted universalism”.

DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution
James Watson, with Andrew Berry and Kevin Davies
Arrow Books

First published in 2003 to mark the 50th anniversary of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix, this offers an insider’s introduction accessible to those with “zero biological knowledge”. Once DNA became “the heart of a technology that is transforming many aspects of the way we all live”, as the authors note, it brought with it “a host of difficult questions about its impact – practical, social, and ethical”. This “fully revised and updated” second edition includes two new chapters by Kevin Davies exploring the technological advances that have spurred developments in “areas such as consumer genetics and clinical genome sequencing” and the progress made towards winning the seemingly unwinnable war against cancer.

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