In this week’s roundup of recommended reading: various developments in the ongoing global economic collapse, more dystopian/totalitarian trends, the problem with America’s enduring attitude of techno-worship, the crisis in America’s education system, an earthshaking religious discovery in the Middle East, Dan Simmons on the creative daemon muse, and the imminent promise of true cinematic brilliance in Prometheus.
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Increasingly in Europe, Suicides ‘by Economic Crisis’
Elisabetta Povoledo and Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times, April 14, 2012
The economic downturn that has shaken Europe for the last three years has also swept away the foundations of once-sturdy lives, leading to an alarming spike in suicide rates. Especially in the most fragile nations like Greece, Ireland and Italy, small-business owners and entrepreneurs are increasingly taking their own lives in a phenomenon some European newspapers have started calling “suicide by economic crisis”…“This is a social malaise, we’re inside a tunnel and there’s no light at any end,” said [Salvatore] Federico [general secretary of the Veneto branch of the Filca Cisl construction workers’ union], whose union is starting a new foundation to assist victims of the economic crisis.
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Spanish protesters hold demo against new austerity cuts
PressTV, April 16, 2012
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the Spanish capital of Madrid [on April 15] to protest the government’s planned spending cuts in the health and education sectors. The protesters carried banners with anti-government slogans and chanted, “Mariano, Mariano you won’t make it to the summer,” referring to the country’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. “I’m here to protect my son’s health and education, it’s basic for any society to cover those needs,” Reuters quoted one of the protesters as saying on Sunday. The demonstration comes following the government’s announcement to make new cuts in the health and education sector worth 10 billion euros. “For the working classes, this means the destruction of all the rights acquired over the last 40 to 50 years. It’s going to come in chapters, one day one thing, the next another and the next another,” said Manuel Fernandez, one of the protesters.
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Spain accused of ‘draconian’ plans to clamp down on protests
Fiona Govan, The Telegraph, April 12, 2011
Teaser: Spain has been accused of planning “draconian” new laws against street protests by curbing the use of social networking.
Jorge Fernandez Diaz, the Spanish interior minister announced in Congress on Wednesday that a reform of the penal code was planned to criminalise those involved in organising street protests that “seriously disturb the public peace”…[I]t has raised fears that the new measures could be used to stem the wave of protests that began last summer with the birth of what has been dubbed the “indignado movement”, when tens ouf thousands of peaceful protesters camped out in squares across Spain…The measures will make it “an offence to breach authority using mass active or passive resistance against security forces and to include as a crime of assault any threatening or intimidating behaviour,” [Diaz] said in Congress.
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Terrorist ‘pre-crime’ detector field tested in United States
Sharon Weinberger, Nature, May 27, 2011
Teaser: Screening system aims to pinpoint passengers with malicious intentions.
Planning a sojourn in the northeastern United States? You could soon be taking part in a novel security programme that can supposedly ‘sense’ whether you are planning to commit a crime. Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programme designed to spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act, has in the past few months completed its first round of field tests at an undisclosed location in the northeast, Nature has learned. Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person’s gaze, to judge a subject’s state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject. The tactic has drawn comparisons with the science-fiction concept of ‘pre-crime’, popularized by the film Minority Report, in which security services can detect someone’s intention to commit a crime…As for where precisely FAST is being tested, that for now remains a closely guarded secret.
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Homeland Security’s ‘Pre-Crime’ Screening Will Never Work
Alexander Furnas, The Atlantic, April 17, 2012
Teaser: Chances are, you’ll snag the wrong people, and when you do, how can you tell? How do you clear suspects of crimes that haven’t happened?
Yet again the threat of terrorism is being used to justify the introduction of super-creepy invasions of privacy, and lead us one step closer to a turn-key totalitarian state. This may sound alarmist, but in cases like this a little alarm is warranted. FAST will remotely monitor physiological and behavioral cues, like elevated heart rate, eye movement, body temperature, facial patterns, and body language, and analyze these cues algorithmically for statistical aberrance in an attempt to identify people with nefarious intentions. There are several major flaws with a program like this, any one of which should be enough to condemn attempts of this kind to the dustbin…What we should be thinking about…is the marginal gain in security in relation to the marginal cost. A program like FAST is doomed from the word go by a preponderance of false positives. We should ask, in a world where we are already pass through full-body scanners, take off our shoes, belts, coats and only carry 3.5 oz containers of liquid, is more stringent screening really what we need and will it make us any safer? Or will it merely brand hundreds of innocent people as potential terrorists and provide the justification of pseudo-scientific algorithmic behavioral screening to greater invasions of their privacy?
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How Obama Became a Civil Libertarian’s Nightmare
Steven Roselfeld, Alternet, April 18, 2012
Teaser: Obama has expanded and fortified many of the Bush administration’s worst policies.
When Barack Obama took office, he was the civil liberties communities’ great hope. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, pledged to shutter the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and run a transparent and open government. But he has become a civil libertarian’s nightmare: a supposedly liberal president who instead has expanded and fortified many of the Bush administration’s worst policies, lending bipartisan support for a more intrusive and authoritarian federal government…“We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national security state,” Jack Balkin, a liberal Yale University Law School professor, told the New Yorker in a 2011 feature about a prominent NSA whistleblower. “The question is not whether we will have a surveillance state in the years to come, but what sort of state we will have,” he wrote in a prescient law review article published early in Obama’s presidency…The biggest difference between Bush and Obama on civil liberties and the war on terror is the Obama administration is more attuned to the optics of trying to appear reasonable as it conducts much of the same policies.
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Technology in America
Michael Sacasas, The American, April 13, 2012
Teaser: If America’s ongoing experiment in democracy and economic freedom is to endure, we will need to think again about cultivating the necessary habits of the heart and resisting the allure of the ideology of technology.
[In the 19th century, Tocqueville said] American society was more likely to produce and admire a Thomas Edison than an Albert Einstein. As a generalization, this seems about right still. The inventor-entrepreneur remains the preferred American icon; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the objects of our veneration…Technologies collapse the distance between a desire and its fulfillment by reducing either the time or the effort involved. This has long been the point on which new technologies have been marketed, and digital technologies have only augmented a longstanding trend…What sorts of habits, then, are inculcated by a technological environment ordered around this general tendency? Certainly not the kind of habits that sit well with the venerable notion of delayed gratification. Nor, it would seem, would these habits leave one well suited for the demands of citizenship…We speak of technological innovation as if it alone could cure our economic and political ills. We forget that our economic and political culture is finally composed of individuals whose actions are driven by character, and character is in large measure the product of habitual patterns of action. It would be one of history’s great ironies if under the cover of the ideology of technology, we allowed our use of technology to erode the habits of the heart essential to the health of our society.
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In College Classrooms, the Problem is High-School Athletics
Steven Conn, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2012
There is a widespread consensus that our public-education systems are in serious trouble. But amid the conflicting diagnoses of the problem — teacher training, standardized testing, socioeconomic conditions — we have missed this obvious one: The growth of high-school athletics over the past generation has necessarily meant fewer resources devoted to academics, especially in the zero-sum budgetary environment of so many school districts. How many other educational systems pay for sports out of their education funds?…[K]ids and their parents increasingly believe that accumulating varsity letters is a better way to get to college — and certainly a better way to pay for college — than academic achievement…To what extent has the growth in seriousness of high-school athletics contributed to the general dumbing down of public education?
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Reverse Brain Drain: Children of U.S. Immigrants Going Abroad
An Phung, Big Think, April 17, 2012
Highly educated children of immigrants in the U.S. are moving back to their native countries in growing numbers. The homeland their parents once fled from have now become economic powers and a source for opportunities. Some arrive to the U.S. as children and become citizens later, while others are born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. “For generations, the world’s less-developed countries have suffered so-called brain drain — the flight of many of their best and brightest to the West.” While that has not stopped, a reverse flow has begun, particularly to countries like China and India, and to a lesser extent, Brazil and Russia. But it’s not just individuals making these decisions, according to Edward J. W. Park, director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The trend is encouraged by the efforts of some overseas governments to attract more foreign talent by offering employment, investment, tax and visa incentives.
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Israel’s Other Temple: Research Reveals Ancient Struggle over Holy Land Supremacy
Matthias Schulz, Spiegel Online, April 13, 2012
Teaser: The Jews had significant competition in antiquity when it came to worshipping Yahweh. Archeologists have discovered a second great temple not far from Jerusalem that predates its better known cousin. It belonged to the Samaritans, and may have been edited out of the Bible once the rivalry had been decided.
Increasingly…it looks as though the Bible has handed down a distorted picture of history. Papyrus scrolls recovered from Qumran on the Dead Sea, as well as a fragment of the Bible that recently surfaced on the market for antiquities, necessitate a “complete reassessment,” says [Old Testament scholar Stefan Schorch of the University of Halle-Wittenberg in eastern Germany]…Yet the most exciting indication of how history actually transpired has now been unearthed by Yitzhak Magen. Working behind security fences, the archaeologist has been digging on the windswept summit of Mount Gerizim. His findings, which have only been partially published, are a virtual sensation: As early as 2,500 years ago, the mountain was already crowned with a huge, dazzling shrine, surrounded by a 96 by 98-meter (315 by 321-foot) enclosure. The wall had six-chamber gates with colossal wooden doors. At the time, the Temple of Jerusalem was, at most, but a simple structure. Magen has discovered 400,000 bone remains from sacrificial animals. Inscriptions identify the site as the “House of the Lord.” A silver ring is adorned with the tetragrammaton YHWH, which stands for Yahweh. All of this means that a vast, rival place of worship stood only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Jerusalem. It is an astonishing discovery. A religious war was raging among the Israelites, and the nation was divided. The Jews had powerful cousins who were competing with them for religious leadership in the Holy Land. The dispute revolved around a central question: Which location deserved the honor of being the hearth and burnt offering site of God Almighty?…Researchers have a long way to go before they uncover all the details of this conflict. It’s clear, however, that it was extremely acrimonious. Each side reviled the other. There was murder, mayhem and, ultimately, even the Holy Scripture was revised.
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Finding your daemon that dwells perpetually in the Conditions of Fire
Dan Simmons, Writing Well #14, DanSimmons.com, February/March 2012
Since the beginnings of literature, writers and poets have talked about their “Muse” as if there is some external force that enters them or hovers near them, inspires them, and allows them to write…[T]he correct terminology for the spirit that must enter into you if you’re going to be a successful writer [is] your daemon (sometimes spelled daimon, both pronounced the same as “demon”) that dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire…How does a writer find, allow in, and tame – as much as the being canbe tamed — the daemon of writing well?…[T]he daemons of fire that drove our finest poets and authors also tended to burn through them like white phosphorous through flesh, ending their lives early and in misery…As Yeats learned, there is no way — physical or occult 00 in which you can summon your writer’s daemon. You can do various things to put yourself in its way, but you can never be sure what “its way” might be. In the end, the daemon will choose you. Or not.
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NOTE: Director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, scheduled for a June 8 release, is striking me as the most awesomely exciting event to hit the cinemas in many a year. I think it appears poised to channel our current climate of apocalyptic fear with astounding power. The trailers convey this, and also the viral teasers. See for yourself.