This week’s link list is slightly shorter than usual, because my time and energy have been dominated for the past few days by the task of writing three essays for ABC-CLIO’s “Enduring Questions” academic reference database, in the enticingly titled category, “World Religions: Belief, Culture, and Controversy.” But there’s still plenty of worthwhile reading here, covering the categories of apocalyptic fears, the possibility (probability?) of a US military strike on Iran, the Wall Street-White House-Capitol Hill nexus of corruption, the rise of the American prison-industrial complex, the fate of paper books and speculative fiction genres in the era of the e-book, the influence of the I Ching on renowned Western intellectuals and artists, the role of Christianity in helping to launch Western science by shaping its philosophical foundations, a possible paradigm shift that’s in the offing for the theory of evolution, and the absolutely fascinating story of a man whose head injury from a mugging has resulted in his becoming a mathematical genius who sees mental image of mathematical diagrams and is apparently the only person in the world with the ability to draw fractals by hand.
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Mike Deri Smith, The Morning News, February 28, 2012
Teaser: Big-budget films tell us earthquakes are bad, volcanic eruptions can be catastrophic, and meteorite strikes — barring the presence of Bruce Willis — may kill us all. Seeking expert advice on how scared we should be.
To recap the expert recommendations: Tsunami and earthquake education sometimes works, or could if done properly; volcano-monitoring systems aren’t always working, asteroid-warning systems need more work, and a universal flu vaccine? Well, we’re working on it. We clearly need experts to be more involved in policy decisions, considering their almost universal and very rational frustration. And natural disasters of all sizes, not just the worst-case scenarios, would benefit from some expert policy planning…[Haraldur Sigurdsson, an emeritus professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and the Indiana Jones of natural disasters, says,] “I hope that I can help in some way, by increasing our understanding of the way the Earth works, so that we can work with it — and stay out of the way when it becomes dangerous.” He points out that “with increasing population density, there are more people getting in harm’s way when the Earth takes a sneeze.” When the Earth sneezes the next time, society might catch more than a cold: It could reasonably be a flu strain as powerful as the one in Contagion. It could represent the end of life as we know it, as envisioned by Melancholia. The years-long winter envisioned by George R.R. Martin in A Game of Thrones isn’t so far off the mark should a strong enough volcano erupt—and the eruption of an unexpected super-volcano like in Volcano is closer to the truth than many of us are willing to accept.
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US envoy to Israel: US ready to strike Iran
Amy Teibel, Associated Press, May 17, 2012
The U.S. has plans in place to attack Iran if necessary to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Washington’s envoy to Israel said, days ahead of a crucial round of nuclear talks with Tehran. Dan Shapiro’s message resonated Thursday far beyond the closed forum in which it was made: Iran should not test Washington’s resolve to act on its promise to strike if diplomacy and sanctions fail to pressure Tehran to abandon its disputed nuclear program. Shapiro told the Israel Bar Association the U.S. hopes it will not have to resort to military force. “But that doesn’t mean that option is not fully available. Not just available, but it’s ready,” he said. “The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready”…President Barack Obama has assured Israel that the U.S. is prepared to take military action if necessary, and it is standard procedure for armies to draw up plans for a broad range of possible scenarios. But Shapiro’s comments were the most explicit sign yet that preparations have been stepped up. In his speech, Shapiro acknowledged the clock is ticking. “We do believe there is time. Some time, not an unlimited amount of time,” Shapiro said. “But at a certain point, we may have to make a judgment that the diplomacy will not work.”
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How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform
Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, May 24, 2012
Teaser: It’s bad enough that the banks strangled the Dodd-Frank law. Even worse is the way they did it – with a big assist from Congress and the White House.
Two years ago, when he signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, President Barack Obama bragged that he’d dealt a crushing blow to the extravagant financial corruption that had caused the global economic crash in 2008. “These reforms represent the strongest consumer financial protections in history,” the president told an adoring crowd in downtown D.C. on July 21st, 2010. “In history.” This was supposed to be the big one. At 2,300 pages, the new law ostensibly rewrote the rules for Wall Street…Two years later, Dodd-Frank is groaning on its deathbed. The giant reform bill turned out to be like the fish reeled in by Hemingway’s Old Man — no sooner caught than set upon by sharks that strip it to nothing long before it ever reaches the shore…That means all those thousands of hours of debate and fierce negotiation spent hammering out Dodd-Frank two years ago might now go up in smoke in a matter of a few quiet minutes. Of the big-ticket items that were actually passed two years ago, the derivatives reforms have been completely gutted by loopholes, the Volcker Rule has been delayed for two years, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may be thrust under the budgetary control of Congress, which is determined to destroy it. And much of this is taking place with the assent of Democrats, for a very simple reason: because the name of the game isn’t cleaning up Wall Street, it’s cleaning out Wall Street — throwing a “yes” vote at a bank-approved bill to get them to pony up in an election year…That’s the underlying problem with cracking down on Wall Street: Our political-economic system has grown too knotted and unmanageable for democratic rule. While it’s incredibly difficult to get a regulatory reform passed, it’s far easier — and more profitable to politicians — to kill it. Creating legislation is a tough process. But watering down legislation? Strangling it with lawsuits and comment letters and blue-ribbon committees? Not so tough, it turns out.
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Louisiana is the world’s prison capital
Cindy Chang, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), May 13, 2012
Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s. The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt. Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations. If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars. Meanwhile, inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens…A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.
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What Will Become of the Paper Book?
Michael Agresta, Slate, May 8, 2012
Teaser: How their design will evolve in the age of the Kindle.
The change has come more slowly to books than it came to music or to business correspondence, but by now it feels inevitable. The digital era is upon us. The Twilights and Freedoms of 2025 will be consumed primarily as e-books…But a literary culture that has defined itself through paper books for centuries will surely feel the loss as they pass away…Luddites can take comfort in the persistence of vinyl records, postcards, and photographic film. The paper book will likewise survive, but its place in the culture will change significantly. As it loses its traditional value as an efficient vessel for text, the paper book’s other qualities — from its role in literary history to its inimitable design possibilities to its potential for physical beauty — will take on more importance…Who will buy these new, well-made paper books? One likely result of the transition to e-books is that paper book culture will move further out of reach for those without disposable income. Debt-ridden college students, underemployed autodidacts, and the everyday mass of bargain-hunters will find better deals on the digital side of the divide. (Netflix for books, anyone?). As paper books become more unusual, some will continue to buy them as collectors’ items, others for the superior sensory experience they afford…Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura” — for better or for worse…[But] the unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves…are headed for the same place most manufactured objects go eventually — the scrapheap.
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The death of genre
Charlie Stross, Charlie’s Diary, May 5, 2012
[W]ithin another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die…The y point is that our genre sits uneasily within boundaries delineated by the machinery of sales. And that creaking steam-age machinery is currently in the process of being swapped out for some kind of irridescent, gleaming post-modern intrusion from the planet internet. New marketing strategies become possible, indeed, become essential. And the utility of the old signifiers—the rocket ship logo on the spine of the paperback—diminish in the face of the new (tagging, reader recommendations, “if you liked X you’ll love Y” cross-product correlations by sales engines, custom genre-specific cover illustrations, and so on). This is going to drastically affect the quality and content of the internal dialog within our genre
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The I Ching: The Religion That Inspired 7 Great Thinkers
Richard J. Smith, The Huffington Post, April 26, 2012
Here’s a crazy idea. First, you find an ancient Chinese philosophical text — let’s say the most influential book in China’s entire cultural tradition (and also pretty damned important in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Tibet). Then you put it in the hands of some eighteenth century Jesuit missionaries in China who think it is a corrupted version of the Bible. After that, you go looking for a second group of Jesuits who hate the first group, even though they all call each other “brother,” and convince them to translate the book into Latin. Now Latin, as we all know, is a dead language and of no use to anyone (keep those cards and letters coming!), so you find additional people to translate the book into dozens of other languages, including English. What happens next? Well, suppose a counter-cultural movement develops in Europe and the Americas during the 1960s. Wouldn’t it be great if you had an exotic Asian text that you could embrace in order to show your disdain for conventional middle-class values and frozen TV dinners? And wouldn’t it be especially nice if you could use that text to tell fortunes, write poems, produce novels, compose music, choreograph dances, and create art? Boom! That’s exactly what has happened to the I Ching (also spelled Yijing), or Classic of Changes (also known as the Book of Changes).
[NOTE: The accompanying notes and slideshow offers capsule accounts of how the I Ching influenced Leibniz, Aleister Crowley, Jung, Philip K. Dick, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and Bob Dylan.]
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Christianity and the rise of western science
Peter Harrison, Australian Broadcasting Corporation,May 8, 2012
Teaser: Those who magnify recent controversies about science and religion, projecting conflict back into historical time, perpetuate a historical myth to which no historian of science would subscribe.
It is often assumed that the relationship between Christianity and science has been a long and troubled one…In spite of this widespread view on the historical relations between science and religion, historians of science have long known that religious factors played a significantly positive role in the emergence and persistence of modern science in the West. Not only were many of the key figures in the rise of science individuals with sincere religious commitments, but the new approaches to nature that they pioneered were underpinned in various ways by religious assumptions. The idea, first proposed in the seventeenth century, that nature was governed by mathematical laws, was directly informed by theological considerations. The move towards offering mechanical explanations in physics also owed much to a particular religious perspective. The adoption of more literal approaches to the interpretation of the bible, usually assumed to have been an impediment to science, also had an important, in indirect, role in these deveolopments, promoting a non-symbolic and utilitarian understanding of the natural world which was conducive to the scientific approach. Finally, religion also provided social sanctions for the pursuit of science, ensuring that it would become a permanent and central feature of the culture of the modern West…Could modern science have arisen outside the theological matrix of Western Christendom? It is difficult to say. What can be said for certain is that it did arise in that environment, and that theological ideas underpinned some of its central assumptions. Those who argue for the incompatibility of science and religion will draw little comfort from history.
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The Evolution Paradigm Shift
Susan Mazur, Counterpunch, May 7, 2012
I called University of Chicago microbiologist James Shapiro, who’s now also blogging on HuffPost about science, to arrange an interview after noticing that we’d both recently been bashed by Darwinist Jerry Coyne in the same column. I reached Shapiro at home. He was engaging, although he described himself as a “reclusive person” — which he says he finds key to serious thinking. The commotion was over Shapiro’s book: Evolution: A View from the 21st Century since Coyne, also a University of Chicago professor, has an evolution text he’d like to keep relevant. I decided to have a look at Shapiro’s book and see exactly why Coyne was agitated…[He told me,] “We have this terrible dilemma in science. We need to be reductionists to get meaningful results and make observations. But when we take the observations and try to understand what they mean, then we have to stop being reductionists and become integrationists to understand how the things we’ve identified and singled out fit into the whole picture. We’ve lost sight of that need for integration with the successes of molecular biology. But I think we’re getting back to an integrationist view now because people are studying complex problems like cell biology and multicellular development using molecular tools. It’s becoming clear that there’s an interaction between the parts and the whole which is far more complex and multidirectional than people used to think. I think that that shift from reductionism to integrationism actually needs to happen in the physical sciences as well. They still hang on very much to the idea that you can have ‘a theory of everything.’ I’m rather dubious about that.”
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Real ‘Beautiful Mind’: College Dropout Became Mathematical Genius after Mugging
Neal Karlinsky and Meredith Frost, ABC News, April 27, 2012
Jason Padgett, 41, sees complex mathematical formulas everywhere he looks and turns them into stunning, intricate diagrams he can draw by hand. He’s the only person in the world known to have this incredible skill, which he obtained by sheer accident just a decade ago. “I’m obsessed with numbers, geometry specifically,” Padgett said. “I literally dream about it. There’s not a moment that I can’t see it, and it just doesn’t turn off.” Padgett doesn’t have a PhD, a college degree or even a background in math. His talent was born out of a true medical mystery that scientists around the world are still trying to unravel. Ten years ago, Padgett was only interested in two things: working out and partying. One night he was walking out of a karaoke club in Tacoma when he was brutally attacked by muggers who beat and kicked him in the head repeatedly. Padgett said they were after his $99 leather jacket. “All I saw was a bright flash of light and the next thing I knew I was on my knees on the ground and I thought, ‘I’m gonna get killed,’” he said. At the time, doctors said he had a concussion, but within a day or two, Padgett began to notice something remarkable. This college dropout who couldn’t draw became obsessed with drawing intricate diagrams, but didn’t know what they were. “I see bits and pieces of the Pythagorean theorem everywhere,” he said. “Every single little curve, every single spiral, every tree is part of that equation.” The diagrams he draws are called fractals and Padgett can draw a visual representation of the formula Pi, that infinite number that begins with 3.14…A scan of Padgett’s brain showed damage that was forcing his brain to overcompensate in certain areas that most people don’t have access to, Brogaard explained. The result was Padgett was now an acquired savant, meaning brilliant in a specific area.
[NOTE: The page at ABC News features a video story. I can’t embed it here, but this one gets across the same point, and features some of Padgett’s astonishing artwork:]