Divided States of America: Part 2

There’s a sense of exhaustion that settles over the proceedings, particularly in the second installment, as every single thing that happens in the Obama presidency is neatly reframed by right-wing pundits as some outrageous scam liberals are trying to pull on the American public. It’s never clear what those who opposed anything and everything Obama wanted to do were hoping would happen, especially in his second term, when they could no longer stop his reelection. It’s clear they were trying to hamper his every move, but every potential explanation for their intransigence — racial, political, social, even cultural — falls short.

Frontline | 30th January 2017

Divided States of America: Part 1

A thorough in-depth view of the partisan gridlock in Washington during President Barack Obama’s years in office, the rise of populist anger on both sides of the aisle, and the racial tensions that erupted throughout the country.
Wesley Lowery, author of They Can’t Kill Us All: “The great irony of the Obama presidency, right, is someone who came in on the mandate of changing Washington as we know it, someone who came on the mandate of ending this gridlock and this polarization, by his very presence and by his very humanity, who he was, the color of his skin, the sound of his name, forced more polarization and gridlock than we had seen in the eight years prior.”

Frontline | 17th January 2017

The Ethical Dilemma of Designer Babies

Creating genetically modified people is no longer a science fiction fantasy; it’s a likely future scenario. Biologist Paul Knoepfler estimates that within fifteen years, scientists could use the gene editing technology CRISPR to make certain “upgrades” to human embryos — from altering physical appearances to eliminating the risk of auto-immune diseases. In this thought-provoking talk, Knoepfler readies us for the coming designer baby revolution and its very personal, and unforeseeable, consequences.

TEDTalks | 23rd January 2017

Photo: Neo-Nazis march under police protection in Dortmund in 2008 Photo: Neo-Nazis march under police protection in Dortmund in 2008

The Neo-Nazi Murder Trial and Germany’s Darkest Secrets

National Socialist Underground (NSU) perpetrated random attacks between 2000 and 2007 throughout Germany, leaving ten people dead and one wounded. Primary targets were ethnic Turks but also Kurds, though the victims also included one ethnic Greek and one ethnic German policewoman. They were murdered in daylight with gunshots to the face at close range with a silenced CZ 83 pistol.
The NSU murder investigation trial suggest that the organisation may have been carefully supported and protected by German state intelligence agency, known as the BfV, and its state-level branches, known as the LfV. The agency allegedly either turned a blind eye to the NSU murders or supported the group’s aims.
The BfV has long been regarded as right-leaning: it was founded after the second world war by the Americans, who welcomed Nazis and former Gestapo members into its ranks. Its mission was to spy on and root out the KPD, as the German communist party was known, as well as members of the Social Democratic party. The first head of the organisation, Otto John, defected to East Germany in 1954, citing the overwhelming number of Nazis in the organisation. His successor was Hubert Schrübbers, a former member of the SS. For now, neither police nor trial investigators have the right to subpoena BfV documents that may contain vital evidence about the NSU killings.
The German ministry of the interior counted around 14,000 far-right-related crimes in 2015, about 30% more than in the previous year. By April 2016, police counted three attacks per day against housing facilities for asylum seekers. Last year, a small group – one woman and two men – threw a molotov cocktail into a Zimbabwean child’s bedroom at an asylum centre in Lower Saxony.

The Guardian’s Audio Long Reads


Do Sweatshops Reduce Poverty?

Economics and ethics of low-paying factories in Ethiopia, which some might call “sweatshops”. Do they make their workers better off, relative to those people’s outside options? Professor Chris Blattman has run some well-designed randomized controlled trials exploring this question, and he discusses what surprised him and how he’s updated his views from his research. Julia and Chris also discuss an innovative program to reduce crime in Liberia using cognitive behavioral therapy.
Chris’s Paper: “Occupational Choice in Early Industrializing Societies: Experimental Evidence on the Income and Health Effects of Industrial and Entrepreneurial Work”
Chris’s Blog Post: “Books development economists and aid workers seldom read but should?”
Photo: An Ethiopian family in search for food from fleeing remote villages where wells have dried up due to drought arrive in Korom, northeast Ethiopia November 24, 2004.

Rationally Speaking | 8th January 2017

Daniel Dennett about the Magic of Consciousness

The how’s and why’s of consciousness, from an evolutionary and neurological standpoint, and through the lenses of computer science and human culture. Beyerstein and Dennett catch up to discuss Dennett’s newest book, “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds”. It’s a fresh look at Dennett’s earlier work on the subject of consciousness, taken in new directions as he seeks a “bottom-up view of creation.”

Daniel C. Dennett is best known in cognitive science for his multiple drafts (or “fame in the brain”) model of human consciousness, and to the secular community for his 2006 book “Breaking the Spell”. Author and co-author of two-dozen books, he’s the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, where he taught our very own Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein.

Point of Inquiry | 17 January 2017

Alan Yentob: the Last Impresario

For decades, Alan Yentob was the dominant creative force at the BBC – a towering figure in British culture. So why did many applaud his very public slide from power?
“…there has been, over the years, something borderline obsessive – and therefore something sociologically revealing – about the pursuit, and eventual toppling of Yentob. No one I spoke to for this article wanted to be the first to mention antisemitism, but pretty much everyone did in the end. “A posh Jew poncing around at the public expense,” said his friend Hanif Kureishi, the writer. “What is not to hate?”
Beyond that, however, there is also a sense that outsized figures such as Yentob, paid for by the nation to make culture for the nation, may simply not be welcome in British society any more. The stitching that once held them in place has gone. Political and social faith in public broadcasting is in decline. Subsidy of the arts and education is much weaker than it was a generation ago. People who work in those sectors find themselves assailed by market forces, low-grade ministers and a sceptical rightwing media all at the same time.
Seen from the end of 2016, the reason for Yentob’s resignation and disgrace – the closure of Kids Company, a charity he chaired for 12 years – appears oddly contrived, hysterical even. Watching him interrogated by MPs and paraded before the media, colleagues at the BBC, outside the news division anyway, smelled an air of retribution for crimes that were understood but never quite spelled out.”
Written and read by Sam Knight. Produced by Simon Barnard

The Guardian’s Audio Long Reads | 16th January 2017

Geology is Destiny

The record of the rocks is not just the history of Earth; it’s your history too. Geologists can learn about events going back billions of years that influenced – and even made possible – our present-day existence and shaped our society.
If the last Ice Age had been a bit warmer, the rivers and lakes of the Midwest would have been much farther north and the U.S. might still be a small country of 13 states. If some Mediterranean islands hadn’t twisted a bit, no roads would have led to Rome.
Geology is big history, and the story is on-going. Human activity is changing the planet too, and has introduced its own geologic era, the Anthropocene. Will Earthlings of a hundred million years from now dig up our plastic refuse and study it the way we study dinosaur bones?
Plus, the dodo had the bad luck to inhabit a small island and couldn’t adapt to human predators. But guess what? It wasn’t as dumb as you think.
Walter Alvarez – Professor of Geology, University of California, Berkeley, and author of “A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves”
David Grinspoon – Senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and author of “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future”
Eugenia Gold – Instructor, Department of Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University
Ilustration: Verdon Gorge, France

The Big Picture Science | 16th January 2017

Artificial Creativity

Computer scientists are closing in on the next frontier in artificial intelligence — machines that can create. So, what is the Future of Creativity. While the ability of AI to create art of any kind and be creative is still in its nascency, the gap between the art created by most people and the art created by AI is rapidly closing.  Can AI supersede humans even in this stronghold of humanity?
Software designers and computer scientists in this episode argue that we need to think about our own creative process and maybe incorporate certain elements of AI creativity within our creative process. Just like AI aided chess player teams trump just AI teams or just human teams, the art created by the combination of AI and human creativity might surpass art created by AI’s or purely humans. Artists who have worked with the current implementations of AI are not too impressed with the result.
Some useful tips on how to write a bestseller novel. Provided to you by AI “Bestseller Code”.
Photo: Charlotte Moorman performing in 1971. Credit Takahiko Iimura

To the Best of Our Knowledge | 15th January 2017

The Kansas Experiment

What happens when a state drastically cuts taxes. Sam Brownback did it in Kansas. As a Republican governor of a Republican state, he was going to enact the dream. Taxes on small businesses went down to zero. Personal income taxes went down. The tax rate on the highest income bracket went down about 25 percent. Brownback promised prosperous times for the state once government got out of the way. One goal of the tax cuts was to get more money to flow back into the pockets of hard-working, job-creating Kansans. The other was to trim back government spending.
After these tax cuts, Kansas had $600 million less revenue than before. So, to balance the budget, the government tapped into the highway budget. Towns and cities trimmed back, too. Marquette, Kansas saw its only school close in 2014. Now, the 65 kids who once attended Marquette Elementary travel 10 to 20 miles out of town every day to go to class.
Sam Brownback has said that he’s sticking to his tax plan. But the state legislature has recently introduced a bill to roll back some of his tax cuts.

Planet Money | 11th January 2017