CRF Blog

The Era of Reformation

by Bill Hayes

In The Era of Reformation for the New York Times Book Review, Michael Massing reviews Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650 by Carlos M. N. Eire.

Few periods pose as great a challenge to historians as the Protestant Reformation. It features a vast canvas of people, texts, conclaves, and political and intellectual developments, including the birth of printing, the rise of humanism, Wycliffe and Hus, the 95 Theses, the Diet of Worms, Leo X, Charles V, Henry VIII’s divorce, Thomas More’s execution, the Anabaptists, the Puritans, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the King James Bible and a series of epic conflicts, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War — a horrific bloodletting that itself has generated a shelf-ful of studies. Historians must also address the Reformation’s consequences, apparent in everything from Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Roman Curia to the prominence of the Bible in American life. [more]

Democracy in Hong Kong

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on Democracy in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with certain political and economic freedoms based on the notion of “one country, two systems.” The former British colony is a global financial capital that has thrived off its proximity to China, but in recent years many in Hong Kong have become frustrated by growing economic disparities in the city and weary of delays in democratic reform.

Democracy activists in Hong Kong usually rally on the anniversaries of the 1997 handover to China and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, but protests in the fall of 2014 reached record levels in what was dubbed the “Umbrella Movement.” Experts say that Beijing views these demonstrations and the increasing popularity of pro-democracy parties as a direct challenge to its legitimacy, and fears a political compromise could have dangerous implications for other regions like Taiwan or Tibet.

Hong Kong is an SAR of China that is largely free to manage its own affairs based on “one country, two systems,” a national unification policy developed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. The concept was intended to facilitate the reintegration of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao with sovereign China while preserving their unique political and economic systems. After more than a century and a half of colonial rule, the British government returned Hong Kong in 1997. (Qing Dynasty leaders ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Crown in 1842 after China’s defeat in the First Opium War.) Portugal returned Macao in 1999, and Taiwan remains independent. [more]

Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.

by Bill Hayes

In Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up., Wired magazine looks at the upside and downside of DNA editing.

In a way, humans were genetic engineers long before anyone knew what a gene was. They could give living things new traits—sweeter kernels of corn, flatter bulldog faces — through selective breeding. But it took time, and it didn’t always pan out. By the 1930s refining nature got faster. Scientists bombarded seeds and insect eggs with x-rays, causing mutations to scatter through genomes like shrapnel. If one of hundreds of irradiated plants or insects grew up with the traits scientists desired, they bred it and tossed the rest. That’s where red grapefruits came from, and most barley for modern beer.

Genome modification has become less of a crapshoot. In 2002, molecular biologists learned to delete or replace specific genes using enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases; the next-generation technique used enzymes named TALENs.

Yet the procedures were expensive and complicated. They only worked on organisms whose molecular innards had been thoroughly dissected — like mice or fruit flies. Genome engineers went on the hunt for something better.

Scientists have used it to render wheat invulnerable to killer fungi. Such crops could feed billions of people.

As it happened, the people who found it weren’t genome engineers at all. They were basic researchers, trying to unravel the origin of life by sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (as in archaic), descendants of the first life on Earth. Deep amid the bases, the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that made up those DNA sequences, microbiologists noticed recurring segments that were the same back to front and front to back—palindromes. The researchers didn’t know what these segments did, but they knew they were weird. In a branding exercise only scientists could love, they named these clusters of repeating palindromes Crispr.

jThen, in 2005, a microbiologist named Rodolphe Barrangou, working at a Danish food company called Danisco, spotted some of those same palindromic repeats in Streptococcus thermophilus, the bacteria that the company uses to make yogurt and cheese. Barrangou and his colleagues discovered that the unidentified stretches of DNA between Crispr’s palindromes matched sequences from viruses that had infected their S. thermophilus colonies. Like most living things, bacteria get attacked by viruses — in this case they’re called bacteriophages, or phages for short. Barrangou’s team went on to show that the segments served an important role in the bacteria’s defense against the phages, a sort of immunological memory. If a phage infected a microbe whose Crispr carried its fingerprint, the bacteria could recognize the phage and fight back. Barrangou and his colleagues realized they could save their company some money by selecting S. thermophilus species with Crispr sequences that resisted common dairy viruses. [more]

My Dinners With Harold

by Bill Hayes

In My Dinners With Harold for California Sunday Magazine, Daniel Duane tells of his experiences with a man who “revolutionized the science of cooking and became revered in the most famous kitchens in the world.”

The first time I had dinner with Harold McGee, he didn’t touch the food. McGee is the bookish 65-year-old author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, first published in 1984, last revised in 2004, and so dense with gripping material like the denaturing effect of heat on meat proteins that it cannot possibly have been read cover to cover by more than two or three people, McGee included. On Food and Cooking is also a perennial bestseller with hundreds of thousands of copies in print — a bible for home cooks and chefs all over the world and the primary reason that McGee has become the great secret celebrity of the contemporary food scene.

I knew for years that McGee lived in my San Francisco neighborhood, and I had been fantasizing about dinner with him ever since the night I tried to make mayonnaise by putting an egg yolk and a teaspoon of water in a bowl and whisking in half a cup of extra-virgin olive oil. This mixture deteriorated into such a disgusting pool of grease that I threw it out. I cracked a second egg, separated the yolk, added more water, and tried whisking in another half cup of olive oil. Heartbreak again, this time coupled with self-doubt.

I repeated this process five times, ever more certain that something was wrong with me, until I had gone through ten dollars’ worth of oil and all but one of my eggs with only minutes before my dinner guests were due. I owned On Food and Cooking, having bought it long before in the hope of making myself into a superior cook, but I had given up on reading it after repeated runs at Chapter 1: “Milk and Dairy Products.”

The mayo mess broke my OFAC impasse. Frantic, I scanned the index, found my subject between matzo and mead, and read McGee’s primer on emulsified sauces, of which mayonnaise is one. I felt calmed by McGee’s explanation that the essence of an emulsion is the dispersal of oil into a zillion tiny droplets suspended in water, aided by an emulsifier in egg yolks known as lecithin. I felt reassured by the news that fancy olive oil is notoriously temperamental in mayonnaise,  and I nearly wept with relief at the sight of a section titled, “Rescuing a Separated Sauce.” Following McGee’s directions, I put a few tablespoons of water in a cup and then, whisking vigorously, slowly drizzled in my final batch of yolk-speckled oil. Moments later, I emerged as the man I am today, capable of making mayonnaise with confidence. [more]

The Most-Read Stories of 2016

by Bill Hayes

OK, this is late, but still worth a look: The New York Times lists its Most-Read Stories of 2016.

‘Honest placebos’

by Bill Hayes

In ‘Honest placebos’ for the Los Angeles Times, Ted J. Kaptchuk shows how “medicine can work without any actual medicine.”

Placebo is a label that marks a drug as ineffective and disqualifies research subjects who respond to “bogus” treatments.

But what if patients who take “honest placebos” — meaning they are told explicitly that they are swallowing sugar pills — can still experience relief from discomfort and disability? That’s been the result of a number of studies by my research group at Harvard Medical School and other teams around the world over the last few years. While these trials were relatively small and short in duration, they collectively challenge our greatest assumption about placebos: that they require deception in order to be effective. [more]

The Will to Power

by David De La Torre

In The Will to Power, The Economist reports on the life and times of Fidel Castro.

TO MEET Fidel Castro was to notice, first of all, his sheer physical presence. He was tall, erect and had a high, domed forehead that made him look naturally imperious. He was strong: as a youth he was awarded a prize as the best all-round sportsman in Cuba. He was brave to the point of recklessness: as a boy, he once rode a bicycle straight into a wall to prove his mettle. And he was determined, convinced of his own rightness, intolerant of contradiction and immune to compromise. These characteristics he had inherited from his father, a Spanish migrant who brought with him to Cuba the innate stubbornness of the gallego and who became a prosperous landowner.

The son, who was born illegitimate in Birán, in rural eastern Cuba, in 1926, added a prodigious ambition for power. Even the Jesuits who taught him saw danger coming in the big, headstrong boy, whose country slang from the cane fields of Oriente marked him out among his urban classmates. The Cuban revolution as it turned out — though not as many of its supporters had originally hoped — was above all an expression of Mr Castro’s will and the unbridled exercise of his massive ego. In his cold-war heyday, he turned his small island into a pocket superpower, fomenting revolution across Latin America, dispatching armies to Africa and brazenly sheltering fugitives, political and criminal, from the United States.

Fidel — he was one of the few world leaders widely referred to by his first name — was lucky, too. He might have been killed many times: as an aspiring leader in the gangsterish ambience of Havana student politics; in his quixotic assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953, where some of his followers died; or in the desperate early weeks after the botched landing of the Granma, the overloaded pleasure boat that transported his tiny force of 82 rebels from Mexico three years later. Then there were the hundreds of attempts by the CIA to assassinate him …. [more]

Modern Democracy Has Plenty of Trump Precedents

by Bill Hayes

In Modern Democracy Has Plenty of Trump Precedents, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at similar leaders in other democratic states.

Instead, it’s better to study the slew of elected autocracies that have taken over developing nations during the past decade — and touched richer countries such as Italy, Hungary, and Poland. According to the monitoring group Freedom House, democracy has been on the decline worldwide since the late 2000s, with the rise of elected autocrats — legitimately elected leaders who then undermine democratic institutions and culture — a major reason for freedom’s ebb. These elected autocrats include people on the left of the spectrum, such as former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, as well as right-leaning leaders such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who dominates Poland’s current ruling Law and Justice Party.

Many of these elected autocrats had little or no government experience before winning national elections. [more]

NASA’s new online archive

by Bill Hayes

The Verge reports that NASA’s new online archive is a treasure trove of free research articles.

NASA launched a free online archive for science journal articles that were funded by the space agency. The archive, which was announced this week, is called PubSpace, and it will make available research and data that are often hidden behind the subscriptions and paywalls of scientific journals. PubSpace will be managed by the National Institutes of Health as part of its own database called PubMed Central. [more]

Mirror Stage

by Bill Hayes

In Mirror Stage for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Dark Art: My Undercover Life in Narco-Terrorism by Edward Follis.

Follis joined the Drug Enforcement Administration after a stint in the Marine Corps, and from the moment of his first bust — when he posed as a buyer for a group of Mexican heroin wholesalers — he was “hopelessly addicted to undercover.” During the next three decades, he fought the drug war in Thailand, Mexico, and Korea, and rose to become the agency’s chief representative in Afghanistan. The cast of characters he met along the way could populate a movie set. There was Dragan, “a young Rutger Hauer, six-one, close-cropped blond hair and cobalt-blue eyes,” for whom the D.E.A. put together an entire warehouse of advanced weaponry in a drugs-for-arms deal. “His demeanor remained ice-cold,” Follis writes: “… Didn’t so much as nod. And he damn sure didn’t smile. I don’t think he was a white supremacist, but to me, he had an almost neo-Nazi appearance; he held your gaze for too long, and those blue eyes were chilling. I’ve learned with guys who look like that, guys who think they’re bad-asses, you don’t keep your distance from them. You move in closer.”

Then, there was Kayed Berro, scion of the infamous Berro clan, from the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, and an alleged associate of the Pakistani heroin kingpin Muhammad Khan, who, Follis tells us, was widely feared and never seen, in the manner of “the Keyser Soze character in The Usual Suspects.” In Thailand, Follis went in search of the elusive Khun Sa, the opium warlord known as the Prince of Death. Follis became so fluent in Thai that his Thai girlfriend once exclaimed, after listening to him set up a meeting with a trafficker, “When I listen to you speak, I wouldn’t even know you were white.” He hauled duffelbags stuffed with five hundred thousand dollars in small bills through a secret passageway under Hong Kong International Airport. He stared down an ex-con named Mike, who pointed an Uzi between his eyes, wondering if Follis was who he said he was. (“What are you talkin’ about, Mike?” Follis fired back. “Think I’m a fuckin’ cop or something? . . . How could I be a cop? Listen, man, I’d be in … jail for what I’ve done with you so far.”) When one of his informers was grabbed in Kabul, he picked up an M4 carbine, a Glock, and a bowie knife, and took off through the city’s streets in a scene worthy of the “Fast and Furious” franchise …. [more]

Collateral Consequences of Conviction

by Bill Hayes

The American Bar Association has compiled the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction. It’s a database showing the consequences, other than the direct punishment, of being convicted of a crime. Click on a state or federal government, and see what the consequences are for that jurisdiction.

Populism on the March

by Bill Hayes

In Populism on the March for Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria looks at the rise of populism, particularly right-wing populism, what it means for the West, and why it has occurred.

Historically, populism has come in left- and right-wing variants, and both are flourishing today, from Bernie Sanders to Trump, and from Syriza, the leftist party currently in power in Greece, to the National Front, in France. But today’s left-wing populism is neither distinctive nor particularly puzzling. Western countries have long had a far left that critiques mainstream left-wing parties as too market-oriented and accommodating of big business. In the wake of the Cold War, center-left parties moved much closer toward the center — think of Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom — thus opening up a gap that could be filled by populists. That gap remained empty, however, until the financial crisis of 2007–8. The subsequent downturn caused households in the United States to lose trillions in wealth and led unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain to rise to 20 percent and above, where it has remained ever since. It is hardly surprising that following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the populist left experienced a surge of energy.

The new left’s agenda is not so different from the old left’s. If anything, in many European countries, left-wing populist parties are now closer to the center than they were 30 years ago. Syriza, for example, is not nearly as socialist as was the main Greek socialist party, PASOK, in the 1970s and 1980s. In power, it has implemented market reforms and austerity, an agenda with only slight variations from that of the governing party that preceded it. Were Podemos, Spain’s version of Syriza, to come to power — and it gained only about 20 percent of the vote in the country’s most recent election — it would probably find itself in a similar position.

Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe. France’s National Front is positioned to make the runoff in next year’s presidential election. Austria’s Freedom Party almost won the presidency this year and still might, since the final round of the election was annulled and rescheduled for December. Not every nation has succumbed to the temptation. Spain, with its recent history of right-wing dictatorship, has shown little appetite for these kinds of parties. But Germany, a country that has grappled with its history of extremism more than any other, now has a right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, growing in strength. And of course, there is Trump. While many Americans believe that Trump is a singular phenomenon, representative of no larger, lasting agenda, accumulating evidence suggests otherwise. The political scientist Justin Gest adapted the basic platform of the far-right British National Party and asked white Americans whether they would support a party dedicated to “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage and stopping the threat of Islam.” Sixty-five percent of those polled said they would. Trumpism, Gest concluded, would outlast Trump. [more]

Recent Political Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

See Cagle’s collection of recent political cartoons.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

Why Youth Was Not Enough

by Bill Hayes

In Why Youth Was Not Enough for the New York Times Book Review, Thanassis Cambanis reviews Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East by Rachel Aspden.

Egypt’s volte-face forces important questions about what kind of change is possible in the Arab world, and more universally, about the indiscriminate and violent nature of both revolutionary and authoritarian politics. Why were so many Egyptians willing to risk everything in 2011, and why, just two years later in July 2013, were so many willing to make another devil’s bargain with a despot?

“Generation Revolution” is a whodunit that seeks to resolve these twin mysteries of geopolitics and human nature. Its author, Rachel Aspden, first moved to Egypt from England in 2003, diving into a culture that she clearly loved on first sight. She studied the language, worked as a journalist and tried her best to understand the worldview of her fellow 20-somethings. Through her long-running friendships Aspden is able to see the frustrations that have driven events in Egypt. [more]

7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics

by Bill Hayes

In 7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics, Vox looks at psychology to explain how the nation can remain so divided.

1) Motivated reasoning: rooting for a team changes your perception of the world

One of the key psychological concepts for understanding politics is also one of the oldest.

It’s called motivated cognition, or motivated reasoning. And there’s no clearer example than in a paper published way back in the 1950s.

The Dartmouth versus Princeton football game of November 1951 was, by all accounts, brutal. One Princeton player broke his nose. One Dartmouth player broke his leg.

Princeton students blamed the Dartmouth team for instigating. The Dartmouth paper accused Princeton’s. In the contentious debates that ensued about “who started it,” psychologists at the two schools united to answer this question: Why did each school have such a different understanding of what happened?

In the weeks after the Princeton-Dartmouth game, the psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril ran a very simple test. Their findings would become the classic example of a concept called motivated reasoning: Our tendency to come to conclusions we’re already favored to believe.

When they asked students at each of their universities to watch video highlights from the game, 90 percent of the Princeton students said it was Dartmouth that instigated the rough play. Princeton students were also twice as likely to call penalties on Dartmouth than their own team. The majority of Dartmouth students, on the other hand, said both sides were to blame for the rough play in the game, and called a similar number of penalties for both teams. Hastorf and Cantril’s conclusion wasn’t that one set of fans was lying. It’s that being a fan fundamentally changes the way you perceive the game.

The lesson is simple: “People are more likely to arrive at conclusions … that they want to arrive at,” the psychologist Ziva Kunda wrote in a seminal 1990 paper, making the case that motivated reasoning is real and pervasive.

And there’s plenty of proof of it today. When Gallup polled Americans the week before and the week after the presidential election, Democrats and Republicans flipped their perceptions of the economy. But nothing had actually changed about the economy. What changed was which team was winning. [more]

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