In Saved by the Bell for the New Republic, William Giraldi reviews Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby.
Here’s the thesis driving Lit Up (please type it out and hand it to your teen): “The liberal arts in general, and especially reading seriously, offer an opening to a wider life, the powers of active citizenship (including the willingness to vote); reading strengthens perception, judgment, and character; it creates understanding of other people and oneself, maybe kindliness and wit, and certainly the ability to endure solitude, both in the common sense of empty-room loneliness and the cosmic sense of empty-universe loneliness. Reading fiction carries you further into imagination and invention than you would be capable of on your own, takes you into other people’s lives, and often, by reflection, deeper into your own.”
And here’s the clincher: “If literature matters less to young people than it once did, we are all in trouble.” There’s really no “if” about it, and so yes, we are all in trouble. The question is: How pernicious, how permanent is that trouble? Lit Up is no alarmist screed but a steadfast appeal by a writer who understands that without a devotion to literature, we’re a hamstrung bunch. [more]
In Flying high, The Economist reports on a “new crop of hands-on universities.”
[A] trend … is reshaping how some students learn. Geoff Mulgan of Nesta, a British think-tank, calls it the “rise of the challenge-driven university”. In the past 15 years dozens such institutions have been set up, from Chile to China. Many more are planned. Though they differ in scope, they share an approach. They reject the usual ways of getting young adults to learn: lectures, textbooks, slogs in the library, exams — and professors. Instead students work on projects in teams, trying to solve problems without clear answers. Companies often sponsor the projects and provide instructors. Courses combine arts, humanities and sciences. (The slogan of Zeppelin University, founded in 2003 in Germany, reads: “The problems within our society are ill-disciplined, and so are we!”)
There have been earlier attempts to disrupt higher education. Experimental College, in Wisconsin, attracted hundreds of free-spirited students when it was founded in 1927 without schedules or mandatory classes. The Experimental University, in Paris, was established by frustrated intellectuals after the protests of 1968. Both closed within a few years. (The Parisians may have been too eager to expand access: one lecturer gave a degree to someone she met on a bus.) Other experiments, however, continue. University College of North Staffordshire, renamed Keele University in 1962, became the first English university to offer dual honours courses when it was set up in 1949 by A.D. Lindsay, an Oxford don who complained about academic over-specialisation. “[The] man who only knows more and more about less and less is becoming a public danger,” he warned. [more]
Global water shortages are predicted to decrease global gross domestic product by as much as 14 percent by 2050, according to a recent report by the World Bank, which predicts that this “severe hit” will spur conflict and migration across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Even resource-rich countries previously considered to have stable economies, such as Brazil and Russia, have become more susceptible to environmental disequilibrium. Last year production of coffee, one of Brazil’s most important commodities, fell 15 percent as a result of drought. A lack of rain in Russia this fall damaged a quarter of its cereal crops. The last time the country’s harvest failed, rising global prices contributed to the Arab Spring in countries dependent on imported grain. Even Islamic State’s political power may soon be affected by drought. As water levels in Lake Assad in Syria plummet, Raqqa, the group’s stronghold, is facing severe shortages. Last year, Islamic State’s press officer, Abu Mosa, told Vice News that it would consider attacking Turkey to gain access to additional water resources.
Climate science has an explanation for why environmental forces can have this kind of destabilizing effect. [more]
In System Overload for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki looks at America’s infrastructure.
From the crumbling bridges of California to the overflowing sewage drains of Houston and the rusting railroad tracks in the Northeast Corridor, decaying infrastructure is all around us, and the consequences are so familiar that we barely notice them — like urban traffic congestion, slow-moving trains, and flights that are often disrupted, thanks to an outdated air-traffic-control system. The costs are significant, once you reckon wasted time, lost productivity, poor public-health outcomes, and increased carbon emissions. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of “Move,” a recent book on the subject, told me, “Infrastructure is such a dull word. But it’s really an issue that touches almost everything.” [more]
In True Grit for the New York Times Book Review, Judity Warner reviews Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough.
Four years ago, the New York Times Magazine journalist Paul Tough published a book titled “How Children Succeed,” which argued that the modern obsession with increasing student scores in reading and math misses most of what matters in education. Instead, character traits like grit, curiosity, persistence and self–control are the keys to success in school, college and life.
Test-weary parents and teachers embraced the message, and Tough spent the next few years speaking, traveling and reporting on programs laboring to put these ideas into practice. But in doing so, he noticed a “paradox” — many of the educators who were unusually good at teaching grit and self-control didn’t use those words to describe their aims. Often, they weren’t even aware that they were avatars of what Tough believed was a groundbreaking new approach to education. [more]
GOOD economic history tells dramatic stories of ingenuity and aspiration, greed and national self-interest. Sven Beckert writes good economic history. But why cotton? Mr Beckert’s answer is that for 900 years, until 1900, it was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. Cotton is relevant now because the story explains how and why an industry goes global. It is a story of wildly fluctuating fortunes, from stunning wealth to dire social disasters. [more]
One of the most influential articles on the meaning of “fair use” is a 1996 Harvard Law Review article Toward a Fair Use Standard (PDF) by Pierre N. Leval, judge, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The decision by Dallas police to deploy a robot to kill the man who shot and killed five officers last week appears to be unprecedented. Though the police chief said other options would have exposed officers to grave danger, the move fomented debate around the militarization of police and the ethical implications of remote-controlled use of force.
What considerations should guide the use of robots in policing? [more]
In an essay How to Cover the One Percent for the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing looks at how to report on the influence of the richest people.
The whole subject of private equity has been woefully undercovered. Firms like Carlyle, Blackstone, and KKR have been the main force behind the flood of mergers and acquisitions of recent years. News accounts have focused far more on the market effects of these deals than on their implications for employment, the concentration of wealth, and community welfare. Back in 2012, such factors were closely analyzed in connection with Mitt Romney’s work at the private equity company Bain Capital, but since then interest in private equity has waned even as the field has boomed. Naked Capitalism, an influential financial blog, recently ran a long post about how private equity companies “are far more obviously connected to an undue concentration of wealth at the expense of workers and communities” than are CDOs (collaterized debt obligations) and the other finance instruments that once drew such attention. Though the top one percent of the one percent “consists disproportionately of private equity and hedge fund principals,” the blog ruefully lamented, few of its readers seem interested. The same could be said of the press. A website on the nation’s power elite would pay close attention to the reach and impact of both private equity and hedge funds.
Remarkably, the Wall Street institution that may be the most powerful of them all is also among the least known. BlackRock is the largest money management firm in the world. Its chairman, Laurence Fink, oversees more money (about $4.5 trillion) than Germany has GDP. Fink regularly takes calls from governments and businesses from around the world seeking his advice and, as Susanne Craig reported in the Times in 2012, the company has exerted “enormous influence as a behind-the-scenes adviser to troubled governments” in places like Greece and Ireland. When seeking to analyze the health of a bank, the US Treasury Department often turns to BlackRock, leading a senior bank executive to call it (in an article in Vanity Fair) “the Blackwater of finance, almost a shadow government.” Fink himself is worth more than $300 million and sits on the boards of many institutions, including NYU and the Museum of Modern Art. Nonetheless he and his company have managed to escape serious journalistic scrutiny. A website on money and power could provide it.
Wall Street is hardly the only powerful precinct in need of sharper reporting. Hollywood is another. Coverage of it tends to be thin, with a heavy emphasis on ticket sales, executive rivalries, celebrity interviews, and awards ceremonies. Back in 2005, Bernard Weinraub, in a confessional reflection on the fourteen years he spent covering Hollywood for the Times, described how eagerly journalists sought access to stars and executives and how easily they were “co-opted by the overtures of a Michael Ovitz or the charm of a Joe Roth.”
That’s no less true today. Zenia Mucha, the head of communications for Walt Disney and a top adviser to its chairman, Robert Iger, is known for her skill at cajoling and browbeating reporters. As one journalist who covers the industry told me about Disney, “Almost no one writes a bad word about them so as to have access to top officials.” (He was not, of course, referring to film reviews.) Given the vastness of Disney’s holdings — they include Walt Disney Studios, the Disney Channel, Disney Resorts, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, ABC TV and News, ESPN, A&E, and Lifetime — assessing Mucha’s alleged success at shaping the news about the company would itself seem a subject worth pursuing.
Silicon Valley is in need of similar probing. [more]
In Unnatural Selection for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reports on the threats to the world’s coral reefs.
Coral reefs are often compared to cities, an analogy that captures both the variety and the density of life they support. The number of species that can be found on a small patch of healthy reef is probably greater than can be encountered in a similar amount of space anywhere else on Earth, including the Amazon rain forest. Researchers who once picked apart a single coral colony counted more than eight thousand burrowing creatures belonging to more than two hundred species. Using more sophisticated genetic-sequencing techniques, scientists recently looked to see how many species of crustaceans alone they could find. In one square metre at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, they came up with more than two hundred species — mostly crabs and shrimp — and in a similar-size stretch, at the southern end, they identified almost two hundred and thirty species. Extrapolating beyond crustaceans to fish and snails and sponges and octopuses and squid and sea squirts and on through the phyla, scientists estimate that reefs are home to at least a million and possibly as many as nine million species.
This diversity is even more remarkable in light of what might, to extend the urban metaphor, be called reefs’ environs. Tropical seas tend to be low in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Since most forms of life require nitrogen and phosphorus, tropical seas also tend to be barren; this explains why they’re often so marvellously clear. Ever since Darwin, scientists have been puzzled by how reefs support such richness under nutrient-poor conditions. The best explanation anyone has come up with is that on reefs — and here the metropolitan analogy starts to break down — all the residents enthusiastically recycle.
“In the coral city there is no waste,” Richard C. Murphy, a marine biologist who worked with Jacques Cousteau, has written. “The byproduct of every organism is a resource for another.” Corals are not only the architects of the system, they’re also the repairmen; without their ceaseless maintenance, there’s just “rapidly eroding rubble.” According to Roger Bradbury, an ecologist at Australia National University, if reefs were to disappear, the seas would look much as they did in Precambrian times, before fish had evolved. “It will be slimy,” he has observed. Worldwide, some five hundred million people rely on reefs for food, protection, income, or a combination of all three. Attaching a monetary value to these goods and services is difficult — some entire nations are composed of reefs — but estimates run as high as three hundred and seventy-five billion dollars a year. [more]
In Juarez Returns to Life, National Geographic reports that the Mexican border city, once one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is getting much safer.
From 2008 to 2012, the city of 1.3 million people was widely deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. Murders shot above 3,700 in the worst year. Criminals kidnapped and extorted with impunity. A quarter of all cars stolen in Mexico were stolen in Juárez. Businesses closed by the thousands. Anarchy descended.
The San Antonio neighborhood was among the worst. The boys now cavorting in the wrestling ring each had relatives killed or jailed….
Out in the colonias, or neighborhoods, at least 11 lucha libre rings now draw hundreds of kids donning personae such as Aztec Falcon and Ex-Convict. Juárez’s once empty streets are crowded again. Around the cathedral, clothing stores and Popsicle shops do a brisk business; cover bands play Spanish versions of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Jailhouse Rock” for shoppers who stop, listen, and dance. A children’s museum opened, aimed in part at the 14,000 who the museum’s director estimates were orphaned in the violence. Neighborhoods have organized sports leagues. Parks — including some new ones — are again places to socialize. “People are losing their fear,” Montenegro says.
What happened in Juárez to allow Montenegro and others to stop cowering and resume living? This is no wrestling melodrama in which a masked hero triumphs. Mexico found the political will, in Juárez at least, to strengthen the criminal justice system and invest in the local government. Doing so encouraged bravery from some unexpected protagonists: law enforcement officials who forged a more professional police force in a country where cops are often corrupt, businesspeople who stayed to fight rather than flee, and government officials who challenged the sclerotic bureaucracy and spearheaded dramatic reforms. [more]