CRF Blog

The Surprising Way Drugs Become Useless Against Bacteria

by Bill Hayes

In The Surprising Way Drugs Become Useless Against Bacteria, National Geographic looks at why life-threatening antibiotic resistance is spreading.

The World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats of the 21st century. The World Economic Forum calls it a “potential disaster” for human health and the global economy. Just one such microbial threat, multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, caused more than 11,000 deaths in the United States in 2011 alone, and that one plus other resistant microbes kill hundreds of thousands of people annually around the world.

How has this happened? By a combination of Darwinian natural selection (hit a population of bacteria with an antibiotic, and the fittest will survive) and an evolutionary mechanism discovered much more recently, a phenomenon so counterintuitive that Charles Darwin didn’t imagine it: horizontal gene transfer. What that means is genes moving sideways across boundaries — between individuals, between species, even between kingdoms of creatures. One researcher in the 1950s dubbed it “infective heredity.” Genome sequencing reveals that such horizontal transfer of DNA has been profoundly important in the history of life, and among bacteria it’s especially common, with particular implications for the spread of antibiotic-resistance genes. [more]

The Underground Railroad of North Korea

by Bill Hayes

Writing in GQ, Doug Bock Clark reports on The Underground Railroad of North Korea.

First, the woman called “Faith” would have to evade the soldiers and surveillance cameras on the border. But even once she’d sneaked into China, the danger would only have just begun. To reach a South Korean embassy, where she could receive asylum, she would still have to clandestinely journey thousands of miles across China and then several Southeast Asian countries. If she was discovered anywhere along that trek, she would likely be repatriated to one of her nation’s infamous gulags, where prisoners slave with so little food they capture rats to eat. But after more than 30 years of never daring to criticize the dictatorship out loud, even after enduring a famine, she was willing to risk anything to free herself.

By late 2017, thanks to the help of a secret network of activists who serve as an underground railroad of sorts for North Koreans seeking asylum, Faith had managed to make it over 2,500 miles from her home. As she approached China’s border with Vietnam, where many refugees have been arrested — she recognized that she was facing one of the most hazardous passages of her odyssey. Faith, her two preschool-age kids, and five other North Koreans hiked on a mud path through farmland and jungle, following a Vietnamese man in silence, for speaking Korean would blow their cover to anyone they passed. At the end of the trail, a soldier appeared, guarding a bridge over a river, and their guide hailed him. Safety lay just beyond the soldier. She waited for him to respond. In this moment, she would discover if her bravery had won a better life for her and her children — or if she had doomed them all.

Faith was born in the People’s Paradise of North Korea in the late 1970s. There her easy life was envied by the rest of the world—or at least that was what she was taught. At home, she and her mother were supposed to polish their household portrait of the smiling Great Leader each day, though they only cleaned it in advance of inspections, since they could be punished if it wasn’t shiny enough. A giant version of that portrait, with its you-will-be-happy smile, greeted her at every school, factory, and railroad station. And after turning 16, like all adults, she pinned a button with the portrait over her heart each morning. Of course, Faith’s actual life was nothing like what the dictatorship’s propaganda depicted. In the mid-1990s, as a teenager, she survived a famine that reduced the population to scavenging pine bark, insects, and frogs, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. But if the ever-present secret police caught anyone complaining, the whiners could end up in the gulags, so Faith sang patriotic songs and echoed the slogan that North Koreans had “nothing to envy” about the lives of foreigners. But because Faith lived just a few miles from the heavily guarded Chinese border, sometimes people from her hometown sneaked across the river snaking through the mountains to search for food, and by the mid-2000s she had become exposed to goods smuggled in from outside—especially DVDs of South Korean soap operas. North Koreans are taught that South Koreans are an impoverished people ground beneath the heels of American “imperialist wolves,” so images of South Korea’s futuristic megalopolises amazed her, especially when she compared them with the dreary Soviet-style farming town where she grew up. But what really kept her binge-watching all night, while keeping an ear out for police, were the love stories. In North Korean cinema, heroines fall for the Great Leader and the Party, so she was amazed by glimpses of a world where personal romance came first.

Such a life, however, was beyond her grasp. She married and had a child. By 2012, she was actually relatively well-off, as she illegally traded mountain herbs. And though North Koreans were no longer starving in the streets, life remained bleak. (A 2018 United Nations report found that 43.4 percent of North Koreans are undernourished.) Still she was sick of “voluntary” communal-labor assignments, such as shoveling gravel to build roads, and the lies that undergirded North Korea’s “rotten” society. She was also having domestic problems with her husband. So when cross-border smugglers told her that they could get her a job in China, from which she could earn money to ultimately buy passage to South Korea, she decided to leave her husband and child behind and risk the gulags trying to sneak out of the country. Once she had saved up enough in China, she told herself, she would pay the smugglers to bring her kid (but not her husband) over the border and then she would usher them to a better life. When Faith arrived in China, however, the smugglers stunned her by revealing that she was to be sold to a Chinese husband. The smugglers, it turned out, were far from the good men she took them to be. Rather they were merchants in North Korean women, exploiting the gender imbalance created by China’s one-child policy—which unintentionally encouraged patriarchal parents to abort female fetuses, creating a surplus of 30 million Chinese men, thousands of whom are so desperate for partners that they buy North Korean wives. “I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t speak the language,” Faith would later say, “so what could I do?” Several bids were made before she was ultimately auctioned off for about $800 to a poor Chinese farmer. [more]

The Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State

by David De La Torre

Behance has created posters with short commentary of The Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State. That’s right, it starts with Alabama and ends with Wyoming.

The 12-gram mouse with enormous eyes is a bit of an architect: it is known to dig complexes up to ten burrows strong in the dunes along the coast of the Cotton State. But it’s a harsh world outside. Oil-spills, hurricanes, and predators all stalk the Alabama coastline, not to mention the human impact as tourism becomes a bigger and bigger deal in the Alabama Gulf. [more]

What Crime Most Changed the Course of History?

by Bill Hayes

The Atlantic’s Big Question asks various experts (and commenters) to weigh in on one question. A recent question was: What Crime Most Changed the Course of History?

Tana French, author, The Trespasser

Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, precipitated World War I, which reshaped large parts of the world politically, culturally, and psychologically and laid the groundwork for World War II. [more]

For a free classroom lesson with numerous activities on the beginning of World War I, see A Fire Waiting to Be Lit: The Origins of World War I from our Common Core Archive.

The Ugly Side of Poland’s Booming Economy

by Bill Hayes

Bloomberg Businessweek reports on The Ugly Side of Poland’s Booming Economy.

Curators at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews noticed a change among their visitors earlier this year: More people were pushing back against its version of history. Some asked why there was no mention of Jews selling out their neighbors to various enemies over the centuries. Others questioned whether Poles were really involved in a notorious World War II massacre. Anti-Semitism, it seemed, was acceptable again. Museum guides had to be trained to handle the verbal aggression.

“The dynamic changed overnight,” says Dariusz Stola, the history professor who runs the museum, observing that prejudices apparently had free rein in the wake of a proposed law. “The problem is that young people get used to hate speech. Some people don’t like chips, some people hate Coca-Cola — and some people hate the Jews.”

It’s a jarring piece of recidivism, set amid Poland’s economic boom. [more]

This Week’s New Yorker Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

To see a slide show of this week’s New Yorker cartoons, go here, scroll down to “Cartoons from the Issue,” and click on the arrows.

The Mueller Report

by Bill Hayes

This is the Mueller Report (with redactions by the Department of Justice): Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election

Guides to the Report

From the Washington Post: The Mueller report, annotated. It has highlights, explanations, and links to the entire redacted report.

In Read the Mueller Report: Searchable Document and Index, the New York Times gives readers an easy way to go through the report. Additionally, it provides “Key Takeaways,” “Who’s Been Charged,” and a “List of Russian Contacts.”

In Explore a detailed view of the Mueller report, Axios has provided a way to search the report. It “categorized each passage of the text to note what events, people, organization and places are mentioned,” “categorizing over 2,500 bits of text,” and it “found over 400 unique entities.”

Why the Right to Vote Is Not a Right

by Bill Hayes

In Why the Right to Vote Is Not a Right for the New York Times Book Review, James A. Morone reviews The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present by Allan J. Lichtman.

Allan J. Lichtman’s important book emphasizes the founders’ great blunder: They failed to enshrine a right to vote in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Instead, the Constitution handed control over elections to state and local governments. Local officials developed thousands of different electoral systems with no uniform standards or regulations and little oversight. Elections were organized and supervised by partisans brazenly angling for advantage. “The Embattled Vote in America” traces the consequences through American history. [more]

Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts

by Bill Hayes

In a report, the Pew Research Center finds that Looking to the Future, the Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts.

When Americans peer 30 years into the future, they see a country in decline economically, politically and on the world stage. While a narrow majority of the public (56%) say they are at least somewhat optimistic about America’s future, hope gives way to doubt when the focus turns to specific issues.

A new Pew Research Center survey focused on what Americans think the United States will be like in 2050 finds that majorities of Americans foresee a country with a burgeoning national debt, a wider gap between the rich and the poor and a workforce threatened by automation.

Majorities predict that the economy will be weaker, health care will be less affordable, the condition of the environment will be worse and older Americans will have a harder time making ends meet than they do now. Also predicted: a terrorist attack as bad as or worse than 9/11 sometime over the next 30 years.

These grim predictions mirror, in part, the public’s sour mood about the current state of the country. The share of Americans who are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country – seven-in-ten in January of 2019 – is higher now than at any time in the past year.

The view of the U.S. in 2050 that the public sees in its crystal ball includes major changes in the country’s political leadership. Nearly nine-in-ten predict that a woman will be elected president, and roughly two-thirds (65%) say the same about a Hispanic person. And, on a decidedly optimistic note, more than half expect a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.

Nearly half of whites say a majority nonwhite population will weaken American culture the public also has a somewhat more positive view – or at least a more benign one – of some current demographic trends that will shape the country’s future. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that, by 2050, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities will constitute a majority of the population. About four-in-ten Americans (42%) say this shift will be neither good nor bad for the country while 35% believe a majority-minority population will be a good thing, and 23% say it will be bad. [more]

Interview of Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov

by David De La Torre

The Los Angeles Times interviews Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov about the human rights situation in Russia under Putin.

How do you characterize human rights in Russia today?

Russia is a personal dictatorship that openly embraces many elements of fascist ideology and also attacks its neighbors. Human rights in Russia do exist, but only within the territory that the Kremlin allows it for its own political purposes.

No one is safe in Russia. If you oppose the government, they may decide that for a while you could be sort of left alone. But you could go to jail, or … you could be killed.

By the way, even reprinting [material considered critical of the state] is now one of the unofficial crimes in Russia, because they always find a way to describe it as an attempt to disturb social peace. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Putin’s Illiberal Democracy.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Backgrounder on the U.S. Opioid Epidemic

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 The U.S. Opioid Epidemic.

The United States is grappling with one of its worst-ever drug crises. More than nine hundred people a week die from opioid-related overdoses, and some experts say the death toll may not peak for years. Meanwhile, millions more Americans suffer from opioid addiction.

The crisis has reached such a scale that, beyond the risks it poses to public health, it is becoming a drag on the economy and a threat to national security. Analysts say the problem started with the overprescription of legal pain medications, such as oxycodone, but note that it has intensified in recent years with an influx of cheap heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, supplied by foreign-based drug cartels.

In recent years, the U.S. government has ramped up efforts to cut both the foreign and domestic supply of opioids, limiting the number of prescriptions in the United States while providing counternarcotics assistance to countries including Mexico and China. Meanwhile, federal and state officials have attempted to reduce demand by focusing less on punishing drug users and more on treating them. Other countries where opioid use has also spiked, such as Canada and Australia, are experimenting with different policies. [more]

The Week’s Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

See The Week’s latest collection of political cartoons.

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

Intelligent design gets even dumber

by Bill Hayes

In Intelligent design gets even dumber for the Washington Post, Jerry A. Coyne writes a critical review of Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution by Michael J. Behe.

The notion of “intelligent design” arose after opponents of evolution repeatedly failed on First Amendment grounds to get Bible-based creationism taught in the public schools. Their solution: Take God out of the mix and replace him with an unspecified “intelligent designer.” They added some irrelevant mathematics and fancy biochemical jargon, and lo: intelligent design, which scientists have dubbed “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.”

But the tuxedo is fraying, for intelligent design has been rejected not just by biologists but also by judges who recognize it as poorly disguised religion. Nevertheless, its advocates persist. [more]

CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive has two lessons related to issues of creationism and intelligent design:

The Scopes Trial: Who Decides What Gets Taught in the Classroom?

More Monkey Trials: The Evolution Debate Goes Back to Court

Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy?

by Bill Hayes

Writing in the New Yorker, Louis Menand looks at Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy? and discusses these two books: The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America by Sarah E. Igo and Habeas Data: Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech by Cyrus Farivar.

The reason you’ve been receiving a steady stream of privacy-policy updates from online services, some of which you may have forgotten you ever subscribed to, is that the European Union just enacted the General Data Protection Regulation, which gives users greater control over the information that online companies collect about them. Since the Internet is a global medium, many companies now need to adhere to the E.U. regulation.

How many of us are going to take the time to scroll through the new policies and change our data settings, though? We sign up to get the service, but we don’t give much thought to who might be storing our clicks or what they’re doing with our personal information. It is weird, at first, when our devices seem to “know” where we live or how old we are or what books we like or which brand of toothpaste we use. Then we grow to expect this familiarity, and even to like it. It makes the online world seem customized for us, and it cuts down on the time we need to map the route home or order something new to read. The machine anticipates what we want.

But, as it has become apparent in the past year, we don’t really know who is seeing our data or how they’re using it. Even the people whose business it is to know don’t know. When it came out that the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal information of more than fifty million Facebook users and offered it to clients, including the Trump campaign, the Times’ lead consumer-technology writer published a column titled “I Downloaded the Information That Facebook Has on Me. Yikes.” He was astonished at how much of his personal data Facebook had stored and the long list of companies it had been sold to. Somehow, he had never thought to look into this before. How did he think Facebook became a five-hundred-and-sixty-billion-dollar company? It did so by devising the most successful system ever for compiling and purveying consumer data.

And data security wasn’t even an issue: Cambridge Analytica didn’t hack anyone. An academic researcher posted an online survey and invited people to participate by downloading an app. The app gave the researcher access not just to personal information in the participants’ Facebook accounts (which Facebook allows) but to the personal information of all their “friends” (which Facebook allowed at the time). Cambridge Analytica, which hired the researcher, was thus able to collect the personal data of Facebook users who had never downloaded the app. Facebook at first refused to characterize this as a security breach — all the information was legally accessed, although it was not supposed to be sold — and continues to insist that it has no plans to provide recompense.

Cambridge Analytica isn’t the only threat to digital privacy. The Supreme Court is set to decide the fate of Timothy Carpenter, who, in 2014, was convicted of participating in a series of armed robberies on the basis, in part, of records obtained by the police from his cell-phone company. These showed the location of the cell-phone towers his calls were routed through, and that information placed him near the scenes of the crimes. Carpenter was sentenced to a hundred and sixteen years in prison. The Court is being asked to rule on whether the collection of the cell-phone company’s records violated his constitutional rights. [more]

Martin Luther’s Revolution

by David De La Torre

In Martin Luther’s Revolution for The Nation, Elizabeth Bruenig reviews these three books: Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, The Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World by Alec Ryrie, and Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society by John C. Rao, ed.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 and grew up in the small German mining town of Mansfeld. “The son of a peasant,” by his own account, Luther spent his childhood in Mansfeld’s muddy, coal-dusted, and pugilistic streets, which introduced him early to the culture of vicious insults and brutal argumentation that would later characterize — and help to popularize — many of his famous polemics.

Luther’s story has been told many times, but Roper handles it with special sensitivity, offering both an engrossing narrative and capturing the ways in which Luther’s early life and education contributed to the fixations that would occupy him in his later years. After a dreary childhood in Mansfeld, the young Luther set off to attend school in Magdeburg in 1497. He went on to study at the University at Erfurt and entered law school uneasily at his father’s behest.

It didn’t last. Luther instead was drawn to the church and took vows as an Augustinian monk in 1505. He was particularly attracted to the order’s learned friary and intellectual tradition, and Augustine’s political theology — at least its rhetorical shape — would go on to form an important dimension of Luther’s own. In 1512, he received his doctorate in theology. Now a thoroughly educated and opinionated man of God, Luther began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, giving sermons in the local church, and tallying the errors of his peers and superiors.

By 1517, Luther had established himself as an accomplished, if quarrelsome, preacher. He was known to have a particular (and entirely reasonable) animus toward indul-gences, the means by which certain church authorities parted faithful Catholics from their money with theologically specious promises of salvation and other favors. It was during one such dispute over the sale of indulgences that Luther finally met his destiny, on the last day of October 1517, at the doors of a Wittenberg church. There, he posted his 95 theses disputing established Catholic teaching — and launched a revolution that would transform the Christian world. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on Luther, see Luther Sparks the Protestant Reformation from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.