In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2011), popular science author Jared Diamond meticulously and relentlessly plunges into a wide variety of historical case studies using what he terms the “comparative method” in order to answer the question that has preoccupied scholars from Edward Gibbon through Oswald Spengler – why do societies decline and ultimately disappear?
Diamond makes it clear that he is not a “determinist,” particularly one of the ecological variety, although he does stress environmental issues, even in his earlier publishing writings, in an outsize way.
As the title of the book implies, history is in many respects like a game of cards. Each people, nation, or cultural aggregate is dealt a certain hand with particular endowments, talents, or possibilities. Yet it is how one plays the hand that counts.
Environment itself, or the pressure of powerful neighbors (think Poland), are constitutive factors. But they are not destiny. Destiny lies in the kinds of “decisions” societies as a whole are apt to make.
As I write two of the four apocalyptic horsemen – pestilence in the form of the deadly Ebola epidemic and war in the guise of the unimaginably brutal, but militarily successful armies of the Islamic State – are galloping across the global dais and shaping the destiny of many peoples and nations, including the United States. If one takes seriously the doomsayers who are increasingly blogging on the internet and occupying the talk show air waves, the end of society as we know it may be looking less like the product of an ignited imagination and more like some kind of imminent reality.
We live in a world where we can affect less and less of what we see, and where we can see more and more.
When the stormwater drains overflow, or the traffic is terrible because a road needs another lane, or some political problem keeps getting worse and worse, we can do little if anything about it. As Brooks points out, most of us are cut off from those in authority. Traffic is an excellent example; studies have shown it is one of the few annoyances of life that is actually cumulative—it makes you madder every time you have to deal with it, which is why road rage becomes an issue. I think an obvious reason is because we can do nothing about it. We are powerless.
Meanwhile, we are aware of more and more problems, as Brooks also points out. Rather than only seeing what’s before our eyes, we are slammed with a 24-hour news cycle of tragedy and fear from around the world. We don’t just have to worry about getting the kids to school—we are supposed to worry about a shooting 2,000 miles away. What is right in front of our faces matters least, and the Big and Important things that will never affect us matter most—a civic and economic calculus in which, as Joy Clarkson pointed out this week, the things that make us most human are the things least prioritized.
On Friday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow nearly 50,000 nonviolent federal drug offenders to seek lower sentences. The commission’s decision retroactively applied an earlier change in sentencing guidelines to now cover roughly half of those serving federal drug sentences. Endorsed by both the Department of Justice and prison-reform advocates, the move is a significant step forward—though in a global context, still modest—in reversing decades of mass incarceration.
How large is America’s prison problem? More than 2.4 million people are behind bars in the United States today, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence. That’s more than the combined population of 15 states, all but three U.S. cities, and the U.S. armed forces. They’re scattered throughout a constellation of 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 2,259 juvenile facilities, 3,283 local jails, and many more military, immigration, territorial, and Indian Country facilities.
Compared to the rest of the world, these numbers are staggering.
GRANTS PASS, Ore.—On the evening of Oct. 30, 2013, a car traveling down a highway south of Cave Junction struck and killed Jarred Houston, 21, and Robert Calvin, 41. Four months later, their case remains unsolved.
A week after the hit-and-run, Aaron Clouser, 39, was stabbed to death and left in the middle of the street. His case remains unsolved as well.
The murders have left the small town seething with anger, but there are barely any detectives around to work the cases.
Economic woes have forced county governments in rural Oregon to slash law enforcement budgets to the point where police are almost non-existent. In Josephine County, where Cave Junction is, there are two patrol deputies tasked with covering 1,600 square miles.
Wanted: Caretaker For Farm. Simply watch over a 688 acre patch of hilly farmland and feed a few cows, you get 300 a week and a nice 2 bedroom trailer, someone older and single preferred but will consider all, relocation a must, you must have a clean record and be trustworthy – this is a permanent position, the farm is used mainly as a hunting preserve, is overrun with game, has a stocked 3 acre pond, but some beef cattle will be kept, nearest neighbour is a mile away, the place is secluded and beautiful, it will be a real get away for the right person, job of a lifetime – if you are ready to relocate please contact asap, position will not stay open.
Scott Davis had answered the job ad on Craigslist on October 9, 2011, and now, four weeks later to the day, he was watching the future it had promised glide past the car window: acre after acre of Ohio farmland dotted with cattle and horses, each patch framed by rolling hills and anchored by a house and a barn – sometimes old and worn, but never decrepit. Nothing a little carpentry couldn’t fix.
Davis rode in the backseat of the white Buick LeSabre; in the front sat his new employer, a man he knew only as Jack, and a boy Jack had introduced as his nephew, Brogan. The kid, who was driving the car, was only in high school but was already a giant – at least as tall as his uncle, who was plenty tall. Jack was a stocky, middle-aged man; Davis noticed that he’d missed a couple of spots shaving and had a tattoo on his left arm. He was chatty, telling Davis about his ex-wife, his favourite breakfast foods, and his church.
Funny story from The Guardian:
Kristoffer Koch invested 150 kroner ($26.60) in 5,000 bitcoins in 2009, after discovering them during the course of writing a thesis on encryption. He promptly forgot about them until widespread media coverage of the anonymous, decentralised, peer-to-peer digital currencyin April 2013 jogged his memory.
Bitcoins are stored in encrypted wallets secured with a private key, something Koch had forgotten. After eventually working out what the password could be, Koch got a pleasant surprise:
“It said I had 5,000 bitcoins in there. Measuring that in today’s rates it’s about NOK5m ($886,000),” Koch told NRK.
At Sunset Hill Cemetery, dawn breaks with headlights.
It’s just after 6 a.m. on a muggy June morning in Valdosta, Georgia, when two Altimas and an F-150 roll up the hill and past the headstones. Other cars follow, heading west and then north, past Nicholas George (1904-1938) and Nancy V. (1943-2008) as they turn back east and brake to stop. The passengers exit and gather around the grave of Kendrick Johnson. The police chief had been clear: Only immediate family would be allowed, but here stand cousins and grandparents alongside adopted aunts and football teammates.
“I’m gonna let y’all say a little prayer,” the police chief announces. “Then we’ll get going.”
Heads look toward Grandma Barbara, then bow. The headlights have been shut off, the sky has turned orange, and for a moment all is silent but the screeching rattle of cicadas.
“Lord Jesus, we lift this child to heaven,” Barbara begins, and all around her the others nod. There is no tent, no hearse. There are no pallbearers, no black suits. There are two backhoes — an orange Kubota and a yellow Deere — and there are empty faces and swollen eyes and T-shirts that call for justice.
“You seen him,” Barbara calls out, her voice stretching thinner with every word. “You seen how he looked. You seen his face.”
Kendrick’s cousin Solomon Arrington stands 20 feet away, near the parked cars. Ever since the morning the detective knocked on his door, he still can’t sleep in his own bed. His mother, Keisha, will find him sitting up on the couch late at night. What would have happened, he wonders, if he’d been in school that day?
Tra Durden wipes his brow and stares ahead at no one. Freshman year, Durden was out on the football practice field with Kendrick. Months later, after he heard Kendrick had been found dead, Tra punched their high school’s walls.
“You know the truth, Lord,” Barbara says. “We pray that you bring justice. We magnify you, Jesus. We praise you. We pray this in your name. Amen.”
Shovels break the earth. Jackie Johnson looks on for a moment, then away. Her shirt says “KJ’s mom” and her eyes are wet with tears. Her husband, Kenneth, studies the crane operator’s every move.
The orange backhoe plunges into the dirt. Scoop after scoop, the hole deepens and the mound of displaced soil grows. Then a man in a brown shirt and brown gloves drops into the hole, his head poking out just above the ground. He connects a pulley and begins yanking the chains, right hand over left, then left over right, then right over left again. Inch by inch, the casket rises from the earth.
They didn’t come to bury Kendrick. They came to dig him up.
The British journalist Sir David Frost died last week, a broadcast journalist who made his name for interviews with everyone from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to the disgraced former President of the United States, Richard Nixon. You can see clips from some of his most famous interviews in this link over at The Telegraph. You can also read about Frost’s life and career over at Slate:
British broadcaster David Frost, who gained fame across the world for his interview with former president Richard Nixon, unexpectedly died Saturday when he had a heart attack aboard a cruise, where he was scheduled to give a talk. The 74-year-old had a rich career that included journalism, comedy writing and host of daytime television shows, notes the BBC. Frost became well known in Britain starting in 1962, when, almost fresh out of college, he became the host of the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was, considered a pioneer in political satire. His global fame came more than a decade later, when, in 1977, he hosted a series of interviews with Nixon three years after the former president had resigned from office in disgrace.
The interviews, which later became a play and a 2008 film both named Frost/Nixon, at the time became the most widely watched news interview in the history of TV, notes theAssociated Press. Frost sparred with the president and at one point when talking about the abuses of presidential power, Nixon answered with the now infamous quote: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” But, of course, the most memorable part of the interview was the way Frost got Nixon to apologize to the American people with what he later described as a “totally off-the-cuff” series of remarks that warned the former president he would be “haunted” for the rest of his life if he didn’t come clean. “I’m sorry,” Nixon finally said, notes Reuters. “I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt.”
From The Independent:
A new review of 63 scientific studies stretching back over decades has concluded that religious people are less intelligent than non-believers.
A piece of University of Rochester analysis, led by Professor Miron Zuckerman, found “a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity” in 53 out of 63 studies.
According to the study entitled, ‘The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations’, published in the ‘Personality and Social Psychology Review’, even during early years the more intelligent a child is the more likely it would be to turn away from religion.
In old age above average intelligence people are less likely to believe, the researchers also found.
In February of this year, a Washington-area man with Down’s Syndrome died in police custody from asphyxiation after police tried to physically remove him from a movie theatre when he refused to leave his seat. In March a grand jury decided not to press charges against the police involved in his death and autopsy reports gave more information about how Saylor died. And this week documents related to the investigation were released to the press, including the heartbreaking news that Saylor’s aide had specifically instructed police not to touch Saylor, directions which they ignored. Moments later, Saylor was dead.