A Primer on Modern Slavery – Lunch w/TED

They are swayed by the promise of jobs in another city or even another country. Perhaps they are promised work in hotels, constructions jobs, or as nannies who “love to travel.”  They go off with the person who recruits them. When they try to leave, they are told they can’t go; they have a travel debt they must pay. They are warned that if they try to leave, their families back home will be harmed. They are forced against their will to work as prostitutes or perform backbreaking acts of physical labor. They are modern slaves. Continue reading A Primer on Modern Slavery – Lunch w/TED

The Placebo Effect and The Imagination- Lunch w/ TED

Apropos for April Fool’s Day, today’s Lunch with TED clip from a 2009 TEDMED features magician Eric Mead marveling at the effectiveness of placebos in medicine and demonstrating the power of imagination over reason. Be forewarned: this clip is not for the faint of heart. Continue reading The Placebo Effect and The Imagination- Lunch w/ TED

The Suprising Spread of “Idol” TV in the Middle East- Lunch w/TED

Reality TV in the United States has a poor reputation. And frankly, it often deserves it. After all, some of this year’s biggest reality hits include raunchy, mindless fare like “Jersey Shore,” “The Real Housewives” franchise, and “The Hills.” As for less smutty, more family-friendly shows like “The Biggest Loser” or “American Idol,” well, they’re not exactly high art. Continue reading The Suprising Spread of “Idol” TV in the Middle East- Lunch w/TED

J.J. Abrams on Story, Technology, and “Mystery Boxes” – Lunch w/ TED

Our “Lunch with TED” feature is back—and here to stay. (For the uninitiated, see Dustin’s original TED post here.) To commemorate this momentous occasion (and, frankly, the return of Lost, now in its sixth season) I chose to highlight a TED Talk by one of my favorite filmmakers—J.J. Abrams, a producer of hit films and TV shows including Lost, Alias, Fringe, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible III, and Star Trek.

In this TED Talk filmed in 2007, Abrams explores the relationships between mystery, story, creativity, and technology. In stories, he explains, the withholding of information is often more interesting than the revealing of it. Mystery and possibility tantalize us and keeps us coming back for more.

This, in part, explains my household’s addiction to his television shows. After all, half the fun for fans of shows like Lost or Fringe is spending spare moments between episodes puzzling over what happened in the previous show and speculating about what’s coming next. Shows like these have the singular ability to not only provide entertainment, but wonder—a rare thing in a rapidly disenchanting cultural landscape.

Our ever-evolving technology is a great boon in as much is it helps to tell stories that create wonder. Though we often over-consume and abuse the gifts of technology (Is there ever a moment when our devices cease their whirring?), its rapid evolution is a gift for storytellers in a variety of mediums. It has leveled the playing field so that essentially anyone with creativity and gumption can easily produce quality work.

There is no excuse for you, then, young artist. In the words of J.J. Abrams, “Go make your movie!” ‘

On Overcoming Writer’s Block

After staring idly at the white screen for a few moments, your brows furrow. You type out a sentence. It is terrible; you must erase it. You notice your palms have begun to moisten and your intestines are all in knots. Disconcertingly, this process repeats itself until the worst has happened. You have opened all the drawers of your mind only to find you have nothing to say. Continue reading On Overcoming Writer’s Block

On Reading the Bible

In an essay at Modern Reformation, David Nienhuis presents the rather bleak case that Americans are biblically illiterate. What’s worse, their Evangelical counterparts are little better. A professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific, Nienhuis begins his survey of the Christian Scriptures course with a biblical literacy quiz which consistently results in a 50% class average—in other words, an “F.” Continue reading On Reading the Bible

Rural Studies and the Death of Main Street

The small towns of America’s heartland are becoming an endangered species, argue researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America—a lengthy title for a slim and troubling ethnography. In a nation where urban studies and development are hot topics, Carr and Kefalas turn their attention to the rapid depopulation and economic crises facing Main Street. The family farm has all but vanished into corporate agribusiness, and the industrial jobs rural workers take instead pay poorly and have an uncertain future in the current economy. Carr and Kefalas note that some rural researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the answer to such inevitable decline—economically and ecologically—is “to return much of the Great Plains to its original state”—a Buffalo Commons.

What distresses the authors most is that the rural, Midwestern towns containing the “real Americans” politicians try to comprehend every four years have been steadily losing their best and brightest young people to more metropolitan locales over the past few decades. This exodus has caused the median age in these towns to skyrocket, caused schools to close, and created a dearth in civic leadership, economic growth, and medical facilities. As the Heartland’s “creative class” invest their human capital in cities such as Austin and Phoenix, the “regional losers—the laggard, blue-collar red states […] find themselves fighting to keep their communities and counties viable.”

Carr and Kefalas moved to a northern Iowa town to investigate this phenomenon for themselves. They discovered that students whom they aptly termed “Achievers” left not only because of unappealing employment prospects but because the town expects them to leave, attend college, and accomplish great things—despite the fact that these towns are shooting themselves in their proverbial feet. “Stayers” are towns’ underinvested in, low test scorers, those of lower-middle class status who marry right out of high school and find work locally. They enter the workforce little comprehending that they will make the same paycheck at 40 as they did at 18.

While states are scrambling to build campaigns to attract “Achievers” to return to Iowa or Kansas, Carr and Kefalas would urge small rural towns to nurture and invest in the “Stayers”—to equip and update them with technical skill sets utilizing the community college system, to emphasize computer skills, and to generally “raise the human capital of those who stay.” They also recommend that there be a “national call to move to sustainable agriculture and green energy technology” to the heartland, and that immigrants be given the opportunity to gain legal status and work in well-regulated industries.

But why should Americans care about the future of small towns in our heartland? After all, in a capitalist system, are there not going to be winners and losers? Carr and Kefalas argue that it isn’t that simple: the country, they claim, couldn’t properly function without these small Midwestern towns. Our food and other natural resources come from these areas, they say. Do we really want to see the continued propagation of cheap and unhealthy food grown by large corporations? The Midwest is ground zero for sustainable agriculture, as well as green energy. It is one of the best places to develop wind and solar power. The region is also historically central to the health of the nation, they argue, and America is best when unified. We should care about all parts of our country; as we care for struggling urban areas, we should also invest in struggling rural ones. ‘

You Are What You Eat…And Not Who You Sleep With

Food and sex have shifted roles over the past fifty or so years, argues Mary Eberstadt in a fascinating essay at Policy Review. Once, social stigma condemned extra-marital philandering. Sex was a serious ethical issue, with serious personal and social consequences. Food, however, was something with few, if any, moral implications. Particularly for a generation with memories of the Depression, one was simply glad to have food at all. Continue reading You Are What You Eat…And Not Who You Sleep With