Evan Williams and Medium

Twitter-CEO-Evan-Williams-002It’s always tough to follow up a great success, and that is certainly true for technology visionaries.  Evan Williams, the co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, is currently working on  a new web project, called Medium. Recently, he spoke to NPR about the site, which will be a new publishing platform. Describing it, Williams said: “Medium is very simple. It’s a website that lets people read and write things.” Specifically, Williams is interested in providing a forum for ideas that get more in depth than the quick, 140 character thoughts that define Twitter.

It’s not a bad notion, but at this point it’s hard to guess if Medium will be a success, let alone the have the culture re-defining impact of Twitter. (To be fair, I am certainly no expert about what will and won’t work in terms of new ventures. And Twitter certainly didn’t seem like that great an idea when it was first introduced, but it has become an integral part of modern culture in a number of ways.) Aside from informing readers of an article’s length next to its title (in terms how many minutes it will take to read), and from the admittedly good idea of grouping articles by topic instead of by author (as most blogging services do), its hard to see why Williams thinks Medium will have any real impact. (One more note: Medium is still in its beta phase. So what you see if you glance at the site now is probably not exactly how Medium will be.)

Skepticism aside, Williams’ belief that Medium can be the next big thing suggests that there is an interest in answering the question of what the future of reading and communicating will be. We in the publishing industry know full well that things are changing, and printed books are quickly being left behind as the dominant medium for expressing thought. (Speaking of which, check out our ebooks!) And sites like Medium and Longreads suggest that there is a desire for written ideas on the internet beyond the quick, pithy comments found on social media (though those can certainly be fun, and in some cases, valuable).

But will sites like these ever fully replace books? We certainly hope not, nor we do think so. But there is no question that right now more is being written than ever before, and more importantly, there are more than ways than ever to get that writing to an audience. How that fact will change how we approach writing and reading, and how we define good and bad, remains to be seen. Medium may not end up a world changer like Twitter, but it may well end up helping some new ideas and authors reach receptive audiences. And maybe, for today, that’s enough.

– Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

To learn more about Evan Williams and the founding of Twitter, please check out Twitter: Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams (ISBN# 978-1-59935179-7) by Chris Smith & Marci McGrath from your local library, or order it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

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Published in: on October 24, 2013 at 9:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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School Board Votes to Ban Classic Novel From Libraries

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man

In another unfortunate instance of Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s home state of North Carolina making national news for doing something embarrassing and wrong-headed, last week the Randolph County school board made the decision, in a 5-2 vote, to remove Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man from Randolph County libraries.

What prompted this move? It was a single complaint from an outraged parent, who in twelve page letter, complained that the book “is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers.” The parent detailed many of the novel’s depictions of sex and rape, with little to no consideration of the context of those scenes, or what they mean to the novel and it’s depiction of a racially divided America.

Of course, credit must be given to this parent: she seems to at least have read the book. Or at least skimmed it. Randolph County’s school board members were given copies of the book in anticipation of voting on it, and when asked about whether or not they had read it, the only response came from Board Chair Tommy McDonald, who stated “It was a hard read.” Efforts to find out if the board members had read the book didn’t pan out, either: the school board’s attorney encouraged its members not to speak to the press regarding the decision about the book, or even answer the question of whether or not they read it.

Still, this didn’t stop school board member Gary Mason from stating, authoritatively, “I didn’t find any literary value.” Of course, some people might disagree; people such as the critics and scholars who selected Invisible Man for the National Book Award in 1953, or the Library of Congress, who named it one of “The Books That Shaped America,” or even the writers of the AP English Literature exam, who have included passages from Invisible Man on the AP exam thirteen times in the last fifteen years.

So the board voted to remove Invisible Man from Randolph County libraries. It should be noted here that two of the board members, Emily Coltrane and Todd Cutler voted against removing the book from libraries. But their five fellow school board members out voted them. There names are Tommy McDonald, Gary Mason, Gary Cook, Tracy Boyles, and Matthew Lambeth.

They may have expected this matter to be over and done, but in today’s internet era, when news can be spread from the smallest corners to the whole of the world in a matter of seconds, things don’t stay hidden long. So word of this decision got out, and spread around the world, warranting mention from dozens of news organizations such as the Huffington Post, National Public Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, and even getting a mention on Russian news sources.

So quickly, the Randolph County School board decided to hold another meeting, this Wednesday (the 25th of September), to reconsider their decision. How that meeting will go remains to be seen, but at the moment, it seems as though the school board is hastily trying to reverse course and cover up a major potential embarrassment.

I hope they do reverse their decision, but even if they do, it does not excuse the staggeringly stupid and arrogant action they initially took, and that action should not be forgotten. These people compromise a school board; they are responsible for determining the educational course of the children of their county, and yet they couldn’t read or properly comprehend one of the most well known and respected novels of the twentieth century. This is completely unacceptable, and even if they right their wrong after being nationally shamed, it is frankly unforgivable. Again, the names of the school board members who voted to remove Invisible Man from Randolph County Libraries are: Tommy McDonald, Gary Mason, Gary Cook, Tracy Boyles, and Matthew Lambeth.

Maybe I am being overly critical. Maybe these board members are just stealthily trying to direct kids’ attention to this literary classic. After all, what better advertisement for a work of art is there then that some cabal felt the need to hide it from innocent eyes? What better enticement to read something than “you are not allowed read this?”

"You know you're not supposed to go in there. What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?"

“You know you’re not supposed to go in there. What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”

(For any young readers whose interest is piqued, free copies of Invisible Man are being made available.)

Coincidentally, this controversy has coincided with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. In this annual event, the ALA celebrates the freedom to read by examining all of the books that have frequently been challenged (and too often banned) throughout American history. (A Randleman High School student will also be holding her senior project, a banned book Read Out, Thursday. Her project was planned before the Invisible Man banning.) It is grim reminder that some people have always sought to suppress any knowledge or ideas they find objectionable or simply don’t understand. But it’s these challenging ideas and works that allow for meaningful discourse on complicated issues (such as racism and racial equality, subjects covered eloquently in Invisible Man), and allow society to change.

The national outrage that has come down on Randolph County’s school board is certainly heartening, but this is an issue that should never even have come up. The fact that there is still debate over whether or not certain books should be suppressed for the public’s perceived best interest is unacceptable.

Suppressing speech or art doesn’t protect a society, it stifles and ossifies it. It was works of art like Invisible Man and the protected freedom of expression of countless activists that spurred on the Civil Rights Movement and helped ensure the freedom of all Americans. By deciding that books with challenging ideas might be offensive and should be banned, and by believing that they have the authority to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for the public, what injustices are people like the Randolph County school board allowing?

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

To learn more about Invisible Man and the life of its author, please check out Ralph Ellison: Author of Invisible Man from your local library (ISBN# 978-1-931798-69-3) or order it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

 

UPDATE: The school board met again Wednesday (the 25th) and reversed their decision.  Invisible Man will again be available in Randolph County libraries. Only Gary Mason, the board member who claimed the book had “no literary value,” voted to uphold the ban.

Fighting the Flu and Other Diseases

A new flu vaccine, administered via a tiny needle.

A new flu vaccine, administered via a tiny needle.

As we near the fall, the weather cools and kids begin returning to school, and many people begin worrying about the flu and the spread of disease.

These days, people have more ways than ever to help protect themselves against the influenza virus. An article recently run by the Associated Press examines the number of different types of flu vaccine now available. There is a more potent vaccine that protects against multiple types of flu, and vaccinations made especially for people with allergies to eggs, or fear of needles. The flu, it seems, doesn’t stand much of a chance this year.

Of course, many people don’t have access to vaccinations, and as a result, as many as 500,000 people die from the flu yearly. And throughout history, the influenza virus has taken millions of lives.

A 3d model of the flu virus

A 3d model of the flu virus

Still, thanks to the dedication and efforts of scientists and doctors through history, we have multiple tools to battle influenza and its potentially devastating effects. Unfortunately, there are many other health threats still around.

Some bacteria, for example, grow resistant to antibiotics. Therefore, the infections and illnesses these bacteria cause are more difficult to fight, and kill an estimated 23,000 people a year.

Meanwhile, other diseases, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) seem to frequently be making the news, cropping up in small pockets throughout the world and inflicting great damage on infected individuals.

There are unfortunately no easy answers on what can be done to prevent and fight these diseases, but plenty of people are doing everything they can. The BBC recently ran an article looking at the doctors and nurses who put themselves in great danger to stop the spread of

X-ray of the lungs of a person with SARS

X-ray of the lungs of a person with SARS

SARS. They didn’t do so for glory or fame, but because they believed it was their duty to do what they could to help the sick and prevent the sickness from spreading.

They are reminiscent of the the people who braved influenza infection during various outbreaks throughout history, or even the Late Middle Age physicians who ventured into plague houses, risking everything to protect people and gain just a bit more knowledge and understanding of a disease that was devastating humanity.  With time, thanks to the efforts of people like this, we may have someday have vaccines and other ways to protect against whatever diseases and bacteria prove to be a threat in the future.

To learn more about the history of the influenza virus, its impact on history, and people’s efforts to prevent and fight it, please check out Diseases in History: Flu by Kevin Cunningham (ISBN # 978-159935-105-6) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. The Diseases in History series also features books about the plague, HIV/AIDS, and malaria.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bernstein and Copland: A Lasting Friendship

Leonard and Bernstein and Aaron Copland

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland

(Editor’s Note: Today we proudly present a guest blog from author Catherine Reef, examining the friendship between Leonard Bernstein–the subject of her new book, Leonard Bernstein and American Music–and Aaron Copland.)

On November 14, 1937, when he was a junior at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein attended a modern-dance concert in New York City. To his right sat “an odd-looking man in his thirties,” Bernstein noticed, with “a pair of glasses resting on his great hooked nose and a mouth filled with teeth flashing a wide grin.” During the intermission, when he and the stranger were introduced, “I almost fell out of the balcony,” Bernstein recalled. He had just met Aaron Copland.

Bernstein, at nineteen, was already a gifted pianist and a dynamic performer, but beyond the Harvard campus he was unknown. Copland, who happened to be celebrating his thirty-seventh birthday, was a respected American composer. Later that night, during a party at Copland’s Manhattan apartment, Bernstein sat down at the keyboard and tore into his host’s Piano Variations, a clanging, discordant piece he loved to play, and a friendship was born.

For me, one of the perks of writing biographies is spending time with my subjects and their friends. John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, George Gershwin and his brother Ira, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King . . .  enduring friendships like these are among the closest bonds in life. With their dearest friends my subjects felt a freedom to be themselves that may have been impossible in their other relationships. The friends accepted each other as they were; each brought out the best in the other.

Because of the eighteen-year age difference, the friendship of Copland and Bernstein had qualities of a mentor / protégé connection, at least in the early years. A recommendation from Copland carried weight when Bernstein applied to study conducting at the Curtis School of Music, in Philadelphia. A word from Copland helped secure Bernstein a place in the conducting program at Tanglewood, thus beginning Bernstein’s lifelong affiliation with the summer music school in the Berkshires, first as a student and later as an instructor. Copland was in the audience when Bernstein received his diploma from Curtis, in 1941. And when Bernstein was feeling frustrated as a young conductor trying to get his start in New York, he turned to Copland for advice. His older, wiser friend counseled patience. “Don’t expect miracles and don’t get depressed if nothing happens for awhile,” Copland wrote. Success would require hard work and time.

Leonard Bernstein achieved success and found fame, of course, and he remained grateful for all Copland had done. In 1979, when Copland was a Kennedy Center honoree, Bernstein spoke to the distinguished audience about his friend’s commitment to finding and nurturing new talent. “He has always had time for everyone, especially the young, and that’s the mark of a great man,” Bernstein said. “I know, because I was one of them.” In a letter Copland thanked Bernstein for the “splendiferous” tribute.

This letter is one of many that have survived. The two men carried on a lively, affectionate correspondence throughout their years of friendship. Bernstein might have address Copland irreverently as “Dear Venerable Giggling Dean,” or simply as “Aa,” for Aaron. Copland called Bernstein “Lensk,” or just plain “Lenny.” The letters tended to be playful in tone, but they could also be heartfelt. “There can never be one closer to me than you are,” Bernstein admitted in 1942. Even with a bosom friend, it can be easier to open one’s heart on a page than in person.

Collaborators and friends

Collaborators and friends

Copland’s musical path was straight and clear. He was a composer, first and foremost.

In contrast, Bernstein’s exuberant talent drew him in diverging directions: performing, conducting, and composing. In composition, too, Copland generously offered guidance. He advised the young Bernstein to cut from his work any passages that revealed the influence of other composers. “You’ve got to get that out of your head and start fresh,” he might say about a particular musical phrase. He urged Bernstein to find his own voice, to sound like no other composer but himself. “I want to hear about your writing a song that has no Copland, no Hindemith, no Stravinsky, no Bloch, no Milhaud and no Bartok in it,” Copland instructed. “Then I’ll talk to you.”

When Bernstein did find his voice, he produced works for the concert hall and the musical theater. He wrote symphonies, ballets, song cycles, Broadway shows, and a Mass that married a classical form with popular styles, such as folk. If Bernstein was determined to write music, then Copland preferred to see him compose serious pieces and leave the show tunes to others. But privately Copland wished that Bernstein would focus on conducting and performing, which he considered the younger man’s strengths, and leave composition to others. He said, rather tellingly, when asked about Bernstein’s music in 1982, “One has the impression that it isn’t always entirely necessary.”

Bernstein adored Copland’s music, however, and he championed it at every opportunity. For example, early in his career he composed a piano arrangement of El Salón México, Copland’s musical impression of a Mexico City dance hall, and proudly performed it. In a project that began in 1958, the year he became musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and continued for more than a decade, he recorded Copland’s orchestral music for Columbia Records. In 1962, he commissioned Copland to write a piece for the opening of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York City. The result was Connotations, for orchestra.

In 1989, Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a concert devoted to Copland’s music. The program was something of a retrospective, featuring, among other compositions, the early Music for the Theatre (1925) and Connotations. The concert closed with the orchestral version of El Salón México, and with the maestro’s jubilant, laughing leap from the podium. At least one person present, the critic Tim Page, understood that he was witnessing musical history. “Someday, and not too long from now, the idea of a Copland concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein will tantalize our grandchildren,” Page noted.

Aaron Copland was too frail and old to attend. Declining health also kept him away from Bernstein’s funeral, on October 16, 1990. A lifelong heavy smoker, Bernstein succumbed to his habit at seventy-two. Copland made it to the golden age of ninety, but he died just two months after his friend.

To learn more about life of Leonard Bernstein and his contributions to the music of the twentieth century, please check out Leonard Bernstein and American Music by Catherine Reef  (ISBN# 978-1-59935-125-4) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

Lifelong friends

Lifelong friends

Published in: on September 3, 2013 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Special Guest Blog: Fifty Years After the March on Washington, Where Are We Today?

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-9365086-2-402

(Editor’s Note: This August 28 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington. To mark this momentous occasion in American history, we will be running several blogs over the rest of this month examining the state of civil rights in America. To start, we present a special guest blog by David Aretha, author of numerous books in Morgan Reynolds’ The Civil Rights Movement series, including its two most recent additions, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington and Brown v. Board of Education.)

During his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. bellowed “I have a dream” eight times, often following with metaphorical phrases. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He dreamed that the state of Mississippi, “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression,” would be “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

Looking to the heavens and then shaking his head, King declared to a crowd of 250,000: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

 King roused the crowd so much that shortly afterward he had a look of fear on his face. “You was smoking,” King’s friend Clarence Jones told him afterward. “The words was so hot they was just burning off the page!” Watching on television at the White House, President Kennedy said of King: “He’s damned good. Damned good.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this August, educators and journalists are asking the question: “Have Martin Luther King’s dreams been fulfilled?” Are Americans today judged by the “content of their character?” Does American justice roll “down like waters?” Some respondents—politicians, historians, sociologists, and people on the street—will say yes, the dream has been fulfilled. But many others will say that we have a long, long way to go.

During the 40th anniversary of the March, in 2003, cultural geographer Derek Alderman noted that at least 730 cities and towns had honored the beloved icon with a street name, mostly in African American neighborhoods. Sadly, most of those streets had become boulevards of despair.

It is ironic that virtually every Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in America is a street of abandoned buildings, abandoned businesses, abandoned people, abandoned dreams,” stated James P. Danky of the Wisconsin Historical Society. “Those who honor King’s name need to think about fulfilling the promise of his dream to those who have been forsaken in our inner cities.”

In many ways, King’s dreams have come true. The Civil Rights Act spelled doom for government-sanctioned segregation; by the 1970s, the only “Coloreds Only” signs you’d find would be on abandoned buildings in the rural South. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, virtually every African American could register to vote without hindrance. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), formed in 1965, has been mostly successful in one of its major initiatives: preventing workers from being denied jobs based on their race.

Some conservatives claim that government has gone overboard in helping African Americans—to the point where whites are the ones discriminated against. They point to affirmative-action initiatives in higher education. To give minority students a break after generations of oppression, federal legislation allowed schools to accept a certain percentage of minority applicants even if some white applicants had better test scores. Also, in hundreds of American cities, judges’ “busing” decrees resulted in black students being transported to predominantly white schools—and vice versa—to achieve racial balance. Both of these practices were hotly debated from the late 1960s to the 21st century. In recent decades, courts have greatly rolled back affirmative-action and busing initiatives.

While African Americans have virtually achieved equal-rights status in terms of jobs, housing, voting, etc., they do not enjoy equal prosperity. Far from it. In 2010, the median-average household income for African Americans was $32,068, compared to $50,673 for whites. In 2011, approximately 28 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line (an increase from 25 percent in 2005), compared to about 9 percent of whites.

During the recent recession, the black unemployment rate jumped from 8 to 16 percent while the white rate went from only 4 to 8 percent. Inner-city schools have become such “failure factories” that many students never graduate high school. According to a 2004 book by Thomas M. Shapiro, “The net worth of typical white families is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families.”

Conservatives claim that black Americans are responsible for their own hardship. They note the fact that more than 70 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock. Poor family values, they say, is the problem. They point to Newark, New Jersey, where a nation-high $22,000 a year was spent to educate each student, yet half of the school system’s students did not graduate. Many whites have long been fed up with having to spend their tax dollars on welfare programs and food stamps (even though such programs are just tiny percentages of state and federal budgets).

But here’s something to think about: Traditionally in America, families need about three generations before they move into the upper middle class. Generally speaking, the first generation—the one that immigrates to the United States—is working class, the second generation is middle class, and the third generation enters the professional ranks and moves into the upper middle class. While many African American families have been in the United States for more than a century, they have had full rights for only a short period of time.

Say a black man was born in 1963 and had a daughter at age thirty. The father was among the first generation of African Americans to enjoy equal rights in regards to education, housing, and employment. Thus, he can be compared to first-generation U.S. immigrants, the “bottom of the ladder” citizens who have historically had low-paying jobs. The black man’s daughter could be compared to second-generation immigrants—those who tend to rise to the middle class. But his daughter would be just twenty years old in 2013; she hasn’t even started her career yet.

Black Americans have been greatly hindered by a lack of financial assets. A well-off couple can afford to move to a suburb with a good school system; can pay for their child’s private schooling and college education; can give their child money to help with a down payment on a house; can help pay for their grandchildren’s education; and can leave a large inheritance to their survivors. In 1960, 50 percent of African Americans lived in poverty. Thus, the black Americans of the late 1900s had to make it on their own, without much financial support from Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa.

With more than 80 percent of African Americans living in urban settings—with many renting instead of owning—they have largely missed out on skyrocketing housing appreciation. From January 1970 to March 2007, the median-average price of a new home in the United States soared from $23,600 to $262,600, allowing homeowners to “cash in” big when they sold their homes. African Americans who were unwelcome in the burgeoning suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s (and in some areas, beyond that) missed out on that accumulated wealth—not to mention the benefits of good suburban schools.

In addition, some sociologists claim, many African Americans are still caught up in a “cycle of despair.” Over the centuries, most immigrants have come to the U.S. willing and eager to work hard and achieve the American Dream. But many African Americans never bought in to the American Dream—or at least didn’t think it would work for them. Their ancestors were brought to America against their will and were systematically oppressed up until the 1960s.

As Malcolm X said, “I don’t see any American Dream; I see an American nightmare.” Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael said that his father had naively bought into the American Dream. “My old man believed in this work-and-overcome stuff . . . ” he said. “He did carpentry all day and drove taxis all night. . . . The next thing that came to that poor black man was death—from working too hard.”

Those who grow up in poverty and bad school systems often find it difficult to believe that good study habits and hard work will lead to financial success. Some think that drug dealing is the only way to make good money and that being in gangs is their only chance to “be somebody.” According to a 2010 report by the Schott Foundation on Public Education, 53 percent of black male students drop out of high school without a diploma. Antipathy among black males has added to the burden of black women. From 1974 to 2004, the median income of African American men fell 12 percent while the income of black women rose 75 percent.

In most every facet of life, children have a strong tendency to imitate the behavior of their parents. Children of churchgoers, for example, are more likely to go to church as adults. And those whose parents didn’t pursue the American Dream are more likely to not pursue it themselves. It’s part of the “cycle of despair.” Moreover, parents who did not drive down the “highway of success” lack the experience to help their children drive down that proper road.

Most sociologists believe that racism—institutional (aka systematic) racism—still plays a major role in keeping African Americans in poverty. Author Herb Boyd explained in Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today:

. . . examples of institutional racism include laws created by the white majority that severely punish “black” crimes [such as possession of crack cocaine] but are lenient on “white” (such as corporate) crimes; “country club” prisons for executives; harsher sentencing for blacks compared to whites who commit the same crimes; better funding for white parts of a city than for black neighborhoods; a tax system that allows for greater funding for suburban schools than city schools; refusal of corporations to open grocery stores in inner cities, resulting in poor food options for blacks; and a disinterest by the white majority in resolving crises facing the poor, such as gang violence, homelessness, and inadequate health care.

African Americans achieved their legal rights decades ago, and whites and blacks have become a lot more comfortable interacting with each other. Most Americans embrace the idea of sitting down at a “table of brotherhood,” and most are now inclined to judge a person on the “content of their character” instead of the color of their skin.

 Unfortunately, the “cycles of despair” still spin, and institutional racism keeps millions of African Americans confined to poverty. Despite the promises of “hope and change” by the country’s first black president, conditions only worsened for African Americans during the recession. Unemployment in black communities skyrocketed. Home foreclosures reached unprecedented levels. The budgets for public schools and social programs were slashed. The black middle class shrunk, and the poverty rate rose.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, America still has a long way to go to truly fulfill the dreams of Martin Luther King.

-David Aretha, author

Published in: on August 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Marriage Fears

Ashin Mirathu, a prominent anti-Muslim Buddhist monk.

Ashin Wirathu, a prominent anti-Muslim monk, has been called by Time Magazine “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

In her book Founders of Faith, Joan A. Price recounts the final moments in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha. Just before his death, it is told that the Buddha said to the people gathered around his deathbed, “Work out your own salvation with diligence.” This was his final message in a life spent seeking knowledge and espousing a message of nonviolence, tolerance, and living at peace with yourself and fellow human beings. This message was the core of the faith founded on his teachings, Buddhism.

But as often happens, the pure ideals of ancient faiths and philosophies don’t fit well with the complicated realities of the world. Such has been the case in the country of Burma (also known as Myanmar), where tensions between the population of Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have escalated to violence. (Burmese peace icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been particularly criticized for her failure to speak or take action on this issue.)

Most recently, the conflict has taken a turn away from violence, but taken an equally insidious form: social control. Buddhist monks in Burma have drafted a law banning marriage between Buddhists and Muslims. Though Burma is in the process of transitioning to civilian control after decades of authoritarian military rule, this extreme measure is decidedly reminiscent of the heavy handed tactics favored by totalitarian regimes, not to mention that the notion of the state mandating people’s lives seems to be in contrast with the values of Buddhism. How can one follow the path of personal enlightenment if the state is dictating your path?

This news about restricting marriage comes at a time when Americans are in the midst of an unprecedented debate about marriage rights as well. The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down a ruling allowing same-sex marriage in states that allowed it, and striking down a part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.  Though these rulings didn’t fully legalize gay marriage (that still happens on a state by state basis), the ruling was still a major victory for gay rights activists and paves the way for same sex marriage.

This ruling has been justly celebrated (in contrast to a Supreme Court ruling that came just a day earlier, in which the court chose to largely cripple the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the consequences of which are yet to be seen), but many were angered by the Court’s decision. Like the monks in Burma, this group of activists sees a great danger to society if a certain type of marriage is allowed.

Why exactly? It’s tough to say. But it’s hard not to see a common and key motivating factor being fear; the fear that allowing certain types of marriage–between a Buddhist and a Muslim, between two people of the same sex, or as often used to be the case, between people of different races–will implicitly damage society, even if there is no evidence to support such fear. And this fear, unfortunately, often causes people to act out in ways that inspire fear and create oppression, ways that seem to violate the spirit of the faith and ideals these people are purporting to protect.

To learn more about the Buddha and the founding of the Buddhist faith, as well the founding of Christianity, Islam, and many other religions, check out World Religions and Beliefs: Founders of Faith by Joan A. Price (ISBN# 978-1-59935-147-6) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

-Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

Published in: on July 11, 2013 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Past Discoveries Pave the Way for the Advancements of Today

An atom's electron orbital

An atom’s electron orbital

The world of science is built on the work of the past. This is true of almost all things, but when looking at a new scientific advancement, one can often trace a direct line from past breakthroughs to the present, in a way that’s more logical and clear than history often is. Because of that, understanding the past is vital. Looking at the newest scientific breakthrough without any context of the breakthroughs that led up to that moment is akin to looking at something magical; but by going backwards, looking at how the pieces have added up to the current whole, we can begin to understand even the most abstract concepts.

It’s fitting, then, that many scientists seek to understand the mysteries of life by looking at the smallest components of matter. For years, scientists have studied atoms: how they are constructed, how they function, how they come together to create life as we know it.

Recently, some great new advancements have been made. Using a newly designed quantum microscope, scientists in the Netherlands were able to observe an atom’s electron orbital. This is the first time scientists have been able to directly observe the wave function of an atom. Similarly, researchers in Berkeley, California, were able to capture high resolution images of molecules as they break and reform chemical bonds.

Both of these advancements, while highly technical, will help scientists gain a greater understanding about how the smallest units of matter function, thus increasing our understanding of how life and the universe works, and why. Undoubtedly, these advancements will allow further discoveries in the near future (if they haven’t already), and these discoveries will seem common-place and easy to understand.

So it is with the scientists who more than a century ago helped discover atoms and molecules, and introduced the idea that everything in the universe was made of smaller and smaller parts. Many scientists worked in this area and made essential discoveries, but two giants in the field were John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford. Dalton is credited as a pioneer in the development of Atomic Theory, while Rutherford was a respected experimentalist who was vital in the development of nuclear physics and was integral in the discovery that atoms could be broken down into smaller parts, such as the nucleus and protons.

In their own time, the work of Dalton and Rutherford and others like them was complex and controversial, but their theories and discoveries are viewed as essential building blocks of modern science. Without their work, the discoveries being made today would almost probably be impossible; they would almost certainly be incomprehensible. It’s impossible to tell now exactly which advancements being made today will be the basis for discoveries of tomorrow, and which modern scientists will be remembered like Dalton and Rutherford. But it is clear that to understand what’s coming, we must have knowledge of what has been done and discovered, just as to understand the universe, we must look at it’s smallest parts.

To learn more about John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford, please read the newest additions to Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s acclaimed Profiles in Science series: John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory  (ISBN# 978-1-59935-122-3) and Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age (ISBN# 978-1-59935-171-1), both by Roberta Baxter, available now! Check them out from your local library, purchase them from Morgan Reynolds or a distributor, or download an ebook version to read on your computer or e-reader.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Updates on Past Topics

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Time passes, and things happen. Here’s some updates on past blog and book topics that continue to make news around the world:

-A recent report in the New York Times depicts Nelson Mandela, the  former leader of South Africa and anti-apartheid figurehead struggling with his health, surrounded by family and friends who wish the aging activist would be granted some peace and quiet in what may well be his final days. As a symbol of the fight against oppression in South Africa, Mandela remains significant though he’s retired. Now, as he potentially nears the end of his life, it seems as though a new struggle will be fought over his legacy.

-On this day (May 28)  in 1936, Alan Turing invented his famous Turing Machine, a device that helps in understanding and explaining computer functions. This invention was vital in the development of the computer and computer science, and to honor Turing’s accomplishment, every year the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) gives out the A.M. Turing Award to scientists who make major advances in the world of computing. This year, the award was given to MIT professors Shafi Goldwasser and Silvio Micali, who did work in the fields of cryptography and complexity theory. Some of their work focuses on increasing security in various online interactions, such as internet purchases and cloud computing. These issues are far beyond anything Turing could have imagined for computers when he invented his machine, but the bestowal of the award with his name on it affirms his vital role in the advancement of this technology that has come to define the century.

Harper Lee has returned to the headlines: the author of To Kill a Mockingbird has sued the son-in-law of her former literary agent, alleging that he took advantage of her age and failing health to convince her to sign over rights to the book, and that he has cheated her out of proceeds for many years. The case has not yet been decided; hopefully it will not be a sad final chapter for the author of one of America’s most beloved novels.

-More news from North Korea. Kim Jong-un has apparently not taken to heart the request of his friend Dennis Rodman, and will not be releasing American citizen Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years in prison for vaguely defined crimes against the North Korean state. Bae just began serving his sentence, in a “special prison” that is largely a mystery to outsiders. North Korea also reignited tensions and fears about nuclear threats when the country fired four short range missiles into Sea of Japan. Though the launches were only tests, and no one was hurt, the missiles refocused attention on the small country, and its repeated promises to build nuclear weapons. Or perhaps the launch was just some stealth advertising for the country’s new ski resort

Reportedly, director Steven Spielberg’s next project will be a film adaptation of American Sniper, the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle was killed in February, while trying to help another soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder at a gun range. Kyle is one of the many soldiers documented in The Military Experience. Special Operations: Snipers from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

These are just a few of things happening in the world. They remind us that just because the book is over, the story is not at an end, and that to fully understand what is happening in the world right now, we must have an understanding of the past.

To learn more about Champion of Freedom: Nelson Mandela, Profiles in Mathematics: Alan TuringReal Courage: The Story of Harper LeeThe Military Experience. Special Operations: Snipers, or our Ebook exclusive, Modern American Conflicts: The Korean War, please visit morganreynolds.com.

-Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

 

 

 

 

What’s Going On in North Korea?

kim-jong-un-horseThough it’s prominence in the news has lessened some, North Korea–and the actions and intentions of its young leader Kim Jong-un–continues to be a hot topic. Just this week, North Korea was a key point of discussion between President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye during the two’s first meeting in Washington. “Solidarity on North Korea is going to be the hallmark of this meeting,” Obama said, and both leaders agreed that they wanted to see an end to Kim Jong-un’s threats toward the US and South Korea.

This conference comes on the heels of last week’s (May 2nd) news that the North Korean government had sentenced American citizen Kenneth Bae to fifteen years of hard labor at a North Korean labor camp. Bae, from Washington state, ran a tour company out of China, and was arrested when he took a group of Chinese businessmen into the isolated country of North Korea. Bae was charged with “hostile acts” against the government. (Recent reports have suggested that Bae was a Christian missionary, and his efforts were viewed as a threat to the state’s reverence towards its leader, Kim Jong-un.) Bae’s arrest and sentencing on vague and dubious charges has inspired international criticism and anger towards North Korea.

Even basketball star and TV personality Dennis Rodman, who several months ago visited rodman-kim_2496070bNorth Korea without US state department approval and claims to have befriended Kim Jong-un, has gotten into the discussion. Rodman tweeted: “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim’, to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.” (Rodman claiming to call the North Korean leader “Kim” as an expression of closeness is a bit odd, since Kim is a surname.)

These stories and others, such as the UN creating a three person panel for its first ever human rights investigation in North Korea, make it clear that the country will continue to be in the news and the world’s attention for some time to come. But still, much about the country is unknown. How did this small, isolated communist country begin commanding the world’s attention? How did its young, eccentric leader Kim Jong-un come to power? To begin to understand where North Korea is going, it’s vital to find out where it came from.

A crucial part of Korean–and US–history is The Korean War. Though not as well known or studied as other 20th century conflicts like World War II or the Vietnam War, The Korean War was a major and influential part of history. Not only was it one of the first and largest armed conflicts of the Cold War, it featured the rise to power of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un, setting the stage for the North Korea of today.

To help the students of today understand this war and it’s profound impact on history and current events, Morgan Reynolds Publishing proudly presents our first Ebook exclusive, Modern American Conflicts: The Korean War (ISNB# 978-1-59935-403-3) by Jim Corrigan. To order a downloadable copy for your computer or e-reader, visit morganreynolds.com, Mackin Educational Resources, or Follett.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

A propaganda poster of Kim Il-sung, leader of North Korea during the Korean War and grandfather of Kim Jong-un.

A propaganda poster of Kim Il-sung, leader of North Korea during the Korean War and grandfather of Kim Jong-un.

The Bangladesh Factory Collapse and The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

ap_bangladesh_factory_collapse_4_jt_130427_wg

Last week, a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, India. Initial reports claimed that at least 87 people died in the accident, but the total of number of deaths from the collapse is now believed to be about four hundred, with thousands of others wounded. Massive cracks were reported in the building the day before the collapse, but the owner Mohammed Sohel Rana ignored the warning signs and demanded his employees keep working. On Sunday, April 28, Rana was arrested trying to flee Bangladesh, and will face responsibility for the collapse.

This tragic story has understandably attracted much international attention. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time that an event like this has occurred. Last November, a fire at a different Bangladeshi garment factory killed 112 people (we wrote about it here). Another factory collapse eight years ago, killing 64. And these are just a few of the incidences of tragically unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh, where the garment industry brings in some $20 billion a year, but the workers typically make little more than $38 a month.

The wreckage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

The wreckage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Hearing about these incidents, one is reminded of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. In that famous tragedy, 146 workers at a New York garment factory were killed when a fire broke out during work hours. The fire spread quickly due to unsafe work conditions, and workers were unable to escape the blaze because the factory’s owners had locked the doors in an effort to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The fire attracted national attention, and prompted new laws and regulations in America to protect workers.

Unfortunately, those laws are not in effect in other parts of the world, where sweat shops and unsafe conditions still are dominant. (That’s not to say that American companies don’t continue to flaunt rules and safety regulations: the Texas fertilizer plant that exploded on April 17, 2013, killing more than fifteen people and injuring many more, had 1,350 times the amount of explosive ammonium nitrate than what is allowed by the Department of Homeland Security on its premises.) But with the constant international scrutiny allowed by the internet, one hopes that things will change.The changes may even be made for economic reasons: in the wake of the Bangladesh collapse, many of the major corporations whose products are made there are working on plans to ensure worker safety. Meanwhile, the European Union is considering taking action against Bangladesh, threatening the preferential treatment the country receives from the Union that makes these factories so profitable.  Sadly, like with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it takes an unthinkable tragedy to spur any kind of action.

To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, please check out The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (ISBN# 978-1-59935-099-8) by Donna Getzinger from your local library, or purchase it as an Ebook from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor