When President Obama stepped to the lectern on Sunday to address Morehouse College's graduating class, he gave exactly the kind of speech that you give at Morehouse. The president told the graduating students that they had been trained and nurtured to be leaders. He linked their personal and professional successes to the well-being of their communities. This is part of the obligation of being a "Morehouse Man," he said.
The all-men's college was once a crucial on-ramp into the black elite, and "The Morehouse Man" — learned, proud, ambitious, socially engaged, morally upright — was held up as a kind of ideal of black manhood. And importantly, this is how many of the school's students and graduates think of themselves. (That notion has gotten much more complicated in recent years.) President Obama ticked off some of the notable names who had passed through the school on their way to doing big, important things: Spike Lee, Maynard Jackson, Martin Luther King.
He also mentioned Leland Shelton.
"When Leland Shelton was four years old — where's Leland?" the president asked the audience during his speech. Shelton heard his name and froze. A friend nearby nudged him and made him stand up. The president went on.
When Leland Shelton was four years old, social services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled in Morehouse. And today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School.
But Shelton hadn't told many people on campus much of his personal history. ("Strategic sharing," he called it.) But here he was on this improbable graduation day, standing in the throng in the rain as the President of the United States singled him out for praise, a black man held up as an example to other black men. Classmates clapped him on the back and applauded. Shelton tried not to cry in front of his grandfather, his siblings, his wife. No dice.
Shelton was so harried during his last few days on campus that he missed a phone call and message from the White House. And so he didn't know the president was about to put him on blast.
Another part of the president's speech — a section that loomed larger in news reports about the president's commencement address than it did in the actual address — rankled many folks watching at home. "We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices," President Obama said. "Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there's no longer any room for excuses."
It came a day after the First Lady, Michelle Obama, made similar statements at the Bowie State University commencement ceremony, another historically black college. "Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, [many young blacks are] sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV," she said. "Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper."
The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in response: "I would have a hard time imagining the President telling the women of Barnard that 'there's no longer room for any excuses' — as though they were in the business of making them."
There's something dutiful and obligatory about this kind of bootstraps-and-responsibility speech at an HBCU graduation, of course. And it's a posture the president has often taken when speaking to black audiences.
It's a message that resonated at the Morehouse commencement and with Shelton.
"Before he shouted me out I was just thinking about how great the speech was," Shelton said. "He sounded like a Morehouse Man. He'd integrated so much of the history of Morehouse College into his speech...and the [idea] that Morehouse is here to make great men."
So after being held up as the Morehouse Man par excellence by President Obama, how did Shelton feel about the "Morehouse Man" idea? He was proud of it, obviously, although he said it could use some updating. "I do feel that how we feel about gender roles is outdated and needs to be updated for 2013," he said. "But what I do believe is that Morehouse men should have that global consciousness to them."
He added, "That's not to say we have to be Atlas and have the world on our shoulders."
The idea of vertical farming is all the rage right now. Architects and engineers have come up with spectacular concepts for lofty buildings that could function as urban food centers of the future.
In Sweden, for example, they're planning a 177-feet skyscraper to farm leafy greens at the edge of each floor. But so far, most vertical gardens that are up and running actually look more like large greenhouses than city towers. And many horticulturists don't think sky-high farms in cities are practical.
"The idea of taking a skyscraper and turning it into a vertical farming complex is absolutely ridiculous from an energy perspective," says horticulturist Cary Mitchell of Purdue University, who's been working on ways to grow plants in space for more than 20 years.
The future of vertical farming, Mitchell thinks, lies not in city skyscrapers but rather, in large warehouses located at the edge of cities, where real estate and electricity are cheaper.
And oh, yeah, instead of being traditional greenhouses lit by fluorescent lamps, he says these plant factories will probably be "pinkhouses," glowing magenta from the mix of blue and red LEDs.
Light is a major problem with vertical farming. When you stack plants on top of each other, the ones at the top shade the ones at the bottom. The only way to get around it is to add artificial light — which is expensive both financially and environmentally.
Vertical farmers can lower the energy bill, Mitchell says, by giving plants only the wavelengths of light they need the most: the blue and red wavelengths.
"Twenty years ago, research showed that you could grow lettuce in just red light," Mitchell says. "If you add a little bit of blue, it grows better."
Plant's photosynthesis machinery is tuned to absorb red and blue light most efficiently. They have a handful of other pigments in their leaves that catch other wavelengths, but red and blue wavelengths are the big ones, supplying more than 95 percent of the light needed to grow.
So why LEDs? They're super energy efficient in general but unlike traditional greenhouse lamps, they can be tuned to specific wavelengths. Why use all of ROYGBIV when just RB will do?
And there's another advantage to using LEDs in greenhouses and vertical farming, Mitchell says: Because these lights are cooler, you can place them close to the plants — even stacked plants — and lose even less energy.
Recently, Mitchell and his graduate student designed a 9-foot-tall tower of lights and grew tomato plants right up against it. "As the plants get taller, we turn on the [light] panels higher up," he explains. "It takes about two months before all the panels are on."
The towers cut energy consumption by about 75 percent, Mitchell and his team reported earlier this year.
Right now, experiments are using these specialized LEDs to supplement natural light, not replace it.
But as LEDs get more and more efficient, could growers forgo the natural light altogether and grow crops completely in enclosed rooms, where they're protected from temperature changes or damaging pests?
That's exactly what Barry Holtz, at Caliber Biotherapeutics, is already doing.
His farms have never seen the light of day.
He and his company have built a 150,000-square-foot "plant factory" in Texas that is completely closed off from the outside world. They grow 2.2 million plants, stacked up 50 feet high, all underneath the magenta glow of blue and red LEDS.
"A photon is a terrible thing to waste," Holtz tells The Salt. "So we developed these lights to correctly match the photosynthesis needs of our plants. We get almost 20 percent faster growth rate and save a lot energy."
Holtz is growing a tobacco-like plant to make new drugs and vaccines. The indoor pinkhouse gives him tight control over the expensive crops, so his team can stop diseases and contamination.
Holtz says this type of indoor gardening isn't going to replace traditional farms any time soon. It's still relatively expensive for growing food. "We couldn't compete with iceberg lettuce farmers," he says, "but for certain specialty crops, the economics wouldn't be so bad."
And, he says, the pinkhouse is actually quite efficient when it comes to water and electricity. "We've done some calculations, and we lose less water in one day than a KFC restaurant uses, because we recycle all of it."
A federal court in Guatemala has thrown out the genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, which had been called a breakthrough in the region's human rights.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that "all trial evidence and testimony as of April 19th, the date a trial judge was removed from the case, must be re-entered."
The ruling late Monday came 10 days after a three judge tribunal sentenced 86-year-old Rios Montt to 80 years in prison: 50 years for genocide against the Ixil Mayan people, who were considered enemies of the Guatemalan state, and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.
As Mark wrote, Rios Montt's conviction marked the first time any country convicted a current or former head of state on genocide charges. Other genocide convictions have been handed down by international courts.
The BBC reports that the annulment is based on Rios Montt's legal representation. On April 19, he was briefly without a defense attorney because his lawyers walked out of court, protesting "illegal proceedings." The tribunal hearing the case appointed a public defender, who Rios Montt rejected. He wanted a personal attorney who had already been expelled in the case. When the personal attorney appeared, he attempted to have the tribunal judges dismissed and was expelled again. That's when the Constitutional Court says the case should have stopped.
After his conviction, Rios Montt appealed and the Constitutional Court wound back the clock to April 19. By that point, The New York Times reports, "the tribunal had heard all of the prosecution's case and most of the defense's. That testimony still stands. But the court's ruling invalidated everything else after that date." That includes the conviction and sentence.
What's unclear is whether this creates a matter of double-jeopardy for Rios Montt. It's also not known which judge or panel of judges will now take up the case.
Amnesty International expressed outrage, saying the legal basis for the ruling isn't clear:
"With the sentence on 10 May, the trial court had sent a strong signal that crimes against thousands of Mayan victims would not be tolerated. The Constitutional Court has now questioned that message, putting the right to truth, justice and reparation at risk in Guatemala."
As Agence France-Press puts it,
"Rios Montt's conviction made him the first Latin American ex-dictator to be convicted of trying to exterminate an entire people, during a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 people dead or missing. Under his rule, the army carried out a scorched earth policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces."
What happened over the weekend? At 8:34 on Friday night, Kanye West tweeted. He said he'd be premiering a song in a half hour and we'd have to do what he said to hear it - we'd have to go to a particular address and stand outside with other people and watch a video projected onto the side of a building. Of course, the first video of the video was up within minutes, so most people didn't have to do any such thing. "New Slaves" spread, the texting and Vineing and opining ran rampant. A few hours later even Michael Moore was Rap Genius-ing the song. The next night Kanye was the musical guest on the season finale of Saturday Night Live, where he premiered another new song, "Black Skinhead," performed "New Slaves" for the first time and stood alone while the cast hugged around him and the credits rolled.
He came for us on wavelengths old-fashioned and new, inserting into our conversations two songs that are stacks of questions without answers. Received as part of Kanye's 15-year career, they make sense - from the composition that is both heavy-handed and deft to the singsong retort of his flow and the lyrics that combine insecurity with callous certainty, that decry consumerism while refusing to give it up, that drag internal conversations in front of a mass-market, hair-trigger, blinkered audience. "New Slaves" is the "c'mon, c'mon" in the "All Falls Down" hook 10 years and millions of dollars later. He's got more on the line now — a decade of living has made him less inclined to sugarcoat.
This new song is a rotund, hollow production over which the man who made "Jesus Walks" and "Slow Jamz" and "Drive Slow" and "Runaway" and "Can't Tell Me Nothing" looks us dead in the eye and raps about the proximity of Jim Crow. He says things about the government that would have been dangerous 30 years ago. He airs out the music industry. Other rappers are doing this, but Ye also admits fault and weakness every time he mentions a Maybach. He is balling out on every level, especially emotionally. He's made so much money anticipating our desires that he now has the capital and the connections to push our buttons whenever he wants.
How does a very rich and eminently successful artist with a superstar-all-from-a-home-movie girlfriend call us out? "Black Skinhead" is somebody banging on your door in the middle of the night, hurtling out of Ye's metal-plated face, predicting reactions before it's halfway over. He rides an industrial-sounding, stadium-sized beat, calling Chicago, "Chiraq" in a grainy echo. He associated himself with Malcolm X on "Good Morning," but then it was a joke. This time he's serious. He says he's going 400 mph, which we believe - he's taken corners on two wheels on live TV before.
In the Saturday Night Live performances Ye hit all his marks. He mostly controlled his delivery of FCC-banned words - but not all the way and half the slipups felt intentional. His set design is as composed and emphatic as it has been since he started working with Es Devlin. It's invigorating and ominous. His bare-chested DJ couldn't restrain himself, and the SNL audience was in full-throated support.
That was good to hear, because Kanye isn't exactly beloved. Not everybody gets it. On record and in public, he's asymmetric and flustered just like a regular human being is, but unlike rap you'll play for your kids, rap songs about shopping at Goodwill, rappers who are safely in the past. What's popular, on the sales charts, on the radio, at the festivals and in hip-hop today is EDM. And EDM has a lot of things, but it's short on words. Kanye has words for days — words that don't agree with each other, ambiguous pronouns, homonyms, insults, "Strange Fruit" quotes. There are ideas in "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" that are echoed in the editorial pages of The New York Times, but Kanye's songs give them volume and heart. They are a reminder of what music can do — and the isolation artists feel when they say things we don't want to hear. People need to stop saying hip-hop is dead. There are brave people making it, and we should be proud.
We all know how the battle lines shake out: evangelical vs. scientist, believer vs. atheist. The culture war defined as science vs. religion is so overheated that it seems to be more of a caricature than a coherent, useful discussion. Unless, that is, someone is trying to stretch beyond the usual polarities.
Ronald Dworkin, an acclaimed American legal scholar who died in February at the age of 82, has done just that in Religion Without God. After reading an excerpt in The New York Review of Books, I couldn't help but think that Dworkin offers a way into discussions of science and human spiritual endeavor that is actually engaging and interesting, not combative and dogmatic.
Here's how he frames it:
The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious.
How does a culture saturated with the fruits (and poisons) of science understand the ancient human longing that is sometimes called religious, sometimes spiritual or sometimes sacred? The route of absolute rejection (taken famously by Richard Dawkins) makes for a clean ideology. But it comes at a cost: ignoring the reality of human experience. This is why Dworkin is keen to show that — even for people who call themselves atheist — there remains a sense or a value to the world which bears so much in common with attitudes we call religious or spiritual. In his mind, to not see them as such is a kind of willful blindness:
[These atheists] find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.
Given the force of these responses to experience, Dworkin wants to know if there can be an understanding of religiousness that does not involve God. Dworkin understands, of course, that there are religions such as Buddhism that do not involve a creator deity. But he goes far beyond that fact. What Dworkin pursues is insight into the core of what makes us human and how it might be grounded in something other than an idea of God:
Religion, we should say, does not necessarily mean a belief in God. But then, granted that someone can be religious without believing in a god, what does being religious mean? What is the difference between a religious attitude toward the world and a nonreligious attitude?
I have never been a big fan of the word religion in these debates, given its implications of institutional power and politics. But if we understand it as a response to experience, in the way that William James did, then Dworkin is, I believe, on to something. His question is an important one which people of good will on both sides of the science and religion discussion (as opposed to the science vs. religion debate) need to address.
While Dworkin's specific answer hinges on ideas about value and its attribution, there will be other ways, I am sure, to respond to the question.
And it's the question which matters most. We live in an era when attitudes about religion are changing in the very same moment that the institutions of science are being challenged by forces of religious extremism. For people not given to extremes, this is the moment to get creative.