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Academic Insights for the Thinking World


The continuing benefits (and costs) of the Giving Pledge

The recent news about charitable contributions in the United States has been encouraging. The Giving Pledge, sponsored by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr., recently announced that another group of billionaires committed to leave a majority of their wealth to charity. Among these new Giving Pledgers are Judith Faulkner, founder of Epic Systems; Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani Yogurt; and Brad Keywell, a co-founder of Groupon.

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Look away now: The prophecies of Nostradamus

If you like your prophecies pin sharp then look away now. The 16th century celebrity seer Nostradamus excelled at the exact opposite, couching his predictions in terms so vague as to be largely meaningless. This has not, however, prevented his soothsayings attracting enormous and unending interest, and his book – Les Propheties – has rarely been out of print since it was first published 460 years ago. Uniquely, for a renaissance augur, the writings of Nostradamus are perhaps as popular today as they were four and a half centuries ago.

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The Jurassic world of … dinosaurs?

The latest incarnation (I chose that word advisedly!) of the Jurassic Park franchise has been breaking box-office records and garnering mixed reviews from the critics. On the positive side the film is regarded as scary, entertaining, and a bit comedic at times (isn’t that what most movies are supposed to be?). On the negative side the plot is described as rather ‘thin’, the human characters two-dimensional, and the scientific content (prehistoric animals) unreliable, inaccurate, or lacking entirely in credibility.

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How do we remember the Battle of Waterloo?

From the moment the news of the victory was announced in London, Waterloo was hailed as a victory of special significance, all the more precious for being won on land against England’s oldest rival, France. Press and politicians alike built Waterloo into something exceptional. Castlereagh in Parliament would claim, for instance, that Waterloo was Wellington’s victory over Napoleon and that ‘it was an achievement of such high merit, of such pre-eminent importance, as had never perhaps graced the annals of this or any other country till now’.

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Composition, performance, and mashups

What does it mean to create an artwork? For centuries, we thought we knew the answer. In literature, an author recorded words on a page. In the visual arts, an artist put paint to canvas. In music, a composer jotted down notes and rhythms on a staff as the raw material for his/her creations.

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President Obama, the Senate, and state private-sector retirement laws

In a letter addressed to President Obama, 26 members of the United States Senate expressed their support for the private sector retirement savings laws adopted in Illinois and California, and also being considered in other states. In particular, the senators asked that the United States Treasury and Labor Departments resolve three legal issues clouding the prospects of these adopted and proposed state laws.

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Unequal at birth

Recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson, and other places have highlighted the explosive potential of discrimination and inequality. Much attention has been paid to police practices, the long-term effect of joblessness, and the trauma of the criminal justice system incarcerating large numbers of African-Americans. This focus on the present is understandable. It is also insufficient. There is a need to understand and address the huge disadvantages, and indeed disabilities, imposed on future generations by pre-natal conditions.

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14781395 jicj journal of international criminal justice

FIFA and the internationalisation of criminal justice

The factual backdrop to this affair is well-known. FIFA, world football’s governing body has, for a number of years, been the subject of allegations of corruption. Then, after a series of dawn raids on 27 May 2015, seven FIFA officials, of various nationalities, the most famous being Jack Warner, the Trinidadian former vice president of FIFA, were arrested in a luxury hotel in Zurich where they were staying prior to the FIFA Congress.

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Do we choose what we believe?

Descartes divided the mind up into two faculties: intellect and will. The intellect gathers up data from the world and presents the mind with various potential beliefs that it might endorse; the will then chooses which of them to endorse. We can look at the evidence for or against a particular belief, but the final choice about what to believe remains a matter of choice. This raises the question of the ‘ethics of belief,’ the title of an essay by the mathematician William K. Clifford, in which he argued that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’

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For the love of trees

I used to climb trees when I was young (and I still, on occasion, do). As a boy in Iraq I had a favoured loquat tree, with branches that bore leathery, serrated leaves, shiny on the upper surface, and densely matted with fine hairs underneath. It seemed so big, though I now reflect it was probably rather small. I would haul myself up and over the lowest branch, making whatever use of the twists and folds of the trunk as provided purchase to my small feet.

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Civil War peas, shamrocks, and state beds: collecting a collection

The Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an organization devoted to innovative museum practice as well as to the study of historic American furniture, American and British ceramics, and American prints, doesn’t always collect what one might expect. Recently we acquired three peas said to have been served at Andersonville Prison, a swatch from bareknuckle boxer Joe Goss’s colors, splinters from the wreck of an ill-fated arctic expedition, and a feather collected from a Russian state bed.

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DNA: The amazing molecule

DNA is the foundation of life. It codes the instructions for the creation of all life on Earth. Scientists are now reading the autobiographies of organisms across the Tree of Life and writing new words, paragraphs, chapters, and even books as synthetic genomics gains steam. Quite astonishingly, the beautiful design and special properties of DNA makes it capable of many other amazing feats. Here are five man-made functions of DNA, all of which are contributing to the growing “industrial-DNA” phenomenon.

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How many of these famous political quotes have you heard before?

The week of the UK general election has finally arrived. After suffering weeks of incessant sound-bites, you will soon be free of political jargon for another few years. Phrases like “long-term economic plan” have been repeated so often that they have ceased to mean anything. From Margaret Thatcher to Harold Wilson, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, British prime ministers and politicians have uttered phrases that have echoed throughout history. How many of these famous political quotes do you remember?

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Advocacy and pedagogy in secondary school singing

Music as a school subject, it so often seems, retains its apparently perilous position in the school largely as a result of the unstinting pressure of advocacy groups. The 2004 Music Manifesto that underpins much of the current drive to keep school music alive was unashamedly “a voluntary, apolitical 13-strong Partnership and Advocacy Group”.

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Who was the first great Shakespearean actress?

The first female Juliet appears to have been Mary Saunderson, to Henry Harris’s Romeo in 1662 when her future husband, Thomas Betterton, played Mercutio. Later she acted admirably as Ophelia and Lady Macbeth but nothing I have read characterizes her as great. Elizabeth Barry (c.1658–1713) succeeded her as Betterton’s leading lady, excelling in pathetic roles and achieving her greatest successes in the heroic tragedies of her own time.

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Do you know your Potter from your Paddington?

The last three decades have seen arguably the most fertile periods in the history of children’s literature, across the field. The phenomenon that is Harry Potter, the rise of YA, and books that tackle difficult subjects for younger readers are just a few examples of the material included in the new edition of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature by Daniel Hahn.

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