Prisons Around the U.S. Are Banning and Restricting Access to Books

“We live,” wrote philosopher Alain Badiou, “in a contradiction.” Dehumanization must be normalized in order to keep the economy going. “A brutal state of affairs… where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone—is presented to us as ideal.” Yet the market that promises freedom just as often strips it away, in public-private partnerships that bring censorship and rent-seeking into happy symbiosis.

In recent years, free market opportunism has taken hold in the most unfree places in the U.S., the country’s prisons, which hold more people proportionally than in any other nation in the world: a huge, previously untapped market for sales of hygiene products and visits with family. “Like the military,” writes Adam Bluestein at Inc.,, “the corrections system is a big, well-capitalized customer.”




One recent commercial encroachment on prisoners’ freedoms arrived this year when the West Virginia Division of Corrections issued inmates tablets, under a contract with a company called Global Tel Link, who charge them by the minute to read books online. One might make the argument that forcing inmates to pay for basic needs satisfies some ideal of punishment. But to restrict access to books seems to dispense with the pretense that prison might also be a place of rehabilitation.

“Any inmates looking to read Moby Dick,” reports Reason, “may find that it will cost them far more than it would have if they’d simply gotten a mass market paperback.” Katy Ryan of the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which donates free books and materials to prisons, points out how limiting the scheme is: “If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you. If you want to reread a book, you will pay the entire cost again.”

West Virginia is not banning print books, purchased or donated. It is, however, charging inmates for already free material. The books they pay per minute to read online are all on Project Gutenberg, the open platform for thousands of free eBooks. That the program amounts to a kind of economic-based censorship may hardly be coincidence. Other states around the country have begun limiting, or outright banning, books in prisons.

The Washington State Department of Corrections has prohibited all books donated by nonprofits, presumably because they might be used to smuggle contraband. Prison officials at the Danville Correctional Center in Illinois made clear what they considered contraband—books about black history, 200 of which were removed from the prison library—including W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—after they were deemed “too racial.”

These are only a few examples of a widespread phenomenon PEN America details in a new report, “Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban.” Paradoxically, some restrictions can seem at odds with market demands—such as limits on inmates’ ability to order books from online retailers. But like many contradictions in the system, perhaps these also serve a larger goal—preventing prisoners from educating themselves may ensure a steady stream of repeat customers in the hugely profitable carceral industry.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Sacha Baron Cohen Links the Decline of Democracy to the Rise of Social Media, “the Greatest Propaganda Machine in History”

Presenting a keynote address at an ADL conference, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen wasn't kidding around when he painted a bleak picture of our emerging world: "Today ... demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities."

What's leading to these destabilizing changes? Baron Cohen could cite many reasons. But if pushed, he'll emphasize one:

But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.

The greatest propaganda machine in history.

Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

You can watch his sobering talk above, or read the transcript here.

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Trump’s Denials Turned into a Ramones Song: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO.”

Yesterday Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, had this to say to Congress: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

It was damning testimony. And it left the president with little choice but to try and exonerate himself. So he walked onto the South Lawn of the White House, and read some notes, written with a sharpie in CAPS, all supposedly documenting the real content of a call he had with Sondland several months ago: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO." “TELL ZELLINSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING. THIS IS THE FINAL WORD FROM THE PRES OF THE U.S.”

Hours later, someone on Twitter turned the denial into a Ramones song. Punk comic relief. Listen above.

Download Stunning 3D Scans of the Bust of Nefertiti, Now Released by Berlin’s Neues Museum

Two years ago, a scandalous “art heist” at the Neues Museum in Berlin—involving illegally made 3D scans of the bust of Nefertiti—turned out to be a different kind of crime. The two Egyptian artists who released the scans claimed they had made the images with a hidden “hacked Kinect Sensor,” reports Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica. But digital artist and designer Cosmo Wenman discovered these were scans made by the Neues Museum itself, which had been stolen by the artists or perhaps a museum employee.

The initial controversy stemmed from the fact that the museum strictly controls images of the artwork, and had refused to release any of their Nefertiti scans to the public. The practice, Wenman pointed out, is consistent across dozens of institutions around the world. “There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high-quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.” He lists many prominent examples in a recent Reason article; the long list includes the Venus de Milo, Rodin’s Thinker, and works by Donatello, Bernini, and Michelangelo.




Whatever their reasons, the aggressively proprietary attitude adopted by the Neues seems strange considering the controversial provenance of the Nefertiti bust. Germany has long claimed that it acquired the bust legally in 1912. But at the time, the British controlled Egypt, and Egyptians themselves had little say over the fate of their national treasures. Furthermore, the chain of custody seems to include at least a few documented instances of fraud. Egypt has been demanding that the artifact be repatriated “ever since it first went on display.”

This critical historical context notwithstanding, the bust is already "one of the most copied works of ancient Egyptian art," and one of the most famous. “Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge,” Wenman argued in his blog post. Prestigious cultural institutions “are in the best position to produce and publish 3D data of their works and provide authoritative context and commentary.”

Wenman waged a “3-year-long freedom of information effort” to liberate the scans. His request was initially met with “the gift shop defense”—the museum claimed releasing the images would threaten sales of Nefertiti merchandise. When the appeal to commerce failed to dissuade Wenman, the museum let him examine the scans "in a controlled setting"; they were essentially treating the images, he writes, "like a state secret." Finally, they relented, allowing Wenman to publish the scans, without any institutional support.

He has done so, and urged others to share his Reason article on social media to get word out about the files, now available to download and use under a CC BY-NC-SA license. He has also taken his own liberties with the scans, colorizing and adding the blue 3D mapping lines himself to the image at the top, for example, drawn from his own interactive 3D model, which you can view and download here. These are examples of his vision for high-quality 3D scans of artworks, which can and should "be adapted, multiplied, and remixed."

"The best place to celebrate great art," says Wenman, "is in a vibrant, lively, and anarchic popular culture. The world's back catalog of art should be set free to run wild in our visual and tactile landscape." Organizations like Scan the World have been releasing unofficial 3D scans to the public for the past couple years, but these cannot guarantee the accuracy of models rendered by the institutions themselves.

Whether the actual bust of Nefertiti should be returned to Egypt is a somewhat more complicated question, since the 3,000-year old artifact may be too fragile to move and too culturally important to risk damaging in transit. But whether or not its virtual representations should be given to everyone who wants them seems more straightforward.

The images already belong to the public, in a sense, Wenman suggests. Withholding them for the sake of protecting sales seems like a violation of the spirit in which most cultural institutions were founded. Download the Nefertiti scans at Thingiverse, see Wenman's own 3D models at Sketchfab, and read all of his correspondence with the museum throughout the freedom of information process here. Next, he writes, he's lobbying for the release of official 3D Rodin scans. Watch this space. 

via Reason

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Schoolhouse Rock-Inspired Guide to Impeachment

How does a bill become a law? You can’t hear the question and not hum a few bars from Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill.” The groovy cartoon civics lesson was for millions the first they learned about the legislative process. Ask another question, however, like “how does impeachment work,” and you may hear more crickets than 70’s educational TV jingles.

Surely we took something from Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial besides cigars, stained blue dresses, and the spectacle of morally compromised politicians wagging their fingers at a morally compromised politician? Surely we’ve all read the Watergate transcripts, and can quote more from that history than Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” (muttered before he resigned instead of facing the charges)?




Maybe not. Despite the talk of closed-door hearings and conflicted jurors, many of us have not paid close attention to the particulars of the process, given that impeachment trials can make for such compellingly broad political theater. And we never got our Schoolhouse Rock impeachment episode. Until now.

Seeing as how the president faces public, televised impeachment hearings next week, there may be no more opportune time to get caught up on some details with Jonathan Coulton’s Schoolhouse Rock-inspired “The Good Fight.” Its animation style and catchy tune recalls the 70s educational series, but Coulton doesn’t address the kids at home as his primary audience.

“Your tiny hands may scratch and claw,” sings Coulton, “but nobody’s above the law.” You won’t win any prizes for guessing who this means—a person in need of a childlike explainer on basic government, it seems. More verbal jabs are thrown, and the alleged crimes enumerated, ending with treason (and a misplaced, anachronistic hammer and sickle by animators Head Gear Animation). The video finally gets into the impeachment process over a minute in, past the halfway mark.

Viewers might find the first half emotionally satisfying, with its characterization of impeached presidents as wayward children in need of correction by a swaggering Constitution and a sassy band of founders. It’s cute but leaves precious little time for learning how this accountability process is supposed to work. Coulton rushes through the explanation, and you may find yourself skipping back to hear it several times.

Never fear: Google—or the search engine of your choice—is here to ferry you to thousands of guides to the impeachment process. “The Good Fight” isn’t, after all, actually a Schoolhouse Rock ad, but a fun civic-minded reminder to everyone that the president is not above the law, and that Congress is entitled by the Constitution to hold the holder of that office, whomever they may be, accountable. An explainer by Vox appears below:

via BoingBoing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free: A Professionally-Read Version of the Ukraine Whistleblower Complaint, Released by Penguin Random House Audio

Listen to the Whistleblower Complaint released by the House Intelligence Committee, as read by Saskia Maarleveld. Stream or download it above. Find more of Maarleveld's narrated books on Audible.

This recording will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

How Bicycles Can Revolutionize Our Lives: Case Studies from the United States, Netherlands, China & Britain

A two- (and three- and one-) wheeled revolution is upon us. Dubbed “micro-mobility” by start-up marketers and influencers, the trend incorporates all sorts of personal means of transport. While the buzz may hover around electric scooters and skateboards, the faithful bicycle still leads the pack, as it has for over a hundred years. And advocates—who bike as their primary means of exercise, commuting, and running daily errands—are challenging the orthodoxies of car culture.

As an avid cyclist myself, who bikes as often as I can for groceries and other errands, I will admit to a strong bias in their favor. But even I’ve been challenged and surprised by what I've learned from biking advocates like Liz Canning, producer and narrator of a new documentary film, Motherload, a portrait of the many people who have chosen to use cargo bikes instead of cars for nearly everything.




The film is remarkable for the ordinariness of its subjects. As one cargo cyclist, Brent Patterson of Buffalo, New York, says, “I’m not an athlete. I’m not superhuman. I’m just a completely normal person like you.” The Patterson family “sold its car,” notes Outside magazine, “and travels by cargo bike year-round, even in snowstorms.” Another cargo cyclist in the film, Emily Finch, “carts all six of her kiddos around on two wheels.” We see cargo cyclists around the world, using bikes as emergency transport haulers and daily grocery-getters.

Most of the Americans profiled live in bike-friendly communities like Marin County, California or Portland, Oregon. But others, like the Pattersons, do not, “and not all are as comfortably off as Canning,” who retired as a commercial filmmaker to raise her kids in bike-friendly Fairfax, CA. “Some had to sell their car or take out a no-interest loan in order to afford a cargo bike.” No one seems to have regretted the decision.

Readers who hail from, or have lived in, places in the world where bike-reliance is the norm may scoff at the presumed novelty of the idea in Canning’s film. But at one time, even the Netherlands—home of the ubiquitous Bakfiets—was almost as car-centric as most of the U.S., as American Dan Kois writes in a New Yorker essay about how he learned to become bike commuter in the Netherlands.

I had assumed that Dutch people’s adeptness at biking was the result of generations of incessant cycling. In fact, after the Second World War, the Netherlands had, like the U.S., become dominated by cars. Cycling paths were overtaken by roads, and neighborhoods in Amsterdam were razed to make room for highways. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of cars in the country exploded from about a hundred thousand to nearly two and a half million. During that same period, bike use plummeted; in Amsterdam, the percentage of trips made by bike fell from eighty to twenty.

That all changed when young activists and parents, especially mothers—like the biking mothers in Motherload—began protesting high numbers of traffic deaths. They took to the streets on their bikes, blocking traffic, running for office, and pressuring city officials to make infrastructure and public space safe and accommodating for bikes. Now, there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands, and cars co-exist on roads full of cyclists of all ages and classes, on their way to work, school, and everywhere else.

Dutch drivers “look out for cyclists,” writes Kois. “After all, nearly all of those drivers are cyclists themselves,” using the car for a brief, necessary outing before they get back on their bikes for most everything else. Next to Kois’ first-person account of his few-months-long sojourn through Delft, we have the global testimony of the Bicycle Architecture Biennale, a “showcase of cutting edge and high profile building designs that are facilitating bicycle travel and transforming communities around the world.” The exhibits, writes Karen Wong at David Byrne's Reasons to Be Cheerful, "point the way to a two-wheeled utopia."

BYCS, the group responsible for this well-curated exhibition, come from Amsterdam. The projects they feature, however, are in London and Chongmin and Chengdu, China. The cargo cyclists in Motherload, and the ferocious activism of cyclists in places like New York City, despite tremendous "bikelash," may show Americans they don't need to look abroad to see how bikes could slowly displace cars as Americans' vehicles of choice in some parts of the country. But learning from how other places have reimagined their infrastructure could prove necessary for lasting change.

Many Americans cannot imagine life without their cars, even if they also have garages full of bikes. Some lash out at cyclists as a threat to their way of life. The country is enormous (though we do most driving locally); cars serve as modes of transport—for human, plant, animal, and everything else—and also as escape pods and status symbols. Canning’s film shows us ordinary American men and women getting the gumption to trade some comfort and security for lives of minor adventure and ecological simplicity. (And a good many of them still have cars if they need them.)

We also see, in exhibitions like that previewed in the video above how design principles and policy can help make such choices easier and safer for everyone to make. Canning pointedly frames her argument in Motherload around cycling's radical history. "100 years before the bicycle saved me," she says in the film's official trailer at the top, "it liberated the poor, empowered the suffragettes, and transformed society faster than any invention in human history. It could happen again."

via Outside

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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