Islam and the US, Episode 105, Backstory

Backstory begins with a current event, and then provides listeners with the “backstory,” or the related history. The hosts, Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, Brian Balogh, Joanne Freeman, and Nathan Connolly, meet weekly to interview historians or take audience questions. The show aims to make “learning about history like going to a lively cocktail party.”

The current event this episode begins with is the then US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. Onuf explains that this is far from the first conflict the United States has had with Muslim communities. The first one was “more than 200 years ago, [when] the US went to war with Muslim pirates.”

In 1784, an American ship was captured by Moroccan sailors, which turned out be the first of many ships captured by what were known as the Barbary States (including Morocco and other provinces of the then Ottoman empire). The pirates demanded the US ships pay them to continue on into the Mediterranean. At first, the Americans paid. But once Thomas Jefferson became president, he refused, and the Barbary War began. Though contemporary commentators often point to this war as the antecedent to the current conflict with the Islamic world, historian Frank Cogliano disagrees. He believes the Barbary War was entirely about money, not religion.

Backing up his claim, Cogliano references the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which officialized the payments the US was making to the Barbary States prior to Jefferson’s presidency. It stated, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Another story begins in 1810, when an escaped slave in a North Carolina jail attracted attention when he wrote “strange and unknown characters” on the walls of his cell. The characters, were, of course, Arabic letters. The man eventually went on to document his unusual life as a slave literate in Arabic (he had been an Arabic scholar in Africa before his capture) in his book The Life of Omar Ibn Said, published in 1831. Said represents a large reason why Islam first reached the United States: through the slave trade.

Balogh explains, “Muslims were especially vulnerable to capture in West Africa, and that’s because they were often on the move.” They did frequent pilgrimages and also traveled to study. And though the practice of Islam was quickly “snuffed out” among the slaves in America—reading and writing being prohibited—there are still today influences of the Islamic culture, especially in music. “From Wu Tang Clan, to Ice Cube, to Eric B and Rakim, Lakim Shabazz, Poor Righteous Teachers, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli… all of them have references to Islamic tradition in their music.”


How Narco States Work, Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know is a podcast and a television series that aims to “educate the public about common things and how they work.” It’s hosted by two writers for the affiliated website, How Stuff Works, Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark.

“How Narco States Work” explores exactly what the title suggests, discussing all the ways narco states come into being and then, how they function. But first, what is a narco state? According to Bryant, it’s a “country where they sort of allow drug trafficking.” These are areas where the drug trade makes up a bulk of the country’s GDP, and the government and military either participate in or passively allow the trade to go on. But, in reality, most narco states aren’t official countries at all; instead, they’re regions or cities.

For example, narco states include cities like Juarez, Mexico, most of Guatemala, Afghanistan, and Zambia. The one full country that operates like a narco state is Guinea Bissau, in west Africa. Most narco states earn their money by exporting drugs like heroin or cocaine to other countries (namely, European countries and the United States, respectively).

If the government’s involved, why are narco states problematic at all? Bryant explains that it’s because the allegiance of the government has shifted from its civilians to those in charge of the drug trade. They protect their citizens, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with the drug trade.” Naturally, this delegitimizes their power, and a lot of unchecked crime and violence occurs.

Narco states usually begin in one of two ways. One, in areas where countries have been ravaged by war and are consequently too poor for the government to do much of anything, the people have lost faith in the government, and militant groups associated with the drug trade overthrow the government. Two, the existing government is bribed by drug traders to look the other way at their dealings.

In the first scenario, the reason for the war and poverty is often due to the interference of Europe and the US. In Central America, the US and the U.S.S.R. used countries in “proxy wars” during the Cold Ward, funding rival groups with money and guns. Then, when the Cold War ended, the people suddenly lost their cash flow, but still maintained the guns—and chose to enter into the drug trade to finance themselves. In Africa, a similar thing happened when the European colonists pulled out. The “European influence and influx of money, and exploitation, left a vacuum economically.”

This led to the result of fully operational narco states like Guinea Bissau, where about one half of their country’s GDP is made from cocaine exports, since the military (aligned with the drug traders) overthrew their own government to set up the narco state.

“The Mind V the Brain,” The Infinite Monkey Cage

The Infinite Monkey Cage is a BBC radio show presented by physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince. They discuss serious scientific topics and quandaries, while not being the least bit serious— “an irreverent look at the world through scientist’s eyes.”

“The Mind v the Brain,” explores the difference between our brains and our conscience minds, with panelists professors of neuroscience Sophie Scott and Utta Firth, and comedian Katy Brand.

Right from the start, the panelists agree that the mind is nothing more than the result of the brain. That is, the mind is the “computational processes of the brain,” what the brain is working to do. It’s a side effect. “It’s odd because it doesn’t feel that way,” Scott says. This may be because our minds take credit for the things our brain does.

There’s another misconception about how our brains and minds work, Firth says. It isn’t just “one computer” controlling everything, but rather several specialized computers. To illustrate this separateness, Firth describes a phenomenon that can occur with localized brain damage that affects the vision: patients sometimes lose all experience of vision—being, essentially, blind. However, when an object is thrown at them, they will move out of the way. “It’s not that they’re lying,” Firth says. It’s that the part of their brain that sees without the conscience mind being aware of it has not been damaged.

Katy Brand wonders aloud if this brain separateness could be responsible for how she talks to herself, the “different voices” chattering in her head constantly. Scott assures her that her experience is actually quite normal. In fact, 15% of people with no mental illness report thinking in this way, as though their various “selves” talk and argue with one another daily.

Circling back the very first assertion, host Robin Ince asks, “Is the mind a side effect?” If the answer is yes, if the mind is simply what happens when the brain works, then why are humans introspective? Is there an evolutionary advantage for introspection?

Firth seems to think so. She says that humans, physically, have not evolved for thousands of years. If you took a baby from ancient times and raised him or her today, the baby would have no problem adapting. The “point” of introspection is to pass along knowledge from generation to generation. When a person reflects on what’s working in life, they share it with the younger people, who then are able to learn faster than previous generations, and so on, until humanity’s collective knowledge evolves.

Okay, but what about free will? What is it? Is it real? Or do we just feel a false sense of control over things our brain does automatically? Firth answers this by describing an experiment where participants were asked to click a left or right button based on what the experimenters told them to do, and then they were asked to choose for themselves which button to click. Their brain scans showed a stark difference in an area called the dorsal frontal cortex when the participants exercised free will. And later studies have cemented these findings—when someone has an injury to this part of their brain, they become severely apathetic and completely subject to the whims of circumstance. In other words, Firth believes that free will is very much real.

Firth says that to her, free will means a belief that “we aren’t totally stuck.” We can pause in the face of external stimuli, and decide how to react.


Why We Sleep: Radiolab

Radiolab could be said to be the podcast that brought science to the masses—in a wholly accessible, entertaining, sometimes mind-boggling way. The show has been produced since way back in 2002 and has always been about “investigating a strange world.” Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich dive into a variety of science topics, bringing in experts from around the world.

Every living organism that’s been studied has displayed some form of sleep. But nobody knows exactly why we sleep.

In the study of sleep across different animals groups, something interesting has been discovered: reptiles, aquatic mammals, and birds—that is, nearly every group except terrestrial mammals, like us—all engage in what’s called “unihemispheric sleep.” They sleep one half of their brains at a time. For aquatic mammals, the need for this is obvious. Because mammals like dolphins need to breath above water, but live in the water, being able to sleep one half of their brain at a time is vital, allowing part of their brain to be tasked with directing the body to the surface to breath. For other groups, unihemispheric sleep is simply a way to stay aware of one’s surroundings, in case of an approaching threat.

In fact, how, when, and how long all organisms, including individual humans, sleep is determined by predation risk. Or, the threat of being killed. For humans, this manifests most obviously in how our sleep quality declines in novel environments. For instance, when we don’t feel wholly secure that first night in a hotel room, many of us are unable to sleep deeply.

But, there’s another human application of predation risk. A new sleep disorder has been recently discovered, called “parasomnia.” People who suffer from this disorder never fully sleep. It’s almost like they’re engaging, involuntarily, in unihemispheric sleep. They don’t feel able to go fully unconscious because they often suffer from violent dreams of attack.

All this to illustrate the danger sleep poses to all beings: vulnerability to attack. So, it naturally precipitates the question: why do we sleep? There must be a reason, because, after all, “if sleep could have been circumvented, natural selection would have found a way.”

Glimpses of the answer to this question can be found in the study of sleep deprivation, sleep’s effects on learning, and our dreams.

Sleep deprivation causes us to be so exhausted and non-functioning, like a mother with a newborn baby feels after being kept up all night, because, one scientists thinks, our “proteins haven’t folded properly.” Sleep deprivation causes clumping of proteins, which in turn causes tiredness.

Sleep’s effects on learning feels intuitive. We’ve all had the experience of having more clarity after a good night’s sleep. Some say, “sleep helps you remember by forgetting,” meaning that sleep is a way of clearing out used space in the brain to make room for more useful things. Others think that sleep is more like a wave passing through your brain, softening every experience you’ve had throughout the day. Only the experiences you’ve really focused on will not be fully erased by the “wave.”

And what about dreams? Scientists studying the brain during sleep know that the brain is far from quiet when asleep. The brain often seems to be repeating patterns that carried out during the day, what scientists think of as reliving moments from the day. Perhaps dreams are our brains’ method of “try[ing] out possibilities” in ways that we couldn’t do while awake.

And finally, many scientists are now leaning toward this idea of sleep’s purpose: sleep might be our way of achieving synergy, making connections between experiences and thoughts and skills so that they’ll be organized and ready for easy use when we awake.

Boyan Slat, Ocean Clean: The Joe Rogan Experience

Joe Rogan is a stand-up comedian and a podcast veteran. He uses his comedic, tell-it-as-it-is persona to conduct longform interviews with people like actors, MMA fighters, authors, and artists.

Rogan interviews Boyan Slat, a young entrepreneur who developed technology to clean up the Great Pacific garbage patch. He also serves as the CEO of the organization who manages the technology, Ocean Cleanup. Slat lives in his home country of Holland and began thinking about how to clean up the oceans when he was sixteen. He says that he’s always had a “passion for technology,” but by the time he was a teenager, he was bored with creating tech for the sake of creating. He wanted to solve a real problem.

If you were to try to clean up the Great Pacific garbage patch (which is the size of Texas or Mongolia, 1.6 million kilometers) with boats and nets, it would take about 79,000 years to clean. Slat’s technology is a system of large barriers that move through the ocean by currents and collect plastic, kind of like a “massive Pacman.” Slat estimates that the system will clean up half the amount of garbage in just five years.

But what will be done with all the plastic that’s collected? Its composition will be different than most plastic entering recycling centers; after years of UV exposure, the plastic has become gelatinous and broken down into tiny “micro” plastics. But, it can still be recycled. Rogan thinks that if businesses would advertise their use of recycled ocean plastic, they would increase demand for it because consumers care about the issue. As it is now, businesses often prefer to use new plastic, because it’s far cheaper to manufacture and the demand for recycled plastic isn’t high enough to recoup the extra cost.

Even if nothing is done with the plastic collected from the ocean, the benefits to the health of marine life and human health are enormous. When fish ingest micro plastics accidentally (a common occurrence), the chemicals from the plastics are transferred to their bodies and then to whoever eats the fish, including humans. Some studies say the result of more plastic in the ocean is higher levels of cancer.

Slat worked hard to get Ocean Cleanup off the ground. When he first tried traditional funding, asking investors to get involved in the early stages, he was laughed at. However, he tried again, this time using crowd funding tactics, and succeeded in raising the first few million dollars needed to start work. Rogan thinks his success is due in part to his clear “fire,” his enthusiasm for the project that is so contagious.

Slat tries to keep a 10,000-year perspective. That is, he tries to think of the world in terms of what will happen in 10,000 years. Will the project he’s working on be sustainable for 10,000 years? These are the questions that will guide him when Ocean Cleanup is running on its own eventually and he decides to start a new endeavor to help humanity.

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