Protesters rally on Sakharov Ave. in Moscow on December 24, 2011.
Putin's grip on Russia: Over the two-plus decades since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Vladimir Putin has been in charge for more than half the time. Currently prime minister, he is running for president—again—in the March 4, 2012 elections. The ex-KGB officer served as the nation's president from 2000 until 2008. After two four-year terms, Putin then stepped into the role of prime minister, while his former chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, took over the presidential gig. Is it totalitarianism redux? Current Russian law mandates that no president may serve more than two terms consecutively; by leaving the presidency without really leaving the top of the Kremlin, it looked like Putin was smoothing his eventual path back to his old seat. He and Medvedev confirmed as much last September, admitting that they'd agreed years ago that Medvedev was to function merely as a "seat-warmer" president.
Meanwhile, former KGB officers—including some of Putin's former pals in the notorious intelligence agency—have been assigned top Kremlin posts. And Putin has encouraged a number of policies that hearken back to Soviet days: He's overlooked a culture of corruption and extortion, cracked down on free speech, and has persistently degraded social benefits, especially for the elderly and veterans. Interestingly, Putin's popularity, and that of his party, United Russia, has since declined dramatically.
What's happening now? The latest large-scale demonstration is set for Moscow on Saturday, February 4. In anticipation, some pointed anti-government art has been zipping around Russia's interwebs and beyond. A few examples: a Putin speech dubbed over a Lego video, a Titanic parody, and a lewder version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie poster. Protesters have also put together a resolution listing their movement's demands, which include annulment of the December 4, 2011 parliamentary election results, new elections that are free and fair, and the release of imprisoned activists. Some have predicted that protest turnout on February 4 will be lower than it was during December's massive rally, due to even colder temperatures. According to the protest movement's Facebook invite, however, more than 27,000 people have pledged to attend. Russian publications are also predicting disunity at Saturday's rally. With presidential candidates from each of the four other political parties scheduled to speak, the protests are likely to be a sum of divergent groups—nationalists, liberals, and leftists who can agree on being anti-Putin…but not much else.
For years, Maria Popova's septuagenarian grandmother in Bulgaria wished her granddaughter would just do the sensible thing and get an MBA.Instead, the 27-year-old Brooklynite has spent the past six years developing BrainPickings.org—her wildly popular culture blog where one might find cheeky maps of European stereotypes, a visual history of bicycle design, even a Finnish choir that sets people's complaints to song.Sometimes, she ties her morsels of "interestingness" to the current of the times—as with a recent series of Occupy-themed posts or her posthumous tribute to Steve Jobs. But often her pickings aim to transcend the times, rather than harping on them, pushing us beyond the thought parameters of our daily routines.
A transplant from Bulgaria, Popova moved to the states to study at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated with a communications degree, but her current reading proclivities—she consumes 12 to 15 books a week—and her prolific Twitter word-smithing—she tweets, without fail, every 15 minutes—are a dead giveaway to the one-time English major that lies within. (Never one to make curiosity compromises, Popova ditched the major. Read on to learn why.) Since Brain Pickings' launch in 2006, the site has earned millions of page views, as well as side gigs for Popova as a culture writer for The Atlantic, Wired UK, GOOD, and Nieman Lab. So while there's no MBA in sight, grandma is jiving with Popova's unconventional brand of business savvy. I caught up with the one-woman discovery engine to learn about the internet's hidden treasures, curation as authorship, and her occasional run-ins withimmigration services.
Before we talk about how many people may be behind bars for crimes they did not commit, we must acknowledge that it's nearly impossible to know—only broad estimates are possible. There are several key reasons, experts say, why a number is so hard to ascertain. Because the sprawling criminal justice system is a patchwork of federal, state, county, and municipal courts, prisons, and jails—each with its own system (or lack thereof) of record-keeping and data-reporting—we don't even know how many people are convicted, let alone wrongfully convicted, of crimes in the United States. "We don’t even have a denominator," says University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett. "But the wrongful convictions we do know about suggest that there's a big problem."
Extrapolating from the 281 known DNA exonerations in the US since the late 1980s, a conservative estimate is that 1 percent of the US prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted.
In fact, since the late 1980s there have been as many as 850 exonerations nationwide, according to University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field. Many of them float under the radar, Gross says, unlike the highly publicized DNA exonerations.
The following map shows the 825 known exonerations in the United States since 1989, using data gathered by Mother Jones with assistance from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project, and Samuel Gross. Click on each state for further details, including whether it has a compensation law for people who are wrongfully imprisoned:
These cases are the tip of an iceberg. "One difficulty in making generalizations about false convictions is that the ones we know about, exonerations, are clearly a small and unrepresentative sample of all false convictions," wrote Gross in his 2008 paper, "Frequency and Predictors of False Conviction." There are several reasons why the known exoneration cases are unrepresentative:
San Francisco Bay Area rapper Jennifer Johns has Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to thank for her political awakening. Back in 1985, when she was just an East Oakland six-year-old with a knack for song, she heard Jackson's and Richie's "We are the World" for the first time. The tune, her parents told her, was about poverty and hunger in Africa. "First off, I said where the hell is Africa?" Johns remembers. "And secondly, I don't get this concept of hunger because we have so much food, we have so much extra here."
But she caught on quickly. The spunky youngster organized a sing-a-thon with her church, raised some money, and sent it to Bishop Tutu in South Africa to aid his fight against poverty, discrimination, and apartheid. "In that moment, I learned there was some shit going on," Johns says. "At the same time, I learned that one could sing and inspire people to know things. That was powerful."
Now Johns, 32, is doing precisely that: helping people "know things" as an ardent food-justice advocate even as she pursues a hip-hop career. A "b-girl at heart," she has performed with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and Mos Def. Her first album, HeavyElectroMagneticSoularPoeticJungleHop, is as polychromatic as its title, ranging from thick R&B harmonies to hard-hitting rap and zingy electronica. Released in 2007, her second album, Painting on Wax, only takes the feistiness up a notch.
On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled FDA findings showing that Plan B One Step is safe to be sold to all females of childbearing age without a prescription. As we've already mentioned, there are some hefty problems with this ruling, including that now the emergency contraceptive will be kept behind pharmacy counters instead of on store shelves, where women will have to present either a prescription or identification proving they are older than 17 in order to purchase it. Yesterday, the president announced his support for the HHS decision.
The reproductive rights community has reacted strongly against the decision, wondering whether it really has to do with data. "When it comes to FDA drug approvals, contraceptives are being held to a different and non-scientific standard—in a word, politics," Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup said in a press release from the group.
Meanwhile, a less likely voice has entered the mix: that of the scientific community. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a statement yesterday on their website decrying the HHS decision—and Obama's support of it—as an attack not only on reproductive rights but also on sound science.
The UCS points out that this is the first time an HHS secretary has overruled the FDA on a drug approval. But as Erin Matson, action vice president of the National Organization of Women, noted on Twitter, the administration rarely disagrees with the FDA—drugs or no drugs. She tweeted: "Perhaps the last time the FDA was overruled: A cranberry recall in 1959. Now Obama admin after emergency contraception in 2011. OUTRAGE."
As such, yesterday's decision sets an ugly precedent for scientific assessment of drug safety. "The agency needs to be able to do its job without fearing that the integrity of its work will be compromised," says Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS's Scientific Integrity Program.