Good Reads: From Nelson Mandela, to Islamic feminists, to pliable robots

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a call to finish the work Nelson Mandela began, the plight of the working homeless, a look at a new wave of Islamic feminists, how parent mentoring helps school children, and how squishy robots can help disaster aid efforts.

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A boy walks past a mural of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s death on Dec. 5 brought the world to its knees both in sorrow and in praise. In the days that followed, British journalist Musa Okwonga reminded the world in a blog post republished by The Independent that though Mr. Mandela is gone, his fight is far from over.

Apartheid was not “just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us...,” writes Mr. Okwonga. “Nelson Mandela was not a god, floating elegantly above us and saving us. He was utterly, thoroughly human....”

Okwonga warns that deifying Mandela ignores the global culture that bred the apartheid regime, minimizes his suffering, and glosses over the racial inequality that persists around the world.

The real housing crisis

Take a walk through most any American city and the panhandlers, the hustlers, and the checked-out are hard to miss and easy to dismiss. However, less visible are the growing number of working men and women who have been squeezed out of the housing market and forced into the emergency housing system.
In the 1970s, the United States had more affordable housing units than people to fill them, Emily Badger reports in The Atlantic. Today, however, only one-quarter of households that qualify for a rental subsidy actually get one.

“As a result, it’s estimated that about half of the homeless in the U.S. today work in some form. The problem is that their income doesn’t cover housing,” Ms. Badger writes. “In part, what’s happened is that families who used to be middle-class are increasingly looking for cheaper affordable rental housing, crowding out the most low-income from the units they have the best chance of affording. Housing aid also hasn’t kept pace with the size of the population that needs it.”

The rise of Islamic feminists

A new wave of feminism is sweeping the Muslim world, as women seek “to reclaim Islam and the Koran for themselves,” Elizabeth Segran reports for The Nation. The new Islamic feminist movement known as Musawah – Arabic for “equality” – started gaining traction four years ago, when 12 women from Malaysia, Egypt, Gambia, Pakistan, and Turkey presented a framework for action based on the belief that the Quran does not dictate the subjugation of women, contrary to centuries of male interpretation, at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Since then, women around the world have begun to challenge the belief that sharia (Islamic law), which dominates the courts of many Islamic nations, is divine and infallible.

“When they are exposed to this new knowledge, they feel duped,” Zainah Anwar, one of the founding women, tells Ms. Segran. “All these years, they believed that their suffering in the form of abandonment, polygamy and beatings was all in the name of God.”

A place for parents at school

While educators in many affluent communities struggle to disentangle “helicopter parents” from their children, many low-income school systems face the opposite problem entirely.

Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s efforts to draw parents into public school classrooms has been paying off in not only increased math and reading proficiency for students, but also in heightened confidence and employability of parent-mentors, Linda Shaw reports for The Seattle Times.

“Despite good intentions, many schools end up in what University of Washington assistant professor Ann Ishimaru calls a toxic cycle, where teachers organize events and if parents don’t show, conclude they just don’t care,” Ms. Shaw writes. “The Logan Square parent-mentor program shows it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Pliable robots to the rescue

Rescue crews have long turned to robotics for tools to go where people cannot – into collapsed mine shafts, under the rubble left behind by massive earthquakes. But what happens when rescue bots snag on a jagged piece of rebar or are crushed underneath falling cinder blocks, leaving rescue teams helpless once again?

That’s when it’s time to call on a new kind of robot, writes Larry Greenemeier for Scientific American, one that can morph and squeeze its way out of seemingly impassible crevices. To bring this new breed of robots to life, researchers have produced some animatronic creatures modeled after worms and octopuses.

“Researchers at Harvard University’s Whitesides Research Group have made a variety of shape-shifting polymer robots, including a meter-long quadruped that looks like a pair of Ys joined at the stems,” Mr. Greenemeier reports. “Equipped with its own battery and air compressor, the robot has undulated and crawled across the lab floor, through snow and even across a hot grill.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken note and is currently developing pliable robots that can mimic muscle tissue in prosthetic limbs.

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