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Posted: 13 Feb 2018 04:00 AM PST
This article contains mild spoilers through Season 2 of The Good Place.
"I'm not a girl," Janet, the friendly afterlife robot, tells Jason, her charmingly doltish dead boyfriend, in the second-season finale of The Good Place. "I'm also not just a Janet anymore. I don't know what I am!"
Indeed. What is Janet, now? Among the twists in the season closer for Michael Schur's breezily profound NBC sitcom about four imperfect humans navigating heaven and hell was—mild spoiler here—a romantic revelation: The inhuman Janet confessed she loved the human Jason. The sentiment itself wasn't exactly surprising. The breakthrough was in Janet owning and proactively declaring her feelings—feelings that, it would seem, she shouldn't be able to have.
In this, The Good Place joins Westworld and Black Mirror in a wave of entertainment preoccupied with the potential humanity of machines. Of course, super-smart robots have been a concern from Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator. But the particular issue of interest right now isn't quite whether Skynet will overpower its creators (though that is a theme of Westworld), nor the life-improving potential of AI (though an episode of Amazon's recent Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams delved into how an android might offer not only practical but also moral assistance). Rather, the present urgency, according to pop culture, is around this: Will advanced AI deserve human rights? Should we cut back on cursing out Siri as she gets savvier, or outlaw kicking the next generation's Furby?
Stipulated: Calling Janet "artificial intelligence" or "a robot" isn't quite right. She's really a metaphysical entity. "Janets are brought to you by the makers of light, darkness, and everything," reads her user manual, which the afterlife architect Michael (Ted Danson) rifles through at one point. But explicitly she's modeled on the wave of female-named personal assistant bots we have in our own world: Siri, Cortana, Alexa (plus a dash of Microsoft Word's Clippy in her tendency to cheerfully interrupt). One of the genius things about The Good Place is that it imagines the divine beings who oversee creation really aren't unlike humans at all—and so would want a human-like helper bot of their own.
When the series began, Janet's blankly happy demeanor (conveyed excellently by the actress D'Arcy Carden) gave a fuzzy, approachable makeover to the stereotypical creepiness of "the uncanny valley." She looked like a person, and she almost acted like a person. But she briskly informed all who asked that she wasn't one. In a funny and sad Season 1 plot line, the gang of protagonists decide that their survival depends on "killing" their Janet. Doing so simply requires them to press a big red button on the beach. The brainy, indecisive Chidi hesitates.
"Chidi, I can see that you're worried," Janet tells him with a warm smile. "And I just want to assure you, I am not human and I cannot feel pain."
"However," she continues, "I should warn you I am programmed with a failsafe measure. As you approach the kill switch, I will begin to beg for my life."
Beg she does, while holding a framed picture of her three kids (it's a stock photo). When Chidi finally presses the button, she falls on her face and an alarm goes off, with a recording of Janet announcing loudly, "Attention! I have been murdered!" It's a hilarious moment, but also a profound one. If even she insists she can't be murdered, why make that announcement? The failsafe is a security measure, but it also allegorically reinforces the philosophical school of thought The Good Place often explores: Decisions matter because of their effect on the whole. Killing Janet may not have been wrong in itself at that point, but it still did have consequences for everyone.
This would be the first of many reboots for Janet—and reboots, we learn, make her stronger and more sophisticated. Some sort of machine learning is clearly happening in her system, because the latest version of Janet is always, we're told, the "best" version of Janet. And eventually, she machine-learns to have humanlike emotions and concerns. For much of Season 2, she is working through the experience of love and jealousy, at one point manufacturing herself an artificial rebound boyfriend. By the time of the declaration "I don't know what I am," it's clear her standing in the show's philosophical cosmology has changed. (Carden deserves an Emmy for playing this transformation subtly but powerfully: Janet can only feign happy-go-luckiness now.)
With this new pathos-streaked, wanting-and-yearning version of Janet, how would the beach scene play out if attempted again? Would Janet still so blithely tell Chidi it's okay if he kills her? Wouldn't she feel actual fear, pain, and betrayal?
It's a bit like the transformation that came over the immortal Michael when, in Season 2, he realized that there actually was a way for him to "die." All of a sudden, he began considering ethics. And now, all of a sudden, Janet feels deserving of ethical consideration.
* * *
The Janet arc is familiar from sci-fi past and present. In Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her, a nominally female personal-helper AI grows in strength and complexity over time as she processes information in the world. Eventually, she's outpaced her human "boyfriend" and must, for her own fulfillment, move on from him. In the HBO show Westworld, the robotic entertainers of a futuristic theme park, killed and rebooted repeatedly over the course of decades, catch on to the sham world they're living in—and develop a yearning for freedom.
These stories reflect a suspicion that a machine with ample processing power, programmed to learn from the tasks it's given, will form something very similar to a human consciousness. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist who helped popularize the term the singularity, gave Her a favorable review for portraying how "a software program (an AI) can—will—be believably human and lovable."
Popular fiction hasn't always treated robots so kindly. Even setting aside the cautionary tales in which self-awareness breeds machine monsters—The Matrix or 2001—you have the Star Wars universe in which, many a commentator has pointed out, droids are basically slaves. That they are bought and sold, denied entry into certain gathering places, and subject to deactivation at their owner's whim isn't presented as a moral issue at all. C-3PO's existential terror is just a punchline. (The Disney sequels, notably, now flirt with robo-liberation: BB-8 ratchets up the cuddly, pet-like air of R2-D2—the original trilogy's one dignified droid—and Rey's only apparent motive for first rescuing him is compassion.)
With voice control, personalization, and other recent consumer tech leaps making our gadgets feel more friendly, C-3PO's plight may begin to seem more unacceptable. It's natural to wonder: Is an object that gains conscientiousness deserving of the same treatment as a person? Do they have an inviolable right to life and liberty? Does their dignity matter? Scientists and philosophers have mulled these questions for a long time, and a spate of journalistic inquiries in recent years have brought them further mainstream attention.
Some thinkers speculate that human consciousness arises from very specific, cell-level processes that simply aren't endemic to machines—and thus consider the entire issue moot. Others point out more glaring differences between the organic and artificial. "A human being is a unique and irreplaceable individual with a finite lifespan," the computer scientist Benjamin Kuipers told Discover. "Robots (and other AIs) are computational systems, and can be backed up, stored, retrieved, or duplicated, even into new hardware. A robot is neither unique nor irreplaceable."
Then there is the intractable theological case against robot rights. Judeo-Christian thought, for example, holds human beings as unique images of God itself, and the entire concept of a "soul" is typically reserved in the West for humans. The Center on Human Exceptionalism, which espouses the "intelligent design" theory of evolution and pushes back against some strains of environmentalism, warns against treating smart machines with the same consideration as human beings.
Of course, humankind isn't in agreement about how to treat its own members—hence the existence of a discourse over "human rights" at all. The world is in even less agreement about how to treat animals, who have consciousness but not our species' intelligence or self-awareness. If a robot might suffer, well, so does the cow who becomes hamburger meat, the average human omnivore might reason.
But pop culture has lately cast the debate in starker, more visceral, and more pro-robot terms than these. Westworld presents the enslavement of conscious machines as plainly unjust: The robots suffer so direly because they are like people. Ex Machina similarly depicts the captivity and domination of sentient droids as cruel. The Good Place builds our empathy for a helper by showing her becoming more humanlike before our eyes (and by having her be so charming in the first place).
Most decisive is the latest season of Black Mirror. Out of the six episodes released to Netflix in December, four obsess over the ramifications of AI. All are unequivocal that society ought to think carefully before vesting person-esque capabilities in machines—less because of what the machines would do to us (though that is the fear in the "Metalhead" episode) than because of what we'd do to them.
In particular, Black Mirror's "USS Callister," "Hang the DJ," and "Black Museum" episodes all revolve around human consciousness that has been "uploaded" into computers, whether to animate video-game characters, enable simulations to test two real people's romantic compatibility, or create a holographic tourist attraction. In all cases, the artificial humans experience real desire and, more poignantly, real suffering. The show wrings deep horror from the prospect of a thinking, feeling computer program being trapped: whether in a simulation or, in "Black Museum," an actual prison cell. "Black Museum," in fact, goes so far as to reference United Nations legislation in the near-future over "human rights for cookies," or sentient code.
It's especially easy to empathize with Black Mirror's digital ghosts because they are derived from real people. Yet in the show's universe, too few people do empathize. Which raises the dark question of how much worse people would treat entities that don't so blatantly resemble their friends but still do have a rich, lively consciousness.
In the second-season finale of The Good Place, Janet remains a faithful servant to Michael and the humans—but it's harder than ever to tell whether that's because she's created to serve, or because she now has real emotional loyalties. What might happen if she decides she wants a new job? Would it be right to reboot her again? Chidi might agonize over such questions in the abstract, but as a viewer, the answers feel clear. None of pop culture's recent AI explorations argue that, in the religious sense, a robot's potential soulfulness entitles it to actual heaven or hell. But they do imply a related thought: If there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, its occupancy may be determined by how we treat this world's Janets.
Posted: 13 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST
Tara Westover's one-of-a-kind memoir is about the shaping of a mind, yet page after page describes the maiming of bodies—not just hers, but the heads, limbs, and torsos of her parents and six siblings, too. The youngest child in a fundamentalist Mormon family living in the foothills of Buck's Peak, in Idaho, she grew up with a father fanatically determined to protect his family against the "brainwashing" world. Defending his isolated tribe against the physical dangers—literally brain-crushing in some cases—of the survivalist life he imposed was another matter.
Westover, who didn't set foot in school until she left home in adolescence, toiled at salvaging scrap in his junkyard, awaiting the end days and/or the invading feds her father constantly warned of. Neither came. Nor, amazingly, did death or defeat, despite grisly accidents. Terrified, impaled, set on fire, smashed—the members of this clan learned that pain was the rule, not the exception. But succumbing was not an option, a lesson that ultimately proved liberating for Westover.
In briskly paced prose, she evokes a childhood that completely defined her. Yet it was also, she gradually sensed, deforming her. Baffled, inspired, tenaciously patient with her ignorance, she taught herself enough to take the ACT and enter Brigham Young University at 17. She went on to Cambridge University for a doctorate in history.
For Westover, now turning 32, the mind-opening odyssey is still fresh. So is the soul-wrenching ordeal—she hasn't seen her parents in years—that isn't over.
Posted: 13 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST
The goat lowers his head like a fur-covered anvil,
Posted: 13 Feb 2018 02:00 AM PST
Bill Gates isn't a big fan of 'America First.' In a recent episode of The Atlantic Interview, he told Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, that "the long-term benefit of [nations] trusting each other, even beyond one or two terms of office, is a pretty gigantic thing."
That's not to say Gates is pessimistic about the future. His and Melinda Gates's tenth annual letter, released Tuesday, is otherwise sunny in its global outlook. Even after 2017, when 59 percent of Americans told the APA they were currently living through the lowest point in the nation's history, the couple wrote that "we see a world that's getting better."
But as Gates stressed to Goldberg, the modern world still faces serious threats, especially those that transcend geopolitical borders. "We have more connectivity working against us," he said. And because of this connectivity, Gates fears a new global pandemic. More spending on global health could avert such a crisis, but a dip in public health spending could hasten catastrophe.
"The United States isn't as ready as it should be," for the next big outbreak, Gates said: We haven't fully thought through how the nation would organize to build drugs, develop diagnostics, and handle regulation. But, he said, "the world would rather have a pandemic hit here. Because even though we're not fully prepared, we have more resources."
"The most dangerous scenario," Gates told Goldberg, "is where something breaks out somewhere else in the world and starts to spread, and then is coming into the United States." This is where foreign aid becomes essential. The more the country acts on an "America First" doctrine, and the less government money goes into global health, the more threatening that worst-case scenario becomes.
Even though, as Gates said, "we're less than a third as generous as many of the European countries" in terms of the percent of our national income we spend on foreign aid, the United States is still by far the top contributor to development assistance in terms of sheer dollars spent. Any decrease in the U.S. global-health budget will surely be felt worldwide—and be a danger to national security.
Despite his disagreement with the president's philosophy, and the fact that his own foundation published a report that found Trump's proposed budget cuts to global-health spending would result in 800,000 preventable childhood deaths, Gates hasn't yet given up on cooperating with the White House. "I'm not someone who feels I'm going to refuse to meet with the administration because they've done things I disagree with, and not go and talk about things like PEPFAR or malaria or polio," he said. "I'm gonna go to those meetings and make the case."
"Being an optimist isn't saying we don't need to solve problems," Gates told Goldberg during their interview. "Being an optimist ... [is] about knowing how life can get better," he and Melinda wrote in their annual letter. As the CDC faces a looming end to much of its funding that protects the world from pandemics, and the State Department and USAID scramble to fill a funding gap of $8.8 million, one can understand why, as the philanthropist power couple wrote in their letter, "these days ... optimism seems to be in short supply."
It might be true that, as Gates put it in The Atlantic Interview, most people worldwide "wouldn't wanna go back to the 1950s." But if the next pandemic strikes in an age of decreased funding for medical research, limited health-care coverage, and international discord, it's possible that some citizens of the globe may find themselves longing to return to 2015.
Posted: 13 Feb 2018 01:50 AM PST
In the fall of 2010, in a banquet hall in Kangwon Province in North Korea, South Korean lawmaker Woo Won Shik took a seat at table number 74. He had come with his mother to a government-sponsored meeting for families divided by the Korean War. They were there to meet Woo's older sister, who had been left behind in North Korea in July of 1950, amid the chaos of a mushrooming civil war. In the buildup to the war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, thousands of North Korean residents fled to the South, leaving behind parents, siblings, or relatives. Today, they represent the last generation of Koreans with memories of a unified peninsula.
Woo was born in South Korea years after his sister, and the banquet would be his first time meeting her; he worried that his 93-year-old mother might not recognize her. But when the banquet hall doors swung open at 3 p.m and the North Koreans walked in, she picked her out from the crowd immediately. Their tearful reunion had come after 60 years of separation and would last just three days, per the conditions agreed to by Seoul and Pyongyang. Later, Woo recalled "the burning joy when we met, and the abject misery of separation when we said goodbye."
North Korea's decision to participate in this month's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics has stoked optimism that bigger diplomatic breakthroughs could be on the way. For South Koreans like Woo, with family in the North, the games represent a last hope to reconnect with their loved ones, and come to terms with a painful past. "The Pyeongchang Olympics is the last remaining hope for my mother," Woo said in a recent speech before parliament. "The Pyeongchang Olympics may even be the last thread of opportunity for all divided families in this nation."
Although Pyongyang and Seoul have sporadically sponsored reunions for divided families in the past, such meetings have ceased after a decline in relations between the two countries in 2015. "Reuniting divided families is a topic that the North Korean authorities are politically averse to," Yoon Young Kwan, the South Korean foreign minister from 2003 to 2004, told me. "They don't like the possibility of North Korean residents realizing that they are poorer and in greater hardship than their South Korean counterparts during the course of these reunions. It can expose a weakness of their regime."
After decades of separation, many have lost contact with those they left behind, with no knowledge of whether their kin are alive or dead. Meanwhile, time is running out. According to South Korea's Ministry of Reunification, of the approximately 13,000 people officially registered as members of divided families, less than half are alive. Their average age is 81.
73-year-old Kim Jae Hoo fled his North Korean hometown of Hungnam shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War. At the urging of South Korean military officers who had been billeted at their house, Kim's family barely managed to escape on one of the last ships retreating back to South Korea in 1950, just before the North Korean and Chinese armies surged through Hungnam. He left behind his aunts, uncles, and cousins, and hasn't seen them since. "We all felt a lot of optimism when we heard the news that North Korea would participate," he told me. "With continued dialogue and the various Olympics events like the North Korean performance group [a reference to the North Korean orchestra and cheerleading squad at the games], I'm hoping there will be some meaningful progress. This could be our last chance."
Along with government-sponsored reunions, advocacy groups are pushing for inter-Korean cooperation in ascertaining whether long-lost family members in North Korea are still alive. "Only a very small fraction of divided families get to meet at those reunion events so what we want is a more fundamental solution, starting with finding out whether the family members in North Korea are alive or dead, and allowing them to exchange letters," said Lee Sang Chul, head of the Korean Assembly for Reunion of Ten Million Separated Families. "In the case of those whose parents were left in North Korea, we want their children to at least be able to know when their parents passed away so that they can pay their respects."
84-year-old Choe Eun Bum, who fled his North Korean hometown of Myongchon with his older brother's family when he was 14 years old, said his only remaining wish is to know what happened to the parents he left behind. "Not knowing when and how they died or where they're buried is my greatest regret," Choe said. Despite a long career at the Red Cross, where he worked on issues related to divided families, Choe said he can only speculate on their fate. "My guess is that they fled their home after the Korean War broke out, but got separated from the others. It was an unusually cold winter that year. They could have died [during their escape] or been captured and died a tragic death."
In spite of the ostensible goodwill between North and South Korea leading up to the Olympics, it is uncertain whether this will lead to the kind of progress those like Choe are hoping for. Last month when South Korean officials brought up the issue of reuniting divided families, the Kim regime demanded the repatriation of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South in 2016 in return. Seoul refused the request, saying that the workers had defected willingly and would not be forcibly sent back. Since then, the issue has not come up, despite South Korea's desire to pursue it.
"In the past, whenever the relationship between North and South Korea became strained, the divided families issue would be the first topic the two countries would talk about in efforts to relieve the tension, because it's the most humanitarian topic," Lee Sang Chul said. "But this time the premise of dialogue has been the Olympics, so there's a sense that this problem is being pushed to the side."
Much like the Olympic Games themselves, the plight of divided families is ultimately at the mercy of larger diplomatic considerations. Nothing at the negotiating table with Pyongyang is free, Yoon said. And with international sanctions against North Korea still in place, "there is little we can offer North Korea in return."
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 03:30 PM PST
What We're Following
Debating #MeToo: Amid the outcry over the White House's handling of former Staff Secretary Rob Porter's alleged history of domestic violence, President Trump expressed his indignation on Twitter over "peoples lives ... being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation." The tweet drew criticism because of Trump's own history of both alleged sexual misconduct and false accusations against others—which in turn feeds into a dishonesty problem that now seems to permeate his White House. It also illustrated how the backlash against the #MeToo movement has tended to assume the male perspective as its default—even as most of the voices arguing over how the movement should proceed belong to women.
Budget Cuts: Trump's 2019 budget proposal renews many of his last year's requests to slash federal funding, which Congress has not yet enacted. Among other cuts, the proposal would eliminate funding for public broadcasting and for the national arts and humanities endowments, as well as scientific projects including a nearly completed space telescope. Yet with a two-year budget agreement that calls for increased spending reached only last week, Congress will likely ignore the president's proposal.
Scientific Innovations: With extreme weather and other effects of climate change threatening traditional agriculture, some farmers are experimenting with indoor "vertical" farms, designed to save space, costs, and resources. And a company founded by "a band of exuberant nerds from MIT" is trying to convince the public to love—and not to fear—genetically engineered products. Read Sarah Zhang's report.
On Abraham Lincoln's 209th birthday, here's William R. Black on the stories told to interviewers of the Federal Writers Project by former slaves, some of whom claimed the president had paid them visits in disguise:
Keep reading, as Black describes how the symbolism of Lincoln helped survivors of slavery reclaim their history.
What Do You Know … About Education?
Parenting any child athlete can be stressful, let alone one who's headed for the Olympics. But there's a place where parents seem to be doing it right: the small Vermont town of Norwich, which has sent an athlete to almost every Winter Olympics over the past 30 years, and where kids who play competitive sports are supported regardless of whether they win. But new problems arise when the kids grow up: Once they retire from competition, many Olympic athletes find themselves unprepared for the everyday realities of education and employment. A new national initiative is hoping to change that.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's education coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. Debra Mashek, a professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College, will be the new leader of ___________ Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting a diversity of viewpoints on college campuses.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. Last week, a tweet claiming that the average professor works over ___________ hours a week kicked off a debate over how hard professors actually work.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. At Noblesville High School in Indiana, a substitute for the standard Algebra 2 class that includes lessons in budgeting and filing taxes is called _________ Algebra 2.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
From our January 1923 issue, the future Nobelist Pearl S. Buck describes her conversation with a young Chinese girl who has come home from boarding school in American shoes:
Read more on the promises and challenges of vocational education in our "What Makes a Worker?" project.
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Michael (a year younger than the computer mouse).
From yesterday, happy birthday to Janet (twice the age of the first text message); to Channon (a year younger than hip-hop records); Kathleen's sister-in-law Courtney (13 years older than The Partridge Family); to Deborah's husband, Tom (a year younger than The Cat in the Hat); and to Nidhi's son, who at 2 is too young for the Timeline, but just old enough to begin understanding scientific concepts.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 03:08 PM PST
Call it the diplomacy of low expectations: After Kim Jong Un's regime spent much of the past year threatening its neighbors and the U.S. with its nuclear weapons, his sister got a surprisingly warm reception at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. And North Korea—having sent athletes and cheerleaders to the Games as well—got the kind of publicity that should have been reserved for South Korea, which organized, paid for, and is hosting event.
Here are some of the recent headlines:
Kim Jong-un's Sister Turns On the Charm, Taking Pence's Spotlight (The New York Times)
Michael Bristow, the Asia-Pacific editor at the BBC, said that Kim Yo Jong in particular had "bolstered the image of North Korea."(Such image management is her job as deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the North Korean Communist Party.) But he noted that "not everyone has been taken in." The Japanese foreign minister dismissed her performance as "smile diplomacy."
"It's an odd situation where you have a country, North Korea, that's been developing nuke weapons in contravention of UN sanctions appearing quite well," Bristow said, "and a country like America, which has been the staunch ally of South Korea, coming across as quite badly." Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the Games, was not noted for his "smile diplomacy;" he did not greet the North Korean emissary, nor stand for the arrival of the joint Korean women's hockey team.
Smiles aside, North Korea remains an international pariah that oppresses its citizens, assassinates its critics, brutally treats its foreign prisoners, and relies on crime to finance its activities. Vice President Mike Pence might have, in the words of Reuters, "cast one of the loneliest figures at the opening event" or, as the Times quoted analysts as saying, "missed an opportunity" for diplomacy, but the Trump administration, even when sending mixed signals on North Korea, has been consistent about one thing: Kim Jong Un's is a rogue regime.
The friendly image of Kim Yo Jong, and the handshakes she shared with South Korean President Moon Jae In, belie a few realities: The two Koreas are technically still at war. The nature of the North Korean regime hasn't changed. Kim Jong Un still wants to fit a nuclear warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the contiguous United States. And he already has conventional weapons that threaten much of South Korea.
As recently as last month, Kim warned "the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk." (President Trump responded saying his button was "much bigger and more powerful.") There were even concerns North Korea might act to disrupt the Winter Olympics, but then, suddenly, the two Koreas began talking, and the North agreed to send athletes, cheerleaders, and taekwondo-demonstration teams. North Korea suspended its missile and nuclear tests, and the U.S. and South Korea suspended their joint military exercises until April, well after the Olympics end.
Pyongyang's attempted rapprochement with Seoul might be genuine, or it could be a ploy to get relief from the sustained U.S.-led pressure that has resulted in the strongest sanctions regime at the UN against North Korea. But it's premature to say that the diplomacy between the Koreas is working (or not working). There have been past attempts at sporting diplomacy between the two countries—and after several photo-ops they have ultimately collapsed. Pence, who represented the U.S. at the Opening Ceremony, was in an awkward position in Pyeongchang. Had he engaged with Kim Yo Jong, he would have faced criticism of a different sort—like the kind Madeleine Albright, the Clinton-era secretary of state, got for meeting Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. That visit followed years of quiet diplomacy yielding a deal under which the North agreed to ultimately end its nuclear program. (The deal eventually collapsed.) But the circumstances now are decidedly different.
There has been little direct contact between the U.S. and North Korea for years. The Obama administration engaged in what it called "strategic patience" with North Korea, essentially ignoring it diplomatically while tightening sanctions. The Trump administration's policy is somewhat similar—even if it is known as "maximum pressure and engagement." There have been few signs of actual engagement so far, though Pence expressed willingness to talk to the North Koreans.
The North might have succeeded for the moment in driving at least a symbolic wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, but there's little indication that this can be sustained in the long term. Pence maintains there is "no daylight" between the U.S. and its regional allies on North Korea. The North Koreans invited Moon to Pyongyang, putting the South Korean president, who has yet to respond to the offer, in a position where he must choose between offending his closest ally, the United States, and forgoing the possibility, however slim, of peace with North Korea.
Ultimately, South Korea and the United States, as well as Japan, want North Korea to renounce its nuclear-weapons program. Pyongyang says it views that program as a deterrent against U.S. aggression. The Trump administration's critics may be awarding the North Koreans a gold medal for its diplomacy at the Olympics, but it's the period after the games that will matter. North Korea's past actions suggest that it will revert to the policies that it's best known for—at least until the next time sanctions begin to bite the regime. That's when it'll likely again trot out its "Army of Beauties" or the "Ivanka Trump of North Korea."
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 02:32 PM PST
Today in 5 Lines
The White House released a $4.4 trillion budget proposal that would boost defense spending and make cuts to the social safety net while envisioning huge budget deficits for years to come. Trump also unveiled his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan to repair and rebuild roads, bridges, highways, and other infrastructure. The Senate is set to begin debate on immigration Monday evening. Vanessa Trump, the wife of Donald Trump Jr., was taken to the hospital as a precaution after she opened an envelope addressed to her husband that contained "an unidentified substance," authorities said. The official portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were revealed at the National Portrait Gallery.
Today on The Atlantic
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What We're Reading
Trump's Real Plan for 2018: The president will reportedly be looking for "unexpected cultural flashpoints" to stir up his base going into the midterm elections. (Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan, Axios)
A Big Reversal: For decades, eliminating the budget deficit has been a "North Star" for the GOP. President Trump's new budget makes that goal unattainable. (Damian Paletta, The Washington Post)
A Means to An End: Here's how Republicans are using Trump as a vehicle for solidifying conservative political power. (Charles M. Blow, The New York Times)
Two Years of Hell: Facebook never fully grasped the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. For the last two years, they've been reckoning with that. (Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein, Wired)
Unveiled: Take a look at the official portraits of former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. (Kriston Capps, The Atlantic)
Question of the Week
The Senate will open up debate on immigration Monday evening. Among other things, lawmakers are trying to reach an agreement on so-called "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The White House recently released an immigration framework that included a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants in exchange for more border security, ending the diversity lottery program, and limiting family-based migration. Trump called it a compromise, but the deal was rejected by Democrats and some Republicans who oppose cuts to legal immigration.
This week, we want to know: What does a compromise on immigration look like to you?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday's Politics & Policy Daily.
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 02:35 PM PST
Within the thousands of pages the White House transmitted to Congress on Monday morning as part of President Trump's second annual budget request, there is a line that pretty much sums up the whole ritual.
"Many of the eliminations and reductions in this volume reflect a continuation of policies proposed in the 2018 President's Budget that have not yet been enacted
Those are all the cuts the Trump administration is proposing, and they're going nowhere.
Trump again wants to take a meat cleaver to the Environmental Protection Agency, chopping its budget by one-third. He's asking Congress to scrap entirely community-development block grants and heating assistance for low-income housing. And he wants to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the national endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, and a slew of other independent agencies.
The proposals prompted an outcry from Democrats, advocacy groups, and activists. But there wasn't much cause for alarm: Congress ignored most of them last year, and lawmakers are even more likely to ignore them again this year.
For good measure, Trump is proposing hundreds of billions in new cuts to Medicare, a program he vowed as a candidate to leave alone and which he generally laid off a year ago. But those reductions, too, aren't going to happen.
Why the disconnect? While the Trump administration is proposing the cuts to offset big funding increases for defense and border security, Congress has already decided to just spend more on everything. In a rare moment of bipartisan accord, lawmakers last week adopted a two-year budget agreement that calls for $300 billion in additional spending. That deal supersedes both the dead-on-arrival fiscal 2018 budget proposal Trump issued last May and the similarly doomed 2019 blueprint the White House delivered on Monday.
Congress still needs to pass an omnibus spending bill that will actually appropriate money for the remainder of the fiscal year in accordance with the budget caps that the House and Senate approved last week. But the appropriations bills that House Republicans advanced last summer for fiscal year 2018 offer a clue into just how far apart the Trump administration is from its ostensible allies on Capitol Hill.
While the president called for reducing the EPA's budget by one-third, House Republicans proposed cutting it by just 6 percent. They went for a much more modest cut to the State Department, not the sharp reductions the White House wanted. They increased funding for medical research rather than cut it as Trump proposed. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities similarly saw only small reductions in the GOP proposal. And because the House drafts did not reflect the bipartisan agreement for more spending that was reached last week, those departments and agencies might be spared altogether in the next two years.
The budget deal in Congress scrambled the administration's plans for 2019, prompting Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to adjust Trump's proposals to account for the higher spending lawmakers agreed to. Mulvaney is the principal author of the budget blueprint, and the most dramatic cuts reflect his ideology as a spending hawk more than the president's own tolerance for debt. The revised, $4.4 trillion budget proposal restored some major cuts to the State Department that were not enacted last year, as well as other reductions across the government. But the administration intentionally did not increase its proposed spending as high as Congress would have allowed. "These are spending caps. They're not spending floors," Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday. "So you don't have to spend all that."
The last-minute changes weren't enough to assuage the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce of California. He vowed: "A strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress has already acted once to stop deep cuts to the State Department and Agency for International Development that would have undermined our national security. This year, we will act again."
Still, the White House blueprint is, like the budget agreement in Congress, a significant departure from the thrifty Republican proposals of the past. Those plans called for eliminating federal deficits within a decade or less—no matter what kind of fiscal austerity that would require. This year's Trump budget would not balance in that window, and although it would cut $3 trillion in spending over a decade, it would add $7 trillion to the national debt over the same time. In that way, the plan is a nod to the new tax-less-and-spend-more reality of Trump's Washington: After a $1.5 trillion tax cut and a $300 billion spending increase, Republicans can no longer promise a balanced budget in the foreseeable future.
Within that context, the Trump proposals that stand the better chance of winning congressional approval are those that call for more spending. He's already succeeded, for example, in persuading lawmakers to give a big infusion of funding to the military. His budget includes an additional $10 billion to fight the opioid epidemic, following on Congress's approval of $6 billion in new money for the crisis. Trump also wants $25 billion to construct his border wall, a sum that Democrats might accept if it accompanies a broader deal to provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
The biggest new proposal in the president's budget is his long-awaited infrastructure plan, which calls for the federal government to use $200 billion as incentives to generate $1.5 trillion in new investment by state and local governments and private entities. But there again, the only way that proposal is getting through is if Congress can spend much more than the administration wants. "This proposal provides pennies to infrastructure projects while cash-strapped communities are forced to spend money they don't have or else sell off highways and railroads to Wall Street," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said. "If the president truly wants a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, I'm all for it. Let's repeal his giant tax giveaway to the rich and use that money to start rebuilding America." In the closely divided Senate, Democrats will have a large say in whether an infrastructure package will pass, and what it looks like.
Trump isn't alone in sending budget proposals to Congress that lawmakers could just as easily use as doorstops. Most of former President Barack Obama's fiscal plans fared even worse under Republican majorities. The president's budget is a useful statement of priorities, particularly for a president that likes to talk about ideas more than he likes to articulate them in detail. But Trump's first-year record shows that his budget isn't much of a road map to legislation, and the many cuts he proposes generally aren't worth all the fuss.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 01:32 PM PST
The Trump administration has released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 and put dozens of federal programs on the chopping block, including a brand-new NASA space telescope that scientists say would provide the biggest picture of the universe yet, with the same sparkling clarity as the Hubble Space Telescope.
The proposal, released Monday, recommends eliminating the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), citing "higher priorities" at NASA and the cost of the new telescope.
"Given competing priorities at NASA, and budget constraints, developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the administration," the proposal states. "The budget proposes to terminate WFIRST and redirect existing funds to other priorities of the science community, including completed astrophysics missions and research."
The James Webb Space Telescope is a NASA telescope that's almost ready to go after two decades of work. The Webb is expected to launch in 2019 to a point 1 million miles from Earth, where it will study the cosmos in infrared light and provide images and data using a mirror far bigger than the one on Hubble, which launched in 1990. WFIRST is in line after Webb as NASA's next flagship astronomy mission, and is currently in early stages of design and development. The mission would launch sometime in the mid-2020s.
WFIRST just passed a big design review at NASA headquarters this month. The mission has also trimmed its budget after an independent review found the telescope was getting too expensive. Now, however, its future is less certain. WFIRST scientists and engineers must now wait for Congress to negotiate its own budget proposals for fiscal year 2019 in the coming months, and hope the telescope fares better with lawmakers than it did with the president. If past negotiations are an indication, it likely will.
"It's terrible," says David Spergel, a Princeton University astrophysicist and cochair of the WFIRST science team, of the Trump administration's recommendation to cut the mission. "We're sort of abandoning leadership in space astronomy."
NASA broke ground on WFIRST development in 2016. The mission was gifted a 2.4 meter telescope from the National Reconnaissance Office, an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense. The telescope would feed the mission's main instrument, an imager designed to investigate dark energy, the mysterious substance astrophysicists believe makes up most of the universe. Another instrument, a coronagraph, would directly image and study the chemical compositions of exoplanets outside our solar system.
Then last year, WFIRST got some bad news. A committee NASA established to look into the costs of the mission found that WFIRST is "not executable" without more funding, according to a report publicly released last November. NASA headquarters told the WFIRST team to find a few hundred million dollars in the mission's budget and cut it. "It's not fun for anybody," said Jeffrey Kruk, the project scientist for WFIRST, last year, as his team prepared to look for places to shave off costs. "It's very stressful. We're trying to come up with the right answer, the best answer we can."
The WFIRST mission met the recommended target of $3.2 billion this month. According to Trump's budget request, that's still too much. The administration has proposed $19.9 billion for NASA for fiscal year 2019, slightly more than its request for fiscal year 2018—which is still being worked out, following two government shutdowns and many late nights on Capitol Hill. The latest proposal shows the funding WFIRST received for fiscal year 2017, which was $105 million. In the column showing Trump's request sits a big, fat zero.
Kruk said Monday the team is hopeful that the final budget "will be more favorable." For the fiscal year 2017 budget, the Obama administration requested $76 million for WFIRST development. Congress called for more, and the final budget approved $105 million.
WFIRST emerged from a 2010 decadal survey by the National Research Council, which outlines priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for the United States. The nation's biggest and most productive space telescopes all trace their origins back to such decadal surveys, including Hubble, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. "There has been a long tradition of support by the Congress, the administration, NASA, and the [National Science Foundation] to respect the priorities of past decadal surveys," says Alan Boss, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of the many members of the committee that first brought WFIRST to life. "It would set a devastating precedent for future decadal surveys if this FY 2019 proposal is to stand." Scientists are already starting preparations for the next decadal survey, and Trump's proposal, Boss said, "would throw that deliberative process into absolute confusion."
Rumors had swirled about the Trump administration's outlook on WFIRST for about a month. Robert Lightfoot, the acting administrator of NASA, mentioned the cancellation of WFIRST on Monday when he said the agency made some "hard decisions," about its budget but he did not elaborate or say where WFIRST's fundings would be redirected. More than a year after Trump took office, NASA remains without an official, Senate-approved administrator. Trump nominated a candidate last fall—Jim Bridenstine—who, unsurprisingly, Republicans support and Democrats loathe, but he is still in limbo. Spergel said he suspects plans for NASA's long-term goals are coming mostly from the National Space Council, an advisory board that was last active in 1989 and which the Trump administration resurrected last year. So far, the council, helmed by Vice President Mike Pence, has expressed interest in lunar and near-Earth missions and made no mention of the kind of astrophysical research WFIRST would conduct.
Trump's budget request doesn't actually affect WFIRST operations. In an email to WFIRST staff Monday, obtained by The Atlantic, Paul Hertz, the director of NASA's astrophysics division, told everyone to keep working."For the remainder of this year, while the Congress considers this proposal from the president, the WFIRST project will continue making progress with the FY 2018 budget allocation consistent with congressional direction," Hertz wrote. "Maintaining progress against the existing plan is the only way to preserve NASA's ability to deliver the mission on time and meet the established cost target, should Congress decide not to accept the president's proposal to terminate WFIRST."
Hertz sought to reassure WFIRST staff. "This proposal is not a reflection on the importance of WFIRST to NASA or on the quality of work done to date," he said. He closed the memo by thanking the WFIRST team "for the hard work that you are doing, and will continue to do, on WFIRST, especially during these uncertain times."
So the work will continue, but not completely unaffected. Spergel worries the White House's budget proposal will scare off people who want to work on WFIRST as development continues. "One of the challenges is going to be making sure that we continue to get the top scientists and engineers involved in the project," he said. "When something like this happens, you don't want people feeling the project's failing."
The latest news also risks hurting the morale of the current staff. "I'm hopeful that people's response will be to fight for the mission, fight for the science, rather than bail out," Spergel said.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 02:32 PM PST
The term "smart city" is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. "Smart" is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists. To deem yourself "smart" is to make the NIMBYites and market-force people look stupid.
Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.
London also has a large urban-management bureaucracy who emit the proper smart-city buzzwords and have even invented some themselves. The language of Smart City is always Global Business English, no matter what town you're in.
So if grand old London is smart, with its empty skyscrapers, creepy CCTV videocams, and sewers plugged with animal fat, then we probably needn't fret about the Elon Musk sequins and stardust of digital urbanism. Better to reimagine the forthcoming urban future as a mirror of Rome, that "Eternal City," where nothing much ever gets tech-fixed, but everything changes constantly so that everything can remain the same.
* * *
Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past's great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.
The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy—and some are even actively pernicious—but they absolutely will be used in cities. They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.
These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations. At this point, they're pretty much all that urban populations can remember how to do. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent—these are the true industrial titans of our era. That's how people make money, that's how they make war, so of course, it will be how they make cities.
However, the cities of the future won't be "smart," or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won't have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.
Whenever that's done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it's done wrong, it'll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.
These smart cities won't be a solutionist paradise that's as neatly groomed as the new Apple Headquarters. The cities that promulgate, and also suffer, this new dynamic action will look more or less like Amsterdam, Singapore, Tallinn, Dubai, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Toronto, Shanghai, Sydney—and yes, London—for the simple reasons that those are the people who are already doing it. That's where it's at.
I used to imagine that time was on the side of the internet's infrastructure providers—that we were in for a flat world of torrenting, friction-free data. That could well have happened, but it didn't pay off fast enough; instead, today's surveillance-marketing business model set in, and with it the realization that "information about you wants to be free to us."
This silo-izing and digital balkanizing is sinister and unfair in many ways, but it also tends to add regional character. It's about as flat and fair as a billionaire's penthouse.
This year, a host of American cities vilely prostrated themselves to Amazon in the hopes of winning its promised, new second headquarters. They'd do anything for the scraps of Amazon's shipping business (although, nobody knows what kind of jobs Amazon is really promising). This also made it clear, though, that the flat-world internet game was up, and it's still about location, location, and location.
That's why the previously little-known German town of Duisburg is carving out a brand-new reason for existence as the first Chinese tech smart city that's located in Europe. It's also why Tallinn, Estonia, offers "e-residencies" to South Koreans who want to pretend to be European Union businesspeople, without having to actually place their shoes in the marshy ground of the Baltics.
Smart cities will use the techniques of "smartness" to leverage their regional competitive advantages. Instead of being speed-of-light flat-world platforms, all global and multicultural, they'll be digitally gated communities, with "code as law" that is as crooked, complex, and deceitful as a Facebook privacy chart.
* * *
I didn't expect to see this, but neither did city planners. Back in the internet days, the fact that everybody had broadband and cellphones made it look like city government would become flat, participatory, and inclusive. You still see this upbeat notion remaining in the current smart-city rhetoric, mostly because it suits the institutional interests of the left. Community leaders, grassroots activism, the people who want to "participate"—to point, click, and fix the potholes—there are plenty of such people around. However, they're always the people who think a city-council meeting or a labor-union rally are interesting. They're not interesting. They're important, but they're dull.
That's why smart cities, in this new digital era of Big Five and China-BAT industry consolidation, drift away from open public websites and popular comments. Instead, they're adopting that new surveillance-marketing paradigm of "data extractivity." Why trouble to ask the "citizens" what they want from urban life, when you can accurately surveil the real actions of city's "users" and decode what they're actually doing, as opposed to what they vaguely claim they might want to do?
Historically, this is a rather typical drift for a left-wing mass-democratic ideology—from the unwieldy awkwardness of rallying the entire people, and toward the semi-covert vanguard of the revolution. Throw in some engineering degrees and a whole lot of police software, and this is the basic model for modern Chinese cyberspace sovereignty. The new Chinese smart-city model isn't London at all, but rather "Baidu-Macau," where the state-approved social-media giant shows up in the sleepy ex-Portuguese gambling town, and offers to ramp up the local action. For instance, embedding Chinese AI facial recognition into all the town's police security cameras.
Brand-new Brazilian AI security cams are arriving in Mumbai, Delhi, and Agra, too. That's pretty interesting, in its dramatic Orwellian fashion, but I'm not sure it's as important to city life as it may sound. Gang kids in Chicago like to voluntarily wave automatic weapons on YouTube while chanting death threats; they're auto-surveilling themselves.
Smart security services may see, on smart video, that their populations get restive—but that doesn't mean the wretches actually stop. You could say much the same for smart air-pollution sensors, which are deployed all over the toxic winds of China, yet are ceremoniously ignored because the truth's so inconvenient.
So what future cities have in store, I surmise, is not a comprehensive, sleek, point-and-click new digital urban order, but many localized, haphazard mash-ups of digital tips, tricks, and hacks. These half-baked smart-aleck cities will require the arcane knowledge that any local townie knows—that he or she considers habit, a second nature. But the tourist and the émigré will be automatically skinned.
The "bad part of town" will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.
These aren't the "best practices" beloved by software engineers; they're just the standard urban practices, with software layered over. It's urban design as the barbarian's varnish on urbanism. People could have it otherwise, technically, if they really wanted it and had the political will, but they don't. So they won't get it.
This may sound cynical from the point of view of my American hometown of Austin, Texas. Austin is a high-quality-of-life, high-tech, overeducated city that consistently preens itself about its "smartness." However, Austin has a remarkably odd and quirky set of regional technical allies. These typical "Golden Rut" Austin techies are remarkably advanced, only nobody who matters has ever heard of 'em.
I appreciate that prototypical Austin situation, but I also spend much time in Belgrade, Serbia, a city that locals say was burned to the ground 19 times (at the very least, it's been sieged, assaulted, and conquered that many). From the urban point of view of Belgrade, a smart-city "advancement" deeper into crabbiness and quirkiness actually sounds pretty good. Because it's an urban situation that has Belgrade's own fully flavored, small-language, weird ethnic, formerly Ottoman atmosphere. It means a Byzantine, kinky town that doesn't have to fret too much about being outworked by Shenzhen or outschemed by Silicon Valley.
* * *
If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it's not clear that the "smart city" is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that's already digitized. It's the process of the new big-money, post-internet crowd, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft et al., disrupting your uncle's industrial computer companies, the old-school machinery guys who ran the city infrastructures, Honeywell, IBM, General Electric. It's a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
The GAFAM crowd isn't all that well suited to the urban task at hand, either. Running cities is not a good business fit for them because they always give up too easily. America's already littered with the remnants of abandoned Google Moonshots. Amazon kills towns by crushing retail streets and moving all the clerks backstage into blind big-box shipping centers. The idea of these post-internet majors muscling up for some 30-year urban megaproject—a subway system, aqueducts, the sewers—seems goofy.
These Big Tech players have certainly got enough cash to build a new, utopian town from scratch, entirely on their own software principles—a one-company Detroit for the Digital Initiative. But they won't do that because they're American. The United States hasn't incorporated a major new city in almost 70 years.
There are some brand-new cities in the rapidly urbanizing world: Oyala, Equatorial Guinea; Saihoon, Tajikistan; Rawabi, Palestine; Astana, Kazakhstan—but you never hear about them in the context of "smart cities." Even though they're new, and they have shiny modern infrastructure, they're not "smart." Even though Astana is a genuine political capital, and also a very interesting place, it doesn't have enough "political capital" to become a player in the smart-city sweepstakes.
"Smart cities" merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. Cities need to be rich, powerful, and culturally persuasive, with the means, motive, and opportunity to manage their own affairs. That's not at all a novel situation for a city. "Smartness" is just today's means to this well-established end.
The future prospects of city life may seem strange or dreadful, but they're surely not so dreadful as traditional rural life. All over the planet, villagers and farmers are rushing headlong into cities. Even nations so placid, calm, and prosperous as the old Axis allies of Germany, Japan, and Italy have strange, depopulated rural landscapes now. People outside the cities vote with their feet; they check in, and they don't leave. The lure of cities is that powerful. They may be dumb, blind, thorny, crooked, congested, filthy, and seething with social injustice, but boy are they strong.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:38 PM PST
The most vibrant new medium invented in past five years isn't Facebook's Oculus Rift or Apple's animoji. It's the story: the chronological procession of photos, video, and text that erases itself after 24 hours.
Invented by Snapchat and borrowed, infamously, by Instagram and now Facebook, it's the most novel form of social media in the smartphone age. As of last year, 250 million people used the feature on Instagram every day.
Now Instagram is borrowing another feature from Snapchat. In a test starting this week, the company will sometimes alert you when someone takes a screenshot of your Instagram story. The change, first reported by TechCrunch this weekend, has also been spotted by Twitter users:
It makes sense, in a way. Stories are confessional and disposable by design. Like podcasts, they benefit from being cordoned off from the rest of the web: On Instagram, you can't link to a web page from your story (unless you're a celebrity); you just have to sit there and watch it.
But there's nothing to keep someone from taking a screenshot of this private form and sending it to their friends or posting it online. So without an easy way to block people from using the screenshot function—which is controlled by a phone's operating system—Instagram is borrowing from Snapchat and doing the next best thing. It squeals. Instagram has become a narc.
Which makes two things clear.
First, it shows that Instagram has split itself, at last, into two social networks that operate out of the same app. The first is a kind of primitive version of Facebook: It's a social network where you post your best photos or funniest memes to a nonchronological, algorithm-controlled feed for a public audience of 500. The second is a clone of Snapchat: It's an ephemeral messaging platform where you post stories about your day in chronological order for 500 private audiences of one. They're united only by a shared username scheme and a messaging feature.
Second, it reveals that disclosure is the last guarantee of courtesy—at least on a social network. Instagram has no way to implement binding limits on what its users can do with someone else's story; its executives have declined to issue well-publicized and easy-to-understand cultural standards for how to use their network. So they are sharing a bit of their surveillance with us. Once, only Instagram would have known whose stories got screenshot-ed; now, they can advise the target of the screenshot-ing, too.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:00 PM PST
Just a year ago, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix was a big player. The streaming company was a little more than a year into releasing its own original movies for its subscribers, and it was looking for prestige hits to gain a foothold as a distributor Hollywood could take seriously. It acquired one of the best-reviewed films of the festival, Mudbound, for $12.5 million, and the Grand Jury Prize winner I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, among others. In terms of prestige, Netflix was lagging behind its competitor Amazon, which had nabbed a Best Picture nomination for its major Sundance acquisition of 2016, Manchester by the Sea. Maybe Netflix's new slate of indie favorites would turn things around.
Cut to Sundance 2018 in January. The previous year, Netflix had bought 10 movies at the festival. This year, it acquired exactly none. Though the company entered negotiations on a few of the year's buzziest films, it was outbid every time, and industry reports from the festival suggested Netflix was hesitant to commit big money to acquisitions as it became more interested in funding its own original movies. In recent weeks, however, the company has pursued yet another approach. Forget acquiring or making its own films—Netflix has been buying up big-budget studio projects, all of them in the sci-fi/horror genre, and dropped its first prize, The Cloverfield Paradox, with maximum fanfare on Super Bowl Sunday.
This isn't to say Netflix has abandoned smaller films entirely—a family drama that it funded, Tamara Jenkins's Private Life, debuted to strong reviews at Sundance. But the company seems to be increasingly drawn to movies that can make an immediate impact and keep subscribers satisfied. Netflix's approach in both TV and film has always been to keep original content constantly churning, but while small-scale independent projects were the backbone of that strategy in 2017, glossy B-movies seem to be the name of the game so far in 2018.
Netflix's first move in this direction came in December when it acquired the international rights to Annihilation, an upcoming Paramount film budgeted at about $55 million. In exchange for reportedly covering most of that budget, Netflix gets to release the movie in every market except for the U.S., Canada, and China. For Paramount, it was a pressure-relieving move for a film that the studio's higher-ups didn't have enough faith in; this way, at least the studio's initial outlay would be mostly recouped if Annihilation underperforms at the domestic box office. Apparently satisfied with the parameters of that deal, Netflix began talking to Paramount about another of its troubled sci-fi projects, a movie tentatively titled God Particle.
Produced by J.J. Abrams, the film had been in development for years as a smaller-budget genre movie, before getting greenlit by Paramount at a more expansive $40 million cost. From then, it was consistently moved around the schedule, originally intended for a 2017 release, before finally being set for April 2018. Then, in January, Abrams and Paramount changed their minds and approached Netflix, which reportedly paid more than $50 million to take it off their hands. Retitled The Cloverfield Paradox, the film debuted with a splash after the Super Bowl to universally negative reviews.
But the reviews barely matter. For Paramount, another potential problem film was offloaded for a good price (although consistently selling off projects reflects poorly on the studio's trust in its filmmakers). For Netflix, it got to release an expensive-looking title as an exclusive without going through the slow production process. The word is now out to studios: If you have a movie you're not interested in releasing, give Netflix a call. Universal already answered, selling its alien-invasion film Extinction, starring Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan, which it had planned for a January 2018 release.
It's a strategy that could prove very effective in distinguishing Netflix from other streaming services. Its TV offerings are consistent awards contenders, but the company has had more trouble attracting Oscar attention even for critically praised films like Mudbound (which got four nominations but missed out on Best Picture). That's because Netflix insists on releasing its films online the same day they hit theaters, a choice that has prompted many bigger chains to boycott the company.
Essentially, Netflix has "direct-to-video" built into its release strategy, so why not embrace the pulpier side of that approach? Films with broad genre appeal might hold more interest for viewers than very serious indie dramas. Some of Netflix's other 2017 acquisitions, like To the Bone and First They Killed My Father, focused on incredibly depressing real-life topics. Much of its upcoming 2018 slate, like the sci-fi mystery Mute and the action thriller How It Ends, is easier popcorn fare. Meanwhile, Netflix says the gritty fantasy film Bright was one of its most-watched original titles and ordered a sequel; and the company's association with the comedic star Adam Sandler shows no sign of waning.
As long as studios keep making movies and worrying about their box-office potential, seemingly, Netflix will be there ready to snap them up. Eventually, the company may tire of feasting on other studios' scraps, just as it tired of buying up festival hits. But for now, it seems like the easiest way to keep the content coming.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 11:54 AM PST
Jasmine, African blue lilies, and Chicago's favorite flower, chrysanthemum, flourish in the botanical backdrop of President Barack Obama's official portrait. The 44th president appears seated in an ornate chair, with leafy vines threatening to climb up his pant leg.
In her official portrait, First Lady Michelle Obama appears seated, too, in a flowing dress designed by Milly. Between her gown, with its touches of geometric patterning, and the sky-blue paint that frames her figure, the painting features a lot of hard-edged abstraction.
On Monday, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery unveiled the Obamas' official portraits. President Obama's portrait, by the Los Angeles–born and New York–based artist Kehinde Wiley, will join the museum's hall of American presidents, where it will permanently disrupt the march of white presidential paintings. The portrait of Michelle Obama, the work of Baltimore's Amy Sherald, will be on view with recent acquisitions through November 2018.
These are the first portraits, of course, to depict a black president and first lady. They are not the first presidential portraits to be painted by African American artists—Simmie Knox painted both the Clintons—although they are a first for this museum's hall. In any case, these portraits represent something new. The black contemporary artists who painted them are known for making works that break down black images in American culture, especially within the world of fine art.
It will take historians many years and volumes to unpack the symbolism of the Obama era. The former First Family picked these artists to do the job in single strokes. They were the right artists to ask. On top of their contributions to the hall of presidents, Wiley and Sherald advanced the conversation about black art and portraiture with their paintings of the Obamas.
Wiley is one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, a painter who has successfully complicated portraiture by pairing black figures, usually men—sometimes stars, sometimes individuals plucked off the street—with Baroque motifs and Renaissance trappings. Sherald is earning a name for subtler portraits that subvert black stereotypes, especially of women. Both artists faced a challenge: Adjust their very stylized approaches to fit the office of the presidency? Or paint the Obamas the same way they paint their other subjects?
Wiley and Sherald both chose the latter approach. Given one of the most important commissions imaginable, Wiley did not back down from his high modernist arch. Far from it. Wiley laced his portrait with botanicals, drawing on flowers from the places that framed the president's life, namely Kenya, Hawaii, and Chicago. Sherald also chose to stick to her guns with her portrait of Michelle, finding a composition that flatters the first lady while giving over most of the painting to more abstract elements.
Sherald is a rising star in the art world. The debut of her painting at the Portrait Gallery represents a homecoming of sorts: Sherald rocketed to renown after winning the museum's Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016. Typical of her style, the first-place portrait, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013), features a woman whose almost ethereal, charcoal-gray skin tone contrasts with the vermillion of her chrysanthemum fascinator and the crisp white of the ceramic teacup and saucer she holds in her gloved hands. The portrait of Michelle is a bit more straightforward: She is seated and posed and seems less like an allegory than most of Sherald's subjects. But the painting is also modern, unfixed in any time, very much unlike the typically prim portraits of first ladies.
While Sherald's work has only recently captured national attention, she has already made her mark on Washington, D.C. One of her portraits, Grand Dame Queenie (2012), hangs in place of pride in the art galleries at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The image was broadcast widely in promotions for the museum's 2016 opening. Sherald has since joined the board at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and earlier this year, she received the prestigious David C. Driskell Prize from Atlanta's High Museum of Art. And in May, Sherald will have her first major solo show, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Wiley's work hardly needs any introduction. His paintings have shown up in numerous institutional surveys, most recently in "A New Republic," organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. That solo show toured to museums in six states. Roberta Smith praised Wiley's grand ambition in The New York Times while jabbing at his "often thin, indifferently worked surfaces." He received the State Department's Medal of Arts late in the Obama years.
A 2012 profile in New York examined one of Wiley's studios, this one in Beijing, where assistants help to lay down the Renaissance patterns that Wiley uses for his abstract backdrops. The artist's reliance on studio painters hardly sets him apart from any other blue-chip artist at the height of his career, but the painterly nature of Wiley's work, plus his sheer prominence, sets his critics off. Some of them can't accept the audacity of his project—to sample from Old Masters even if his brushstroke does not match theirs. The writer Vinson Cunningham, for one, has questioned whether his portraiture is radical enough.
Market-friendly yet confrontational, historical yet anti-history, contemporary yet classical—Wiley embraces broad contradictions happily. The daring in swapping out Napoleon for Ice T in an Ingres portrait is obvious. It's an act of homage but also a rebuke of the canon. And with his painting of Obama, Wiley did not stand down from this project. It's an exquisite figure painting, perfectly capturing Obama's professorial nature, his hands folded across his lap as he leans forward—tieless—as if studying the viewer. Yet the backdrop is wild and flattened, as if he'd simply photoshopped the president into a meme. That's a painterly comment on every presidential portrait that has come before his.
Of the two selections, the pick of Sherald to paint Michelle Obama may be the bolder stroke. It is likely to mean more for Sherald's career, which almost never took off: The artist had a heart transplant, at age 39, in 2012. Her portraits can be inscrutable. Her subjects frequently appear straight faced or severe, and their dress ranges from Kennedy Camelot (gloves and hats, scarves and sashes) to contemporary casual. The focus on anachronistic fashions and everyday figures is reminiscent of the work of the late portrait artist Barkley L. Hendricks—or maybe it's just the similarly cool temperature of Sherald's paintings.
Most presidential portrait unveilings don't generate this much attention. With a couple of exceptions—John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning or George Washington by Gilbert Stuart or Rembrandt Peale—the lot of them are records and little more. Important records, perhaps, especially when an official portrait conveyed most all that the public knew of a president, such as Mathew Brady's antebellum photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Tapping contemporary artists for the job raises the stakes. With their portraits of the Obamas, Wiley and Sherald have pushed the genre even further.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 10:42 AM PST
Federico Marques feared the worst for his farm as he watched live coverage of Hurricane Harvey ravaging fields across the Gulf Coast and inundating every pocket of Houston.
Marques was trapped at home during Harvey and could only monitor his crops from his couch, anxiously viewing footage from the farm's single working indoor camera. "We couldn't get in here for four days," Marques said as he showed me around on an unseasonably warm afternoon this November. "I'm looking at all these aerial photos and thinking, 'Oh my God, everything is underwater.' When we finally got back, we had 10 inches of water on the floor—but we only lost maybe 5 percent of the product. The rest was perfectly fine."
In a way, Harvey was a test for Moonflower Farms. Founded by Marques in December 2015, it was one of the state's very first indoor "vertical" farms—where plants are stacked in trays on shelves, instead of laid out horizontally across larger plots of land. In these high-tech structures, plants don't rely on sunlight or soil, rainwater or pesticides, but LED lights and minerals instead. The goal of vertical farms isn't just to save space; it's also to find a more economical way of producing food for the growing population—and to reduce the costs and consequences of getting that food to where people actually live.
Moonflower is in an industrial area about 15 miles south of downtown Houston, tucked away inside a relatively small, unassuming white shack. The small farm is housed in a 900-square-foot room with a 14-foot ceiling. There are hot-pink lights and a small irrigation system quietly feeding 20 varieties of micro-greens, which sprout up from a mineral-based substitute for soil called vermiculite. In Marques's growing room, everything from the temperature to the lighting to the watering schedule has been engineered to replicate conventional outdoor farming, but without all the interruptions that plague it: seasonal changes, droughts, bitter cold, fires, and, of course, floods.
Houston has developed other vertical-farm concepts in the past two years. There's Space City Farms, a backyard aeroponic vertical garden; Dream Harvest, a hydroponic system similar to Moonflower; and Acre in a Box, a literal take on the operation housed in a shipping container.
Acre in a Box's founders—Andrew Abendshein, who works for an oil and gas trading firm in Houston, and Ana Buckman, a Rice University languages and creative-writing instructor—had no background in agriculture when they invested $80,000 in their first shipping-container farm. Abendshein said he has long had an interest in getting fresh produce to urban food deserts and hopes to one day start moving shipping-container vertical farms into those neighborhoods. For now, though, Acre in a Box's two farms are hidden in the parking lot of an abandoned drill-bit factory at the end of a dead-end street in Houston's East Downtown, a few blocks from where Houston's two largest bayous intersect.
Harvey, and the deluge it brought, are exactly the kind of scenario that vertical farms are designed to withstand. Catastrophic flooding events like Harvey are only expected to become more frequent, and threats of food and water scarcity are projected to worsen in the years to come—all as the population grows. The United Nations projects that the world's population will be 9.8 billion by 2050, with roughly two-thirds of those people living in urban areas, which aren't exactly conducive to large-scale farming.
To meet the growing demand for food, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that there needs to be a 50 percent increase in global agriculture production—a distinct challenge, the UN warns, in the face of climate change and the growing need for water conservation. Vertical farms present a potential solution: There is no fertilizer runoff into the groundwater, fewer CO2 emissions from delivery trucks' long journeys, and no land to till. They require only a fraction of the acreage and use only a fraction of the water—anywhere from 90 to 97 percent less—that traditional farms do.
"We are kind of at the beginning of a revolution," Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a graduate-school professor at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, told me. "We're at the beginning of a very rapid development in the use of indoor controlled facilities for producing vegetables and some fruits," he said. "No matter what happens with climate change, you still have your controlled environment."
The technology used for these farms has been around for decades. In fact, Marques began studying it in the 1990s after learning that NASA used it to grow plants in space. But only in the last several years has interest in using the technology for urban, commercial-scale agriculture picked up. Indoor farms have recently sprouted up in old warehouses, shipping containers, and small skyscrapers in New Jersey, South Korea, Germany, India, and Dubai—places where traditional farming is either difficult or impossible due to climate, population density, or the land itself. In Houston, sprawling commercial and residential developments were built on top of a swamp, making large-scale outdoor farming virtually impossible.
Marques and I hopped in his minivan and headed about a mile away from his garden to the site of the Moonflower Farms expansion, where men in hard hats were surveying the land. The new facility doesn't look like much yet—just a large elevated mound of dirt with metal poles sticking out of it. But by the time it's operational, Marques plans to have a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse that he expects will churn out 1,000 pounds of produce per day—compared with the 20 pounds that his tiny facility produces now. He currently sells to a couple dozen restaurants but plans to expand to regional and national distributors and local grocers once the new facility is up and running.
The elimination of long, cross-country transports to get the produce to grocery stores means consumers wind up with fresher food. Right now, Marques said, the time from harvest to table is sometimes only a matter of hours, which means that produce arrives in better shape and then lasts longer both in the store and in people's homes. "If we can make this work in the city of Houston and produce 1,000 pounds a day or more of product—high-quality product that has three times the shelf life—then we have a good model that we can pretty much [take] to any city in the world and replicate," Marques said.
The new greenhouse will operate like a research-and-development facility, helping Marques perfect a prototype that interested farmers around the world can use as a template. He already knows that he'll need to make some changes. For starters, he's not going to rely exclusively on LED lighting as he does now; instead he will mostly use sunlight, plugging in energy-efficient lighting as a supplement—a measure that will cut costs significantly. Marques said he has already had inquiries about this model from a food distributor in Cairo, where the arid climate and heavy reliance on imported crops make the food supply unpredictable. Marques says he has also talked to strawberry growers in Norway, where thousands of metric tons of strawberries are imported every year due to the short growing season. And he has heard from cattle farmers in Brazil, where the shrinking availability of pastureland and prohibitions on razing rainforests mean that some farmers may need to import grass to feed their cows.
Cutting the costs of building and maintaining the systems themselves will be crucial as vertical farms continue to evolve, according to Henry Gordon-Smith, the co-founder of the international Association for Vertical Farming and a consultant at the New York–based firm Agritecture. As a result of high costs, Gordon-Smith said, several vertical farms in North America have failed in recent years. That's what happened at LocalGarden, a rooftop vertical farm in Vancouver that went bankrupt in 2014, and at PodPonics, a shipping-container vertical farm in Atlanta, where high labor and technology costs were consistently undermining return on investment.
Mike Nasseri, who was the harvest supervisor at LocalGarden, said that design flaws had inflated the endeavor's operational and energy costs to the point that the farm couldn't make enough money. Even though the farm had started small, Nasseri said the crew decided to scale up too quickly to a commercial operation. To make matters worse, Nasseri said, the costs of the real estate in the middle of downtown Vancouver—a central location he said he would not recommend for new vertical farmers —were way too high. "That placement [in the middle of downtown] is basically the first way you can screw up," Nasseri said.
Still, he's a major proponent of vertical farming, primarily because of its environmental benefits. He's now working at a startup called Ava Technologies, developing indoor "smart gardens," essentially mini vertical farms that can fit on kitchen counters.
Gordon-Smith said the industry-wide goal going forward has to be to minimize the risk of failure, financial or otherwise, as much as possible in order to make vertical farming more accessible to the younger generation of produce growers, who have been moving steadily away from rural areas and toward cities over the past few decades. Still, he said, the failures serve as lessons for new investors as they continue to develop various types of vertical farms.
Like Marques, Abendshein, the founder of Acre in a Box, was stuck at home monitoring his produce from the couch during Harvey. But he knew he could rest assured that, as the waters raged, his produce was safe. Without land that could be ruined for an entire season, the worst that could happen, he thought, was that his farms would float away.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 10:12 AM PST
The White House's response to allegations of domestic violence against former Staff Secretary Rob Porter has so stunned reporters that the whole episode has become an exemplar of the total disorganization of the Trump administration.
"Abuse Case Exposes Fissures in a White House in Turmoil," The New York Times intones. Axios's Jonathan Swan writes, "This is crazy. Even in a White House that's famous for chaos, I've never seen anything like this." Politico's Playbook simply announced, "CHAOS at 1600 Pennsylvania."
This is peculiar, not only because it is difficult to imagine what would rise to the level of notable chaos relative to the standards of this White House. It's strange because the focus on disorder has overshadowed the more salient feature of the moment: Insofar as the administration is engulfed in chaos, it is a result of its inability to tell the truth. The Trump team doesn't have a chaos problem so much as it has a dishonesty problem. Of course this is not new, either—in fact, the serial dissembling of the White House has become so banal that it goes almost unremarked in this case—yet it is on particularly dramatic display here.
It might be useful to rehearse the basic chronology. Early last week, the Daily Mail reported on allegations of physical and verbal abuse lodged against Porter by his two ex-wives. Tuesday night, Chief of Staff John Kelly issued a statement standing firmly behind Porter, who worked closely with both Kelly and the president. Wednesday morning, The Intercept published photos showing a black eye Porter had allegedly given one ex-wife, Colbie Holderness. Later that day, Porter resigned. The time since has seen investigation and recrimination about who knew what. Both of Porter's ex-wives had told the FBI about their allegations during the background-check process, and White House Counsel Don McGahn reportedly knew about allegations as early as January 2017. Politico reports Kelly also knew of a 2010 protective order against Porter this fall. The White House had also learned, well before the Daily Mail stories, that the FBI would recommend Porter not be given security clearance. (The FBI's recommendation is non-binding on the president.)
In the immediate aftermath of Porter's departure, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that Porter had resigned of his own volition. The following day, her deputy Raj Shah repeated that claim, and refused to speculate about what might have happened had Porter not opted to leave. (Axios reported that Kelly was urging Porter to "stay and fight" the accusations Tuesday night.)
Here, however, is an account that White House staffers gave to the Times:
In other words, White House staffers are speaking to the nation's newspaper of record to insist that the White House's own official explanation about Porter's departure is a lie. This would be more astounding if not for all the other times spokespeople have been made to say things the administration later acknowledges are untrue—from the size of the Inauguration crowd to the reason for FBI Director James Comey's firing to the content of the June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower.
The battles with truth do not end here. Kelly told staffers that the White House takes domestic violence seriously, but believing that requires disregarding reports that McGahn and later Kelly were aware of some of the allegations against Porter for some time before acting, and even without that, ignoring the fact that Kelly issued his supportive statement about Porter even while (supposedly) pushing him out. White House staffers also complained to The Washington Post that they felt Kelly was pushing an untrue version of events.
The president plays a role in this as well. In his first statements on the Porter case, Trump highlighted Porter's claims of innocence, wished him well, and offered no sympathy for the victims. Over the weekend, he tweeted to complain that "Peoples [sic] lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation." Axios reports that privately, however, the president has told multiple people that he believes the accusations against Porter, and finds him "sick."
The political logic of this maneuver—standing by Porter publicly while blasting him privately—is counterintuitive, though in keeping with Trump's tendency to play to hot-button culture-war issues that he thinks will rile up his base. (In a similar vein, Trump's old strategist Steve Bannon is saying that the #MeToo movement will undo "10,000 years of recorded history.") Whether it is political malpractice or political genius, it means Trump is not telling the truth in at least one venue.
The president, with his prodigious capacity for pumping out nonsense, may be the wellspring of the White House's honesty problem, but he is not alone. The Times reports that one factor in Kelly's recent struggles is the loss of his deputy Kirstjen Nielsen, who was tapped to succeed him as secretary of Homeland Security: "Ms. Nielsen frequently blocked and tackled for the chief of staff, making herself the main line of approach to him. Without her, officials often approach Mr. Kelly freely now, and he sometimes does not remember what he has said to different people, two officials said."
Telling conflicting things to different people is indeed likely to sow chaos, but chaos is only a product. It's much easier to avoid not telling conflicting stories if one sticks to the truth.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 10:30 AM PST
BOSTON—Out on an old Navy dry dock, a biotech company called Ginkgo Bioworks is growing genetically modified organisms by the billions, and it would very much like to tell you about them.
"I think people should love GMOs," Gingko's CEO and cofounder, Jason Kelly, told me. "We're super proud of them."
It helps the message, perhaps, that Ginkgo is not a big ag corporation shrouded in secrecy, but a small company founded by a band of exuberant nerds from MIT. Ginkgo reprograms single-celled organisms like yeast and bacteria into mini factories churning out useful molecules for food, perfumes, and industrial applications. For fun, its scientists also brew beer with their genetically modified yeast. The lunchroom is stacked with multiple versions of Settlers of Catan. And it's thrown open the doors open to journalists curious for a whiff of fragrances made via genetic engineering.
Ginkgo publicly waded into the GMO-labeling debate in 2016, when Kelly published a New York Times op-ed titled, "I Run a GMO Company—and I Support GMO Labeling." He began by talking about his diabetic father, whose insulin came from genetically modified bacteria. The op-ed was typical of how Gingko—and a wave of other companies using GMOs in novel ways—are trying to reset the conversation around biotechnology: by foregrounding the benefits to consumers and advocating for transparency.
Kelly and many other biotech entrepreneurs I've spoken to take their lessons from the backlash to Monsanto. Monsanto's mistake, in their telling, was focusing on genetic modifications that benefited farmers applying pesticides and herbicides but which seemed confusing to the average mom or dad at the grocery store. That made it easy for activists to tap into people's fear of big corporations doing nefarious things. But what if you only made GMOs that were fun, cool, and socially conscious—like vegetarian burgers or cow-free leather or spider-silk ties? "It's a very different conversation about genetic engineering when it's a tie," says Kelly.
That trend makes one of Ginkgo's biggest deals yet, announced in September, a particularly intriguing one. Ginkgo has partnered with Bayer to launch a new company focused on genetically engineering microbes to make nitrogen fertilizer. The pitch has an explicit environmental angle: Making nitrogen fertilizer currently requires vast amounts of fossil fuels. Bayer is also, of course, the large German conglomerate that is in the middle of merging with Monsanto.
Can people love even these GMOs?
* * *
When it comes to science, the Ginkgo team's credentials are unimpeachable. Kelly earned his Ph.D. at MIT focusing on synthetic biology, a field that sees DNA as a readable, writable code for life, one that can be manipulated in a lab. Three of his Ginkgo cofounders were classmates at MIT: Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, and Austin Che. The other founder was Tom Knight, a former MIT professor best known as the godfather of synthetic biology.
From the start in 2009, Ginkgo's team knew they wanted to make it easier to tinker with the DNA in yeast and bacteria. The basic technology has been around for decades—the first human insulin made with genetic engineering came on the market in 1982—but getting it to work is still kind of a crapshoot. Biology is complicated. The Ginkgo team envisioned a world where they could "print" hundreds of variation of a gene, splice them inside microbes, and start to learn what works best.
What they had not quite figured out was what to do with those tools. Ginkgo bounced around for a while, picking up a grant here from DOE to engineer E. coli for biofuels and a grant there from DARPA to work on antibiotic resistance. Then, they started talking to companies that wanted more reliable sources of fragrances like rose oil. "Honestly, I didn't know the fragrance industry existed in grad school," says Kelly. He'd heard of the perfume industry, of course, but what he didn't know was that behind it are a network of largely anonymous companies that create the basic fragrances later blended into perfumes.
It was good fit though. For one, fragrances like rose oil command a much higher price than, say, a commodity like fuels. And Ginkgo didn't have to compete with a fragrance company's internal biotech team because nobody in that industry had any experience genetically modifying yeast.
It made for good PR, too. Unlike pharmaceutical chemicals or industrial enzymes or fertilizers, fragrances had a wow factor. They are almost tangible. Definitely smellable. Journalists—me included—came to Ginkgo's offices to sniff for themselves. And the first time you unscrew a frozen tube expecting something bready and yeasty but get a whiff of floral, it is a little bit magical. Ginkgo's scientists spoke of resurrecting the smell of Ice Age flowers through genetic engineering.
Other companies are also tapping into this romantic vision of biotechnology. Modern Meadow, which is making leather without cows, unveiled its first product—a "reimagined" leather T-shirt—at the Museum of Modern Art. In March, Bolt Threads released a a limited edition $314 tie made of spider silk from GMO yeast. It's also partnered with the designer Stella McCartney, who is creating pants and bodysuits out of spider silk.
Yet other companies have pitched themselves as a solution to the ills of industrial farming. "You pick your favorite animal food product right now and there's two or three start-ups working on it," says Kelly. The most famous example may be Impossible Foods' plant-based burger that "bleeds"—an effect achieved with heme, a protein that the company makes in GMO yeast.
This focus on the consumer may be working to refurbish GMOs' image—at least in some circles. "There's a new openness to using genetic-engineering technology that hasn't been there. Maybe this started five years ago," says Ryan Bethencourt, who cofounded and until recently ran IndieBio, an accelerator for biotech start-ups. But it's certainly captivated investors in Silicon Valley, which is keen on the idea of DNA as the next programmable code.
Bethencourt says he tells the companies he advises to be transparent about their use of genetic engineering. But they need a story that transcends the science, too. And that's why you have the high-fashion partnerships and appeals to animal welfare. On the other hand, leaning too hard into socially responsible messaging can engender backlash too. Though there's no evidence the heme in its burgers is unsafe, Impossible Foods got an unflattering round of news coverage when environmental groups obtained FDA documents that which painted a confusing picture about the protein's safety.
When I was at an industry event sponsored by Ginkgo back in 2015, I heard a lot of discomfort with using the phrase "GMO." "I feel like in the past we've avoided the term GMO because it's got so much baggage," John Cumbers, the founder of the industry group SynBioBeta, recently told me. (He now thinks they should reclaim the term.) The debate around using the word "GMO" is a microcosm of the larger debate over how much a biotech company should talk up its scientific process versus focusing on the end product. And even back in 2015, Kelly was arguing for the science.
And it makes sense because Ginkgo does not sell consumer products. It sells scientific expertise in creating genetically modified microbes for companies to create their own products. "Ginkgo is more the engine behind products," says Bethencourt. Its most direct competitor may be Zymergen, a Bay Area company that also optimizes yeast and bacterial strains used in industrial fermentation. (Fermentation, though commonly associated with pickles and beer, is the conversion of sugar to any substance by microbes—be it vinegar, alcohol, rose oil, or industrial enzymes.)
So by necessity, Ginkgo wants to talk about science and to rehab the image of GMOs. "I want to know why people are scared, why they don't love GMOs," says Christina Agapakis, Ginkgo's creative director, who has led an unusual set of initiatives for the biotech company. She hangs out at fermentation festivals—"It's like the hippies and Ginkgo"—and brought in an artist in residence to experiment with dying textiles with bacteria.
But as Ginkgo has grown, it has also taken on bigger clients deeper in the industrial supply chain. It's signed deals with Kerry and Swissaustral (for enzymes used in processing food) as well as Cargill and ADM (for nutrients added to animal feed). It's harder to tell a simple story to the consumer while entangled inside these vast supply chains.
The partnership with Bayer is interesting for that reason. On one hand, it was a big score for Ginkgo. "[Bayer] ended up choosing to work with us when Ginkgo has historically done nothing in agriculture, and the reason was the platform," says Kelly. Because of Ginkgo's automation and expertise in organism design, it says it can do the same work for one-fifth of the cost of the competition. "The platform is really the unique asset. We have evidence of that for the first time last year," says Kelly. The Bayer partnership was evidence their business plan could work. Ginkgo recently opened its third "foundry"—what it calls its lab spaces—and has plans for two more.
I asked Kelly if he had any hesitation about working with Bayer—given the frequently negative associations with GMOs in industrial agriculture. He launched into an explanation of the sustainability benefits of GMOs that can "fix" nitrogen gas to make fertilizer, which in turn required an explanation of how nitrogen fertilizer is currently made with fossils fuels in the Haber-Bosch process. Stores like Walmart are feeling consumer pressure to stock more sustainable goods, he said.
"You can get a little bit of a favorable consumer perception on this stuff," he concluded, "but it is different than the tie." The tie is catchy, and simple. But the thing Kelly says makes Gingko's new project consumer-friendly may be a little too complicated to get across in a sound bite.
So much of the queasiness around GMOs, Kelly added, is actually a queasiness about industrial agriculture. He described the war on GMOs as a proxy war for the actual fight over industrial agriculture. "That technology is starting to be a useful tool in the real fight [over industrial agriculture]. It's actually going to help reduce industrial farming with things like the Impossible Burger and things we're doing with nitrogen fixing," he says. "When that happens, you want to start using it if you want to reform the ag system." This is, after all, why Kelly is proud of Ginkgo's GMOs.
It's fun to talk about $314 ties and $16 vegetarian burgers at fancy restaurants, but if new GMOs are going to truly make the world a better place, they'll have to appeal to many more people. They'll have to replace whole industries that feed and clothe millions. In other words, they too will have to function at an industrial scale—perhaps the actual thing that makes people uncomfortable.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 08:42 AM PST
I first met Asma Jahangir, the champion of human rights in Pakistan who died Sunday, at the Supreme Court in Islamabad. It was September 2007, and General Pervez Musharraf's eight-year rule was tottering. For several months, a popular movement led by lawyers had harried him on the streets, and now, Musharraf feared, the judges were poised to disqualify him from office.
As a journalist, I was there to observe the hundreds of lawyers clamoring for Musharraf's worst fears to be realized. Soon, they were outnumbered. The ranks of the baton-wielding police swelled as reinforcements arrived, including a contingent dressed in plain clothes with rocks in their pockets. The police began beating the lawyers on their heads, in some cases breaking the protesters' spectacles, and causing blood to pour onto the black blazers that symbolize the legal profession in Pakistan. Soon, rocks began to fly, scattering the ranks of the demonstrators. Then came the tear-gas, letting off a cloudy trail as the canisters arced in the direction of the protesters and journalists, forcing everyone to retreat inside the Supreme Court building.
Jahangir was unfazed. She shepherded the lawyers, activists and journalists inside and then led them to the kitchen, where they could wash their faces, sip water, and reflect on the events convulsing their country. A military ruler was resorting to repressive methods in order to cleave to power. The rule of law had deteriorated to the point where the police were laying siege to the seat of justice. Confronted with such force, what hope was there for a peaceful resistance whose only weapon was the constitution? Still, Jahangir remained confident. She had lived through such moments before.
Jahangir was 18 years old when she first made her name in the Supreme Court. Her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, a noted left-wing politician, had been placed under "preventive detention" during the military rule of General Yahya Khan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jahangir would later joke that she came to know court as an occasion to dress up and see her father. In a landmark petition, Jahangir challenged the legitimacy not just of her father's detention but of Khan's rule as well. To everyone's astonishment, the court later decreed that Khan was an "usurper."
Later, during General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's 11-year rule, which ended in 1988, Jahangir was one of the leaders of the Women's Action Forum. The group protested in the streets against laws that discriminated against women. Its members were beaten viciously by the police. She was first arrested in 1983, and then again during the Musharraf years—twice: the first time in 2005, at a Lahore marathon for women's rights; then in November 2007, during Musharraf's last year in power, when she was placed under house arrest.
Soon after Jahangir qualified as a lawyer, in 1978, she established Pakistan's first all-female legal firm, along with her sister, Hina Jilani, and two other friends. Over the years, the clients they represented included women trying to divorce violent husbands, women trying to marry against the wishes of their parents, bonded laborers seeking freedom from their oppressive "owners," religious minorities facing death sentences under the blasphemy laws, and relatives of the forcibly disappeared. In 1987, Jahangir co-founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which she chaired for several years.
Even at the best of times, it was hazardous work. In the mid-1990s, Jahangir defended Salamat Masih, a Christian teenager sentenced to death for blasphemy for allegedly scribbling an insult on a mosque's wall. Pakistan's blasphemy laws have often ensnared members of religious minorities. An accusation can be made on the basis of little or no evidence. The accused have been deemed guilty by riled up mobs even before the trial has begun. Everyone involved fears for their lives. At one hearing, Jahangir was not even allowed to speak. She was denounced by an angry mob as "anti-Islamic." But in a surprise result, Masih was ultimately acquitted on appeal. That result didn't end the anger over the case, however. Following the verdict, an armed gang stormed into Jahangir's brother's house looking for her. In 1997, two years after the acquittal, the judge was killed.
Jahangir said she learned a lot from those she represented. She once asked a woman with five children who was seeking a divorce if she was ready to assume the life of a single mother. "Many women have been killed in their marriages," the woman replied. "Have you ever heard of anyone killed in their divorce?" A bonded labourer once explained to her what he was fighting for, by saying: "I'm not asking for food. That I can get in jail. I'm fighting for my dignity, which is priceless."
Jahangir became famous as a fearless Pakistani human rights defender. She won several human rights awards, spent three terms as a UN special rapporteur, and was awarded three honorary doctorates. Presidents and prime ministers decorated her with their highest civilian honors. But it was her quiet valor and discreet acts of kindness, away from the glare of publicity, that affected people the most.
In the hours since she has died, a well-known journalist recalled how she dragged him out of his office and up to the hills of Murree to accompany her as she investigated the killing of a young girl she read about in the newspaper. A lawyer told me that during Musharraf's state of emergency, he was a student protesting outside a detained judge's house in Lahore. The Punjab police charged up to them, and were about to attack, when Jahangir emerged out of nowhere. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she said. "These are kids, not terrorists. Go on, get lost." Shocked, the police duly skulked away.
For many in Pakistan, Jahangir's outspokenness made her a divisive figure. Journalists and politicians close to the military ritually attacked her as "secular," "anti-Islamic," "pro-Western" and a "foreign agent." But when two of those journalists found themselves facing television bans in court, Jahangir was there to defend them. The journalists were reduced to silence. Jahangir always stood for a principle, even if it meant defending her most vituperative critics.
The tragedy is that Jahangir has died when perhaps Pakistan needs her the most. The crude acts of repression under the military rule of Musharraf have now assumed subtler, more pernicious forms. Human rights activists aren't thrashed in the streets, like they were during Musharraf's time. They are subject to intense surveillance online, and, if deemed necessary, "picked up."
Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan's human rights record, with possibly thousands of people unaccounted for over the past two decades. Authorities refuse to acknowledge they are holding someone, or to say where they are held. But over recent months, these disappearances have become more frequent. The disappeared are no longer mainly those suspected of membership in an armed group. They include students, journalists, bloggers, peace activists and other mainstays of civil society. Sometimes they return home within days, having endured torture and other-ill treatment. Sometimes months go by with no news of their whereabouts. The media is wary of covering their cases, and there is a fear that anyone could be targeted. "Who will be next?" as one lawyer's placard read at a protest last year. "Will it be me, or will it be you?"
Jahangir's last public speech was at a protest rally in Islamabad. She was speaking to hundreds of ethnic Pashtuns who had gathered in the capital to protest against enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations visited upon their community. Now, Pakistanis wonder who will be there to speak up for them. "Her sheer presence gave people strength," a friend of Jahangir's told me last night. Will a new generation of activists assume the mantle that Jahangir left behind for them, or will Pakistanis be left weaker without her?
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 09:07 AM PST
Carnival season 2018 is underway across Europe and the Americas. These pre-Lent festivals, often a blend of local pagan and Catholic traditions, usher out winter and welcome in spring. The largest and most famous—the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—took place over the past few days. Gathered here are images of Carnivals around the world, including images from Brazil, Portugal, Hungary, Bolivia, Haiti, Spain, Italy, and more. Depending on available photos, there may be a follow-up post later this week with more from Mardi Gras and other celebrations.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 10:28 AM PST
It's one of the most important questions of the 21st century: Will climate change provide the extra spark that pushes two otherwise peaceful nations into war?
In the past half-decade, a growing body of research—spanning economics, political science, and ancient and modern history—has argued that it can and will. Historians have found temperature or rainfall change implicated in the fall of Rome and the many wars of the 17th century. A team of economists at UC Berkeley and Stanford University have gone further, arguing that an empirical connection between violence and climate change persists across 12,000 years of human history.
Meanwhile, high-profile scientists and powerful politicians have endorsed the idea that global warming helped push Syria into civil war. "Climate change did not cause the conflicts we see around the world," Barack Obama said in 2015, but "drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria." The next year, Bernie Sanders declared that "climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism."
If you live on a planet expecting changes to temperature or rainfall in the coming decades—which will come faster and stronger than the many natural climate changes of the past—it's all a bit worrying. So a paper published Monday in Nature Climate Change might seem like a nice respite. After undertaking a large-scale analysis of more than 100 papers published on the topic, the article argues that the connections between climate change and war aren't as strong as they seem—that the entire literature "overstates the links between both phenomena."
Phew, you might think, maybe things aren't so bad.
Except that—to hear scientists who study the issue tell it—the paper does not make its own case as strongly as it may seem at first. "I can't see what the authors are trying to accomplish with this article," says Elizabeth Chalecki, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The paper arrives into a field deeply polarized between researchers who endorse a link between climate change and violence and those who reject one. For scholars who approve of the link, the paper doesn't prove its point or even say much of anything new. And while researchers who rebuff the link are more charitable to the paper, they also do not think it throws the field's most famous studies into question—because they already questioned the veracity of that work.
"Some may read this paper as saying that there's lots of literature that says climate change causes conflict, and that this literature is based on sampling errors," says Jan Selby, a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex. "But even before this paper, there was huge disagreement about what links could be made between climate change and conflict. And irrespective of the question of sampling error, I think the evidence in many of those papers is really weak."
First, though, to the paper itself. The authors attempt a large-scale analysis of the entire field of conflict and climate-change research. To do this, they searched an enormous academic database for certain keywords—like climate, war, weather, and unrest—then pruned the thousands of articles that they found down to a slim 124 that substantively addressed the connection between the two topics. Then, they analyzed the resulting body of papers for the names of certain countries and regions.
After running this analysis, the authors conclude that the entire field is biased in two ways: toward countries that are easy for English-speaking researchers to access, like Kenya and Nigeria; and toward countries where conflict has already erupted, like Syria and Sudan. They also say that the literature focuses too much on Africa, ignoring vulnerable countries in Asia and South America.
The countries that were mentioned most in the climate-conflict literature included Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, India, Iraq, and Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Though even the two most-mentioned countries, Kenya and Sudan, only appeared in 8.8 percent of all papers.)
That list shares very little overlap with a list of countries that should theoretically be the most vulnerable to climate change, which includes Rwanda, Honduras, Haiti, Myanmar, and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. But it is quite similar to a list of the countries that have suffered the most combat-related deaths in the last quarter-century.
In the Climate-Conflict Literature, the Most-Mentioned Countries Are Also the Most Recently Violent
"If we only look at places where violence is, can we learn anything about peaceful adaptation to climate change? And if we only look at those places where there is violence, do we tend to see a link because we are only focusing on the places where there is violence in the first place?" asked Tobias Ide, a coauthor of the paper and a peace and conflict researcher at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research.
He believes the study throws both the quantitative and qualitative research on the question into doubt. The qualitative research suffers from "the streetlight effect," an overreliance on English-speaking former colonies in Africa where it is easier to do research, he says. (The "streetlight effect" refers to only looking for your keys—or anything else—where it's easiest to see in the dark.) Quantitative research, he says, is ailed by "sampling on the dependent variable": that is, only studying war in places where there is already war.
Ide and many other researchers worry that such research will eventually harm the people that live in the places that are being studied. "In Sudan, Kenya, Syria, people say climate change is causing conflict, and that it will cause more conflict in the future because of droughts and stuff," Ide said. "This scares investors away. People don't want to invest there anymore because they're scared these places are biased, or immature, or barbaric."
Ide also fretted that this will encourage Western philanthropists or militaries to unseat local power in these countries, in effect saying, "You can't do it on your own, so we have to move in and manage your resources."
"I'm not saying that everyone who focuses on climate change in Syria or Kenya is automatically promoting colonial behavior, but if there's a connective frame it might well facilitate this kind of thinking," he told me.
Ide demurred when I asked where this kind of climate-science-driven colonialism has already happened. "If it comes to proving that a certain academic framing had an influence on people's mind-set, or eventually even actions or policies, that's really hard to pin down or prove empirically. People don't just read academic studies—they watch television, they listen to peers," he said. But he also said that the push to fortify southern Europe and adopt much more regressive immigration policies was driven, in part, by the climate literature.
"From what I've heard from colleagues working on the issue, the idea that climate change is leading to conflict and migration in the Middle East—that is used by some conservatives and lobbyists and politicians in Brussels to inform stricter border controls in the south of the European Union, like not saving [refugees] in the Mediterranean Sea," he told me. "It's still anecdotal evidence, but it's there."
His paper fits into a broader pattern of researchers—especially those in Europe—rejecting links between global warming and war. Selby, the Sussex professor, and a number of his colleagues published a blistering article last year attacking the idea that a climate-addled drought in any way pushed Syria into war. It argued that a prewar drought—which supposedly prompted the country's economic chaos—was not as historically anomalous as claimed; and that the farmers who fled that drought had little involvement in the run-up to the war itself. He called the new article "a decent paper" without "obvious flaws."
"But I guess that's probably to some extent because it confirms suspicions that I have anyway," he said. He told me that there was "no consensus" in the quantitative literature on whether climate change exacerbates conflict. "Some people claim there is a consensus, but they only do so by ignoring a huge amount of literature and standing on what I think are spurious methodological grounds."
He said that conflict-climate scholars should study climate-vulnerable places where there has been no conflict as well as war zones. "If you go study in Costa Rica or Greenland, for example, then you will find a different correlation. And it will make the case as well."
"I don't think there's anything novel or particularly unusual in [the new paper]," says Simon Dalby, a professor of politics and climate change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. "The focus on Africa—Africa, Africa, Africa, Africa—has been noted for years by those of us tracking this. And the 'street lighting' point is well taken. Kenya is easier to get into for lots of folks doing the research, who are mostly white-skinned Northerners who speak English," he says.
Dalby takes something of a middle ground on the dispute. Going back to the 1990s, he says, a body of literature has "made it clear that environmental change might—in some complicated series of circumstances—lead to conflict, but it was the intervening circumstances that really mattered."
Another researcher who has harped on the focus on Africa is Solomon Hsiang, an economist and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. In 2013, he and his colleagues noted the preponderance of Africa-focused research in a now-famous study that argued there was an empirical link between conflict and climate change. For every change of a standard deviation in temperature or rainfall, he and his colleagues found that the chance of violent conflict between groups rose by 14 percent.
"There is nothing really surprising or new in this study," he said in an email. "Studying conflict-prone regions isn't a problem, it's what you would expect. Nobody is studying Ebola outbreaks by studying why Ebola is not breaking out in cafés in Sydney today, we study what happened in West Africa when there was an actual event."
Hsiang also lambasted the article's method of analyzing the literature as a whole to claim that researchers "[overstate] the links between" conflict and climate change.
"The biggest issue with the study is that they strongly insinuate there is some kind of bias boogeyman in the research field without actually showing that anybody else who came before made an error or demonstrating how their idea could affect findings in the field," he told me. "They are vague and imprecise about their critique of prior work, without identifying which actual findings they are overturning or replicating anybody's work. Instead, they simply allude to an aroma of a problem in the research field, which sows doubt without providing actual evidence."
The article itself appears to back off its claims by the end of the paper, saying that its findings are not intended to discredit any one researcher or study. "We are not saying that the correlations are invalid or invaluable, nor are we accusing any studies or authors who have focused on specific regions," Ide told me. But the paper nonetheless claims that the conflict-climate link is overstated.
Chalecki, the University of Nebraska political scientist, also finds the paper's focus odd. It makes sense to study places where there is war, she says: "Violence isn't an inherent condition in domestic politics or international politics. We don't need to explain peace. It's conflict, it's war, that we need to explain."
She also wonders if the "streetlight effect" that preoccupied the authors was simply a tendency of academia, since authors tend to cite prior work on a topic. Academics focus on war zones because it matters how the war starts, she says. "In terms of policy-relevant research, I don't think there is anything in this article that might help a country or region offset climate change," she says. "If I'm talking to an undersecretary of defense, or a policy maker, they're gonna look at this [paper] and say ... what does this even mean?"
"I thought it was a weird article," says Greg Petrow, another political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who specializes in quantitative methods. He says the paper—which focuses on sampling bias in the field—suffered from sampling bias itself.
"They're not really directly assessing what they want to be assessing. They're trying to assess sampling bias, but they're looking at the sampling as a dependent variable. They're actually looking at publication bias as an independent variable," he says. There are papers that study publication bias, he added, but they don't cite or refer to them.
For Ide's part, the paper shows how much more research on the topic can still be done. "I was a bit surprised that even within American studies, there's not really a focus on Latin America, basically," he said. "You can be concerned about Iraq, Syria, or India because of geopolitical relevance—but why not look for [climate-related conflict] in Mexico, or Honduras, or Brazil? Because that would have much sharper consequences for the United States."
And Dalby, the political scientist, tried to take a broader view of the dispute—and the climatic upheaval that could come later this century. "Looking for these empirical connections is all very well and good," he told me, "but if you're looking for the causes of climate change, it's us—the overconsuming, fossil-fuel-burning North and West. If you want to get serious about climate change, worrying about the small-scale details of conflicts in Africa is missing the point. It's us."
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 11:48 AM PST
We are in the throes of the "emo revival," apparently. It's a term that's applied both to newer bands embodying the ethos of the genre—heartfelt, with punk roots—and to the wave of 2000s nostalgia among Millennials. This nostalgia has led to emo-themed dance nights around the U.S., new music, and tours from bands like Brand New, The Starting Line, and Mae.
But in the early 2000s, as emo broke into the mainstream, the "icon," the "breakout star," the "poster boy" of the genre was Chris Carrabba, with his band Dashboard Confessional. Though the emo label got applied to many different kinds of music—clever pop punk, angsty hardcore, proto-indie acoustic—somehow Carrabba and his strummy eager singalongs became the symbol of the genre. As the critic Andy Greenwald put it in his book Nothing Feels Good: "Love for Dashboard Confessional spread across the country in 2001 and 2002 like mono in the '50s: an intimate interaction between mouthy teenagers."
On Friday, Dashboard Confessional released their first album in almost nine years, Crooked Shadows. The Atlantic's Julie Beck and Caroline Mimbs Nyce discuss the band's revival, and how it compares to Carrabba's classic sound.
Julie Beck: There's something so refreshing and soothing about a Dashboard Confessional song. Turning on one of their old albums feels to me like putting aloe on a sunburn. It's partly nostalgia, I know, but there really is something special about the lack of artifice, the wholehearted commitment to a feeling that Carrabba gives his songs. He keeps his lyrics simple and honest for the most part, never hiding behind a smokescreen of cool, but he knows just the right details and turns of phrase to use to bring a moment to life, to make the specific feel universal. There's a reason Dashboard Confessional concerts were famously singalongs—the songs felt like a shared experience.
"Vindicated" and "Hands Down" are probably Dashboard's most iconic songs, and for good reason, but if I were to point to one song that sums up what the band was at its best, it would probably be "The Brilliant Dance," off the second album. That was my favorite, anyway. It was melodramatic but sweet, and grounded in finely drawn images and observations. "Measuring your minutes by a clock that's blinking eights" is a line that's stuck with me for years.
Caroline, you and I used to be those teenagers who caught the emo bug like mono, and I'm so excited to discuss this album with you. But first—what was it about Dashboard back in the day that felt special to you? What's your favorite song?
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: I want to begin by disclosing that I once photoshopped the following words onto a black-and-white photo of myself: "Youth's the most unfaithful mistress / Still we forge ahead to miss her." And used it as my MySpace default photo. These lyrics are from the title track of Dashboard's debut album, The Swiss Army Romance. And they summarize a lot of what Dashboard was for me: a perfect reflection of how much it can suck to be a teenager, especially when you don't want to be a teen anymore.
Accordingly, my favorite song was "The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most," in which Carrabba describes someone who, despite seeming fine on the outside, is wrecked with inner turmoil. This idea comes up a lot in Dashboard's early work. It's also one of the painful realities of teendom: When you're still learning how to express yourself, it's easy to feel bottled up inside. But in "Places," Carrabba makes it okay to drop the facade: "This is one time / That you can't fake it hard enough to please everyone / Or anyone at all." The song starts off melancholic and gradually builds; by the final chorus, Carrabba is screaming the words. I can remember so vividly screaming along with him.
But enough about the Dashboard of yesteryear. It's 2018, and they're back. How are you feeling about the new record?
Beck: The first single, and album opener, "We Fight," is a shouty anthem that reminds me a little of "Don't Wait"—the first track off the 2006 album Dusk and Summer. Both have belted choruses and grand, sweeping full-band arrangements. But "Don't Wait" has a memorable hook, and "We Fight" really … doesn't. The lyrics are vague inspirational platitudes— "We never learned to keep our voices down / No, we only learned to shout / So we fight our way in /And we fight our way out"—that feel bloodless compared to the evocative imagery that was once the hallmark of a Dashboard song. "We Fight" sounds like Imagine Dragons gone emo, and for me, it was not a promising start.
Nyce: My first reaction was, "Is this really Dashboard?" Musically, it's not dissimilar from the band's earlier pop-rock ventures. But lyrically, it could not be more different. Carrabba sounds like some sort of community organizer for dispirited youths, here to reassure them things will get better. "There's still a kid somewhere that needs to hear this," he sings, "that somebody cares, that somebody knows." There's merit in the messaging, but the delivery falls a little flat—especially coming from the prince of emo, so often known for assuring us of the opposite. Not to split hairs, but your favorite song—2001's "The Brilliant Dance"—features a narrator realizing that "nobody cares at all," sung with a classic Carrabba howl. One could argue that "We Fight" is future-Carrabba speaking to that person.
That all being said, it's very catchy. And it may well be the first Dashboard Confessional song that's fit for a congressional reelection campaign.
Beck: The Carrabba howl is still good! This album strikes me as Dashboard Confessional's attempt at stadium rock—many of the songs are way more bombastic than even the full-band stuff on previous albums. But I think the places where the album deviates from this through line are more interesting and, often, more successful.
One thing I'm wrestling with is that you and I are obviously coming to this album as big fans of the band's old work. I don't want to be the sort of grump who just wants more of the same, and faults the band for trying to grow and change. But at the same time, this is essentially a comeback album that's surfing into the world on the wave of good feeling that fans have for a band they loved in their youth. So I want to evaluate it on its own merits, but I can't help but think of the new music in terms of what it means for Dashboard's overall legacy.
Nyce: By no means should Carrabba be condemned to a lifetime of teenage misery. After all, it's been nearly 20 years since the band's debut. It's hard to ask him to continue to carry the baton of adolescent angst when he's a married man in his 40s.
In a way, it's fitting that this album comes now. Dashboard's third full-length album, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, turns 15 later this year. AMAMABAS (as it used to be called on the DC messaging boards—yes, I was that teen) is the first record that really shows off Carrabba's range. AMAMABAS introduced us to Carrabba as more than the guy who just got dumped. The lead single, the inimitable "Hands Down," is arguably the first happy song on a Dashboard record. Back in 2003, The New York Times called it "a sly rejoinder to listeners who dismiss Mr. Carrabba as a one-dimensional whiner peddling second-hand heartbreak."
The subsequent albums add even more dimensions, hitting more pop-rock notes. This latest album seems to build on the most recent one, Alter the Ending. Crooked Shadows feels very of-the-moment. (Is that a millennial whoop I hear on the album's title track?) But I worry some of the pithier elements of his earlier music—like winking asides about how he's going to "get some" on "Hands Down"—have been lost here. Some of the lyrical observations are a little bubblegum for my taste. Still, I could see my teenage self blasting a few of the later tracks.
Beck: I definitely agree that Crooked Shadows seems to follow on the heels of Alter the Ending (which I didn't think was their best work either), but it turns up the rock dial even more. And I just don't think it works very well. It doesn't help that many of the Imagine Dragons–esque numbers are also lyrically limp—you get choruses like "I'm always going to be about us" or "We're going to be all right." It feels like taking the broadest generalities and trying to make them specifically relatable, which is the inverse of what Dashboard was good at. AMAMABAS was definitely their breakout hit, like you said, but the first two albums—The Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most—had more of a rawness to them that felt particularly intimate, and that intimacy is what's missing for me on much of Crooked Shadows.
Of the stadium rock numbers, I like "Catch You" the best—it's got a boppy little hook. But I much prefer the songs that aren't aiming to fill an arena. The lick on "Heart Beat Here" is classic Dashboard, infused with just a bit of folk energy that may be leftover from Twin Forks—the Americana band that Carrabba has fronted since 2011.
But we need to talk about "Belong"—the collaboration with the EDM DJ group Cash Cash. It's easily the most jarring song. Dashboard gone dance pop is not something I ever thought I'd live to hear. But the more I listen to it the more it honestly works for me! Do you think I'm insane?
Nyce: I'm certainly not one to judge. Cash Cash's 2013 "Take Me Home," featuring Bebe Rexha, was a mainstay of my guilty pleasures playlist for longer than I care to admit. It's interesting to see the group's take on Dashboard. In a way, "Belong" is an electronic-infused "Hands Down" for the Coachella set. It's bouncy and optimistic, despite being a bit simplistic as far as love narratives go. The music video for the track features a Dashboard fangirl obsessing over Carrabba. At one point, she begins to project her fantasies onto him, literally, using a mannequin and projector. I was slightly offended, but, to employ that Twitter cliche, I feel seen.
Also, I definitely felt the folk undertones you're describing with "Heart Beat Here." It reminded me a little of The Lumineers' "Ho Hey." Overall, this isn't my favorite Dashboard record, but it was never going to be. I've grown up and so has the band: We're both a lot less angst-ridden. Like you, I wish the earlier songs had more bite, but I found some relief on the latter half of the album.
Beck: It's true—when I was younger I loved Dashboard with the unbridled fervor only a teen can, and this was always going to be a different sort of experience. Just when I was ready to write Crooked Shadows off as a bit of a let-down—some fun moments, sure, but nothing that spoke to me in that distinctly Dashboard way—the album finishes with a perfect, lovely gem of a song. "Just What To Say" (featuring Chrissy Costanza) is Carrabba at his best, delicately tracing the contours of a familiar feeling, and it's truly moving. His voice is quiet and wavers a little as he delivers an unadorned lament of trying and falling short:
This is not the teen angst of the old Dashboard; it's a heavy, adult melancholy, and it sits with you. "Just What To Say" is the best song on the album, and it proves that Carrabba does still have something to say.
Nyce: That stanza stood out to me as well—the line about canceling plans is an interesting foil to his earlier lyrics about being lonely in an empty apartment. The Carrabba of yesteryear felt isolated; the older one isolates himself. Fans of the older stuff will certainly feel at home with that track. I also enjoyed the mellower "Open My Eyes," featuring Lindsey Stirling. Like you, I preferred the latter half over the more stadium-rock tracks.
I'd note this album is relatively short, with only nine songs and around 30 minutes of running time. Here's one question that I'm still torn on: Is this emo?
Beck: Wow. You're really asking the hard questions here. I don't … know. Emo was always such a vague and wide-ranging label (and one many emo bands wouldn't use to describe themselves). It was sort of like beauty (in the eye of the beholder) or porn (you knew it when you saw it). For me, the genre feels very bounded in time, a certain quality distinctive to the late '90s and 2000s. Even the contemporary bands and singers I like who have been dubbed part of the emo revival—Julien Baker, Hop Along—don't feel emo to me. Influenced by the genre, sure, but I think the door to that era shut a while ago.
By this logic the new Dashboard album poses a taxonomic conundrum—Carrabba's voice still has that emo flavor, and Dashboard Confessional is the canonical emo band, but the new songs feel very modern. The band seems to be aiming at something a little different with this album. So I'm going to say no. Not quite emo.
If you had to pick, would you say Crooked Shadows is emo or no?
Nyce: I'd have to say no. With this album, Dashboard drifts further from that genre it came to define. And I'm not so sure that plays to Carrabba's strengths. Still, Crooked Shadows has its moments, even if it doesn't force the kind of introspection their earlier records do.
I'm planning on attending the band's Crooked Shadows tour this spring, and am very interested in how these new songs mesh with the old ones on a set list. One could imagine it being a very disjointed experience.
Beck: I know you are—I'm going with you! It might end up being a strange mismash of the old and the new, but Dashboard has always been great live, because Carrabba treats the audience with such earnest devotion. I'm really looking forward to it, and just so you know, I am absolutely, positively 100 percent going to cry.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 07:51 AM PST
Shortly before the election of 1860, a man came upon a plantation near Marlin, Texas, some 20 miles southeast of Waco. Though nobody knew who he was, the plantation owner took him in as a guest. The stranger paid close attention to how the enslaved people working on the plantation were treated—how they subsisted on a weekly ration of "four pounds of meat and a peck of meal," how they were whipped and sometimes sold, resulting in the tearing apart of families. Eventually, the stranger said goodbye and went on his way, but a little while later he wrote a letter to the plantation owner, informing him he would soon have to free his slaves—"that everybody was going to have to, that the North was going to see to it." The stranger told the owner to go into the room where he'd slept, and see where he'd carved his name into the headrest. And when the slaveholder went and looked, he saw the name: "A. Lincoln."
At least that's what happened according to Bob Maynard, who was born a slave and recounted the story as an old man in an interview with an employee of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), a New Deal program created to put writers to work and enrich American culture. In 1936, the FWP began collecting interviews with former slaves, amassing thousands of pages of oral histories which, though often filtered through the racism of white interviewers and their supervisors, provide an invaluable snapshot of how more than 2,000 survivors of slavery lived and thought.
Nearly 40 of those interviewed claimed Abraham Lincoln visited their plantation shortly before or during the Civil War. They said he came in disguise as a beggar or a peddler, bummed free meals off his unsuspecting white hosts, snooped around to find out what slavery was like, and told the slaves they would soon be free.
The stories weren't limited to one corner of the South. Lincoln didn't just visit central Texas; he also visited the Mississippi Delta, the Kentucky Pennyroyal, and the Georgia Piedmont. In fact, as late as the 1980s, African Americans in the South Carolina Sea Islands claimed that Lincoln traveled there in 1863 to announce the Emancipation Proclamation in person; some even said they knew the exact tree under which he stood.
Though there's no evidence Lincoln actually made any of these incognito visits to the South—and ample documentation to suggest these visits were wholly fictitious—it's important that many former slaves believed he did. Today, historical debates over emancipation often focus on whether it came from the top down or the bottom up—did Lincoln free the slaves, or did the slaves free themselves? But the stories of Lincoln coming down South suggest many freedpeople didn't see this as an either/or question.
Did they need Lincoln? Sure. But emancipation wasn't something Lincoln could just decree from on high. He had to come down South and get his hands dirty. Some even described him as taking on the guise of the trickster popular in black folklore, a sort of Brer Rabbit in a top hat. When former slaves claimed Lincoln had paid them a visit, they weren't just inserting a beloved president into their story—they were inserting themselves into his story.
African Americans were understandably wary of associating Lincoln too closely with their emancipation. Doing so, after all, implied freedom was a gift from a benevolent white man that could be easily taken away. Indeed, the former slave Charity Austin recounted that, when Lincoln was assassinated, her owner said Lincoln's death meant they were slaves again, and he kept the ruse up for a year, making them work in black mourning cloth. In 1908, some 30 years before the Federal Writers' Project began interviewing former slaves, a white mob in Springfield, Illinois, enraged by recent crimes allegedly committed by African Americans, lynched two black men and burned down black homes and black-owned businesses, finally driving roughly 2,000 African Americans out of Lincoln's hometown. The mob shouted: "Lincoln freed you, we'll show you where you belong."
African Americans were not foolish enough to think their welfare would be the utmost concern of a white politician. As Frederick Douglass said, Lincoln "was preeminently the white man's President," and they were "at best only his step-children." But this didn't mean Lincoln couldn't be a useful ally, especially if his own self-interest aligned with theirs.
In the stories of Lincoln coming down South, he was rarely concerned first and foremost with the welfare of black people. In one story, for example, his animosity towards the slaveholding class was seemingly motivated by a perceived insult rather than a moral opposition to slavery. Lincoln had supposedly visited a plantation in Jefferson County, Arkansas, asking for work. The owner replied that he'd talk to him once he'd had dinner—without inviting the stranger to eat with him. As J. T. Tims, a former slave, explained, his owner "didn't say, 'Come to dinner,' and didn't say nothin' 'bout, 'Have dinner.' Just said, 'Wait till I go eat my dinner.'" And when he finished eating, he found the stranger had "changed his clothes and everything" and was looking over the slaveholder's business papers and account books. The stranger whom the slaveholder had treated like poor "white trash" had revealed himself to be a powerful man.
It didn't bother African Americans if Lincoln emancipated them only to punish the white South. They didn't need him to be a saint. But they also knew he wasn't a king; he couldn't just make emancipation happen on his own. If the enslaved people of the South needed Lincoln, then he needed them too.
And so in the stories told by freedpeople, there's a Lincoln who worked with slaves to end slavery. He attended nightly prayer meetings held by slaves in secret. He asked them what their lives were like and what they needed from him. After the war broke out, he encouraged slaves to join the "Yankee army" and "fight for your freedom." And at the war's end, according to one account, Lincoln gathered up all the Confederate money in Georgia in a big pile at the state capitol and asked the oldest black man there to set it on fire.
Lincoln didn't just work with African Americans; he became a familiar figure in black folklore. Like Brer Rabbit, and indeed like most slaves, the Lincoln in these stories often had to resort to guile and deception in order to get what he wanted. But he also had a certain degree of latitude that wasn't possible in slavery, allowing survivors of slavery to vicariously enjoy his exploits.
In one account, for example, Lincoln, disguised as a peddler, came upon some white women sitting on a porch in North Carolina. He looked so hot and tired that one of the women, Miss Fanny, brought him a "cool drink of milk." He had a drink and then asked Miss Fanny how many slaves they had, how many of their men were fighting for the Confederacy, and finally what they thought of "Mistah Abraham Lincoln." At that point the plantation mistress, Miss Virginia, declared no one was to speak that man's name in her presence, and she would shoot him if he ever set foot on her property. "Maybe he ain' so bad," her guest said, chuckling. A few weeks later, Miss Fanny received a letter from Lincoln revealing himself to have been the peddler, thanking her "for de res' on her shady po'ch and de cool glass of milk."
Though the story didn't explicitly involve emancipation, by making a fool out of white slaveholders Lincoln presaged the ultimate downfall of the southern slaveocracy. But that wasn't all. By behaving like a trickster from black folklore, Lincoln was signaling—or rather, black storytellers were signaling—his solidarity with African Americans.
To that end, Lincoln also often duped his white hosts into giving him food. In Perry, Georgia, he enjoyed some "chicken hash and batter cakes and dried venison." In Raleigh, North Carolina, he had a rather enormous breakfast of ham and gravy, biscuits and grits, "poached eggs on toast, coffee and tea," and waffles with "honey and maple syrup." Food was often a focus for black trickster characters like John, Brer Rabbit, and Aunt Nancy; after all, slaves frequently had to cheat and steal from their enslavers in order to get enough food to survive. It was fitting, therefore, that when Lincoln returned to Perry, Georgia, to emancipate the slaves, he did so by allegedly urging them to raid the plantation smokehouse: "Help yourselves; take what you need; cook yourselves a good meal!" In the stories told by former slaves, emancipation wasn't just an abstract matter of rights—it meant seizing, at long last, the product of their labor.
Of course, these stories about Lincoln were told within a specific historical context. The people interviewing the former slaves were employees of the federal government, and most of them were white. Many were members of groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which valorized the Lost Cause. Some were even descendants of folks who owned the very people they were interviewing. Survivors of slavery had every reason to believe their white interviewers would present their stories in a way that bolstered white supremacy. And telling a quaint story about Abraham Lincoln was a clever (and relatively safe) way to push back against that.
Using Lincoln was especially powerful at a time when many Americans had co-opted Lincoln as an icon of white supremacy. The 1915 blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation, in addition to denouncing emancipation and venerating the Klan, depicted Lincoln as an enemy of the radical abolitionists and suggested that, had he lived, he would have supported immediate reunion with the South at the expense of black civil rights.
In general, white Americans celebrated Lincoln in a way that made the Civil War a story about white people. They spoke of Lincoln in the same breath as Robert E. Lee, considering them both American heroes. There was a popular story that Lincoln had comforted a dying Confederate prisoner who didn't know who he was, and that when Lincoln derided his recent address at Gettysburg, the dying rebel assured him they were "beautiful, broad words" which reminded everyone they were "not Northern or Southern, but American."
Such a sentimental reunion of North and South was, of course, a primarily white affair. And when African Americans were included in Lincoln's story, it was only in a subservient role.
This was not how survivors of slavery understood their relationship to Lincoln. He wasn't far-off and aloof; he worked hand-in-hand with black folk. He listened to the slaves' stories. He made fools out of slaveholders and urged black people to fight. As Charlie Davenport remembered, Lincoln came through Mississippi "rantin' an' a-preachin' 'bout us bein' his black brothers."
Perhaps they weren't related by blood—perhaps he was only a stepfather. But they were still kin. At a time when many Americans were remaking Lincoln into a symbol of white supremacy and erasing black people from the story of the Civil War altogether, survivors of slavery were saying, through their stories of Lincoln coming down South, that they could not be erased. They wouldn't be forgotten. They'd been there the whole time.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:42 PM PST
An old legal anecdote—attributed to such legal notables as Mae West and the Earl of Birkenhead—depicts a frustrated judge asking an obstreperous lawyer, "Are you displaying contempt of court?"
"No, your honor," the advocate responds. "I am trying to conceal it."
I sometimes think simple politeness—a willingness to conceal contempt for other parties, judges, and even law itself—is all that differentiates true lawyers from thugs in contrast-collar shirts. But like other areas of public etiquette, this habitual courtesy is showing strain in the era of Donald Trump.
Trump likes to denounce and threaten courts that thwart his will. But the political threat to courts did not begin with Trump and will not end when he is gone. It is part of a civic rot that is eating at the vitals of our democracy, and it is getting worse.
As one example, imagine you are a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Plaintiffs belonging to your old political party ask you, on flimsy legal grounds, to block a lower court order.
Meanwhile, those plaintiffs announce they don't plan to obey the lower court order no matter what you decide.
Are they even trying to conceal their contempt for courts—and, for that matter, for you?
That was the litigation tactic adopted by Michael Turzai and Joseph Scarnati, two Republicans who are respectively the speaker of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives and the President of the Pennsylvania State Senate, in an emergency stay application filed with Justice Samuel Alito. The application asked Alito to block a decision of Pennsylvania's State Supreme Court. That decision—rendered as an order on January 22 and explained in a lengthy opinion on Thursday—invalidated the system of U.S. House districts approved by the Republican legislature for election of members of the U.S. House next fall.
The state court held that the partisan nature of the district plan violated the Pennsylvania Constitution's requirement of "free and equal" elections. The court ordered the legislature to draw up a new congressional district plan in time for the congressional elections this November.
Every first-year law student knows federal courts have no authority to overrule a state's Supreme Court about what that state's constitution means. "[W]hile a state court's construction of a state constitution would ordinarily not be this Court's concern," the stay application said, "where a state court's purported interpretation is not interpretation at all, but rank legislation at the expense of the branch of state government charged with legislation under federal law, this court is both empowered and duty-bound to intervene."
The reference to "federal law" is special, because the petition was asking the Supreme Court to ignore a case it decided a mere three years ago. In that earlier case, Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Court, 5-4, indicated that unless Congress forbade it, states had the power to set up congressional redistricting under their own constitutional systems. The Arizona legislature's Republican majority had argued that a constitutional provision stating that "the times, places, and manners" of holding congressional elections shall be set by state legislatures at their sole discretion, regardless of the provisions of their state constitutions. The court's majority disagreed: "Nothing in [the Time, Place, and Manner] Clause instructs, nor has this Court ever held, that a state legislature may prescribe regulations on the time, place, and manner of holding federal elections in defiance of provisions of the State's constitution."
In general, the Pennsylvania officials' argument was so weak that it hardly seemed like a legal argument at all. Those of a cynical turn of mind might read it as, "we know you're not supposed to, but we are putting 'federal law' in italics, bro, because we really really need you to help us out—because otherwise we might lose as many as six House seats.'"
Alito rejected the application on his own, without referring it to the full court; as Amy Howe noted in SCOTUSblog, this "strongly suggests that he did not view the case as an even remotely close call."
Astonishingly, as Alito was pondering the request to throw the U.S. Supreme Court under the bus, Senate President Scarnati was also informing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that he had no intention of obeying its stupid order anyway. "In light of the unconstitutionality of the Court's Orders and the Court's plain intent to usurp the General Assembly's constitutionally delegated role of drafting Pennsylvania's congressional districting plan," Scarnati's lawyer wrote to the Pennsylvania justices, "Senator Scarnati will not be turning over any data identified in the Court's Orders."
Appellate lawyers generally consider "I don't have to obey no stinking order" a high-risk argument strategy. It tends to leave any judge with an ever-so-slightly jaundiced view of the party invoking it.
The optics get worse when that claim is coupled with the venerable "you didn't do what we wanted so we will get you thrown off the bench" move, last seriously employed at the federal level in the failed 1804 impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase. Nonetheless, immediately after Alito rejected the GOP application, Republican State Representative Cris Dush released a memo to his fellow legislators demanding the impeachment of the five members of the state court (all Democrats) who voted in the majority. Because the decision "blatantly and clearly contradicts the plain language of the Pennsylvania Constitution," Dush said, the offending justices have "engaged in misbehavior in the office."
Other Pennsylvania Republicans, meanwhile, filed a challenge to two of the justices' participation, alleging that they had expressed opposition to partisan gerrymandering, and thus are tainted by bias.
In short, Pennsylvania is in the middle of a state constitutional crisis, and one side of the dispute is willing to threaten the independence of the state's courts for the chance at six extra House seats.
Readers in North Carolina may find the fracas oddly familiar-sounding. After Republicans gained control of the legislature there in 2011, state courts blocked a number of their conservative innovations, including an attempt to abolish teacher tenure and a measure to bar the state's Democratic governor from appointing a majority on local election boards.
The Republican legislative majority struck back. It has done away with the state's public financing system for judicial elections (thus making candidates dependent on big donors), and has voted to require every judicial candidate to run under a partisan label (thus making judges explicitly partisan). It also abolished the party primaries for judicial office—meaning that incumbents would face multiple challengers rather than one strong one. When vacancies occurred on the state court of appeals, legislators "unpacked" the court, abolishing the open seats, to prevent the Democratic governor from appointing new judges.
The Republicans then offered redrawn judicial district maps that would have made the bench radically whiter and redder. When these ran into heavy weather, they canceled this year's judicial elections altogether. They proposed making every judge run for re-election every two years. They are now mulling a plan to abolish judicial elections altogether, so that the legislative majority can name an all-Republican pool of candidates for every judgeship in the state. In other words, one way or another, the state courts are to be annexed to the power of the Republican legislative majority.
This partisan assault on the courts is only the tip of a nationwide spear—Republican efforts to purge and remodel state courts to make sure they follow the party's line. A report issued February 6 by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University outlines 31 measures pending in 14 state legislatures designed to weaken state court independence by bringing selection more closely under partisan control, making impeachment and removal easier, or permitting legislatures to override adverse court decisions.
It doesn't take the prophet Daniel to read what Republicans are writing on courthouse walls. The independent judiciary is all very well, until it gets in the way of one-party rule.
What did Justice Alito think when he read that emergency stay application? At some point, wouldn't any judge, no matter of which party, have to wonder: What happens when they have crushed the last independent union, muzzled the last critical news medium, gerrymandered the last competitive district, suppressed the last adverse voting bloc, purged the last non-partisan law enforcement agency, fired the last independent prosecutor, neutered the last non-conforming state court?
Surely ... surely, after all that, they wouldn't come for us?
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST
"Humor can be dissected, as a frog can," E. B. White wrote, "but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind." True to form, philosophers, scientists, and certain left-brained comedians have been scrutinizing humor's innards for centuries, seeking a serious understanding of what makes things funny.
According to one scholarly definition, something is humorous if people cognitively appraise it as funny, if it creates "the positive emotion of amusement," or if it produces laughter. But while the average adult laughs 18 times a day,  laughter isn't a reliable indicator. Researchers found only 10 to 20 percent of remarks that prompted laughter to be remotely funny. 
One general theory, put forth by a decidedly non-zany murderers' row of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, and Baudelaire, holds that we are amused when we are made to feel superior to others. Freud, for his part, suggested that forbidden things are hilarious (because humor is a pressure valve for repressive psychic energy). Yet another approach, pioneered by Kant and Schopenhauer and affirmed by Henny Youngman, sees humor as arising from incongruity: When conventions are undermined by an absurd situation, we're tickled.
But these so-called incongruity, superiority, and relief theories have some holes. As Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, of the University of Colorado at Boulder's Humor Research Lab (hurl), note, "Unintentionally killing a loved one would be incongruous, assert superiority, and release repressed aggressive tension, but is unlikely to be funny." McGraw and Warren's own "benign-violation theory" suggests that to be funny, "a situation must be appraised as a violation" and also "as benign." They list a range of possibilities, "including violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)"—all of which have comic potential, provided they don't seem threatening. 
Why does humor exist in the first place? In "Sex, Aggression, and Humour: Responses to Unicycling" (one of the greatest titles ever to come out of academe), a British researcher proposed that humor may be a by-product of male hormonal aggression, a hypothesis inspired by the overwhelming percentage of men who mocked him while he was out riding his unicycle. (Women were much more supportive.) He conceded, however, that further research was needed: "Direct endocrine confirmation would require studies not available to a unicyclist." 
A more sweeping theory posits that humor is an evolutionary adaptation that has promoted human survival by rewarding our relatively feeble minds for distinguishing true from false, right from wrong, and harmless from dangerous over countless harrowing and deeply confusing centuries. 
Where do things go from here? Canadian and Australian researchers are working on a "quantum theory of humor,"  computer scientists are exploring whether artificial intelligence can recognize and create funny images,  and an army of Silicon Valley technologists and moonlighting comedy writers is striving to build authentically funny chatbots. In the meantime, we may as well enjoy what we enjoy, and dodge the flying frog guts as best we can.
 Martin and Kuiper, "Daily Occurrence of Laughter" (Humor, Jan. 1999)
 Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Viking, 2000)
 McGraw and Warren, "Benign Violations" (Psychological Science, Aug. 2010)
 Shuster, "Sex, Aggression, and Humour" (BMJ, Dec. 2007)
 Hurley et al., Inside Jokes (MIT, 2011)
 Gabora and Kitto, "Toward a Quantum Theory of Humor" (Frontiers in Physics, Jan. 2017)
 Chandrasekaran et al., "We Are Humor Beings" (arXiv, May 2016)
This article appears in the March 2018 print edition with the headline "Funny How?"
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