The gradual radicalization of Douglas McAuthur McCain, we're told, is reflected in his social-media timelines. This week, NBC News reported that McCain, a 33-year-old from Minneapolis and San Diego, had become the first American to die in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in clashes with other rebel fighters. (On Thursday, Fox News reported that a second American from Minneapolis may have been killed while fighting for ISIS in the same battle.)
"Until early last year, a Twitter account linked to McCain included mostly mundane messages to friends about basketball—how the Lakers suck, comments about the Chicago Bulls—with only a few messages about Allah or Islam," NBC noted. "Then the account went silent for more than a year." McCain, who converted to Islam in 2004 and also appears to have used networks like Facebook and MySpace, fired up his feed again in mid-May—around the time that ISIS was publicizing its control over the Syrian city of Raqqa with public executions, and just weeks before the group launched its military offensive in northern Iraq.
This time, his tweets revolved around religion, and he "appeared to strike up online friendships with several self-proclaimed jihadis." He retweeted messages encouraging others to "pray for ISIS" and check out a speech by an ISIS spokesman. On Twitter, he reportedly went by the name Duale Khalid, or @iamthetooth.
The insights you can derive from a person's online presence are limited and imperfect at best. We know little, for instance, about the life McCain led and the people he met between social-media postings.
Still, McCain's activity on Twitter does reveal a key recruiting channel for ISIS. U.S. officials estimate that dozens of Americans and thousands of foreigners have joined militant groups in Syria. But those statistics don't include the untold number of sympathizers who help spread the messages of groups like ISIS online—the "nodes in a sophisticated Islamic State public affairs operation that amplifies execution videos along with water restoration projects aimed at winning hearts and minds," as Alex Horton recently put it after engaging in a bizarre Twitter discussion about Robin Williams's death with an ISIS supporter in Europe.
On Twitter, McCain had just over 200 followers. He was following fewer than 200 people. He was hardly at the center of ISIS propaganda efforts. But he seems to have been a node.
One of the paradoxes of ISIS is that it occasionally relies on modern means to achieve antiquated ends: the re-establishment of a caliphate that disappeared centuries ago. The group's slick and sophisticated social-media strategy has received renewed attention following the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, which near-instantaneously made headlines after a video of the killing was posted to YouTube and buoyed by an orchestrated pro-ISIS hashtag campaign. Twitter and YouTube have been scrambling to remove accounts linked to the group, forcing members to decamp, at least temporarily, to obscure open-source or decentralized networks like Friendica, Diaspora, and JustPaste.it.
Broadly speaking, ISIS is trying to reach three distinct audiences online. The first is local populations in Syria and Iraq (albeit a small portion of them, given limited Internet access), whom it either seeks to intimidate with horror stories or charm with tales of good works. The second is enemies in the West and elsewhere, whom it hopes to inform of its might, goals, and grievances. And the third is potential sympathizers around the world, whom it aims to consult, inspire, and recruit.
ISIS accomplishes some of these goals by gaming social networks. On Twitter and Instagram, it hijacks trending hashtags on topics ranging from British soccer to California earthquakes to disseminate its messages. Writing in The Atlantic in June, J.M. Berger exposed how one app essentially turned users into Twitter spambots in the service of the social-media strategists at ISIS headquarters.
But the group has also nurtured genuine, hyperactive communities of supporters online. These are sometimes nested within larger social networks and yet largely walled off from them.
In a June study on foreign fighters in Syria, Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, explored the role social media plays in helping jihadist groups in Syria fundraise and recruit members, noting that "potential foreign fighters are interconnected within self-selected bubbles, and are isolated from anything outside"—just as social media has facilitated the rise of ideological echo chambers elsewhere on the web.
To quantify the phenomenon, the Soufan Group chose a day in May 2014 and compared discussion of the Syrian war on Twitter among Syria experts on the one hand, and followers of accounts and hashtags popular with foreign fighters on the other. It's a measure that is more impressionistic than scientific, but the results are still compelling. The Syria experts generated 10,700 posts, with 3,407 reposts and 173 replies. The Syria 'fighters,' by contrast, produced 308 posts, with 9,398 reposts and 11,609 replies.
"This shows two things: first, the huge divergence in the number of replies, and second the vast discrepancy in interest generated by the posts," Barrett wrote. "Fighters comment extensively on posts and send them on to many others, while experts produce far more material but very rarely comment on or disseminate other people’s work. This shows the way in which the war has created a close-knit community of supporters of extremist rebel groups that is self-reinforcing and deaf to alternative influences."
At some point this spring or summer, Douglas McCain appears to have left that close-knit online community for the real thing, traveling from the States to Syria, perhaps via Turkey.
The Soufan Group's report estimated that more than 12,000 people from 81 countries—the majority from the Arab world but also 2,500 from the West—have taken up arms in Syria since 2011, with most joining extremist factions that, relative to 'moderate' rebels, are stronger, more welcoming of foreigners who want to join a global struggle rather than a strictly Syrian one, and more likely to be at the border when new recruits enter the country. They are typically men between the ages of 18 and 29 with little to no fighting experience or connection with Syria, and some arrive via networks in various countries that assist with their travel. They are drawn to the conflict for a number of reasons. Some believe they have a religious obligation to fight and, if need be, die in defense of fellow Muslims. Others have troubled pasts and are searching for a sense of purpose and belonging. Still others are attracted to the notion of living fully in accordance with Islamic law, at least as defined by ISIS.
Whatever the motivation, ISIS uses social media to convey a romantic image of its jihad. Unlike its rival, the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which sticks to Arabic, ISIS uses multiple languages in its online outreach. (According to The New York Times, the head of ISIS’s media department is a Saudi, in part to make ISIS appear "globalized.") On sites like Twitter and Facebook, where the young people it's targeting tend to get their news about the Syrian civil war, ISIS doesn't exclusively dwell on death and destruction. It adopts an approach sometimes referred to as "jihadi cool." Here's Barrett again:
[T]here are plenty of people like the Dutch ‘jihadist’, Yilmaz, who post updates about their activities and respond to questions about what it is like to fight in Syria via Kik, Tumblr and ask.fm. The image portrayed is welcoming and reassuring and addresses the fear of the unfamiliar, for example there are many postings of fighters with pet kittens. And although there are plenty of clips available that show fighters with extremist groups, some of them foreigners, committing appalling acts of murder and repression, the general picture provided by foreign fighters of their lives in Syria suggests camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism, designed to attract their friends as well as to boost their own self-esteem.
Jihadists have for decades taken advantage of the latest media technologies to distribute their messages, quickly embracing the Internet as a means of communicating directly for the first time with the wider Muslim world. In 2006, in the early days of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, the terrorist expert Jarret Brachman chronicled al-Qaeda's "use of email, chat rooms, online magazines, cell phone videos, CD-ROMs, and even video games" to "radicalize and empower armies of new recruits by shaping their general worldview." He even wrote about a jihadist-approved web browser, akin to Internet Explorer, that was designed to achieve the "intellectual separation of jihadi visitors from the chaos of cyberspace" and alternate ideologies.
Terrorists, Bloomberg's Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote, have long used popular online platforms to "draw young people into their ideological orbit, later pulling the most dedicated recruits down into the encrypted, unindexed 'Dark Web' and then bringing them over to fight for the cause."
But ISIS has exploited the power of today's social web more effectively and enthusiastically than al-Qaeda has, and it's done so seemingly without concern about propagating a strain of extremism that alienates mainstream Muslims (this disregard is what prompted al-Qaeda and ISIS to part ways). ISIS has also demonstrated a preference for primarily spreading its message through social media rather than news outlets (with the exception of Vice)—an approach al-Qaeda hasn't always shared.
In 2011, for instance, Adam Gadahn, an American al-Qaeda propagandist, sent Osama bin Laden a letter on his proposed media strategy for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Gadahn wasn't necessarily focusing on recruitment, but his comments are still instructive when it comes to understanding the differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda. "As for the Jihadi forums," Gadahn wrote, "it is repulsive to most of the Muslims, or closed to them. It also distorts the face of al-Qa'ida, due to what you know of bigotry, the sharp tone that characterizes most of the participants in these forums. It is also biased towards (Salafists) and not any Salafist, but the Jihadi Salafist, which is just one trend of the Muslims trends. The Jihad Salafist is a small trend within a small trend." That small trend has since morphed into ISIS.
The success that jihadist movements have had on the web raises a policy question: Should governments and tech companies focus on removing and restricting access to users linked to these groups, or should they instead try to monitor those users? Or both? More concisely: Is the use of social media by jihadists and their sympathizers more of a security threat or an intelligence coup?
The U.S. government, perhaps aware of how difficult and legally complex it is to fully crack down on extremist groups online, appears to be mining these networks for intel. (The Soufan Group goes one step further, suggesting that governments, with the help of disillusioned former foreign fighters in Syria, try to access jihadist social networks, sow divisions between extremist groups, and undermine their narratives.) On Friday, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials have identified almost a dozen Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS, in part based on social-media postings.
"The F.B.I.’s psychological analysts at Quantico, Va., armed with court-approved powers, are increasingly monitoring the activities of Americans who have expressed extremist views in jihadist chat rooms and on websites," the paper reported. "It is an effort to chart their radicalization."
McCain's last tweet came on Tuesday, August 19. His account, which remained online for days after news of McCain's death broke, has since been deleted, along with many other accounts in his orbit. A number of those accounts have regenerated under new names. Online, for now at least, ISIS remains as formidable a force as ever.
The Center for Photography in Woodstock, New York, launched a new exhibit this week. It's called "The Space Between: Redefining Public and Personal in Smartphone Photography," and it considers the cultural impact of photography's new ubiquity. The core idea of the exhibit, as explained by the show's curator, the photographer and filmmaker Henry Jacobson, is that smartphones have brought a shift in the purpose—and, actually, the nature—of photography itself. "Photography has always depended on technology," Jacobson told TIME, "and every change in technology has affected the history of photography, but the smartphone, in its nature, is a device that is not for photography. It’s a device that is for communication."
Documentation to communication. If you want to see that shift in action—literally—then look no further than Hyperlapse, the Instagram-created video app that was, like "The Space Between," unveiled this week. The app uses algorithmic processing to create both tracking shots and time-lapse videos—on an iPhone. (An Android version of the app, Instagram says, could come if Android phones adapt their camera and gyroscope APIs.)
Hyperlapse is notable not just as another photography-and-video app. It's also, potentially, a leap forward in the evolution of amateur videography. Just as Instagram's filters brought sophisticated photo-processing capabilities to the average smartphone user, Hyperlapse brings sophisticated video-editing capabilities. In the past—meaning, you know, Tuesday—creating a viewer-friendly time-lapse video required expensive equipment: a Steadicam, say. Only a small handful of people had the means—or the inclination—to invest in that gear.
Hyperlapse, on the other hand, makes use of the gyroscopes that are built into iPhones. Traditional image stabilization—the kind you'd find on Final Cut and other video-editing software—requires desktop-level amounts of processing power; Instagram's engineers, however, made use of the phone's hardware to stabilize images shot on the phone. The app's algorithm is able to map from frame to frame, creating videos that, overall, appear steady to the viewer.
And that saves users time as well as money. Getting the kind of footage Hyperlapse creates used to involve a complex process of downloading footage to a computer, processing it (ideally via a pricey-and-not-always-reliable stabilizing program), and then re-exporting it. Hyperlapse has that editing—the correcting, the processing, the stuff that makes for viewable video—built in. Download the app, and all that work is done in your phone. The result of all that? Videos that won't make you dizzy or ill, but that will do what time-lapses do so well: conveying movement through time itself. Videos that document, yes, but that also communicate.
For a sample of the kind of art Hyperlapse allows you to create, check out the video above—shot by The Atlantic's video producer, Sam Price-Waldman. Sam captured the video while moving around Washington, D.C. on his feet and on his bike. And, most importantly, on his phone.
California passed a law this week that, depending on who you believe, will bring about either a drastic drop in violent crime or an increased risk of terrorism—apparently with the possibility of little in between. The law mandates that all California-sold smartphones include a “kill switch,” an anti-theft measure that allows someone to deactivate his or her phone, rendering it useless to a thief who hopes to sell it. Why is such a straightforward technology producing such extreme statements?
“It’s the phrase ‘kill switch’ that everyone has gotten excited about,” says Marc Rogers, a researcher at the mobile security company Lookout. “It’s not a technology that allows you to make magic smoke come out of your phone so it stops working.”
Even though the California law only requires a "kill switch"—which from now on I'll refer to, less threateningly, as "remote lock"—for phones sold in-state, California is a big enough market that manufacturers will probably start including it in all phones sold nationwide.
3.1 million phones were stolen in the U.S. in 2013 (many of them violently), and remote lock works in fighting this: After Apple introduced it last fall, iPhone robberies in New York dropped 19 percent, and during the same period thefts of Samsung products went up 51 percent. Larger declines in iPhone thefts have been reported in other cities.
Despite this, many telecoms opposed the mandate of remote lock until earlier this year. There was a theory as to why—wouldn’t a phone company want your phone to get stolen so that you have to buy a new one?—but it doesn't hold up to close inspection. A carrier gets a lot more money from you through a contract than when you buy a device. And the explanation that telecoms are loath to cede any of their mobile-insurance revenues might not tell the full story either.
The industry’s resistance was probably more due to a preference for the status quo. “The cellphone industry has always been pretty lightly regulated, and tends to resist almost all new forms of regulation almost as reflex,” says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. Once companies saw that the law wasn’t too demanding, most of them embraced it, even if building an effective remote-lock system can be resource-intensive.
Though most carriers and manufacturers are onboard, CTIA, the industry group that represents just about all of them, curiously is not. CTIA has, for its part, taken steps to decrease theft, educating consumers about mobile-security apps and the use of PIN codes. In a statement distributed to the press, it called the California law “unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken.” But in a less measured bit of criticism, the CTIA has suggested that remote lock might be giving hackers a way to shut down the cellphones of Defense Department officials.
Another vocal opponent of remote lock, the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, has at times taken a similar tack. In an open letter to a California legislator, the EFF cited concerns that people other than a phone’s owner would remotely lock it. Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at EFF, told Wired, “You can imagine a domestic violence situation...where someone kills [a victim’s] phone and prevents them from calling the police…It will not be a surprise when you see it being used this way.” The article was headlined “How Cops and Hackers Could Abuse California’s New Phone Kill-Switch Law,” and when it’s put like that—"hackers," "abuse," "kill"—it indeed sounds scary.
To make their point, the EFF and other critics have brought up an incident in 2011 when San Francisco’s transit system, BART, shut down cell service in its tunnels to prevent a protest. The anecdote stands as an example of how the government could shut down the communications of its own citizens, and the EFF points to the fact that the government could use remote lock if a court found it had probable cause.
The EFF is right that this is worrisome, but they might be exaggerating its applicability to the remote-lock debate. “If government wanted to do something as invasive as switching off cell coverage for an area, they’re not going to do it through handsets,” says Lookout’s Marc Rogers. It’s already been demonstrated that the government can shut down communications—that’s exactly what they did in 2011—and remote-lock isn’t going to change that.
Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the EFF, told me that the danger posed by the remote-lock law is actually that it allows the government to selectively shut down individuals' phones. "If you only look at the mass [shutdown] model, this would not seem like a technology that is likely to be abused…If, on the other hand, there are other threat models that are more surgical, more targeted, then you can start to see how it might be much more relevant," he says.
A remote-lock system isn't perfect, of course. Rogers, who has been working on anti-theft cellphone technologies for over a decade, does think it’s possible that remote lock could be hacked. “However, we live in an age when there are a lot of white-hat hackers who’ll be trying this technology for good,” he says. Of course, he advocates for the sort of caution that should accompany the rollout of any new technology.But, more generally, it’s problematic that the arguments against remote lock have widened the scope of the conversation to the extremes, invoking horror stories about the Defense Department and domestic violence. Sure, these are possibilities, but it’s already the case that millions of people are having their phones stolen, and many of these encounters are violent. If legislation hadn’t been introduced, the industry likely would’ve continued dragging its heels in solving a well-documented problem. That solution shouldn’t be resisted in the face of far more speculative concerns.
As a reminder, this is No. 9 in a series on the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which according to me deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8. We have a few more installments still to go.
When last we visited this topic, with No. 8, eight readers were offering eight complaints about the concept and execution of the system. Back in early July, with No. 3, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, replied to some preceding rounds of criticism. He is back again, with his answers to the latest crop.
I'm quoting his replies (nearly) in full, not because I think he deserves the last word on the topic—hey, it's my site, I'll get the last word myself—but because this is a hugely consequential decision for California and America, and the details of the pros and cons matter.
Below I've summarized the eight previous complaint, with excerpts from the criticisms in italics. The rest of the material is from Dan Richard. Over to him.
Criticism #1: The ridership projections are unbelievable.
This is a key issue, so let me respond in some detail. Just declaring the ridership projections “unbelievable” does not make them so.
Early ridership projections were subject of criticism. However, the new leadership team took a very different approach. Our ridership and revenue models are quite sophisticated and have been subjected to multiple tests.
First, we performed high, medium & low assessments based on sensitivity analyses. When we finished those, we arbitrarily cut estimated revenues in each case by 30% to see if the resultant values would still exceed costs. However, we’ve taken that a step further, based on recommendations from Peer Review Group and engaged in a probabilistic approach known as Monte Carlo analysis that runs a range of potential outcomes – again subjecting these to a further arbitrary 30% revenue reduction. Again, all outcomes exceed costs. We don’t believe any other infrastructure project has approached its ridership/revenue analysis in as comprehensive a fashion.
There are two external peer review groups that have reviewed this work. We further tested our model by running values through it for the northeast corridor and it accurately correlated to both historical and projected data. Finally, the federal General Accountability Office (GA) was asked by Congress to review our program; the GAO found our methodology for ridership, revenue and O&M; costs to be reasonable.
Yes, it is true that there are about 15 million annual trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air and that those trips are about evenly divided between the two modes. Those numbers are on the low-end of estimates, but generally in the ballpark. However, this view neglects to take into account all of the trips taken within the LA to SF corridor that are not complete end-to-end routes.
For instance, a college student at UC Merced may drive several times a year to visit her parents at home in San Jose, or a small businessman in Palmdale may need to check in on his Burbank branch once a week. There are roughly 100 million such intermediary trips taken on an annual basis -- virtually all of which would be made more convenient by high-speed rail. This is where a substantial amount of our ridership will come from.
While I think viewing ridership in this context largely negates the writer's argument over our projections, I would also point out that perhaps part of the reason why there aren't more trips between LA and SF is that current travel options are just not very attractive. Hours on the road or in airports appeal to virtually no one, while a quick and efficient high-speed rail trip between LA and SF will become a no-brainer for many who think such a trip is too much of a pain to make today.
By the way, our ridership numbers are based on an assumption that our fares would be 83% of a discounted airline fare, or about $86 one way (2013 dollars). Current standard LA-SF airfares are more in the range of $250 one way.
We currently have the most traveled air corridor in the country between LA and SF with 40% of the flights delayed. Experience around the world shows that HSR captures about 70% of the traffic in such corridors (the Acela shows similar splits in the Northeast).
[From previous post:] So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Because it’s faster and cheaper than flying, a more pleasant journey and more reliable in bad weather.
[A trip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?...Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly?]
Except that our program is not just high-speed rail. This is an essential point. It’s an entire rail modernization program. We’re simultaneously investing in beefing up urban and regional rail systems with strong intermodal connections. In 2030 one can go from SF to LA Union Station and take a subway to Santa Monica or a Metrolink train to Ventura, likely faster than going by car.
[Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there.]
I have to disagree. First, what does “…relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints” mean? Fresno is 80% the size of Baltimore; Bakersfield is 20% larger than Newark; Modesto is three times the size of Wilmington and Merced (which no one on the east coast has heard of), has about the same population as Trenton. Air service between the San Joaquin Valley and LA or SF is extremely limited and quite expensive (e.g., 900 bucks from Fresno to LA). A one-hour train trip can replace a three-hour drive.
[Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF...]
First of all, the first phase of our system will cover 520 miles, not to avoid tunneling but rather to connect major population centers; in today’s costs that is about $54 billion or roughly $100 million per mile, which is not uncommon for transit systems. (The $68 billion figure represents the fully inflated cost of the project over its construction life.; no one else bothers to present numbers that way). Moreover, our first construction contract bid came in almost 40% below estimates.
[Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.]
Actually, virtually every high-speed rail system in the world has positive cash flows from operations. Some have paid back some of their initial capital. We feel strongly (as do the Peer Review groups that have analyzed our project) that we’ll be generating positive cash flows as well.
Criticism #2: The cost estimates are unbelievable, among other problems.
[The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion?.. We’re being lied to, openly.]
When Governor Brown’s team came in we took a hard look at the costs. We said that the $33 billion number (which may have been in 2006 dollars; no one is certain at this point) that were called out in the 2008 ballot measure would cost more than that, namely about $60-some billion in 2011 dollars; on a fully inflated basis over 15 years, that would have been $98 billion. We then embarked on a cost-saving campaign to use existing trackway in urban areas, reducing the $98 billion number to $68 and we’re embarking on further cost reductions. We have tried to be transparent and it’s all laid out in great detail in our business plans.
[HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport...]
As part of our statewide raid modernization plan, there will be a growing network of commuter rail, subway, intercity trains, etc. Undoubtedly, there will also be social media-driven services like Uber and Lyft, along with driverless vehicles, etc.
[Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No... your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets.]
As noted above, 40% of LA-SF air trips are delayed, mainly due to weather. As for families, our ridership models account for different trip choices for business and personal travel. The operator of the trains will optimize revenues with a variety of pricing strategies and that may well include discounted trips that work well for families, in the same way airfares can be expensive or cheap depending on how and when they are purchased.
[It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley)... I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.]
Sure it will. Today, the Amtrak San Joaquin train service is the fifth busiest Amtrak service in the U.S. It handles about 1.3 million trips per year and some of those folks have to take the bus from Bakersfield to LA. That service is growing at double digit rates. Building a new passenger only line in that corridor can free up rail capacity for movement of agricultural produce. Right now, big agribusinesses are telling us that they are begging the freight rail operators for more rail capacity but it’s not there. Let’s get those trucks off the highway and move more goods by freight rail, which we can do if we have a new dedicated passenger service by high speed rail.
There are 4 million people who live in the Central Valley. They face many problems, including having some of the worst air quality in the nation, high unemployment and poverty rates, etc. High Speed Rail is one important way to connect the Valley with other economic centers of the state, improving transportation, air quality and land use.
[It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.]
The way the bond measure was written, those cities aren’t bypassed, but are in Phase 2 of the program...
[California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right.... Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”]
Yes, the Bay Bridge had issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build anything. We are using a design-build approach for High-Speed Rail. It shifts appropriate risks to the contractors. We have put together perhaps the most sophisticated risk assessment/risk management program for any infrastructure project in the U.S. We have open and transparent reporting systems so that the public and the Legislature can monitor costs and schedules. I can’t say there won’t be problems, but we’ve studied other major infrastructure projects and have a good handle on how to build this. Again, we have peer review groups looking over our shoulder.
[HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.]
First, the bond measure set priority for LA/Anaheim to San Francisco. Second, while the Capitol Corridor is a highly successful enterprise, its route along the coast is not amenable to high-speed service; an entirely new route would be required that will be much more expensive. I won’t say that the project, as we inherited it, was perfectly planned, but we can deliver a modern, clean, effective transportation system serving millions of Californians.
Criticism #3: Earthquakes!
[I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka ... I have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.]
We are very aware of the spectacular engineering achievement of the Japanese high-speed rail system. Their techniques for dealing with active seismic zones are the envy of the world and we will adopt them. The Japanese were the first to develop an early warning system that detects p waves from earthquakes, which travel at twice the speed of the main shock waves. During the terrible earthquake of 2011, that detector system cut the power and stopped a high speed train traveling in the Fukashima region that was so devastated. In 50 years of operation, the Japanese have never had an injury or fatality on their high speed rail system. Yes, we can and will adopt this approach.
Criticism #4: Even in Europe, HSR is an impractical boondoggle.
[I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.... That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.]
European countries continue to add to their high-speed rail systems and replace other modes of transportation
[HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs.... HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.]
I know we live in a time of cynicism with strong distrust of government, but these statements are polemical and not based on fact. No subsidies will be given. None. It would violate the bond act and we believe the system will generate significant positive cash flows. Sorry to dispel the notion that this is all to support expensive union contracts; all federally-funded projects are based upon prevailing wage-labor rates and have been for decades. Please read our business plan – the trains will be operated by the private sector, not public sector.
We see this train service as operating at many levels to serve working class Californians and not just affluent ones. Oh, and by the way, our policy is that 30% of all contract dollars must be spent on small businesses. That’s $1.8 billion for small businesses in the Central Valley over the next five years, just on the first construction segment.
Criticism #5: Maglev would be better—cheaper in the long run, easier to maintain, more advanced.
Maglev is an interesting technology but very expensive to build, much more so than high-speed rail. It's also difficult to build maglev where the terrain and topography vary. It's my understanding that these factors more than offset lower maintenance costs, should they even exist.
Criticism #6: Historical precedents in California are discouraging.
[1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way.]
I can’t comment on the Bay Bridge. We have a strong, accountable management team and previous critics like the state Auditor General have reported significant progress in the way the HSR Authority is organized and operates. We’ve put in place many of the governance and oversight functions required of corporations and we have high transparency in our operations. In the last three years, our progress has been good, despite litigation aimed at stopping the project.
[2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains.]
Uh, I helped build that project [JF note: Dan Richard was on the BART board from 1992 to 2004] and it is a smashing success. The ridership projections proved inaccurate in its first few years only because of the effects on air travel of Sept 11th and the ensuing economic downturn. Within five years, the project was quite robust and today is operating at 105% of its costs from downtown SF to the airport, extraordinary for an urban mass transit system.
Criticism #7: Precedents in the rest of the country are discouraging too.
[The "Access to the Region's Core" project (in New Jersey) was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? ... So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.]
It’s hard to argue with the overall concern. All I can say is that we are not allowed by law to provide an operating subsidy, so indeed the ticket prices must reflect the full (operating) cost of the project. The public does pay for the initial infrastructure but there are enormous societal benefits, in terms of air quality, GHG reductions, land use, rising employment and incomes, etc. that benefit even those who don’t ride it. Today’s Amtrak service in the Central Valley is heavily used by working class Californians. I can’t make guarantees at this point, but I don’t believe the HSR fares will be out of line with the current passenger rail charges and there will be different levels of service to maximize ridership.
Criticism #8: The project will have little or no positive environmental effect.
[My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)...
I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.]
No, electrified HSR won’t stop all climate change, but it will provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, along with criteria pollutants. The air quality in the Central Valley is among the worst in the nation. 21% of the kids there have asthma. Widening state route 99, which has occurred in places (the main north-south artery on the east side of the Valley, directly connecting the cities there) gobbles up five times the farmland per mile as we would be taking for HSR. Moreover, while we can increase capacity with more trains, the highways would need ever more widening.
You are right that infrastructure projects can have unexpected benefits. One such benefit is the creation of a new industry in the Valley, providing economic diversity through support service enterprises for the HSR system. Both Fresno State and Cal State Univ. Bakersfield are beginning programs to train their engineering students to work on HSR-related systems. Tying these cities together with larger population centers also can have untold benefits.
It is true that we must get the land use right. We want to encourage high-density development around the stations and good land use planning. Otherwise, HSR could result in additional sprawl. Nothing is a given, but we clearly have our eyes on how this should be done correctly.
Happy Labor Day.
“Mom hid a present for you in the basement.”
“Last time you said that, you locked me downstairs for three hours.”
“This time I won’t.”
Before Matt Groening gained wealth and fame from The Simpsons, he drew a bleakly funny series of comic books. That snippet of dialogue comes from one of them. It also explains a lot of the negative reaction to President Obama’s immigration proposals: There’s a long record of broken promises in this policy domain.
The record stretches back to the immigration reform of 1986. That year, Congress enacted an amnesty for illegal immigrants joined to promises of more effective enforcement in future. Instead of halting law-breaking, however, the 1986 reform enabled more of it. Immigration officials detected fraud in one-third of the applicants for the specialized amnesty for agricultural workers. Some applicants had never worked in the fields a day in their lives. Some had been convicted of crimes. Some weren’t the people they said they were. Some were disqualified for other reasons. Yet 90 percent of the 1.3 million applications were approved regardless.
Thirty years later, the question of good faith has again become urgent to the immigration debate.
To pry open the door of a wider amnesty, Obama and congressional Democrats have directed attention to a subsection of the illegal-immigrant population: young people who were brought to the United States as children, the poetically named “Dreamers.” They proposed a law to offer citizenship to this population—and through them, eventually and ultimately their parents and other relatives. (The original DREAM Act provided for a multiyear delay before Dreamers could sponsor parents and siblings. But DREAM’s most important purpose was to smooth the way for a more comprehensive reform for the benefit of a wider illegal population.)
Prospects for Congress passing a big immigration bill have, however, dimmed since the DREAM Act was proposed in the first Obama term. So in June 2012, as the election neared, Obama announced unilateral executive action: He would defer enforcement against the Dreamers, offering them a temporary legal-residency status in the United States. In doing so, Obama was stretching executive powers into the area of lawmaking about as far as any president has ever stretched them. He justified his bold move with three main claims:
- Dreamers have sunk deep roots in the United States. They have no other home.
- Minor children should not be held culpable for their parents’ law-breaking.
- The Dreamers are gaining the skills and education to contribute to American society.
Here’s Obama in his own words, first in 2012, in the speech announcing deferred action against Dreamers:
These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants, and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license or a college scholarship.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life, studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.
And here he is again, even more emphatically, at a fundraiser in June 2014:
So these young people are graduating, ready to go to college, but also certified nurses, EMT folks. Many of them are choosing to join the military and will contribute to our country in this way. And looking out as I was speaking to them and then shaking their hands, and giving them hugs and high-fives and all the things that kids do on a graduation, I thought to myself: How could we not want to invest in these kids?
The truth is more complicated and more difficult.
To put substance behind his three arguments, Obama put some important conditions on applicants for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”:
- They must have entered the United States before age 16 and continuously resided in the United States from 2007 to 2012.
- They must have a clean criminal record: no felony conviction, no major misdemeanors and no more than three petty misdemeanors.
- They must have graduated from high school, or be currently enrolled in school, or have gained honorable discharge from the armed forces.
Those sound like defined and enforceable conditions. In practice, they are proving anything but. From the start, the requirements of “continuous residency” and “no more than three misdemeanors” were highly porous. Now, as the first wave of DACA applicants seek renewal of their two-year status, it’s becoming clear that the education requirements will mean even less.
In immigration law, “continuous residence” does not mean what it seems to mean in ordinary speech. Immigration law allows people to claim “continuous residence” even if they return to their country of origin for visits (plural!) of up to six months each.
Likewise, the “no more than three misdemeanors” tally for aspiring Dreamers carries some fine print. DACA will count all the charges arising from a particular incident as a single misdemeanor. A DACA applicant who drives past the speed limit while intoxicated and then resists arrest (all potential misdemeanors in most states) will be counted as having committed one misdemeanor, not three. Nor can we feel any certainty that the public records will reveal all the charges against an applicant. Illegal immigrants sometimes use more than one identity—and their documents do not always tell the truth about their ages either.
As for the educational requirement, Jon Feere of the immigration-skeptical Center for Immigration Studies explains how it has already begun to fade:
The new DACA guidelines note that certain sections of the application can be skipped if the alien is renewing. One section that can now be left blank is the "Education Information" section. In other words, illegal aliens who applied for DACA two years ago and have since dropped out of school are still eligible to receive the amnesty.
This is not a minor loophole. The Migration Policy Institute—a group strongly sympathetic to Obama’s policies—calculates that of the 2.28 million people who potentially meet the age requirements for DACA status, some 473,000 will not be able to meet its requirement for a high-school diploma, current enrollment in school, or honorable completion of military service.
And even the Migration Policy Institute’s shocking number may nevertheless still overestimate the number of DACA Dreamers who will ultimately graduate from high school. The question is not, how many potential Dreamers fail the educational requirement today? The question is, how many Dreamers who were enrolled in school on the date they applied for DACA will remain in school until graduation? Mexican immigrants, who account for about three-quarters of Dreamers, have far and away the highest dropout rate. In 2011, The New York Times studied Census data for Mexican migrants aged 16 to 19 living in New York City, both legal and illegal, and found that 41 percent of them had dropped out of high school. “No other major immigrant group has a dropout rate higher than 20 percent, and the overall rate for the city is less than 9 percent,” the Times reported. The president’s promise that young Dreamers will someday staff America’s nursing wards and EMT ambulances looks unlikely to be fulfilled.
Beneath all of this is the bedrock problem of illegal immigration into an advanced society. In 1914, it was perfectly plausible that the son of an unskilled laborer would acquire a skilled trade. The skilled worker’s children would then advance into business and the professions, achieving the upward mobility of the American dream.
In the postindustrial economy, however, upward mobility has become considerably more difficult. As Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz report in their pathbreaking Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race, the kind of intergenerational progress gained by millions of families in the early 20th century is receding out of reach for many newer immigrants. While second-generation Mexican Americans generally attain higher levels of schooling than their immigrant parents, the third generation does not on average improve much on the second—and the fourth generation on average falls back below the third.
From the point of view of immigrants and prospective immigrants, the only thing that matters about immigration policy is what it does for them and their own life chances. Human beings naturally put their own interests first. But from the point of view of the present generation of Americans, the most important question about immigration is whether immigration will benefit the present citizens of the United States, their children and posterity. The answer to that question ultimately turns on the kind of human capital immigrants carry with them into their new country. If it’s low among the immigrants, it’s likely to remain low among their children and grandchildren too.
The educational testing service ETS issued an alarming report in 2007 warning that average levels of literacy in the workforce of the 2030s will likely be outright lower than in the workforce of the 1990s “as better educated individuals leave the workforce, they will be replaced by those who, on average, have lower levels of education and skill." ETS predicted an outright decline of 5 percent in measured literacy and numeracy by 2030—an unprecedented event in the history of the United States. The projected decline in average skills portends sagging average incomes and intensifying inequality.
The immigration-policy decisions Americans have collectively made over the past three decades have decisively contributed to the hardening of class divisions inside the United States. Obama’s immigration policies would not only continue those past decisions, but accelerate them—and accelerate too the loss of faith in institutions that follows when authorities sell their policies with promises they know from the start they intend to break.
Forget swarms of nanobots taking over the world—if something is going to band together to rise against humans, my money is on ants. Look at this video of them forming a chain to move something way bigger than any individual ant. Humans, faced with the same task, would probably devolve into trying to invent some kind of drone to do this for them.
To find out what’s going on here, I sent the video to Terry McGlynn, an entomologist at California State University at Dominguez Hills. “Okay, here’s the deal,” he wrote to me in an email. “This video, somewhere from Southeast Asia, shows a species of Leptogenys ants pulling along a large prey item (sure looks like a millipede) in a very long daisy chain, like they’re doing a tug of war.”
McGlynn says that what’s surprising about this video is that it’s a particular kind of behavior that ant experts haven’t seen before. It’s not that they haven’t seen ants work together to carry stuff or do things—there are all kinds of ways that ants band together to move or make things—but rather that they haven’t seen anything quite like this. The daisy-chain system you see in this video is new to them.
Helen McCreery, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, recently published a paper on all kinds of cooperative transport strategies in ants. In it she explains that at least 40 genera of ants work together to transport things, from two ants grasping something together to weaver ant workers who band together to “collectively carry birds, bats and snakes vertically up tree trunks.”
But McCreery says that this video shows something different. "To me, this behavior seems to be different from what's been observed in other ants (including the weaver ants) in an important way," she wrote to me in an email. "These Leptogenys are moving their prey by grasping onto ants, instead of all grasping onto the prey itself. One could argue that the chains occur because ants just grab onto anything attached to the prey they are trying to move, but I don't think that's what's going on here. Ants are very good at telling the difference between one of their sisters (another ant in the colony) and anything else. In my view, that makes this daisy chain behavior very different from other documented cooperative transport."
Alex Wild, a nature photographer and blogger, found another video of similar behavior:
Wild also points out that it would be nice to know more about who took this video and where, but that that information might be hard to find.
The virality of the video also illustrates both the good and the bad about the internet. The good, of course, is that this fascinating ant behavior found its way in front of scientists who otherwise might not have seen it. On the other hand, the viral nature of the video means that actual person who filmed it is drowned out among the hundreds of uncredited, unsourced copies. Securing the information about where and when the video was taken, and verifying the species, is going to be difficult. This is one reason why crediting sources online is important. Lose the credit, lose the data.
With millions of cameras pointed at the natural world, something new like this is bound to be caught on tape at some point. "It’s not a surprise, per se, that we discover new things,” McGlynn told me. “The world still is mostly mysterious, after all. But when there are hundreds and hundreds of professional myrmecologists around the world, who spend their lives looking at the ground and watching ants, it still ends up surprising us when we see something new that is so overt and cool."
If comedy is all about timing, then let's take a moment to appreciate the nifty scheduler who decided to gift us with The Trip to Italy this Labor Day weekend, on what are already the three most bittersweet days of the year. The days are shorter, the abyss of pumpkin-spice everything and work that is September looms. Labor Day is our last hurrah—a mid-life crisis of a holiday in which we attempt to make up for all the fun we've failed to have, all the cookouts we haven't gone to, and all the idyllic vacations we've neglected to take.
When The Trip debuted in 2010, it was a surprisingly endearing and authoritative hit, given the premise—two hours of watching British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around eating food and doing impressions of Michael Caine. (The feature U.S. audiences saw was an edited version of six half-hour television episodes). But the poster hints at the movie's subtle profundity: Coogan gazing gloomily at the camera while Brydon laughs at the heavens, the pair looking for all the world like the inseparable Greek masks for comedy and tragedy. Coogan was the unhappy, deeply lonely Hollywood success story, while Brydon was the quietly contented family man. At the conclusion of their road trip around the finer eating establishments of northern England, Coogan returned to an empty high-rise apartment with glittering views of London, while Brydon went home to a more modest brick house and the embrace of his wife and child.
The Trip to Italy has no such conclusion, even as it reconstitutes the premise of the first film as best it can, giving Brydon and Coogan the same cushy assignment for the Observer: an all-expenses-paid driving tour of six destinations that are both visually and gastronomically jaw-dropping. ("Neither of us, with all respect, knows anything about food," Coogan points out early on, but that isn't the point.) Only this time, the distinctions between the two characters—exaggerated versions of their real-life selves—have blurred. Brydon, tired of the affability of his public persona, drinks and carouses on the beach with a blonde expat while Coogan, still melancholy but newly sober, reads Byron in bed and tries to Skype with his son.
Both films pay particular attention to the process and meaning of art, even if such thoughtfulness tends to get lost amid the gut-busting, teary laughs and the aforementioned procession of competing Michael Caines. Before the food arrives at the various tables, director Michael Winterbottom (who also led Coogan and Brydon in the 2006 film A Cock and Bull Story) lingers in the kitchen, watching the clatter of pans and the exacting way in which a faceless chef paints a swipe of sauce on a plate just so. Unfailingly, the pair take a few bites of each and then utter inanities that mostly involve the word "good" before launching into an attempt to one-up each other with impersonations. A.J. Liebling it ain't, but the glee with which Brydon pretends to be Al Pacino and the reluctant scorn with which Coogan inevitably joins in is why both The Trip and The Trip to Italy are so much fun. Is Winterbottom making a subtle point about oafs who fail to appreciate true virtuosity, both in restaurants and at the movies? Maybe, but it's funny as hell.
While The Trip took its heroes on a literary tour of the haunts of Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Trip to Italy is all about Byron and Shelley, yet another odd couple of artists who inspired (and presumably irritated) each other. The highlight of this extended metaphor is mostly a riff on Byron's humdrum middle name, Gordon, since this particular trip focuses less on poetry than on death, taking its protagonists to the calcified ruins of Pompeii and the catacombs of Rome. While Coogan's midlife crisis appears to be waning, he's as gloomy as ever in confronting his own invisibility to a group of young Italian girls. Brydon, meanwhile, veers away from abrupt phone calls with his harassed wife and into the arms of a British tour guide, whom he woos with a series of ineffable Hugh Grant impressions as his career begins to take an upward, even Cooganesque, turn.
The Trip to Italy exceeds even the first movie when it comes to sheer beauty, whether it's the pair careening around steep Italian cliff roads in a tiny Mini Cooper (cue the Italian Job quotes), or an extended shot of a plate of handmade spaghetti that virtually wafts the scent of garlic and Parmesan into the theater. And the jokes, when they come, are glorious, particularly a sequence in which Coogan and Brydon get stuck listening to Jagged Little Pill and bicker over the correct way to pronounce "Alanis."
But they're tempered in the second half of the film by the sadness that pervades the picture, like a black cloud hovering over the azure Mediterranean. "The soul is born old but grows young," said Oscar Wilde. "That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life's tragedy." At the end of a summer in which we've been reminded yet again of the fragility of our favorite clowns, the poignancy of seeing two brilliant comedians wrestle with existential sadness has a particularly sharp edge. And unlike the first film, there isn’t necessarily a happy home to return to.
Is Russia invading Ukraine? Ask Ukraine, and the answer is yes. Ask Russia, and the answer is no ... ish. Ask the United States, and you'll learn that Russia, since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, has been demonstrating a "pattern" of "escalation of aggression." U.S. officials have avoided labeling Russia's "incursions" an invasion, perhaps to dodge the diplomatic and military implications of doing so.
What we know is that there are currently more than 1,000 heavily armed Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine and 20,000 Russian soldiers massed on the border, according to NATO. We know that armored vehicles and military equipment have been rolling into Ukraine from the direction of Russia in the dark of night; that Russian paratroopers were recently apprehended by Ukrainian authorities; that a massive convoy of Russian trucks entered Ukrainian territory without Kiev's consent earlier this month. If you believe the Kremlin and pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatists, the Russian troops in Ukraine are on vacation, the captured Russian paratroopers entered Ukraine "by accident," the Russian government is not directing and arming the rebels battling the Ukrainian military, and the truck convoy was delivering humanitarian aid. Then again, Vladimir Putin once declared that the "little green men" occupying Crimea were local self-defense forces who had gone shopping for Russian military uniforms, only to later admit that they were—surprise!—Russian soldiers.
The reality is this: Russia and Ukraine are effectively at war, and have been for some time, though Moscow has recently decided to operate more openly. If international reaction to the fact that one major European power has invaded another seems remarkably muted, that's in part because the Kremlin has adopted a bewildering strategy over the last five months of disguising its actions, head-faking toward peace, and slowly escalating its aggression—what Michael Weiss has characterized as war by "slow, seditious drip."
It's a shape-shifting, slow-motion invasion that we don't quite know what to make of. Is Russia forging a new template for warfare, or dusting off Soviet models?
Putin's "pattern of escalating aggression," to borrow a phrase from the Obama administration, is confounding. Sometimes, it looks like this grainy image from NATO of a Russian military convoy lugging artillery through Ukraine:
Other times, it takes the shape of this 280-truck humanitarian-aid convoy:
Or this military vehicle in Crimea, betrayed by a license plate:
Peter Pomerantsev, for one, believes Putin is reinventing 21st-century warfare. Writing for Foreign Policy in May, Pomerantsev argued that Russia is waging "non-linear war" in Ukraine—an "avant-garde" strategy based on the premise that conflict, in today's globalized world, is multidimensional, no longer pitting nation-state(s) against nation-state(s). The Kremlin has calculated, for instance, that sanctions in response to its actions will be weak since the alliances implementing those punitive measures—the EU and NATO—matter less these days than Russia's economic relations with multinational companies and Western countries where Russian oligarchs park their money.
Others have made similar arguments. "The hallmarks of non-linear warfare are operational confusion, mistaken identity, and a sense of brittleness and crisis," Marc Ambinder observed in April. "Russia has actually mastered psychological warfare, a 21st-century art, and is using 21st-century tools to wage its campaign."
Some have referred to the strategy as "hybrid war." Here's how The Washington Post's editorial board described the concept on Wednesday:
[It is] a conflict waged by commandos without insignia, armored columns slipping across the international border at night, volleys of misleading propaganda, floods of disinformation and sneaky invasions like the one into Crimea. In this hybrid war, a civilian airliner was shot down by surface-to-air missiles, but the triggerman or supplier of the missile was never identified; artillery shells are fired but no one can say from where; Russian military material and equipment appears suddenly in the villages and fields of eastern Ukraine. While people are being killed, as in any war, and while Ukraine has mustered its forces admirably to push back, this hybrid war features an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in deception.
But is this approach really new? Deception, after all, is as old as war. And Putin's particular style of deception recalls the Soviet strategy of Maskirovka (masking), which was developed in the 1920s and defined by the Soviet Military Encyclopedia as "complex measures to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, military objectives, combat readiness and plans."
"[T]he idea is to create political uncertainty and ambiguity in order to make it hard for an enemy to know how to respond militarily," Stephen Badsey, a professor of conflict studies at the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K., told me by email.
During the Cold War, the Soviets hatched scenarios for making incursions into Western Europe that in many ways resemble Russia's behavior in Ukraine—"for example, a fire-engine crew crossing into West Berlin to help with a fire, followed by police, followed by soldiers, who then refuse to go," Badsey said. "Putin learned all this as basic early in his career, as did all his generals."
In drawing on these decades-old techniques, he added, Russia has now pulled off the "first ever opposed but successful seizure of territory of one UN member by another since the UN's foundation in 1945," leaving the U.S. and its Western allies "confused and uncertain as to how to respond."
Ultimately, Russia's invasion/incursion/aggression/staycation in Ukraine isn't quite Maskirovka, and it's not an entirely new breed of warfare. It is, perhaps, new tactics in the service of an old strategy. It's a "total system of measures designed to deceive and confuse the enemy," as one U.S. military study described Maskirovka in 1981. But it's also the sleek, social media-savvy propaganda campaigns of Russian news outlets like RT.
The question now is whether 20th-century alliances like the EU and NATO, which will both hold major summits on the Ukraine crisis in the coming weeks, are equipped to effectively respond to Russia's enigmatic actions in the region—whatever you call them.
When I first arrived for freshman orientation at American University, I was paired (albeit temporarily) with a stranger. She was from a state I had never visited—the mysterious land of Pennsylvania. She spoke of a substance I had never encountered—the native Pennsylvanians' storied "water ice." She pronounced it "wooder ice." She was my first roommate.
All of the Seventeen magazine articles and older kids warned me that there was a strong chance we would dislike each other. But I'm a clinger, and Kelly became one of my closest friends.
Not all of the college students who are moving into their freshman dorms this week will be so lucky. Some will reach their metaphorical hands into the roommate bingo-ball cage and draw a night-screamer, a day-masturbator, or worse. If the people around us influence our personalities and health, the people living five feet from our twin dorm bed do so all the more. Here are a few of the ways roommates can affect each other, according to research:
- Anxious roommates make us more anxious, but happy roommates don't make us happier. In a 2012 study, University of Michigan health management professor Daniel Eisenberg found that as a randomly-assigned roommate became more anxious, the person living with them became more on-edge, too. Meanwhile, the roommates' relative levels of happiness had nothing to do with each other. Depression was transmitted fairly easily among men, but not among women. "Among women, by contrast, students with poor mental health appear, if anything, to do better when paired with roommates who also have poor mental health," Eisenberg wrote. This might be the only example ever of the narcissism of small differences being beneficial.
- Your assigned roommate influences your drinking: This year, Eisenberg examined a cohort that had entered college in 2009 and found that living with a randomly assigned roommate who was a binge drinker greatly influenced the likelihood that a given college student would binge drink. The same trend did not hold true for smoking, drug use, gambling, or sex.
- The roommates are also more likely to keep on drinking ... together: In 2001, the economist Bruce Sacerdote found that among Dartmouth freshmen, one roommate was far more likely to join a fraternity or sorority if the other did so, and 27 percent of roommate pairs joined the same Greek house. Living in a dorm with a bunch of students who drank beer before college also increased the likelihood that a given student would join a frat.
- Your roommate might influence your weight and dieting behaviors: In life, overweight spouses and friends tend to flock together, but this isn't true of college roommates. A recent University of Michigan study found that college women with heavier-than-average roommates gained less weight during their freshman year than those who were paired with thin women. Overweight women are more likely to diet and exercise, and the researchers suspected the thinner roommates picked up on these weight-loss behaviors. The obsession with body image can also go too far, however: One study that followed nearly 1,000 former college roommates over the course of 10 years found that the women who were bulimic in their 30s were more likely to have had college roommates who frequently dieted.
- Roommates tend to rule or be ruled: A 2006 study of 102 pairs of female freshman undergraduates found that after four months of school, the roommates of women with dominant personalities began to behave more submissively, and vice-versa. The same study also found that women who exhibited warmth had similarly warm roommates, and the same was true for the women who were hostile.
- Eventually, they start to speak like one another: Researchers asked five pairs of male Columbia undergraduate roommates to say "She had your dark suit in greasy wash water all year" and "Don’t ask me to carry an oily rag like that" at four different times throughout their first semesters. (These sentences were chosen for complicated linguistic reasons.) By the time they came back from winter break, all of the roommate pairs were sounding a lot more like one another. The men who were better friends with their roommates exhibited even greater levels of this sort of linguistic "convergence." So if your goal is to develop a deep southern drawl, ask Housing Services if you can room with an Alabaman. And make sure you like the same beer—if she's a big drinker, you'll be guzzling plenty of it together.
Earlier this month thieves made off with a giant Renaissance masterpiece—a 10-foot by six-foot piece painted by Guercino in 1639, and worth over $8 million. Whoever took the painting didn’t have to do much; the security alarm on the church wasn’t working, and according to The Telegraph the church that housed the painting didn’t have the money to get it fixed.
Once a work of art leaves a museum or church, the chances of getting it back are extraordinarily slim. According to The Art Newspaper, roughly 1.5 percent of the art that is stolen is ever recovered. Once it’s removed from its home, art is as hard to track as a stolen bike or wallet. Tracking your swiped iPhone is easier than tracking a 10-foot by six-foot Renaissance painting, because your iPhone constantly sends signals to the towers around it. Simply click “Find My iPhone” and there it is, location triangulated via GPS. So why don’t museums simply do the same thing?
Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent who has recovered over $225 million worth in stolen art (and wrote about it in his book Priceless), says that the technology I’m imagining essentially doesn’t exist. At least not right now. “To do that you’d have to have cell phone sized GPS systems attached to the back of every painting,” he told me. “You’d have to plug in every painting every night.”
Attaching a tracking unit to every painting might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s actually a huge challenge, Wittman explains. You’d need something that has a long battery life that you don’t have to constantly be charging. It would have to be small, small enough to put on the piece without damaging it and small enough to evade detection by thieves. At the same time, it would have to be designed so that if thieves did find it, they could remove it without damaging the art. This mythical unit would have to be powerful enough to transmit from inside boxes and closets and warehouses where burglars might take it, but cheap enough to allow museums to buy thousands of them. “That technology simply doesn’t exist,” Wittman said.
That’s not to say that people aren’t working on high-tech solutions to art protection. In recent years RFID technology—using electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags on objects—has become more common in museums. In these setups, art is fixed with a small RFID tag that detects if the piece of art moves from its location on the wall or floor. An RFID reader in the building keeps track of these locations. So if someone pulls a painting off a wall, the alarm goes off immediately. But RFID systems only work inside the building. The tracker can only keep tabs on tags within about 230 feet. Once that painting is out the door, it’s electromagnetically invisible.
And Wittman points out that if the rest of your security isn’t good, RFID isn’t going to help you. “If you have a situation where four individuals go in with machine guns, they don’t care about the RFID. Everybody knows they’re there with the machine guns.” And in situations where thieves are efficient, knowing that a piece of art is moving once the thief has it off the wall isn’t useful. In one case in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a thief broke through a window and a display case and made off with a sculpture known as the Cellini Salt Cellar in just 58 seconds. No alarm response system can react that fast.
Steve Layne, the founding director of the International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection, says that museums would rather focus on arming the environment than the piece of art itself. “Curators don’t like anything affixed to artwork,” he told me. Instead, Layne says that that most museums put their effort on making sure the art doesn’t leave the museum in the first place. “The primary focus is not on tracking art outside the museum, it’s on tracking it while it’s in the museum,” he said. “The emphasis is on stopping anything from leaving the walls.”
Museums don’t like to disclose what they do and don’t use for security. Neither the Museum of Modern Art nor the American Museum of Natural History would tell me anything about the types of security features they have on individual pieces.
Preventing thieves from making off with art involves all kinds of high and low tech security systems, from motion detectors to locks on the doors to good old security guards. And both Layne and Wittman say that’s where the future of museum security is going. “Years ago video recorded to a VHS player and that was the end of it,” Layne said. “Now the video systems are computer-based and they can transfer an image anywhere.” Wittman put his money on facial recognition technology. “The people who steal art, they don’t just do it once,” he said. “They just keep doing it, because they become obsessed with these paintings.”
So there probably won’t be a nice, slick “Find my Caravaggio” app in the near future. But there is a place for GPS in art security, Wittman said. When art hits the road, either in a traveling exhibit or to be transported from one museum to another, curator and security professionals will place GPS tracking devices on the trucks and crates. And Wittman sometimes slips a throwaway cell phone into the cab of the truck just in case. “Thieves may be looking for a GPS tracker to pull out but they won’t be looking for a little cell phone under the seat.”
President Obama’s critics often claim he doesn’t have a strategy in the greater Middle East. That’s wrong. Like it or loathe it, he does, and he’s beginning to implement it against ISIS. To understand what it is, it’s worth going back seven summers.
In July 2007, at a debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube, Obama said that if elected president, he’d talk directly to the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. Hillary Clinton derided his answer as “irresponsible and frankly naïve.” The altercation fit the larger narrative the media had developed about the two Democratic frontrunners: Obama—who had opposed the Iraq War—was the dove. Hillary—who had supported it—was the hawk.
But less than a week later, a different foreign-policy tussle broke out. Obama said he’d send the U.S. military into Pakistan, against its government’s wishes, to kill members of al-Qaeda. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act,” he vowed, “we will.” Suddenly, Obama was the hawk and Clinton was the dove. “He basically threatened to bomb Pakistan,” she declared in early 2008, “which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take.”
So was Obama more dovish than Clinton or more hawkish? The answer is both. On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.
On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he’s dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they’re unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan’s permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high.
When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the War on Terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States. Hillary Clinton and John McCain may not use the “War on Terror” framework anymore, but they’re still more willing to sell arms, dispatch troops, and drop bombs to achieve goals that aren’t directly connected to preventing another 9/11. By contrast, Obama’s strategy—whether you like it or not—is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians.
Understanding Obama’s fierce minimalism helps explain the evolution of his policy toward Syria and Iraq. For years, hawks pushed him to bomb Assad and arm Syria’s rebels. They also urged him to keep more U.S. troops in Iraq to stabilize the country and maintain American leverage there. Obama refused because these efforts—which would have cost money and incurred risks—weren’t directly aimed at fighting terrorism. But now that ISIS has developed a safe haven in Iraq and Syria, amassed lots of weapons and money, killed an American journalist, recruited Westerners, and threatened terrorism against the United States, Obama’s gone from dove to hawk. He’s launched air strikes in Iraq and may expand them to Syria. As the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis has noted, the Obama administration is also trying to strengthen regional actors who may be able to weaken ISIS. But the administration is doing all this to prevent ISIS from killing Americans, not to put Syria back together again. Yes, there’s a humanitarian overlay to Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign: He’s authorized air strikes to save Yazidis at risk of slaughter. But the core of his military effort in Iraq and Syria, and throughout the greater Middle East, is narrow but aggressive anti-terrorism.
There are smart critiques of Obama’s tunnel vision, and they come not only from Republicans but from former Obama administration officials like Vali Nasr. Critics claim that by neglecting Iraq because it no longer harbored a terrorist threat, the Obama administration enabled Nouri al-Maliki’s crackdown against Sunnis, which helped create ISIS. Obama’s failure to do more to strengthen moderate rebels in Syria, they argue, had the same effect. By focusing too narrowly on jihadist terrorism, in other words, the Obama administration ignored the sectarianism and state collapse that ultimately fueled jihadist terrorism. It forgot the proverbial lesson—often preached by liberals—that when it comes to foreign threats, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Obama would probably respond that when it comes to stopping jihadist terrorism from taking root by ensuring representative government, territorial integrity, and national unity in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, an ounce of prevention isn’t nearly enough. The effort costs billions of dollars and a whole lot of American troops. Even then, it might fail because given America’s track record, analogies that portray Washington as a doctor with a sophisticated and empathetic understanding of its Middle Eastern patients are way too benign. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan could certainly have used preventative care in the Obama years. But America’s prophylactic efforts might have involved leeches, not aspirin. As Richard Holbrooke learned the hard way during his time as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s national-security bureaucracy isn’t geared toward diplomacy and economic development. It’s mostly designed to blow things up.
And it’s not just bureaucratic politics that have pushed Obama to focus on counterterrorism over a root-causes approach. Electoral politics has driven him in the same direction. There’s a reason Obama spent his reelection campaign declaring that it’s time to “focus on nation-building here at home.” Those declarations won him votes. From the beginning, the president’s political team has understood that on foreign policy, Obama faced two political dangers. If he got too many American troops killed in the Middle East, he risked alienating his liberal base. If he permitted a major terrorist attack against American civilians, he risked empowering the Republicans eager to paint him as weak. The way to protect against both dangers was to keep American troops out of harm’s way while pulverizing alleged jihadists from the air.
Regardless of what you think of the merits of that approach in terms of statecraft, it’s worked politically. Even now, while Republican elites fall over one another to denounce Obama’s foreign policy, you rarely hear Republican candidates do so on the stump. That’s because despite Obama’s declining popularity, his fierce minimalism fits the national mood.
President Obama’s Mideast strategy is not grand. It’s not inspiring. It’s not idealistic. But it’s what the American people want and what their government knows how to do. And Barack Obama didn’t become president by tilting at windmills.
In 1864, the year before the Civil War ended, a massive study was launched to quantify the bodies of Union soldiers. One key finding in what would become a 613-page report was that soldiers classified as "White" had a higher lung capacity than those labeled "Full Blacks" or "Mulattoes." The study relied on the spirometer—a medical instrument that measures lung capacity. This device was previously used by plantation physicians to show that black slaves had weaker lungs than white citizens. The Civil War study seemed to validate this view. As early as Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he remarked on the dysfunction of the “pulmonary apparatus” of blacks, lungs were used as a marker of difference, a sign that black bodies were fit for the field and little else. (Forced labor was seen as a way to “vitalize the blood” of flawed black physiology. By this logic, slavery is what kept black bodies alive.)
The notion that people of color have a racially defined deficiency isn't new. The 19th century practice of measuring skulls, and equating them with morality and intelligence, is perhaps the most infamous example. But race-based measurements still persist. Today, doctors examine our lungs using spirometers that are "race corrected." Normal values for lung health are reduced for patients that doctors identify as black. Not only might this practice mask economic or environmental explanations for lower lung capacity, but the logic of innate, racial difference is built into things like disability estimates, pre-employment physicals, and clinical diagnoses that rely on the spirometer. Race has become a biologically distinct, scientifically valid category despite the unnatural and social process of its creation.
In her recent book Breathing Race into the Machine, Lundy Braun, a professor of Africana studies and medical science at Brown University, reveals the political and social influences that constantly shape science and technology. She traces the history of the spirometer and explains its role in establishing a hierarchy of human health, and the belief that race is a kind of genetic essence. I spoke with her about the science of racial difference, its history, and its resurgence.
Hamza Shaban: How did the idea of race corrections and differing lung capacity come about?
Lundy Braun: My research suggests that Samuel Cartwright, a Southern physician and plantation owner, was the first person to use the spirometer to compare lung capacity in blacks and whites. The first major study making racial comparisons of lung capacity with a large sample size was the anthropometric study of Union soldiers directed by Benjamin Apthorp Gould, published in 1869.
The idea about the pathology of black lungs circulated in medical groups in the late 19th century but the next scientifically modern racial comparison was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1922. This paper was followed by a flurry of studies in the 1920s, some of which continue to be cited in the 2000s. Gould's book also continues to be cited.
Shaban: So within the medical community this is a well-established concept?
Braun: If you look at the scientific literature, virtually everyone in the world has lower lung capacity than people classified as whites. There is a scientific consensus. The question I’m interested in is: How did this idea of difference get into science? And how was difference explained? The problem here is the survival of the framework of innate racial difference.
Shaban: Race correction is actually built into the spirometer, right?
Braun: When I interviewed physicians they were sort of vaguely aware of race correction. But they don’t necessarily know that they’re activating a correction factor when they push the button or select a certain drop-down menu. Some even argued that they didn’t race correct, interestingly enough, but when I looked at the specification sheet, a correction factor was built into the machine.
Shaban: When a patient goes to see their doctor about their lungs, how does the doctor racially classify their patient?
Braun: In my interviews I asked physicians how they assessed race. I got a variety of responses. Many said they just "eyeballed" it—and never asked the individual any questions about their race. Others asked people to self-identify. But it can be awkward to ask someone their race for a lung function test. Patients might wonder why race is relevant for this particular test. So, in general, my research suggests that operators/clinicians simply guess a patient's race based on the usual simplistic physical characteristics historically associated with "race," like skin color—a poor marker for race globally. This guess may have little to do with how someone self-identifies or the richness of their ancestry.
"Race correction" is built into the software of the spirometer globally. To evaluate lung function and to make a recording, the operator/clinician must determine a patient's race. For most modern spirometers, this entails selecting a race option from a drop down menu or pressing a button. And the options vary by manufacturer.
Shaban: Early and rigorous critiques of a racialized understanding of lung capacity were made by leading black intellectuals: W.E.B Du Bois and Kelly Miller. They recognized how these studies lent support for racist ideology and prejudiced public policy. Why were their criticisms drowned out, even when they pointed to dubious science?
Braun: The short answer would be racism. The more complex answer is that they were almost alone in arguing against racism in science. Then, as now, it’s hard to shift mainstream thinking. Lung capacity difference was a deeply entrenched idea by the late 19th century.
An alternative narrative that I point out was by the physician Jedidiah H. Baxter.
Shaban: Baxter did a separate study of black Union soldiers that showed no difference in lung function, right? His findings conflicted with Gould’s.
Braun: Yes. And what’s interesting there, it gets to the tension between knowledge produced by qualitative and quantitative research: Quantitative data is stripped of context. Gould’s was just numbers assembled into a table. He hardly comments at all. His work looks very, very objective, and very scientific.
Baxter produced quantitative data, but he also included rich narratives from army surgeons in the field. These narratives are racist but the army surgeons weren’t willing to write blacks off as having lower lung capacity or that they were incapable of fighting for freedom. The two studies produced different results, and although Baxter’s narratives were acknowledged, Gould’s study is cited in science journals even today.
The argument I make is that Gould’s study looked most legibly scientific—and it drowned out Baxter, and it drowned out Kelly Miller, and it drowned out Du Bois.
Shaban: Why have environmental or socioeconomic explanations for differing lung capacity never been taken seriously over some innate racial factor?
Braun: There have been scientific studies showing that people who live around high pollution areas have lower lung capacity. High pollution areas also map onto minority status. Why we have chosen both in the U.S. and internationally to focus on race to the exclusion of social class, I can only speculate. One piece of the story is that the accumulation of scientific research around a particular idea can make it hard to dislodge. With the spirometer, having the correction factor actually built into the machine makes racial assumptions invisible.
This is a problem not just with lung capacity measurements but with health inequality more generally. There’s vastly, vastly, vastly more research on genomics than on the social determinants of health. Part of the problem is the infrastructure of science. What kinds of questions are considered scientific?
Shaban: When you look at the race categories of the U.S. census and medical dictionaries throughout history, you find a baffling array of contradiction, bias, and hierarchy. Why has race as a biological concept, rather than a social or historical one, continued to attract scientific inquiry?
Braun: I wish I had an answer to that. Why race science is getting reinvigorated at this particular moment, I think is very interesting. Why is race-as-biology being reinvigorated at a time when we are claiming to be color-blind?
One possible piece of the puzzle is: There’s a long history of using science to solve social problems. And genomics is very exciting and it seems apolitical. The actual science of it is appealing. It’s been sold to the public as a solution to health. But addressing the social aspects of racism and class and gender discrimination is not something we have taken on, or wanted to take on, for centuries.
I am not making an argument never to use race in health research. I think the use of race as a social category is entirely appropriate to study the health effects of a discriminatory social world—but always in combination with gender and measures of class.
It’s an entirely different matter to use race as a natural/scientific category to study genetic difference.
Shaban: In the scientific community there’s this insurgent belief that political correctness is getting in the way of discovery. This argument holds that the question “Is race real?” is a scientific problem whose truth should be pursued, whereas “Should we study it?” is a different, political question, one that scientists shouldn’t be too concerned about. What’s your take on this point?
Braun: The scientific and the social are inextricably linked. From the questions that you decide to ask, from the design of your study, from the way the science is interpreted, it’s always bound up with the social.
The claim of political correctness is a silencing mechanism. And it’s usually invoked to silence social and political questioning. I think a much more productive and interesting project is to examine how beliefs and values get into science—and medical instruments.
It is difficult to convey that race is real in terms of its social impact on people's lives and health, yet it is not rooted in nature. Humans are diverse, including genetically, but classifying that diversity is fundamentally a social process.
One strong piece of evidence, something we have known since 1972, against the biological/genetic concept of race is that there is more genetic variation among individuals within conventionally defined racial groups than between individuals of different racial groups. This has been demonstrated by numerous researchers using different methodologies. It is clear from this evidence that looking to genes according to racial group to explain health inequality is misguided.
Shaban: Is history clear that the science of racial difference has always been used to discriminate against non-whites, minorities, or one’s enemies?
Braun: Here I can speak as someone trained as a scientist; scientists are not trained in history. Many people who are working on the genetics of racial difference are very well-intentioned. They’re hoping to find something that will help people. What that something might be and how you’re actually going to help people through genetics is another story.
There’s also the notion that if you are well-intentioned you can avoid some of the past problems.
Because eugenics became so associated with Nazi experimentation, we actually haven’t fully appreciated that 20th century eugenics was “normal” science. We tend to overlook the normality of works like craniometry, the measuring of skulls in the 19th century. Eugenics was embraced by people across the political spectrum, and it was seen by many as a way to improve society.
I’m not saying we’re in a eugenical period. But the history of the debate around race and science needs to be part of the curriculum in medicine as well as graduate education so that scientists and physicians have a deeper sense of that history, that science is informed by the social and that the social in turn is informed by the scientific.
The idea of a “blockbuster” is a tricky one to pin down. The word itself originally referred to bombs used in World War II that were powerful enough to wipe out entire city blocks, and its metaphorical usage in that sense—talking about something that makes a significant impact on the population—was what most people had in mind a few decades later when it began to be used to describe runaway successes like Jaws and Star Wars. But since then, the word’s meaning has expanded even more to mean not just a major cinematic success, but also a movie made in the same style and tone as those successes.
In the introduction to the 2003 essay anthology Movie Blockbusters, editor Julian Schnabel writes: “If ‘night’ is the key term structuring the discussion of film noir, the blockbuster appears most frequently understood through repeated association with an alternative key term—namely, ‘size.’ Size is the central notion through which the blockbuster’s generic identity comes to be identified.” In other words, “blockbuster” becomes all about attitude and scope, which is why Avatar and The Lone Ranger, despite receiving very different welcomes from the moviegoing public, can both be rightly classified as blockbusters. The goal of a blockbuster is, simply, to overwhelm the viewer. The concept isn’t about return on investment; it’s about the investment itself, about the size and scale with which filmmakers hope to dazzle the audience. There’s no such thing as too much.
Yet not all blockbusters are created equal. If the first modern blockbusters were able to pair size with focus, then today’s examples are victims of creeping bloat. The genre started out promising save-the-world stakes while also trotting nicely along through linear, cleanly managed plots: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters.
Today’s blockbusters, though, are about size above all else. In place of a guiding directorial hand or vision—say, the kind of sensibility that could make something like Die Hard stand out from the pack—the films are subservient to the idea of overblown spectacle, and the filmmakers themselves are slaves to that whim.
Think of the bludgeoning work of Zach Snyder, who broke out with the plastic, mindless spectacle of 300 and whose Man of Steel isn’t so much an action movie as a grim machine meant to pummel the viewer into submission. (The final half hour or so is almost nothing but CGI flying men knocking over CGI buildings with CGI tanks and ships, an orgiastic and totally numbing experience.) Michael Bay is the undisputed king of this kind of thing: He has made more than 10 hours just of Transformers movies, smashing giant metal blurs into each other at high speeds with no purpose or end in sight. And there’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each entry becoming more and more homogenized, devoted only to massive, choppily edited fight scenes strung together by thin characters and filler dialogue. I’m sure something happened in Iron Man 3, but I couldn’t tell you what it was.
Blockbusters are now all about delivering more: more music, more mayhem, more action, more characters, more sound, more explosions. They are altars to the god of sensory overload. Instead of captivating viewers by allowing them to witness action and vicariously feel suspense, blockbusters now seek to replicate that action impressionistically, thrusting the viewer into a hazy experience of what it might feel like to be in the film instead of just watching it.
This, unsurprisingly, has led to some wildly varied movies, but it’s also done some interesting things to video games, too, whose growth has roughly paralleled the development and expansion of the modern blockbuster. The adventure stories that heralded the birth of the modern home video game—Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda—were relatively straightforward action titles requiring the player to linearly progress the plot from A to B to C and so on, until things wrapped up. Super Mario Bros. was even literal about this: You can only move forward, not back. Once you cross the edge of the screen and begin to usher in the world beyond it, you cannot return to the place you left. There’s a pleasing emotional balance here with the blockbusters of the era: Kill the giant marshmallow man, save the princess.
Yet as blockbuster films began to become exercises in specific types of size and tone, video games followed suit in their own way, offering an increasing number of tangents within games that replicated the multiple plotlines and feeling of space and size found on the big screen. For instance, a movie’s pacing is out of the hands of the viewer, so video games couldn’t borrow anything like editing or special effects from cinematic blockbusters, but they could import the sense of leaving the viewer overstuffed. In blockbuster movies, you get tons of characters; in blockbuster games, you get tons of things for your character to do.
Blockbusters are all about size, which in film equates to visual scale and in games is often represented as “options.” A movie wants to overwhelm you with images, but a game wants to overwhelm you with activity: open-world environments, customizable avatars, side quests, collectibles, achievements, mini-games, and so on. Anything to keep you busy. You can spend as much time as you want playing checkers in Assassin’s Creed or casino games in Mass Effect 3. You can pass actual real-world days of your life just golfing or watching fake television shows in Grand Theft Auto V. You can ride your horse from one end of Red Dead Redemption to the other, doing nothing but shooting birds and collecting flowers and saving the same town again and again from a gang of thieves who never seem to get the message. You can, in other words, avoid plot and consequence as long as you’d like and just play around with the window dressing, which is the same state of self-pleasing distraction that filmmakers want you to enter when you watch a robot that turns into a truck ride another robot that turns into a dinosaur.
The simulated “bigness” that takes root in the mind of the person playing the game is only one part of the picture, though. As the cineplex’s blockbusters start to run together narratively—often seeming to assemble stories and plots from pre-fabricated pieces, right down to the effects—so too do the games that fight for our time and attention start to feel interchangeable. Smart plotting so often feels like an afterthought in blockbuster movies because the films are constructed around major set pieces or fight scenes. It’s not that blockbuster movies can’t be well-written; rather, it’s that the writing is often at odds with the regularly meted out action scenes that got people into the theater in the first place.
Video games have wound up following a similar path: Smart humor, self-aware dialogue, and deep characterization abound, but all those things exist alongside button-mashing fights and quests for MacGuffins. They can whip from smart to dumb and back again so fast it can feel dizzying. Just as a big movie can bounce you from a great scene to a bumpy one, so too can games send you rocketing from a compelling confrontation to dry bits of exposition. Blockbuster gaming even takes movie dialogue problems to an extreme the movies themselves can never match by having the game’s supporting, non-playable characters repeat the same odd blurbs to the player over and over: Play Skyrim long enough, and you won’t be able to go 10 minutes without hearing a sidekick complain again about “[taking] an arrow to the knee.” As a result, games can start to feel pasted together from a lot of little scenes that don’t necessarily connect or make sense together.
There’s something more insidious about the trend, though. Blockbuster movies have any number of quirks, but one of the weirdest is that their size (aesthetically and culturally) can make them feel like pop-culture obligations. Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S., but most people would be hard-pressed to find someone who claimed it as their favorite film. Seeing it was just one of those experiences everyone wanted to have for a few weird weeks in 2009. It was lush and impressive, but also formulaic and a little laughable. It wasn’t that good, but it was big. That’s the greatest trick blockbusters ever pulled: convincing the world that they were fun and entertaining simply by virtue of being big and looking fun and entertaining.
As a result, video games learned some of the wrong lessons of success. By overwhelming the player with sensation and choice and size, games can create the illusion of being a lot more fun than they actually might be. Some of this is confirmation bias—if you spend 30 or 60 or 100 hours doing something, and that something calls itself a “game,” you’re going to want to justify the investment—but it’s also because we’ve raised ourselves on years of movies whose size sometimes outstrips their entertainment value, so we feel comfortable repeating the process on our game consoles. A video game like Dark Souls 2 is a perfect example of the way games have closed the gap between themselves and movie blockbusters: It offers epic quests built on a complicated mythology, it inspires serious devotion from its fans, and it’s mostly just exhausting. The point of the game is not to enjoy playing it but merely to say you made it through. It sprawls massively before us, bending our will to its own. It exists simply to exist.
That doesn’t mean all is lost, though, for movies or video games. Size is not antithetical to brains or energy, and plenty of blockbusters live up to the size of their forebears while staying trim, smart, and entertaining. The best movie blockbusters are those that stay focused on the story at their core: Indy’s quest for the Ark, a young Kirk’s pursuit of Nero, the inexorable battle between Batman and the Joker. They keep their size in check, in a way. By the same token, the best video game blockbusters are those that allow for excursion and choice but always connect those tangents back to the main story, and further, those games that push you gently but firmly along a path from origin to climax. Tomb Raider is a prime example of this type of game: big, action-driven, ably balancing key set pieces with exploration and options, but always making sure that the peripherals of the experience relate to the central narrative. Lara Croft shipwrecks with her friends and has to rescue them and escape, period. That’s the whole story. It’s a big game, but it never feels big. And that’s the paradoxical truth at the heart of all great blockbusters: To really go big, sometimes you have to think small.
I spent the majority of this summer at Middlebury College, studying at l’École Française. I had never been to Vermont. I have not been many places at all. I did not have an adult passport until I was 37 years old. Sometimes I regret this. And then sometimes not. Learning to travel when you’re older allows you to be young again, to touch the childlike amazement that is so often dulled away by adult things. In the past year, I have seen more of the world than at any point before, and thus, I have been filled with that juvenile feeling more times then I can count—at a train station in Strasbourg, in an old Parisian bookstore, on a wide avenue in Lawndale. It was no different in Vermont where the green mountains loomed like giants. I would stare at these mountains out of the back window of the Davis Family Library. I would watch the clouds, which, before the rain, drooped over the mountains like lampshades, and I would wonder what, precisely, I had been doing with my life.
I was there to improve my French. My study consisted of four hours of class work and four hours of homework. I was forbidden from reading, writing, speaking, or hearing English. I watched films in French, tried to read a story in Le Monde each day, listened to RFI and a lot of Barbara and Karim Oullet. At every meal I spoke French, and over the course of the seven weeks I felt myself gradually losing touch with the broader world. This was not a wholly unpleasant feeling. In the moments I had to speak English (calling my wife, interacting with folks in town or at the book store), my mouth felt alien and my ear slightly off.
And there were the latest developments, the likes of which I perceived faintly through the French media. I had some vague sense that King James had done something grand, that the police were killing black men over cigarette sales, that a passenger plane had been shot out the sky, and that powerful people in the world still believed that great problems could be ultimately solved with great armaments. In sum, I knew that very little had changed. And I knew this even with my feeble French eyes, which turned the news of the world into an exercise in impressionism. Everything felt distorted. I understood that things were happening out there, but their size and scope mostly eluded me.
Acquiring a second language is hard. I have been told that it is easier for children, but I am not so sure if this is for reasons of biology or because adults have so much more to learn. Still, it remains true that the vast majority of students at Middlebury were younger than me, and not just younger, but fiercer. My classmates were, in the main, the kind of high-achieving college students who elect to spend their summer vacation taking on eight hours a day of schoolwork. There was no difference in work ethic between us. If I spent more time studying than my classmates, that fact should not be taken as an accolade but as a marker of my inefficiency.
They had something over me, and that something was a culture, which is to say a suite of practices so ingrained as to be ritualistic. The scholastic achievers knew how to quickly memorize a poem in a language they did not understand. They knew that recopying a handout a few days before an exam helped them digest the information. They knew to bring a pencil, not a pen, to that exam. They knew that you could (with the professor’s permission) record lectures and take pictures of the blackboard.
This culture of scholastic achievement had not been acquired yesterday. The same set of practices had allowed my classmates to succeed in high school, and had likely been reinforced by other scholastic achievers around them. I am sure many of them had parents who were scholastic high-achievers. This is how social capital reinforces itself and compounds. It is not merely one high achieving child, but a flock of high achieving children, each backed by high-achieving parents. I once talked to a woman who spoke German, English and French and had done so since she was a child. How did this happen, I asked? “Everyone in my world spoke multiple languages,” she explained. “It was just what you did.”
There were five tiers of French students, starting with those who could barely speak a word and scaling upward to those who were pursuing a master’s degree. I was in the second tier, meaning I could order a coffee, recount a story with some difficulty, write a short note (sans verb and gender agreement), and generally understand a French speaker provided he or she talked to me really slowly. The majority of people I interacted with spoke better, wrote better, read better, and heard better than me. There was no escape from my ineptitude. At every waking hour, someone said something to me that I did not understand. At every waking hour, I mangled some poor Frenchman’s lovely language. For the entire summer, I lived by two words: “Désolé, encore.”
Compared with my classmates on the second tier, my test scores were on the lower end. Each week, in my literature class, we were responsible for the recitation of some French poems (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Lamartine) from memory, and each day we had to recite a stanza. This sort of exercise may well be familiar to readers of The Atlantic, but the rituals required to master it were totally new to me. I had never been a high-achieving student. Indeed, during my 15 or so years in school, I was remarkably low-achieving student.
There were years when I failed the majority of my classes. This was not a matter of my being better suited for the liberal arts than sciences. I was an English minor in college. I failed American Literature, British Literature, Humanities, and (voilà) French. The record of failure did not end until I quit college to become a writer. My explanation for this record is unsatisfactory: I simply never saw the point of school. I loved the long process of understanding. In school, I often felt like I was doing something else.
Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.
For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”
And so a white family born into the lower middle class can expect to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures. A black family with a middle class salary can expect to live around a critical mass of poor people, and mostly see the same things they (and the poor people around them) are working hard to escape. This too compounds.
Now, in America, invocations of culture are mostly an exercise in awarding power an air of legitimacy. You can see this in the recent remarks by the president, where he turned a question about preserving Native American culture into a lecture on how we (blacks and Native Americans) should be more like the Jews and Asian Americans, who refrain from criticizing the intellectuals in their midst of “acting white.” The entire charge rests on shaky social science and the obliteration of history. When Asian Americans and Jewish Americans—on American soil—endure the full brunt of white supremacist assault, perhaps a comparison might be in order.
But probably not. That is because fences are an essential element of human communities. The people who patrol these fences are generally unkind to those they find in violation. The phrase “getting above your raising” is little more than anxious working-class border patrolling. The term “white trash” is little more than anxious ruling-class border patrolling. I am neither an expert in the culture of Jewish Americans nor Asian Americans, but I would be shocked if they too were immune. Some years ago I profiled the rapper Jin. As the first Asian-American rapper to secure a major label contract, he often found himself enduring racist cracks from black rappers abroad and the prodding of fence-patrollers at home. “’Yo, what is this? You really think you’re black, Jin?” he recalled his parents saying. “Bottom line—you’re not black, Jin.’”
Pretending that black people are unique—or more ardent—in their fence-patrolling, and thus more parochial and anti-intellectual, serves to justify the current uses of American power. The American citizen is free to say, “Look at them, they criticize each other for reading!” and then go about his business. In that sense it is little different than raising the myth of “black on black crime” when asked about Ferguson.
I will confess to having very little experience with fence-patrolling, and virtually none with the idea that if you are holding a book, you are “acting white.” The Baltimore of my youth was a place where white people rarely ventured. It would not have occurred to anyone I knew to associate reading with white people because very few of us knew any. And I read everything I could find: A Wrinkle In Time, David Walker’s Appeal, Dragon’s of Autumn Twilight, Seize The Time, Deadly Bugs and Killer Insects, The Web of Spider-Man. I had a full set of Childcraft. I loved the volume Make and Do. I had a full set of World Book encyclopedias. I used to pick up the fat “P” edition, flip to a random page, and read for hours. When I was just 6 years old, my mother took me to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Garrison Boulevard and enrolled me in a competition to see which child could read the most books. I read 24 that summer, far outdistancing the competition. My mother smiled. The librarian gave me candy. I was very proud.
For carrying books in black neighborhoods, in black schools, around black people, I was called many things—nerd, bright, doofus, Malcolm, Farrakhan, Mandela, sharp, smart, airhead. I was told that my “head was too far in the clouds.” I was told that I was “going to do something one day.” But I was never called white. The people who called me a nerd were black. The people who said I was going to “do something one day” were also black. There was no one else around me, and no one else in America then cared. This was not just true of me, it was true of most black children of that era who were then, and are now, the most segregated group in this country. Segregation meant many of us had to rely on traditions closer to home.
And at home I found a separate culture of intellectual achievement. This is the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. It argues for education not simply as credentialism or certification, but as a profound act of auto-liberation. This was the culture of my childhood and it gave me some of the greatest thrills of my youth.
I was a boy haunted by questions: Why do the lilies close at night? Why does my father always say, “I can dig it"? And who really killed the dinosaurs? And why is my life so unlike everything I see on TV? That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me. And I have always preferred libraries to classrooms because the wide open library is the ultimate venue for this theater. This culture was reinforced by my parents, and the politically conscious parents around me, and their politically conscious children. The culture was so strong that it could be regarded as a kind of social capital. It was so old that it could also be regarded as a legacy. This legacy is more responsible for my presence in these august pages than any other. That is because a good writer must ultimately be an autodidact and take a dim view of credentials. My culture failed to make me into a high-achieving student. It succeeded at making me into a writer.
I have never had much of an urge to brag about this. I have always known that in failing to become a scholastic achiever, I forfeited knowledge of certain things. (A mastery of Augustine comes to mind.) But what I did not understand was that I had also forfeited a culture, which is to say a tool kit, a set of pins and tumblers that might have unlocked the language which I so presently adore.
Scholastic achievement is sometimes demeaned as the useless memorization of facts. I suspect that it has more to offer than this. If you woke my French literature professor at 2 a.m., she could recite the deuxième strophe of Verlaine’s “Il Pleure Dans Mon Coeur.” I suspect this memorization, this holding of the work in her head, allowed her to analyze it and turn it over in ways I could only do with the text in front of me. More directly, there is no real way for an adult to learn French without some amount of memorization. French is a language that obeys its rules when it feels like it. There is no unwavering rule to tell you which nouns are masculine, or which verbs require a preposition. Memory is the only way through.
At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. It is the same feeling I had as a boy, wondering about the lilies and dinosaurs, listening to “The Bridge Is Over,” wondering where in the world was Queens.
And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.
One afternoon, I was walking from lunch feeling battered by the language. I started talking with a young master in training. I told her I was having a tough time. She gave me some encouraging words in French from a famous author. I told her I didn’t understand. She repeated them. I still didn’t understand. She repeated them again. I shook my head, smiled, and walked away mildly frustrated because I understood every word she was saying but could not understand how it fit. It was as though someone had said, “He her walks swim plus that yesterday the fight.” (This is how French often sounds to me.)
The next day, I sat at lunch with her and another young woman. I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood—and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.
In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.
My personal road to this great feeling, to these discoveries, to Middlebury, was not the normal one. I was raised among people skeptical of a canon that had long been skeptical of them. I needed some independent sense of myself, of my cultures and traditions, before I could take a mature look at the West. I wanted nothing to do with Locke because I knew that he wanted little to do with me. I saw no reason to learn French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti.
I had to be a nationalist before I could be a humanist. I had to come to understand that black people are not merely the victims of the West, but its architects. The philosophes started the sentence and Martin Luther King finished it. The greatest renditions of this country’s greatest anthems are all sung by black people—Ray, Marvin, Whitney. That is neither biology nor a mistake. It is the necessary cosmopolitanism of a people, viewing America from the basement and thus forced to take their lessons when they get them—absorbing, reinterpreting, refining, creating.
Now it must never be concluded that an urge toward the cosmopolitan, toward true education, will make people stop hitting you. The inverse is more likely. In the early 19th century, the Cherokee Nation was told by the new Americans that if its members adopted their “civilized” ways, they would soon be respected as equals. This promise was deeply embedded in the early 19th century approach to this continents indigenous nations.
“We will never do an unjust act towards you. on the contrary we wish you to live in peace, to increase in numbers, to learn to labor, as we do,” Thomas Jefferson said. “In time you will be as we are; you will become one people with us; your blood will mix with ours; & will spread, with ours, over this great Island. Hold fast then, my Children, the Chain of friendship, which binds us together; & join us in keeping it forever bright & unbroken.”
The Cherokee Nation—likely for their own reasons—embraced mission schools. Some of them converted to Christianity. Other intermarried. Others still enslaved blacks. They adopted a written Constitution, created a script for their language and published a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in English and Cherokee. Thus the Native Americans of that time showed themselves to be as able to to integrate elements of the West with their own culture as any group of Asian or Jewish American. But the wolf has never much cared whether the sheep were cultured or not.
“The problem, from a white point of view,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe, “was that the success of these efforts to ’civilize the Indians’ had not yielded the expected dividend in land sales. On the contrary, the more literate, prosperous, and politically organized the Cherokees made themselves, the more resolved they became to keep what remained of their land and improve it for their own benefit.”
Cosmopolitanism, openness to other cultures, openness to education did not make the Cherokee pliant to American power; it gave them tools to resist. Realizing this, the United States dropped the veneer of “culture” and “civilization” and resorted to “Indian Removal,” or The Trail of Tears. The plunder was celebrated in a popular song:
All I want in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
Away up yonder in the Cherokee nation.
The Native Americans of this period found that America’s talk of trading culture for rights was just a cover. In our time, it is common to urge young black children toward education so that they may be respectable or impress the “right people.” But the “right people” remain unimpressed, and the credentials of black people, in a country rooted in white supremacy, must necessarily be less. That great powers are in the business of using "respectability" and "education" to ignore these discomfiting facts does not close the book. You can never fully know. But you can walk in the right direction.
The citizen is lost in the labyrinth constructed by his country, when in fact straight is the gate, and narrow must always be the way. When I left for Middlebury, I had just published an article arguing for reparations. People would often ask me what change I expected to come from it. But change had already come. I had gone further down the unending path of knowing, deeper into the night. I was rejecting mental enslavement. I was rejecting the lie.
I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.
So I told Mrs. Goldblog last week that I had a revelation.
“Did you find Jesus?” she asked.
No, not quite that big, I said.
My revelation concerned German automobiles, I said. Specifically, it has been revealed to me that it is now theoretically possible for us, as a Jewish family, to buy a BMW. The chains of belief and sentiment and psychic unease that have kept me from making such a purchase have been sundered.
Mrs. Goldblog immediately registered her dissent, though she understood the source of my volte-face: It was the result of a visit we had just made to a dormant Icelandic volcano.
I will explain the Iceland link in a moment (and as a bonus, I will also include a gratuitous Leibovichian “This Town” moment) but first, some background on my longstanding boycott of German cars. Like many Jews, I have found the idea of associating myself in an ostentatious, or at least highly visible, way with German automobiles somewhat ethnically discrediting, and vaguely nausea-inducing. German industry was deeply complicit in the work of the Nazis, and I felt that putting some distance between my family and the Mercedes/BMW/Volkswagen combine (especially Volkswagen) was a way of honoring the memory of the Jews murdered by the Germans. My boycott doesn’t extend to German coffeemakers, or to Lufthansa (though its seats are very uncomfortable), or to visiting Germany itself. Why, some of my best friends are German! (Actually that’s not true, but not for any political reason. I just don’t know a lot of Germans.)
My boycott has targeted cars only. Many Jews, of course, don’t participate in this unofficial boycott (proof that it is only partially honored can be found in my synagogue’s parking lot on Rosh Hashanah) and I have recognized for a long while that this boycott is not rational, or rooted in smart policy thinking.
The first time I visited Israel, I was surprised to see a large number of German cars on its roads. Most taxis are German, and many trucks as well. This is the vestigial byproduct of the reparations paid to Israel, and to Shoah survivors living in Israel, by Germany. I’m guessing that many American Jews who see these vehicles in Israel are at first shocked, and then discomfited, and then find themselves accepting this strange post-World War II reality. I know a couple of people who bought German cars only after visiting Israel. (By the way, for an interesting discussion of German reparations, please see Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject, toward the end of his important article on the issue of reparations for African-Americans.)
There’s an even deeper and highly symbolic connection between German industry and Israel—one of potentially world-historical importance—that has helped move my thinking on this subject, and that is the make-up of Israel’s submarine fleet. At this moment, nuclear-armed Israeli submarines are patrolling the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran, making sure that the regime in Tehran understands the second-strike consequences of threatening Israel’s existence. The first two Dolphin-class diesel submarines in Israel’s fleet were gifts from Germany, made in the days following the first Gulf War. (German companies had been identified as having sold chemical-weapons precursors to Saddam Hussein’s regime—a very embarrassing development.) Two more were subsequently purchased, and a fifth is on its way.
The point is, if German submarines are good enough for the Israeli Navy, they should be good enough for a Shoah-haunted American Jew.
Still, I was ambivalent on the subject, until last week.
My family and I were in Iceland on vacation (very beautiful, very expensive, very wet) and we decided to visit a dormant volcano called Thrihnukagigur (no, I can’t say it, or anything else in Icelandic). This is the only volcano in the world, we were told by Iceland government propagandists, that can actually be explored from the inside. (For whatever reason, when Thrihnukagigur stopped erupting roughly 4,500 years ago, its magma chamber didn’t collapse on itself, perhaps in anticipation of future tourism revenue.)
There is talk about blowing a hole in the side of the volcano, which would allow easy access to the cathedral-like chamber. A rude, bad idea that I hope does not come to pass. For now, the only way inside is to be lowered down the throat of the volcano through a narrow vent at its peak. A few years ago, a group of clever people decided that a window-cleaner’s basket, connected to a pulley system rigged to a prone crane stretched across the volcano’s mouth, would represent an efficient way to deliver visitors to the floor of the empty magma chamber.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept. In particular, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of sending my children into a dormant (not, it should be noted, extinct, but merely dormant) volcano in a window-washer’s basket. Thrihnukagigur is not Bardarbunga, the volcano that is currently rumbling under Iceland's largest ice cap, but it ain't beanbag either.
On the three-mile walk to the volcano—through a desolate and lovely lava field—I asked a guide to explain the volcano elevator in detail. She said the process is simple: We strap you into a harness, and then you walk across a plank over the mouth of the volcano to the window-washer’s basket. You climb down into the basket (it holds six people) and then the basket motorman lowers you 400 feet to the floor of the volcano.
Does it ever break? I asked.
No, she said. “It’s a German engine. Very reliable.”
A German engine! They weren’t screwing around at this volcano! I was about to entrust the lives of my children to a window-washer’s basket dangling over the mouth of a volcano, and I was beyond pleased to learn that this machine was German. To my surprise, "German engine" brought to mind at that moment happy images of fastidious Bavarians in white coveralls, instead of the usual, which is to say, Himmler.
This is the moment I told myself that my boycott might have reached its natural conclusion. I was ready for a push anyway, but now, since the words “German engine” were filling me with hope and relief, then perhaps the car I use to transport my children should be powered by one.
The engine worked as promised, the basket was lowered successfully into the cold, empty chamber—which is beautiful and awe-inspiring and freezing—and more important, the basket brought us up 45 minutes later. It was actually quite thrilling, but there was no one to talk to about it on the long, lonely walk back through the lava field (I’m one of those people who overshares putatively interesting travel experiences with strangers—good luck sitting next to me on a long flight). Luckily, midway through the walk, a small group of tourists appeared in the distance—the next wave of volcano virgins. We were on a narrow path, and as the line of tourists passed us, I scanned their faces, looking for someone who might want to hear my excitement. Luckily, I found one.
“Mike Froman?” I said. One of the tourists was United States Trade Representative Mike Froman. That’s what I said to my kids—“Kids, it’s United States Trade Representative Mike Froman.” Mike was surprised to see me as well, because we were in a lava field in Iceland. No place is safe from the press.
When we got back to Reykjavik, I said to my wife, “Mike Froman, huh?" And then I said, "I was very glad it was a German engine. Weren’t you?”
“It’s funny. I was so happy that our Jewish children were going to be protected by a German engine. How’s that for irony?”
“Ironic,” she said, not ceding an inch.
I have two missions before me: Convince her that the boycott is over, and then find a way to actually pay for a BMW.
I’m hoping that United States Trade Representative Mike Froman might be able to help me find a deal.
If you've never experienced arbitrary harassment or brutality at the hands of a police officer, or seen law enforcement act in a way that defies credulity and common sense, it can be hard to believe people who tell stories of inexplicable persecution. As I noted in "Video Killed Trust in Police Officers," the dawn of cheap recording technology has exposed an ugly side of U.S. law enforcement that a majority of people in middle-class neighborhoods never would've seen otherwise.
Today, what's most disheartening isn't that so many Americans still reflexively doubt stories of police harassment, as awful as it is whenever real victims are ignored. What vexes me most is police officers caught acting badly on camera who suffer no consequences and are defended by the police agencies that employ them.
The latest example of abusive, atrocious police work posted to YouTube comes from St. Paul, Minnesota, where a black father, Chris Lollie, reportedly got off work at Cossetta, an upscale Italian eatery, walked to the downtown building that houses New Horizon Academy, where he was to to pick up his kids, and killed the ten minutes until they'd be released sitting down on a chair in a skyway between buildings. Those details come from the Minneapolis City Pages, where commenters describe the area he inhabited as a public thoroughfare between commercial buildings. If you're 27 and black with dreadlocks, sometimes you're waiting to pick up your kids and someone calls the cops to get rid of you. The police report indicates a call about "an uncooperative male refusing to leave," which makes it sound as though someone else first asked him to vacate where he was; another press report says that he was sitting in a chair in a public area when a security guard approached and told him to leave as the area was reserved for employees. The Minnesota Star Tribune visited the seating area and reported that "there was no signage in the area indicating that it was reserved for employees."
So a man waiting to pick up his kids from school sits for a few minutes in a seating area where he reasonably thinks he has a right to be, private security asks him to leave, he thinks they're harassing him because he's black, and they call police. This is where the video begins, and that conflict is already over. The man is walking away from it and toward the nearby school where he is to pick up his kids.
So problem solved? It could have been.
Instead, this happened:
What the video shows is a man who is politely but firmly telling a police officer that she has no right to ask him for identification, because he hasn't done anything wrong or broken any laws, and is present in the building to pick up his kids. "What's the problem?" he asks at one point, and answers his own question: "The problem is I'm black." We can't see inside the heads of the people who called the police or the officers who showed up, but that seems like a highly relevant factor–it certainly wasn't unreasonable for him to reach that conclusion.
His story about getting his kids wasn't merely plausible, given the man's age and the fact that there was a school right there–it was a story the female police officer shown at the beginning of the video or the male officer shown later could easily confirm.
Lollie is also absolutely correct that no law required him to show an ID to police officers. As Flex Your Rights explains, "Police can never compel you to identify yourself without reasonable suspicion to believe you’re involved in illegal activity," and while 24 states have passed "stop and identify" statutes "requiring citizens to reveal their identity when officers have reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity may be taking place," Minnesota isn't one of those states.
The female officer shown in the beginning of the video could easily have de-escalated the encounter by saying, "You're right, sir, you have every right to refuse to show me identification, and if you're just picking up your kids I'm so sorry to have bothered you. If you don't mind, I just want to walk with you to confirm that your story checks out so I can inform the 911 caller of their error. That way we can make sure this never happens again when you're just here to pick up your kids."
Or she could've said, "Sir, I totally see why this is confusing–a lot of people would think so. Let me try to explain. That totally looks like a public seating area, but it's actually private. Don't you think they should have a sign saying so? Calling me may seem like an overreaction, but technically they can ask you to leave. You're walking away now, so there's actually no problem as long as you're not going to go back. Are you? Okay, then we have no problem, have a wonderful day."
This wasn't a high pressure, life-or-death situation. Is a bit of cordiality in service of calming things down too much to ask?
Her failure to do the right thing pales in comparison to the male police officer, who appears on the scene, abruptly informs the increasingly and understandably distraught father that he's going to jail–for what crime he does not say–and then, after the video goes black but audio coverage remains, proceeds to tase the man. "I didn't do anything wrong!" he cries, "I didn't break any laws and you tase me? That's assault!" Even after being tased, the man is incredulous that he will be arrested, and it's heartbreaking to listen as he realizes there will be no one to pick up his kids and that he'll perhaps miss work at a job that he needs to support them.
"Racist motherfuckers," he then tells the officers.
The City Pages explains what happened after the arrest. "The man was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and obstructing the legal process," they write, "but those charges were later dropped. On Twitter, the St. Paul PD's public information officers said no formal complaint has been filed in connection with the incident." A police administrator who sees that video, which Lollie's attorney brought to court, should not require a formal complaint from the victim to discipline the officers involved and acknowledge that they engaged in inept policing!
Yet the police department–which held on to Lollie's phone, with the video on it, for 6 months–is defending the officers. "At one point, the officers believed he might either run or fight with them. It was then that officers took steps to take him into custody," a spokesperson said. "He pulled away and resisted officers' lawful orders. They then used the force necessary to safely take him into custody." Said the designated public employee union representative: "These three cops in the skyway, you couldn't get nicer individuals. This guy was acting like a jerk."
That quote is via the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, which also interviewed Lollie. He was, he said, "trying my hardest to maintain my calm demeanor just because I know if I do anything outside of these bounds, they could really do some damage to me." He's right. "I really feel blessed I was in the skyway," he added. "If this had happened somewhere else, I might have ended up a little more hurt than I was."
“I hope he learned something. But I doubt it.” Thus does small-time crook Louis Gara (John Hawkes) dismiss an even smaller-time hustler whom he’s one-upped early in Life of Crime, director Daniel Schechter’s faithful adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch. Alas, this pitying assessment might just as easily be applied to Louis and his partner, Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def), who are poised to embark on an exceptionally ill-fated criminal undertaking.
The plan is to kidnap and ransom the socialite wife, Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), of a Detroit real-estate magnate. The problem is that her husband (Tim Robbins) has no interest in paying a ransom, having already secretly begun divorce proceedings in order to marry his young mistress (Isla Fisher). So the hapless kidnappers and their victim are stuck with one another, holed up in the home of a still-more-hapless confederate (Mark Boone Jr.) with a disturbing collection of Nazi memorabilia. (If you think this sounds strikingly like Ruthless People, you are not alone: There were plans to adapt The Switch back in the 1980s, with Diane Keaton and Dennis Farina starring, but the project was shelved in part due to the similarity between the two plots.)
Life of Crime finds its place among neither the best adaptations of Leonard (Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and TV’s Justified) nor the worst (Be Cool and both iterations of The Big Bounce), and it almost certainly will not be the last. But the fact that it was the final film in production when Leonard passed away last year—he saw scenes from the picture but never the final version—does lend it a certain bittersweet flavor for fans of the author’s work.
The Switch is among Leonard’s most openly comic novels, and for the most part Schechter does a nice job of balancing its humor and suspense. (One exception is a scene involving a dog that did not appear in the book.) Aniston delivers a solid performance as Mickey, though one that is a touch soft around the edges: There ought to be more steel beneath her trophy-wife exterior. Hawkes is nuanced and persuasive in the role of Louis, and Bey is a minor revelation as Ordell, capturing Leonard’s verbal rhythms as expertly as any actor to date. (Both characters will be familiar to admirers of Jackie Brown—adapted from this novel’s sequel, Rum Punch—which stars Robert DeNiro as Louis and Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell.) Robbins is appropriately self-regarding as the wayward husband, and Fisher exhibits just the right degree of low cunning as his grifty young girlfriend. Boone, by contrast, edges toward satire as the Nazi fetishist, and Will Forte is a tad too recessive as an ineffectual would-be adulterer.
Schechter renders the period details capably but without particular gusto, in contrast to, say, David O. Russell’s American Hustle. (The exception is the delightfully nostalgic soundtrack, which features such era hits as “Don’t Pull Your Love” and “Dreadlock Holiday”—the latter proving the second sly appropriation of a 10cc song this month.) The movie flags a bit in its final act before landing its ultimate punchline, but perhaps its greatest disappointment is that it was shot primarily in Connecticut. The city of Detroit, expertly portrayed by Leonard in the novel, never registers as more than an abstraction.
All told, Life of Crime is an amiable diversion, though not a terribly memorable one. And while the movie’s affection for its source material is evident, Leonard aficionados longing for a truly worthy sendoff of the master crime writer will have to look ahead, toward the upcoming final season of Justified, and cross their fingers.
“Why isn’t there a sandwich emoji?”
The instant message flashed on my screen from a coworker suggesting lunch. It was followed by: “TRAGEDY.”
Tragedy may be an overstatement to apply to emoji, the standardized set of symbols used in texts and online messaging. But when the Unicode Consortium released an update this July expanding its library to include 250 new emoji, my coworker wasn’t the only one disappointed that the only new food is a chili pepper. A Change.org petition calls for a hot dog emoji, a Facebook page demanding a taco emoji has more than 1,000 likes, and thousands follow a Twitter account advocating for an avocado emoji.
As these foods continue to wait for emoji immortalization, I wondered why so many of my everyday foods lack a presence in computer text. Including the chili pepper, there are 59 food-themed emoji. What are they? How can they be assembled into recipes? And most importantly, could someone live on emoji alone?
I had to know. I undertook a challenge:
- For seven days, I would only eat foods represented by emoji.
- I would eat every emoji food by the end of the seven days.
Some further specifications were needed. Though it can be argued that pigs, cows, and other emoji in Apple’s Nature category are food sources, I sacrificed bacon and stuck with the clearly defined foods grouped under Objects to avoid sliding down the “technically edible” slope. As I scoured New York for items such as oden and dango, I also learned about the origins of these tiny pictographs from Japan.
I start the first day of the diet by assessing the contents of my refrigerator. A breakfast smoothie uses bananas, milk (which I judge to be the bottle character) and strawberries, checking three items off the list already. Confidence sets in: This week will be a breeze.
I begin to make a list of what I plan to eat for the week, but some pictures prove hard to interpret. My confusion is cleared up with a visit to Emojipedia, which lists the symbols’ official names as designated by the Unicode Consortium. Some of the names give me more dietary leeway than I expected, such as the ambiguous “pot of food,” which I eat for lunch in the form of a vegetable stew. Others I’ve been misinterpreting all along—what I thought was rice and beans is actually curry, and the orange is technically a tangerine. I edit my list accordingly and stock up on fruits and veggies for the week.
All this produce is offset by a chocolate bar, cookie, and candies. I have a lollipop on my list as well, but this candy seems to have fallen out of modern favor. I can’t find one at two different grocery stores and have to make a special pilgrimage to F.A.O. Schwarz (famed for the oversized keyboard scene in the movie Big), where I find them stocked with other old-timey sugar relics. As I wait in line with my single lollipop, I suspect that I’m the only one there to fulfill a diet.
Dinner is spaghetti and red wine. It’s not a far stretch from my usual diet, though I have a moment of dismay when I realize there is no cheese emoji, and I must pass up the aged Gruyere I had bought a few days earlier.
Breakfast: coffee (“hot beverage”), banana, strawberries, milk; lunch: veggie stew (“pot of food”), cherries, lollipop; dinner: spaghetti, red wine.
I’m already scrounging for breakfast without my go-tos of yogurt, oatmeal, cereal, or bagels. After settling for an apple and green tea with honey, I decide to get more creative with lunch. I chop up roasted sweet potato, eggplant and tomato and combine it into an improvised emoji ratatouille, which suffices for a filling meal, especially supplemented with mid-afternoon chocolate.
For dinner, it’s time to face down my fear of the unknown: Specifically, the mystery brown shapes on a stick. I’m relieved to learn that though this emoji resembles some primitive meat-based weapon, it’s actually oden, a soul-food dish of varying ingredients such as eggs and fish cakes stewed in a dashi broth. Like many of the foods, it reflects emoji’s origins as a character set created for a Japanese phone operator in 1999. If Western users feel that the characters aren’t representative of their daily diets, it’s because they were never expected to catch on globally.
I use this opportunity to visit a neighborhood Japanese restaurant and order items I usually skim past due to unfamiliarity. My oden arrives in a bowl rather than on a stick, but I’m told that skewers are more typical of the street-food variety. The meal is rounded out with a carafe of sake and shaved ice with plum syrup.
Breakfast: green tea with honey (“honey pot”), red apple; lunch: roasted sweet potato with eggplant (“aubergine”) and tomato, chocolate bar; dinner: oden, fish cake, sake, shaved ice.
Thus far, I’ve made an effort to stay true to the emoji depictions of the food. Since my iPhone shows a chocolate glazed doughnut with sprinkles, that’s the variety I order for breakfast, even though someone on an Android or Windows operating system may see a different picture. The Unicode Consortium has standardized the characters descriptions, but emoji fonts—and the technology firms that, for now, are their only designers—are free to interpret those descriptions however they choose. (Android eschews the sprinkles.)
For lunch, I make my way to a bustling Japanese grocer and find neatly packaged rice balls for $1.50 each. It’s by far the cheapest lunch I’ve seen in this business district of $14 salads, which explains why the line to check out is 30 people deep. I devour the sticky rice stuffed with tuna and regret that it took an emoji to discover this place.
Since I’m usually goading my boyfriend into healthy dinners of salmon and quinoa, he’s thrilled when I suggest burgers and fries instead. We order at our local gastropub, and I wash it down with a fruity gin sling—since surely “tropical drink” means “tropical cocktail.”
Breakfast: coffee, doughnut, grapes; lunch: rice ball, green apple, cookie dinner: hamburger, fries, tropical drink.
I’m still feeling bloated from yesterday’s starch fest, so I stick with a peach for breakfast and then make a healthy vegetable curry for lunch.
By evening, I’ve recovered and am ready for more greasy goodness. I’ve learned on emojitracker, which shows emoji usage on Twitter in real time, that pizza and beer are the most popular of the food emoji. Who am I to argue with millions of Twitter users? I pick up a six-pack on the way home from work and order in a pepperoni pizza. It’s over halfway through the week and I’ve had a different kind of alcohol every night—clearly the emoji diet is not for teetotalers.
Breakfast: green tea with lemon, peach; lunch: curry and rice, watermelon; dinner: pizza, beer.
Aside from Day 3’s rice-ball discovery, lunches have been a low point of the emoji diet. With sandwiches, soups, and salads all banned, there are few places I can join my coworkers during lunch breaks. I’m also missing Mexican food, a dietary staple since my days living in Texas.
By now, some friends have suggested ways I can cheat in order to expand my diet. One friend is particularly concerned that I can’t have tacos and attempts to draw me one with a series of slashes and underscores. However, simple emoticons like :) and more complex ASCII art are not interchangeable terms for emoji, as each emoji corresponds to a specific two-byte Unicode sequence. In lieu of tacos, I have breaded shrimp and a mid-afternoon ice cream cone. Dinner is sushi and rice, making this the most seafood-centric day of my diet.
Breakfast: coffee, fruit salad of watermelon, melon and pineapple; lunch: fried shrimp, tangerine, soft ice cream; dinner: sushi, cooked rice.
The emoji diet has had me eating more seafood and fresh fruit, which I welcome as healthy additions. But as I assess what I still need to cover in the final days, I notice two common themes: white rice and sugar.
This diet is essentially the opposite of Atkins. Of the 59 food emoji, eight incorporate rice, and 11 are desserts. One manages to be both—the colored balls on a stick are dango, sweet dumplings made from rice flour and often filled with red bean paste. I locate them at a Japanese food market in SoHo along with a sesame chicken bento box for lunch and rice crackers, a crispy snack food.
After a dinner of veggie ramen (the “steaming pot” emoji), I realize that I’m facing a problem most dieters have never experienced: I need to step up the dessert eating if I’m going to reach my goal. I still have to cross off custard, shortcake, ice cream, and birthday cake, so I stop by a couple shops to purchase the first three and then ride out the ensuing sugar rush.
Breakfast: green tea, fried egg (officially named “cooking,” but represented as an egg in a pan); lunch: bento box, dango, rice crackers; dinner: ramen, custard, shortcake, ice cream.
It’s the last day, and I’m ready to wrap things up. The emoji diet hasn’t left me hungry or dissatisfied—if anything, my dessert binge has added some pounds—but it has slimmed down my wallet, since I’ve been making more food purchases as I avoid the majority of my pantry. I now have lots of recommendations for new food emoji, from my typical cooking staples like garlic, onion, and spinach to snacks like chips, cheese, and popcorn.
To celebrate my last emoji meal, I invite friends to join me at a new restaurant on my block, and we gorge on the final items on my list with a meal that manages to be as true to emoji as it is to Southern home-style cooking: ribs (“meat on bone”), fried chicken (“poultry leg”), corn on the cob (“ear of maize”) and biscuits (“bread”).
The final remaining food is birthday cake, since my attempts to crash a birthday party this week failed. With only a few hours until midnight, we procure a cupcake, stick a candle in it, and look up which celebrities are celebrating their birthdays today. My week of emoji eating ends in a way that deserves some smiley faces, or at least a thumbs up: with us toasting martini glasses and singing “Happy Birthday” to Tom Hanks.
Breakfast: coffee, banana; lunch: ramen leftovers, pear, candy; dinner: ribs (“meat on bone”), poultry leg, ear of maize, bread, birthday cake, martini (“cocktail glass”).
So is the emoji diet a contender in the weight-loss market? Not likely, given its emphasis on white rice, alcohol, and indulging in a dessert (or three) each day. I did, however, enjoy exploring new foods and restaurants as I undertook my phone-food mission. I won’t be limiting myself to emoji again, but I will be eagerly watching to see which foods are added in future releases.For now, you can find me on Team Sandwich.
A few weeks ago, I was eating lunch with my family at a pancake house when a small blond head popped over the top of the booth next to ours.
Somewhere in the ballpark of a year old, the boy said something unintelligible—maybe baby babbling, maybe real words muffled by pancake—and gave a high-pitched giggle. He waved a tiny-syrup smeared arm in my direction.
“He’s such a flirt,” his mother said apologetically.
“He is,” cooed my own mother, who can befriend anything that will stand still long enough. “Hiiiiii.” She kicked me under the table.
“Oh—hi,” I said. I waved back. But men are fickle creatures, and our neighbor only frowned, turned around and sat back down to his food.
The point of the story is not to say that a toddler was unimpressed by my flirtation skills, though I can’t say I haven’t considered the worrisome implications of this fact. No, the point of the story is that talking to small children is hard. In my younger years, I went through phases of shying away from adults who tried to engage me in conversation. Now, the feeling has inverted: As an adult, I am anxious and tongue-tied when speaking to little kids.
That could be bad news for my future offspring. Research has repeatedly touted the benefits of exposing children to language from an early age, but a new study published in the journal Infancy got more specific, finding that verbally engaging with babies—listening to their gurgles and coos and then responding, conversation-style—may speed up their language development more than simply talking at them or around them.
Researchers from the University of Iowa and Indiana University observed a small group of mothers and their infants in individual unstructured play sessions over the course of six months, beginning when the children were eight months old, and coded the mothers’ responses to their babies’ babbling into two categories. “Redirective” responses involved turning the babies’ attention elsewhere, like showing them a toy or pointing out something in the room, while “sensitive” responses were ones where the mothers verbally replied to or imitated their sounds—though, as the study notes:
Imitations rarely took the form of imitating the sound that the infant made, but more often involved the mother modeling the word that the sound approximated and expanding on it (e.g., if the infant uttered “da-da-da,” the mother would say “Da-da is working. I am ma-ma").
A month after their last session, the mothers filled out a survey assessing the progress their children had made towards speech. The infants whose mothers had shown “sensitive” responses, the researchers found, showed increased rates of consonant-vowel vocalizations—meaning that their babbling more closely resembled something like real syllables, paving the way for real words. The same babies were also more likely to direct their noises at their mothers, indicating that they were “speaking” to them rather than simply babbling for babbling’s sake.
“The infants were using vocalizations in a communicative way, in a sense, because they learned they are communicative,” study author Julie Gros-Louis, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa, said in a statement. In other words, by acting like they understood what their babies were saying and responding accordingly, the mothers were helping to introduce the concept that voices, more than just instruments for making fun noises, could also be tools for social interaction.
The takeaway of all this is that how parents speak to their infants may be as important as the frequency with which they do it. And for the child-phobic among us, a glass-half-full reading is that it’s fine—maybe even beneficial—to simply talk to babies like they’re miniature adults. Soon enough, they will be, anyway, leaving the nest to go break hearts in pancake houses everywhere.